Which Jesus do you choose?

by Philip Sudworth.

In the earliest known version of Matthew we find, “Which would you like me to release to you?  Jesus bar Abbas or Jesus called Messiah?” (Matt 27:17) – “bar Abbas”, of course, means “son of the Father”.  The choice put to the Jewish people then was between a violent man who thought that freedom would come from defeating the Romans militarily and the one who said, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is due to him,” and who saw true freedom as a spiritual issue.  But it’s not just about the choice a crowd of Jews made 2,000 years ago.  At a spiritual level, the story transcends the particular time period. Today we find ourselves still faced with the challenge of the choice that in the story is put to the Jews.  It’s not just “Do you choose Jesus or the way of the world?” but also “Which Jesus do you want?”  “What kind of Saviour do you seek?”  “What relationship do you want with him?”

Many Jews have claimed that Jesus could not have been the messiah, because he didn’t free them from Roman oppression, nor bring universal peace, justice and righteousness.  One Christian response to this has been to predict that Jesus will come back – this time with an army of angels.  He will conquer evil, set up a thousand-year reign of righteousness and establish a new Earth.  There is a triumphalist note to this.  Jesus is the “mighty conqueror”, at whose name “every knee shall bow”.  We will “reign with him” and “share his glory.”  Yet this is the one who rejected the temptation to rule the world by force and to enjoy all the trappings of universal power (Matt 4:8-9).  The way of physical sovereign power was the easy option that Satan offered as the third temptation; but it would have meant deferring to the values of materialism, self-importance and might is right.

Instead of the expected heroic, victorious messiah-king, we find one who was prepared to undertake menial tasks like washing feet, and to suffer personally, and very painfully, in the cause of justice and righteousness.    There was no question of him forcing everyone to obey God or imposing a righteous kingdom.  Instead, he challenged them to reform their own lives, get themselves right with God, and help him to change the world.   The power he sought to use was the power of love.

Which Jesus represents God for us?  – The Christ reigning triumphantly in Heaven after his ascension, or the wandering preacher, who, amidst his agony on the cross, said, “Father, forgive them” and who told his followers to “Take up your cross and follow me.Does he embody a transcendent God of majesty, authority and justice, who manages the world and judges people from on high, or an immanent God of love we can find in those we meet?  Do we expect God to reveal himself in acts of power or is he a God who empowers others? Do we look for him in great miracles or in simple acts of love?  We might expect to find God in great cathedrals but are we just as likely to find him in an unsanitary hovel in a shanty town?  Will we find him where and when we need him most, and where and when he most needs a response from us?

Do we see ourselves primarily as supplicants asking for his forgiveness and help, and hoping to join him in Heaven one day in the future, or as disciples answering the call to service and hoping to work alongside him to make one small part of this world a little bit better to-day?  Are we looking forward to eternal life or are we enjoying that inner peace, joy, sense of fulfillment and fullness of life already?

I suspect that most Christians will want to hold onto something of all of these ideas of God seen in Jesus, despite some inherent contradictions.  They have a vision of Jesus that contains something of both the humble teacher, who saw himself in the role of suffering servant, and the all-powerful, triumphant king who reigns above.  The balance will vary from person to person and possibly change for individuals as their faith develops and their situation alters.  It might actually change for us according to the position we find ourselves in at any given moment.

Our view of Jesus is probably revealed in the way we share our faith and how much emphasis we place on the Heavenly rewards of being a Christian, as opposed to the commitment it demands and the challenges it poses.  Pre-occupation with our personal salvation is a form of self-love.   The commandments to love God and others, place the focus away from ourselves.    Comfortable Christianity is a contradiction in terms!  We know what Jesus had to say about the self-satisfied religious folk of his day. Which images of Jesus challenge you most and which make you want to have a relationship with him?

17 thoughts on “Which Jesus do you choose?”

  1. I really don’t think we have to choose. It isn’t an either/or situation. As you rightly say, most people hold onto something of all of these images of Jesus, and can find Bible verses to support them all. God can connect with us in whichever way HE chooses (didn’t He choose Cyrus, a Persian warrior, to restore the Israelites to their rightful place?) What is right for one person is not necessarily right for another, and what Jesus is to any of us can change from day to day, even moment to moment. Jesus’s main argument with the Pharisees was that they thought their way was the only way, and they put stumbling blocks in the way of anyone who didn’t conform to their image of God. Love and let love, live and let live, stop trying to control, and leave the judging to God!

