by Joshua Theilen
Some people read the Bible and see Jesus as a rebel. Even a quick Google search reveals that the notion that Jesus Christ was a radical or a revolutionary — that He came into this world to challenge the status quo and lead humanity into a brighter future — is fairly pervasive these days.
This rebel-Jesus targeted the Pharisees and Sadducees because they were the men with power, the gatekeepers of Jewish culture. He thumbed his nose at the priests and politicians. Most of all, rebel-Jesus broke the rules. He worked on the Sabbath Day, ate with sinners and tax collectors and defended women who were about to be stoned for adultery.
If He were to live out his earthly ministry today, rebel-Jesus would wear a leather jacket, with tattoo and earring to match. He would shame anyone in authority, be they in the church, politics or business. He would defy any powers-that-be and stand up for the marginalized.
Not everyone sees this Jesus in the Gospels, of course. Some people read the Bible and see only the square Jesus. This is the status-quo Savior, defender of the old guard — the way things were supposed to be. He is calling humanity back to the old way of doing things, the right way.
Square Jesus abhorred sin, loved tradition and pointed out where those of His day had deviated from the true path. If He were walking openly upon the earth today, this Jesus would be smartly dressed, vote right wing and always obey the rules.
Anyone with a small amount of Biblical knowledge can see that both of these caricatures of Jesus touch on some points of truth. Certainly Jesus did confront the powers of his day. And He did call humanity away from sin and back to the eternal God. To boil Jesus down, however, to either a zealous renegade or an ardent traditionalist is to ignore His true and fundamental identity.
Walking the roads of Galilee and Judea, Jesus was a straight line in a crooked world. He was not rebelling or conforming. He was righteous.
Saint Paul, echoing Isaiah 45:23, writes: “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:9-11).
So He was — and is — not simply a progressive rebel or a stodgy conservative. Jesus Christ is King. He is God.
Sure, He stands against the powers-that-be, but only insofar as those powers are standing against God. Jesus is not a rebel for the sake of rebellion. He rebels for the sake of the divine rule of God. When those with power and influence oppose God, Jesus rebukes them. When Satan and his demons try to harm God’s creation, Jesus drives them out. In this, He is not acting as a “rebel without a cause.” He is asserting his authority as God and King.
Jesus is also not a stuffy square who simply wants things to remain as they have always been. The only ideal past that he calls humanity back to is the Garden of Eden, pre-fall, where Adam and Eve lived under God’s perfect rule. “Behold,” he says “I am making all things new” (Rev. 21:5).
There is no culture in the history of the world that dare remain as it is in the face of God’s law and the call to repentance. No person can remain the same either. Yet we are to turn back to God, not to some idealized history. Jesus is not upholding the past, but the Word of God. He does not call us to a romanticized past, but to the foot of His Cross.
Caricatures of Jesus can never suffice. Shoehorning Him into one of our cultural boxes strips the Lord of the weight of His authority and glory. Doing so, we lose sight of who Jesus really is. He is not a rebel, nor a square, waging some endless culture war. He is the rightful King of the universe to whom all powers, cultures and individuals must bow. He is the One who has promised to return “in a cloud with power and great glory” (Luke 21:27). And when Christ does return, all will bow and confess, whether the Lord of Glory fits their crooked notions of Him — or not.
The Rev. Joshua Theilen is director of Camp CILCA in Central Illinois.