We Don't Own Jesus

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Last month, my father was visiting his family in Lebanon when his sister and niece invited him to visit Cana with them. Some Lebanese believe that this ancient city of Cana is the location where Jesus performed his first miracle of turning water into wine. My father was eager to do so, and made it a priority on this visit.

As my father, his niece, and his sister walked up to the historic site, the man standing guard called out to my aunt, “Hajji, what are you doing here?” My aunt, dressed in hijab, was easily identifiable as a Muslim as they entered, but my father and cousin are also Muslim.

“Are you going to stop me from seeing where he performed his first miracle?” my aunt responded. “Do you own Jesus?!” she asked. The guard was silent. He didn't anticipate my aunt’s strong response. He mumbled a few words and they went on to the site.

They continued into the cave where the miracle is commemorated. My father watched my aunt as she was overwhelmed by her emotions. Tears streamed down her face. Soon, they all were crying. This was a holy moment for them—three Muslims, standing in a cave, lighting candles to honor Jesus.

It was a moment I wish I could have been there to see. But this moment, while unique in its own way, is not a singular event. These moments happen every day, around the world. Moments where the God of heaven and earth invites his image-bearers into relationship with him. Moments where he reveals himself to people.

Herman Bavinck discusses these kinds of moments in his Reformed Dogmatics.

“…from the creation, from nature and history, from the human heart and conscience, there comes divine speech to every human. No one escapes the power of general revelation... General revelation is the foundation on which special revelation builds itself up.”

- Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: Prolegomena (Baker Academic, 2003), 1:321.

Sometimes in ministry, I get caught up in the lie that following Jesus and reflecting God’s love to others is about me, and what I do. I fall into the error of thinking that mission is a strategy and not about relationship, like it is something I can figure out in my head without it changing my heart and hands and feet. It is easier to objectify people, to put them in a box as “someone who needs my help” or “someone who can help me.”

But as Christians, we need to stop talking about people—whether youth in the church or Muslims or atheists—like they are a problem to be solved. We don’t own Jesus so it is not our job to offer Jesus to others. It is not and has never been God’s will that I “save” my father or my kids or my friends who don’t follow Jesus. God is already at work, revealing himself in and through the world he has created and continues to sustain. And God’s invitation to me has been to follow him by reflecting the love and mercy and grace of Jesus Christ in the place where God has planted me.

As Deborah van Deusen Hunsinger, Princeton Seminary Professor, once said, “Stop asking what would Jesus do and ask what is Jesus doing.”

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I feel like some of your statements are half truths that could be misleading. Your next to last paragraph, taken as it is written, would seem to undercut all verbal evangelism. Yes, we shouldn't feel superior to others and see them as problems, but they still have a spiritual problem that we are called on to provide solutions to. Yes, we don't 'own' Jesus, he owns us, but we do have a fellowship with him that is necessary to have if one is to be saved, and so we urge others to have fellowship with him, too, so that our joy may be complete (1 John 1.3-4). And yes, I agree we don't 'save' anyone in and of ourselves, that saving people is the Holy Spirit's work (although, see James 5.20). But our testimony to people who don't believe is a crucial element in their being saved (Romans 10.14), which God does desire (1 Timothy 2.4). And so God does want us to communicate Jesus and his message to people who don't believe, so that they will be saved.

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I think you are missing the point of the article, but thanks for your comment, David.

I should have mentioned that I really appreciated the touching story about your family, and think it's horrible what that guard tried to do. I enjoyed the article generally, it was just the next to last paragraph that seemed to call evangelism into question in a rather general way, so I felt it important to poke a little bit. Blessings.

Community Builder

It is true that we don't own Jesus, he owns us. 

One of my central texts is the beginning of the book of Acts. The disciples imagine that now post-cross and post-resurrection the real show is about to begin. "Now will you restore the kingdom to Israel?" and the answer is Ascension and Pentecost. "You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you and you will be my witnesses..." This is the thesis statement of the book of Acts. Paul is pretty set upon a clear verbal witness, and the book is pretty honest when in chapter 26 Agrippa basically says to Paul 1. "you're mad" and 2. "Do you really think you can convert me with your little sermon." 

This is bracing honesty in a book which is in many ways a book filled with sermons which are supposed to do just that for the readers. Paul it seems knows what he's doing and is under no illusions (neither is Luke) about how it will be received. What then to make of this enormous Christian tradition of outright conversionism? 

It can't be mere tribalism either given the fracturing of the church and the constant divisions. 

