Who was Jesus? (pt II: Announcing the kingdom)

I’m continuing a series on the historical Jesus––attempting to situate his actions and words in the 1st century Jewish world where he lived. This is largely inspired by N. T. Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God, although it’s far from summary or paraphrase of that work, as I take my own directions here and make some different critical judgments from Wright. And again, these are longer than my typical posts––chapter-length. You’ll need some time.

Let me ask you to go back in time… back to a difficult time in your life. Maybe you had lost a job, or were struggling to find work. Maybe you had lost someone you loved, or you were struggling for direction. Don’t think of the immediate moment—the crisis moment, if there was one—because it’s okay to do nothing but grieve in that moment. But think about the weeks and months afterward, when you needed a word of hope or comfort. Maybe the time in your mind was decades ago… maybe it’s right now.

And in that time, I wonder if you can remember a word of hope or comfort that someone gave you. For me, I remember a difficult time several years ago where a friend just said to me, “I know it feels like this is a dark cloud that won’t pass, but know that it will get better.” A few years ago, when a dear friend died of cancer, someone quoted Revelation 21:5 to me: “He who was seated on the throne said, ‘I am making everything new!’”

Do you have words like that? Words of hope or comfort that you needed in a difficult time?

Isaiah and Hope

The book of Isaiah has words like that for a whole nation. Most people think these were words that came to Israel after they had gone into captivity.

Here’s the really brief history of that. First, the Babylonian Empire came and laid siege to Jerusalem. When you hear of a siege, you can think of something like this.

That’s the siege of Minas Tirith from The Lord of the Rings for any of you unfamiliar with Middle-earth. The sieges we hear about in Scripture may not have had the same sort of cinematic weight—maybe not quite this many people, probably no flying Fellbeasts. The siege on Jerusalem lasted over two years, not just 10 movie minutes. And at the end of it, the Babylonians burned the city and the temple and led the people away as prisoners. Here’s one artist’s depiction of that:

 The descriptions of Jerusalem afterward talk about it like a wilderness, overgrown with thorns and briers.1 This is what comes of that land that God had promised his people—a land flowing with milk and honey has become a land of thornbushes.

So to a people who have watched their city and their temple burn, who have been led off into captivity, into exile from their promised land, we hear these words in Isaiah:

Comfort, comfort my people,
    says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
    and proclaim to her
that her hard service has been completed,
    that her sin has been paid for,
that she has received from the LORD’S hand
    double for all her sins.
A voice of one calling:
“In the wilderness prepare
    the way for the LORD;
make straight in the desert
    a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be raised up,
    every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
    the rugged places a plain.
And the glory of the LORD will be revealed,
    and all people will see it together.
        For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”
(Isaiah 40:1–5)

For those people living in wilderness, there’s a word of comfort. “Comfort, comfort my people…” “Prepare the way for the LORD,” for Yahweh. Your king will come and reveal his glory, and you’ll see it! That’s the kind of hope and comfort we long for in times of distress, isn’t it?

A lot of scholars see this whole section of Isaiah—from chapter 40 to chapter 55—as a word of hope for those people in captivity. We just saw how it starts, now let me show you how it ends:

Come, all you who are thirsty,
    come to the waters;
and you who have no money,
    come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
    without money and without cost.
Why spend money on what is not bread,
    and your labor on what does not satisfy?
Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,
    and you will delight in the richest of fare.
Give ear and come to me;
    listen, that you may live.
I will make an everlasting covenant with you,
    my faithful love promised to David. 
(Isaiah 55:1–3)

Perhaps you could use a hopeful word like that right now. You who are thirsty—come to the waters. You who have no money—come, buy and eat without cost. And not just beans and rice. God says, “you will delight in the richest of fare.” 

God reminds them of the everlasting covenant he made with David—that God would place one of David’s sons on the throne to rule forever. For a people who have lost their king, captives in a foreign land, there’s a reminder that God has said to David, “One of your own descendants I will place on your throne to rule forever and ever.”2 

God has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you,” and he means it. Even though they must feel left, forsaken, forgotten in Babylon, God reminds them that he’s with them still.

So then, here’s how that chapter in Isaiah concludes:

As the rain and the snow
    come down from heaven,
and do not return to it
    without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish,
    so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
    It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
    and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.
You will go out in joy
    and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and hills
    will burst into song before you,
and all the trees of the field
    will clap their hands.
Instead of the thornbush will grow the juniper,
    and instead of briers the myrtle will grow.
This will be for the LORD’S renown,
    for an everlasting sign,
    that will endure forever.” 
(Isaiah 55:10–13)

So the final picture is a farming picture. God describes his word as something that will yield a crop. It won’t return empty. He describes it as something that defies the thorns and the briers. For people whose last image of being led forth looked like this––

going out in misery, led forth in distress with their city bursting into flames behind them—now they hear, “You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you.”

You can imagine how the Israelite people would have clung to words of hope like that. God will come and restore us. God’s word doesn’t return empty, it produces a crop—seed for the sower and bread for the eater!

The Israelites in Jesus’ day would still be claiming those words. As we saw in part I, many of them still believed they were in exile. They were back in the promised land, but only under the thumb of the Romans. This wasn’t joy and peace. It was still misery and distress.

So you have to wonder how some of Jesus’ parables would hit those Jewish ears. In the one known as the parable of the sower, Jesus goes around talking about a sower and seed and some of it falling among thorns, but other seed producing a crop. I expect that most people would have immediately heard more than a nice farming analogy in this. They would have heard echoes of those promises like we see in Isaiah, the promises that were surely still on their minds and lips.

The Sower

The parable begins with this setting: “That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake. Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore” (Matthew 13:1–2).

We tend to overlook the setting for this parable, but I think it’s significant. The same day, Jesus healed a demon-possessed man who was blind and mute, and people started asking, “Could this be the Son of David?” What would it mean for people to be asking if he’s the son of David? They’re asking, “Is this the one God is going to put on the throne?” But the Pharisees accused him of being an agent of the devil instead, and they had a big debate where the Pharisees called Jesus an agent of Satan and Jesus called them a brood of vipers. And the Pharisees demanded a sign from him, and he called this a wicked generation… The whole thing got pretty ugly. So it’s on that same day that he went out and had to get into a boat to speak because there were such large crowds there.

Here’s a picture of the place where they think he spoke.

They call it the Cove of the Sower. You can see how it forms this natural sort of amphitheater. Some people have done research and said that it can hold probably 7,000 people. Here’s a view from way up at the top.

It’s so far away that the people at bottom look like specks. But they say you can sit up there, and as long as it’s not too windy, or as long as there’s not too much traffic (less of a problem in Jesus’ day), you can hear someone speaking all the way at the bottom.

So it’s been a tense day. We’ve seen a demon-possessed man healed, some people wondering if Jesus is their next king, accusations of “spawn of Satan” and “brood of vipers,” and now you have a huge crowd gathered. With that background, let’s hear the parable:

Then he told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. Whoever has ears, let them hear.” (Matthew 13:1–9)

I’ll admit to you that I’ve looked at so many of Jesus’ parables as simple, timeless truth—something kind of like Aesop’s Fables, where the setting didn’t much matter, just the point. And I’ve always figured they were nice teaching devices—right? Preachers are supposed to tell stories. It helps people remember things and visualize them.

But Jesus is doing more than giving timeless truth in easy-to-understand stories. He’s speaking to people who have been asking, “Could this be the Son of David?” “Could this be the one God is going to put back on the throne for Israel?” And now, he’s telling farmer stories about a sower and a crop, the kind of stories that they would tell for how there would be a great day of harvest when God would restore righteous Israel and punish her oppressors.

Can you imagine people standing at the top of that hill—hanging on every word from the man down in the boat, the one they could barely even see? They wouldn’t crowd around like this just because he was a good storyteller, or because he had some interesting wisdom to share. They wouldn’t crowd around because he’s telling the same story they’ve always heard about God restoring them—they could tell that anywhere. They would crowd around because they wonder if he’s announcing that it’s happening now.

