Trying to describe Jesus is…difficult. I know him, but not in the usual way, where we’ve met face to face and had many long conversations in ordinary situations. In fact, I haven’t seen him face to face—not yet, anyway. And we’ve had many conversations, but they aren’t of the “Which sandwich would you like to get today?” variety. Nor can I clearly quote what he’s said to me in the same way I might quote what another friend has said.
And yet. And yet…
So let’s start at the top. Jesus, a Jewish man born in Judea under the Roman empire. Most likely Middle Eastern in appearance, probably bearded, of average height and weight, in good health. Well, sort of. We’ll get back to that, shall we?
Work history: after leaving school, he continued to work with his stepfather Joseph as a carpenter. At age 30, he followed a calling to become a traveling preacher throughout Galilee, Judea, and nearby places. He quickly gathered a following, mainly because he was reported to do many miracles, especially healings. He was also said to have multiplied food, turned water into wine, calmed storms, driven out demons, and even raised the dead. As he did these things, he claimed they were signs of the kingdom of God arriving.
To nobody’s surprise, the local religious establishment took an interest in him. This quickly turned to animosity and even enmity as he said and did many impolitic things, including calling the leaders on their evil deeds and spending his time instead with people of bad reputation. Soon the crowds were wondering if Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah, the special one God had promised to send as their great leader, king, and savior. This upset the authorities even more, who had a vested interest in things not changing, particularly with the occupying Romans looking over their shoulders. They soon decided to get rid of him.
This was not an easy task—at least, not until Passover time came and one of Jesus’ students, a man named Judas Iscariot, grew disaffected with him and volunteered to hand him over. With his help, the religious leaders were able to arrest Jesus on Thursday night of Passover week in an isolated, lonely spot and put him on trial—first before them on charges of blasphemy, and later before the Roman governor and the local puppet king, on charges of sedition. Jesus was roughed up and severely beaten during this series of trials. Jesus’ friends and followers had all fled during the arrest, though a few returned later to see how things turned out.
Towards the end it became clear that the governor wished to release him, having found insufficient cause to go further in the case. Displeased, the religious leaders stirred up a mob to demand Jesus’ death. The governor, trapped by concerns for his own career and welfare, caved in. Jesus was sentenced to crucifixion—a shameful public execution.
Together with two criminals, Jesus was walked out to the place of crucifixion on Friday in Passover week. There he was stripped and nailed to a cross. He died several hours later, having forgiven his executioners and promised paradise to one of his fellow victims.
Two members of the Jewish council who were friendly to Jesus removed his body and gave him proper burial in a rock tomb. The hostile religious leaders got permission from the governor to seal the tomb and post a guard of soldiers to be sure no one stole the body. Jesus’ followers meanwhile were hiding in the city behind locked doors, afraid they would also be arrested.
Very early Sunday morning, several of Jesus’ women followers came to the tomb in the hopes of completing his burial arrangements. They found the tomb empty and Jesus’ body gone. Some saw angels, who told them Jesus had risen from the dead and would meet them later. They then sent them to go tell the other disciples the news. One (who had apparently missed the angel meeting) met Jesus himself, alive again, and reported the meeting to the other disciples as well. In all cases, they were disbelieved and laughed at.
Then Jesus himself showed up….
The New Testament reports that Jesus met with his followers on many occasions over the next forty days, convincing them he was alive again—not a ghost or spirit. After overcoming their disbelief, he spent time preparing them for what was to come—their job of taking his message to the whole world. Six weeks later Jesus returned to heaven in the sight of many of his followers, having promised to come back to this world and wind up human history at an unknown future time. Christians are still waiting for this day.
More Than a Historical Figure
But Jesus is more than just a historical figure. Based on his own promises, Christians believe that we are in touch with him even now, on a daily basis. He said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20).
In a mysterious but real way he lives within his followers—not as a memory or an ideal, but really—and they in him (Romans 8:8-11). The connection gives us spiritual life, and it affects what we do and say as followers of Christ. This is why any Christians who regularly behave in an un-Jesus-like way raise suspicion that they might not really be Christians after all. Christians do mess up, but if this becomes the default mode for their lives, something is very, very wrong on a basic level. The connection may be missing.
Jesus: His Personality
But let’s get back to Jesus himself. What kind of a person is he?
Jesus listens. You know that guy in your life who never shuts up? That’s not Jesus. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John wrote four different versions of his life story, and they all agree that Jesus listened to people, even the least important and most overlooked. He didn’t cut them off. He paid attention, whether it was a request, a complaint, a cry for help, or even an attempt to make small talk. He really listened—and not a lot of people do that.
