What's Your Picture of Jesus?

Andy Robinson 7 months ago
Blog 3 mins
Found in: Bible

I love old church buildings with their soaring architecture, echoing sounds, and colourful windows. And yet there is something about them that has always amused me. The images of Jesus that you get in the stained glass are decidedly Anglo-Saxon. The eyes are often quite blue and the hair somewhat blond – almost certainly nothing like the Jesus who walked around 1st century Israel.

But at a deeper level, such inaccuracy is a problem that isn’t limited to church builders of the past. Having the wrong picture of Jesus is a difficulty that can strike all of us. In one of his lesser-known works, the 17th-century writer John Bunyan created a character by the name of ‘Mr-Wrong-Thoughts-of-Christ’. For all of us, the picture of Jesus in our minds can be different from the real one we see in the Bible. And that can impact us in the area of sexuality. Here are two ways in which ‘Mr-Wrong-Thoughts-of-Christ’ can lead us astray.

The 21st-century Jesus

The first is the modern equivalent of the stained-glass window – we make Jesus in our own image. So, we begin to think of a Jesus who would be very at home with 21st-century ethics. This is a Jesus who encourages us to be true to ourselves, to express our desires and never to suppress anything. In practice, this normally happens when we rightly note that Jesus is inclusive of all types of people (e.g. gay or same-sex attracted people) and then wrongly extrapolate that to suggest that he approves of all types of behaviour.

Ultimately, though, that doesn’t fit with the image of Jesus you get in the Gospels. In Matthew 19, he defines marriage in terms of God’s plan in creation – the lifelong partnership of a man and a woman. Indeed, Jesus’ contemporaries were struck by how tightly he defines sexual ethics – going way beyond others in outlawing divorce, for instance. Gloriously, he forgives sexual sinners, but he never indicates that they were not actually guilty of sin. And he never gets anywhere near uttering a platitude like ‘Love is love’.

Jesus' invitation to discipleship is the very opposite of a call to be true to ourselves and express our desires.

More than that, his invitation to discipleship is the very opposite of a call to be true to ourselves and express our desires. ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me’, he says (Luke 9:23). The path to true life is that of self-denial rather than self-expression with a call to reshape our desires to what is ultimately for our good.

Can I be blunt? When people argue that Jesus would encourage me to express my same-sex sexual desires in a relationship with another man, they are arguing from the Jesus of their imagination rather than the Jesus of the Gospels.

But, for those of us who have spotted this, a more subtle danger awaits that can lead us away from the life in all its fullness that Jesus offers.

The unsympathetic Jesus

Imagine, for a moment, the same-sex attracted Christian. They have just found themselves attracted to the man on the bus or the girl in their class or the guy in the film and all sorts of lustful desires are beginning to emerge. Or they are tired and they pick up their phone and they are about the click on the link. It is an agonising experience to endure.

At that very moment, it is of huge importance what our image of Jesus looks like. It can be very easy to have a Jesus who looks stern and disapproving. That becomes problematic because our instinctive response will be to try to get Jesus out of our minds, to run from him and engage in sin.

Wonderfully, though, that isn’t the Jesus of the Bible. The Jesus of the Bible is fully human. ‘We do not have a high priest who is unable to feel sympathy for our weakness, but we have one who has been tempted in every way just as we are – yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need’ (Hebrews 4:15-16).

I know there are all kinds of discussions that need to be had about what it means for Jesus to be tempted when he didn’t have the same sinful nature as us. But, however you work out those debates, you need to end up with a Jesus who is sympathetic towards Christians facing temptation. That’s the Jesus I need because, as I hear his sympathy expressed towards me in the painful moment of temptation, I am drawn towards him rather than running away from him. I’m encouraged to go to God’s throne and say, ‘Thank you so much that you know and care and that right now I can come to you for help.’

This is gloriously counter-intuitive. It is so easy to imagine that a stern Jesus is what will keep me from giving into temptation. But Hebrews says the opposite. It is a sympathetic Jesus that I need.

The real Jesus

We need the real Jesus. He is clear about sexual ethics and, at the very same time, sympathetic towards those who are battling to live by them and forgiving to those who have failed to do so. The real Jesus is so much better than anything I would want to conjure up in my own mind.