In the book of Isaiah, God describes a coming time of his favor—a coming day of salvation. He says, 

In the time of my favor I will answer you, and in the day of salvation I will help you. I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people, to restore the land and to reassign its desolate inheritances, to say to the captives, ‘Come out,’ and to those in darkness, ‘Be free!’” (Isaiah 49:8–9)

So they would wonder: is now the time? Is Jesus saying, “Now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation”?3

Jesus talks about a crop, but he doesn’t tell the story the way people would expect it. It’s not just a story about Israel’s triumph. There’s both failure and success. Where Israel has talked about God’s word yielding a great crop—it won’t return empty, it defies the thorn bushes and the briers—now Jesus tells a parable with thorns that choke out some of the seed.

For people who have told all these great stories about God coming back and removing the thorn bushes and sowing a great crop, Jesus’ parable isn’t as much of the good news as they’ve wanted. Why would there still be thorn bushes? Why would some seed not produce a crop? Why would any of the farmer’s seed go to waste, when the farmer is God, and the seed is his word?4

God’s action and our expectations

We can make two mistakes with how we understand God’s action. One of them is that we don’t really give God any credit. “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” With enough effort and motivation, you can accomplish anything. That sort of mindset ignores God’s part. Have you ever done that with your own life? You were determined that you could solve everything on your own. You needed no one’s help—just your best effort.

That’s the sort of attitude that got a lot of people in Israel killed through the years. They said, “We’re the chosen people, surely we’ll have victory!” and they went into battles where they got crushed, because God wasn’t with them.

I used to do a small group exercise where we blindfolded people and put their hands on a rope maze and told them to get out. Now, here was the funny thing about it: it was just one big circle. People just kept going around in circles. Every once in a while, someone would change direction and go the other way. This sounds cruel, doesn’t it? The leaders just sit back and laugh while the blindfolded people walk in circles. Well, it was a little bit. But it had a point, too. The leaders would walk around asking people, “Do you need anything?” “Can I do anything for you?” Because the only real way out was to finally acknowledge that you needed help—that you couldn’t do it on your own. So someone would finally say, “I think I need some guidance” or “some direction” or one person asked for “a helping hand.” And when they did, we would take them away from the circle and take the blindfold off. But some people would just keep going—30, 45 minutes. And when we asked if they needed anything, some of them would say absurd things like, “No, I think I about have it figured out” or “I think I’m getting close now.” 

This, I think, is some of our approach to life—refusing any help. Assuming we have everything we need on our own. If you compare it to the farming analogy, it would be like land that thinks it can produce a crop all on its own—no seed, no water, no farmer. Just try hard enough!

But then there’s the other sort of attitude—and that’s the attitude that says God will take care of it all. “If it’s God’s will, I’m sure it will happen.” If God wants to produce a crop, God will do it. We abandon any personal responsibility.

You can see how some people hearing the announcement about God’s kingdom could start to think that way. Either God will do it, or God won’t. We just wait.

This is where a parable like what Jesus tells would disrupt either of those attitudes. It’s not all barren and thorns—continued exile. It’s not all good crop—restoration. It’s a mixture. If Jesus is announcing a new era—a return from exile where God’s word yields a huge crop—he’s also announcing that not everyone returns from exile. The barren land and the thorns remain. That’s not the message the people expect.

Jesus ends by acknowledging that this message he’s giving is cryptic: “Whoever has ears, let them hear.” That would be like saying, “Think on that for a while.”

It’s funny that we would think parables are such great devices because they make things easier to understand, simpler. It doesn’t seem that the disciples thought that. After the parable, look at what they ask Jesus.

Bad News — Parables and Isaiah 6

The disciples came to him and asked, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?” (Matthew 13:10)

Jesus, why can’t you just tell them straight what’s going on? We’ve heard of this great new business practice––bullet points, get straight to the point. Just tell us all exactly what you mean.”

But then Jesus refers back to Isaiah. A different part. Not that part later that’s comfort to the exiles. It’s a part near the beginning—in chapter 6—that is much less comfortable. Look at his answer. Why speak in parables?

He replied, “Because the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. This is why I speak to them in parables:

    “Though seeing, they do not see;
        though hearing, they do not hear or understand.

In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah: 

    “ ‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding;
        you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.
    For this people’s heart has become calloused;
        they hardly hear with their ears,
        and they have closed their eyes.
    Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
        hear with their ears,
        understand with their hearts
        and turn, and I would heal them.’ ”
(Matthew 13:11–15)

Have you ever heard that and wondered why God would ever talk about keeping people from understanding? Surely God would want everyone to hear and see and understand! But in this part of the book of Isaiah, God talks to the prophet about making the people’s hearts calloused and their ears dull. Why?

Look at the song that came right before that:

I will sing for the one I love
    a song about his vineyard:
My loved one had a vineyard
    on a fertile hillside.
He dug it up and cleared it of stones
    and planted it with the choicest vines. 

Do you see what’s happening here?? It’s another passage about Israel like land that’s supposed to produce a harvest! And here’s God, clearing it of those rocky places that might keep things from growing.

In our house, we talk in terms of setting up our kids for success. Do any of you do this—for yourselves or for kids or anyone else? We know that if we let our kids stay up too late on a school night, the next morning will be a disaster. And we really can’t blame the kids for it. It’s on us. So here, it’s almost like God saying, “I did everything I could to set them up for success!”

The passage continues:

He built a watchtower in it
    and cut out a winepress as well.
Then he looked for a crop of good grapes,
    but it yielded only bad fruit.
“Now you dwellers in Jerusalem and people of Judah,
    judge between me and my vineyard.
What more could have been done for my vineyard
    than I have done for it?
When I looked for good grapes,
    why did it yield only bad?
Now I will tell you
    what I am going to do to my vineyard:
I will take away its hedge,
    and it will be destroyed;
I will break down its wall,
    and it will be trampled.
I will make it a wasteland,
    neither pruned nor cultivated,
    and briers and thorns will grow there.
I will command the clouds
    not to rain on it.”

The vineyard of the LORD Almighty
    is the nation of Israel,
and the people of Judah
    are the vines he delighted in.
And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed;
    for righteousness, but heard cries of distress. (Isaiah 5:1–7)

So the same book of Isaiah that later comforts people in exile about God producing a great crop is the book that earlier warned them of their exile. (Most people think that the piece we just read is referring to the time before they were led into captivity. It’s giving the reason they went into captivity.) 

Isaiah warned them that God would make them a wasteland because he did everything necessary for them to produce good fruit, but instead they produced only bad. God expected justice but saw bloodshed. He expected righteousness, but instead heard cries of distress—probably from people who were victimized.

These are people whose ears and eyes were already shut to God. Their hearts were already hardened. God had done everything necessary, and they yielded only bad fruit. So God said, “I’m going to stop protecting them, and they’ll be destroyed.” 

You probably expect to hear some anger in that. A people who hardened themselves to their God. But there’s also probably a sense of heartache in it. Like when a parent realizes they can’t do anything more for the child who’s making bad decisions. At some point, they say, “I have to leave him to his own devices.”

As those people walked off to captivity in tears, I wonder what the general mood was. I talked at the beginning about a time that you needed a word of hope and encouragement during a dark time. You needed to hear that things would get better. But I wonder if you can think of another time in your life: a time when you were reaping the consequences of your own actions.

This is one where it may be easier to see it in someone else’s life. Right? I suspect that you can identify someone else who is struggling as a result of their own bad decisions, but they won’t even recognize it. (Always easier to do with someone else! Probably worth searching our own lives for the same…) During some times like this, the word we need isn’t, “Everything will be okay.” The word we probably need is, “This will not get better until you start making better choices.”