Jesus cares. The people he listened to felt cared-for, all right. So did the many people in need he helped. For example, one of Jesus’ followers, Peter, had a mother-in-law with a fever. It may or may not have been a serious illness, but that didn’t matter to Jesus—the first thing he did when he came into the house was to make her well. This inspired a lot of other people to bring their sick family members to him the same night. He helped all of them.
But you can see how his heart went out to people in other situations, too. One time he met a funeral as he was entering a city. “As he drew near to the gate of the town, behold, a man who had died was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow, and a considerable crowd from the town was with her. And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her and said to her, “Do not weep.” (Luke 7:12-13) After raising the young man from the dead, “Jesus gave him to his mother” (v. 15). His heart went out to her, who had lost both her husband and her only son.
Jesus really understands. It can be hard to find someone who really understands you, who “gets” the challenges you face and is on your side as you face them. Jesus excels at this. For example, there was a time when someone was dying and Jesus was in a great hurry to get to her home to help her. A crowd of people surrounded him, and a sick woman sneaked up behind him and timidly touched the hem of his robe. She was hoping no one would notice her and she could just touch Jesus and get well. Why? Well, she had a problem with nonstop menstrual bleeding that had been going on for years. In that culture, a problem like that wasn’t just embarrassing and debilitating—it was considered “unclean,” or in childish terms “yucky,” and you were supposed to stay at home until it got better (if it ever got better, which didn’t look likely in this case). She knew she wasn’t supposed to be out in public, let alone in the middle of a crowd around a holy rabbi like Jesus. So she tried to touch him by stealth.
But Jesus scuppered that plan by turning around to ask, “Who touched me?” He took several minutes to deal with her situation and to send her home totally healed and publicly vindicated in front of the whole crowd. No one would be able to doubt her healing or to blame her for breaking custom after his wholehearted welcome of her. And only then did he turn back to his original errand.
The point is, Jesus understood that in this woman’s case, physical healing was not enough. Who would believe her that the problem was gone? Even if they did, wouldn’t the stigma linger? She didn’t just need physical healing, she needed social healing. And that’s what Jesus gave her. You can read the story yourself in Luke 8:42-48.
Jesus respects. One of the most notable things about the character of Jesus is the way he shows respect to the lowest of people who cross his path—children, prostitutes, tax collectors, foreigners. He got upset when his disciples shooed the little children away from him as not important enough to take up his time (Mark 10:13-16). He treated a woman follower who wished to learn from him exactly as he treated men (Luke 10:38-42). He stopped to ask a paralyzed man the question, “Do you want to be healed?” (John 5:6) instead of just assuming he knew what the man wanted and going ahead with his own ideas. That’s rare!
Jesus is courteous. His courtesy is equally noteworthy. Very few Jewish men in those days would have spoken to a Samaritan woman, let alone taken her questions and comments seriously (John 4:1-42). They regarded women as lesser human beings and Samaritans as half-breeds. And yet Jesus struck up a conversation with an outcast Samaritan woman, treating her with the same courtesy he would have shown his own mother. When the subject of her failed marriages came up, he did not pass judgment or dump shame on her. When she felt uncomfortable and tried to change the subject, he let her. He took her theological statements and questions seriously, and he gave her the honor of being the very first person Jesus ever told he was the Messiah. No wonder she ran to spread the news about him in her village! She said, “ Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” (John 4:29)
Jesus is un-shockable. The story of the Samaritan woman is also a good example of Jesus’ un-shockability. He wasn’t the least bit taken aback to know she’d gone through at least six sexual relationships, the last of them outside of marriage. He didn’t blink an eye when his new friend Zacchaeus had him over for dinner and the other guests were social outcasts—other tax collectors and prostitutes. When a crazy naked man came raving out of the tombs as Jesus landed on the shore of the Gadarenes, Jesus healed him and found him some clothes (Mark 5:1-20). No matter what human problem he was dealing with, he handled it with calm, wisdom, and care.
Jesus tells it like it is. This is not to say that Jesus never had a sharp word for anybody. Jesus tells it like it is—whether he’s talking to kings or ordinary people. For example, a man came whining to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Man, who made me a judge or arbitrator over you?” and went on to talk about how important it is to avoid being greedy (Luke 12:13-21). Another time some leaders came with threats from King Herod, saying, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” And he said to them, “Go and tell that fox” that it would be three more days before he’d be done with his ministry and ready to die at Jerusalem. Not exactly the words you’d use to a king! (Luke 13:31-34) When Jesus was on trial for his life, the Roman governor was frustrated because Jesus wasn’t defending himself, and he said to him, “You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?” Jesus answered him, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above [from God]. Therefore he who delivered me over to you [that is, Judas] has the greater sin.” This freaked Pilate out so badly that he started trying everything he could think of to set Jesus free, not wanting to have anything more to do with him (John 19:10-12).