I've also never really gone along with either the evangelical version of "What God is up to" by Blackaby's Experiencing God or the rather progressivist version that tends to see God in alignment with the agenda of Western post-Christendom. I'm rather taken by Tolstoy's observations of the elites of his time and place. 

 

Life in Europe and my acquaintance with leading and learned Europeans [Footnote:  Russians generally make a distinction between Europeans and Russians. -- A.M.] confirmed me yet more in the faith of striving after perfection in which I believed, for I found the same faith among them.  That faith took with me the common form it assumes with the majority of educated people of our day.  It was expressed by the word "progress".  It then appeared to me that this word meant something.  I did not as yet understand that, being tormented (like every vital man) by the question how it is best for me to live, in my answer, "Live in conformity with progress", I was like a man in a boat who when carried along by wind and waves should reply to what for him is the chief and only question. "whither to steer", by saying, "We are being carried somewhere".

Tolstoy, Leo. A Confession (Kindle Locations 175-181). Unknown. Kindle Edition. 

I don't own Jesus, and he need not be faithful to me in the way I must be faithful to him. What he does with others is his business. I need to figure out what being publicly owned by him looks like. 

Community Builder

Beautiful article Shannon - thank you for pointing us to the sovereign work of God and away from evangelical individualism that puts the onus on us and then gives us the glory (look at the good work I have done). I would go further though and say while God has revealed himself through general revelation - we still need to present God's special revelation to those who 1.) don't know about it 2.) have greatly misunderstood it. This is our responsibility - verbal witness. It's not about us, it is about God, but we still have to be active. I raise this because there is some concern about our declining numbers - and need for more training in evangelism - and more active evangelism. I think we need to develop in our congregations a culture of evangelism - and that indeed means we don't own Jesus - but we do have a responsibility to not only live in a way that honors Jesus but also points directly to him. In our culture today our passion for Jesus will either be misinterpreted as religious zeal or attempts to gain merit. We will have to verbalize that we are motivated and indeed saved by grace through our Lord and Savior Jesus.

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I agree, Greg. We need to live the gospel, in word and in deed, and trust God to do the work that we cannot, which is changing hearts and minds.

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Yes I believe in the sovereignty of God in this process and love Luke 10:9 "Heal the sick who are there and tell them, 'The Kingdom of God has come near to you.'"

 

This is a great story – but the conclusions drawn from in in the second-to-last paragraph lost me. There seems to be a theologically (and logically) invalid jump from "We don't own Jesus" directly  into "we don't proclaim Jesus" (cf:"it is not our job to offer Jesus to others.") . I’m preaching on Colossians 1:24-2:5 on Sunday where Paul’s point is “We proclaim him [Jesus], admonishing and teaching everyone…to this end I labor, struggling with all his energy, which so powerfully works in me” (Colossians 1:28-29).

I was hoping I was misunderstanding, but that same summary paragraph goes on to suggest that somehow God’s general revelation makes proclamation of His special revelation unnecessary. Specifically, the article moves from God’s work in general revelation (“…revealing himself in and through the world he created”) to the author being called merely to be "reflecting the love and mercy and grace of Jesus in the place where God has planted me" as opposed to naming the source of that grace and mercy and calling for belief in him (cf. "It is not and has never been God’s will that I 'save' [those] who don’t follow Jesus.").

Herman Bavink affirmed general revelation, but he did not do so in opposition to clearly and robustly calling for faith in Jesus.

To put the above in denominational context, I wonder if concerns with the argument put forth by this article were reflected at Synod by those who felt that bald calls to social justice (cf: “reflecting the love and mercy of Jesus”) was indeed being offered as a substitute for Gospel proclamation (cf: “its not our job to offer Jesus to others”).  Personally, I think we need both – and our language honors the Gospel best when we scrupulously avoid suggesting a choice must be made between them.

Community Builder

I appreciate your thoughts, and I think you are misunderstanding. When I was in Seminary, I remember one of the professors pointing out how the quote that says "Christ has no body on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet..." from Teresa of Avila wasn't exactly correct. Because God still is at work, around us and at times in spite of us. I think that is the beautiful thing about Reformed theology--that God's salvation is not dependent upon us, but on God, and God's choosing. That is what I hoped to convey in this article, not to take responsibility off of us for living it in word and in deed that the world may know that Christ is Lord. I probably could have conveyed that more clearly. Thanks, again.

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Hey, Shannon. I think I am a little bit cloudy in the head this afternoon as I am having a difficult time interpreting your post.  So, if you would not mind helping me out,  I was wondering if you could provide me with a one or two sentence summary of what your main thesis is. For I think if I have a summary of your thesis I will be able to re-read and benefit more clearly from the message you are hoping to relay.

