Chapter 20: The Real Christ
20.1 Images Of Jesus
It becomes apparent from any reading of the Gospels that the Lord
Jesus sought (and seeks) to radically re-orient the thinking of
His followers to be centred around Him as a person. They are to
see Him as their leader, the one they follow, the light of their
world. All that they have seen and know of Him is to be the centre
of their lives and very consciousness as human beings. The only
foundation for spiritual life is the man Christ Jesus (1 Cor. 3:11).
To be like Him is to the aim of our lives to which all else is bent:
“Until we all reach...to the measure of the stature of the fullness
of Christ...to grow in every way into him which is the head, that
is, into Christ” (Eph. 4:12-16). The most essential error, practically
or doctrinally, is to “lose connection to the head [Jesus], from
whom the whole body, nourished and knit together...grows” (Col.
2:19). The Lord Himself taught that what Paul called 'growing up
into Him who is the head'. He commented that the end goal for His
disciples was that "every one [i.e. disciple, in the context]
when he is perfected shall be as his master", i.e. Himself
(Lk. 6:40). This was why Paul can speak of "Jesus who is our
hope" (1 Tim. 1:1), all we hope to ever become. Later, the
Lord spoke of following Him as being like a man ploughing by keeping
his eye constantly and unswervingly on an end point- and that point
is Him as a person (Lk. 9:61,62). The account of Peter starting
to drown exemplifies all this- when he took his gaze off the Lord
personally, in order to notice how the wind was so strongly blowing
some object [perhaps back on the boat], then his walk to Jesus started
to come to an end (Mt. 14:30).
In the parable of the sower, the seed is surely Jesus (Jn. 12:24)-
our eternal destiny is decided upon our response to Him and His
teaching. We are bidden believe in or into Jesus. Belief involves
the heart; it doesn't mean to merely give mental assent to some
propositions. It must in the end involve believing in a person,
with all the feelings and emotions this involves. We are married
unto the Lord Jesus, in order that we might bring forth fruit unto
God (Rom. 7:4). All spiritual fruit is therefore an offspring, an
outcome, of a living, daily relationship with the Lord Jesus. This
is how crucial it is to know Him. To believe in Him is described
by John as a ‘work’ that has to be laboured at- with even more effort
than that expended by the crowds who walked around the lake to get
to Jesus and the free bread He appeared to be offering (Jn. 6:27;
2 Jn. 8). It is this ‘labour’, this hard mental effort to know Him
and believe in Him, which will have a ‘full reward’ (2 Jn. 8). John
here is alluding to the LXX of Ruth 2:12, where a ‘full reward’
is given to Ruth for working hard all day gleaning in the fields.
It may be that this allusion was because “the elect lady” addressed
by John was in fact a proselyte widow, like Ruth. But the point
is, we have to labour, as much as one might work hard walking
around a lake or gleaning in the field, in order to know the Lord
The blind man asked about Jesus: “Who is he, that I may believe
on him?” (Jn. 9:36). True belief depends upon having the true image
of Jesus. The goal of conversion to Him is love from a pure heart
(1 Pet. 1:22). To know Him properly leads to love within us. 1 Jn.
3:22 brackets together believing in His Name and loving one another.
Again and again we say: images and understanding of Jesus matter.
As John Newton put it:
To try both your faith and your scheme:
You cannot be right in the rest
Unless you think rightly of him.
All this, then, throws up a question of fundamental importance:
Who then is Jesus? What is our image of Him as a person? Do we actually
know Him as a person? Or is He to us a mere piece of theology,
an idea in our brains, a black box that we call 'Jesus'
every time we pray... and not somebody whom we can say we know?
This question is crucial, utterly crucial. Perhaps the greatest
and easiest mistake in the Christian life is to think of Jesus as
a figure in a book, as someone who existed in history, and whose
work we recount in terms of academic statements about the atonement.
