The first time I read the four Gospels as a “grown-up,” I was shocked by Jesus’ attitude and words. I thought I knew Jesus, but I was not sure anymore. To me, Jesus was this smiling and loving person, but I quickly realized how harsh he was. My pre-conception of Jesus was challenged by Scripture. Why was Jesus different from what I have learned growing up? In The Jesus I never knew, Philip Yancey helps us bridge the gap by highlighting the historical and cultural background of the Gospels. The book is divided into three parts: who Jesus was, why He came, and what He left behind.
Yancey starts describing the Jesus he thought he knew. The author apparently grew up with the “Sunday school” Jesus. Later, different Christian and non-Christian perspectives on Jesus (United Nation Jesus of Bible College, Jesus as Che Guevara’s comrade, Jesus from Pasolini’s film) led him to question his pre-formatted understanding of Jesus. I found it interesting since I also went through the same thought process years ago. I was confronted with different aspects of Christ during a systematic theology class, and it led me to revise my own conception of who Jesus is.
Yancey declared that he needed to know Jesus truly because “according to Jesus, what I think about him and how I respond will determine my destiny for all eternity.” His purpose was not only to find out who the genuine Jesus was, but also to respond to Jesus’ true identity. He realized that he struggled with the idea that Jesus, God the Son, was a man. This dual nature of Christ is a recurrent theme of the first part of the book (“Who He was”). So Yancey tried to rediscover the man Jesus in doing the work of an historian. not assuming the result using his prior-knowledge to shape his conclusion about Jesus, but presenting Him in His cultural and historical context to refine his prior-knowledge of Christ. Events of the life of Jesus are explained through modern events to help us realize the importance of each word and action. I believe this method helped Yancey to move from the Jesus he thought he knew to the Jesus he never knew, or in other words, from his immature Christianity to a mature reverence for God.
The result is a mind-blowing contextualization. Let me give you three examples. First, the narrative of the birth of Jesus is compared to our sweet and festive Christmas. The first Christmas was none of that. Mary’s pregnancy could have led to divorce and possibly death. The almighty and infinitely glorious God came into our world in a tiny body as a baby in humiliating circumstances. Baby Jesus was already in the most wanted list of the ruler of that time. This picture is far from what we can see in December. Just like Yancey, I have never realized the drama of Christmas, only its “angelic” celebration.
Second, the author also spends one full chapter to explain the Jewish context of that time. Jesus was a “common” Jew born under the domination of Rome. It was a period of trouble for Palestine. Previous Roman rulers, especially Antiochus IV, tried to Hellenize the Jews even with violence to the point of desecrating the temple, which led to the Maccabeus rebellion. Many of the Jews were expecting the Messiah in the near future. He was expected to be the one who would gather the nation, cast away the Romans and rule over Israel. Many had claimed this Messiahship (ex: Simon Bar Kokhba) but none was able to meet their expectations. Concerning the religious aspect, God seemed not to care about His people anymore. His last prophetic words were 400 years old. Now Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes were the main religious authorities, each having their own interpretation of the OT. This is the context where Jesus came in the flesh to bring the kingdom of God. By learning the Jewish context, I gained insights into the reactions of the different religious groups. Many claimed to be the Messiah, and so did Jesus. I have always seen Jesus as the celebrity of that time. People gathered around him, but this new perspective made me realize that many gathered around other auto-declared messiahs. Jesus was one among many, and I would have been skeptical about Him just like the Pharisees; and that’s what Yancey reflects on: what religious group would we have chosen to belong? I believe the author’s goal was to demonstrate how difficult it must have been for skeptical and disillusioned Jews to believe that Jesus was the expected Christ. His teaching was not rejected but His person was and still is at the center of the debate.
Third, the author curiously uses the episode of the temptation in the wilderness to describe how doubt and faith interact. God does not force anybody to believe through miracles, mystery or authority. Jesus could have done it by giving in to the three temptations (stone into bread, jumping from the top of the temple and worshipping the devil), but He gave us the freedom to believe. This is how love works. Jesus could have taken a shortcut to obtain the crown without the cross, but He did not. As for us, we ask God for a shortcut to see Him so that we believe. I couldn’t agree more with Yancey when he states:
“I want God to overwhelm me, to overcome my doubts with certainty, to give final proofs of his existence and his concern”
But I’ve learned that God often takes the way of patience. Jesus suffered before being exalted, and his work had a tremendous impact on the world. It was humiliating for Him. It is the same for us when God tells us to believe first, and then to see. It compels us to deny ourselves to believe that this simple man Jesus is truly the Son of God, second Person of the Trinity, and everlasting Messiah.
In the second part of the book, Yancey divides the reasons of Jesus’ first coming in three: His teaching, His actions and His redemptive work. The teaching part is mainly based on the sermon of the mount. I realize I have never really taken this sermon seriously. Yes, I read it many times, but never tried to live it out – maybe because the rules seemed impossible to follow. Jesus’ teaching instructs God’s children how to live a righteous life pleasing to their Father. Yancey breaks up the sermon in the Beatitudes or the “triumph of the victims” and “Be perfect therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mat 5:48). His treatment of the sermon helped me to understand why some people see it as absolute and unreachable standards of moral. Yancey illustrates “love your enemies” with Jesus teaching this principle while Romans erase a Jewish village. I imagined Jesus teaching it to me with my beloved family being murdered… How powerless and angry I would have been. It opened my eyes on how I failed to consider these standards seriously and how far it can lead. After two chapters (6 and 7) stressing the idea of unreachable perfection, we rediscover the significance of grace. We strive for holiness only by grace. When we forget it, we fall into legalism burdening ourselves and rejecting others as “sinners” who seem to despise our efforts. How much I had to repent when I read that Jesus attracted sinners rather than respectable people! Jesus repeated many times that He did not come to condemn but to save. That is the essence of His teaching: to make us realize we need to repent and then enter the kingdom of God.
