Author’s Note: How This Book Came About
On May 15, 1970, in an attic bedroom in Brattleboro, Vermont, I met Jesus Christ.1
Here’s how it happened. It was a Friday evening, and I had somehow been persuaded to attend a meeting, a Christian gathering, in a house just a short walk from my parents’ place. This was the second such meeting I had been to; the first time, dragged there by my well-meaning but totally unhip brother, I had spent the time measuring the distance between myself and the door, before making my escape. Having been brought up in a family that not only went to church every Sunday, but to revivals and youth camps and vacation Bible schools and whatnot,2 I had a pretty good idea, so I thought, what the agenda was. This time I was more prepared; reinforced by friends and some well-chosen chemicals, I came ready to enjoy a good confrontation with these folks; and indeed I did, after the initial presentation of the topics, engage in lively conversation with several people who were out to persuade me that to come to Jesus was in my best interest. After successfully holding my own in several animated discussions of this nature, I was on my way out the kitchen door of the house where we were meeting, when a young woman I did not know (the wife of one of my more enthusiastic interlocutors, as it turned out) strode over to me and said, “Do you know Christ?”
Here we go again, I thought.
I began to explain that I knew all about him, had been to Sunday school since birth, and so on, but she interrupted me:
“But do you know him?”
I again began to patiently explain that I had read the Bible, sat under countless sermons, been to the altar numerous times, and finally she asked again: “Do you know him?”
Thus began an interesting conversation quite different from the others of the evening. I don’t remember all that much about it, but what I do remember is something I noticed as it was going on: I had this person’s complete, undivided attention. Obviously the most important thing in the world for her, at that moment, was to persuade me of my need of, and possibility for, getting to know Christ. She was less eloquent than her husband or some of the others who had talked with me earlier, but this full attention was persuasive in its own way. I got to thinking that maybe I should start hanging out with these folks, given how good it felt to be treated as someone this important. Then another young man came by, a brother-in-law as I recall, who immediately became the focus of attention just as completely, for a moment or two, in a brief conversation about keys to the car. The thought went through my mind: “I can’t do it for people.”
Do what, I’m not sure I knew. But I had some time to think about it, as we all began to go our separate ways. I went home, making my way upstairs to my attic room, and pondered the events of the evening. I was nineteen years old, and had lived a fairly eventful life, so I thought it would be good to follow through on my then-current literary ambitions and make an outline for my autobiography. This took a bit of time, and a few pages in my notebook. Then I decided to write a poem in honor of the religious experience of the day, so I wrote a prayer to Jesus, asking Him to let me into his kingdom. I wrote it in a rhythm that I thought could easily be set to music as a hymn. That, I thought, should convince anybody who read it later that I was undergoing a genuine conversion. But reading it over, I saw it was phony through and through. Sigh.
I put down my pen and my notebook, and uttered instead this simple prayer:
“Okay, Lord; here I am. Show me the way.”
Unlike my pious poem, this was real. Nothing changed; I saw and heard nothing different, but somehow I knew, in a way that was beyond imagination, that something profound —imperceptible and inexpressible, but there— had taken place. I picked up my pen and notebook, turned the page and put down the following words:
I was a sheep that was gone from the fold,
Lost in the wilderness, hungry and cold.
Then the shepherd came searching to find me again.
He looked at me kindly and held out his hand.
I didn’t know it at the time, but this experience made me part of what was to become known in the popular press of the day as the “Jesus movement”, in which many hippies, druggies and disaffected young people found new life as Christian believers. This book really begins with that conversion, when as one of a new generation of “Jesus freaks” I began, among other things, to read and study the Bible – a project I am still working on.
I approached Bible study with the enthusiastic sense of discovery that came with the territory in those days, without benefit of proper instruction or training 3 on the best ways a new believer should approach this book: I started at Genesis and read through to Revelation, and then started over. In the course of these readings, and of my life as a newly-arrived member of the evangelical subculture, I began after a while to notice some things that bothered me. The churches I was becoming acquainted with, while proclaiming the authority (indeed, the inerrancy) of the whole Bible, tended in practice to put major emphasis on a few sections, such as the Pauline epistles and the Gospel of John, often neglecting the other three Gospels, known as the Synoptic Gospels4 . Teachers and leaders would stress the atoning work of Christ’s death while speaking in disparaging terms of those “liberals” who looked to Jesus as “merely” a teacher or an example5 . In this they would follow the lead of C. S. Lewis (a man whose work I much admired, and still do). In a famous and oft-quoted passage in his book Mere Christianity, Lewis expresses disdain, almost to the point of ridicule toward those who, following the lead of nineteenth-century liberal theologians, regard Jesus as teacher and example but not God and Lord of their lives. Indeed, I heard some people teach explicitly that to seek to follow Jesus as example was a form of blasphemy, which reduces Christ to the level of the merely human, or even worse, raises oneself to the level of the godlike.