    ‘Stand up, stand up for Jesus,
    In His strength stand alone;
    The arm of flesh will fail you,
    You dare not trust your own.
    Put on the Gospel armour,
    Each piece put on with prayer;
    When duty calls, or danger,
    Be never wanting there.’
    (H&P 721)

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  2. But the commandments ‘to love God and others’ also include ‘as ourselves’. If God regards us as lovable (and how could it be otherwise, if God is Love) who are we to argue??

    Thank you for another fertile Monday thought!

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  3. Brilliant! But do we really have a choice between the powerlessness of the God seen in Jesus and “the all-powerful, triumphant king who reigns above”? I am with Bonhoeffer in affirming the love of God rather than the power of God. As he wrote:
    “God allows himself to be edged out of the world and onto the cross. God is weak and powerless in the world, and that is exactly the way, the only way, in which he can be with us and help us”.

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    1. The ONLY way, Robert? How can you be so sure?
      ‘Si comprehendus, non est Deus.’ (St Augustine)

      A further thought:
      Then Jesus asked them, “Didn’t you read this in the Scriptures? The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing, and it is wonderful to see.” (Matthew 21:42)

      The cornerstone of a building is the stone that holds two sides together, supporting and being supported by both. Though each has a different perspective and maybe even a different colour and texture, both are held firmly and securely by the cornerstone. With Jesus as our cornerstone, we can live with different views, questions and paradoxes. We don’t have to have all the answers.

      ‘Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of creation!’ (H&P 16)

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  4. Yvonne, I am not just sure: I am certain. My reason is that, like Bonhoeffer, I know that the powerlessness of God is the only way he can be with us and help us. 1 Corinthians 18-25.
    I would be really interested in what Philip makes of Bonhoeffer’s statement.

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    1. ‘There is room for immense diversity inside healthy Catholicism, more than most people realise. We knew there was enough temperamental, theological, cultural difference in the world so we had to be pluralistic and pluriform to survive. We knew there wasn’t only one way to look at or to serve God. What we know about God is important, but what we do with what we know about God is even more important. Too often people think it is necessary that we all see God in the same way (which is impossible anyway) but what is really necessary is that we all follow God according to what God tells us. The fact that God has given us so many different faces and temperaments and emotions and history shows us how God honours each unique journey and culture. God is not threatened by differences. It’s we who are.’
      (Everything Belongs, Richard Rohr.)

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  5. Yes! I agree with your thoughts on diversity but feel that sometimes the church fails us. In the past we have the Crusades, the Inquisition, the persecution of the Jews, the judgmentalism of Calvinist Protestantism and numerous other events that make me somewhat ashamed to be Christian.
    “Religion has in fact outdone culture in dualistic thinking – we’ve become as violent, as hateful toward our enemies, damning them to hell and whatever else, that the world doesn’t look to us for wisdom, because we’re trapped in the dualistic mind, instead of the mind of Christ that we were supposed to have.” Richard Rohr.

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    1. Three quotes for you, Robert.
      The Rev’d Studdert Kennedy, “Woodbine Willy” as he was known by the soldiers, was clear about the God he shared with his men as padre in the horror of World War 1 trenches:
      “And I hate the God of Power on His hellish heavenly throne,
      Looking down on rape and murder, hearing little children moan…
      God, the God I love and worship, reigns in sorrow on the Tree,
      Broken, bleeding, but unconquered, very God of God to me…
      On my knees I fall and worship that great Cross that shines above,
      For the very God of Heaven is not Power, but Power of Love.”

      From Albert Schweitzer – My Life and Thought – 1931
      “And the more I studied and thought, the more convinced I became that Christian theology had become overcomplicated. In the early centuries after Christ, the beautiful simplicities relating to Jesus became somewhat obscured by the conflicting interpretations and the incredibly involved dogma growing out of the theological debates.”

      “The essential element in Christianity as it was preached by Jesus and as it is comprehended by thought, is this, that it is only through love that we can attain to communion with God. All living knowledge of God rests upon this foundation: that we experience Him in our lives as Will-¬to-Love.

      “Anyone who has recognized that the idea of Love is the spiritual beam of light which reaches us from the Infinite, ceases to demand from religion that it shall offer him com¬plete knowledge of the supra-sensible. He ponders, indeed, on the great questions … but he is able to leave these questions on one side, however painful it may be to give up all hope of answers to them. In the knowledge of spiritual existence in God through love he possesses the one thing needful.”

      The concluding paragraph from
      Albert Schweitzer – The Quest of the Historical Jesus
      “He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lake-side, He came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same word: ‘Follow thou me!’ and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfil for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He Is.”

