By Ed Rybarczyk
Who was Jesus? An out-of-the-box charismatic Mediterranean figure? A free-spirited cultural iconoclast? A wandering anti-religious prophet? A staunch defender of the underdog? Honestly, today we are presented with as many Jesuses as there are opinions. Right? It’s kind of like the old saying, “There are as many opinions as there are people.”
Back in seminary our professors warned us against psychologizing Jesus. Too often, said the profs, psychologies merely turn into projections of the very one trying to psychologize the Man from Nazareth. “He was a thrilling and exuberant extrovert,” claims the outgoing extrovert. “Jesus was a pensive introvert,” says the nervous introverted Gospel reader. “He exhibited traits of a middle child: peacemaking, bridge-building, and the building of close relationships with those outside of the family unit,” argues the over-looked middle child. Each “Jesus” is an affirmation of the one psychologizing him.
But the truth is? The notion of psychologically profiling someone’s personality was non-existent in the ancient world. Far better to assess someone’s character by what they did. Actions were more apparent than thoughts or motives. Someone’s identity shone through their deeds. Maybe that’s why James (2:17) wrote, “Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead”?
Truth be told, Jesus transcends all neat and tidy descriptions. For instance, all of the following are biblically true about Jesus: He was an establishment-outsider Galilean from up north in Nazareth but He could speak Hebrew; He both deeply loved Judaism and was regularly critical of it; He was brilliant but had never had a formal education; in a way that embarrassed normal social convention He spoke in public with women, even lewd prostitutes; He could hold huge crowds spellbound but He also practiced regular prayerful solitude; He ate and slept like a normal man yet He spoke with an authority that many understood to ring of God Himself; and, He tenderly embraced social outcasts but could drive out money grubbers in the Temple. Across all of those two-fold tensions, Jesus exhibited an astonishing amount of determination.
Me? For several decades now – reading the Gospels and watching how Jesus moved through His ministry – I’ve been gripped by the tenacity of Jesus. Yes, I’ll admit my own psychology here: my recognition of His resolve stems from my own experience of Him. In my life Jesus has been tenacious. He doesn’t easily let me go. He continually convicts me of my sins. He constantly calls me to walk in His new life, to choose grace. He prods me toward abiding righteousness. Praise the Lord, He has been a fixed presence in my life.
But here I’m thinking more historically and textually than personally. The Jesus of the Gospels was fierce. Or, perhaps fierce is too strong. Better, He was fix-ed. He exhibited a continual resolve. Let me offer a few examples.
One day while He was speaking to the crowds, Jesus’ mother and brothers were on the edge of the crowd, trying to get near Him. Seeing them, a man said to Jesus, “Look, your mother and brothers are standing outside. They’d like to speak with you.” Jesus responded, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And then motioning toward his disciples He added, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Mt. 12:46-50). That’s an odd response, right? What does it reveal? That Jesus was more fixed on His mission – proclaiming the Kingdom of God – than He was on his family.
Another time He had His hand on a little child and proceeded to talk about how the Kingdom of God is open to those who are like children. But then He warned, “If any one of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea,” (Mt. 18:1-7). Today? We would find such strong words off-putting. But clearly, again, we see something of Jesus’ resolve to warn of the razor-sharp nature of the Kingdom of God. Jesus never apologized for His harsh tone, never said, “Hey, I know what I said just there was hard to swallow, but really, I’m just saying it out of love.” No, He left his poignant words awkwardly hanging so they’d have full effect. He intended to jolt people. And that intent stemmed from His resolve. He knew what He was doing, knew who He was.
One more. After feeding the 5,000, Jesus questioned Peter, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter confessed, “You are the Messiah of God.” Immediately Jesus revealed to the disciples that He was constrained, He said, “to endure great suffering, rejection by the Jewish elders, and be killed and on the third day be raised” (Lk. 9:18-27). Near that chapter’s end Luke tells us, “Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem” (9:51). We realize that Jesus knew full well He would be murdered in the holy city. Nevertheless, Jesus determined – setting His face – to make it to the city of David. Why? It was what God the Father had for Him. And we know that nothing could deter Jesus from obeying his Father. What amazing determination! Even in the face of suffering, such resolve! All made evident by His actions.
Here in Western culture where integrity is fleeting, I find Jesus’ own fix-ed nature mesmerizing. He did as He taught. He let His “yes be yes,” and His “no be no” (Mt. 5:37). He knew who He was and what God had for Him to do. Indeed, in significant ways, I am saved by the faith of Jesus Christ. He remained faithful, even when I am not. Yes, I do confess, I am projecting something of my own psychology to admit that I am enthralled by Jesus’ resolve.
And so I pray, “Lord, help me to remain fixed to You. Empower me to walk in the kind of resolve that You exhibited on every page of the Gospels.”
Ed Rybarczyk, Ph.D., is both an ordained minister and a retired History of Theology professor. He now produces and hosts the Uncensored Unprofessor podcast @uncensoredunprofessor.com. He can be reached at [email protected].