He Gets Us? Don’t Minimize the Actions of Jesus

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Occasionally, there are movements within evangelical Christianity that emphasize the importance of following Jesus’ words in the Gospels. In the early 2000s, authors and pastors that aligned with the emerging church/Emergent Village, Red Letter Christians, Advent Conspiracy, Youth Specialties, and other evangelical groups urged Christians to pay heed to the actual teachings of Jesus. In part, this movement was a reaction to a previous tendency within evangelical Christianity to minimize Jesus’ teachings in favor of highlighting his birth, miracles, death, and resurrection. As we were correctly reminded by leading voices in this movement, Jesus’ teachings were a vital part of his earthly ministry. Being a disciple was not simply believing in his death and resurrection but also following what he taught. Today, you can see similar emphasis on his teachings in the viral “He Gets Us” campaign, which “exists to remind us of the example that Jesus set while inviting all to explore his teachings so we can all follow his example of confounding, unconditional love.”

These movements tend to have the most impact among younger Christians who want to go deeper in their faith and so are enthusiastic for the message. As a Christian in my early 20’s, I was one of many who soaked it up in the early 2000s when a number of trends developed within the movement. We labeled ourselves “Jesus Followers” rather than “Christians” on our social media profiles, gave money to new non-profit organizations that cared about Jesus’ words about the poor, read books with titles such as The Secret Message of Jesus and The Gospel According to Jesus, participated in rallies, bought Toms shoes, camped outside, gave food to the homeless, and used terms like “radical generosity.” This was the air that many of us breathed deeply, but the underlying emphasis of the movement on the words of Jesus nearly suffocated my faith.

You might be surprised to hear that a movement emphasizing Jesus’ teachings could potentially suffocate a believer’s faith, but the more that I studied Jesus’ words, the more impossible it began to seem to live the Christian life. Following Jesus became less like stepping into the Pool of Bethesda and more like falling into a sinkhole. How could I possibly know which of his commandments to individuals in the Gospels applied to me? Was I like the rich young ruler, where I was required to give literally everything I owned away in order to follow him? Maybe I was like his disciples, and I was required to walk away from my job and family. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Scholars debate what poor in spirit means in this passage, yet I was supposed to figure out this heart condition in order to have the kingdom of heaven. Or, what about Jesus’ words in Matthew 25 on sheep and goats? Taken by themselves, these words can seem as if Jesus was promoting a works-based salvation. I knew that if my works had to measure up in order to follow Jesus into eternity, I was in trouble. It all started to seem impossible.

Both his words and actions have tremendous value, and they only make complete sense in light of each other.

Later I realized that I had unintentionally swung the pendulum so far away from the “Jesus’ words don’t matter” extreme that I landed on the “Jesus’ actions don’t matter” extreme. For me, the real Christians were the ones who lived radical lives of following his words to their logical conclusions, but, without the actions of Jesus—particularly his miracles and his atoning work on the cross—the logical conclusions of Jesus’ words weren’t for my spiritual health but to my spiritual demise. And I’m not alone in this. The emphasis on Jesus’ words seems to have moved several well-meaning leaders to a version of Christianity more akin to classical liberalism that mines through the Gospels for the “real message of Jesus,” gathering small snippets of his “authentic” sayings to support one’s convictions.

If you have ever found yourself in a mental state like I was in, then let me offer you this simple yet significant piece of advice: Don’t minimize the actions of Jesus. Both his words and actions have tremendous value, and they only make complete sense in light of each other. As I further developed my understanding of the New Testament, I realized that the Gospel writers weren’t simply putting together scrapbooks of Jesus’ sayings and deeds; they were telling full stories with scenes, tensions, and plot development. While the Gospels share a number of overlapping stories and teachings, it is significant that all four Gospel writers recognized the cross as the height of their narratives. Once you get to the cross and resurrection, then all of the teachings that came before it begin to make sense.

On the flip side, Jesus wasn’t simply making small-talk as he waited for the cross. He was drawing hearts and minds into a new way of living that only makes sense if God has victory over Satan, death, and sin. Within this paradigm, caring for the poor, speaking out on injustice, and being generous are all marks of following Jesus.

If you lose either his words or his actions, then at best you are going to have an unbalanced understanding of Christianity. If you emphasize his actions at the expense of his words, it could lead you to spiritual apathy. If you emphasize his words at the expense of his actions, it could lead you to spiritual anguish. Thankfully, he gave us both his words and his actions, and we understand them together as the key to understanding his life and ministry.

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Chet Harvey

Chet Harvey is discipleship pastor at Hebron Church in Dacula, GA and director of the North Georgia Extension Center for NOBTS. He completed a PhD in theology from SEBTS in 2018. Chet is married to Anna and they have two kids, Mae (11) and Win (6). Besides rooting for the New Orleans Pelicans, Chet loves trying new restaurants with Anna, beginning yard projects he’ll never complete, and watching 80s action movies.

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