Review: “One Assembly: Rethinking the Multisite & Multiservice Church Models” by Jonathan Leeman

I’ve occasionally listened to Jonathan Leeman’s Pastors’ Talk podcast, and he seems to be a likable guy (although perhaps given at times to overly provocative rhetoric). And I would agree with many of the author’s concerns about the exegetical assumptions made by some proponents of multisite churches, and the problems with some forms of the multisite model. I, too, am passionate about seeking the most biblical ways of faithfully being the church. One of our church’s core commitments is that we’ll first seek biblical principles of doing church, and then try to determine how best to apply the biblical principles in our context. So I’m intrigued by this kind of book, and somewhat inclined to read it sympathetically.

But, even if I were convinced by Leeman’s arguments, I find the manner in which he has written to be extremely troubling. He doesn’t just describe problems with multiple church services or sites, or explain the reasons why he believes single-location-and-time churches to be healthier and more faithful to scriptural principles. No, Leeman insists that those who don’t except his narrow definition of a church “repudiate the Bible’s definition of a church [emphasis in original].” [I read the ebook version, so I won’t be able to reference specific page numbers.] He doesn’t merely note the unintended danger of pursuing a model of church that may differ from the scriptural design; no, he boldly declares that multisite pastors (and Presbyterian pastors, for that matter) are “picking a fight with Jesus!” I think we should all agree to table this kind of heated rhetoric except for cases where people are knowingly and intentionally defying Christ. We can be more nuanced, and much more humble, about the dangers of unintentionally slipping into unbiblical models of church life. Is Leeman’s argument so convincing that to differ from his conclusions would be to fight Jesus? We’ll see below.

Unfortunately, the author doesn’t get around to actually making his case until the second chapter of a three-chapter book. Before getting to where Leeman even attempts to establish his basic premise, we first read through a fairly lengthy introduction and first chapter (constituting almost half of the main body of the book). And that’s a problem. If the fundamental question is truly a lexical issue (the meaning of the word ekklesia), one would think he would want to get to that discussion as quickly as possible, and then follow with his applications and implications. Instead we’re given extensive criticisms of multisite and multiservice models, and arguments for a single-service-and-location model—all firmly based on a premise the author has yet to establish. What this amounts to is a whole lot of question begging. Leeman is assuming his conclusion before he has made the case for his conclusion. This is classic circular reasoning. It’s like trying to begin the construction of a house before laying the foundation. It can certainly be rhetorically effective, but for all the wrong reasons. This is unfairly stacking the deck, prejudicing the reader toward your conclusion before you’ve actually made your case.

Compounding the problem is the way he describes other models of being the church. Apparently those who would differ with the author view the church primarily as either the building, the Sunday morning performance, or the church leadership. They sever their concept of church from the gathering of the church. He does briefly acknowledge that some of these churches are more biblical than others. But these aren’t the ones he describes. No, he gives us descriptions guaranteed to push the buttons of those of us with misgivings about multisite megachurches: churches that beam video of one rockstar pastor to other locations; churches that adopt church models with little or no theological reflection; churches that emphasize passive access via online streaming and apps at the expense of actually gathering; etc., etc. Why doesn’t he describe multisite churches that have a team of pastor/teachers? Why doesn’t he describe a church much like his own church—except one that has two services on Sunday morning rather than just one—and then show how this sole difference can adversely affect the church? I can’t presume to say. The way he’s written this introduction may certainly be more persuasive to some. It’s also unfair, uncharitable and prejudicial.

So just what exactly is Leeman’s claim? The author’s basic premise is that the word ekklesia (commonly translated “church” in the New Testament) is by definition an “assembly.” And since this meaning of a singular “assembly” is so core to the meaning of ekklesia or church, then that one, single assembly or gathering of believers narrowly defines what constitutes a local church. So a “church” that, for example, has services that meet Sunday mornings at 9:00 and 11:00 would actually constitute two distinct assemblies, or two churches, and it would therefore be inaccurate—even unbiblical—to think of these multiple services or multiple sites as collectively constituting a single local ekklesia or church. So let’s examine the author’s evidence for this claim.

