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Compelling, Beautiful…Deeply Flawed

Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Jackson Browne’s song “The Rebel Jesus” is not famous, as Christmas tunes go. The song was originally included on the 1991 Christmas album The Bells of Dublin by Irish music sensation The Chieftains. The first time I heard “The Rebel Jesus" was on Bebo Norman's 2007 album Christmas from the Realms of Glory, which remains one of my favorite Christmas albums of all time. (Listen to it…listen to it now!)

That said, I’ve come to realize that "The Rebel Jesus" is quite possibly the worst Christmas song ever.

I know that’s saying a lot, considering the existence of songs like "Last Christmas” by Wham! So maybe I should say it a different way. “The Rebel Jesus” might not be the worst Christmas song ever, but it is certainly one of the most theologically-inaccurate Christmas songs (at least among the songs that claim theology...I'm not including Jingle Bells here), and its bad theology reflects ideas that have become far too pervasive in our world. As such it warrants attention.


All the streets are filled with laughter and light

And the music of the season

And the merchants' windows are all bright

With the faces of the children

And the families hurrying to their homes

As the sky darkens and freezes

Will be gathering around their hearths and tables

Giving thanks for all God's graces

And the birth of the rebel Jesus

The song “The Rebel Jesus” is musically and lyrically powerful, as one would expect from one of the greatest songwriters of our time (Jackson Browne). Bebo Norman’s rendition is compelling in its beauty and simplicity.

At first glance, the song is an important reminder not to get too caught up in the commercial trappings that have invaded the Christmas holiday (holy day). But at a deeper level, the song completely misses the point of who Jesus is, and His purpose for being born on that first Christmas night.

Jesus: The Ultimate Conformist

It has become hip to portray Jesus as a rebel. Hence the title “The Rebel Jesus." Unbelieving moralists portray Jesus as a social justice warrior, preaching against the systemic injustices of the Roman Empire. An anti-imperialist. A poor, marginalized, oppressed minority who has come to level the playing field. A rebel.


Well they call him by the prince of peace

And they call him by the savior

And they pray to him upon the seas

And in every bold endeavor

As they fill his churches with their pride and gold

And their faith in him increases

But they've turned the nature that I worship in

From a temple to a robber's den

In the words of the rebel Jesus

Scripture paints a far different picture. Not only is Jesus not a rebel, He is the ultimate conformist.

“For I have come down from heaven not to do My will but to do the will of Him who sent Me,” says Jesus in John 6:38. Scripture repeats the same message over and over…John 4:34, 1 Corinthians 15:28, John 5:19, Philippians 2:6-8, John 8:28. The most powerful example of Jesus' conformity is His prayer in the Garden: Not My will but Yours be done. (Matthew 26, Mark 14, and Luke 22).

Jesus did not come to rebel against the unfair institutions of men. He came to conform to the perfect plan of the Eternal God. His divine purpose was to bring His creation back into conformity with its original design.

And here’s the kicker. Not only is Jesus most definitely not the rebel. The real rebels are you and I! We have rebelled against God’s righteousness. We have abandoned the truth of Scripture, which says that none of us is good enough, and embraced lies like the one found in “The Rebel Jesus” that say we can be good enough…we simply need to stop hoarding wealth. And we need to stop hurting “nature." The irony is that Jackson Browne is the true rebel, to the extent that he has denied the truth of Scripture. And not just him...all of humanity has rebelled. In reality, Jesus was the only conformist, surrounded by a mob of rebels.

Jesus, the Socialist


We guard our world with locks and guns

And we guard our fine possessions

And once a year when Christmas comes

We give to our relations

And perhaps we give a little to the poor

If the generosity should seize us

But if any one of us should interfere

In the business of why they are poor

They get the same as the rebel Jesus

People who tend to favor government-run and government-funded charity programs (even people who otherwise reject Christianity) like to promote the idea that one of Jesus’ main goals during his time on earth was to bring about an end to poverty. In fact, many well-meaning Christians subscribe to this idea also. The song “The Rebel Jesus" goes so far as to say that the reason Jesus was killed was because He interfered with the systems that keep some people poor and other people rich. And, says the song, you and I will get the same treatment if we try to fix poverty.

Matthew 26 tells us about a woman who, according to worldly standards, wasted a ton of money by pouring expensive perfume on Jesus. His disciples were outraged and pointed out that the perfume could have been sold to help the poor. Jesus rebuffs his disciples by saying, "Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me.” Talk about being insensitive to the plight of the poor!