Jesus invites but doesn’t force. No doubt you’ve heard of the twelve disciples whom Jesus called and they followed him. Well, there were at least two other people to whom Jesus said exactly the same thing: “Come, follow me,” and they turned him down. It’s sort of hard for me, at least, to believe that, but it’s what happened. And Jesus didn’t force the issue—even though in one case we’re told “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” He still let him walk away—because that was the man’s free choice (Mark 10:17-22; Matthew 8:21-22).
Jesus wants your best for you, not for him or someone else. One of the oddest parts of the story of Jesus’ arrest happens just before they take him away to face trial: A man named Malchus has just lost an ear after having a sword pulled on him by a frightened follower of Jesus with really bad aim. You’d expect Jesus to be thinking of his own immediate danger, wouldn’t you? But no. He steps forward, heals Malchus’ ear, and then lets them tie his hands and take him away. That was the main thing in his mind just then—not his own danger, but the pain his enemy was in. He had to do something about it. (Luke 22:50-51, John 18:10)
We can see that same drive to protect, to help, in other cases too. There was a blind man whom Jesus made able to see again. He fell foul of the religious leaders while they were investigating his healing, and they kicked him out of the synagogue. Jesus came looking for him to make sure he was all right. He did something similar to the man he had healed at Bethesda, though it backfired when the man identified Jesus to his enemies. (John 9; John 5:1-17)
Jesus persists. Jesus is patient. Really, the best example of Jesus being patient has to be with his followers, especially the Twelve. The Bible shows them as some of the most boneheaded and self-centered people out there (in other words, just like most of us, right?). They consistently miss the point of Jesus’ mission. They are racist and misogynist. They presume to tell Jesus he’s doing it all wrong, in their opinion. They scheme to make themselves great at one another’s expense. Really, these are the people Jesus chose to carry on his mission on earth? These idiots?
Well, yes. And history shows he was right. Those knuckleheads, guided by the Holy Spirit and by the memory of Jesus’ words, went on to spread his message across the Middle East and into the rest of the world. Though they were all Jews, they developed a church that welcomes all nations, Jew and Gentile alike. Though they were men and free, the young church quickly became a place where women and slaves played important roles in the community. What made the difference in those people? Jesus did. And he still does this in people who follow him today.
Jesus trusts (us with stuff). Christians today can’t say much about the original followers of Jesus—we’re still knuckleheads in so many ways. But amazingly, Jesus still chooses to trust us with his message. Which is a huge responsibility, and we’re struggling to get it right, and we don’t get it right as often as we’d like. But you can see what Jesus is like—if he will trust us with this job, he will trust you with … what? (Want to find out? Ask him.)
Jesus forgives the unforgivable. Given the number of times we screw up, it’s a good thing Jesus forgives as readily as he does. You can see it in his attitude to the people who nailed him up on that cross. His first words (after the scream, I’m afraid) were “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing” (Luke 22:34). Jesus forgave Peter and reinstated him as a follower, even though Peter swore he didn’t even know Jesus during Jesus trial, all to save his own skin (Luke 22:54-62; John 21:15-19). Jesus even reached out to Judas, who betrayed him, on several occasions (Matthew 26:20-25 and John 13 among others). What a shame he wouldn’t listen. Still, if Jesus can forgive and love in spite of those actions, we can see how he forgives and loves us too.
Jesus goes ahead of us—into suffering, death, and resurrection. One of the reasons death is so scary is because it is the great unknown for us. We have never died before—what will it be like? Will it hurt? What happens next, if anything? We don’t know, and it terrifies us. God knows this. It might even be one of the reasons why he came himself as Jesus, to suffer, die, and rise again. Jesus has gone ahead of us into suffering and death. Death no longer holds any mystery for him. He knows the way. He has been down that road before. And he has risen from the dead, never to die again.
Jesus goes with us. Now Jesus offers to share his own victory over death with us. No longer do we have to die alone. He says to us, “I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). Jesus goes with us down that lonely road, and he promises to bring us back up again, out of the valley of death, into the new life of resurrection. He says to us, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26)
Jesus abides forever. Everything in this world changes. People grow old; children grow up; neighborhoods change, develop, decay. Nothing stays the same, nothing can be relied on, except for Jesus. As he says, “I the Lord do not change” (Malachi 3:6). “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). He remains the same, and his promises to us will always be trustworthy. That is why Christians put their trust in him.