The Jesus I Never Knew, II

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In Matthew, Chapter 16, Jesus asks His disciples a question, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” They came up with various answers, at which point Jesus asked a more pointed question, “But who do you say that I am?” This is the question that all Christians must answer for themselves, who do we think Jesus is?

Phillip Yancy’s book, The Jesus I Never Knew, is his attempt to answer this question for himself. Yancy came to realize, after a considerable period of uncertainty about who Jesus was, that his picture of Jesus arose from several misconceptions that he had had since his youth. He realized that each of these partial images, which he held more or less in sequence, represented only one facet of the real Jesus. He realized that Jesus was not the Jesus of his Sunday school, a “Mister Rogers” type, who was nice and lovable and made no demands on His children. He also saw that Jesus was not the “cosmic Jesus” who ruled the world with a terrible sovereignty. He saw, too that Jesus was not someone one could come to know thorough intense intellectual study. Yancy came to see that each image, alone, was an inadequate representation of Jesus. It was clear to Yancy that Jesus was, in fact, a living human person, and one who had had a major impact on the history of the world, Jesus in His time was a controversial and threatening figure in His time – who would crucify Mister Rogers?

Thus he began Yancy’s search for the “real” Jesus, his attempt to answer Jesus question, “But who do you say that I am?” Yancy does this by looking at three aspects of Jesus life, Who He Was, Why He Came, and What He Left Behind, in the three major sections of the book. In this framework, Yancy looks at Jesus the man, Jesus the Messiah, at the meaning of Jesus Ascension and Jesus’ Kingdom on earth.

The first section explores who Jesus was as a human being who walked the earth. Here Yancy gives the reader a picture of what it was like to live in Jesus' time and what it might have been like to be around Him. He gives a fairly good historical portrait of the culture and political situation in 1st century Palestine. In explaining Jesus' Jewish roots, Yancy gives one of the best short summaries of the various religious factions existing at the time that I have read. He tells us who the Essenes, the Zealots, the Phariasee, etc were and where they might have stood in relation to Jesus' ministry. Developing a deeper historical understanding of Jesus' time is highly useful to anyone, whether Protestant or Catholic; Jesus came to earth in a particular place and in a particular time and many references in Scripture become clearer as we have a clearer understanding of Jesus' historical context.

Yancy also does a fairly good job in his chapter dealing with how he, Yancy, might have reacted to Jesus, had he lived in that time and place. I believe this chapter helpful to anyone wishing to know the real Jesus since it is so easy for us to develop a false, or unclear, notion of who Jesus was. He was not someone who came to us on human terms, He was not just a divine Mister Rogers, neither was He someone who came to bring the wrath of God. As Yancy points out, Jesus, in His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus lays down an impossible standard for human conduct, but He also came bearing infinite mercy. It is an error, for example, to separate the impossible standard from the infinite mercy, which is what we humans so often tend to do, favoring either one side or the other. If we did not have the high standard, we would have no need for the mercy.

The value in Yancy's book, lies in the first major section, here he provides the reader with a basic, well researched, background of Jesus life and times. It allows us a better historical background with which to answer for ourselves the question Jesus asked, "Who do you say that I am?" However, once Yancy leaves the question of the person of Jesus, the historical reality, and tries to deal with what, in effect, is the question of the Church, problems arise. As the book progresses through the other two major sections, the focus becomes more problematical, especially for Catholics; here he comes to conclusions apparently not supported by objective research. I believe the heart of the problem here is Yancy’s stunted misconception, not of Jesus, but of the Church, but more on this in another post.

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This page contains a single entry by Ron Moffat published on September 21, 2003 10:00 AM.

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