At the same time, I was exposed to arguments to the effect that some or all of the sayings of Jesus must be either categorized along with the Old Testament period (“the Law”) which was coming to a close, or associated with a future millennial reign. In either case, they were not to be seen as directly applying to our own present lives. Most of the Christian people I knew in those days appeared to equate “the gospel” with what was often referred to as “the plan of salvation,” a step-by-step evangelistic program which could be presented briefly in some concise format such as the Four Spiritual Laws6 . At the time, I found such tools to be quite helpful. There were, however, some aspects of such a simple, step-by-step approach that bothered me when I compared them with scripture. For example, I remember asking someone about the apparent conflict between the confident assurance I would often hear being given to a new convert that “all your sins are forgiven, past, present and future”7 and the link that appears in the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:12,14-15) between offering forgiveness and receiving it. It bothered me that what seemed from the text to be a clear warning of Jesus could be brushed aside because it conflicted with a favorite doctrine.
Meanwhile, there were some terms that wanted explaining. One of these was “kingdom of God” or “kingdom of heaven,” about which I will have much to say below. Another is “gospel.” I began searching in the Bible for a concise, definitive description of “the Gospel” — one that could be inserted wherever the word is found and make sense— and to my surprise couldn’t find one. Numerous candidates are available:
The gospel of the Kingdom (Matthew 4:23, 9:35, 24:14)
this gospe (Matthew 26:13; perhaps also 24:14; Mark 14:9)
The gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God (Mark 1:1)
The gospel of the kingdom of God (Mark 1:14, Luke 16:16)
The gospel (Matthew 11:5, Mark 1:15, 8:35, 10:29, 13:10, 14:9, 16:15; Luke 9:6, 20:1; Acts 8:25, 14:7, 14:21, 15:7, 16:10; Romans 1:15, 11:28, 15:20; 1 Corinthians 1:17, 9:16, 9:18, 9:23, 15:1; 2 Corinthians 8:18)
The gospel to the poor (Luke 4:18, 7:22)
The gospel of the grace of God (Acts 20:24)
The gospel of God (Romans 1:1, 15:16; 1 Peter 4:17)
The gospel of his Son (Romans 1:9)
The gospel of Christ (Romans 1:16, 15:19, 15:29; 1 Corinthians 9:18; 2 Corinthians 4:4)
My gospel (Romans 2:16, 16:25)
The gospel of peace (Romans 10:15; Ephesians 6:15)
Christ’s gospel (2 Corinthians 2:12)
Our gospel (2 Corinthians 4:3)
The glorious gospel of Christ (2 corinthians 4:4)
The everlasting gospel (Revelation 14:6)
One popular commentator,8 in an effort to be thoroughly rigorous and systematic, solved this problem by writing that there are at least nine separate gospels mentioned in the New Testament, including one called “the everlasting gospel” which, oddly enough, is to be preached at some time in the future for one hour by an angel as described in the book of Revelation.)) This type of absurdity – that something the Bible calls “everlasting” or “eternal” is supposed to exist only for a brief space of time – while representing what I eventually learned was a rather extreme type of dispensationalism 9 – led me to question the basis of some of the teachings I had learned. Does rightly dividing the Word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15, KJV) really mean splitting the Bible up into little chunks, only some of which apply to our own situation? And just how is the gospel that came to be preached about Jesus different from the gospel that Jesus himself preached?
I wrestled with these questions for several years.