Scripture makes it very clear that Jesus is exclusively interested in ending spiritual poverty. Sin has bankrupted humanity, and Jesus’ entire purpose is to cancel the debt of our sinfulness, and make all who believe in Him spiritually wealthy beyond our wildest dreams, as heirs of the promises of God. This IS the message of the Gospel. To the extent that our focus on material well-being distracts us from the truth of the Gospel, it is damaging and destructive. To the extent that Christians ally ourselves with those who focus on material well-being, while ignoring spiritual poverty (whether they preach a false gospel of prosperity or a false gospel of economic equality), we cheapen and corrupt the true Gospel.

The Hopelessness of Rejecting Jesus


But please forgive me if I seem

To take the tone of judgement

For I've no wish to come between

This day and your enjoyment

In this life of hardship and of earthly toil

We have need for anything that frees us

So I bid you pleasure

And I bid you cheer

From a heathen and a pagan

On the side of the rebel Jesus.

After all of this, the song “The Rebel Jesus” closes rather dismissively, basically saying that life is tough, so go ahead and enjoy little things like Christmas. This is the worldview of many secularists and atheists…that religion in general and Christianity in particular is false, but as long as you don't force it on other people, and you try to live a moral life, then I suppose it’s OK to have your silly little religion. The glaring fault in this thinking is that without the objective, universal truth of Christianity, there is no such thing as morality. Without Christmas, there is no freedom or cheer to bid. Christmas is not a little bit of fun in an otherwise dreary existence. Christmas is the intersection of the Infinite God and our temporal humanity. It is the Incarnate Word become flesh. It is something that cannot be understood unless a human being submits his own will to that of the Spirit of God.

The writer of “The Rebel Jesus" describes himself as a heathen and a pagan. He references worshipping in nature, but if he is not worshiping the One True God, then by default he is worshipping nature itself (Romans 1:25). Nature worship is also an idea that has gained much ground in our world today, even among Christians. We see it in the embrace of ideas about global warming that borrow religious verbiage and rise to the level of religious zeal. We see it in the fondness for indigenous religious practices like smudging and sacred water ceremonies that attempt to imbue natural objects with spiritual significance. The truth of Scripture teaches us that God created the natural world to be a blessing to human beings. Elevating nature or ideas about nature to a position where they become part of the Gospel message is a double-insult to the Creator.

Jesus Welcomes You to His Side

The song ends with the writer proclaiming himself to be “on the side of the rebel Jesus.” It is not possible to be on the side of someone you do not know.

The good news for Jackson Browne, and for the rest of us too, is that it IS possible to know Jesus and to be on His side. To do so we must reject false notions of who Jesus is. He is not a moralistic example of good living. He is not a Jewish type of Mahatma Gandhi or Karl Marx. He is God Almighty, the Eternal One. He was not killed because he challenged the system. He willingly offered Himself as the all-sufficient sacrifice for our sins, in order to fulfill the divine system.

Not only must we accept what Scripture says about Jesus, we must accept what Scripture says about us. We are not moral people capable of following the advice of song lyrics, on a path toward further enlightenment and universal justice. We are hopelessly lost in our sin. We don’t chose Christianity (as one path among many) because it makes us better people. We are called to be Christians because we are horrible people. The truth of Scripture cannot be incorporated into the false ideas invented by human beings. On the contrary, the ideas of all of us human beings must bow in humble submission to the Baby in the manger -- the Incarnate Word of God.

Jesus, the ultimate conformist, commands us to stop being the rebels.


Thanks, Dan! I’ve had conversations with people who push this “Rebel Jesus” image, and I’ve answered the same way:

“In reality, Jesus was the only conformist, surrounded by a mob of rebels.”

But it’s just not sexy enough. They get irritated, and they defend their autonomous, subjective morality because they crave the legitimacy and audacity of a righteous rebellion led by the status-quo’s Champion.

The problem comes when you use Scripture to explain how Jesus is not rallying a mob to overthrow Rome (which doesn’t require conforming to any Commandments); Jesus is calling us to conform to the Word of God. Unfortunately, Scripture starts poking at their heart, telling them that they are not a righteous rebel, but an unrighteous one like everybody else. At the end of the conversation, Jesus is the only righteous conformist, the allure of rebellion has nothing to do with Jesus, and we're all left needing a Savior who is righteous because he conformed to the Word and will of God. That’s when someone usually has an urgent matter to attend to...

