The Real Jesus I Never Knew

Before I was appointed vicar of Virginia Water, I attended an Alpha taster evening incognito. I sat next to a lady and we got talking. Then she asked me “What do you do for a living?” I replied “Guess”. Without batting an eyelid she said, “Well, you are either an estate agent, a vicar or an undertaker.” I replied, “How did you guess?”, She replied “Because I am married to one”. She was in fact a local vicar’s wife. J. John the evangelist has a better answer.

“I like to be a bit creative in telling people what I do. I sat next to this lady on an airplane at Heathrow airport and I said, ‘Hello’, and she said, ‘Hello’. Then I said to her, ‘Where are you going?’ and she said, ‘I’m going to Singapore’. And she said to me, ‘Where are you going?’ and I said, ‘I’m going to Australia’.  I said, ‘What do you do?’ and she told me; then she said to me, ‘What do you do?’ and I said, ‘Well….’ ‘… I work for a global enterprise.’ She said, ‘Do you?’ I said, ‘Yes I do.’ I said, ‘We’ve got outlets in nearly every country of the world.’ She said, ‘Have you?’ I said, ‘Yes we have.’ I said, ‘We’ve got hospitals and hospices and homeless shelters,’ I said, ‘We do marriage work, we’ve got orphanages, we’ve got feeding programmes, educational programmes.’ I said, ‘We do all sorts of justice and reconciliation things’. I said, ‘Basically, we look after people from birth to death, and we deal in the area of behavioural alteration.’ She went, ‘Wow!’ And it was so loud, loads of people turned round and looked at us. She said, ‘What’s it called?’ I said, ‘It’s called the church … have you not heard of it?’

 And that’s it, really, isn’t it – if we are a follower of Jesus then we are part of a global enterprise. But not only is it global, it’s intergalactic, because it includes everyone that’s gone before us.’[i]  They say, you never get a second chance at a first impression. But first impressions can also be incredibly shallow and deceptive, especially if we write people off because they are different from us. 

Isn’t that one of the primary causes of tensions in our world? Because people are a different colour or have a different language or different accent.  Or maybe because they are a different age or different shape. We find security in being around people just like us. And that is true of the way we think of Jesus also. This is how William Blake described this tendency:

“The vision of Christ that thou doest see
Is my vision’s greatest enemy;
Thine has a great hooked nose like thine,
Mine has a snub nose like to mine…
Both read the Bible day and night,
But thou read’st black where I read white.”

What were your first impressions of Jesus? My first memory of Jesus was the age of six or seven in Sunday School. I remember two things. Singing “Jesus loves me this I know…” and looking at a painting of Jesus with a lamb in his arms surrounded by little children like me – except they were all different colours. There was an African child, a Chinese child, an Indian child and many others that were different to me. But I do remember, reassuringly that Jesus had long golden hair and a European complexion. My first impressions were of a white Jesus. Then in my teenager years, I was introduced to the Jesus of Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar. Jesus had become golden. Then at university I was introduced to the radical Jesus of left wing politics. Do you remember the picture of Jesus portrayed like Che Guevara? 

This was the red Jesus. At theological college I discovered the Black Jesus of liberation theology and then more recently the Green Jesus of the ecology movement. Maybe you don’t identify with any of these. “I’ll stick with the Bible” you may say. That’s fine, but if you are relying on the gospels, would you recognise Jesus if he came back today?  Did the disciples recognise Jesus after his resurrection?  What about Mary in the garden? 

“At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus.” (John 20:14).  What about the two disciples on the Road to Emmaus? Jesus himself came up and walked along with them; but they were kept from recognizing him.” (Luke 24:15-16).  And what about the disciples in the Upper Room?  “While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost.” (Luke 24:36-37). Why?  Why did the disciples not recognize Jesus? Philippians 2 tells us.

“Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a human being, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross! (Philippians 2:5-8)

Jesus laid aside his glory and majesty to become a human being – he looked too human to be God. After his death and resurrection, while Jesus still bore the scars of his crucifixion, he resumed his rightful place in heaven.

“Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,” (Philippians 2:9-10)

Jesus appearance was different before and after the resurrection. The Jesus we will meet one day will be revealed in all his glory and majesty, power and authority. The Apostle John describes him in the Book of  Revelation:

”I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me. And when I turned I saw … someone like a son of man, dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest.  The hair on his head was white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters.” (Revelation 1:12-15)

This is the image of Jesus we had better have in our minds, when we prepare to meet him. Because this is the real Jesus, who is coming soon. This is the Jesus we will meet one day.  We will see him as he really is. And if you find that image unsettling remember how John reacted, 

“When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. Then he placed his right hand on me and said: “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.” (Revelation 1:17-18)

So how do we fit together the image of Jesus in the Gospels with the Jesus of Revelation? The historical Jesus and the eternal Jesus? The earthly Jesus and the heavenly Jesus? Please turn to it with me to Mark 9. Remember the question Jesus asked the disciples in Mark 8? 

