On Reading Jesus

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.

[1446 words]

22 Replies to “On Reading Jesus”

  1. Philip Yancey and Steve Chalk of Faithworks appear to be in the same camp as Tony Campolo. I once heard, some years ago, a sermon given by Steve in which he said non-Christians accuse us of being kill-joys and anti-life. By way of an example they say that the Ten Commandments are all about “Don’t do this and don’t do that!” – all very negative stuff. Steve Chalk then went on to correct the objections. According to him the message of the Ten Commandments is God simply telling us not to do this or that out of a concern that we will hurt ourselves; if we engage in adultery, lying, coveting and murder we will only damage ourselves. At the time I was taken in with this user-friendly message but, in the light of subsequent and stronger revisionist statements made him and others, I now see that this totally misses the point. Yes sin does have practical consequences , but the reason we should not sin is because God is Holy. “ I am holy therefore be ye holy.” The truth of the matter is that becoming holy may well lead us into danger and death, but the only real danger is to fall into the hands of the living God. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” (Psalm 111:10)

    Also in Chapter 12 of Ecclesiastes, a book that describes our day perfectly, it finishes with this:
    The words of the wise are like goads, their collected sayings like firmly embedded nails — given by one Shepherd. Be warned, my son, of anything in addition to them. Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body. Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.

    David Skinner, UK

  2. Thanks Alister

    Let me give others some background. What you offer is not a link to a webpage to be viewed, but a link to an audio sermon to be downloaded. Its a 14 MB download that takes about 10 or 15 minutes. It is an 83 minute audio talk on the emerging church. It is a very good look at how the movement, in its more extreme proponents (eg., McLaren, Bell and Pagitt), is biblically and theologically quite worrying, even heretical. Well worth downloading and listening to.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  3. Thanks for the article, I completely agree. We can not dissect or take the Bible piecemeal, it is a whole. ALL Scripture was given by inspiration, not just the red letters.
    Steve Blackwell

  4. Gotta love the Driscoll! (And since when is Driscoll ever not in full flight, anyway?)

    Bill – all too often it’s we ‘christians’ who do more harm to the Good News than not. To paraphrase Ghandi – ‘I like their Christ, but not their Christians’. We as Christians have a lot to answer for in general and it is very important that we all have a well-grounded, biblical faith as a foundation and allow ourselves also to be filled with the regenerative life that is only offered via the Holy Spirit. Too often our churches have either one aspect or the other – neither by itself bears any good fruit. And the name of Jesus is blasphemed because of us as a result.

    Mathew Hamilton

  5. Matthew, I think there are two sides to the Ghandi quote.

    The one most often reported, and we usually acknowledge – is that Christians can be embarrassing to the witness of the Gospel (of course, Jesus did give the world permission to judge us by our love for one another).

    However, on the other side of the coin is an inability of Ghandi, and those who like to quote him, to accept people as being imperfect in this life – usually reflected in the bumper sticker “Christians: not perfect, just forgiven!” or the charge that the church is full of hypocrites. We don’t need to retort “Yes, but I know I am!”

    We (and everybody) need to have a sober judgement of ourselves as the NT encourages in a number of places.

    John Angelico

  6. The Bible should in no ways be dissected in fact we are told to remove not even the smallest “jot or tittle.’
    Many Christians though are so focussed on criticism that they forget the greatest commandment “to love one another.”
    We are called to hate and condemn the sin but to love the sinner.
    I have been to conferences where Tony Campolo was the main speaker.
    Unfortunately I found him to be of great bias in that he was so involved in condemning those that were trying to be of help , claiming that they were not doing enough and really championing the side of those that were needy.
    I belong to a group that supported a number of overseas people in establishing small businesses.
    The group supplied funding to Islamic countries.
    Imagine our surprise when the response we were given was, “Praise Allah, even the Christians are made to support us.”
    Jim Sturla

  7. B. Hussein Obama is another who pretends to be a Christian, but spouts nonsense about how the only thing that matters is the Sermon on the Mount, not some “obscure passage in Romans” that clearly teaches against homosexual behaviour. But what to expect from a member of a church whose minister is a buddy of antisemite Louis Farrakhan.
    Jonathan Sarfati, Brisbane

  8. I can think of quite a few red letters that deify Christ. His oft used title for Himself “Son of Man’ points straight to Daniel 7 and the prophecy of one who is given power by the Ancient of Days to rule this earth in righeousness after defeating all those that would rise up in pride (little horn) against God’s plans and purpose.
    Stephen White

  9. Thanks Stephen

    Certainly in the words of Christ we find his messianic self-awareness and acknowledgment of deity, as we do in the rest of the New Testament, where it is more fully amplified and detailed. Which is why we need the whole word of God, not just parts of it.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  10. Thank you Bill for this highly engaging article, and I agree that the focus of the Red Letter Christians would, by their act of even focusing on ‘bits’ of the Bible, miss the ‘whole’ point of the Bible.

