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The Four Faces of Jesus

The portrait the New Testament paints of Jesus is complex, even paradoxical at times. Jesus in the four gospels can be both harsh and gentle, this-worldly and other-worldly, plain-spoken and cryptic, practical and idealistic, all-embracing and exclusivist.

What is interesting about this portrait is that the contradictory elements of Jesus’ ministry and teaching can be handled in various ways: 1) They can be accepted and reconciled, as Christianity traditionally has done; 2) They can be questioned and deconstructed, as many speculative critics have done, and 3) They can be selectively highlighted or ignored, as commentators with a particular agenda have done. In short, the outwardly simple yet actually complicated portrait of Jesus in the New Testament is quite evocative and lends itself to multiple interpretations by a host of theological spin doctors.

It seems to me that Jesus has basically four faces in the New Testament: Jesus as Humanitarian, Jesus as Savior, Jesus as Lord, and Jesus as Judge. Gentle Jesus falls into the first two categories whereas as tough Jesus characterizes the last two. The emphasis you choose to put on the various categories will determine not only your attitude toward Jesus but your view of Christianity’s ultimate meaning as well.

Jesus as Humanitarian

In Acts 10:38, Peter is credited with summarizing Jesus’ ministry as follows: “He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.” This is Jesus the do-gooder—a person who feeds the hungry, heals the sick, causes the blind to see, and even raises the dead.

This Jesus is a humanitarian not only because of his good deeds but because of his irenic spirit. He counsels us to love our enemies, to turn the other cheek, to forgive others endlessly. This Jesus cares about the poor and downtrodden. He is kind and compassionate. He calls for deep introspection and says that mercy should triumph over justice by reason of the fact that all of us have failings. “Let him who is without sin . . . be the first to throw a stone” (John 8:7). He challenges us to do unto others as we would do unto him (Matthew 25:31-46).

This is the sweet Jesus who can say, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).

Among those who favor Jesus the Humanitarian are Thomas Jefferson, Mohandas Gandhi, Albert Schweitzer, and, more recently, John Howard Yoder.

Jesus as Savior

Jesus describes his own ministry as “to seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10). He said this to and about Zacchaeus, a wealthy man, so he was clearly referring to the spiritually lost rather than the socio-economically lost. Matthew 9:11-13 refers to “tax collectors and sinners” as the people Jesus came to heal of their spiritual infirmities.

A humanitarian might spin this by saying that Jesus is only figuratively “saving” those who exploit the poor by convicting them of their greed and inhumanity, thereby putting them back on the humanitarian highway. But in the total context of the New Testament, something more seems to be at stake. The name “Jesus” means “God is salvation,” and the angel in Matthew’s gospel says to Joseph, “You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). Likewise, Peter says in Acts 5:31, “God exalted [Jesus] as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.” To forgive sins in the generic sense used here and elsewhere means far more than simply to prick someone’s conscience or call someone to a higher standard.

The apostle Paul, a contemporary of Jesus, gives the most eloquent descriptions of Jesus as Savior. “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them” (2 Corinthians 5:19). Or again, “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ” (Ephesians 2:4-5). The other writers of the New Testament uniformly agree with Paul as well as with John the Baptizer who is reported to have said, upon first seeing Jesus, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).

Saving people from their sins is a positive characteristic, even if it carries more religious and metaphysical baggage than pure altruism. But Jesus as Savior, although comforting, can be arbitrary. It is this Jesus who proclaims, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).

Among those who stress Jesus as Savior are Billy Graham, Pope Benedict XVI, and basically the entire Christian establishment.

Jesus as Lord

While you might admire Jesus as a model humanitarian or appreciate his self-sacrifice on behalf of your sins, it is quite another thing to make him your Lord and Master. Yet, tough Jesus demands first place in the lives of his followers. He says quite plainly, “”If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father or mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciples” (Luke 14:26). Shortly afterward, he continues, “So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:33).

The shocking force of these words has led to the distinction between clergy and laity in the Catholic Church. The priests, nuns, and monks who pledge to sacrifice their worldly possessions, ambitions, personal pride, and sexual relationships epitomize a commitment to make Jesus the sole ruler of their lives. The Catholic clergy basically is charged with modeling “literal” Christianity and bearing the load for the less-committed laity (although even the clergy is seldom required to renounce everything).

Of course, the New Testament does not make any clear distinction between clergy and laity. It calls all Christians to submit strictly to the teachings of Jesus. As Peter said at Pentecost, “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36). Paul says similarly, “For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living” (Romans 14:9). In other words, Jesus is the Lord of every living Christian.