We quickly run into a significant problem for the author because, as he admits, trusted lexicons such as BDAG explicitly contradict his premise! He even shows that this contradictory definition of ekklesia (contradictory to his view, that is) is found in a lexicon from 1794, so this isn’t some new interpretation intended to justify multisite churches. If he can find little or no support from standard lexicons, this should certainly give one pause before accepting Leeman’s narrow definition of ekklesia.

Leeman also undermines his own argument by acknowledging that the biblical understanding of ekklesia transcends the narrow concept of one specific gathering. When a church body meets together and then leaves the meeting place, they don’t stop being the ekklesia, they don’t stop being a church. If someone gathers regularly with the assembly, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re part of the church; and if someone is unable to gather with the assembly, it doesn’t mean they are no longer part of the ekklesia. In fact, Jack may attend the assembly much more regularly than Jill, and yet Jill be part of the ekklesia and Jack not. This shows that there’s something more primary to the meaning of ekklesia than the physical gathering itself. There’s an essential aspect to what we mean by church that is more fundamental than attending a specific assembly. There is a core criterion for who is part of a church that is more principal than attending an assembly. If this is true, it would be inaccurate for us to make a singular assembly the sine qua non of what it means to be a church the way Leeman is doing.

Now, it is very true that the ekklesia is an assembly that actually assembles or gathers. I can’t think of anyone who would disagree with this. But the fact that the church regularly gathers simply does not require that it gather in only one gathering at one place and one time. It doesn’t matter how many times or in how many different ways the author states this; you can state something over and over again, but it doesn’t establish your premise. The word ekklesia undeniably has a much broader and more primary meaning than a single physical assembly or gathering. This is confirmed by the lexicons with which the author struggled. This means there is no lexical basis for insisting that a church can only meet in one place at one time.

Another problem for Leeman is the way the New Testament authors used the word ekklesia. There are too many places where New Testament usage contradicts his narrow definition. In Acts 12:5 we’re told that the church (singular) in Jerusalem was praying for Peter while he was imprisoned. As we read through the following verses, it’s clear that the church was praying for Peter at multiple locations. Peter goes to one location after he’s freed by the angel, he sends a report to James and some others at a different location, and then goes on himself to yet another location. This is the church not only existing, but functioning in ministry simultaneously in different locations.

1 Corinthians 11:18 speaks of when they would gather together or assemble “as a church.” Now if, as Leeman argues, the definition of ekklesia is fundamentally grounded in the idea of one specific, physical gathering of the people, then this sentence becomes so redundant as to be essentially meaningless. It would be saying: “when you assemble as an assembly,” or “when you gather as as a group of people who gather.” But the way Scripture is actually worded—“when you gather together as a church“—shows that there is something much deeper to the meaning of church than merely the idea of assembling, something closer to: “when you gather together as a community of believers.”

We even see this distinction where it’s clear from the text that the whole church is gathering together. In 1 Corinthians 14:23, Paul describes a scenario “if the whole church gathers together.” (See also Acts 14:27.) But to be able to speak of the whole church gathering together means the church has an identity as the church that is independent of any particular gathering. It already exists as the church before it gathers together. Yes, it’s true that the church is to gather regularly. Again, no one disputes this. But we know this because of clear biblical instruction unambiguously telling us to do so (Hebrews 10:25), and because of the consistent model of the New Testament church. We’re not required to base this necessary aspect of the life of the church on an artificially truncated definition of ekklesia that isn’t supported by the lexicons or New Testament usage.

Leeman actually admits much of this. But, he insists, the word ekklesia is still inextricably tied to the idea of a single assembly in one place at one time. He seems to be saying, “Yes, ekklesia has a much broader meaning in the New Testament than one specific assembling of people—but it still must always mean one specific assembling of people!” Hopefully he can understand why many of us will find this contradictory and confusing. And, again, he repeats this claim throughout the book but never actually establishes a basis for it lexically or scripturally. But he does take his peculiar understanding of assembly and then use it as a standard by which to evaluate all other churches. So he concludes at different points in the book that a multisite or multi-service church is “an assembly that never assembles.” This is blatantly circular reasoning, assuming his unique definition of assembling to then conclude these churches don’t assemble!

