I want to tell you a story of an ancient sage who changed the world.
This wise man fought for justice, championing the cause of the poor and the oppressed. He rejected organized religion, showing tolerance—not judgment—for the outcast and the socially marginalized. He promoted universal love and the brotherhood of man. His unflinching commitment to speak truth to power cost him his life, but his legacy lives on. He is a model for us today of love, acceptance, and inclusion. His name is Jesus of Nazareth.
That is the story, in sum. It’s a noble tale, to be sure. But it’s a falsehood, a fiction, an urban legend. Though the story is parroted like a mantra by multitudes—even echoed reflexively by otherwise sound spiritual leaders who ought to know better—no such Jesus ever existed. Rather, taken as a whole, this version of Jesus is just another example of another Jesus bringing another gospel like the ones the apostle Paul anathematized to the Galatians.
A Myriad of Myths
This is not the first legend about Jesus, of course. Paul chastised the Corinthians—somewhat sarcastically—for their own cavalier embrace of teachers fabricating a false Christ generated by a false spirit bringing a false gospel:
For if one comes and preaches another Jesus whom we have not preached, or you receive a different spirit which you have not received, or a different gospel which you have not accepted, you bear this beautifully. (2 Cor. 11:4)
The Corinthians were being led astray by the serpent’s crafty deceptions, Paul said, just as Eve was (v. 3)—abandoning simple devotion to the genuine Jesus for an alluring invention, an alternate Christ.
The trend would continue in the future, Paul warned, with the church turning their ticklish ears from truth to myths—legends—choosing man-made fictions over doctrinal facts (2 Tim. 4: 3–4). Jesus himself warned of future interlopers, imposters masquerading as messiahs who would mislead many (Matt. 24:24).
Times have changed, but the trend has not. New “Jesus legends” abound: the legend of Jesus, the (mere) itinerant moral teacher; the legend of Jesus, the prophet of Allah; the socialist Jesus legend; the legend of the Gnostic Jesus of the Gospel of Thomas; the legend of Jesus, the universal Christ; the LDS legend of Jesus, the spirit brother of Lucifer; the New Age Jesus-the-Hindu-guru legend. Et cetera, et cetera.
The remaking of the Jewish Messiah from Nazareth into a progressive advocate of social justice is just the latest example of the tendency people have to fashion Christ in their own social/spiritual/political image.
Of course, in one sense that shouldn’t surprise us. Most folks have a genuine respect for Jesus—as they should. It’s understandable, then, that on weighty matters they’d want Jesus on their side.
Here the tail wags the dog, though. The point is not for any of us to get Jesus on our side, but for us to get on Jesus’ side—hands to the plow, not looking back, fit for the kingdom.
What precisely is “Jesus’ side,” though? Given the mishmash of myths, how do we separate wheat from chaff, fact from fiction, legend from history? We cannot follow Jesus if we do not have a clear idea of who the real flesh and blood Jesus of history was and which direction he was heading. But how do we know with any confidence?
Searching for Jesus
There is a reliable, uncomplicated method I employ to get an accurate, balanced, big-picture take on any topic in any section of Scripture, and it’s perfectly suited for this task.
Say, for example, I want to know everything about how God supernaturally guided the early church, or what Proverbs teaches on leadership, or what the New Testament instructs on prayer, or how the disciples of Jesus preached the gospel in the book of Acts, etc. I simply read every word of the biblical material I’m interested in, isolate every passage that’s germane to my topic, then collate the passages in an orderly way to create a thorough, complete, precise portrayal of the topic. It’s a simple—if labor-intensive—technique anyone can use to get the full counsel of any section of Scripture on any topic.
This approach might be problematic for some, though—particularly the more progressive types who favor the social justice Jesus version. They simply do not trust the record. To many of them, Scripture is not an authoritative account of what God revealed to man, but simply one version of what certain ancient people believed about God. The Gospels are humanly “inspired,“ not divinely inspired—man-made, not God-breathed.
No matter. That distinction makes absolutely no difference to my assessment. Here’s why. Nothing about my case has anything to do with whether or not the Bible is divinely inspired. Though that is my view, it’s a separate issue for now.
Here’s the real issue. We have one body of detailed information about Jesus: the canonical Gospels. We can accept them as divinely inspired or not. We can accept them (as many scholars do) as non-inspired human documents that are, on the main, historically accurate. We can even accept them as error-ridden musings by primitive people about God and Jesus. What we cannot do, though, is reject the Gospel accounts out of hand and then advance our own personal opinion of the Jesus of the Gospels, since there will be no Jesus left to have a personal opinion about.
