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?