Please read this sentence, then close your eyes and recreate in your mind your old Sunday school picture of Jesus. There. He’s wearing an ankle-length, white robe; his hair is long and perfectly groomed. He’s sitting, surrounded by attentive children his soft hands extended inclusively toward them, actually touching them, a look of soft yearning on his lean, ascetic face. He is the personification of love – love at its most sentimental and marshmallowy level.
I’ve held onto that mental picture from my country-club Methodist Sunday-school for over half a century. This Christmas, as I unpack my Christmas decorations, I’m consciously putting away that old mental picture; I’m embarrassed to admit that it took me so long, for it has barred me from really getting to know the strength, the power, and the true love of my Savior. He is not that man in the picture.
I don’t mean that Christ isn’t loving, just that the sappy thing going on in that piece of art, and in most liberal churches, has nothing to do with the Christ of Scripture. Yes, Matthew records Him saying, “ Suffer the little children, and forbid them not, to come to me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven” (19:14). If you look at that passage carefully, however, it records nothing of a conversation with the children. He “lays hands on them” – He had been healing the multitudes and evidently took some time to heal the children as well. But Scripture records no conversation with them. That famous picture suggests a lovely little Sunday school scene – or perhaps the absence of context leaves a young mind free to imagine that into the painting. A little story telling, some candy passed around, lots of smiles and nods, but we somehow lose track of the fact that that statement is a rebuke to his disciples, unsoftened by preamble or much explanation. Theywere just trying to protect Him, but He doesn’t acknowledge that; He uses the opportunity to teach them, not the children.
Lately, our pastor, during our evening Bible classes, has been taking us through a comparative study of the gospels following the outline of Life of Christ from a Jewish Perspective by Arnold Fructenbaum. I’m finding there a very different Jesus – one I’d noticed before in the Temple money-changing tirades, but had discounted as flukes; those events were at such odds with my mind’s sweet Sunday-school picture. During over 40 years of intensive Bible study, I had vaguely noticed the direct, abrupt manner that Christ had with people, but I had chalked it all up as being “prophet talk,” just a manner of speaking, a sort of short-hand. No chit-chat is recorded, none of the niceties, no softening of reprimands, no pleasantries, no sweetness -- just tough love for His followers and a heavy, resigned distance with the Pharisees and the Sadducees.
Part of my mind had assumed that the gospel writers left out those socially sweet pieces, the “How’s the wife?” bits, like in any good novel, for the sake of brevity, which may be partially true, but the more we study, the more I realize that He had no time, in a sense no patience, for beating around the bush. He had no games to play.
Not once does He try to charm His enemies into loving Him. Not once does He fall into the traps they lay for Him. Not once does He rely on tact and politics. He just tells the truth. Even when He’s healing the sick, He doesn’t fawn over them; He just gives orders. “Go forth and tell no man,” (Matt 8:4) not, “Here, let me help you up. Do you need a ride?”
Even when He’s dealing with His disciples He doesn’t cushion things for them. The night they were caught for hours fighting a strong wind on the Sea of Galilee He could have gone with them, for no doubt He knew that storm was brewing. He could have, had He been operating on “Sweet Jesus” frequencies, calmed that wind from where He was praying on the eastern shore, way before it had exhausted and frightened them half to death. Instead, He waits until their boat is nearly swamped and then scares them even further by walking toward them across those dark, tossing seas.
Then He allows Peter, in his usual Petrine enthusiasm, to try walking with Him on the waves, knowing Peter will muff it and nearly drown. It isn’t until then that He gets into the boat and calms the wind. He wasn’t at all interested in keeping them comfy – He wanted them to learn. (Matthew 14:22-33)
I find that, though this accurate Jesus is thoroughly intimidating, He is more real, more believable, more dependable than the one in the pretty picture. What was that Jesus going to do when bad guys were really after me -- pat me on the head? No, this Jesus is tough enough to calmly tell the cold, open truth even when He knows they’ll kill Him for it – which brings up one last point: had He been that Sweet Jesus person in the painting, they never would have killed Him. They wouldn’t have felt they had to.
I have been, throughout this study, reminded of the discussion Lucy had with the beavers in C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Lucy asks Mr. Beaver about Aslan, the lion/Christ figure of Narnia. The beaver answers, “He’s not a tame lion…He’s not safe, but He’s good.”
As Christmas approaches this year, that is the Jesus I’ll be celebrating.