In both political and ecclesial discourse these days, I have noticed this phrase popping up with increasing frequency: “The Jesus I know,” which is then followed by a controversial or at least disputed statement of what Jesus would or wouldn’t do, believe, or say in a particular circumstance.
I dislike this rhetorical tactic. For one thing, it feels like the speaker is claiming moral high ground over someone with whom he or she disagrees: “If you knew Jesus like I know Jesus, then you would know that what I’m saying is true. Why don’t you know Jesus like that? What’s wrong with you? What’s wrong with your faith? And how can you disagree with Jesus and call yourself a Christian?”
If I disagree with the “Jesus that you know,” I hope you’ll appreciate why these words put me on the defensive. It’s hardly a constructive place to begin or continue a conversation. To say the least, it’s glib, and it fails to give me credit: Obviously, if I believed that Jesus “agreed” with you that a particular conviction that I possess is wrong, I would repent—at least I hope (I’m still a sinner, after all, or at least simul justus et peccator)! In which case, we wouldn’t be disagreeing at all.
So let’s agree, even when we otherwise disagree, that we do so in good faith, and that (if we are professing Christians) we both already know the same Jesus. Indeed, to do otherwise risks the sinful kind of judging that Jesus warns against.
More importantly, though: How do we know Jesus in the first place? Do we Christians not all have access to the same Jesus? Or do some Christians have superior access—based perhaps on their own “spiritual growth” or gifts? And if we believe that, are we not in danger of the same problems that Paul warns the Corinthians against in his first epistle, on account of which he wrote the most beautiful poem about love the world has ever seen (1 Corinthians 13)? “As for knowledge, it will pass away…”
Please don’t misunderstand: For months, as my own congregation can attest, I’ve been preaching about the need for us to “fall in love with Jesus” again, or to fall in love more deeply with him. And by all means, falling in love relates directly to our experience with Christ. The apostle Paul appeals to this experience, as opposed to mere intellectual knowledge, in Galatians 4:6: “And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’” Moreover, given that we can “quench the Spirit” (1 Thess. 5:19), our lack of faithfulness—irrespective of deeply held theological convictions—can impede the work of the Spirit, not to mention the extent to which he enables the gospel penetrate our hearts.
Nevertheless, while we can all know Jesus better, experientially, nothing we know of Jesus in this way will contradict what Jesus—through his Spirit—has revealed in his Word. As I’ve said before on this blog, I’m no “red-letter” Christian: the words of Christ aren’t more authoritative than the rest of the Bible. How can they be, when the One and same Spirit inspired everything else in scripture? Or when Paul’s most direct words about the Bible’s inspiration, 2 Timothy 3:16-17, were written before the gospels themselves, or certainly before they were part of something we now call the New Testament? I periodically explain to my congregation that when we stand for the reading of gospel in worship, we don’t do so because the gospels—as opposed the the Old Testament, or the Psalms, or the epistles—are more inspired.
No, we stand for the reading of the gospels as a way of acknowledging the Spirit of Christ in our midst—the way we might stand for the president of the United States, were he to enter the room. We stand for Christ our King. It’s not that Christ isn’t present for the rest of the worship service, only that this is a fitting place, symbolically, to acknowledge his presence: just as, in the gospels, Jesus is present with his disciples as he is speaking.
From my perspective, then, when people appeal to the “Jesus I know,” it’s incumbent on them to justify their knowledge based on the Bible, the primary means by which any of us knows Jesus. Everything we know for sure about Jesus comes from the Bible.
If you disagree, consider this: Does anyone—even the saintliest or most mystical among us—know something about Jesus that contradicts what God has revealed about Jesus in the Bible? Not coincidentally, I believe, the holiest people I’ve known are also ones who know and love the Bible the best!
My point is, let’s please not short-circuit the Bible with an appeal to personal experience.
In a different context and for a different controversy, Paul wrote, “Does he who supplies” [present tense, i.e., in an ongoing way in the life of a believer] “the Spirit” [the means by which we experience Jesus Christ] “to you and works miracles among you do so by the works of the law, or by hearing with faith…? This “hearing” of which Paul speaks is the hearing—or, as is usually the case with us, the reading—of the gospel. For Paul this wouldn’t even mean simply the reading of the four literal gospels, even if they existed; Paul sees the gospel throughout the Bible, as evidenced by his words in v. 8—”And the Scripture… preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying…”—or 1 Corinthians 10:1-5, including v. 4: “For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ.” Also, when Paul preached to the Berean Jews in Acts 17, they “examin[ed] the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.” What “things”? Things related to Paul’s message about Christ and the gospel, which he proved by the Old Testament scriptures.
Brothers and sisters, I want you to know Jesus more. I want you to experience Jesus more. I want God our Father to supply you with more of the Holy Spirit, which makes our experience of Christ possible. But the primary way that he does this is through the Bible, God’s written Word. Read it. Meditate on it. Pray it. Pray over it. Hear the Lord speak to you through it. Be “consumed with longing” for it (Psalm 119:20); let it be your “delight” (119:24). Let us always live according to it (Luke 1:38). Aside from the gift of salvation through Christ, and his ongoing presence with us through the Spirit, it is our life’s greatest treasure.