Sadly, there are many other examples of poor reasoning, and even faulty exegesis, in the book. He admits that the classical meaning for ekklesia isn’t directly relevant to the New Testament usage, but strangely continues to inappropriately refer back to it. He badly misconstrues the editors of BDAG, seems to imply the lexicographers who disagree with him do so because of denominational presuppositions, and assumes scholarly support for his case when it is decidedly missing. He speculatively imports the idea of “place” into the meaning of ekklesia, and then uses this as an established fact to support other arguments. (This is like claiming that “place” is intrinsic to the meaning of “family” because families need to live some place!)

Leeman spends a great deal of time in chapter 1 exploring the church assembly as a kind of embassy of the kingdom of heaven, what he calls the “geography” of the kingdom. I don’t know of any church leaders who would disagree with this, but is the church uniquely an embassy of the kingdom? Would not a faithful Christian household also be a manifestation of Christ’s kingdom? Does not faithfully living out a genuine Christ-like life in the workplace, school or neighborhood, proclaiming the gospel of Christ when we have the opportunity, does this not make the rule of Christ visible? I’m not arguing there is nothing special about the gathered church, or that it doesn’t beautifully manifest, enact, and make visible the kingdom. But Leeman seems to be assuming the gathered church—and only the gathered church—does this, but he never gets around to explaining why, or why this would somehow necessitate a church meeting in only one place at one time.

A key passage for Leeman is Jesus’ participation in the church discipline process in Matthew 18. Jesus’ presence gives authority to the gathered church to make decisions involving issues such as church discipline. Leeman admits that in a church with multiple services Jesus would also be present in each service and would authorize each service in the same way. But, Leeman asserts, Jesus’ presence and authorization somehow make it an ontological, inescapable reality that these multiple meetings are actually separate churches. And he repeatedly asserts this. Of course, he never actually establishes why this must be so, but he is very confident in his assertions. It’s almost as if saying something over and over again somehow establishes it as a logical conclusion.

This insisted emphasis also leads him to a strangely reductionistic understanding of the church:

A church is a church ultimately because of the authority of Christ and his declaration that he would identify himself with gatherings: “I’m there in the gathering of two or three in my name.” That was his decision, not ours. Consider, therefore, what a church gathering is: it’s a group of people bowed in submission to something. To what? To Christ. Their physical togetherness, then, testifies to his lordship.

Does Leeman really believe this to be an adequate explanation of what constitutes a church? If so, maybe he would agree with those who say periodically hanging out with a few other believers at Starbucks is their church! My guess is Leeman would see much more than this as essential to the church qua church. But then that would mean he’s using an artificially restricted understanding of church to make his point when he knows the reality is actually more complex. Either way, this is a big problem.

The book is loaded with all kinds of strange assertions, far more than I could list in a review. He claims:

You can no more be a multisite church than you can be a multisite body.

But what of the body of Christ? Is not the universal church the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:4, 15-16; Colossians 1:18; etc.), and isn’t the universal body of Christ by necessity a multisite body? And how can we even currently have a universal ekklesia if inherent in the meaning of the word is a one-place-and-time assembly? Leeman seems to think this a spiritual, not literal, assembly of the universal church. If that’s the case, then why can’t this mandatory assembly of the local church also be spiritual and not literal? How can we get away with making one assembly spiritual while demanding the other must be literal? (Ironically, he accuses others of special pleading.)

In another place he writes:

Which brings us back to the multisite and multiservice models. Here’s the biggest problem, as I’ll seek to show in this book: They’re not in the Bible. At all. And that means they work against, not with, Jesus’s disciple-making plan.

Notice he identifies this as “the biggest problem” with these models. They’re not in the Bible. Of course, neither is the children’s ministry check-in desk he mentioned just a few paragraphs before this—or children’s classes, at all, for that matter. Neither is the church usher he mentioned before that. Neither are church platforms or pulpits or youth groups or church choirs, etc., etc. Does that mean when Leeman was taking his daughter to her Sunday School class, he was working against, not with, Jesus’ disciple-making plan? Of course not, and it would be absurd to make such an accusation, just as it is for Leeman to make the accusation he does regarding multisite and multiservice churches. (It’s hard for me to understand how Leeman could not have been aware of just how unfair this rhetoric is, but I want to give him the benefit of the doubt.)