We can be so understandably concerned about finding the true interpretations
of the Bible, in a religious world so sadly mistaken in their views,
that we can actually forget the essence of what it means to be Christian
disciples- to be learners of Him, of this man, this more than man,
whom having not seen we love. Yet we can't truly love a person we
don't know. It concerns me, it really does worry me, that so many
of us seem to lack a sense of knowing the man Jesus as their personal
Lord and instructor. One wonders whether our hymns of praise to
Jesus are really appreciated by us for what they are and for
what they say. Indeed, it’s our very presumption of familiarity
with Jesus that is so often the basis of our unfamiliarity with
We are no longer under Moses' law; but under " the law of
Christ" . I cannot understand this as meaning that the 613
commands of Moses have been replaced by a set of laws given by Jesus.
For the antithesis between law and grace to which the New Testament
constantly draws our attention would then be meaningless. The law
of Christ surely means the law which is Christ; to be and speak
and think and do as He would do. This must be our law, a principle
far more comprehensive and intrusive into our lives than mere legalism.
'What would Jesus do?' is surely our law. To walk even as He walked
(1 Jn. 2:6), to do as He did (Jn. 13:15), love as He loved (Jn.
13:34; 15:12; Eph. 5:2), forgive as He forgave (Col. 3:13), have
the mind which was in Him (Phil. 2:5), give our lives for our brethren
as He did (1 Jn. 3:16). Gal. 6:2 defines fulfilling the law of Christ
as 'bearing one another's burdens'. He bore the burden of our sin
on the cross. The essential law of Christ, the law of being like
Christ, is to likewise play our part in leading others towards the
forgiveness of their sins. This is why preaching to others in whatever
form is such a basic and necessary part of our response to His bearing
of our sins on the cross. But if ‘What would Jesus do?’ is
the golden rule of the Christian life, this of course assumes that
we have a clear understanding of Jesus, and what He would do! To
be able to live according to the ‘What would Jesus do?’ rule, we
need to know Him, and know Him in a way which means we have a clear
picture of how He would live in our current human situation.
The New Testament speaks in challenging terms of how real is to
be our relationship with the Lord Jesus. The Lord’s enigmatic words
of Jn. 16:16 indicate just how close the Comforter was
to make Him come to His people once He was in Heaven: “Yet a little
while, and ye shall not see me: and again, a little while, and ye
shall see me, because I go to the Father”. I suggest that the “little
while” in each clause is one and the same. In “a little while” they
would not see Him physically, but exactly because He would be with
the Father, He would send the Comforter, and enable His people to
‘see’ Him in the sense that John usually speaks of in his Gospel.
This ‘seeing’ of Jesus, this perception of Him, is effectively a
‘seeing’ of the Father. 2 Cor. 3 speaks of our beholding the glory
of the Lord Jesus in a mirror; and this process slowly transforms
us into that same image of Him which we see. The “glory” of God
was revealed to Moses at Sinai in Ex. 34 as the declaration of His
character. In this sense, the Lord Jesus could speak of having in
His mortal life “that glory which was with [the Father]” when the
[Jewish] world came into existence at Sinai (Jn. 17:5 Ethiopic and
Western Text). It was that same glory which, like Moses, He reflected
to men. But according to 2 Cor. 3:18, the very experience of gazing
upon the glory of His character will change us into a reflection
of it. There is something transforming about the very personality
of Jesus. And perhaps this is why we have such a psychological barrier
to thinking about Him deeply. We know that it has the power to transform
and intrude into our innermost darkness. I have given reason elsewhere
for believing that the Gospel records are in fact transcripts of
the Gospel message preached by the four evangelists. The 'Gospel
according to Matthew' is therefore the Gospel message which he usually
preached. And it's significant that at least three of them start
and end where many of us would- starting with the promises to the
Jewish fathers, and concluding with an appeal for baptism. Actually
John's Gospel does this too, if you decode the language he uses.
This is surely the explanation of the Lord's otherwise strange remark
that wherever the Gospel is preached, the anointing of His feet
by Mary would be part of that message. And this is one of the few
incidents that all four Gospel writers each mention. What this shows
is that the Gospel message is in its quintessence, the account of
the man Christ Jesus- with all that involves. It has truly been
commented that " the central message of the gospels is not
the teaching of Jesus but Jesus himself" . This is true insofar
as Jesus is the word made flesh.