What exactly the lordship of Jesus means for the average Christian remains somewhat unclear. Traditionally, it means leading an increasingly holy and blameless life, making a concerted effort not to bring the name of Christ into disrepute. For missionaries, it means giving up the comforts of the United States for the sake of taking Jesus’ message to foreign lands. For Christian activists within and without the USA, it means making the personal sacrifices necessary to challenge the system and bring about a greater measure of justice in the world.

Among those who have emphasized Jesus as Lord are Saint Francis of Assisi, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Mother Teresa, and, more recently, Shane Claiborne (see Jesus for President, 2008).

Jesus as Judge

While Jesus is famous for saying “Judge not, that you be not judged” (Matthew 7:1), he himself is commonly portrayed in the New Testament as the supreme judge of all humanity. Speaking of himself, Jesus says, “For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done” (Matthew 16:27).

This theme of Jesus presiding over the Day of Judgment appears often in the New Testament (Acts 10:42; 2 Timothy 4:1; 1 Peter 4:5). The apostle Paul says, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Corinthians 5:10). Elsewhere, Paul’s language becomes even more vivid as he describes “the Lord Jesus. . . revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” (2 Thessalonians 1:7-8). Revelation 2:23 has Jesus saying, “I am he who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you as your works deserve.”

Theoretically, those who accept Jesus as Savior and Lord have nothing to fear from Jesus as Judge. Nevertheless, the question of who will actually be among the saved and who among the damned remains an open (if commonly avoided in polite conversation) question. Tough Jesus is no fool. He knows who has been faithful to his teaching and who has not. And he will judge.

Among those who have presented Jesus as Judge are Jonathan Edwards, Ray Comfort, and many a street preacher.

So What?

The four faces of Jesus explain much of what passes for “Christian” behavior. Those who hold up Jesus as Judge are sometimes tempted to play the role of his executioner—all the while forgetting the admonitions of Jesus the Humanitarian to be humble peacemakers. Those who model Jesus the Humanitarian appear tempted to believe they can create heaven on earth. In my view, their reluctance to acknowledge the essential sinfulness of humanity and the impossibility of a perfect (or even semi-perfect) world makes their efforts quixotic. In the final analysis, people need a savior more than a social worker. People must change from the inside before they can hope to change their outward condition.

Those who play at religion without accepting Jesus as Lord tend to practice a domesticated Christianity whose significance hardly rises above that of the Kiwanis Club. Their un-Christ-like behavior leads to accusations of hypocrisy and ultimately gives Christianity a bad name. On the other hand, those who renounce everything to serve God and others are dismissed as radicals pushing a model impossible for everyone to follow. Even to accept Jesus just as Savior lays one open to the accusation of seeking “pie in the sky in the sweet by and by” without giving a hoot about what happens in the here and now.

So where does the golden Christian mean lie? Is it really feasible to be the kind of disciple Jesus called his followers to be? This tension between the demands of Jesus and the realities of living is what gives Jesus his eternal edginess and what makes him both appealing and enigmatic to generation after generation. In its youthful idealism, each generation thinks it can somehow solve the problem of how to bring peace on earth, goodwill to men.

When I was a teenager, I read the gospels carefully and wrestled with their implementation. I registered for the draft as a conscientious objector. I tried to live a simple, non-materialistic life. I agonized over whether it was wise to give panhandlers the change in my pocket since Jesus had said, “Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you” (Matthew 5:42). I memorized the Sermon on the Mount. I tried to live a pure life and abstained from alcohol, drugs, pornography, and sex before marriage. I contemplated how, with my talents, I could best serve the cause of Christ.

Over the years, however, I have concluded that despite all I have tried to do or be, I am still a most unworthy servant who falls far short of the ideals Jesus set. I am still selfish, to a noticeable degree, with my time, money, and talents. I have yet to give it all away to others in need (see Matthew 19:21). I still get angry at those who do me or others wrong, even if I do not retaliate. I forgive only in part. I still invite my friends to dinner instead of lame, halt, and blind (see Luke 14:13-14). I do good, but I do it moderately. I am critical of the sins of others and wish they would be as responsible as I am (see Luke 18:9-14).

As an inveterate sinner in heart if not always in deed, I am aware of my need for the grace of God, the continual pardon of my sins and shortcomings. While I try not to abuse the grace of God, I feel completely lost without it (and often even with it because I fall so short of Jesus’ standards). As Christians, we walk a tightrope between self-righteousness and self-loathing. Ultimately, in despair of measuring up, we throw ourselves upon the mercy of God.

In an earlier post, I gave my philosophy of life. I still have no better answers for how to live. In my mind, I see the four faces of Jesus, some smiling at me in kindness, some sad with disapproval. The greatness of the Bible, in my opinion, is that it forces us all not to think more highly of ourselves than we ought but to think soberly “according to the measure of faith that God has assigned” (Romans 12:3).


This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on October 20, 2009 12:38 PM.

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