But this is even more of a problem. Leeman repeatedly makes a big deal out of an inability to find multisite churches in the New Testament. Fair enough. For the record, I would also challenge the exegetical overreach of those who try. There simply isn’t clear indication in Scripture that any church at that time met regularly in multiple locations in the same town. [I’ve written about this before.] There’s also nothing in Scripture, contra Leeman, precluding such a church model. But here’s the point that Leeman seems to be missing (and probably some multisite proponents, as well): They’re under no pressure to find examples of multisite churches in Scripture, anymore than Leeman has to find biblical references to a children’s ministry check-in desk. As long as they’re not arguing that this model is normative for the church, but simply a faithful way to be the church, they don’t have to find a specific biblical example.

Leeman, on the other hand, is arguing not that these church models are extra-biblical, but that they are unambiguously unbiblical. And this puts the burden of proof on him to show this scripturally. So when he repeatedly makes the snide observation that he doesn’t find any multisite churches in the Bible, not only is this hypocritical, but he is badly turning the issue completely upside down. The accusation is his, and the burden of proof is his to show how their model is incompatible with biblical principles of the church. He either needs to show where Scripture would rule out a multisite (or multiservice) model, or he needs to trace a very clear pattern of the churches obviously and intentionally meeting in only one place at one time. I’m neither endorsing nor defending multisite churches, but this author has simply not made his case.

I know this review is growing quite long, but there’s one more thing I have to mention because I think it’s important. In his third chapter, Leeman describes a problem of a megachurch starting a new campus at a different location without considering the existing churches in that area. This problem is a very real one. Of course, everything he says about multisite churches starting new campuses could also be said of single-service, single-location churches planting new churches. But here’s my point. Leeman is contending for the idea that every service should be a separate church. If you need to start another service, then you should plant another church. Ironically, something else we never see in Scripture is anyone planting a church in a community where a church already exists. Never. Not once. Instead, we see a consistent pattern of there being one church in each city. Regardless of whether they met in one location or multiple house churches—they existed as one church in each city. We never see any deviation from this pattern in Scripture. We never see multiple churches in one city. Leeman fails to acknowledge that it’s the existence of many different churches in each city that create the environment for the very problem he decries. And adding more churches in each town would seem to exacerbate the problem, not alleviate it. If we could somehow return to what we do see in Scripture—one church in each city—even if this required a multisite church in each city, it would actually solve the problem he rightfully laments.

The author of this book makes some very bold claims about the essential meaning of the word ekklesia (and therefore the meaning of the church), claims that aren’t supported by the lexicons, claims that aren’t consistent with the way the New Testament uses the word, and claims the author fails to conclusively establish logically or theologically. Instead he relies on specious and fallacious arguments while accusing those who disagree of repudiating the Bible and fighting Jesus. This is not just a book with which I disagree. In fact, there are occasional nuggets scattered throughout the book I would strongly affirm. But it is so poorly reasoned and so extreme in its denunciations of anyone who would dare to disagree, I cannot recommend this book.

Should Christians discuss politics in church?

Cafe Food FightAs I write this, believers in the US are preparing for the Thanksgiving holiday. Because this often means spending time with family members we only see once or twice a year, and because our nation is horribly divided right now, many of us are also resolving to avoid the whole subject of politics. Sometimes discretion is the better part of valor, after all, and it’s probably wise to be cautious about introducing topics that could violently explode an otherwise pleasant family visit. So we’re dusting off the old etiquette about never talking about politics or religion (at least the politics part). Fair enough.

But what about in our local churches? If your church is anything like ours, you live out your church life with people who have very differing political convictions. And because of the frequent intensity of these convictions lately—and the ensuing political discussions—many have essentially adopted a “holiday” approach when spending time with church family, and avoid any mention of political issues. This is undoubtedly better than open hostilities! But is it really the best way for us to handle our current politico-cultural mess? When followers of Christ gather should we just “not go there”?

Now let me quickly clarify there are some kinds of political talk I think should be eliminated in the church—permanently:

It’s not the place of pastors or leaders to tell the people in the church a specific candidate they should vote for or which propositions they should support. The church shouldn’t be handing out voters’ guides, or inviting representatives from only one party to address the congregation.

I’m also not suggesting we turn the application of any (sometimes every) Scripture text into a political rant.  If a passage we’re studying clearly addresses something that touches on politics, then we should have the courage to address what Scripture does. We don’t want to be guilty of skipping biblical principles in order to not offend political sensibilities. But we shouldn’t be looking for opportunities to interject our own political viewpoints.

