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A Second Look at Jesus

If you are certain that your understanding of Jesus’ person and ministry is correct because it comes from the biblical gospels, then your first reaction to this article is that I am writing fantasy. Let me reassure you that I am very familiar with the content of the bible, I have studied theology, and I served in parish ministry for thirty-five years with a rather traditional view of Christianity.

However, seeds for change were planted during my ministry, and in retirement I have had opportunity to study the writings of a number of prominent theological scholars who have helped me to understand the gospels as ‘time sensitive’ writings. This has led to a radically different understanding of Jesus and his ministry, a change that has stimulated my faith journey. I will attempt to summarize my journey.

The key to my new understanding is to unlock the knowledge which I learned in Seminary—the timeline for the writing of the gospels. Mark was written about forty years after the death of Jesus, Matthew and Luke fifty to sixty years after Jesus’ death and John perhaps ten years later. The gospels are not historical records—they are the result of a developing interpretation of how the ministry and death of Jesus was explained by followers of Jesus who were steeped in a Jewish religious history, and in the context of the world view of their time.

I find it interesting that the original followers of Jesus were described as “Followers of the Way.” (Acts 9:2). The followers of Jesus were first called “Christians” in Antioch (Acts 11:26). The change suggests that ‘followers of Jesus’—those who joined his mission to bring the perceived cooperative life in heaven to reality on the earth by caring for creation, by respecting other people (especially those neglected or rejected by society at large) and by calling for justice for all, were replaced by a more appealing understanding of Jesus as the Messiah (Christ) whose death was a sacrifice for human sin and which assured that those who believed in him would have eternal life in heaven. [I could explain my understanding of how and why this happened, but that is too lengthy for this article.]

The appeal of this new understanding of Jesus as the Christ and his death as ‘payment’ for human sin and gateway to eternal life, apparently inspired church leaders to develop a theology which gave them power and ultimate control of the masses. As long as the ‘authorities’ could control the doctrine they could control the masses. The system has worked for many centuries and during much of that time the masses were oppressed and the church became wealthy. So the abuses for which Jesus condemned the Jewish religious system of his time were perpetuated in the church which was established in his name. How tragic!

Church leaders, bishops, have consistently resisted any change in doctrine and consequently people submitted because the church held sway over their eternal fate. Since many people in our time have a different world view it becomes impossible to believe the traditional doctrine, and because church officials continue to resist a change in doctrine, the only vote that people have today is with their feet. Many people continue to be inspired by Jesus, but they leave the organized church. They are spiritual but not religious.

I value the traditional church because it has nurtured and educated me and has preserved the bible and made it available to me. I hope the leaders of the institutional church will see the mission field of those who are spiritual and who still love Jesus, and will reach out to them, accepting them with their different understanding of the life and mission of Jesus. The ‘new’ understanding of Jesus’ mission and teaching is most likely closer to that which Jesus taught and lived and to which he invited people to “Follow Me!” It certainly will have more energy than the passive acceptance of traditional theology. We would benefit more from a serious reformation of the church in our time than we will with the celebration of the five hundredth anniversary of an earlier reformation.

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