In 2001 Jeremy Bowen presented, Son of God, a documentary on Jesus for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). In the documentary Bowen stated, "The important thing is not what he was or what he wasn't—the important thing is what people believe him to have been. A massive world wide religion, numbering more than two billion people follows his memory—that's pretty remarkable, 2,000 years on."
This is a deadly flattery.
With all due respect to Jeremy Bowen’s thesis that largess = legitimacy, he could not be more wrong. Who Jesus is and what he did is the foundation of our faith, not how many people follow His memory nor ultimately what people believe Him to have been.
If we follow the worldly wisdom of Bowen and those who think this way, we will never be permitted to say the historical Jesus is more important than the people's current interpretation of Him. We won't even be able to say the historical Jesus is accessible to us through scripture. We will only be permitted to say Jesus is accessible to us somewhere in the varied interpretations of the masses and thus the only meaningful study we can do of Jesus is the study of His interpreters. In this way all truth collapses into sociology.
But this is not new. Every generation since the birth of Christ has faced the temptation to take Jesus as an undressed mannequin and put whatever clothes we want on Him. This is why there was such a hot market in the first three centuries after Christ's birth for pseudepigrapha, which literally means "false writings." In books like the "Gospel of Thomas" and "The Gospel of Peter" and "The Second Apocalypse of James" mischievous authors dressed Jesus up in such a way to make Him more appealing to the tastes of the natural man.
We have similar books and theological malpractice floating around today. If you are not anchored to the exclusive revelation of scripture, you easily float upwards in to the smog where Jesus is being breezily re-fashioned by the airy ideas of people who wish to have a transcendent figure in their lives while remaining in complete control of those same lives.
Here are some samples from the pixie dust:
Tolerant Jesus. This Jesus is always writing editorials to the local paper, pleading with everyone to get along. He looks out over the mass of arguing and conflicted humanity and sees them all as his own children. He is always heavy of heart and sighing.
Cheerleader Jesus. This dressed-up version of Jesus is thoroughly chronicled in Christian Smith's book, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford University Press, 2009). This Jesus is defined by Smith as rich in “Moral Therapeutic Deism”. Jesus is in our life to make us happier than other people and nicer than other people. Jesus is coach and grandmother.
Jesus Washington, or Jesus Lincoln, or Jesus W. This Jesus embodies our highest civic ideals and our sense of national pride. He is the perfect founding father. Miraculously He has always voted for the same policies and candidates we have voted for.
Bill Collector Jesus. This Jesus comes around every so often and begs for a little sacrifice. I owe him something to keep him off my back for a while. If I pay homage, I get on with my life just as before until the end of the next month.
Uncle Jesus. This Jesus is a benevolent uncle, a distant relative that everyone in the family loves. We always remember him at Christmas because he of course remembers us. He cheers us by providentially putting on sake all things we wanted to buy this year and opening up parking spots close to the door. We speak kindly of uncle Jesus in family circles and keep up his memory and reputation with the youngin’s. He never scolds.
How do we get our heads out of these weightless clouds? Once again, what we need are the scriptures.
The scriptures are like a sturdy brush in the hands of a skilled archaeologist. They clear away the useless debris that is hiding a precious discovery. A discovery, in our case, that is at the heart of our faith - the true identity of Jesus. A discovery that is not coyly hidden between the lines. It is revealed early and in bold strokes.
As he calmed Joseph down to do the will of God, the angel of the Lord said, "She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins" (Matt. 1:21).
When the angel Gabriel spoke to the trembling virgin, he said: "And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus" (Luke 1:31).
In earthly terms those who had the clearest rights to the child, the father and mother, were not permitted to name Him. Neither are we. Heaven names the Savior so that earth will know "what he was and what he wasn't" - to rightly use the words of Jesus' misguided biographer, Mr. Bowen.
Jesus means "Yahweh saves." The glorious name is the Greek version of the Hebrew, Joshua, (Yeshua). So heaven reveals at the very start, even while He is hidden in amniotic gloom, that Jesus is the Savior of sinners. This is who He truly is in all His depth and grace and power.
To take Him rightly, to hope upon Him, to trust in Him daily, is to always be learning both of my own sinfulness and of His saving mercies. There is no way Jesus can make me happy other than as the balm that cures my sin-sick soul, the blood that covers sin's steady flow. If Jesus makes me happy for reasons other than this, like those listed above, I can be sure I have re-made Him in my own image.