We need to put an end to snide comments about the other side (whatever that is). We shouldn’t be tossing out partisan comments in a way that assumes everyone here shares the same views (which is rarely the case), especially when we’re mocking the intelligence, patriotism or even faith of those who disagree. We should always assume someone from “the other side” is present—because they usually are.

Some time ago, as our team was getting everything ready for our church service, two of our team-members were out front talking loudly about a recent controversy that was all over the news. Not only was their conversation strongly partisan, they were discussing an issue that directly involved race. I don’t believe either person is at all racist, but their vehement rejection of opposing views could easily have been misinterpreted. At the time this happened, people could approach our church’s front door from different directions and remain unseen until they were right around the corner. In other words, visitors could have heard our people talking long before our people would have seen them. Thankfully, I overheard what was going on from inside, rushed out and put a stop to the conversation. As I explained to them, if I was coming to visit the church and was one of these people they were talking about, I would have felt very unwelcome. I would have turned around, left, and would never have come back. Our guys were appropriately chagrined and agreed never to do this again.

So is the answer to just not talk about politics with our church families? Is that the best we can do? Let me ask the question another way: Are we no more capable of discussing volatile political issues than anyone else in our nation? Where can we have a healthy discussion about controversial subjects? If there’s anyone who could have a thoughtful, fair-minded, mutually respectful, loving but substantive, even pointed discussion about controversial political issues—without simply parroting partisan talking points—shouldn’t it be the church? Shouldn’t we be the ones modeling another way? When we spend time together as brothers and sisters we’re supposed to be helping each other grow and mature spiritually, encouraging one another to more faithfully live out our lives in a Christlike way. Are we supposed to do this in every area of our lives except for how we engage politically with society? Does this make any sense? It’s definitely easier, and avoids unpleasant tension. But are we to avoid quarreling by just not talking about difficult issues?

Close-up of a therapist gesticulating while talking to a group of listing teenagers during an educational self-acceptance and motivation meeting.It’s easy for me to fall into groupthink when the only political interaction I have is with my echo chamber (and there are echo chambers on both the left and the right). If I’m beginning to advocate political views that are incompatible with kingdom principles, I need brothers and sisters to hold me accountable and tell me, “Curt, I don’t think that way of thinking fits with the character of Jesus.” We need iron to sharpen iron, especially where the outside culture is most divided. These are the issues we most need to discuss with fellow Christians. Not that we’ll always come to perfect agreement. But at the end of a frank discussion of our differing political views, we should still be able to embrace each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. And we need to realize that we should be more in harmony with our fellow believers on core values and principles (even if we disagree on methods and strategies) than we are with either/any of society’s political parties.

We need to be showing the world around us the love Christ has given us for each other, and we especially need to be modeling this love where we have the strongest disagreements. We need to show them that Christians don’t have to avoid any subject (which is often the best the world can do) because the Spirit has equipped and empowered us to be able to discuss anything and do it lovingly, respectfully and peacefully. And we should show them that through this kind of thoughtful interaction—where we’re seeking the truth, not trying to win arguments—we grow in our understanding of issues and help each other reach truly biblically-informed, spiritually faithful viewpoints that are in harmony with the kingdom principles of our King.

So . . . how well are we living out the fruit of the Spirit in our political engagement?

Are we behaving like everyone else, or are we showing them another way?

Political idolatry?: Proposing a new single-issue voter

images-washingtonpost-comTwo days ago, I posted a link to a recent Christianity Today editorial (Speak Truth to Trump). Christianity Today, established by Billy Graham and other evangelical leaders in 1956, is as close to an official evangelical magazine as you can get. Andy Crouch, writing for the editorial board, begins by noting that Christianity Today has always remained neutral in past elections. But, like many pastors and leaders, they feel the need to speak out this year:

“Just because we are neutral, however, does not mean we are indifferent.”

He describes the absolute rulership of Christ, and the implications for his followers:

“The lordship of Christ places constraints on the way his followers involve themselves, or entangle themselves, with earthly rulers.”

Crouch reminds us of the danger of being so involved in worldly rulers that it becomes idolatrous.