Jesus’ teaching shows the goal to attain while his deeds enable His follower to accomplish it. I think Yancey sees two kinds of actions: Jesus’ miracles and His redemptive work. Many believe in Jesus as a great teacher, but not in His miracles. However, the gospels describe Jesus’ actions as a repetition of miracle performances, and how Jesus Himself used them as proof of His messianic identity. The rejection of Jesus was not mainly because of his teaching, but because of His claim as Messiah. Today, people do the same: they refuse to believe the reality of miracles because they reject Jesus as Son of God. Yancey demonstrates how “faith may produces miracles, miracles do not necessarily produce faith” (ch 9). There was a time when I could not understand why Jesus was so secretive about His miracles. People needed a healer and messiah… but they did not want a suffering Messiah, they wanted the deliverance from Him: the miracle, not the performer of miracles. The messianic secret made sense to me:
“a sign is not the same thing as proof; a sign is merely a marker for someone who is looking in the right direction” (ch 9).
Jesus’ miracles are stumbling blocks for those who try to use it as proof. When we see prayers answered, many of us think “improbable, but not impossible” (Dr. Steve Lee – Pastor of Immanuel Community Church in Schaumburg, IL). God asks us to have faith first and then we gain vision – just as Jesus who told the two blind men: “Do you believe that I am able to do this? […] According to your faith will it be done to you; and their sight was restored” (Mat 9:28-30). We need to humble ourselves to see the truth. Our pride only fights to ask God to prove Himself first so that we may believe.
The second category of Jesus’ deeds is his redemptive work in his death and resurrection. Yancey “walks” with Jesus through his final week: the triumphal entry at Jerusalem, the last supper in the upper room, Judas’ betrayal, the garden of Gethsemane, the Jewish and Roman trials and the Calvary. He does not give much theological details and significance to all these events, but he goes straight to the point:
“Power, no matter how well-intentioned, tends to cause suffering. Love, being vulnerable, absorbs it. In a point of convergence on a hill called Calvary, God renounced the one for the sake of the other.”
Yancey’s simple writing on the cross reminds me that the cross is not just a matter of intellectual understanding. Many theological books were written on the cross, but at the root of it is the loving salvation of God for a people who rejected Him. We just need to accept it in our hearts and that is enough to honor Jesus’ passion for us. Jesus’ death was not the end, because Jesus rose again… but Yancey emphasized that between the two events, it was really the end for the disciples: “We who read the Gospels from the other side of Easter, who have the day printed on our calendars, forget how hard it was for the disciples to believe.” It helped me understand not only the incredulity of the disciples, but also the importance of the resurrection. In the past, I had hard times to understand the need and the meaning of the resurrection. Was Jesus not in Heaven after His death? So why did He have to “come back” on earth? I appreciate how the author presented death as “irreversible” and I can definitely associate these words when I attend funerals. I cannot imagine how the bodies can “work” again… From there, Jesus’ resurrection is the main reason of the development of this “new religion” as Yancey says:
“The Resurrection is the epicenter of belief.”
For once, my skepticism made me believe that it truly happened that way! Because there is no way some men would die as martyr for a lie they are aware of. That is how important the resurrection is.
I like to consider the third and last part of the book as its conclusion. Yancey talked about who Jesus was and what He did, and now he asks: “So what?” Yancey challenges us with an interesting perspective on the Ascension: Why did Jesus not stay after His resurrection to establish the kingdom of God, and leave the “key of the kingdom of God” to His failing disciples? It is interesting to see that God decided to put man in charge of the expansion of His kingdom, a kingdom different from the kingdoms of this world. What Jesus has started to establish is a “now and not yet” kingdom which takes place now in the heart of people and which will be fully consummated at His second coming. Jesus left and now the church is to represent and to display God’s love to humanity. Yancey reminds us the important truth of the kingdom of God: “From Jesus I learn that, whatever activism I get involved in, it must not drive out love and humility, or otherwise I betray the kingdom of heaven.” The church should not seek to create a new “nation” on earth, but its goal is to create “an alternative society demonstrating what the world is not, but one day will be.” We have the chance to carry out Jesus’ legacy until He comes again. May we never forget what the kingdom of God is truly about.
In conclusion, I really enjoyed reading and learning from Philip Yancey’s book. The writing style is simple but powerful. Yancey uses short sentences, a casual tone and many stories to illustrate or to explain his points. Though some parts may be overstated, the desired impact is real. It brings information about the historical context of the life of Christ to call us to reconsider our assumptions about Jesus and about our mission as His followers. I believe Yancey’s intended to challenge and target mainly people who have been Christian for a long time and who got used to listening to sermons. Throughout the book, I was continually blessed rediscovering how Jesus was “revolutionary” in his teachings and deeds. Even if I read the Bible many times, I felt Jesus speaking again in my life: repentance, refocus and reaction are required to respond to His revolution. If you are not a big reader but still interested in learning about Jesus in his context, take this one!