What Was the Message of Jesus?

Part 1 of series:
What Was the Message of Jesus?

Just about everybody wants Jesus on their side, or so it seems. Yes, there are a few zealous atheists who seem happy to dismiss the relevance if not the historical reality of Jesus. But, for the most part, people like to claim Jesus as a supporter. This includes large numbers of secularists and Muslims, ironically enough. In the United States, Jesus is used to prop up politics on both sides of the aisle.  And he is said by conservative Christians to support their theology while liberal Christians think Jesus is clearly on their side. Catholics, Baptists, Mennonites, Episcopalians, and, yes, even Presbyterians (like me) think their theology is a legitimate if not the most legitimate expression of what Jesus himself taught.

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Given the popularity of Jesus, you might think that most people would have a reasonably accurate understanding of his message, that which he proclaimed and enacted almost 2,000 years ago in Judea. Yet, in my experience, this is not the case. Most people cannot describe the message of Jesus in a way that reflects the earliest historical records of his teaching, which are found in the New Testament Gospels.

If you were to ask the average person what Jesus’ preached – even the average Christian – you’d probably hear something about love: “Jesus taught about love. He said we should all love each other.” A well-informed person might even remember that Jesus called his followers to love their enemies. So is love the center of Jesus’ message. In fact, he did talk quite a bit about love. Jesus said that loving God is the greatest commandment and loving our neighbors is the runner up, or even an extension of the winner (Mark 12:29-31). So, to be sure, love figured prominently in the message of Jesus.

But love was not the core of his proclamation. If Jesus had been running around first-century Judea telling people to love each other, he certainly wouldn’t have been crucified on a Roman cross. Neither the Romans nor the Jewish authorities would have been particularly bothered by a Jewish prophet who told people to love each other. Truly, quite a few Jews would have been distressed over the thought of having to love their enemies. But the Romans – the obvious enemies of first-century Jews – wouldn’t have crucified someone whose main crime was telling Jews to love them and turn the other cheek! If anything, the Romans would have protected such a peacemaker. So, the rock solid fact of Jesus’ crucifixion suggests that the core of his message must have been more contentious, indeed, more scandalous, than a call to love.

It’s common for people to reduce the message of Jesus to something all too simple and, I might add, all too similar to the biases of whoever is doing the reducing. You’ll see this in many of the contemporary “scholarly” attempts to summarize the message of Jesus. The infamous Jesus Seminar, by the time it stoned Jesus to death with its red, pink, gray, and black beads, ended up with a sage who spoke in esoteric riddles, just the sort of teachings preferred by, well, the voting members of the Jesus Seminar. Such a peculiar preacher would hardly have been put to death as a threat to Roman order in Judea, however. (You can find my in-depth critique of the Jesus Seminar and its approach to Jesus in my series: Unmasking the Jesus Seminar.)

Whatever Jesus preached, it got people excited. Even the demons were riled up. And Jesus’ message angered most of the religious leaders he encountered. In the end, it got him killed on a Roman cross. So what exactly was this inspiring, challenging, goading, and apparently subversive message of Jesus all about?

I’ll begin to answer this question in my next post.

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  • Evan


    Once again, I am likely anticipating things you will be laying out in a more orderly and elaborated fashion. That said, “the message of Jesus” was a hot topic with my professors.

    One COULD take the position that Jesus’ core message WAS about “love.” This would, of course, be “true” but a gross oversimplification. I would assert that John 3:16 is His core message: “Because God so loved the world, He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” Where the train runs off the track is when what Jesus MEANT by each phrase is considered. Indeed, “believes in Him” is crucial. A number of my professors took the position that if you believe that “Jesus (whoever and whatever He was) loves you,” then you are all set, and you allude to such in your post. If you up the ante to “believes in Him” means that you believe “Jesus is Lord, and Lord alone,” well, it is not difficult to see how Jesus could wind up on a Roman cross.

    There is another way one could assert that Jesus’ message was about “love.” Jesus taught that the greatest commandment was “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” Again, we are back to “love,” and again, it is the actualization of that command that is “the rub,” as Hamlet says. My professors pretty much held that an “I wuv Jesus and/or God” was all that was needed. Jesus, however, set the bar at “If you love Me, you will follow My commandments,” and before you know it, we are back to the “Jesus is Lord” business and things get bloody.

    Let me also note that there are multiple words in Greek that get translated as “love,” but we only have the one word “love” in English. This is certainly an area better left to you for elaboration, but the implications as I understand them are that “I wuv Jesus” is not going to hack it. “All You Need Is Love” certainly depends on what “love” is.


  • Mark, I have to disagree, at least on the surface. Jesus not only taught us the greatest commandments (re-iterating what he saw as the peak of the Hebrew Scriptures) but also in John 13:34 offered a new commandment, “to love one another.” But, coming in line with what you are saying, I think that what people interpret that to mean is often misconstrued. In the popular understanding of love (which is often to support people no matter the ideas they have or the life they choose) then you are right, no one would have crucified him for that. But a more confrontational love, where you challenge those you love who are on self-destructive (and even community destructive paths) is more in life with what he taught and why he was crucified.

  • Twolfgcd

    I look forward the the rest of the series. I like what Evan said. Context can (and is) everything, whether talking about what was meant when Jesus said we should love God and love each other, or even about belief. We live in a time when we tell folks that all you have to do is believe in Jesus and they’ll be saved. But we forget that the “demons believe and tremble”…and I don’t think they’re saved by their “belief.” More is involved than just “love” or “belief” as emotions or mental assertions. I am about as far as can be from one who believes we can do anything to “earn” salvation, but we can’t forget that “Faith without works is dead.” So is love without sacrifice.

  • Anonymous

    Evan, good comment, as always. Love is surely a crucial element of Jesus’ message. And love might even be the core element of Christian preaching about Jesus. But, strangely enough, Jesus had relatively little to say about love compared with other themes. This I plan to investigate further, of course.

  • Anonymous

    Tom, thanks for your comment. Jesus surely taught about love. And, yes, your comment about the kind of love is crucial. But the focus of Jesus’ proclamation is found elsewhere, I think. I hope to show this by a close study of the Gospels.

  • Anonymous

    Yes, indeed. Thanks for adding this thought.