Freedom had been hunted round the globe; reason was considered as rebellion; and the slavery of fear had made men afraid to think. But such is the irresistible nature of truth, that all it asks, and all it wants, is the liberty of appearing.
~ Thomas Paine, Rights of Man, 1791 ~

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Following Jesus: What did Jesus actually do?

Recently I came across a comment from a Christadelphian who argued that:
"...many of us are just trying to do our best to live in the example Christ set for us to that a bad thing? To love your enemy, to care for your neighbours, the sick, the poor etc?"
What example?

That got me thinking a bit. Did Jesus actually set that example? Or is this an assumption made by believers who read the Bible and then fill in the gaps according to what they were taught from when they were young?

To find out, I decided to scan through all four gospels and find every actual action that Jesus was said to have performed. That's when things got interesting.

Here is what I found...


For the purpose of this article, I'm going to assume that everything in the gospels is literally true, and that all events they describe actually happened literally as stated. Personally I don't believe this is the case, but it would get tedious very quickly if I had to put disclaimers after every paragraph. Besides, I often find it more useful and persuasive to step inside the believer's own worldview and show that even then it doesn't stack up. So let's dive in.

What DID Jesus do?

You've heard the phrase, 'What would Jesus do?', often presented as the acronym WWJD. Perhaps it would help to answer that question by looking at what Jesus did do, and extrapolating from there.

So here's a list of the most notable things Jesus actually did, according to the gospels:

  1. Got baptised (Matt 3:13)
  2. Fasted 40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness (Matt 4:1; Luke 4:2)
  3. Read in the synagogue (Luke 4:16)
  4. Moved house to live near the sea (Matthew 4:12)
  5. Climbed mountains, several times (e.g. Matt 5:1; Mark 3)
  6. Sailed in a boat many times (e.g. Matt 8:23-27, 13:1-2, 14:13; Mark 3 & 4)
  7. Killed a herd of pigs, by magically sending them off a cliff (Matt 8:32)
  8. Walked through grain fields (Matt 12:1; Mark 2:23)
  9. Walked on water (Matt 14:25)
  10. Rode a donkey and a colt at the same time (Matt 21:7). (I am genuinely impressed by this one!)
  11. Made a whip out of cords and used it to drive people out of the temple, also turning tables and chairs over. (Matt 21:12; Mark 11:15; Luke 19:45; John 2:15)
  12. Watched people putting money into the treasury (Mark 12:41)
  13. Ate a meal with his friends (Matt 26:20)
  14. Prayed a lot of times (e.g. Matt 26:26)
  15. Magic. Jesus did a LOT of magic. More on this later.
  16. Preaching. Jesus also did a LOT of preaching.

Do as I say, not as I do

Before I go any further, I want to make it clear that the above list accounts for pretty much everything the gospels say Jesus ever did. The vast majority of the content in the gospels is about stuff Jesus said. If you want to claim that Jesus actually practiced what he preached, you'd be making a link that just isn't there in the text. I'm not saying he didn't live a good life or anything like that. Just that we don't know much at all about the way he lived, except that he did a lot of preaching and a lot of magic.

When people talk about following Jesus' example, it seems clear to me that they are probably not talking about what he actually did, but rather about what he said. Otherwise, given the fact that none of us can do magic, we would be left with the example of preaching a lot and not much else. I've never heard Christians asking us to take up sailing or mountain climbing in the name of Jesus, but those things would seem to be equally valid candidates for "following Jesus' example", if they were at all concerned with the life he lived.

So maybe Christians really just mean that we should follow the ideals that Jesus spoke about? But this creates a problem.

Firstly, what was the point of sending Jesus? Couldn't God have told us all those things directly?
Secondly, Jesus supposedly lived a sinless, or perfect, life. Yet we have no clear example of what such a life looked like. Whatever Jesus actually did, or didn't do, God was apparently really happy with it. We just don't know what it was in any detail. So much for leaving us an example to follow.

Given that we have very little information about Jesus' actual life, the only things left to actually "follow" are his words. Those are open to interpretation, which has lead to an enormous amount of theological debate, but in any case I'd agree there are some good points in what he said.

Love your enemies

Did Jesus love his enemies? He called them various nasty names, such as a "offspring of vipers"(Matt 23:33), "blind fools" (Matt 23:17) and "whitewashed tombs" (Matt 23:27). He even called Herod a "fox" (Luke 13:32).

But what evidence is there that Jesus loved anyone? There is no act of love recorded about Jesus in the gospels, especially not any act of love towards his enemies. At best, Christians would have to point to his death as an act of love. But that assumes that everything Jesus said was true, otherwise where is the love?

In Luke 19, Jesus told a parable about a nobleman who went to a far country to receive a kingdom after which he would return. The nobleman is said to represent Jesus. The parable ends with a description of how this nobleman would treat his enemies:
"But as for these enemies of mine who did not want me to be their king, bring them here and slaughter them in front of me!"
Luke 19:27

Where is the good, moral example of how we are supposed to show love to our enemies?

