READING THE BIBLE AS IF JESUS MATTERED Cover

Introduction
READING THE BIBLE AS IF JESUS MATTERED

Duane Beachey

The impetus for this book was seeing the wide gap between what I believe Jesus intended for his followers or disciples and how most of us actually live that out. Much of the difference is simply the result of our fallen nature—our inability to do what we believe we should. But much of the gap is caused by our not even intending to do a lot of what Jesus challenges us to do and to be. Bluntly put, we don’t take Jesus’ teachings seriously enough across a range of topics from poverty and wealth, to love and hate, to forgiveness, to being a servant, to taking up a cross. Jesus talked about “hearing my words and doing them” in ways that indicate doing is an integral part of our salvation.

One clear example of the gulf between what Jesus teaches and what the church teaches is in our understanding of salvation—who is saved and who isn’t. Jesus paints a stark but straightforward picture of the judgment at the end of the age, in which the saved and unsaved are separated based on a single criterion: How did you respond to human need? “I was hungry and you fed me, thirsty and you gave me a drink. . . .”

Those who responded with compassion are told to “come . . . take their inheritance”; those who didn’t are told, “Depart from me, you who are cursed” (Matt. 25:31-46). That this flies in the face of much of the church’s understanding of salvation shows how little Jesus is actually our guide for belief and practice.
Yes, the Bible talks about salvation in many other ways as well, but my point is that what Jesus said is hardly central to the way most of us understand salvation. Belief in Jesus and in his death and resurrection is central to our understanding of salvation. Belief in what he taught is less so.

To be clear I don’t see feeding and clothing and visiting the least of these as a new law or rule. We serve the poor because it is simply the Way of Christ—the way we love and obey God. “If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love” (John 15:10). Serving the poor is the worship Jesus desires from us. When Jesus says, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these . . . you did for me,” isn’t he defining how we accept Christ himself?

At least two factors contribute to our not taking Jesus more seriously. First is the simple difficulty of overcoming our culture’s biases, fears, and commonly held beliefs. Jesus challenges all of these. We are more comfortable deciding Jesus couldn’t have meant for us to go against “common sense,” which is just our culture’s commonly held beliefs. Without admitting a preference for common sense rather than Jesus, we just quietly ignore much of what Jesus taught.

The second factor may depend on how we use the Bible and do our theology. Liberals talk about culture and context in a way that can make much of what Jesus says not applicable to today’s world. Conservatives who claim the Bible as inerrant (without any errors) have another way of getting around Jesus. If we are in this camp, our belief in the inerrancy of all Scripture creates such a wide point of reference for understanding God’s will that we can make the Bible say almost anything. Where Jesus says something that is too difficult, there will always be something more reasonable or acceptable somewhere else in the Bible. Without admitting a preference for parts of the Old Testament, or Romans, or Revelation, we simply bypass or trump Jesus.

Thus a part of this book is my own attempt to see the Bible with Jesus as the central revelation from God. I find a different understanding of Scripture when I start with Jesus, the Word made flesh, and try to understand everything else in light of his perspective and his life among us. Much of this book is a critique of how we miss Jesus, but the final chapter is how I understand the good news of the kingdom of God that Jesus constantly talked about. So if the first ten chapters seem like too much bad news, read the last for the good news.

Having laid out my reasons for writing this book, the question still remains—why should you read it? Most Christians would not admit or accept that we don’t follow Jesus. We certainly intend to. We just haven’t thought about our lives in much detail as it relates to what Jesus taught except in general terms—to be loving and forgiving to the extent that common sense allows.

If you’re willing to be challenged to take a deeper look at how Jesus words might apply to your life, you can explore that with me. If you sense that Jesus has little real power in your life, you may need to take his words more seriously—even more literally. If you see as I do that the church seems to have been swallowed up by our culture, we will look at that as well.

Maybe you find yourself agreeing with the church’s critics about the terrible things that have been done in the name of Christ and the hypocrisy within the church. Might the problem be that we have taken Jesus too lightly? Jesus questioned the very foundation of the faith of the religious folks of his day—the folks who were so sure they understood the Scriptures and were taking them seriously.

I realize many people hesitate ever to question their faith for fear of questioning God. They assume that what they have always believed and been taught is orthodox and fundamental to Christian faith, and they just want to stick to those simple fundamentals. Evangelicals especially are committed to taking their Christian faith seriously, but too often they don’t sound much like the Jesus they proclaim. Maybe they aren’t asking enough of the tough questions.

