What if Jesus and his message are far better than we currently realize? And what if so much of what gets passed on as the truth about Jesus and his message is actually a watered down version of it (at best) or a complete perversion of it (at worst)?
And what if one of the biggest reasons many people today haven’t understood his message is that it has been hijacked by other contenders who have interpreted and used his message in ways that Jesus never intended?
And what if some of these contenders are people in high places with power and authority and who are comfortable with keeping the status quo? And what if some of these people in high places are actually people who identify as Christians, pastors and guardians of the faith, who themselves have been caught up in false narratives about Jesus that have been passed down over the centuries throughout church history?
And what if because of this, Jesus’ unadulterated and powerful message of the kingdom of God may not be what you have learned and believed, but rather a filtered down and toxic version of it?
What if Jesus’ message has largely been kept a secret?
Nagging Questions about Jesus
The Secret Message of Jesus: Uncovering the truth that can change everything is perhaps one of author-speaker-Christian activist Brian McLaren’s best books on Jesus. McLaren, like a growing number of Christians, thought he knew the truth of the gospel of Jesus. He grew up within the broader Evangelical Christian community. He knew all of the right Christian doctrines he should believe and which Bible verses to proof-text those doctrines when asked to defend his beliefs.
McLaren served as lead pastor of the same church for over twenty years. And while, he was very familiar with what the Bible said about Jesus and even claimed a personal relationship with him, he had this nagging and escalating suspicion that there was more to Jesus and more to Jesus’ message than he had been taught or believed.
As McLaren sought to know and understand Jesus and his message as presented in the four Gospel narratives (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), the more he came to see a widening disconnect between what he was encountering in Scripture and what had often been passed onto him as the truth about Jesus. What he began to discover about Jesus and his message changed everything for him.
A Secret Worth Uncovering
Brian McLaren breaks up his book on Jesus into three parts: Part One: Evacuation–Digging beneath the surface to uncover Jesus’ message; Part Two: Engagement–Grappling with the meaning of Jesus’ message; Part Three: Imagination–Exploring how Jesus’ secret message can change everything.
PART ONE: EVACUATION deals with THE WHEN of JESUS’ SECRET MESSAGE. In this section, McLaren uncovers the historical setting surrounding Jesus’ message. With his personable style, candor and wit, McLaren demonstrates that understanding Jesus and his secret message happens best when we first familiarize ourselves with the historical setting surrounding Jesus and his message. This includes familiarizing ourselves with the geo-political, cultural and religious contexts of first century Palestine and the Roman empire. Not every follower of Jesus will or should become a historical scholar, but having some basic knowledge about the historical context goes a long way.
For example, why should it matter that Jesus was a Jewish male who lived in 1st century Palestine and not a white American male from the 20th century, as many modern paintings in the US portray him? And why were there different religious factions in Israel? And why does it matter that each of these factions had a unique interpretation of Scripture? And why is it important that the kingdom of God that Jesus spoke about was not about “going to heaven when we die,” but instead was (and is) about God, God’s leadership and God’s actions in the life of people on planet earth this side of heaven? And what about the fact that Jesus was an avid pacifist who believed that praying for and dying for his enemies was a far superior and God honoring way to live than hating and killing one’s enemies?
These questions get at the historical setting in which Jesus lived and open up so much of the Gospel narratives and Jesus’ message in a way that any cold reading with no historical insight could provide. As Part One makes clear, so much of how we interpret the Gospel narratives and Jesus’ underlying message in them will only come into view as we consider the setting of Jesus’ life and ministry.
Context is everything and until we mine the contexts of Jesus’ message, we do Jesus and his message a disservice. More than that, we may find our selves inadvertently misrepresenting Jesus and his message if we don’t.
PART TWO: ENGAGEMENT deals with THE HOW of JESUS’ SECRET MESSAGE. In this section, McLaren uncovers the method (or way) Jesus communicated his secret message and what this might mean for us today. For example, Jesus’ message was often shared in parables (or short stories). Parables are an interesting medium because truth is revealed through the main characters, events and situations in the stories. As with any story, parables require us to take more time to ponder and wrestle with the implications of the characters’ choices. Because to get the parable, we have to get inside the parable by empathizing and relating to the characters of the story. Parables (as with any meaningful story) have a way of getting at our psyche, imagination and soul that didactic teaching (or direct instruction) typically doesn’t. This is a stark contrast to the current broader Christian church culture where giving it straight is the norm and things like subtly, nuance and questions are avoided like the plague. For many who grew up in today’s Evangelical Christian culture, this may leave you deeply challenged (as it did me).
In Part Two, you will also discover that, for Jesus, the methods he chose to communicate his message were just as important as the message itself. Both method and message are important. When they aren’t in sync, when either the message or the method are shared in a way that is destructive to human learning, they have the likelihood of confusing, complicating and hurting people instead of helping them to follow Jesus. As McLaren points out, Jesus seems to care much more about how we process the truth, not simply that we get it all down at first hearing. This of course requires practicing patience and allowing some things to be in suspense while we let Jesus’ words do their work in us. But this is part of the beauty and power of Jesus and his secret message. It keeps working on us. It keeps working in us. And it keeps working through us long after first hearing it.
PART THREE: IMAGINATION deals with THE WHAT of JESUS’ SECRET MESSAGE. In this section, McLaren challenges us to consider the secret message of Jesus itself and the implications his message has in our own day. This was perhaps the most challenging of all the sections in his book, at least for me. In it, McLaren unpacks the message of the kingdom of God, its language, its ethics, its bold and unabashed invitation to all people everywhere and its forward movement into God’s future. The shear size and scope of Jesus’ message of the kingdom is far reaching for every facet of our lives. As readers work through this section of the book, they are invited into something much greater than themselves. It’s not just new information about Jesus or Christianity; it’s a whole new way of framing our lives around Jesus and his message that will jolt the most ardent skeptic and the most hard-hearted religious person who is bent on keeping the status quo.
In one of the most profound chapters of the book, “Kingdom Manifesto” and “Kingdom Ethics,” McLaren opens up Matthew chapters 5-7 (known as the sermon on the Mount) and other teaching passages in the Gospels with thoughtful reflection and insight. What I discovered both inspired me and convicted me. Jesus’ message wasn’t about prioritizing the afterlife (“going to heaven when we die”) as many of us were taught, even though that topic is important to Jesus; it was about learning how engage with and live into the explosive reality of the kingdom of God at work in our lives today. This framework and the power behind it will impact how we treat our friends, our family, our spouses, our neighbors, and yes, if you can believe it, even our enemies. The strong connection McLaren draws from Jesus’ message to the way Jesus lived out his own message to the powerful kingdom announcement inviting people to follow his way of life is both compelling and surprising, and, I venture to say, it will challenge most American Christian readers, no matter what expression of the Christian faith you currently find yourself in.
A Secret to be Shared
Simply put, Jesus and his message are not meant to be kept a secret; they are meant to be known, engaged with, lived into and shared. As someone who has (by God’s grace) allowed the secret message of Jesus and the person of Jesus the space and the opportunity to speak into my life, albeit imperfectly, I would not go back to the way things were. The Christian status quo is highly overrated. More importantly, I have experienced the fruit of the powerful and arresting message of Jesus, and the impact of the person of Jesus who gave it. He and his message have changed my life in profound ways.
I can never be the same again.
I give McLaren’s landmark book on Jesus a huge thumbs up! It is by far one of the best and most meaningful books on Jesus I’ve ever read.
Photographer: Vincent Lin