“Who do people say I am?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.” Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him.” (Mark 8:27-30)

Jesus then said to them, “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.” (Mark 9:1)

Jesus fulfilled this promise six days later. Three of the disciples, Peter, James and John were given a unique foretaste of the kingdom of God. For a brief moment, they saw Jesus the King in all his radiant glory. There are four sequential events. Jesus’ Transfiguration; Peter’s Intervention; the Father’s Affirmation; and the Disciples Response. 

1. Jesus’ Transfiguration – Watch 

“After six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus.” (Mark 9:2-4)

We don’t know which mountain this was – probably Mount Tabor near Nazareth, or possibly Mount Hermon. It doesn’t matter. We re told “His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them.” (Mark 9:3). Luke says “As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning.” (Luke 9:29).  Matthew says “His face shone like the sun” (Matthew 17:2).  This is the real Jesus. The Jesus they never knew before. 

Why do Moses and Elijah appear? What did they discuss with Jesus? Luke tells us – “they spoke about his departure which he was about to bring to fulfillment in Jerusalem.” (Luke 9:31). The word ‘departure’ means ‘Exodus’. Moses looked back to the Exodus and the origin of God’s promise of deliverance. Elijah looked forward to the fulfillment of that promise of deliverance.  Jesus’ Transfiguration – Watch!

2. Peter’s Intervention – Wait 

“Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” (He did not know what to say, they were so frightened.)” (Mark 9:5-6)

How did Peter know Jesus was talking with Moses and Elijah? I doubt if they wore name tags. Maybe Jesus introduced them.  As Peter saw Elijah and Moses leaving, he offered to make them a shelter.  It could have been the offer of hospitality. It could have been prompted by the desire to prolong the experience. He was terrified and didn’t know what he was saying. Jesus’ Transfiguration – Watch. Peter’s Intervention – Wait.

3. The Father’s Affirmation – Listen 

“Then a cloud appeared and covered them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!”” (Mark 9:7)

The clouds that covered them represented the shekinah glory of God which had led God’s people through the wilderness.  God has been present with them in the cloud.  This is the second time God the Father has spoken audibly about His Son.  

At his baptism, the words of the Father were for Jesus “You are my Son, whom I love, with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:22). On this occasion, the words were for the disciple’s benefit. “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.”(Luke 9:35). The point is this. There is no equality between Jesus and Moses or Elijah. Moses had promised the Lord would one day send a prophet they must listen to (Deuteronomy 18:15) and here Moses is introduced to him.  In a day of toleration when people want to build booths for all the great religious leaders, it is timely to remember that there is no equality between Jesus and Moses or between Jesus and Mohamed or Buddah or any other religious leader. Later, after the resurrection, the disciples would understand.  This is why we must listen carefully to the words of Jesus. As you read the scriptures, do so prayerfully, asking the Lord to speak to you through them. Jesus’ Transfiguration – Watch. Peter’s Intervention – Wait.  The Father’s Affirmation – Listen 

4. Disciple’s Response – Learn 

“Suddenly, when they looked around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. They kept the matter to themselves, discussing what “rising from the dead” meant.” (Mark 9:8-10)

Peter, James and John were stunned by this mountain top experience. They needed time to reflect upon what they had seen and heard about Jesus. The Jesus they never knew had revealed something of his glory and they were confused and afraid. Only after the resurrection, after the Holy Spirit had been bestowed could they tell others about what they had seen. Their view of Jesus was changing, as ours must too. If Mark 1-8 answers one question, “Who is Jesus?”, chapters 9-16 answer the second question, “Why did Jesus come?”  In the transfiguration of Jesus we are given a glimpse of Jesus in all his heavenly glory. But the amazing thing is that the word used to describe the transfiguration of the supernatural Son of God is the very same word used to describe the transformation of the adopted child of God. For when we encounter the real Jesus, we are not only born again, we are progressively transformed into the likeliness of Christ. Philip Yancey says, “No one who meets Jesus ever stays the same.” 

“And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:18 – see also Romans 12:2)

This is why we must not only root our view of Jesus in scripture, but also revise our view of one another in the same way. Paul confesses that their discovery of who Jesus really is impacted the way they viewed others too. 

“So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer.  Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!  All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:16-18)

Transformed and transforming.  The world judges on the basis of first impressions and outward appearance. Things like, age, height, weight, looks, colour, class, qualifications, accent, clothing, postcode. But this is incredibly shallow and superficial. God looks at the heart. For Christ followers, while our bodies are wearing out, our inner being is being renewed daily. Which is why Paul says,

“Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.  So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)  

So let us fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, for what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. 

Jesus’ Transfiguration – Watch
Peter’s Suggestion – Wait
The Father’s Endorsement – Listen
The Disciple’s Response – Learn. Lets pray.