I once heard someone use the phrase ‘the gospel is like a Persian carpet; it has many strands, and each strand is relevant to a particular situation’. I suspect the same is true of the different images for Jesus found in the New Testament. By ‘images’, I mean ‘roles’ or ‘names’ or ‘titles’ – things like ‘Good Shepherd’, ‘The Way, the Truth, and the Life’, ‘Emmanuel’ and so on.
As I look back on my Christian journey, I can discern three images for Jesus which have been particularly helpful at different times. This is not to say that these have been the only images I’ve used during those times, or that I’ve been thinking about them constantly; I simply mean that these three have been the most prominent at successive stages of my Christian walk.
The first was ‘Jesus the Miracle Worker’, and this image was very important for me in my teens. I became a committed Christian in the context of the early years of the charismatic renewal – that is, for those of you who are scratching your heads and saying ‘Huh?’, a movement of the Holy Spirit that swept across the major Christian denominations, beginning in the sixties, largely influenced by Pentecostalism. I had been brought up in the Church of England, that most staid and respectable of institutions (at least in those days), and I had no more expectation that God could heal the sick than that daleks and cybermen were actually real (well, less, in fact – I fancy that in the mid-sixties I did think that daleks and cybermen were real!). I went to church every week, sang in the choir, occasionally read my children’s Bible story book and so on, but I didn’t have any sort of personal relationship with God and certainly didn’t think of God as a being who would intervene personally in people’s lives – at least, not in the modern world; he seemed to have done it in Bible times, and this troubled me a little.
But then in the early seventies I read Dennis Bennett’s book Nine O’Clock in the Morning and David Wilkerson’s The Cross and the Switchblade, and a new world opened up for me. Bennett and Wilkerson told story after story of people being healed and delivered and transformed by the power of God; they spoke of receiving a supernatural ‘Baptism in the Holy Spirit’, speaking in tongues and so on. This was a million miles away from my church experience, but I found it exciting and attractive, and eventually it led me to commit my life to Christ and to ask for these experiences myself. Our church at the time was gradually moving into the charismatic renewal, and in our house fellowship groups we experienced some of these gifts – healings, speaking in tongues, words of wisdom and knowledge and so on.
This was all tremendously exciting for me, and I’m grateful to this day that I had my early Christian nurture in the context of a movement which didn’t just celebrate what Jesus did, but also what he continues to do today, by the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus the Miracle Worker was the one who got my Christian life going, and for this I will always be thankful.
Nonetheless, there are of course weaknesses in this emphasis. It has often been observed that Pentecostalism has a fine theology of healing but an inadequate theology of suffering, and this becomes somewhat troubling when (as inevitably happens) one begins to notice that not all of one’s prayers are answered – not every sick person is healed, not every request for help is granted, etc. I wondered why this might be so. There was very little mention of unanswered prayer in the books I read; was I somehow more inadequate than these people? Was I not praying properly? Was there some sin in my life that was interfering with my prayers? ‘Jesus the Miracle Worker’ didn’t help me with answers to these questions; I had to find them elsewhere.
The second image that was prominent for me in a later period of my life was ‘Jesus the Friend of Sinners’. For various reasons which I don’t want to go into now, I had arrived in my young adult years with a fairly low sense of self-esteem and a pretty strong sense of my own inadequacy. I knew theologically that God loved me and that Christ had forgiven my sins, but I found it hard to actually believe and feel those things in an experiential way. What this meant, in my early Christian years, was that when I perceived myself to have ‘fallen into sin’ (don’t get excited; these were fairly unspectacular sins!), I felt as if I had to ‘go back to the beginning’ of my Christian life and start all over again. I had heard loud and clear the message that only the best was good enough for God, and since it was patently obvious to me that I was not the best, I often found it difficult to believe that God could do anything more than tolerate me.
Adrian Plass, bless him, helped me out of this hole. His 1987 bestseller The Sacred Diary of Adrian Plass did more than make me laugh; it also introduced me to a powerful little phrase of his: ‘God is nice and he likes me’. It’s hard for me to adequately convey the powerful (‘tho gradual) effect that phrase had on my spiritual life. At first I found it difficult to say it with honesty; of course God loved me, but did I really believe that he liked me? In other words, that he enjoyed my company and wanted to spend time with me? It was hard to believe that this was true, but gradually the Holy Spirit worked a miracle and I found myself beginning to believe it.
This not only transformed my life, it also changed my ministry. The gospel of God’s unconditional love and grace became central in my preaching and counselling, and I discovered that many other people had the same difficulty seeing themselves as both loved and liked by God. The good news of Jesus the Friend of Sinners is a powerful medicine to heal the pervasive sense of guilt and inadequacy that seems to be so prevalent in our world today.
Of course, this image of Jesus too has its limits. Another well known phrase is ‘God loves us so much he accepts us just as we are, but he loves us too much to leave us there’. An exclusive concentration on Jesus the Friend of Sinners all too easily neglect the second half of that phrase, leaving us to settle down quite happily ‘just as I am’, without hearing the gospel challenge to experience transformation – to move forward and grow into the likeness of Jesus.
And this leads me to the third image of Jesus that has been prominent in my spiritual journey, the image of Jesus the Master and Teacher. I began to realise in the early 1990s that for a growing number of Christians the language of discipleship was the most meaningful language they could use to express their relationship with Jesus; the paradigm of the Christian as a believer was giving way to the paradigm of the Christian as a disciple. Gradually, I found myself moving in this direction as well, and this was helped by a reading of the books of Tom Wright (with his emphasis on the Lordship of Jesus), and more recently by the writings of classical and contemporary Anabaptist authors, especially John Howard Yoder.
There had been long periods in my Christian life when I found the actual teaching of Jesus about the life of discipleship to be a threat; I was well aware that I was falling short, and my weak grasp on the grace of God in the gospel meant that this led to fear of failure and punishment. So I concentrated on a doctrinal Jesus who died for our sins and neglected an authoritative Jesus who spoke a word for me to follow.
But as Jesus the Friend of Sinners did his gentle healing work in my life, I gradually came to the place where the teaching of Jesus was no longer a fearful thing for me. Yes, I knew that I didn’t measure up to it (I still don’t), but I was no longer afraid of the implications of this. This was because I now saw Jesus’ teaching, not so much as an entrance exam I was failing, but rather as the ongoing curriculum in the school of discipleship. Anyone who has faith in Jesus can enter that school, no matter what their past failures might be. And they will continue to fail, but as the years go by, with continued practice and the help of the Holy Spirit, they will find themselves being transformed into the likeness of Jesus.
And this is where I am now. I know that Jesus the Miracle Worker can intervene in my life and those of others, and I know that because Jesus is the Friend of Sinners I don’t need to be afraid of failure. So I can step out with the help of the Holy Spirit and apply myself to learning to follow the teaching of Jesus the Master and Teacher – learning to live a simple life, to love my enemies, to speak the truth, to seek first the kingdom of God and so on. I still have a long way to go, but as John Newton said, ‘I thank God I am not what I once was!’
Which images of Jesus have been helpful for you on your spiritual journey? And can you see a logical progression from one to another as you have grown through the different stages of your Christian life?
(Picture by Annie Vallotton, illustrating Mark 3:8 in the Good News Bible)