Images of Jesus matter. He will say to many in the last day that
He has never known them, for they never knew Him- for all their
pure doctrine and good works. Life eternal is about knowing God
and Jesus (Jn. 17:3)- and the Greek word here doesn't mean to merely
know in an academic sense, but to know intimately and personally.
Only if we really see / perceive the Son will we be saved;
" ye have seen me and yet believe not" the Lord told the
Jews, warning them that only those who see the Son and
believe in Him will have eternal life (Jn. 6:36, 40). If we really
know the Son then we will likewise know His love and sacrifice is
enough to truly grant us the life eternal. If we truly see the Son
and believe in Him, then we will know that we (will have) eternal
life- because His grace, His love, His desire to save will be so
clearly evident to us through the study and knowledge of His personality.
If we know Him, we will be sure of our salvation. Knowing Him, coming
to know Him, is this important. We will be humbly confident that
in the very, final end- we will be there. There is therefore the
factual, doctrinal 'knowledge' or 'seeing' which by grace has been
granted us. But beyond that there is the true seeing and believing
into the Man Jesus, with the definite Hope which that brings. If
we truly know Him we will count literally all else as loss
1 Jn. 3:14 states that “We know that we have passed from death
unto life, because we love the brethren”. But this is John taking
his converts further in appreciating something he had earlier preached
to them in his Gospel: “He that heareth my word, and believeth him
that sent me, hath eternal life, and cometh not into judgment, but
hath passed out of death into life” (Jn. 5:24). To hear the word
of Christ and believe the Gospel of God must issue, if
it is valid and credible, in something practical- loving our brethren.
It is only John who records the Lord speaking of “my word” [logos].
To hear Christ’s word or logos is not merely to believe
that the Bible was written by Divine inspiration, or to intellectually
assent to doctrinal truth; it is to discern Him, to know
Him as a person in truth [which will involve correct doctrinal perception,
of course]. And this simply has to lead to loving the brethren.
This is the real result of knowing Christ.
I am convinced from talking to people that for many, their childhood
image of Jesus remains intact into adulthood. If you were raised
thinking of Him as a pale faced man with a halo round His head,
effectively non-human, this tends to continue. Yet because Christianity
is based around the man Christ Jesus, this means that ones image
of Christian life will reflect their image of Jesus. Dietrich Bonhoeffer
truly wrote that " Christianity without the living Christ is
inevitably Christianity without discipleship" (1).
Albert Schweitzer in The Quest of the Historical Jesus
(2) shows how most students of Jesus Christ had simply worked through
the New Testament evidence to find support for the picture of Jesus
which they already had in their subconscious. And we can do the
same, even if we may not consider ourselves scholars. Reading the
pages of the New Testament should reveal to us the real Christ who
confronts and challenges us, whether or not we are comfortable with
what we see and hear from Him there. Indeed, we could say that we
have to rescue Christ from Christianity And actually we have to
rescue [if I may use the term in this context] the true understanding
of God Himself from religion / theology as a whole. Bonhoeffer had
this in mind when he spoke of “the startling paradox of a
non-religious understanding of God”(3). That’s a phrase
I can go with. That Bonhoeffer came to that conclusion as he awaited
his death in a Nazi prison, with all the clarity of thinking which
impending death brings with it… is to me significant. To teach
and preach that is not to preach atheism, nor even an end to ‘theism’.
In plainer terms, it means to preach God as He is, without all the
trappings of mere religion, even if those trappings have been created
by men who believed in God. Images of Jesus matter in the same way
as images of God matter. In my few discussions with pure atheists
which have got to grips with the real issues, it’s become
apparent to me that the God they are so passionately tilting against,
the God they say they can no way accept as real… is in fact
an image of God which they hold in their minds. The true image of
God, like the true image of Jesus, encourages faith rather than
Any biographer tends to interpret the great person of whom they
write through the lens of their own personality; in a way, they
create another person who is related to their own image and worldview.