Hi Dan, I agree with you on Jesus was not a rebel in according to the definition of rebel but he wasn’t a conformist either! He bucked the status quo of the church at that time and was the new example of how the church was going to be built! Thx

Hi Dan, I agree with you on Jesus was not a rebel in according to the definition of rebel but he wasn’t a conformist either! He bucked the status quo of the church at that time and was the new example of how the church was going to be built! Thx

While there is much I could say respecting the ending of the post, I will simply offer up a thought on the premise of Jesus as a rebel. It really does depend upon how one sees or defines rebel.

If he opposed the Pharisees and by implication the scribes, yes. He seems to have rejected the "traditions of men" which I take to mean what Jews would refer to as the Oral Torah . . or at least the rigidity of it and placing it on a par with Torah itself. His words that "the Shabbat was made for man and not man for the Shabbat" speaks volumes about how the whole of Torah is to be seen and approached. At the ame time, by all accounts he was a conformist in the sense that he was an observant Jew who sought only to do the will of the Father. That is about as far away from a rebel as one can get. He was not a Zealot, as noted, advocating the overthrow of the Roman government. He was not a religious recluse as were the Essenes and/or the people of Qumran. He was thoroughly engaged with people in the world in which they lived. He spoke the word in their language and spoke iot with clarity and understanding and compassion and for this he was highly regarded.

'nough said. . . for now

A very belated response!

Dear Dan

Whilst browsing the web, I have just come across the song ‘The Rebel Jesus’ (which a friend recommended to me a while ago) and then your explanation of why you consider it ‘the worst Christmas song ever’, and I have been provoked into thought, and reading and re-reading both the lyrics and your words. So thank you! For good or bad I am dispatching a copy of my response in your direction. I hope I have not misunderstood you—living on the opposite side of the Atlantic there is always a danger of this—and I assume that your church sees itself in the mainstream of orthodox Christian belief. Forgive me if I have gotten this wrong.

To briefly recap what I hear you saying, you cite Jesus as ‘the Ultimate Conformist.’ In my understanding, this is an incredibly misleading statement because Jesus, being as I guess we both believe God, conformed only to himself, which set and sets him at odds with all world systems. And being at odds with the systems of the world around is close to my definition of being a rebel.

In what we call the Magnificat, his mother Mary was inspired to sing of things like the proud being scattered in the imagination of their hearts, the mighty put down, and the humble and meek being exalted. Sounds like rebellion as well. Of course Jesus did not follow the popular take on rebellion (which would have involved a lot of dead Romans for a start), his rebellion was against the false status quo, which if you want to be theological is a result of the Fall. 

I would suggest that to label Jesus ‘the Ultimate Conformist’ without detailing exactly what you mean (which I think will be quite different to what most people who read the line expect) is a shockingly dangerous thing to do, but it pales before your naked assertion: Scripture makes it very clear that Jesus is exclusively interested in ending spiritual poverty.

As I read (and re-read) that, as I could not quite believe it, that distances you from any reasonable interpretation of Scripture. It means that you have found a way of completely ignoring so much of Jesus’ actual teaching, which is to do with how we actually treat the poor and needy, and love our neighbours as ourselves. Hey, it would be a whole lot easier if we did not have to…and you have found a way to get round all that, by saying spiritual is all.

To put it crudely, proving to yourself that you can have the rights to heaven whilst leaving the earth with its poor, and the wreckage of creation, to go to hell? It strikes me that you may never have read the parable Jesus told likening people to sheep and goats being separated at the Judgement, the upshot of which was that entry to Heaven depended on how you had physically treated the poor.

He specifically mentions folk who had called him Lord, who by implication had got their theological understanding of who he was right, but who had ignored their material obligations towards the needy. The door closed on them. ‘Depart I never knew you…’ 

Scary stuff. 

Maybe I have misunderstood you. I do hope so. 

Thank you for prompting useful thoughts, and getting me to listen to the song, which I happen to think is one of the better Christmas offerings. On the side of the rebel Jesus? To be honest I cannot think of a better place to be.

Peter Ryder

I second Peter comments here.. I came out of the reform church and I am familiar with their theology. Most of the have a habit of stripping the life and enchantment out of the bible and bringing it back to rules and regulations. Perhaps the fella who penned this was just a bit set aback when a secular artist grasped more of the Christian narrative then he wants to. Here’s to stripping life and joy from all things! Let’s join hands across time with John Calvin and the like and feel secure that we are in league with gods elect! Who cares about the poor, unsaved, and depraved for they are probably damned anyhow..