    However, I do have one huge problem with what you’ve just written. Dare I be bold enough to say that you are being a hypocrite in attacking fellow brothers and sisters in Christ?

    I myself do not agree with the Red Letter Christian’s way of reading the Bible. However the Bible, which should be focused on in its entirety, says that we as followers of Christ should have unity, and should encourage one another with words of love and graciousness. Surely you did not miss this part of Ephesians?

    I do encourage you to rethink the way you deliver your attacks upon fellow believers. Surely these Red Letter Christians are bringing people to Christ, and while some may be slightly deluded after joining such churches, maybe its up to us, who know better to give them a helping hand to know the character of God more!

    Unfortunately for you Mr Muehlenberg, Matthew 7:1-5 may be appropriate reading tonight.

    Brian Chu, Victoria

  11. Jesus did NOT support “red letter Christianity”. He affirmed that Scripture cannot be broken (John 10:35), that disbelief in Moses’ words would be like disbelieving His own. Since Moses was the editor of Genesis, it should surprise no one that these “red letter” people deny Genesis as history and believe in long ages and evolution.

    Indeed, Jesus affirmed many of the biblical teachings that skeptics most love to mock:

    • Matthew 19:3–6, Mark 10:5–9—God created Adam and Eve as the first man and woman, and this was the basis for marriage
    • Luke 11:51—Abel was a real individual
    • Matthew 24:37–39—Noah and the Flood (Luke 17:26, 27)
    • John 8:56–58—Abraham
    • Matthew 10:15; 11:23, 24 (Luke 10:12)—Sodom and Gomorrah
    • Luke 17:28–32—Lot (and wife!)
    • Matthew 8:11—Isaac and Jacob (Luke 13:28)
    • John 6:31, 49, 58—Manna from heaven
    • John 3:14—Serpent
    • Matthew 12:39–41—Jonah and the great sea creature (vs. 42—Queen of Sheba)
    • Matthew 24:15—Daniel and Isaiah

    Jonathan Sarfati, Brisbane

  12. Thanks Brian

    But I respectfully must disagree with you here, on at least four counts. One, I fail to see how I am being a hypocrite in all this.

    Two, according to your way of thinking, Paul and the other New Testament writers were quite wrong to do what they did. For example, Paul challenges Peter to the face; he says if anyone preaches a false doctrine, they should be accursed, etc. His letters are full of correction, rebuke and chastisement of other believers when they go astray. He saw it as his Christian duty. Yet you seem to not approve.

    You misread Scripture if you think unity must be retained at any cost. Sound doctrine and Christlike living are some of the things we are all exhorted to pursue, and the New Testament is full of criticisms of those who do not or will not make these a priority.

    And we are told to speak the truth in love (also in Ephesians). Sometimes the most loving thing we can do is warn another person about their false doctrine or wrong living. That is lovingly speaking truth into their lives. Why do you have a problem with that?

    Three, you misread Matt. 7. Jesus is warning about hypocrisy in our judgments, not judging itself. This is clear when you read the whole context, especially 7: 13-23. Jesus could say in John 7:24 that we are to “Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment.” We are told to test all things; hold to that which is good and reject that which is bad. The Bible is full of passages expressing the need to judge, to discern, to distinguish, to make moral differentiation.

    Unity is never to be achieved at the expense of truth, sound doctrine, or right living. I have written about this all before, if you care to have a read: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2007/06/14/jesus-and-judgment/

    Four, with all due respect, your comment seems like one long judgement and attack – on me! Given that I have nowhere said judging is always wrong or that we should never critique others, I am not guilty of hypocrisy on this issue. But it always interests me that some people who speak the loudest about how we should not judge, are the ones who do the most judging. Now that might be a case for hypocrisy.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  13. Thanks for your reply Bill and I want to say first I apologise for making a judgement on the basis that I felt you were quite bitter about the Red Letter Christians (and rightly so as they are teaching some incorrect things, possibly a lukewarm version of Christianity).

    I agree with you on the points you have made. I do feel my response was quite direct and I should have made myself more clear in some regards too.

    I fully agree that Paul’s letters were full of rebuke and chatisement of others, how it is very important to live out our faith by being firm with sound doctorine, and I agree with the fact that love can come in the form of rebuke. Furthermore, the fact that “unity is never to be achieved at the expense of truth, sound doctrine, or right living” is very true. I dare not say more as the points you have made, I believe strongly too!

    Your article about Jesus and Judgement is very true and I agree whole-heartedly with it. Praise God for it!

    The main problem I had with On Raeding Jesus was that you simply focused on what was wrong with that the Red Letter Christians and nailed them on that – hence why I felt you were causing a bit of divide among the church.