I think that’s part of what we see in these Isaiah passages. They’re not comfort that God always makes everything better. They’re cold, hard reality for stubborn people.

Jesus — a prophet like Isaiah

Jesus comes as a prophet like Isaiah. But what is Jesus’ message for those people standing on the hillside? Is it continuing that word of hope from later in Isaiah? Comfort, comfort my people… Or is it continuing that word of warning like this one here? Usually those different words came in different eras.

In fact, it’s easy to see the history of the people of God in eras. There was the era of slavery in Egypt. And then there was the era of deliverance and Promised Land—living in a land flowing with milk and honey. And then there was the era of wasteland—the people taken into exile. And now they’re awaiting a new exodus, a return from their exile. A time when they flourish and thrive. Surely God will do this! 

But as Jesus sits in that boat—talking to people who wonder if he’s the Son of David who God will place back on the throne—he tells a parable that suggests any new era will have both. It will have flourishing, and it will also have continued wasteland. This is something very different from those clear eras before. It means that some people will come out of exile, others will remain in exile. That’s not because God isn’t doing the work, but it’s based on how they’ll receive his work. And some of them have hardened themselves to their own ideas and understandings of the way things should be.

That time the people looked forward to is coming. There’s a welcome to the hurting exiles who need to hear that God will restore them. But God’s kingdom may not be coming in the way that some of them expected. For the people who are entitled, who think God owes them this, who have already hardened their hearts, or refuse to change their ways, for many of them who are set on violent overthrow of the Romans (again, see part I)—the message is probably more like that other one: “This will not get better for you if you don’t start making better choices.” This is why Jesus goes around saying things like “Don’t think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father. I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham.” Doesn’t this sound like some of those entitled children, who are sure that their parents will bail them out no matter what they do? 

Don’t think that just because you’re “the people of God,” that you’re exempt from any expectation! Don’t think that your bad fruit doesn’t matter, just because you’re the chosen people!

Good News — Those who hear and understand

For those people who were wondering if Jesus was really the Son of David—the one who was expected to do all this—what Jesus says next confirms it for his disciples:

But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear. For truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it. (Matthew 13:16–17)

N. T. Wright summarizes it all this way:

Israel’s God is acting, sowing his prophetic word with a view to restoring his people, but much of the seed will go to waste, will remain in the ‘exilic’ condition, being eaten by the birds, or lost among the rocks and thorns of the exilic wilderness. The eventual harvest, though, will be great.5

When Jesus explains the parable, he describes the barren land as people who don’t listen and understand. He describes the rocky land as people who fall away as soon as they run into trouble or persecution. He describes the thorny land as people who are distracted by their other worries, or by money—those things grow up and choke out any chances for life. And then he describes the good land, where there’s a harvest, as people who hear God’s word and understand it.

While Jesus uses farming analogies, maybe a different one would be better for us. When Jesus comes, he comes to reign. He comes to set people free. If the story he’s describing is like a play, then it’s a play in search of a cast.6 Those people sitting on the hill listening don’t get to be spectators. They’re on stage. What part will they play? Will they be the ones who welcome Jesus with joy? Who don’t just flock to listen to him on hillsides, but who take his word deep down into themselves and understand and obey it, even if trouble or worries come?

I asked you at the beginning to go back to a difficult time—some time when you needed a word of hope and encouragement. The word Jesus gives is that—God is making everything new! He is restoring those places that were previous wasteland. Good news! The good news to you who have lived in any slavery to sin is this: in Jesus, God has overthrown Satan. Through Jesus, you do not have to remain captive to sin. For you who will hear and understand, God will produce a crop—good fruit. God will replace any wasteland that has come before and restore you. This is a transformation of your past: wiping away the guilt of the past. It’s a transformation of your present: replacing sin with righteousness. And it’s a transformation of your future: deliverance from death and wasteland to life eternal in God’s kingdom. 

And for us as the people of God, this happens not just to individuals, but to groups of people––the church. In us, God should be able to look for justice and see justice, for righteousness and hear cries of joy.

But also there’s warning. For any who think they’re in a desert place, but who won’t listen to Jesus’ prophetic word, there’s just more desert to come. The word for these may not be a word that says, “Comfort, comfort, my people…” It may be a word that says, “This will not get better for you if your choices don’t change,” or “Things are going to stay the same until you give up your own ways and are ready to listen and understand God’s ways.” God does not bail out people who have shown no actual desire to hear and understand and obey. God does not bail out people who think they’re entitled to some gift from God. God gives comfort to those eager to hear and understand and obey. He gives warning to those who aren’t.

You wonder how the people standing on that hillside responded. Surely some decided he wasn’t the kind of Son of David they were hoping for. They may have been some of the ones to later yell, “Crucify him!” But there were others there who gave up everything to follow him, to listen to him, to devote their lives to him. How will we hear the announcement of God’s kingdom today?

  1. e.g. Isaiah 32:13–14
  2. See Psalm 132 for one version of this.
  3. Paul would later confirm that it was in 2 Corinthians 6:2
  4. An important note: there are also several instances in Jewish wisdom literature that use seed growing in relation to personal righteousness. Jesus at least seems to have these in mind, as well, as he tells these stories. I focus on the other side here because it’s less-known and because of the way it fits the tense context with people asking about Jesus as the Son of David or as agent of the devil. This isn’t less than a word about individual righteousness, but I want to highlight here that I believe it’s more than that, too.
  5. From Jesus and the Victory of God, 234
  6. This analogy suggested by Wright in JVG, 243

Who was Jesus? (pt I: A prophet mighty in word and deed)

A few years ago, I read N. T. Wright’s brilliant work on the historical Jesus––Jesus and the Victory of God (JVG). I began asking myself how I would share some of the same of what he shares there, but on a lower shelf (not the 900-page scholarly work that is JVG). In the next series of posts, I’m going to share some points inspired by Wright about the historical Jesus. I aim to share these in an accessible way for normal people. I hope you find it interesting and helpful.1

These will be chapter-length, way longer than my normal posts, so you’ll need some time if you want to get to the bottom.

Last year, you probably heard all that you care to hear about polls and favorability ratings. I’m going to share one more set of polls with you, though. About five years ago, a group called Public Policy Polling had done a survey about Aaron Rodgers’s favorability in Wisconsin. He got the highest rating they had ever seen—an 89%.

If you don’t know who Aaron Rodgers is — this may help: 

Now you recognize him, right? He’s the discount double-check guy! The commercials were really big at the time. He also plays quarterback for the Green Bay Packers, and they had just won the Super Bowl, so that could have something to do with it, too. 

So the polling group decided to do one more poll. They wanted to know if anyone could be more popular across America than Rodgers was in Wisconsin. Did anyone hit 90% favorability? They surveyed 800 Americans, and they found three winners!2

#2 was Abraham Lincoln. He had a 91% favorability rating. Which makes sense. We all like Honest Abe, right? Or at least 91% of us do. (Who in the world were the 9%?)

Right behind Lincoln was Jesus, with a 90% favorability rating. This is interesting to me. Jesus has been a hotly debated figure through time. He’s been divisive. He told his disciples, “You will be hated by everyone because of me.”3 He said men would turn against their fathers, daughters would turn against their mothers because of him.4 He told his disciples that the world hated him because he testified that its works are evil.5

And the divisions didn’t end in the Bible. Some of history’s longest and fiercest debates have been about Jesus—whether he was truly the Son of God, what Jesus would do, what Jesus would approve of… So how could someone so divisive in his time and through history have a 90% favorability rating? 

Well, I have a few suggestions. One that I don’t want to make light of: many of us worship him as Savior, God who has taken on flesh and given us his great grace at his expense. We view Christ not just favorably, but with ultimate reverence and devotion. “Favorable” is far too small. We’ll come back around to that.