Before long I had begun to seriously wonder if the typically evangelical emphasis on conversion and subsequent evangelism, so often presented in my hearing as the sum and substance of the gospel, might possibly be leaving a gap in the teaching of the church. I began to study the history of reform and renewal, and the writings of persons who are widely respected for their contributions to such renewal. And I began to think about how to draw attention to Jesus, not only in his death and resurrection, but also in his way of life and the content of his teaching. I soon resolved to write down the best observations I could make about Matthew 5, 6 and 7, to get an overall picture of the sorts of things that Jesus taught. With this in mind, over the next several years as a pastor I conducted small-group Bible studies in those chapters. Every time it was a remarkable struggle for the participants in the study, because we committed ourselves to approaching it with the question firmly in mind, How can Jesus possibly expect us to take him seriously?
It seems strange and somehow mysterious that here in the latter end of the twentieth century, the great questions we face point us more than ever, not to more and better technology, but to issues of the spirit; and that the hunger in the world for religious answers to those questions has not diminished, despite both the cheerful expectations of religion’s critics, and the dire warnings of its partisans. The question of God, of the spiritual dimension of life, has not gone away. And Jesus remains for many people the supreme focal point of religious life. But it seems to me (to understate the case considerably) that the reverence paid to Jesus as a religious symbol or even an object of devotion is not everywhere matched by the attention paid to his teaching.
For more than twenty-five years I have tried to learn, through both study and experience, what it really means for a human to say, “I believe in God.” And because I am a Christian, this has meant repeatedly asking myself and others the meaning of that most simple and ecumenical of Christian creeds, “Jesus is Lord.” This book is part of that adventure in learning.
Approach and avoidance
It took a long time to bring these thoughts to the printed page. I have to admit that I have been very hesitant, even apprehensive, about trying to explain, or even explore, the words of Jesus of Nazareth. Frankly, it is an intimidating project. So much has been said over so many centuries that it seems anything I say will inevitably either unnecessarily repeat familiar themes, or arrogantly defy respected tradition. However, someone has said that a large part of the preacher’s job is to remind people of the obvious. And it seems to me that especially in North America, and particularly in the Protestant mainstream and its highly visible and vocal evangelical component, we need both to be reminded of what we already know, and to be challenged in some of our comfortable assumptions. The words of Jesus are there for all to see; this is one person’s attempt to call attention to them, to look at them perhaps with new eyes. I have a notion that if we pay attention, these words will have an impact on more than just our personal, private, religious lives.
Dressing Up Jesus
In this generalized, semi-Christian culture, we all10 want Jesus to be inclusive and tolerant of a wide variety of opinions, especially on political issues. We want to be able to appeal to the “Judeo-Christian tradition” as justification for all kinds of things. We want Christianity itself to be a cultural backdrop for whatever we do with our lives. If Jesus addresses us directly, we hope it will be merely in order to remind us of our religious duties, that we should be good neighbors and good citizens, etc., and leave it at that. Unfortunately, if we are to maintain this perception of him, it is necessary to be selective about what we hear Jesus saying.
We like the promise of abundant life; and we want to receive it without likewise accepting the taking of the cross. Oh, we want the cross all right: we want the benefit of it. We’re glad to see Jesus hanging there, paying for our sins. But to follow him, to imitate him, to share (as Paul says he rejoices to do) in his sufferings: this we do not want at all. We like the sweet, comforting, Flannelgraph Jesus that we may remember from Sunday school, when we were assured that God wants us to obey parents and teachers, and that the policeman is our friend. We go to church (those of us who go to church) to be “fed,” to enjoy the music and the preaching and the praying, to be transported from the world of death and taxes into a world of smiles and handshakes and voluntary offerings. If our religious convictions touch our politics, it is only so we can righteously demand that the government will exercise more control over other people’s moral choices.
I have written about some of Jesus’ central teachings for a very simple reason. I am a Christian. Most of what I have to say arises from a fairly straightforward reading of the Bible. But not everyone sees things the same way, and history shows that a well-established interpretation, as much as a novel one, can come to obscure the text that underlies it. I do not believe my thoughts on these sayings of Jesus are new (though I think they are revolutionary) but they are perhaps less well-established than I would like them to be. No doubt I will expose my prejudices just as surely as I hope to expose, in the light of scripture, some prejudices I see around me. Like many persons with strong opinions, I can hardly conceive that any reasonably well-informed and honest person might disagree with me. It has often seemed to me that anyone who reads the Gospels can clearly see the things I will emphasize here. However, it frequently appears (to me) that some who might (or should) know them to be obvious consider them a novelty or an embarrassment, and those who could be saying them are saying something different. There are some perhaps who will privately agree with these things, but be uncomfortable about saying some of them out loud and in public11 . There are and have been many others who speak and write with similar themes, both now and at various points in history; but often as voices in the wilderness, calling for repentance on the part of the church as well as the world.