The editorial then briefly reviews the problems with the two major party candidates, beginning with Clinton and then continuing with Trump. Crouch observes that, while criticism of Clinton is very common among evangelical Christians, many have not “shown the same critical judgment when it comes to the Republican nominee.” He lists again some of the obvious red flags regarding his character (which I’ve briefly described here, here, and here), and then concludes of Trump:

“He is, in short, the very embodiment of what the Bible calls a fool.”

Crouch notes that most Christians who support Trump are doing so “with reluctant strategic calculation.” This strategic calculation is focused on the appointment of Supreme Court justices and the impact on vital constitutional issues such as the sanctity of life and marriage, and religious freedom. Crouch then returns to the danger of idolatry in our current situation. This key point is so crucial, I’m going to quote the entire paragraph. I would encourage all of us—especially evangelical supporters of Trump—to consider this carefully:

“But there is a point at which strategy becomes its own form of idolatry—an attempt to manipulate the levers of history in favor of the causes we support. Strategy becomes idolatry, for ancient Israel and for us today, when we make alliances with those who seem to offer strength—the chariots of Egypt, the vassal kings of Rome—at the expense of our dependence on God who judges all nations, and in defiance of God’s manifest concern for the stranger, the widow, the orphan, and the oppressed. Strategy becomes idolatry when we betray our deepest values in pursuit of earthly influence. And because such strategy requires capitulating to idols and princes and denying the true God, it ultimately always fails.”

A question I have repeatedly asked is: Does God need Donald Trump? By insisting that we must vote for Trump for the sake of the unborn children (and to preserve religious liberty), are we not implying that—at this time—Donald Trump is necessary, that he is needed? Are we claiming that unless we vote for this morally vile candidate, there is no hope for the children or the church? What does this say about our trust in God?

Are we claiming that unless we vote for this morally vile candidate,
there is no hope for the children or the church?

What does this say about our trust in God?

Here’s the view of the editors of Christianity Today:

“Enthusiasm for a candidate like Trump gives our neighbors ample reason to doubt that we believe Jesus is Lord. They see that some of us are so self-interested, and so self-protective, that we will ally ourselves with someone who violates all that is sacred to us—in hope, almost certainly a vain hope given his mendacity and record of betrayal, that his rule will save us.”

Please notice the wording in that last sentence. If voting for Trump is imperative for evangelical Christians, then we are putting our trust in his rule. Such trust is tragically misplaced. And as these editors, I, and many others have warned, this will have devastating consequences to our witness to the world. (Anyone paying attention to social media will see that it already is.)

A new single-issue voter

Many readers will be familiar with the concept of a “single-issue voter.” These aren’t people who are concerned with only one issue, but those who view one issue as of paramount importance. This doesn’t mean hasn’t meant they’ll vote for just anyone who expresses support for their key issue, but they refuse to consider someone who doesn’t share their viewpoint. Not supporting their position on this single issue is seen as a deal-breaker, distinguishing candidates they can support from those they cannot. For many evangelical voters, this single issue has been the sanctity of life and opposition to legalized abortion.

I’m proposing a new single issue. I say we shouldn’t even consider supporting a candidate who doesn’t have a basic personal decency, who isn’t an essentially moral, trustworthy person. Bad character should be automatically disqualifying regardless of the positions the candidate claims to support. If a candidate seriously lacks good character, their claimed positions are worthless. Treating the claims of dishonorable, unprincipled people as if they are worthy of serious consideration—even defending them!—lends credibility to unscrupulous people and makes us co-conspirators in their duplicity. I say if a candidate is someone who even the world widely views as a person of poor character, then we should not even consider such a candidate as worthy of evangelical support . . . . . . unless we are more trusting in the American political system to protect us and bring about societal change than we are the power of God.

In times of trouble, Israel often looked to earthly powers for help rather than relying on God—and God judged them for it. Christians have also misplaced their trust in worldly rulers before, whether it was the early church putting their trust in Constantine or German churches putting their trust in Hitler in the 1930s. We need to be very clear about our Christian priorities, and with whom we can and cannot ally ourselves. As Peter Berger once wrote: “He who sups with the devil had better have a long spoon.” Or as Scripture itself makes so clear:

Don’t team up with those who are unbelievers.
How can righteousness be a partner with wickedness?
How can light live with darkness?