Hi Peter, thanks for your comments. To determine whether or not Jesus is a "rebel" or a "conformist," we first have to determine what is God's ORIGINAL design and created order. If Jesus is bringing things in line with the original design and created order, then He is conforming to that, correct?

Was Satan a rebel? Or a conformist? Nuff said...

Secondly, Scripture does indeed instruct us Christians to show care & concern for the material state of our neighbors. But why? Is it to earn our salvation? Or is it out of gratitude to God for saving us? And is care & concern for the material state of humanity the primary purpose for Jesus' mission on Earth?

Did Jesus have the power, when he was here on Earth, to eliminate all sickness, poverty, and "oppression"? Did He do so?

These are all things which the author of "The Rebel Jesus" misses. And I think the clear reason he misses them is because the Holy Spirit is absent in his life. He wishes to use Jesus to promote a certain political worldview. Thus he misses the Truth.

- Dan W -

Surely there's an important distinction you're not making: conformity to God is the opposite of conformity to the world. So to say "Jesus wasn't a rebel, he was a conformist" completely misses the point. He wasn't conforming to the sort of ungodly, worldly order described in the song, or to the kind of piety the song condemns. 

It sounds as if you simply identify God's authority with the powers of this world. There are certainly strands in Kuyperian Calvinism that could point that way--the same that, for instance, led Kuyper himself to justify racial segregation and even perhaps to help inspire the apartheid regime in South Africa. But I am persuaded better things of my brothers and sisters in the CRC as well. (It was, BTW, in the first--and so far the only--CRC church service I've ever attended, in South Bend in January 1995, that I first heard an evangelical preacher clearly saying that social justice was an important priority for Christians, so I've always respected y'all.)

And the best elements of your broader Reformed tradition are also anything but conformist. The Calvinists of the sixteenth century were revolutionaries. The Covenanters, for all their faults, proclaimed the Crown Rights of King Jesus against conformity to a highly worldly form of Anglican order.

It does seem that questions often beg rather simplistic answers or labels. As per a previous comment, depending upon what one considers and how one understands the words, "conformist" and "rebel," Jesus could rightfully be seen not as either/or but rather both/and.

As for Satan, the same would seem to apply. First, Satan is not a name, it is a designation. Ha Satan, the accuser. He functions much like a prosecuting attorney. Second, he designated as one of the ben elohim or "sons of God." He is not a foe of God, but rather a servant. It is clear from the book of Job that he has no authority or power of his own and acts with God's permission. authority. Hence he conforms to God's will, be that God's directive or permissive will. If God's directive will then he might be seen as conforming. If God's permissive will, then he might be seen as a rebel. His essential subservience remains in either instance. 

I might add that I hope that it does not need to be said that "Lucifer" is not the devil or the Satan or a fallen anhgel, but rather the King of Babylon and the word "lucifer" does not even appear in the Hebrew text. Long story there.

How dumb do you have to be to miss the perfect, simple message in this song? Jesus was not, ever, in any way, a conformist. You can quote all of the scripture you want—but Jesus was, in every way, a socialist, a non-conformist, a rebel, the very embodiment of a social justice warrior. that what Jesus DID. That's who he WAS. He advocated for the poorest, the most marginalized, the saddest and most unfortunate among us. He didn't support the rich, the owners, the powerful, or the rulers. He was the champion of the folks who have nothing—Jesus loves the poorest, the most unfortunate people, more than anyone else. The people we all know, the people we dismiss every day. The people we make the choice to ignore and avoid, every day. Do you really believe? Or are you pretending to be a Christian? Only you can know the answer 

Thanks for the comment, Brett. I did not miss the message that Browne promotes in his song "The Rebel Jesus." I intellectually understand the worldview that he is trying to promote. It's just that Scripture does not agree with Browne.

Did Jesus have the power, when He was here on Earth, to end all material poverty, sickness, and political oppression?

- Dan W -

Dear Dan,

The essential message of my comment was that "Jesus loves the poorest, the most unfortunate people, more than anyone else."

