Why the Real Jesus is Better than the Red Letter Jesus
I know this probably shocks you, but sometimes my sweet and innocent kids play me for a fool. Kids seem to come at this skill quite naturally. Daughters are especially skillful in playing such tricks on their fathers; we are such easy prey. Daughters have a way into a father’s heart that can’t be scientifically explained. Especially after dinner when all they want is “just one more dessert, Daddy?” Yeah, I’m such a sucker for that one. Every. Single. Time.
Besides, by what logic would you ever not allow your children to indulge in something sweet and sugary? And yet despite my airtight logic and Socrates-like parenting wisdom, my wife sees things differently. Obviously influenced by Marxists, she thinks dessert should be consumed in limited quantities and only once a day.
My brilliant daughters are aware of this partisan family divide and eagerly exploit it. Every night they lobby me. Their approach is calculating. After Mommy says no, the girls approach me, batting their eyelashes, heads tilted to one side, innocent smiles at just the right wattage: “Daddy, can we have dessert?” My son, also smart, just waits. He knows his sisters have much more leverage.
Now, I want you to know that I’ve become wiser over the years. I no longer make the rookie mistake of saying, “Yes” or “Well, let me see . . .” In those early days, the pleasure of seeing my daughters squeal in delight was always quickly dashed by the thundering rebuke from Angela, “I already said no. Why did you tell them yes?”
The cold cement garage floor makes such a lousy place to sleep, so I’ve developed a brilliant new counter-insurgency strategy: “Ask Mom.”
Finding angles, looking for loopholes, pitting mother against father—this is the stuff of childhood. Our kids do these things, and we played the same game with our own parents.
What’s funny is that this impulse to find creative ways to skirt the rules doesn’t leave us when we become adults. I find this instinct in my own heart most acutely as I approach the Bible. Much of what God says I like. But there are many portions of Scripture—troubling, hard-to-understand portions—I wish weren’t there. Not everything between Genesis and Revelation is fit for a coffee mug, if you know what I mean.
Thomas Jefferson solved this tension by simply making his own “Bible.” He famously cut out the parts he hated and kept the ones he liked. Though most of us wouldn’t be that brazen, we sometimes fall prey to the temptation to highlight Scripture we like and toss the rest into a “nothing to see here” pile. The most common way we do this is through a well-meaning but misguided hermeneutical device—creating a Jesus who seems passé about the uncomfortable version of God found in the Old Testament. This is increasingly common in evangelical circles. There is a new, red-letter Jesus who just seems a whole lot nicer than the God of our youth. The “red letters,” of course, are the specific words of Jesus quoted by the Gospel writers that are sometimes highlighted in modern Bible translations.
If God is the angry Old Testament deity, Jesus has become our convenient sugar daddy who conforms to our desires. So we say things like, “I’m not a Christian, I’m a follower of Jesus.” I would guess that most who use that kind of language sincerely want to be free of the baggage of binding legalism and follow the simple, humble way of Jesus.
But we have to be careful about imposing a false dichotomy on Scripture. Scholar Tremper Longman writes, “We must be careful of falsely stereotyping both the God of the Old Testament and the Jesus who is presented in the New. The God of the Old Testament is not an arbitrary and purely dark figure, and Jesus is not all flowers and light and soft goodness.” Longman continues, “The God of the Old Testament is not a monolithic bully, so Jesus Christ is not totally passive or pacifist.” It sounds noble to say “I only follow the words of Jesus,” but the words of Jesus himself don’t really give us the option of isolating those red-letter words at the expense of the rest of Scripture. What’s more, I wonder if we’ve fully reckoned with all the red letters.
If we want to behold the real Jesus, not just the Jesus we shape in our own image, we have to constantly guard against this temptation to cherry-pick the parts of him we like and throw out the ones we don’t.
In a way, to submit ourselves to the entirety of Scripture is a primary way we follow Jesus. It was he who said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). Besides, if we were honest, we’d admit there are even statements among his red letters that we find hard to digest. Among these are uncomfortable, countercultural statements such as his affirmation of male-female marriage (Matt. 19:5); his radical call to discipleship (Luke 14:26); his predictions of future and fiery judgment (Luke 17:20–37); and his prescription of drastic measures to combat a besetting sin (Matt. 5:28–30). Judgment, sexual morality, and cutting of of limbs make for awkward hashtags.
Jesus encountered this tendency often in his earthly ministry. On one occasion, after performing the miracle of feeding the five thousand, Jesus began amassing a large crowd of followers. John records Jesus deconstructing their jaundiced view of his role as Messiah, saying, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves” (John 6:26). Jesus then shared with them the hard demands of the gospel, prompting their reply of “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” (John 6:60). Eventually, most of his original followers left him. In every way, Jesus was countercultural.
Truthfully, the way of Jesus is both hard and easy. It’s difficult because the gospel demands we give up our self-worship, our idolatry, our infatuation with our own way of life. Yet in another sense, in accepting the real Jesus, we find in him the way of freedom and release, and a return to our original, God ordained purpose (Eph. 2:10). Jesus said that his yoke is easy and his burden is light (Matt. 11:30). The great church father Augustine said, “If you believe what you like in the Gospel, and reject what you don’t like, it’s not the Gospel you believe, but yourself.”
I’ll admit, I want to accept the Jesus who conforms to my image, the Jesus whose statements fit nicely on coffee mugs and T-shirts. But this safe, sanitized Jesus looks nothing like the real one, the one who came not to give me what I want but to rescue me from the kingdom of darkness. This Jesus, the real Jesus, is dangerous and unpredictable, calling me to lay aside my life and follow him regardless of what it costs. Jesus came not to conform to our desires but to transform us into his image.
This is adapted from The Original Jesus, to be released from Baker Books on September 1st.