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Unwrapping Jesus, by Philip Yancey

To prepare for my talk, I went through the Gospels for guidance, only to be reminded how unpolitical Jesus was. Today, each time an election rolls around, Christians debate whether this or that candidate is “God’s man” for the White House. Projecting myself back into Jesus’ time, I had difficulty imagining him pondering whether Tiberius, Octavius, or Julius Caesar was “God’s man” for the empire.

I was also struck by what happens when Christians lose the culture wars. In Communist countries—Albania, the Soviet Union, China—the Christians’ worst nightmares came true. These governments forced the church to go underground. (A missionary in Afghanistan told me that after bulldozing the only Christian church in the country, the Afghans dug a huge hole underneath its foundation; they had heard rumors about an underground church!) In waves of persecution during the 1960s and 1970s, for instance, Chinese believers were fined, imprisoned, and tortured. Yet, despite this government oppression, a spiritual revival broke out that could well be the largest in the history of the church. As many as 50 million believers gave their allegiance to an invisible kingdom even as the visible kingdom made them suffer for it.

When my turn came to speak, I said that the man I follow, a Palestinian Jew from the first century, had also been in a culture war. He went up against a rigid religious establishment and a pagan empire. The two powers, often at odds, conspired together to eliminate him. His response? Not to fight, but to give his life for these his enemies, and to point to that gift as proof of his love. Among the last words he said before death were, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

After the panel, a television celebrity came up to me whose name every reader would recognize. “I’ve got to tell you, what you said stabbed me right in the heart,” he said. “I was prepared to dislike you because I dislike all right-wing Christians, and I assumed you were one. I don’t follow Jesus—I’m a Jew. But when you told about Jesus forgiving his enemies, I realized how far from that spirit I am. I fight my enemies, especially the right-wingers. I don’t forgive them. I have much to learn from the spirit of Jesus.”

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Jesus Was a Poor Salesman

Sometimes I wonder how Jesus would have fared in this day of mass media and high-tech ministry. I can’t picture him worrying about the details of running a large organization. I can’t see him letting some make-up artist improve his looks before a TV appearance. And I have a hard time imagining the fundraising letters Jesus might write.

Investigative reporters on television like to do exposés of evangelists who claim powers of supernatural healing with little evidence to back them up. In direct contrast, Jesus, who had manifest supernatural powers, tended to downplay them. Seven times in Mark’s gospel he told a healed person to, “Tell no one!” When crowds pressed around him, he fled to solitude, or rowed across a lake.

We sometimes use the term “savior complex” to describe an unhealthy obsession over solving others’ problems. Ironically, the true Savior seemed remarkably free of such a complex. He had no compulsion to convert the entire world in his lifetime or to cure people who were not ready to be cured.

I never sensed Jesus twisting a person’s arm. Rather, he stated the consequences of a choice, then threw the decision back to the other party. For example, he once answered a wealthy man’s question with uncompromising words, then let him walk away. Mark pointedly adds this comment about the man who rejected Jesus’ advice, “Jesus looked at him and loved him.”

In short, Jesus showed an incredible respect for human freedom. Those of us in ministry need the kind of “Savior complex” that Jesus demonstrated. As Elton Trueblood has observed, the major symbols of invitation that Jesus used had a severe, even offensive quality: the yoke of burden, the cup of suffering, the towel of servanthood. “Take up your cross and follow me,” he said, in the least manipulative invitation that has ever been given.

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Category: Biblical Studies, Fall 1998, Pneuma Review

About the Author: Philip Yancey is the award-winning author of over twenty books. You can learn more about him at his website, PhilipYancey.com.

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