While it is perhaps presumptuous of me to broach such an important topic, it is worth giving it a try. In particular, I want to address how certain groups read Jesus or perhaps misread Jesus. It seems that reading Jesus selectively is a trap we must all try to avoid.
Consider one classic example in history. Thomas Jefferson produced what is known as the Jefferson Bible. The third American President had a mixture of religious beliefs, but he was basically a Deist and a Unitarian. As such, he was quite impressed by the ethics of Jesus, but did not like his teachings or supernatural claims.
Thus the Jefferson Bible is basically the Four Gospels treated to a secular scissors. He simply snipped away any references to the deity of Christ, the supernatural and the miraculous. He was left with a motley collection of sayings and stories, but with a radically altered and dethroned Jesus.
Sometimes believers today can engage in similar sorts of scissors work. Sure, they do not go as far as Jefferson, but they can be quite selective in what is emphasised. Consider the so-called Red Letter Christians. These are believers who say we should especially concentrate on the red letter parts of Scripture. This refers to the way in which many bibles have the words of Jesus printed in red ink.
These believers are usually of the religious left, as well as from the Emerging Church movement. Indeed, the main advocates of this movement include Tony Campolo, Jim Wallis of Sojourners magazine, and Emerging Church guru Brian McLaren. Campolo claims this is a Christian political movement that wants to steer clear of left and right extremes, of the Democratic and Republican polarity.
Yet the fact that all the above believers – and most others associated with this movement – are clearly of the political left makes one suspicious. In fact, Campolo admits that he wanted to call his group ‘progressive evangelicals’ but thought that title would be objectionable to some. Well yes, because the term ‘progressive’ always refers to the left side of politics, and that indeed would too readily give the game away that this group in fact is pushing an agenda: a leftwing agenda.
So what does one make of this Red Letter Christianity? Of course Christianity is Christ, so he deserves preeminent position in all our thinking and reflection, but never at the expense of the totality of God’s revelation. Jesus is the living Word of God, and Scripture is the written Word of God. Both make up God’s word to us, and neither should be downplayed or minimised.
For example, if one wants to talk about the ethics of war and peace, or the use of force, and only – or mainly – relies on the red letter texts, then one would have less than a balanced or fully biblical position. The Sermon on the Mount for example would tend to lean toward pacifism and non-retaliation. However many would argue that Jesus there is teaching a personal ethic for individual believers, but this must be balanced with a social ethic which Paul for example develops in Romans 13.
To highlight the red letter texts to the exclusion of others will simply distort the entirety of God’s revelation to us, and leave us with a truncated and distorted message. The whole word of God is needed, not a scissored version of the gospels.
Sin, repentance and forgiveness
One major emphasis of the religious left and the red letter Christians is the idea that Jesus is a friend of sinners, that he does not come to judge anyone, and that the religious right especially is quite wrong to go on about things like abortion, pornography and homosexuality. Jesus accepted everyone with open arms, we are told, and thus we should too.
But is this the case? Even if we accept their emphasis of red letter-only texts, what do we find? We find a different picture than what some of these folk are trying to portray. They often claim, for example, that Jesus said little about sin and repentance. But is that so?
A quick check of the concordance will show that even in just the red letter bits, Jesus in fact did have a fair amount to say about these subjects. Just a few passages – of many – can be referred to here.
When Jesus began his ministry we are told in summary fashion what his message was: “From that time on Jesus began to preach, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near’” (Matt. 4:17). This reflects the message of both John the Baptist (Mark 1:4) and the Old Testament prophets. Also, Jesus compares himself with Jonah, the great preacher of repentance (Matt. 12:38-41).
Indeed, the goal of Jesus’ ministry is repentance. Matt. 11:20-24 makes this clear, as does Luke 24:47 when he tells his commissioned disciples what they should preach: “repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations”.
Even if the terms repent or repentance are not used too often in the Gospels, the concept is certainly there. The Greek word metanoeo means to turn away from. We are to turn away from sin and turn to God. The images Jesus uses makes this quite clear, even if the term is not used. Consider Matt 5:29-30; Matt 7:13-14; Mark 9:41-48 and other radical calls to discipleship. The powerful imagery makes plain the radical turnabout required of those who would be a disciple of Jesus.
Mark 8:34-37 is one such demanding call: “Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: ‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels’.”
Those are some pretty powerful red lettered-words. And of course Jesus spoke more about hell and eternal punishment than anyone else in the New Testament. Heaven is where sinners go who have been reconciled to God. Hell is where sinners go who refuse the reconciliation offered in Christ.
Moreover, we have much red letter material in the book of Revelation, something the religious left is not as keen to draw our attention to. There we have Jesus the Judge, coming back to planet earth to deal with unrepentant mankind and the sin so long indulged in. No meek and mild Jesus there. Instead he returns as a conquering king, to execute the righteous judgement of a holy God on a sin-soaked and rebellious people.
Yes Jesus was a friend of sinners, but it was a love of sinners seeking to set them free from their sin and be reunited with the Father through repentance and faith. It was not a wishy-washy, lukewarm love that allowed them to wallow in their sin and lost condition.
It does not matter what we are into, we are all sinners and all facing a lost eternity, unless we turn from our sin, repent, and receive the forgiveness offered in Christ. That is the Christian gospel. And that is decidedly not what seems to have been preached by the so-called 100 Revs at the recent Mardi Gras. By letting the homosexual activists off the hook concerning the sin question, these Revs were simply helping them stay on the path to a lost eternity without Christ.
We expect the secular world to whitewash the Biblical message and water down the gospel. But when people calling themselves believers do the same, then the rot has certainly set in the church big time.
Yes Jesus loves sinners. That is the good news. And we all need to hear it. But as he said in Luke 5:32, he came to call sinners to repentance, not the righteous. Until we first acknowledge our sin, our rebellion, our alienation from God – the bad news of the gospel – we cannot avail ourselves of the good news of the Gospel.
And for this we need the whole word of God. The story of creation and the story of the Fall of course both precede, and are not found in, the red letter bits. The whole package is needed if we are to understand aright the message and teachings of Jesus.