YANCEY, Philip, The Jesus I never knew, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995

review by Robert Brow   www.brow.on.ca   1999

When I first skimmed through The Jesus I never knew I thought this was familiar stuff from the Gospels. Now three years later I can see it forces us into a radical model shift in our view of God. The logic is inescapable. If God is like Jesus, God is not at all what we had imagined.

Yancey dismisses a hundred critical problems by working with the exact words of the Gospel writers. What was their rhetorical intent? What kind of Jesus do they want us to believe in?

The conclusion is astonishing. When he took birth among us the eternal Son of God loved by yielding. Paul got it right "Whenever I am weak, then I am strong . . .. For He was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God"
(2 Corinthians 12:10, 13:4). The prophet had made the principle clear, "Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord of hosts" (Zechariah 4:6). And Jesus himself set the agenda for this model of what God and life are all about. "The rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve (Matthew 20:25-28, Mark 10:42-45).

Here are some of the images Yancey gives us. And each is illustrated from many other sources. Muslims cry out "God is great," but Jesus taught "God is little" (36). He came into our world as a baby born in a feed trough (37). An "enormous red dragon enters the picture, his tail sweeping a third of the stars out of the sky" (43, taken from Revelation 12:1-9). The Son of God exposed himself to being massacred with the babies of Bethlehem.

He was circumcised, raised as a Jew, attended the synagogue, and was thoroughlyJewish in every way. That alone would have disqualified him in the minds of many. And in fact he was rejected by most of his own people (51). In his temptations he discarded the weapons of "miracle, mystery, authority" (74).

He "showed an incredible respect for human freedom" (80) The Twelve were free to leave if they wanted (John 6:66-67). Peter was free to deny him. Jesus did the unthinkable by touching lepers, allowing himself to be touched by a woman with a hemorrhage, and let a prostitute massage his feet at table with a Pharisee. He made friends of nobodies (89). "He ate and drank like other men, and even got tired and lonely" (90). "In regions where people had no faith, he did no miracles" (92).

Jesus' movement had no headquarters, and "no officers except a treasurer (Judas)" (93). The other eleven disciples were from the despised area of Galilee. "Their most obvious trait seems to be their denseness" (99). And their financial support came from a group of women (94).

The night before he was crucified he washed the disciples' feet. That was considered "so degrading that a master could not require it of a Jewish slave" (191). As he struggled with imminent crucifixion in the Garden of Gethsemane he felt terribly alone (195). He could have called in legions of angels, but he let himself be flogged, spat upon, mocked stripped naked, nailed, and hung between two common criminals. Paul comments that he yielded himself to go into death (OT sheol) with no assurance that he would come out except by the power of the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:11).

What does this catalogue of choosing weakness tell us about God? Yancey's concludes "What changed history was the disciples' dawning awareness (it took the Resurrection to convince them) that God himself had chosen the way of weakness . . . Power, no matter how well intentioned, tends to cause suffering. Love, being vulnerable, absorbs it . . . God renounced the one for the sake of the other" (205).

Yancey points out that the Gospels offer no apologetic arguments to make us believe in the resurrection. "According to all four Gospels, women were the first witnesses" and the witness of women was invalid (212). In the twelve or so resurrection appearances over a period of six weeks "not a single unbeliever saw Jesus after his death" (215).

When Jesus ascended He did not begin a dynasty. He left no books or pamphlets, and "no belongings that could be enshrined in a museum" (228) All he left was some followers. And yet "the future of the cosmos is being determined by the church (see Romans 8:19-21, Ephesians 3:10)" (229). Which means we are to continue his work of reigning by yielding. "This is what Jesus meant by the kingdom of God" (253).

Having missed the point the first time, I now see that this is a very important book about God who loves us by making himself very small.

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