I have one rule in my tenth grade Bible class: No one is allowed to talk about Jesus.
I came up with this rule after years of having students come to class in one of two camps: either they (a) knew everything about Jesus—what he did, what he said, what he thought, or (b) were on the outside of this whole religion thing and weren’t sure they were interested in Jesus (or the kids who knew everything about him).
To the first group Jesus had become a fill-in-the-blank answer, a routine. Boring. Predictable. They could recite the Apostles’ Creed in their sleep (I think some of them actually were asleep). Of course he did miracles, of course he died, of course he rose again. Amen hallelujah duh. It’s Jesus.
In the second group Jesus was commonly perceived as being exclusively for those other kids. Jesus belonged to the ones who got good grades, never swore, and followed all the rules. If Jesus showed up right now, he wouldn’t want anything to do with us.
What frustrated me the most was that both groups of students were missing Jesus, not because they’d never heard about him, but precisely because they had heard about him.
And yet, I knew if these students could meet Jesus in his actual world they would see that he doesn’t fit inside our nicely labeled categories. Those who find him predictable might be shocked when they put on first-century lenses and discover that this man’s entire ministry was surrounded by controversy, surprise, outrage, suspicion, disappointment, astonishment, and glory. One minute he’s being hailed as the Messiah and the next he’s thrown out of church, accused of demon-possession.
And those who’ve seen him as some kind of moral enforcer might be pleasantly startled by his wild—and often rebellious—goodness. He is constantly upsetting the religious authorities of his day by standing with the underdogs. Pastor and author Timothy Keller says
In general, religiously observant people were offended by Jesus, but those estranged from religious and moral observance were intrigued and attracted to him. We see this throughout the New Testament accounts of Jesus’ life. In every case where Jesus meets a religious person and a sexual outcast (as in Luke 7) or a religious person and a racial outcast (as in John 3–4) or a religious person and a political outcast (as in Luke 19), the outcast is the one who connects with Jesus and the elder-brother type does not. Jesus says to the respectable religious leaders, “the tax collectors and the prostitutes enter the kingdom before you” (Matthew 21:31). –The Prodigal God
I knew if my students could meet this Jesus their lives would never be the same. But how to bypass all their crippling assumptions? This is why I made the rule: No more talking about “Jesus.” Instead, we were going to study the life of a Middle-Eastern, first-century Jewish man named Yeshua. After sharing my reasons, I explained that we were going to try our best to follow the story through first-century eyes. This means when Yeshua speaks, we whisper with the crowds; when he does miracles, we marvel and wonder just who this man is; when he criticizes the people in power and performs Sabbath healings, we sit on the edge of our seats; and when he’s betrayed, murdered, and laid to rest in a tomb, we weep and mourn because death is permanent. And when he rises, we wildly celebrate his return with all who knew and loved Him.
Then, after a semester of spending time with Yeshua on his own terms, we must ask the supremely important question: What are we going to do with this man? Is he worth knowing? Is he worth following?
My students aren’t the only ones with preconceived ideas about Jesus. I’ve learned that when people talk about Jesus, they inevitably bring with them a host of impressions, associations, and conclusions, whether or not they mean to. Search for “Jesus” on Google images and you’ll see countless variations: slightly-ticked-and-super-holy Jesus, jolly high-five Jesus, “Don’t-touch-my-robe-I-just-had-it-cleaned” Jesus, “I-know-what-you-did-last-weekend-and-I’m-not-happy Jesus,” and so on. Some of our ideas about him have been damaged by those who bear his name, while others have been shaped by a culture that misunderstands who he is. Whatever the case, talking about Jesus can be like trying to use a word that has a thousand different connotations and definitions, many of them inaccurate, some of them even opposite of the true definition.
Simply put, I don’t write about Jesus because I’m convinced he is uniquely important, and I’m afraid one of the biggest barriers to meeting him is the assumption that we’ve got him figured out already.
So why am I writing this post that’s not about Jesus but obviously totally is? This is an invitation to take a few steps back, to leave behind all the things you’ve come to think about Yeshua and meet him for the very first time, or maybe meet him again for the very first time. In class we make a conscious effort to do this by calling him Yeshua (the Hebrew name translated into English as Jesus, Spanish as Jesús, etc. etc.). This is about acknowledging that so many have gotten off on the wrong foot in their understanding of just what it is Yeshua offers, and allowing him to introduce himself afresh. This is about hearing him call your name like those young fishermen heard him call theirs so many years ago, not knowing that their lives were about to change forever.