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  6. I think it’s rather sweet that Robert and Pavel believe the only way God can be known is when human beings love each other. They are the gooey soft centres in the chocolate box of life!
    But faith, like an assortment of sweet treats, has so many other textures and tastes for us to enjoy. There are soft ones and hard ones, chewy ones and crunchy ones, even a few nutty ones. All can be sampled and tasted, enjoyed or spat out, according to our personal preference.
    Would we offer such a wide and wonderful selection to someone we love and then insist they choose only the one we like best? Of course not, because that’s not love at all. That’s control. Real love is giving people the freedom to choose for themselves.

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    1. Rev’d Studdert Kennedy went through the horrors of the WW1 trenches. Not much room for gooey soft centres there. Albert Schweitzer was an incredibly intelligent and talented guy, who had doctorates in four different disciplines, and gave up a glittering career to be a medical missionary. When he was rejected by the missionary society as too unorthodox, he created his own hospital and also founded a leper colony. That took considerable mental and spiritual strength. Perhaps before you dismiss such figures as “soft”, you should read some of their work and find out why they came to their conclusions and what experiences they had.
      Jesus wasn’t a soft gooey personality either but he made it clear in John 13:35. that “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” In John 15:12 we find: “This is my command that you love one another, even as I have loved you.”
      The first followers of Jesus were tough enough to face up to persecution and to possible torture and death but still we find: “Dear friends, let us love one another, because love comes from God. Everyone who loves has become a child of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.” 1 John 4:7-8

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    2. Rev’d Studdert Kennedy went through the horrors of the WW1 trenches. Not much room for gooey soft centres there. Albert Schweitzer was an incredibly intelligent and talented guy, who had doctorates in four different disciplines, and gave up a glittering career to be a medical missionary. Rejected by the missionary society as too unorthodox, he created his own hospital and also founded a leper colony. That took considerable mental and spiritual strength. Perhaps before you dismiss such figures as “soft”, you should read some of their work and find out why they came to their conclusions and what experiences they had.
      Jesus wasn’t a soft gooey personality either but he made it clear in John 13:35. that “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” In John 15:12 we find: “This is my command that you love one another, even as I have loved you.”
      The first followers of Jesus were tough enough to face up to persecution and to possible torture and death but still we find: “Dear friends, let us love one another, because love comes from God. Everyone who loves has become a child of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.” 1 John 4:7-8

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  7. I have never disputed that God is love.
    Are you saying that only those who have suffered great hardship, or only those who are intellectually superior, know how to love?

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  8. I have never disputed that God is love.
    Are you saying that love is only known by those who have endured great hardship, or by those who are intellectually superior?
    The Church once controlled the masses by fear. They called it the fear of God, but it was really the fear of judgement, condemnation and Hell. Times have changed, and very few people these days (even inside the church) believe in Hell, so that form of control is gone.
    It has been replaced, however, by another form of control, which is control by conscience. You are not loving enough! You are not caring enough! You are not giving freely enough of your money, your time, your resources, your intellect, your gifts and your skills! You are too wealthy! You are too privileged! You are too pious! You are too conservative! You are not inclusive enough! You are not political enough! You are not woke enough! You are not like me, therefore how can you possibly know God?
    If you need ‘the needy’ to need you in order to know God, doesn’t that make you just as needy? Isn’t there some co-dependency going on here? Could it be that, in some perverse way, you are using ‘the needy’ to satisfy your need to play at being God?

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  9. The love we see in the lives of Albert Schweitzer, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Richard Rohr, Studdert Kennedy and many others (and Jesus for that matter) is not mushy sentimentality or moral righteousness, but ethical concern for others – unconditional love for our neighbours and the stranger, inclusive and non-judgmental love that seeks justice and fairness for all.

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    1. I agree, Robert, and I would guess that most of the human race share that kind of humanitarian love, regardless of race, faith or denomination. It is the God-given goodness in all our hearts.
      I find it helpful to think in ever-increasing circles of love to which I belong. There is God’s love for me, which is where I came from and where I will return, and my love for Him which is expressed through my own spirituality, and which affects all my relationships. Then there is the love of family and friends, then my local community, then my Christian brothers and sisters of all denominations, then my human family throughout the whole wide earth.
      I am not clever enough or powerful enough to right the world’s wrongs, but I can live in peace with my neighbour, contribute to the community in my own small way, and pray without ceasing.

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  10. While thinking about “Which Jesus do you choose?” the idea came to mind that Jesus was the man who became God rather than the God who became man? I know this is a radical idea and certainly not credal but, for me, it makes obedience to the two Great Commandments a realistic possibility, following Jesus on a path from self-obsessed hedonism to other-obsessed altruism.

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