At the end of his Gospel, John reveals to us that he understands the impossibility of his task. Having attempted to record the miracles and teachings of Jesus, John says, “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written” (John 21:25).
Of course, John was speaking in hyperbole. But fast forward two millennia and it looks as if we really are trying to fill the whole world with books about Jesus! Philip Yancey, in his book The Jesus I Never Knew, tells us that, according to a scholar at the University of Chicago, more material has been written about Jesus in the last twenty years than in the previous nineteen centuries combined!
Western Christianity overwhelmingly dominates this arena, and with the exception of authors like Yancey and a small handful of others the portrait of Jesus that emerges from all this material is…well…strange. Sometimes, Jesus is portrayed as a pacifist; sometimes, as a revolutionary. Some write about a stern, “you must be more righteous than the Pharisees” Jesus; others magnify the Jesus who convicts and converts those determined to throw stones. Some magnify His deity, while others remind us that even Jesus became tired and thirsty and seemingly unable to understand at times all that was happening around Him.
But most strange of all is this: the only area over the last twenty years where Jesus maintains any sense of continuity is in His heritage. With few exceptions, Jesus always jumps off the page as one of us. He is Christian. He is American. And, according to your religious proclivities, He is certainly, above all, Baptist, or Methodist, or Pentecostal, or Lutheran. On this aspect of Jesus, at least, our individual clans are certain.
It might not seem, at first glance, that this confusion about Jesus is all that important. There are people to feed. Souls to reach. Buildings to build. Business meetings to attend. But then I am reminded of another time of great confusion about Jesus, a time when Jesus sojourned with His people and even then they were not sure what to make of Him. At that time, the word on the street was that Jesus was Elijah reincarnated. But there were other opinions, too. Some said He was the return of John the Baptist, others said He was a prophet. He had a Pharisaical bent. No, He was an Essene. Or, maybe He was just another fraud, a loon…a glutton and a drunkard. Perhaps His, some surmised, was a soul possessed.
Jesus, to my surprise, jumps into this contemporary debate about Himself. Amidst all the confusion and opinion from those both educated and common, He asks his most loyal followers just one question: “who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15).
The question is just as relevant today. Who do you say that Jesus is? And, more to the point, would Jesus be able to recognize Himself in your answer? Would there be anything in your reply about His childhood in Nazareth, His chosen hometown of Capernaum, His distinctively Judaic, rabbinical training, His love for teaching in the Synagogue, or His faithful celebration of the Jewish Festival Holidays? Does He speak Hebrew and study the Jewish scriptures? Does He honor and obey the Law of Moses? Does He faithfully recite the Shema?
Truthfully, this is probably not what your Jesus looks like at all. It is much more likely that your Jesus resembles a man who was born and raised in Austin, Texas, moved to Atlanta to attend seminary, speaks fluent English (with a possible preference for the King James variety), never visits any church other than yours or one like yours (and certainly never visits a synagogue), has little time for the Old Testament, and is, like yourself, not even sure what a Shema is. Your Jesus is much more likely to be Christian first, your flavor of Christianity second, American third, and is most importantly your personal Savior because we, as American Christians, really are that individually important.
My position on this is simple. I believe that when Jesus asks us, “who do you say that I am” that He desires to recognize himself in our answer. It matters to Him. Like any person who desires to be known, He wants to be known for who He really is, and to be known in His entirety. Yes, He is the Son of God. Yes, He is the Son of Man. Yes, He is King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Yes, He is our Savior. But this much is known of Him simply because it is our creed.
Jesus transcends our creed. There is more of Him to embrace…more for us to reflect back to Him. He is an Israelite. He is from the tribe of Judah. He is a Nazarene. He is a rabbi. He is Jewish.
More has been written about Jesus in the last twenty years than in the previous nineteen centuries combined, yet Jesus’ Jewish heritage remains the most neglected and misunderstood aspect of His identity. This is so, even though an argument can be made that it is this facet of His identity that is the most important. It is Jesus Himself, after all, who reminds us that “salvation is from the Jews.” That is, there would be no salvation in His name if He was anything other than Jewish! Perhaps we should wrestle with this some, if for no other reason than to be better informed the next time we hear the Messiah whisper, “who do you say that I am?”