But I wonder if there’s something else going on here, too. I’ve given you #2 and #3 in favorability in that poll, but I haven’t given you #1 yet.

Number one was… #1. The poll also asked people how favorably they viewed themselves, and 93% gave themselves a positive rating. The most esteemed person in America… is each of us in our own eyes. This isn’t shocking, is it?

I think that also has something to do with why Jesus’ ratings are so high. Several people have suggested that our search for understanding Jesus—the real, historical Jesus—is like looking down to the bottom of a deep well. And from the bottom, we see an image come back to us that we’re sure is Jesus, but it looks a lot like our reflection.6

The Jesus in our minds supports the sort of morality that we support—strict about the things that we’re strict about, lenient and full of grace about the things that we’re lenient about. He probably would vote the way we vote, because the issue that we’re most passionate about is surely the one that he cares most about. For some people that’s war.

For others it’s abortion.

And to be sure, we should look to Jesus and his teaching and example for our moral lives, but we might admit that we rush to him more quickly on some issues than others.

It’s no wonder, then, that we even re-make Jesus physically in our image. Asians have depicted Jesus as Asian.

Africans have depicted him as African.

And of course, white Westerners have depicted him as a white Westerner.

Those physical depictions are just small evidence of the bigger ways that we make Jesus look like us. If our calling is to be imitators of God, imitators of Christ, we’ve found that the easier way of coming to look like Christ is when we make him come to look like us. 

Some people have seen us paint these false pictures and reacted by running the other way—saying we can’t really know anything about Jesus. A famous Bible scholar named Rudolf Bultmann said it this way: “I do indeed think that we can now know almost nothing concerning the life and personality of Jesus.”7

And then there’s a third group of people—those who say Jesus doesn’t matter. We’re spending too much time on a historical figure who’s irrelevant today. You can see that in this survey of the Church of England that talked about the different reasons people don’t go to church. Why don’t more people go to church?

Part of the reason is simply a lack of belief that the death of Christ was the turning-point of history… It all seems less and less likely to be true, the more you discover about those maniacs in the first century who were expecting a Messiah and getting ready for the end of the world.”8

According to that survey, our interest in Jesus is pointless. It was created by a few maniacs in the first century. Time to move on.

Whether you fashion Jesus in your own eyes, or as someone who can hardly be known about at all, or as someone irrelevant for us today—the product of a few maniacs from the first century—we can say this: “What you say about Jesus affects your entire worldview. If you see Jesus differently, everything changes. Turn this small rudder, and the whole ship will change [course]. To put it bluntly: what if the maniacs turned out to be right?”9

In some sense, that’s the question we’ll be asking throughout this series. It becomes two questions: “Who was Jesus?” and “So what?” We ask because the answers to those questions have the potential to change everything—our entire worldview (the way we see), and our entire course (the way we live). We ask because we believe that Jesus looked very different from a lot of our conceptions—and if we really want to know him and imitate him, we need to dispense with the false portraits we’ve sketched in our minds and instead see him as he was. We ask these questions because we disagree with Bultmann when he says we can’t really know anything about Jesus. We believe we can! Because we believe this record we have in Scripture tells us about him, how he lived, what he did and said. 

In this first post, especially, we’re going to spend a lot of time on that question, “Who was Jesus?” We’re going to spend a lot of time in his world to see Jesus in his real time and place, and then we’ll come out at the end to ask, “So what?” So we go to Scripture to see Jesus in his time and place.

Jesus’ setting: Renewal movements

Look at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, as Matthew presents it:

From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen.  “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” At once they left their nets and followed him.

Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets. Jesus called them, and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him. (Matt 4:17–22)

Something sometimes unnoticed about Jesus throughout the gospels is that he was leading a movement. He went around announcing that something new was happening. He gathered a following of people around him—disciples. Whatever he was doing, he was leading people somewhere; he was starting a movement.

A lot of the images in our heads about Jesus’ time and place are serene, peaceful, Jesus going around and just “loving” people, standing beside some body of water and speaking in ethereal tones: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed.” That doesn’t give you a real sense of the atmosphere at this time and place in the world. For the Jewish people, recent history involved violence, uprisings, upheavals of government. It involved movements and leaders who would gather people to their cause.

Here’s a sketch of the time leading up to Jesus… About 160 years before he was born, there was a Jewish rebel army that took control of Judea. They’re known as the Maccabees. The Maccabees said that the Jewish people were living in the Promised Land, and God’s people shouldn’t be under foreign rule. So they revolted, and they actually won and took over. After their long time under foreign rule, the Jewish people ruled in the promised land for 100 years. But then the Romans came in and conquered them. That happened about 60 years before Jesus was born.

We have records of some of the abuse these Jewish people suffered during those times. Here’s one instance from the book of 2 Maccabees:

Eleazar, one of the scribes in high position, a man now advanced in age and of noble presence, was being forced to open his mouth to eat swine’s flesh.

[This is, of course, horribly offensive for Jewish people who didn’t eat pork.]

But he, welcoming death with honor rather than life with pollution, went up to the rack of his own accord, spitting out the flesh, as all ought to go who have the courage to refuse things that it is not right to taste, even for the natural love of life. (2 Maccabees 6:18–20)

This is the kind of oppression and suffering that the Jewish people of Jesus’ time would have experienced and talked about. The pagan nations persecuted the Jews back in the days of the Maccabees, and then the Romans took over, and there was this continued foreign military occupation. They imposed weighty taxes, ones that could be crippling for people who lived on the edge of poverty. (A reason tax collectors were thought of so poorly—and why people asked Jesus at one point about whether he supported the imperial tax: “Are you with the empire? Or are you with the Jewish people?” Either answer would get you in trouble with someone.)

So what happens when people are oppressed like this? When their backs are against the wall and they feel like they have no hope? This is when revolutionary movements arise. You get social bandits—“Robin Hood” types who would perform raids to harass the upper classes and provide for the peasants. There’s one occasion where King Herod assembled an army to track down a group of bandits, and they retreated to hide in caves. Look how a historian recorded what Herod did:

With ropes [Herod] lowered [over the cliffs] the toughest of his men in large baskets until they reached the mouths of the caves; they then slaughtered the brigands and their families, and threw firebrands at those who resisted… Not a one of them voluntarily surrendered and of those brought out forcibly, many preferred death to captivity.”

- Josephus, The Jewish War10

You had bandit uprisings, and you had the rulers stomping them out. This is how the Romans kept peace. The Pax Romana worked by stomping out any uprisings.

And then after Herod died, some time shortly after Jesus was born, Herod’s son sent armies into Jerusalem and massacred thousands of Jews on pilgrimage to worship there. Because of that, peasant revolts rose up all over the kingdom, a lot of them with leaders that might be referred to as messiahs—promising to overthrow Herod’s dynasty and the Romans’ rule.

This is the kind of political setting that Jesus came into. And that’s only a small taste. It wasn’t getting better. After Jesus, it got much worse, actually.

In all of it, the Jews had this great hope that they wouldn’t live under Rome’s thumb forever. They were God’s special people, and God had made promises to rescue them and make everything right again. Specifically, God would come and establish himself as King over all the earth. He would bring justice and peace and set the world right.11 And a lot of them would look to movements like these as the answer.

So where would their minds go when they heard something like, “the kingdom of heaven has come near”? This was a major political statement. A revolutionary statement. “God is renewing his covenant with Israel, he’s restoring creation, setting Israel free. God is returning to be known as King!” The people would hear those as fighting words. We have to understand this bit of background to understand so much of Jesus’ life.

Mighty in word and deed

So look at the next part of that passage in Matthew now:

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. News about him spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed; and he healed them. Large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan followed him. (Matt 4:23–25)

You can imagine curious people watching from their doors, gathering to hear what he had to say, gossiping about what they had seen, wondering whether what he said was true. You can imagine them bringing people to him on stretchers and seeing them healed—flocking to wherever he was, so they could keep seeing and hearing what he was up to.12 13

He spoke differently from the other teachers of the law, like someone who had authority. He spoke like a prophet! If you don’t think of Jesus as a prophet, it’s interesting to see just how often the New Testament calls him one. 

