In the world’s history, there is no figure more influential and recognizable than Jesus of Nazareth. He is integrated into almost every major world religion (particularly Western religions), he has shaped many major philosophies, he has appeared in countless pop-culture references, and his birth even serves as the reference point for the entire system of modern calendar dating (Anno Domini or “Common Era,” either way, it’s Jesus’ birth). It is, perhaps, safe to say that no one is more “familiar” across the globe than Jesus.
With all of the popularity and familiarity Jesus has also come an ever-growing desire to contextualize his identity and purpose. In other words, people are regularly figuring out how to “use” Jesus in or “fit” Jesus into a particular sub-culture or agenda. I was listening to a podcast recently in which the host listed several of some of the different identities and contextualizations of Jesus that have been created. Some of the ones he mentioned, and a few others, include: “Macho Jesus” (using Jesus to show what a “manly” man is), “Hipster Jesus” (portraying Jesus as an easy-going, peace sign-flashing, skinny jean-wearer), “Urban Jesus” (associating Jesus with the plight of the marginalized and poor in urban and underdeveloped areas), “Superhero Jesus” (highlighting Jesus’ supernatural powers to attract children), and “Cowboy Jesus” (no elaboration necessary).
Of course, we can certainly say that Jesus embodies what it means to be a faithful man of God. He did perform supernatural miracles, and he also very much aligned himself with the plight of the poor and marginalized. However, when we try to mold Jesus into a particular image that serves a particular agenda of ours, we can quickly forget that Jesus was a flesh-and-blood historical figure whose words, deeds, and agenda are objectively recorded for us. We have become too quick to ask the question: “who is Jesus to me?” rather than simply asking, “who was (and is) Jesus really?” It is not our job to make Jesus into something or someone that serves a particular agenda or fits a particular narrative. It is our job to rightly declare who he actually is and what he actually came to Earth to accomplish.
Jesus himself understood the importance of accurately identifying who he truly was and what his primary purpose was. In Matthew 16, he asks his disciples, “Who do the people say that the Son of Man is?” His disciples answer, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” The “people” about which Jesus inquired were doing the same thing we so often do—they were fitting Jesus into their own cultural forms and personal expectations. Jesus follows up, asking, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answers, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” and Jesus immediately affirms his answer.
Jesus had a primary goal. He had an agenda more important to him than healing ailments, more important than shaping politics, more important than social justice, more important than anything else. He came, first and foremost to be, as John the Baptist rightly declares in John 1:29, “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” He came to serve as a substitution, on our behalf, to atone for our sins, reconciling us with God and restoring our hope in eternal life with him.
The gospel is not synonymous with “family values,” “social justice,” “environmental consciousness,” etc. The gospel—the good news that Jesus came to proclaim and, ultimately, accomplish—is that we have a great high priest who offers himself as the final sacrifice for our iniquity, so that we may be justified before God, able to enjoy his presence forever in his Kingdom. However, this is not to say that the life and ministry of Jesus does not inform how we approach other issues and aspects of life. It is because of the gospel that we consider how we think about and act towards endeavors such as loving our families well and pursuing justice for the marginalized. The gospel does not deter our attention away from other pursuits; but rather, it enforces our commitment and strengthens our work in accomplishing them. This relationship is perfectly embodied in the story of the paralytic man and his friends in Luke 5:
And behold, some men were bringing on a bed a man who was paralyzed, and they were seeking to bring him in and lay him before Jesus, (19) but finding no way to bring him in, because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and let him down with his bed through the tiles into the midst before Jesus. (20) And when he saw their faith, he said, “Man, your sins are forgiven you.” (21) And the scribes and the Pharisees began to question, saying, “Who is this who speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (22) When Jesus perceived their thoughts, he answered them, “Why do you question in your hearts? (23) Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? (24) But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the man who was paralyzed—“I say to you, rise, pick up your bed and go home.” (25) And immediately he rose up before them and picked up what he had been lying on and went home, glorifying God.
The man’s friends brought him to Jesus to be healed of paralysis, but he left being healed of something much more meaningful—something that would not only affect his legs but would affect his eternity. And yet, he still walked away with his legs healed. Jesus cared greatly about his pain and suffering on Earth, and he healed him of it. But, he cared far more about the pain and suffering that would come from an eternity separated from his Creator God.
Let us remember who Jesus truly was and what his primary agenda was. Let us care deeply for healthy family dynamics and societal injustices. Let us care for the creation God has given us to steward, and let us care profoundly for peace and provision across the globe. Let us do all of this and more through the lens of the true gospel message and the true mission of Jesus. We ought not to feel that we need to mold Jesus to our agenda or create a version of Jesus that fits our cultural expectations. He is “the Lamb of God, who comes to take away the sin of the world,” and it is because we are freed from the grip of sin and fear of death that we are empowered to reach out a caring hand, just like Jesus did, to love and to serve.