At the start of 2017 I set out to read the gospels, one chapter per day every weekday until I finished. I finished yesterday with John 21 which is, in my opinion, the most romantic (for lack of a better word) chapter in the Bible. It's where Jesus recreates the moment He first met Peter--throw your nets on the other side--and Peter, recklessly in love, jumps from the boat fully dressed, swimming to shore to be reunited with his Friend and Savior. Jesus makes His boys breakfast, and they eat it around a campfire on the beach. It's a perfect picture of Who Jesus is and how He loves. Tenderly. Personally.
But it's not a complete picture. It's one frame.
Today, before I jump into my next Bible study excursion, I thought I'd jot down a few things I noticed as I read and re-read and re-read and re-read the story of Jesus' life on earth. The thing that stood out to a degree it never had before, and the thing I thought I'd write a little about here for a minute, is simply the truth that Jesus is essentially complicated.
After spending four months with Him, I think it's safe to say, If you feel like you can explain Jesus in three or four sentences and a meme you're missing something. Generalizations about Jesus make me nervous.
Here's what I mean: I'm reading Matthew and Mark and Luke and Jesus seems like He's always healing somebody, always responding to needs, helping. What would Jesus do if someone was in need? He'd help. He'd fix it.
And then I read John where Jesus skips out on healing one of his best friends, letting him die so other people (people He's not close to, some of whom will soon kill Him) would get to witness a resurrection. Similarly, He refuses to step in and help his friend and cousin John the Baptist who dies as the result of a promise made on a whim to a teenage girl.
Or how about this: Jesus, friend of sinners. Yes, Jesus is absolutely seeking and saving the lost while He's on earth. No question. You see it everywhere in the gospels. As Andy Stanley says, "People who were not like Jesus liked Jesus, and he liked them back." He goes to Zaccheus's house. He calls a tax collector to be an apostle. He gets in trouble for being a person who drinks too much wine and goes to too many parties.
And then there's this parable that at first looks like it's just more of the same--the father throws a party for his son, invites friends. The friends (representing the Jews with religious power) don't come so the Father kills the friends and goes into the streets to invite the people nobody invites to parties (sinners). They come, and all is wonderful. Until the Father sees one of the party guests, a sinner, not wearing party clothes. And the Father kicks the offender out of the party, saying, "Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth."
Jesus, Friend of sinners, really dislikes sin. And again and again He'll tell people to stop sinning. And if people want to come to the party but don't want to put off sin, He's not cool with that. Very not cool.
Something else that struck me as being a complication in our attempts to make Jesus one dimensional was His relationship with the Pharisees and scribes. Jesus is not nice, y'all. He's just not. He's kind, don't get me wrong. But not nice or polite (Not to His mother. Not to His brothers. Not to the Gentile lady He compares to a dog). And when it comes to people who should have known better, Jesus is firm, critical, loud, and (shocker) judging them up and down. In public.
If you don't think Jesus judged people, read Matthew chapter 23. You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?
Judging is a thing Jesus does.
I heard a preacher say recently that wherever Jesus went he drew a crowd. He said it to say we should be attractive as Christians. Our messages and lives should draw crowds. I've also heard preachers say, "Remember, Jesus was alone at the cross. Sometimes you're going to be very unpopular because you follow Jesus." I noticed this time reading through the gospels how very popular and very unpopular Jesus was. And it wasn't just that Jesus was popular with sinners and unpopular with the religious elite. Sometimes just about everyone hated or misunderstood or was put off by Jesus--like that time He told them to eat His flesh. And sometimes even the religious people liked Jesus, not as often of course, but Nicodemus liked Him and the rich young ruler and Simon the Zealot who was intensely "religious" even if he wasn't "proper" or powerful.
Reading the gospels this time I felt like I noticed Jesus' feelings being hurt more than I'd noticed before. It pains Him that people refuse to recognize His relationship with the Father.
I noticed this time how particular Jesus is about the rules, about being obedient, about total surrender to the reign of the Kingdom. I noticed how impatient He is with people who don't grow fruit even though they had everything they needed to grow it.
I noticed His mercy, the way He freely touched unclean people. The way He gave every person a chance.
I noticed how often Jesus heals on the Sabbath. Every other chapter it seems like He's healing on the Sabbath. When He could have avoided it to be less controversial, it seems like Jesus is doing the opposite. He seeks opportunities to heal on Saturdays. Jesus appears perfectly content to stir things up.
I noticed how little Jesus cares about perfect clarity in His message. He tells stories lots of people don't understand and He's cool with them not understanding. He says If they had ears to hear they'd hear. What?
I noticed how much time He invests in just a dozen guys. And how much time He spends alone.
There's more to write. So much more, but in the end what I saw in Jesus was a person Who doesn't make sense to me, me with my little human brain. Jesus defies my attempts to put Him in boxes. And I think that's what makes Him Jesus.
We have to be careful not to make Jesus the Jesus we want Him to be. We have to accept Him for Who He is, allowing Him to spill out of our categories and to challenge us at every turn. We have to hold our understanding of Him and what He wants with open hands, ever returning to the stories and the sermons with open minds, looking to learn, expecting to discover.
This year I realized I don't know Jesus even as I grew to know Jesus better. I know Him, of course. And I don't. I find that exhilarating--knowing I can devote my life to "gaze on the beauty of the LORD and to seek him," and that I'll never get bored. That I'll always be uncovering and finding and figuring and processing.
That's how it is with most relationships now that I think of it. At first, we think we know all about a person because we went to school with them or worked beside them for a few months or dated for a year. But then the relationship grows and we see more of who this person is and we realize, now that we know more about this person than we ever have, that we actually don't know much at all. Intimacy opens our eyes to mystery. When we seek to know a person, we discover there's almost always more to discover.
When it comes to Jesus, that's true times ten (or, to say what my daughter would, "times infinity"). With Jesus, God in the flesh, the Word come to life, there's always more to see, more to hear, and more to know. Let's remember that when we talk about Him and as we follow wherever He leads.