St Paul encouraged the Philippians, above everything else, to know Christ. Because knowing Christ is to know the Source of his resurrection and to learn the skills of uniting our suffering with his and to avoid loving the things of God yet becoming enemies of the cross.
For just over 2,000 years since, Christians have tried with all their hearts to remember the real Jesus, as we dwell in a world filled with competing perspectives, because our very life as Christians depends on us getting him relatively right.
If we have any hope of holding on to the treasure of our heritage, to the cross-shaped revelation of the living God, and to God’s powerful and unique mission (to reality and truth), we must keep our eyes fixed on the real Jesus, as best as we are able.
And yet, his followers who have been commissioned to remember him, seem ever on the verge of forgetting, repressing, disregarding, and misunderstanding him—and altogether missing his point.
We forget Jesus when we spend days or weeks at a time never thinking once about our Lord. We forget Jesus when we set our minds too hard on money or prestige, or pleasure. We forget Jesus when we mold him into the champion of whichever agenda we are driving. We forget Jesus in a thousand ways.
But we can and we must remember him by studying him: becoming devoted students of the gospels and their interconnections and of aware of his time and place. Also we must remember him by becoming devoted to a kind of prayer that brings us into his living presence. As we hold on to Jesus in study and prayer, we will find ourselves in touch with the very one who his disciples felt was grace and truth incarnate.
The gospels are the clearest windows we have to Jesus, and every disciple of his must become devoted students of the gospels.
These four gospels are finely-crafted portraits with divinity breathed into its very cracks. The closer we look, the better chance we have to discover the mind of Jesus, and then the further back we can stand––all the while holding the details in mind––the better chance we have of letting Jesus, the first-century Palestinian Jew, speak to us.
When we look close at the gospels we see how Jesus was willing and able to carry great emotional burdens while sharing his time and energy with people who needed his healing. We see a man not willing to be defined by others’ expectations of him, a man who cared deeply for the word of God spoken through the former Jewish prophets. We see a man deeply in love with his culture’s traditions and festivals and a man pressing back the foundations of human tradition he felt were devoid of God’s heart. We find a man speaking mysteriously but timelessly about life and wisdom, all the while able to shift the laws of physics at will. We see someone who understood himself on mission not just to heal hurting people but to rescue humans fundamentally from the deeper powers. He was someone who figured he had found a way to rescue the world out from death, and then leading the way through to the other side, he called his people to follow, however they must, on this path of selfless love. Every disciple must learn to read the gospels well at this deep level.
But we who are his students must also become amateur historians of the first century, so that we keep him tethered in his times and not force him into ours. When you step back as historian you begin to see––as one of the best interpreters of Jesus of our times NT Wright has suggested––that Jesus thought that God had asked him to announce God’s impending return as King––as God had promised (a fulfillment of a major thread of Jewish expectation). We see that Jesus also thought it was his job to show people what the rule of God would entail (healing, freedom, willful obedience and deep restoration). And Jesus saw himself as the one who would finally help humans live obediently and uprightly in God’s rule. Every disciple must learn to see Jesus as a man who was speaking firstly to his first-century times and originally in his Mediterranean places.
If the gospels help us see Jesus intimately and his history helps us see him properly, we must never forget that our Lord is living and active.
We must become in tune with the master’s living presence, learning to listen to what he wants to teach us. We learn to pray Jesus’s prayer, we listen to our life situations, we listen to our dreams, we harness our imaginations, we learn to interpret the still soft movements in our hearts, and we learn to quiet ourselves as Jesus ministers to our sometimes wounded hearts. And yet, to keep our views of Jesus taught with reality, we must regularly hold up our experiences to the image of Jesus in scripture and make sure they align. After all, the Jesus living and active today is the same first-century Palestinian Jew described by the gospels.
- The Gospel
- The First Century
If we want to be like stars shining in this world, we must devote ourselves regularly to the study of and encounter with Jesus.
We must pray and read and ponder and compare the gospels and think very carefully through the details of these four biographies, and read other first-century writings and read others who have studied Jewish history, and if at all possible we must put ourselves under the tutelage of mentors who have gone before us. This includes reading Paul’s letters and the letter to the Hebrews, the first two sets of especially inspired writings directed at knowing Jesus and his mind. And in our day and age, we must work hard to remember Jesus’s more difficult teachings on self-denial, human flourishing and the human heart, particularly his thoughts on money, sex, and power.
Christians who go a week or a month without actively trying to remember Jesus like this are in tremendous risk of distorting their view of the King we hope to follow. Studying Jesus like this, obsessing on him like this, is not just for bible scholar and pastors or the super religious. It is for everybody who claims to follow him and wants to avoid twisting Jesus and misaligning our lives.
With a little work, we can access Jesus’s mind, we can learn to discard human religious rules devoid of God’s heart, we can say no to other worldviews that want to explain God’s word simply as human perspectives, we can watch out for imposter versions of Jesus, and we can plant ourselves firmly by the only source of living water in this arid world.
And when we do, we can drink deep and find that Christ’s mind is now becoming our mind and that by remembering him, every corner of our heart begins to fill with life.