It’s how the crowds view him. When people ask who he is, they say he’s the prophet from Nazareth.14

It’s how his disciples viewed him. After his death, they tell a stranger (who turns out to be Jesus!) that he was “a prophet, powerful in word and deed” (Luke 24:19).

Jesus even refers to himself as a prophet.15

And he backs up his prophetic words with his actions—he’s a prophet powerful in word and deed. His only miracle that’s recorded in all four gospels is when he went out in the wilderness and fed people.

Does this remind us of any stories from the Old Testament––God feeding Israelites in the wilderness? That’s what God did during the exodus from Egypt. Jesus’ miracles weren’t just some magic to prove that he was God. If he just wanted to prove he had divine powers, he could have… I don’t know, floated. These were more than signs of miraculous powers, they were announcements—this was about God rescuing his people, a new exodus! 

When he healed people, it announced the same. What’s it like when the kingdom of God comes? Faithful people are healed, the curse of disease and decay is broken! And this isn’t just about physical healing. So many of the people who were healed had been ostracized. If you were blind or lame or deaf or dumb, people assumed that somehow sin was involved. You were less of a human—not a full Israelite—because of those physical problems. Jesus healed a woman who had been bleeding for years, which would have made her perpetually unclean. He healed lepers who had to stay away from the rest of society and yell, “Unclean!” as they went by. Those healing miracles were restoring people to community. It wasn’t just physical healing—it was social healing.

For a people who have long been under someone else’s thumb, what good news! This was release to the captives and recovering of sight for the blind. The day had come when God would save his people!

If it were this simple, we would expect Jesus’ favorability rating to blow Aaron Rodgers’s out of the water, wouldn’t we?

Why would people hate Jesus?

But it wasn’t just curious and excited crowds who flocked to hear Jesus. Almost anywhere he went, there was tension. They accused him of being demon-possessed. One crowd took him to throw him off a cliff.16 At least twice, people picked up stones to stone him.17 And it seems that everywhere he went, Jesus was being confronted by the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. 

If you have any idea in your head that most of Jesus’ time was peaceful, you’ve been fed a false narrative. This movement he was leading was highly controversial.

N. T. Wright says it this way: 

The fact that he was not arrested sooner was due to his itinerant style, and to his concentration on villages rather than major cities, not to anything bland or unprovocative about the content of his message.”18

His message wasn’t some nice, timeless truths for us to live by. It was a passionate and provocative message that people heard and had strong reactions to—some of them reacted by following Jesus, even leaving behind professions and families. Others picked up stones to stone him or tried to throw him off a cliff.

Two reasons that people didn’t like Jesus’ message: 

First, he was giving a revolutionary message, and not everyone wanted revolution. Can you imagine some of the Jewish people who were doing okay in this setting? The ones who were okay with things as they were? The worst thing that could happen for them would be to upset the Romans with rumors of another uprising. They would say things like this:

If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.” (John 11:48)

These prophetic announcements about the kingdom of heaven coming near were not good news for the people already in power. Later, when Pontius Pilate asked, “Shall I crucify your king?” the chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar” (John 19:15). Don’t mess with Caesar. Times are good. Caesar is Lord.

Second —  even if a message of revolution was good news for you, you still may not have liked Jesus. In Jesus’ world, when someone announced the kingdom of God coming, whose side would God be on? Israel’s! And who was God against? Israel’s oppressors—the Romans! But instead, Jesus went around talking about a lot of Israel as outsiders, and others—Gentiles—as those who would receive the kingdom. When he talked about judgment day, it wasn’t all the Jews who were in and all the rest who were out. He kept warning the Jews that they might find themselves on the outside, knocking on a closed door.

N. T. Wright observes about it all: 

Someone who is telling strangely familiar stories and meaning the wrong things by them will land up in trouble. The parable about defilement, about the things which come out of or go into a person, in which the former defile and the latter do not, is a cryptic invitation to abandon one of the most cherished cultural boundary-markers of Israel, a social and religious symbol which people in recent memory had adhered to even when the result was torture and death.”19

Remember those Maccabees who died rather than eating swine flesh? This parable would be a slap in the face to them.

Even with his healings, Jesus didn’t announce the kingdom the way they would expect. Who does the messiah bring healing to? His people, right? But then in maybe the most audacious of all his healings, Jesus healed the servant of a Roman centurion. Here he was providing healing to the enemy––one of the stationed officers of the occupying army. What do you do with this?

Jesus’ miracles weren’t finally the kind of miracles the people were looking for. They weren’t miracles that delivered them from their captivity to the Romans. Instead, his most powerful miracles targeted a different enemy. He drove out demons, forgave people of their sins, and raised people from the dead. Why?? These attacked the real enemy—and it wasn’t Rome. It was the devil. And when Jesus came driving out demons and announcing forgiveness, it was a direct attack on the devil.

When Jesus announced that God’s kingdom was coming, he meant something different from what the people expected. They wanted deliverance from Rome, just as Israel had been delivered from slavery in Egypt. Jesus was announcing a deliverance from the devil, from slavery to sin and death.

This second group didn’t understand Jesus’ revolution message because it wasn’t how revolution messages were supposed to sound.  In fact, what he was saying sounded almost opposite a revolution message. He sounded a lot like a prophet from the Old Testament, Micaiah son of Imlah. And you know what he was like… 

No? Let me tell you his short story.

Jesus, the new Micaiah 

The king of Israel, Ahab, wanted to go to war against another country, to take back some of Israel’s land. This was the promised land—it belonged to Israel—surely God would want them to have it back. (Is this sounding familiar?) So Ahab called together 400 prophets (these were prophets of other gods, not the God of Israel), and they all answered the same way: “Go! Yahweh will give them into your hands.” But another king—the king from Judah—asked, “Isn’t there any prophet of Yahweh around here?” And Ahab said, “Well, there’s one… but I hate him because all of his prophecies are bad. His name is Micaiah son of Imlah.” 

So they went and got Micaiah, and the messengers all said, “Look, the other prophets are unanimous on this. They’re all predicting success for the king. Don’t screw this up!” But instead, Micaiah went in and said this: 

I saw all Israel scattered on the hills like sheep without a shepherd, and the Lord said, ‘These people have no master. Let each one go home in peace.’ ” (1 Kgs 22:17)

He was saying, “You think you’re going to victory—that this is how you’ll gain back the promised land—but you’re going to your death.”

And after that, Ahab turned and said, “Didn’t I tell you he only prophesies bad things about me?” So what do you think Ahab did? You already know, don’t you? He ignored the prophecy and went to war. And what happened? You already know, don’t you? They got routed. Ahab was killed. You can imagine the bodies scattered on the hills. Whoever escaped alive saying, “We have no master now, no King”—sheep without a shepherd.

Jesus came like a new version of Micaiah son of Imlah. He came to people who were ready for war, certain that God would give them victory, and he warned them that their way of revolution wasn’t how they would achieve peace. He had compassion on the crowds because they were like sheep without a shepherd. 20 As he went into Jerusalem, about to be crucified, he wept and said:

If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.” (Luke 19:42–44)

A few decades later, that prophecy came true. The Jewish people went to war against Rome, and the Jewish rebels actually took Jerusalem. They occupied it for a few years, but then the Roman army came back and crushed them. They hemmed them in on every side and slaughtered them and tore down their temple.

So many of those people thought they would bring the kingdom of God by their own revolution. And in the process, they missed the real revolution, the one that came through Christ in an entirely different manner.

So what?