Reject the record, and you forfeit your opinion of the man of the record. It’s that simple. Of course, if you cherry-pick verses to fashion a Jesus in your own image, then I have nothing to offer you. If that’s your project, you are welcome to your fantasy, but do not mistake the views of your make-me-up Christ for the views of Jesus of Nazareth. That legend will reflect your opinions, not his.
Jesus and “Social Justice”
Our question here is simple: What did Jesus come to do? Preach a socialistic redistribution of wealth? Introduce New Age Hinduism to Torah-observant Jews? Prophesy for Allah? Teach us how to attain personal godhood or accomplish Christ consciousness? Advocate for the poor, the marginal, and the disenfranchised in a campaign for social justice? Let’s see.
To separate the real Jesus from legendary christs of any sort, I simply employed my system. I carefully read every line of every Gospel and isolated every passage that spoke of Jesus’ purpose—references either from Jesus himself, from clues in the birth narratives, or from statements from Jesus’ forerunner, John the Baptist. I also isolated every reference to the poor.
My search regarding the poor revealed something surprising, considering the breadth of the record. It turns out that Jesus almost never spoke of the poor. He made only ten specific references to “poor” of different sorts, not counting parallel passages. Even this small number overstates the issue because of an interesting pattern my search revealed, one I have noted elsewhere:
In the vast majority of cases where Jesus mentions the poor, he does so not to commend the poor as such, but to make a point about something else—hypocrisy, a widow’s generosity, Zacchaeus’s repentance, the rich young ruler’s confusion, or a lesson about the afterlife.
Jesus did care about the financially destitute, of course, and enjoined charity and compassion for them through kindness and voluntary giving to the disadvantaged (Lk. 12:33, 14:13–14), a point John the Baptist emphasized as well (Lk. 3:11). Campaigning for the poor, however, was not part of his project.
In one case, Jesus actually was dismissive of the poor when compared to something else that was his greater concern: “For you always have the poor with you; but you do not always have Me” (Matt. 26:11, cf. Mk. 14:5–9, Jn. 12:8).
What was it about Jesus himself that defined his mission in a way that completely eclipsed a legitimate and appropriate concern for the financially destitute? Jesus’ three remaining references to the poor answer that question.
In only two instances did Jesus identify anything about his mission with those people he considered “poor.” When preaching on the Sabbath at the synagogue in Nazareth he said:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord. (Lk. 4:18–19)
When John the Baptist sent word from prison questioning in his dark moments whether or not Jesus was indeed “the Expected One,” Jesus responded to his doubts by reporting the fulfillment of his earlier claim:
Go and report to John what you hear and see: the blind receive sight and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. (Matt. 11:4–5, cf. Lk. 7:22)
Note two important things about the poor and oppressed from these passages. First, it is clear in both references that foundational to Jesus’ ministry of mercy—giving sight to the blind, healing the lame, cleansing the lepers, raising the dead—was preaching the gospel to the “poor.”
Second, Jesus’ sermon on that Sabbath in Nazareth is the only place he makes mention of concern for the “oppressed.” Peter, however, gives us insight into the kind of oppression Jesus had in mind:
You know of Jesus of Nazareth, how God anointed him with the Holy Spirit and with power, and how he went about doing good and healing all who are oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.… Of him all the prophets bear witness that through his name everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins. (Acts 10:38, 43)
Taken together, these passages about the poor paint a clear picture of Jesus’ intent. The poor were to receive the gospel, have their sins forgiven, and be released from the devil’s power—that last point underscored by Jesus’ consistent practice of freeing people from demon possession.
What kind of “poor” would receive this gospel message of forgiveness and thus be freed from the oppression of the devil? Not the proud, pharisaical self-righteous, but rather those who understood their spiritual poverty—which is precisely the point Jesus makes in his sole remaining reference to the poor: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:3, cf. Lk. 6:20).
Clearly, contending for the financially destitute as such was not his concern, nor was campaigning on behalf of the marginalized, the disenfranchised, or the socially oppressed.
Jesus’ central concern was bringing forth a kingdom in a way that secured liberty for the captives through forgiveness of sin—a fact that every one of my remaining Gospel passages about Jesus’ mission makes manifestly clear.
On this point, I will simply let the record speak for itself.