Caring for the poor and sick

Perhaps you think Jesus' example was to care for the poor and the sick. After all, there are many examples in the gospels of Jesus healing the sick and offering verbal comfort to the poor.

But on closer inspection, it seems that Jesus never once cared for anyone but himself, except via magic. I don't see a great example here. If we had such magic powers, I think we could do many more good deeds than Jesus did. Imagine being able to heal every sick person and raise the dead, simply by chanting some words or touching them!

If Jesus really had such powers, he could have done so much more. See Matthew 10:5-8:
Jesus sent out these twelve, instructing them as follows: "Do not go to Gentile regions and do not enter any Samaritan town. Go instead to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, preach this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven is near!’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons."
Doesn't it seem a little bit odd for Jesus to want to prevent his national enemies from being healed? It also seems weird for Jesus to ask his disciples to cast out demons, rather than educating them about germ theory. It's almost as if Jesus himself thought disease was caused by demons...but I digress.

I'm sure if any one of us had those same powers, we could close down every hospital in the world! Not only that, we could end world hunger and solve the energy crisis. Just imagine the possibilities!

Yet although the gospels say Jesus did use his power to feed and heal many people, the above verses show that he also placed limits on who the powers could be used on. What moral reason could there be for such a restriction?

It is tempting to think that Jesus healed the sick and raised the dead primarily for the benefit of the people who were affected, as an act of pure kindness. Perhaps in many cases this could be true. We don't know. But on at least one occasion the gospels show Jesus using healing purely to further his own agenda:
But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—then he said to the paralytic—“Stand up, take your stretcher, and go home.”
Matthew 9:6
So what example did Jesus actually leave us here?

Caring for the poor and sick is a lot more difficult for us than it was for Jesus. We don't have magic to heal the blind or raise the dead. We rely on technology and modern medicine, which people have had to figure out all on their own, with no help from Jesus. Imagine if Jesus had laid the foundation for medicine 2000 years ago. Perhaps we could have a universal cure for cancer by now! But instead all we have from Jesus (or rather, the gospels), is Iron Age superstition and reports of miracles (which are plentiful from that era, even outside the Bible!).

So to summarise, whatever Jesus did or said, there is no evidence of him leaving behind any meaningful example of how we should care for the poor or the sick. In our times, we try to care for the sick and the poor, not because we needed someone to tell us to, but because we can see that it is the moral and kind thing to do. We look after each other, hoping that others will look after us. We also care for people because we love them. We even sacrifice our time and energy to assist those who are sick, and we often give of our own wealth to assist the poor. Jesus did neither of those things. Healing the sick cost him no time or energy. He also had no money with which to help the poor. If we want to help the poor and the sick, it is obvious that we must find our own way to do it, because Jesus left no such example for us to follow.

So what was Jesus' purpose?

Many people seem to think that Jesus' purpose was to show people an example of a perfect life, but I've demonstrated above that the Bible just doesn't support this view.

But we don't need to guess what Jesus' purpose was, because he told us himself in Matthew 10:34-36:
"Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law, and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household."

This is a disappointment for those of us who do seek peace on Earth. Christadelphians claim that God will set up a kingdom of peace in the future, but they also believe Jesus will be its king. I assume that's also when he'll have his enemies slaughtered in front of him. I find it incredibly disturbing that God's supposedly perfect plan to bring peace involves killing everyone who disagrees with him. That's the very same plan some nations seem to have today. The world needs an end to such barbaric tribalism, not more of it!

The perfect example to follow?

So you claim to be a follower of Jesus. Well, that's nice. But what does that mean?

Perhaps it means that you cherry-pick some of the good things he said, and try to live a good life following those principles. If so, then you're probably a pretty good person, and even people from other cultures and religions would probably agree. But wouldn't that mean your standard of what is good is actually not Jesus? Rather, you measure Jesus' words against your own standard of what it means to be a good person, and then simply accept the things that align with it. There's nothing wrong with that.

Or perhaps you really do want to emulate Jesus in every respect, both in what he said and what he did.

In that case, you might want to consider a life of preaching, with no money, and hoping to heal people by chanting some words or touching them. Of course, having no money makes it difficult to truly help the poor in any meaningful way, so you might need to offer them some empty platitudes instead, and promise them success in the next life. If you're really good, you might even convince them that being poor is a blessing.

Some of the things Jesus did might make you unpopular, such as watching how much money people put in the collection bags, walking through other people's crops, and chasing a town's entire livestock off a cliff.

Perhaps you should also take up barefoot skiing, sailing and mountain climbing, as well as learning to straddle a donkey and its colt. I'm not really sure where the emulation is supposed to stop.

Finally, to paraphrase a popular internet meme:
Next time you ask yourself, 'What Would Jesus Do?'...
Just remember that going around threatening people with a whip and turning over their tables and chairs is within the realm of possibilities!