Yet if we read the Gospels properly, we are confronted there by
the real Christ. We are asked to study His character, indeed to
make this the most vital pursuit of our lives. But in seeking to
reconstruct His personality, we are to allow Him as He was and as
He is to be accepted by us just as He is, and not re-interpreted
by us to make Him somehow more convenient or palatable or easier
Of course we need a correct image of Jesus if we are to follow
Him. He, Himself, is the way in which we are to walk. When we read
of being and acting and thinking " in Christ"
, this surely refers to our way of life being based around Him as
a person, reflecting His image into our own. The believer works
and rejoices " in Christ" , speaks and admonishes in Him,
shows hospitality in Him, marries in Him, is a slave in Him... We
can only do these things in Him if we have an image of who He is.
And my concern is that some of us admit to having a very hazy image
of Him; or, in fact, hardly having one at all. God forbid that we
should have merely accepted certain doctrinal principles and been
baptized as mere members of a church. We must know Christ.
If there was no meaning in the words used about Jesus in our formative
years, our later Christianity can likewise be empty and void. For
example, I think I knew Jesus was " born of the virgin Mary"
well before I knew what a virgin was. And this empty image of Jesus
as a mere 'Heavenly' idea that can't be practically related to can
continue all our lives, unless we truly know and meet Him for ourselves.
All I can do is to present to you my own understanding of the person
of Jesus; and invite you to contribute or at least develop your
John writes that he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God will
be thus empowered to overcome the world (1 Jn. 5:5). It’s unusual
for the Lord of glory to be referred to merely as “Jesus” by the
apostles. Perhaps what John is saying is that if we perceive how
the real, human Jesus, the man from Nazareth, was so much more than
that, He was Son of God- we too will find strength from the fact
of His humanity to overcome the world. Thus later John writes that
to confess Jesus Christ as having come in the flesh, to acknowledge
His true humanity, is related to walking after His commandments
(2 Jn. 6,7). And this perhaps is why John can say that it is a sin,
a “transgression”, to abide not in the doctrine of a human Jesus
(2 Jn. 9). Why should it be ‘sinful’ to hold a theological misunderstanding?
Surely God cannot hold people morally culpable for genuine misinterpretation?
Perhaps the answer lies in looking at it from a different angle.
The purpose of doctrine is to elicit a Godly way of life. To refuse
to believe in the real, human Jesus is actually a way of justifying
our wrong behaviour, of hiding away from the challenge that His
humanity is to us as His fellow human beings- to transform
our personalities after the pattern of His. To believe the doctrine
of a human Jesus who was nonetheless God manifest in human flesh
empowers us not to sin; through this real and human Christ we have
forgiveness and inspiration in the life that is in Him. This is
why doctrine about Him matters- because if believed properly, it
empowers a Christ-like life. This perspective helps us likewise
understand what is fundamental doctrine, and what isn’t. Any idea
or theory or interpretation that doesn’t have the potential to change
our lives in practice just… isn’t worth arguing about.
Real prayer and Bible study as God intends- exciting, life-changing
prayer and Bible reading- must surely be rooted in a correct image
of Jesus Himself. Even as non-trinitarians, we have so often muted
the stark challenge of the real, genuinely human Jesus. We have
done this by abstracting Jesus into theological terms which obscure
the exciting, compelling human being which Jesus was. If we aren't
careful, we end up doing in essence what the Catholics and Orthodox
churches have done by reducing this awesome Man to a mere stained-glass
figure. Caught up as we inevitably are in this world, in careers,
child care and worldly worries, we must think afresh through the
issues of what allegiance to this Man mean in practice. The substance
and structure of our lives, and indeed of the whole world around
us, need to be thought through in the light of the unique achievement
of the man Jesus. And we must then go on to be for this world what
Jesus was for the Israel of His day. So to search for a reconstruction
in our own hearts and minds of who Jesus was is a solemn, non- negotiable
duty for each true believer. Some degree of recovery of the personality
of Jesus of Nazareth is not beyond the reach of any serious believer.