This takes us to that second question—“so what?” This isn’t just about interesting history. For each of us, there’s a personal question: are we willing and ready to see Jesus as a prophet, one who does not look like us and does not affirm each of our agendas, but comes and calls us to his? Are we willing to listen when he says that the way that we’re choosing leads to death, even when we so want it to be the right way?

As the Church, we ask questions about Jesus because he is our founder. For us as the Body of Christ, Jesus is our head. For us as the bride of Christ, Jesus is our bridegroom. So for us especially, who Jesus was has enormous implications for who we are.

The mighty words and deeds that we see in Christ continue. Christ is present today in the world. Where Christ is, the kingdom of God has come—there’s freedom and announcements of good news! And where is Christ present? Most specifically in his Body, the Church!

The Church as the Body of Christ… that’s something interesting to consider when we think of Jesus’ favorability ratings. How do they compare to the Church’s favorability ratings?I’ve looked for statistics, and they’ve been harder to find. Here’s my general experience, though, and I think you’ll agree… the Church’s favorability ratings are not at 90%. I’m not sure they’re as high as 50%. We even have books like They Like Jesus but not the Church. You have in your mind reasons for this, don’t you? Let me suggest two…

First — there’s this important reminder. People wanted to throw Jesus off cliffs and stone him when he walked this earth the first time. He was bad news to the people who wanted to continue saying “Caesar is Lord.” He was bad news for people who were pretty comfortable in Roman culture. Those people—even their religious people—were okay to say, “We have no king but Caesar.” Don’t rock the boat.

For the church to be the Body of Christ in our world today will surely mean that we refuse to say, “Caesar is Lord,” when the rest of our culture wants us to affirm its conventions. We’ve been accused of Marxism for calling for social justice and working for it in our world. We’ve been accused of bigotry for making different claims about sexuality than the world around us. (To be clear, that’s not primarily about debates over homosexuality. Before we can even go near those, we need to acknowledge that our world’s claims and practices about heterosexuality are far different from ours.) If we are like Jesus, it may be that the world will hate us because we continue to testify that its works are evil, that its ways are not Christ’s ways.

I’ll share another brilliant quote from N. T. Wright that captures this:

If we are announcing the Kingdom in such a way that it simply echoes what certain groups in the world are saying, we have climbed one wrong mountain; if we announce it in such a way that it challenges nobody and nothing in our world, we have climbed another wrong mountain.”21

Because of all this, I would be skeptical if the Church ever achieved a 90% favorability rating. If we did, we would probably be a church re-made into a false image of Christ, not the image of a messiah who people wanted to stone and throw off cliffs because he wouldn’t conform to the images they wanted him to fit.

Because of this, our first questions can never be about how to get people to like us. We can’t succumb to the kind of pressures I so often hear in church world—“Don’t you think that will turn people off?” “Don’t you think that’s a little too extreme?” Imagine the people who said the same to Jesus.

But that’s obviously only one reason the Church’s favorability ratings fall short. You know the second one all too well… We’ve had problems not just for being too much like Jesus, but often for how much we’ve failed to be like him. While Jesus healed the sick, we’ve many times been communities that inflict undue harm on people. While Jesus fed the hungry, we’ve too often allowed ourselves to become social clubs who care only for ourselves. While Jesus ate with sinners, we often won’t even consider breaking bread with anyone we disagree with. People we regard as sinners often receive scorn rather than compassion.

Where this is true, we must go back to Jesus for his grace. The Church is the greatest sign and the greatest reality of God’s kingdom come on this earth today. The Church is the greatest sign and the greatest reality of the Body of Christ walking this earth today. Where we have mucked that up, we go to Christ for the grace of his forgiveness. And we go to Christ for the grace of his restoration––that he would restore us to the true embodiment of the kingdom of God come on this earth, the true embodiment of Christ on earth. We rely on the grace of God, knowing that our efforts to “bring the kingdom of God” on our own will be an utter failure, and an affront to our God.

For our world, good news to the poor! Because with God, the church actively works to reduce growing disparity between rich and poor. Good news to the outcast! Because with God, we delight in diversity and difference. Good news for creation, because with God, we care for the integrity of creation.

When the Church has been this good news, much of the world has been able to look on us with favor, even when we look so different from the world. Where our favorability ratings are low because we have failed to announce and live this good news, we can be better. We must be.

The Bible says that Jesus came full of grace and truth. The same one who testified that the world’s deeds were evil was the one who ate with sinners. Our calling is to be the same. Not to be so set on grace that we get soft about truth. Not to be so set on truth that we withhold grace. Full of grace and truth.

——————

  1. I should make two important notes here. 1) I don’t intend an uncritical regurgitation here. I have some critical points of disagreement, or at least where I’m suspending judgment, concerning Wright’s points and conclusions. So this series has Wright’s work as its primary inspiration, but doesn’t attempt to be wholly faithful to what Wright has done. 2) Wright has also written much of this into popular-level books, especially Simply Jesus. I don’t pretend to do it better than he already has––just to provide a different introduction for you. Go pick up one of his books if you want more.
  2. You can see the results at http://www.publicpolicypolling.com/main/2011/11/americans-love-jesus-lincoln-and-themselves.html
  3. Matt 10:22
  4. Matt 10:35
  5. John 7:7
  6.  This analogy was first used by George Tyrrell in Christianity at the Crossroads, 1909, though it’s most commonly attributed to Albert Schweitzer.
  7.  from N. T. Wright in JVG, 3.
  8.  Ysenda Maxtone Graham in The Church Hesitant (1993), p. 129. As found in JVG, xiv.
  9. JVG, xiv
  10.  all of this from “Revolutionary Movements, Jewish” by W. J. Heard and C. A. Evans in Dictionary of New Testament Background
  11.  adapted from Wright’s Matthew for Everyone, Part One, pp. 28–29.
  12.  This idea of Jesus traveling from village to village and teaching might help us see the writing of the gospels differently. With a traveling prophet who is constantly in front of new crowds, how many times would he say some of the things that he said? For his most popular teachings and parables, he probably said them dozens of times, at least. So when you see a teaching in several of the gospels, and perhaps it’s in a different place and worded slightly differently in them, it’s likely that these are each different occasions. And for his followers to later record some of these with accuracy, it probably wouldn’t be that hard. Can’t you imagine them saying, “Oh, it’s the parable of the sower again…”?
  13. Wright describes the scene much like this in Matthew for Everyone.
  14. Matt 21:11
  15. e.g. Matt 13:57; Luke 13:13
  16. Luke 4:29
  17. John 8:59; 10:31
  18.  JVG 172
  19.  JVG, 179
  20. Matt 9:36
  21. in For All God’s Worth, Kindle Locations 1425–1426

Underdogs and Outsiders — My interview with Tom Fuerst

screen-shot-2016-11-18-at-9-03-02-amHave you ever heard a sermon or Bible study that presents a text in a way that you had never considered? Those sermons and studies have always stood out to me. They force me to think in a different way about the whole biblical narrative and my faith. They make me want to go back to other passages in the Bible and read more deeply, in case what I’ve been seeing from them was too shallow, or perhaps even missed the point entirely.

Tom Fuerst, one of the pastors at Christ UMC in Memphis, regularly does that with Scripture passages. Tom is a prophet and scholar and story-teller. He reads the Bible with a critical eye, looking for those small details that may be crucial to the whole. And then he tells stories about the Bible and about life today in a way that engages and comforts and challenges.

Because of all that, I was excited to learn that Tom had written a book––a Bible study for Advent. It’s a book that does exactly what I would have expected from Tom, combining all his prophetic, scholarly and story-telling skills. The book is titled Underdogs and Outsiders: A Bible Study on the Untold Stories of Advent. It focuses on the five women in the genealogy of Jesus and sheds new light on each of their stories. I highly recommend it to you for your own reading, and even more if you can find a group to read and discuss together during Advent.

