A few years ago, it was popular for some Christians to wear wristbands with the initials WWJD on them. The letters stood for the question, “What would Jesus do?” The question is probably a good one. But it seems to assume that what Jesus would do is always evident to us. This isn’t always the case. In fact, the question the disciples asked more often than not was a very different one. Instead of wanting to know what Jesus would do, they asked, “Why did Jesus do that?” The disciples were often puzzled by Jesus. They were as confused by His actions as they were by His teaching.
Mark 4:35–41 describes how the disciples were caught in a sudden storm on the lake. Jesus was asleep in the stern of their boat. At first, they were too busy trying to survive to even think of Him. Like the terrified sailors of Psalm 107, as the waves “mounted up to the heavens and went down to the depths; in their peril, their courage melted away. They reeled and staggered like drunkards; they were at their wits’ end” (Psalm 107:26–27). When they realized they could not manage on their own, they turned to Jesus in a panic to awaken Him from a deep sleep with this question: “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?” (Mark 4:38). Jesus got up and stilled the wind and waves with a word. Then He turned to the disciples and asked them a question: “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” (Mark 4:40). This is the kind of question that one does not answer. It is not a question so much as it is a statement. It is the sort your mother asks when she is irritated with you.
If we look at the circumstances through the disciples’ eyes, it’s hard not to be startled by Jesus’ reaction. Perhaps even disturbed. The answer is evident to us. Why were the disciples so afraid? Because the boat was sinking! They thought they were going to die. The storm was real, not a figment of their imagination. The disciples had seen storms like this before and knew the damage they could do. According to Mark, the boat was filling up with water, and Luke says they were “in great danger” (Luke 8:23). Jesus’ reaction to the situation seems harsh. It doesn’t fit our image of Him. We expect Him to offer something more comforting. “Don’t worry, fellows, I wasn’t really asleep,” we might expect Jesus to say. “I am always watching over you, even when it seems like I am not.” But, in a way, the disciples’ reaction after Jesus calmed the storm is even more surprising. After the wind died down and it was completely calm, “They were terrified and asked each other, ‘Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!'” (Mark 4:41). What was it about Jesus that so disturbed them?
We often ask the same question as we read through the Gospels. Who is this Jesus? Our sense of Him seems to change with the situation. There are times when He seems gentle and others when He is gruff. He refuses to act as judge or arbiter for the man whose brother has withheld his portion of the inheritance yet calls down woes on others (Luke 12:14; Matt. 11:21; 23:15). We believe He has come to reveal Himself in plain language using simple stories. Yet, He silences His followers, and those who hear Him seem to think that He is talking in riddles (Matt. 10:13–17). He appears to be a savior with a thousand faces. He often seems the same to us.
Every age seems to have its preferred image of Jesus. When I first began to follow Jesus in the early 1970s, many of us thought of Jesus as a long-haired, sandal-wearing non-conformist. Popular culture reinforced this image with rock/folk musicals like Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell that portrayed Jesus as one of us. We thought of Jesus as the proto hippie, but without all the drugs and sex (we kept the rock and roll and eventually folded it into our worship).
By the ’80s and ’90s, things had changed. Those of us in the Jesus movement got older. Like our secular counterparts, the hippies, we became the establishment instead of fighting against it. We married, had children, and went to work. We left the coffee house and joined the church. And as our lives changed, so did our view of Jesus. This was an era of big churches and million-dollar budgets. By then, we had begun to see Jesus as an entrepreneurial leader. People wrote books about marketing the church. At the same time, the political resistance of the 60s had given way to political engagement. We didn’t come to view Jesus as a modern politician, but we did become convinced that there were political implications for those who followed Him. Even though Jesus had said that His kingdom was not of this world, we were sure that Christianity should have a political bent. Jesus was, after all, a king. If nothing else, we believed that Jesus spoke truth to power.
These days, the focus is not on dynamic leaders of entrepreneurial churches but cultural sensitivity. We prefer a hyper–sensitive Jesus who is often offended but doesn’t offend. Read the comments on your favorite social media page and you quickly notice that the Jesus portrayed there always seems to be in favor of the causes that we champion and annoyed by the things that annoy us. He is more mirror than Master. Where the culture is concerned, we tend to think of Jesus as more of an archetype than a savior.
The Scriptures do not portray Jesus as a symbol or even an archetype but as a living person. Yet there is some variation in the portrait they offer. We might think of the Gospels as a hall of portraits, with each episode intended to highlight some facet of the person and work of Jesus Christ. We are not interested in knowing Christ merely as a concept or an ideal. We want to know Him as a person. Furthermore, we want to know the true Jesus, not one whose image has been managed by anyone’s personal or theological agenda. Because of its unique character and through the action of the Holy Spirit, Scripture is all we really need to know Jesus Christ on a personal level. But it is not all we have. Like the first disciples, we can also know Him by experience. Perhaps the best way to try and explain how this works is through the words of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, who observed:
“. . . Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.”
Hopkins seems to be saying that every person can be an image of Christ to us. They serve as a kind of medium through which we see Christ. Their lives are the “stage” upon which He plays, and His beauty is displayed for us when someone reaches out to us when we feel unwelcome or unwanted. Or when they come to our defense when no one else will. A moment of undeserved but genuine forgiveness from someone becomes a tangible emblem of the grace we have received through Christ. In this way, we see Jesus as lovely in limbs and eyes that are not His. At other times it is our privilege to play the part of Christ. We persist in showing love to someone who has scorned us because of our faith. We do good to those who have done evil to us.
But if the first generation of disciples struggled to see the glory of Christ in the perfect yet very human Jesus with whom they traveled, ate, and lived, all subsequent generations of Christians have struggled to see Him in the very human and imperfect church. Indeed, like the disciples in the storm, it is hard not to ask Christ a question of our own: Is this the best we can expect? So many things the church does seem to obscure their reflection of Christ. We were hoping for a better environment more suited to experiencing Jesus. We were looking for better people. The answer is that this is not the best we can expect. There is better yet to come. Far better. But for now, this is good enough.
Eugene Peterson reminds us that it is no use looking for Christ in purer surroundings or among better people. “It is understandable that there are many who resent having to deal with the church, when they are only interested in Christ,” he admits. “The church is so full of ambiguity, so marred with cruelty and cowardice, so tarnished with hypocrisies and sophistries, that they are disgusted with it.” Nor will be able to find the perfect environment in which to experience His presence. We do not have to wait for Jesus to show up. No matter how complex the situation or how imperfect the people are, Jesus is always the landscape of our Christian experience: “Christ is known (by faith) to be preexistent with the Father. He is believed to be glorious in the heavens,” Peterson explains. “But he is received in the everyday environs of the church in the company of persons who gather for worship and witness.”
Jesus is a person, not an icon. He has face, form, and beauty of limb that is all His own, but we do not yet know Him by these. The time will come when “we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). On that day, we will know Him by more than the reflection we have seen through the words and actions of others. On that day, we will see Him face to face. We will know Him fully even as we are fully known (1 Cor. 12:13). There is, indeed, a fulness that is yet to come. But we do not have to wait until then to know Him. Those who have yet to see Christ in the fullness of His person know Him even now. As 2 Corinthians 4:6 says, “ For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.”