    I’m not going to judge how other the Red Letter Christians would react to this article, and I do sincerely hope that it will allow these people to realize their incorrect ways! I just hope you will able to find something nice to say about them to encourage them in the good things they do – because I am sure it is all not bad.

    Would you agree?

    Brian Chu, Victoria

  14. Thanks Brian

    I appreciate your kind reply. Yes you are quite right, and I did not mean to imply there is nothing of value in this movement. Wanting to emphasise the words and deeds of Jesus is always a good thing, and no side of religion or politics – left or right or anywhere in between – has all the truth and all of God’s blessing.

    I guess my main concern was that in presenting themselves as believers who really want to take Jesus seriously (which is a good thing) they are giving a clear impression that this means being on the left side of politics (which I am not so sure is such a good thing).

    It is absolutely clear when you read people like Campolo or Wallis that they are definitely people of the Left. That is not so bad in itself, but what is bad is when they imply that this is the only place a Christian should be, and it is the only place Jesus would be.

    I certainly admit to being of the Right, but I do not intend to baptise my position as being the one and only truly Biblical position. I tend to find things on the Right a bit closer to the biblical worldview than the Left, but I know there is some room to move here. And I acknowledge that believers can and should be on various places on the political spectrum.

    Thanks again for your thoughts. Much appreciated.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  15. Note that if anyone is being divisive, it is not Bill but these “red-letter” people. After all, Paul warns us to watch out for those who divide the church—those who “put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you learned” (Romans 16:17). So the dividers are those who depart from the doctrines revealed in Scripture. These “red letter” people downplay the black letter parts of Scripture, so they are the divisive ones Paul warns against.
    Jonathan Sarfati, Brisbane

  16. Bill,

    Thank you for your 7.3.08 / 10 am response to Brian (which I note Brian agreed with also.)

    This perspective and understanding is deficient in too many Christians today. I believe we have failed in the areas of teaching and leadership.

    People like to categorize issues as small or large, generally in proportion to the direct pain or inconvenience they are not or are experiencing right now. When we fail to recognize the deep and long term effects of ignoring the little things we reap a harvest of corruption. C.S. Lewis brilliantly describes this process in The Abolition of Man.

    I have a personal saying that goes like this:

    “The little things are the big things and the big things are too late.”

    Thank you for addressing these little things.

    Shane Coley

  17. I really like how you phrased what many people are doing as “scissors work”, which is so incredibly true. These days many Christians tend to be incredibly biased and sometimes to the extent of been almost “extremist” in their views and stands on a lot of issues. An example I would give is for instance the topic of grace. Some overly emphasise it to the point where it can lead to lawless-ness, where others avoid it completely till legalism starts running their lives.

    But I believe the main problem is this: people don’t read the ENTIRE bible. There is a reason why the other 62 books other than the 4 gospels are in the bible.. if we are going to believe what is in the bible is in fact from God.. shouldn’t we pay attention to all the other books as well?

    It is common for men to “filter” out things they don’t like or things that make them uncomfortable. But often these are the things that we really should be praying and pondering over, and asking God, “Are you trying to tell me something?”

    I would also like to add this: Jesus loves the sinner but hates the sin. Regardless of any type of sin, that truth still applies. Whether a man sleeps with 15 women or another man, it is still the same. It is still sin. Here’s an analogy, though it may be a weak one. Imagine your partner smokes. Now will you say you don’t love him/her because of that? No! You love them anyway but you want them to quit because it is in their best interest and wellbeing. How is that not like with God?

    Jonathan Ngan

  18. We definitely need to realise as Christians in todays western world, that the Bible comes as a whole. It is a Holy and inspired work of God, and nothing is to be added to it, or taken away. Revelations 22:18-19 states that if anyone adds to this book (The Bible), than God will add to him the plagues that are written in this book. It then goes on to say that if anyone takes away from this book(i.e The Red Letter Christians) , then God will take away their name from the Book of Life. These are pretty heavy words, and we should not take the secular scissoring of the bible lightly.
    Jessica Kerr

  19. Here are some more (red-letter) words of Jesus. He says that He did not come to judge the world, but note that He says people do evil works, wicked things. The revelation He gives in v. 21 is that when people turn away from their sin, this is a work of God.

    John 3:17-21: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”

    Annette Nestor

  20. Four quick thoughts
    1. The Martin Place assailant wanted to be associated with ISIS as evidenced by him asking for their flag.
    Yet some say ‘nothing to do with islam’
    2. ISIS are marauding across the country side taking property, raping and killing all who don’t have their muslim beliefs. And we say or are taught to say ‘nothing to do with islam’
    3. Around 700AD mohammad started marauding across the country side taking property, raping and killing all who didn’t have his muslim beliefs. And we say…?
    4. Mohammad is lauded as the example for muslims to follow….

    Has the world just dropped its IQ?

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