Community Builder

Sure, Kyle. The thesis would be: God is speaking to the people of the world in many ways, while one of those ways is through Christians called to testify to the hope we have in Christ, God doesn't need us to accomplish his purposes. He chooses us to do that. And he speaks to people in spite of us sometimes.

Community Builder

The dilemma I face is that my evangelical friends (mostly Baptists) have more success motivating people towards personal sharing of their faith through an "it all depends on you" Arminian type of theology. Perhaps it is similar theologically to efforts to lead moral lives among LDS followers - who are motivated by a "works theology." My point I guess is that if we are going to have good theology we still need to be working, serving, sharing, even though God doesn't need us - we have the privilege of being on mission for Him. I hope that makes sense and would love to hear others ideas on motivating people towards verbal witness.

 

Community Builder

Amen, Greg. It is difficult for me to understand the mindset that is not compelled by faith to share our faith. I have so many friends who are not Christian, and it would be difficult for me to hide my faith with them. I know it can lead to uncomfortable moments between us, but because we love and trust each other, my atheist friends "put up" with my incessant Jesus talk, my Muslim family know that I will point to the divinity of Christ at every opportunity in conversation. I seriously have no idea how I could muzzle that kind of talk. Is it a problem of timidity we face, or are people so wrapped up in their Christian communities that they are failing to be in deep relationships of mutuality and trust with people who aren't Christians? I wonder some times. 

Thanks Shannon for your thoughts on witnessing.  You say, “It is difficult for me to understand the mindset that is not compelled by faith to share our faith.”   You are speaking as an ordained minister of the church who has spent years in formal education preparing for ministry.  What other mindset could fellow Christians expect from you?  But for you to say that of others is a bit surprising.  And it is also surprising, the response that you receive from non Christian friends and family such as atheists and Muslims.  If you are as enthusiastic as you claim for Christ (incessant Jesus talk) it is a wonder that you have friends outside of Christian circles (and maybe even within Christian circles).  Put the shoe on the other foot.  If your Muslim family incessantly talked about their submission to Allah how long would you want to listen?  Or if your strongly committed atheist friends incessantly denied God and spoke often of the foolishness of religion including (especially including) Christianity, how would you feel?  I am guessing that you are so excited about your Christian faith that you lack sensitivity to the religious convictions of others.  And by your enthusiasm you diminish the value of their faith and beliefs.

Community Builder

Thanks for your comment, Roger, but you don't know me, nor the relationships that I speak of. My friends and family members who are atheists do share ideas that offend me at times, but that does not mean that we can't be friends. They actually strengthen me as a Christian. Their diversity is not a threat or a barrier to our relationship. It is a gift. As Christians, we are called to testify to our faith in our relationships with others, but that does not mean we need to cut ourselves off from those who we disagree with. Do people prejudge me when they hear I am a pastor? Certainly. Will people occasionally be caught off guard or offended by my Jesus-talk? Yes. But does that mean that I must be offensive because of my faith, or unable to live in relationships with others that are loving and honoring of who they are? No.

You are absolutely right to say that I don’t know you or the relationships that you speak of.  It sounds like you may be a great person, as well as your relationships.  That we don’t know each other is typical of websites like this that encourage blogging.

As I listened to your previous comment, it sounded like you are very enthusiastic and passionate about your faith relationship.  In fact you wondered why others weren’t like you in your enthusiasm.  You incessantly talk about Jesus with your atheist friends, and at every opportunity will point to the divinity of Christ with your Muslim family, even though you obviously know that this is a point of contention between Muslims and Christians.

I guess my response was a knee jerk reaction to what I thought might be normal for a non Christian listening to such enthusiasm about Christ.  After all, even Scripture points out that the cross is foolishness to the non Christian.  In part such foolishness is that non Christians know that Christians think of their Christian faith as exclusive of all other religions.  After all, there is no other name than Jesus by which one can be saved.  The message of Christ, or the gospel, devalues all other religions.  Just read the apostle Paul.  Isn’t that the point of the gospel?  If you are not trusting my Savior, Jesus, then you’re not going to make it to heaven or have acceptance with God. So we try to dissuade non Christians from trusting whatever they may have been trusting in, to that of trusting in Jesus Christ.  So it seems perfectly natural for a non Christian to be offended by an overly enthusiastic gospel spreader.  I think Paul warns us that such an offense is normal.

Thanks, Shannon, for the correction to my misunderstand of you, your friends, and family and my knee jerk reaction to your previous response.

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