Even if you don’t read the book, I think you’ll enjoy my interview with Tom below. You’ll pick up on some of his approach to reading Scripture and also gain from his call for brutal honesty in the church.

See the transcript below, or listen to the audio here (right-click to download).

———-

Teddy: My name is Teddy Ray and I’m here today with Tom Fuerst. Tom is a longtime friend and someone who is doing some great work in pastoral ministry and also in theology. I was so excited to hear… Tom, you’re finally writing something, and I was waiting for this––for you to put something out that I can hand people. Tom, just this year has written a book called Underdogs and Outsiders. It’s a bible study on the untold stories of Advent… I’m going to hold it up [we recorded in video] because Tom is posting all over his Facebook page these advertisements that are LeBron James and Mickey Mouse and anyone under the sun holding up his book.

I’m really excited to talk to you about this. It’s funny that you’ve done that goofy advertising campaign for what is a very vulnerable and deep sort of study.

Tom: Yeah, yeah, it definitely is. I’m trying to provide some juxtaposition between lightheartedness and “Oh wow, this book is kind of intense.”

Teddy: Yeah. I think you introduce it really well. In your introduction you say, “Jesus Christ did not come into a perfect family filled with perfect people who didn’t need saving. He came into a wrecked family filled with wrecked people who needed a savior.” It seems like that’s a theme that you keep capturing over and over again throughout the book. Not only in the lives of these women, but in your life, too. How did all these start to come together for you?

Tom: Yeah, I mean that was it. I feel like a lot of times what happens when we get together for church is we put on our best faces, we put on our best clothes, and we put on our best behavior, and we ask our children to be on their best behavior, and so we sort of put on this air of having it together. It seems to me when I read the New Testament that the church doesn’t have it all together, and on some levels, they’re not even pretending to have it all together. When you read the letters of Paul, they clearly are not pretending to have it all together. They’re bickering and arguing and they don’t get it right and there are people just at each other’s throats. Paul is writing these letters saying, “Hey, listen.” He is not saying be authentic, he is not saying, “Hey put on an air and pretend like everything is okay,” but he is saying like here is a cruciform form way to handle conflicts. Not to avoid them, not to pretend like they are not there, but acknowledge them and work through them in the method of the cross in that direction.

It just occurs to me that so much of the way we do church, and so much of what we assume about the Christian life, doesn’t involve this sort of brutal honesty about our imperfections and these vulnerabilities. So far as we are not being vulnerable with one another, acknowledging both our individual brokenness and also the brokenness of us together collectively, we really can’t be the church, right? I mean the church begins with confession. “I am a sinner and I am a man of unclean lips and I live with people of unclean lips and I need some help.” So far as we don’t acknowledge we need help, we can’t be the church.

Teddy: That’s great, that’s beautiful. Did you preach this through at any point? Did you preach through these characters or something similar?

Tom: Yes and No. I mean I’ve preached on the women. I’ve preach on Tamar, and I have taught many lessons going through Genesis and so I did Genesis at my service here a couple of years ago. In fact, I had a whole sermon on Tamar and I’ve taught lessons on her. I don’t think I’ve preached on Rehab. I think I have preached on Ruth, and I don’t know that I have preached on Bathsheba. So some of it I have preached on and I have done work on and some of it was really fresh and others I  started from scratch.

Teddy: Yeah, so the things that you wrote here, the ways that you approach these stories. This was very different from the Sunday School version of these stories. Especially I think about the story of Rahab and you are talking about these Israelite soldiers in a totally different way than I have ever heard them presented. Where is this coming from? Is this  scholarly opinion that we never actually get, or where did it come from?

Tom: Yeah, it’s drawing from the implications from the text. Obviously doing the work with the text, but then also reading commentaries. And understanding that the commentaries are trying to sound very professional, but they’re talking about very not professional texts. And so, these commentaries are making it scholarly and they’re drawing these connections with other texts and saying things like, “This is the symbolism happening here,” and really the symbolism is incredibly scandalous! But the commentaries will say, “This is scandalous.” But they don’t make you feel the scandal. I think ancient Israelite readers would have felt the scandal, they would have understood the symbolism and the references and they would have felt the scandal. I wanted to sort of draw out that feeling in a way that it would help us have some context for that feeling as well.

Teddy: Yeah, you did that well.

Tom: Oh, well thanks!

Teddy: Yeah, as I’m reading I was like, “Okay, nobody is going to miss this.” You can’t go on and go, “Oh that story of Rehab is just this nice little story about soldiers that she protected.”

Tom: Some of it is, it comes down to the realization… Again going back to the idea that these people are not perfect, they are a mixed bag and if we assume that even our biblical heroes are a mixed bag of sinfulness and brokenness like you and I are, then that gives us space to cringe when they do something. It gives us space to sort of chuckle when they’re out of line, it gives us space to wonder about their motivations. Of course I don’t want to go beyond what the text says, but at the same time, there are clues within the text about what is happening in these stories that we just have a difficulty picking up on because they’re 6,000 years later or something.

Teddy: Right. Speaking of that, we’re 6,000 years removed. You are a white man, who is a pastor in a church writing about these women 6,000 years ago, or some less than that. How did you overcome all those different sorts of barriers to put yourself in some of these people’s shoes?

Tom: Yeah. I’ll say this, obviously I can’t overcome those barriers. The idea will be more, how do I acknowledge that they’re there and work with them, understand that they’re what they are and try to bring in other voices. I relied heavily on a couple of female scholars who gave a different kind of approach to the text that wasn’t outside of the bounds of good protestant theology, good orthodoxy, but still reflected deeply on the experience of women and how the experiences of women under regimes of oppression or under patriarchal cultures might have responded to this and what they were trying to do. So I tried to listen very deeply to what they were saying.

Then the other thing was just to try to be as familiar as I can be with the text and ask questions of the text. You know, our inductive Bible study in seminary, you and I had inductive Bible study together actually, and it taught me to ask questions.

It taught me to say, “Hey, why is this little piece in the text? It seems like it’s insignificant.” And yet I realized that the authors of these texts don’t waste words. They don’t have the time and energy to waste words. They’re being very precise. Why are these little details here, why does it matter that the Israelites are camped at Shittim right before they crossed into the Promised Land? You know, that connection between prostitution, the Israelites prostituting themselves and idols, and then they’re going in and the first person they meet is a prostitute. That’s not just mere coincidence. I have to ask questions about that, and I think any good interpretation has to bring those two things together.

I think relying heavily on some female scholars is a help, and then just doing the work with the text and just really wrestling with it.

Teddy: This is one of the things that I have loved about your approach to any theological question is, there is this deep searching of the scriptures to say, what is actually here? You consistently refuse to accept the easy answer or the quick answer or the answer that’s already out there. What’s really underneath this, and I think people are really going to benefit from that.

Tom: I appreciate that. Not everybody does!

Teddy: Quit messing with our world, right? We already know what to believe about this. Stop introducing new things.

Tom: Yeah.

Teddy: What are you hoping people might gain from this, if they’re studying on their own, if they’re studying it in a group, what are you hoping will come?

Tom: I think at the end of the day, the realization that, if Jesus’ family tree was filled with all these broken branches before he arrived, then that’s all that he works with now. I mean he is dealing with these broken branches now, and it’s okay, we don’t have to hide these things. We don’t have to put on our best face and our best clothes and make our children behave. We don’t have to suppress depression or mental illness or anger or divorce or any other thing that’s happening. That we really can be open about these things. In fact we can’t be the church unless we’re open about these things.

I don’t know that I have some big revolution in mind. I’m just not Rob Bell or anything. I think if the small number of people that might be interested in reading a book like this can just simply get a glimpse of the fact that God works with sinners, that God works with broken people, and if He doesn’t then He doesn’t have anybody to work with, then maybe there can be little smoldering revivals here and there.