Calling for repentance; yes, that is what I really want this book to be. Repentance is metanoia – re-thinking, a new look at the familiar. I want you, my reader, to look again at Jesus, and think again, perhaps in a new way, of what he is saying to us. Honesty requires me to admit that there has been some anger involved in writing this book; anger born of grief and frustration, where Jesus seems to be ignored at critical moments by the church that bears his name. Parts of this, then, may resemble almost a political manifesto as well as a devotional commentary. It is going to say that Jesus has a particular way of looking at things that is not necessarily the same as the way that has often been promoted in the name of morality and religion. If the reader’s own assumptions are re-examined in light of this Jesus, then I will have accomplished my purpose.
I hope, however, that what you will glean from these pages is not anger or frustration, but simply a focus on Jesus as (at least) a teacher of practical wisdom. Certainly he is much more than that; but I will argue strongly that he is not less12 .
There are plenty of books calling us to receive him as Savior and worship him as Lord. “You call me Teacher, and Lord,” he says in John 13:13, “and rightly so, for that is what I am.” Is he, our Lord and Savior, to be trusted as a guide for our lives? Or is he merely to be looked to as a cosmic “fire insurance” policy, with benefits payable only in the hereafter? Is there good news in his practical teaching, in his hard sayings, in his call to the cross? Or is the good news only in the hope of heaven or the promise of abundant life? It is much easier to worship Jesus – to admire him from a distance – than it is to follow him; yet he calls us to follow.
- This is evangelical jargon for a very common spiritual event that goes by a wide variety of names: conversion, being born again, coming to faith, encountering God, etc. But we all have to choose the language we speak, and “meeting Jesus” works for me. [↩]
- My father had been a lay pastor for five years when I was quite young. My grandfather on my mother’s side was a minister in the church of God Movement, as was his mother before him. I had uncles on both sides who were missionaries, pastors, teachers of pastors, and church leaders. If growing up in a Christian family makes one a Christian, I’d have had no need for the experience described here. [↩]
- That is, according to the then-current conventional wisdom all around me, which said that you should start with the Gospel of John, or maybe Mark, and follow that with Galatians or Romans, all under the close supervision of a teacher who would tell you what it means, or at least with the help of a heavily annotated edition of the text. [↩]
- Not to mention much of the Old Testament, which almost everyone reads rather selectively. [↩]
- ‘This gets really annoying. I submit that there is nothing “mere” about the teaching, and especially the example, of Jesus [↩]
- For those of you who may not remember, this was Campus Crusade for Christs copyrighted booklet summarizing the above-mentioned plan of salvation. Thousands of these booklets were distributed by earnest young persons such as myself. [↩]
- A sure sign of the Calvinist persuasion of the one giving such assurance. I slowly was to become aware that not all good evangelicals were such convinced Calvinists’ [↩]
- C. I. Scofield and his disciples in the New Scofield Reference Bible. [↩]
- Briefly, dispensationalism is a tightly organized system of belief which holds that God has dealt with human kind in different ways at different times. It gained ascendancy under the influence of one J. N. Darby, and has had a huge impact on evangelicalism in America. [↩]
- When I say “we” of course I don’t mean sensible types like you and me…. [↩]
- In my arrogance and spiritual pride, I compare these stalwarts with Nicodemus, who was a disciple of Jesus, but “secretly, for fear of the Jews” [↩]
- In a famous, frequently quoted and influential passage, C.S. Lewis showed how disastrous it is to think of Jesus only as a teacher or example, and not as the Son of God, Savior and Lord. While I agree with Lewis entirely, I believe that he pushed the discussion so far in one direction that a generation has arisen who are in danger of the equal and opposite heresy of ignoring His humanity, thinking it even un-Christian to regard Jesus as a teacher at all. But the ancient creeds are right in declaring – as a divine mystery – that Jesus is both fully God and fully human. It is the intent of this book to help restore that balance. [↩]