And only in this way will we find the power to be renewed in our
personal discipleship, and our community to be renewed in its sense
of mission in this world. Indeed, our view of God depends totally
upon our understanding of Jesus- for He has revealed the invisible
God, not only to those who met Him, but to those who read and learn
of Him through the inspired records of Him (Jn. 1:18).
Images of Jesus matter because the believer consciously seeks to
mould his or her personality into the image of Jesus which they
have. Who He is and was becomes vital in deciding who we
become. We are changed into that same image, from glory to glory,
by the Lord the Spirit. And psychological analysis of Christians
by L.J. Francis and J. Astley has concluded that they “shape
a self-concept that corresponds… to some extent and in some sense
to his or her image of Jesus” (4).
They interviewed 473 secondary school students, 317 older students
and 398 adult churchgoers in the UK using the “Revised Eysenck Personality
Questionnaire” and concluded that their data “exhibit significant
correlations between the respondents’ personality and their images
An Eye For Jesus
The Lord Jesus likens Himself to a candle that has been lit and
displayed publicly, giving light to us. He then continues that imagery
in some rather difficult words. He says that in our lives, the eye
is "the light of the body"- a good eye lets light and
vision in, thus totally and fundamentally affecting how we are inside
us, as persons. But if the eye is faulty, then there is darkness
within. But when the eye is good and functioning, the whole person
is "full of light, as when the bright shining of a candle gives
you light" (Lk. 11:33-36). But earlier, He's defined Himself
as the candle which gives light. He seems to be saying that our
"eye", our perception of Him, is vital. And this is exactly
the context of this passage- He's been lamenting how Israel haven't
perceived Him for who He is. If we perceive Him rightly, if our
"eye" is good, then our whole body will be filled with
the light which comes from Him. But it all depends upon our image
/ perception of / eye for Jesus. Hence the vital and ultimate importance
of understanding and perceiving Him correctly. The subject we're
now studying actually couldn't be more important; for the correct
perception of Him will fill our whole lives with light, totally
affect our internal world-views, granting us an ability to understand
and make sense of all around us and within us in the light of the
person of Jesus. And if we don't perceive Him aright, our inner
lives will be dark and formless, whatever external trappings of
culture and knowledge we may have.
And so I have sought to show that images of Jesus matter. We each
have a solemn duty to reconstruct our own personal image of the
Lord, based on Scripture. On one hand, the details don't matter.
If you imagine Him with a long beard, well it doesn't ultimately
matter if this wasn't how He was. But we need to have an imagination,
an imaging, of how He essentially was in thinking and behaviour
in situations so that we can seek to replicate that image. It is
clear enough that the four Gospel writers, under inspiration, were
each struck by different aspects of this incredible man. Thus Luke
pays more attention that the others to the prayers of Jesus; this
is what struck him so deeply. John makes little mention of the phrase
" Gospel of the Kingdom" - unlike Matthew. And this, perhaps,
is how the body of Christ as a whole potentially has the complete
vision of Him- for we each see different aspects of Him. Comparing
the Gospel records, it is apparent that different people saw different
things in Jesus. According to Mark's record, Jesus never openly
proclaimed His identity; whereas John shows how in fact Jesus did
so very clearly. John proclaims Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, whereas
Mark almost implies that His Messiahship was some sort of secret
throughout the ministry. And so it will be with us- my perception
of Jesus may not quite be yours. Indeed, this is the very unique
thing about Jesus- that He is the very personal Lord and representative
of each of His followers, uniquely able to relate to them in an
(1) Dietrich Bonhoeffer,
The Cost Of Discipleship (London: S.C.M., 1964 ed.), p.
(2) Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical
Jesus (London: A. and C. Black, 1910).
(3) Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters And Papers
From Prison (London: Macmillan, 1953) p. 124.
(4) L.J. Francis and J. Astley,
‘The Quest for the Psychological Jesus: Influences of Personality
on Images of Jesus’, Journal of Psychology and Christianity
Vol. 16 No. 3 (1997) p. 248.