Teddy: You keep talking along those lines and you share so personally throughout this book about your own experiences. Was there a moment or a few moments of that kind of revelation for you that really changed things?

Tom: I think not growing up in church was probably a huge part of the way I approach this. I think everything I preach and everything I teach and everything I write is in some way related to my family. You see it on the first page when I dedicate the book to my mom, and this is in hopes that all of your pain and all of your suffering might find redemption. There is this sense in which the entirety of my ministry and the entirety of the way I think about these things is grounded in the assumption that our stories have a redemptive arc and that God is working our stories, individually and collectively, to this resurrection kind of end. We may not see that. We may just see just a small part of it, just as these five women didn’t really see the full outcome of what God was going to do. I think for a long time, I’ve just had this back of my mind realization that this includes my family, that this big story of redemption includes my family, whether I see it or not. And it includes me, and it includes my brokenness, so let’s engage that stuff, let’s talk about it. So the book is probably really a natural overflow of how I preach then.

Teddy: Yeah, I can hear that, definitely. How did you choose these five women? How did you choose Advent? How did you choose the form of a bible study sort of book? How did all that happen?

Tom: Great question. First Abingdon approached me about it. They were looking for an Advent study and they asked me if I had anything I might be interested in writing about, and I knew immediately that I wanted to write about these five women. Pretty much everything about the book is Abingdon’s idea except for the subject and the actual writing. They chose the bible study, they wanted it to be Advent, they wanted it to have five chapters and an introduction, and so it was basically, “Hey, do you have an idea for five chapters and an introduction?” And I said, “Yeah. Let’s talk about the women in the genealogy of Jesus. Let’s really dig in here.”

And I knew immediately what I wanted to write about, because again, it just seemed natural to do it. Advent is a time where our brokenness ought to be acknowledged, our waiting, the fact that we recognize there is a redemptive arc, and so Jesus is coming, but he’s not here and we can’t see it, and we feel this desperation from our own brokenness. And I didn’t want to just talk about that abstractly. I didn’t want to just say, “Hey, we’re waiting for redemption.” I wanted to say, “Look, these are women who waited for redemption and didn’t necessarily even see it.”

And so, the waiting we feel, at least we have Jesus 2000 years ago. You and your situation right where you are and the imperfections of your family and your own soul, you may feel like this is not going to end, but there is a redemptive arc to this, and these women are the promise of that.

Teddy: Okay, I’m gonna ask the opposite of the easy question.

Tom: All right.

Teddy: Who should not read this? Who is this book not for?

Tom: Children.

Teddy: Okay. As in children to what age?

Tom: I would say leave that up to the parents…

Teddy: When are you going to let your daughter read it?

Tom: Yeah, my daughter is seven, she’s not going to read it until we’re properly ready for her to… There is sex in there, right? I mean that’s the thing. The bible is an adult book and it’s not always PG-13. Sometimes it is downright rated R or even worse in certain passages. I took on a few of those passages. I mean it’s not smutty, it’s not super overly graphic or anything but it deals with sex, it deals with rape, it deals with the way men use sex to hurt women. And those are pretty, I think in light of certain political things happening now, it’s pretty relevant, but it’s not necessarily the kind of thing I want my seven year-old to read. I would say, I would leave it up to parental discernment.

Then maybe people who are easily scandalized and don’t want to see these things in the Bible, they’re going to see it as unholy or something. I could say they should not read it, but at the end the day, I mean they may be the people who would benefit the most from seeing the scandal of the Bible.

Teddy: Yeah. Anything else you didn’t get a chance to say that you want to talk about here?

Tom: Yeah, what stood out to you? What was a chapter or a thing that really stood out to you, that you said, “This is interesting,” either an interesting approach or something you hadn’t thought about that way before?

Teddy: Right. I named the one that had stood out the most which really was, man the way you treated Rahab. I had never thought of that entire story that way, that these are unrighteous people coming to her and that she did the righteous thing in the middle of it, just turning all of that upside down. That was brilliant. I really appreciated that.

Tom: That whole thing about circumcision, it occurred to me, the king comes to her and he says, “Hey, have you seen these people?” He’s like, “How would she know they’re Israelites?” Well. She knows. Yeah and I think she is so compelling because she is the person they’re told to destroy. They come in and they’re going to use her body and then throw her away with the rest of the Canaanites, but she makes the greatest confession of faith in the entire book. To me that communicates, whatever unease we might feel with the Canaanites genocides, I think the writer of Joshua probably felt the same.

Teddy: Do you think that’s just one more piece of when Israel read that, do you think they just read that and were cut to the core, “What is wrong with us here?”

Tom: I would at least hope that there was enough cut to the core that they realized, “Hey, we’re not a whole lot better than the Canaanites here. But for the grace of God, we would be them.” What makes us holy is not that we’re more morally pure than the outsiders, it’s simply that God has said this is the community through which I’m going to reveal my son to the world. Sometimes we get it right and sometimes we get it wrong, and sometimes we act just like the Canaanites.

I think the thing that really probably stood out to me in studying this was the Bathsheba chapter. I had not really given a whole lot of consideration to her, whether she was seducing King David or whether she wasn’t but agreed, or whether she didn’t even have a voice. I think I was reading Brueggemann through that section, and he just talked how she didn’t have a voice, like she didn’t talk during the whole thing. And I thought, “This is what happens.”

This is the text’s subtle way of saying, not that she is seductive and initiates this, this is the text’s subtle way of saying she did not have a voice. Women did not have a voice. Even best case scenario, is she really going to be able to say no to the king? I mean, really? It really gave me a different look and I just love Nathan there. I just love what Nathan does and the way he… I think the difference between a… How do I want to say this? I want to say this very clearly but not in an inflammatory way. He illustrates what prophets do. We have preacher stories; he tells parables. We’re talking about this great golf shot we had or some cute little narrative. Don’t get me wrong, I love stories in sermons, but this guy comes with this full out story that is so subversive to the king’s power and challenges him on sealing of this ewe lamb. So I just love Nathan there, but I didn’t want to get distracted by that. I just wanted to keep focusing on Bathsheba there because she is the one who doesn’t have a voice, and I just kind of wanted to air her story.

Teddy: To focus on her in that story, it makes you realize how uncommon that is because she doesn’t speak.

Tom: Yeah.

Teddy: It’s easy to move to David and to Nathan because these are the principal actors. She can end up viewed almost just as an object, which I think is what you draw out.

Tom: Yeah and one of the commentators, if I remember correctly, I was actually looking at this recently. David is actually enacting what Samuel said the king was going to do. In Samuel 8, Samuel said, “Listen, the king is going to take and he is going to take and he is going to take.” And then what you see, you have all these take verbs in the David and Bathsheba story. So Samuel is not just talking about Saul, he’s talking about any monarch, that power is inherently un-self-critical and it takes. Amazing stuff.

Teddy: Yeah. All the way through it was. Your research is so evident in all of this. Really appreciate it.

Tom: Thanks.

Teddy: I think it does exactly what you said. The deeply researched, scholarly researched, but then you present it like a normal person, which I think you know has always been one of my big things is, talk to people like they’re normal people. Because otherwise it just gets lost in, “Oh, this is scandalous,” without painting that picture in the same way.

Tom: Yeah.

Teddy: Well, Tom thank you. Really appreciate this.

Tom: I appreciate it buddy.

Teddy: People can get this at Abingdon’s website. They can get it at Amazon.com. Anywhere else?

Tom: Those two will work.

Teddy: Okay, either of those. Underdogs and Outsiders, I would highly recommend it for anybody, whether you’re doing an Advent study or you grab it on your own. I ended up just reading it on my own and loved it for that. I can see where it would be a lot better if I were discussing it with a group. Go pick it up, enjoy it. Tom thanks again. Appreciate it.

Tom: Thanks.

Get Underdogs and Outsiders here. And see more of Tom’s work at his website.