A few years ago, it was popular to emphasize the masculinity of Jesus. This was not just an assertion of his humanity but something more. It was an attempt to attract men to the Christian faith by showing that Jesus was a man’s man. This vision portrayed a well-muscled Jesus who worked as a laborer, slept in the open, and hung out with the guys (twelve guys to be specific). It was a theme that coincided with the rise of men’s movements both secular and sacred in the culture at large and which was fueled further by angst over what some called the “feminization” of the church.
But the notion of “muscular” Christ did not begin with the Promise Keepers Movement of the 1990’s. The idea of muscular Christianity was popularized during the 19th century and connected the development of Christian character to athletics. What is more, it reflected a way of thinking that was not limited to the Christian sphere. It is interesting to note that Nazism later espoused a similar view, linking the shaping of German character with a national emphasis on athleticism. The Nazi vision of muscularity sprang from a desire to produce a race of warriors and reflected the movement’s affinity with paganism. I am not suggesting that the idea of muscular Christianity is similarly pagan, only noting that there is nothing distinctly Christian about muscularity.
One perceived obstacle in the campaign to rehabilitate Jesus’ muscular image was His affirmation of the virtue that the Bible calls meekness. This was reflected in the third beatitude, which promised that the “meek will inherit the earth.” The Nazis tried to take the earth by force. The athlete relies on superior skill and training. But Jesus points in an entirely different direction. According to Jesus, the meek will win the day. So many have pointed out that meekness is not weakness that the observation has become a cliché. But we also make a mistake when we try to buff up the term.
We get a better idea of what Jesus really means by meekness when we note how he applies it to himself in the invitation of Matthew 11:29: “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” The image is soft rather than hard. The man Christ Jesus is “gentle” and approachable. Although the highest rank is his by right, he does not demand the prominence that goes with it. Instead, he associates with the lowly. He was, as Martyn Lloyd Jones observed, the most approachable person the world has ever seen.
The New Testament does not seem to be especially interested in protecting the muscular image of Jesus. This may be frustrating to those of us who live in an age where hypersensitivity about sexual identity is a feature of daily life. Nevertheless, when 1 Timothy 2:5 speaks of “the man Christ Jesus,” it emphasizes his humanity rather than his masculinity.
What implication does this have for those who are trying to understand what it means to be a man or a woman? It points us in the direction of deference and mutual respect instead of power. Rather than striving for ascendancy, we yield. Instead of demanding our rights, we leave it to God to give us our due. This is a bitter pill to swallow for those who have come to calculate their worth in terms of strength. It also puts a very different cast on what it means for a Christian male to “act like a man.” Apparently, it has more to do with meekness than with muscles.
Not long ago I had dinner with an old college friend named Dave. I reconnected with him last year through the magic of social media, but until the other night it had been 25 years since the two of us had talked face to face. Dave was just as I remembered him. Older, of course, but the same essential person: a serious follower of Jesus Christ who is devoted to his family, his church and his friends. He has been in the same church and has been teaching the same Sunday school class for over 25 years.
Dave is a people person. He is someone who is energized by the crowd. He loves being part of a small group. In other words, he is pretty much everything I am not. I am energized by the crowd, but only when there is a pulpit between us. I hate small groups, for the most part. I am, as Dave told me at dinner the other evening, the same curmudgeon that I was in college.
This came as something of a shock to me. Because to tell you the truth, when I was a young man I did not see myself as a curmudgeon. In fact, I thought I was a people person: an outgoing, vivacious, life of the party sort of guy. Looking back on it, I can see that what is true of Dave is also true of me. As far as my personality goes, things have not really changed much. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that Jesus hasn’t made any difference in my life. He has. My values and behavior have changed radically since I began my walk with Jesus in the early 1970’s. But being a Christian does not seem to have changed my personality, at least not fundamentally.
The late Martyn Lloyd-Jones once observed, “There is no profounder change in the universe than the change which is described as regeneration; but regeneration–the work of God in the soul by which He implants a principle of divine and spiritual life within us–does not change a man’s temperament.” In other words, what the gospel does promise to do for us is something more radical. Instead of changing our temperament, it promises to set apart what I am and have for God. The shy person does not suddenly become outgoing but learns to glorify God with his or her shyness. The surly person does not lose the capacity for surliness but will be able to subject this natural tendency to the purpose and power of God through the Holy Spirit (often with great struggle).
What I saw in my friend Dave the other night is what I see in my own life. Jesus Christ set us on a trajectory of grace and we are still following its arc. We are further along than we when we last met face to face. The intervening years have altered our appearance. But the aim is still true.
One of disparities between apostolic preaching and our own is the degree to which we have marginalized the gospel. We have not abandoned the gospel, only relegated it to the outskirts of our Christian experience. As a result, the message of the cross is primarily reserved for those who are on the threshold of faith. The gospel has become one of the “elementary truths” believers expect to “leave” when they are ready to “go on to maturity” (Heb. 6:1).
This is a conviction shared by our listeners, whose hearts often sink if they suspect that the sermon is “just a gospel message.” The gospel is something they have already heard. They believe and appreciate it. But now they want to learn about the God who gave the gospel. They do not want to be like those about whom the writer of Hebrews complains, who should have been teachers but needed someone to teach them the elementary truths of God’s word all over again.
These assumptions, while understandable, are problematic. It is true that there is more to God’s word than the gospel both theologically and practically. The horizon of subjects upon which the Bible touches is as wide the scope of human experience. Its concerns span all the theological categories from theology proper to eschatology. But if our goal in preaching is for people to know God, it must be asked whether this is possible in any meaningful way apart from the gospel.
Preaching, since it has to do with God, is dependent upon divine self-revelation. We could not know anything about God if he had not taken the initiative to reveal himself. It is, of course, possible to know things about God apart from Christ. The heavens declare the glory of God. Our consciences reveal his eternal power and divine nature. But it is not possible to know God relationally except through Christ. The God who in the past spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, has in these last days spoken to us through his son (Heb. 1:1-2). Jesus is God’s final and best word about himself. This side of the incarnation, all that we know about God must be seen and understood through the lens which Christ provides.