Was He able, or inclined— to "end all material poverty, sickness, and political oppression?" Of course not. Material poverty, sickness, suffering and political oppression have persisted throughout history, regardless of Christian fervor or Christian apathy. It could be argued that Northern European models of Democratic Socialism have made more inroads into alleviating many of the most desperate conditions of our most vulnerable citizens, providing basic needs (housing, secure access to food and services, etc.) and may be more demonstrably "Christian" than the very American, punitive approach: that, if you are truly in need—it's you're own fault. Yes, we have "welfare" and "public assistance"— but overwhelmingly these programs are seen as "hand-outs" and "a waste of taxpayer money." We just approved an $857 BILLION budget for the US Military. If 1% of that resource were redirected toward addressing American poverty, no one would be living on the streets or in shelters in this country. No one would be denied healthcare, and we could end that stupid conversation: do poor people, marginalized people, disabled people, people without resources... deserve our help? But apparently, the SCRIPTURE doesn't support caring for the poor? Really? Is Jesus just a shill for the wealthy, in your estimation? Is Jesus the guy who actually wants, more than anything, to protect the status quo?

I'm afraid that arguing for a "conservative" or "conventional" image of Jesus is a wholesale lie. Jesus WAS a revolutionary. He WAS a rebel. He WAS  a champion of the poor and the marginalized and the discriminated-against. His life would have been wholly unremarkable otherwise. His life... would not have mattered, at all, if he was not, in every way, a REBEL.


Thanks for sharing your ideas, Brett. It sounds like you (like the author of the song) prefer a Leftwing, socialist economic & political system. That is is your opinion. But it certainly is not in line with Scripture or with Jesus' life here on earth. He had the power and means to END poverty worldwide. Yet He chose not to. He had the power to implement "northern European" models of democratic socialism. But He chose not to.

The author of this song is trying to tell us who Jesus is. (Actually, he would say "was" because the author believes that Jesus is dead.)

So answer this question: Should we give credit to someone who claims to speak for Jesus, who does not even believe that Jesus is the living, eternal Son of God, and Savior of the world?

The song was penned by Jackson Brown but according to him inspired by conversations w a buddhist friend. who when Jackson Browne asked about faith in his life said:

"I believe in the teachings of Christ…but these same beliefs are held by others.' One of the things that Christianity believes that I can't really adhere to is the idea that unless you are a Christian, you won't go to heaven. That's leaving an awful lot of people out."

Do you see what Browne is saying? He wants to side with Jesus. But Christians are making it difficult. Friends, this shouldn’t be.

"Jesus was the kind of person who attracted heathens and pagans. Why does it seem that American Christianity treasures many things above Jesus. And the consequence is that “the heathens and pagans” are pushed further away.

This isn’t an indictment on any one particular Christian. I’m not saying God is angry and disappointed with his people. He never sees his saints that way because for those who truly trust in Jesus, we are the apple of his eye. He smiles upon us and sings over us.

But that doesn’t mean we don’t have work to do. Both can be true.

What I think Browne exposes is that traditionally organized church systems and structures are set up to keep us more aligned with the institution and the status quo than Jesus."

And that’s not okay.

This song was NEVER a christmas song or intended for the Church and its disappointing that this piece pops up at the top of google.   Jackson Browne never wished to take a tone of judgment, like this article does. He only wished

to be on the side of the Rebel Jesus.   I applaud him for creating dialogue about my Savior amongst the heathens and the pagans.  "he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie"

Thanks for the comment, Nocturne. Jesus Himself made it plainly obvious how we can be on His side. And it's not by criticizing His Body, the Church. Jesus said, "If you love Me, keep my commands." And also, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life; no man comes to the Father except through me."

The problem with Browne is that he (so far) is rejecting the true Jesus, and instead is worshipping a false idol of "jesus" that Browne has created in his own mind, an idol that rejects what Jesus taught us. Until the day when Browne submits to the Lordship of Christ, and allows the Holy Spirit to reveal the true Jesus to him, Browne is in rebellion and living in darkness. Which is why his song completely missed who Jesus really is!

Hello, Dan!

Thanks for the reflection! I always liked this music but I also always felt like the message of the music was a little off. I mean, I agree with the author that we shouldn't be carried by the greedy capitalism and we should care for the others, the poor, the oppressed. It is our role as a church to love others. But reducing the church and the gospel to this is superficial and not enough.

I agree with your words. Above all, Jesus came to save people, in a soteriological sense. Jesus went to the poor, the sick and to the rejected not because they needed physical restoration, but because the jewish religious themselves (pharisees, levites etc) were refusing to "give salvation" to those people.

A last note: I don't know why, but every time I hear the last two verses of the music I imagine the author is referring to (and personifying) the two men that were crucified with Jesus. Even tho they were not pagans in a strict sense, they were sinners, and I always got the idea that the author was trying to identify himself with the men who was forgiven by Christ in the cross.

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