2 Corinthians 6:14

Are God’s people trying to advance the light by partnering with darkness? May it never be!

Some trust in chariots and some in horses,
but we trust in the name of the LORD our God.
They are brought to their knees and fall,
but we rise up and stand firm.

Psalm 20:7-8

What can we know about the historical Jesus?

We’ve learned in previous posts which Gospels we can trust as generally reliable historical sources, and why. So, now, what do we really know about Jesus? Let’s see what we can discover about this historical figure.

Miracle worker
The New Testament Gospels present a Jesus widely known for working wonders. It images-of-jesus-christ-141doesn’t take us long in reading these accounts before we recognize this to be a key aspect to who Jesus was. He heals the sick, cures lepers, gives sight to the blind, makes the lame walk again, casts out demons, even raises the dead. According to these accounts, this was probably the greatest factor in Jesus drawing huge crowds of people to himself.

What’s surprising to some is that most Jesus scholars—even non-Christian ones—agree that Jesus must have been able to perform some kind of wonders. It’s generally agreed the historical person known as Jesus attracted large crowds of followers, and that what mostly drew the crowds to him was his reputation as a healer and miracle-worker. The earliest stories of Jesus’ ministry recount him healing not just a lucky handful who made it “on stage,” but everyone within vast multitudes of people. These stories would not have been sustainable if he had not, in fact, healed entire crowds of people.

What’s also revealing is that the most vehement and vocal critics of early Christianity never denied Jesus’ ability to work miracles. We find many references to his ministry in early (non-Christian) Jewish writings; they denounce him as a sorcerer but admit he performed healings and miracles. It seems apparent that if they could have denied Jesus’ miraculous power, they would have.

Teacher
Jesus was not only renowned for his healing abilities but also his teaching. Instead of the common rabbinical methods of his day—where a teacher would appeal to what rabbi X had once concluded, which was confirmed by rabbis Y and Z, ad infinitum—the people noticed immediately that Jesus taught with a surprising sense of authority. He didn’t appeal to the consensus of previous teachers; he simply said, “I say unto you . . .” This was shocking to the people, arresting their attention. What he taught was definitely fresh and provocative, but it was also compelling, hard to dismiss or refute. His teaching consistently focused on two things:

Kingdom of God
The first century Jews were anticipating the Kingdom of God, but Jesus presented a radically different way of understanding this Kingdom. Rather than proclaiming political deliverance for the nation of Israel, he taught a way of life focused on loving God and loving others. The Kingdom of God he described was somehow now in their midst, was something they were to seek, and would one day be fully and universally established. Jesus also taught that the Jews were not automatically part of this Kingdom, that there was a certain prescribed entryway into the Kingdom of God.

Son of Man
Put bluntly, Jesus focused his teaching on two subjects: (1) the Kingdom of God, and (2) himself. Jesus’ most common phrase for referring to himself was the “Son of Man.” This was understood by his culture as referring to the Messiah, the promised Deliverer. The only way to enter the Kingdom of God, the only way to receive salvation and enter into relationship with the Father, was through placing one’s faith in Jesus. While drawing the people to himself in his teaching, he repeatedly challenged their understanding of who the Messiah would be and what he would do. Jesus’ continual emphasis on himself proved to be the dividing line between those who accepted him and those who did not.

Crucified
Possibly without exception, the Jesus scholars agree that Jesus suffered the ignominy of a public execution by Roman crucifixion in the vicinity of Jerusalem. Why this occurred and the implications of this death are subjects we’ll explore soon in another post.

Buried
empty_tomb2The overwhelming consensus of Jesus scholars is that the New Testament burial accounts of Jesus are reliable. After being crucified, Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin, in his own family tomb. We’ll return to the significance of this detail later.

This post is briefer than the others in this series, and it prompts us to now ask the crucial questions to which all of this leads: What of the resurrection? Did Jesus Christ really rise from the dead? Is there any historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus? We’ll begin examining these questions next week.

The historical Jesus series:

The search for Jesus

Did Jesus really exist?

Was the story of Christ copied from other religions?

Why did the early Christians accept the New Testament Gospels?

Why did the early Christians reject the “alternative gospels”?

How reliable are the New Testament Gospels?

What can we know about the historical Jesus? [see above]

What good is a dead Messiah?

Did Jesus really rise from the dead?