I hope to raise questions in your mind about Christian beliefs and practices, not to weaken your faith but to strengthen it. The Psalms are filled with questions and even doubts about God, yet the Psalmist always reaffirms his faith in God. The reformer Martin Luther challenged over a thousand years of Christian orthodoxy, and we are all (including Catholics) the better for it. You don’t have to be a theologian or academic to question what is accepted or believed by nearly everyone. In this particular case you may just need to keep asking the simple question WWJD?—what would Jesus do?

I write this with the assumption

that it is reasonable to follow Jesus daily . . . practical to live by the Sermon on the Mount and the whole New Testament literally, honestly, sacrificially . . . thinkable to practice the way of reconciling love in [all] human conflicts . . . possible to confess Jesus as Lord above all nationalisms, racism, or materialism . . . feasible to build a [community of believers] mutually committed to each other in Christ . . . a life lived simply, following the Jesus-way in lifestyle, in possessions, in service. (David Augsburger)

Perhaps you haven’t really questioned or thought that much about how your Christian faith affects your daily life, and have just taken for granted that you pretty much understand what it means to be a Christian. On the other hand, you may think your faith should have more depth or meaning than it does. Maybe you are already asking questions about your Christian faith, or maybe even questions about Christianity itself.

Wherever you find yourself along that continuum, if you are like many Christians, including myself, you have this nagging sense that Jesus must have intended a lot more of us, and for us, than we are experiencing or living in the church today. Although we are often blinded by the familiar, we catch glimpses of what Jesus may be trying to show us. A crisis or a new experience can pull us away from the familiar and open our eyes to see what we never noticed before in our lives.

Let me give you an example. Those of us in the United States or Canada live in wealthy countries with homes, cars, food, and clothes for nearly everyone. Our stuff surrounds us. It is the background noise and “wallpaper” of our lives. Most of us never think about all our stuff and just assume there is nothing wrong with any of it. If anything, we believe it is an example of the way God has blessed us. But send any college student for a year or a semester or even a short mission trip to Guatemala or Zimbabwe, and her or his horizon is suddenly expanded. Such students find Christian brothers and sisters living with much less, yet grateful for all of God’s blessings, who share more freely and generously than most of the people they know. Students ask new questions like, “Who has God really blessed?”

Their eyes are opened a second time on returning home and really seeing for the first time all the stuff we have and consume and throw away and destroy. Why do we have so much? Is it a sign of God’s blessing or of our own greed? For the first time their lives seem so wrong—even obscene. Some will squeeze what they’ve experienced back into a context that fits North American realities and worldviews. They will soon fit back into the life they had before and mostly forget what was so obvious. Others may not so easily shake their new insight. It may affect the rest of their lives. They may never again quite feel comfortable within materialistic cultures. I believe they have seen with Jesus’ eyes of compassion.

Throughout this book I make repeated references to the Pharisees, because I see parallels between these establishment religious leaders and the church today. My references to Pharisees tend to reflect the generally negative perceptions of the gospel writers regarding Jesus’ ongoing conflict with these religious leaders and teachers. I realize this conflict did not apparently include all Pharisees. The Gospels at various points indicate at least some Pharisees looked favorably on Jesus.

Two factors I should note regarding this conflict: first, the Gospels were written after Judaism and the Christian community had become alienated from each other. Christians were no longer welcome to speak in the synagogues. The Gospels reflect this alienation.

Second, this conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees and teachers and religious leaders of his day is repeated at many other times and places when visionaries and charismatic leaders arise and challenge any religious establishment. I don’t believe the Pharisees were uniquely stubborn, suspicious, or judgmental but rather that, as viewed by the Gospel writers, they exemplify the rather ordinary tendency of established religious leaders to respond defensively to new ideas—even attempting at times to destroy the prophets in their midst.

The tragedy of the Pharisees in Jesus’ time as the New Testament portrays them was that they were so dedicated to following God’s Law but didn’t see with eyes of compassion. They missed God’s visitation on the day of his coming. They didn’t just miss recognizing their Messiah. They missed him because they didn’t recognize the God that Jesus knew so intimately. The God that Jesus talked about didn’t fit their understanding of God. For all their study of God’s Word, they missed the One to whom it pointed—they missed God’s most important Word. They weren’t willing and didn’t think they needed to rethink the core of their belief.

I fear that tragedy is repeating itself among us today. I only hope to raise a question in the hearts of those who sincerely seek to follow Jesus.

 

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