Jesus is my homeboy.
Or, at least, that’s what a popular t-shirt reads. They sell them not at Christian bookstores, but at places like Urban Outfitters, right next to ones that say things like: “Jesus surfs without a board.” But Jesus isn’t just relegated to a t-shirt slogan. Rap artist Kanye West made waves a few years ago when he appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone wearing a crown of thorns. And—most recently—“Jesus” has actually appeared onstage at Kanye’s performances, offering forgiveness and love.
Today’s world has a genuine fondness for Jesus. It’s just that they fear his message has been perverted and corrupted by institutional Christianity—an organization that has co-opted Jesus’ message and bent it for a personal and political agenda.
The love for Jesus fits broadly into a post-everything world, one wear “spirituality” has more fashionably superseded “religious” as a means of describing oneself. A generation or so ago, we lived in a modern world. We asked modern questions, like: “Should I believe in Jesus or not?” Scholars told us of a “Christ of history,” so different from the “Christ of faith” we grew up admiring. These two “Christs” were separated by what one scholar called “an ugly, broad ditch.” But in a postmodern world, we’re asking different questions. We’ve crossed that “ugly, broad ditch” only to find ourselves standing in a hall of mirrors. If yesterday’s question was: “Should I believe in Jesus or not?” today’s question is: “What kind of Jesus should I believe in?” We long for a vision of Jesus that is not merely a distant shadow cast by the dim light of religious tradition. We want a Savior that can empathize directly with our experience.
We’ll find this Jesus in Sussex, England. Above the door of a church hangs not a panel of stained glass but a seven-foot-tall statue of Jesus sporting a pair of jeans. Many—including journalist Steve Case—readily identify with this “Jesus in jeans.”
“I’d like to have a cup of coffee with Jesus someday,” Case writes. “Not the guy in the clean white robe who speaks in King James English…just a ‘guy.’ A son of God who laughs, hangs out with the outcasts, breaks the rules that need breaking, and calls the finger-pointers on the carpet.”
For Case, this earthy version of Jesus is essential to the future of faith.
“If we can find a way for people to see and touch and hear and smell Jesus, it might make it a little easier when we ask them to have faith in a Jesus that is beyond our senses. Yes, what Jesus did…was an act of immeasurable compassion and love. But isn’t it easier to hug someone whose arms aren’t nailed down?”
The writer of Hebrews gives special attention to explaining who Jesus is to his readers. After his introduction (Hebrews 1:1-4) he turns his focus to the splendor and majesty of Christ. More specifically, the author of Hebrews takes the time to explain that Jesus is superior to the angels. Why? Some have speculated that the original readers had become preoccupied with the worship of angels. Others have speculated that maybe—in their confusion—they might have suspected that Jesus had been an angel. But we really don’t have any historic basis for either suggestion. Instead, we can read between the lines to see that the author of Hebrews is simply trying to further reveal the incredible supremacy of Jesus. And he does so in two distinct ways.
THE SON OF GOD
First, the writer uses scripture to point to the reality of Jesus as the Son of God:
5 For to which of the angels did God ever say,
“You are my Son,
today I have begotten you”?
“I will be to him a father,
and he shall be to me a son”?
6 And again, when he brings the firstborn into the world, he says,
“Let all God’s angels worship him.”
Mind you, “Son of God” was a term used frequently of ancient kings. In neighboring cultures, kings saw themselves as either the gods’ representatives or some sort of demigod come to earth (if you saw the film 300, the Persian King Xerxes was an example of this—even in spite of Hollywood’s creative license). But here the author of Hebrews cites three specific passages (Psalm 2:7; 2 Samuel 7:14; and Deuteronomy 32:43) to directly point to Jesus. Even if kings like David had ever been “sons of God” in some political sense, only Jesus is the “Son of God” in the divine sense. Even the term “firstborn” is heavy with meaning, showing that Jesus is the emphatically eternal revelation of God.
THE KING OF ISRAEL
Secondly, the writer points to the reality of Jesus as the true King of Israel:
7 Of the angels he says,
“He makes his angels winds,
and his ministers a flame of fire.”
8 But of the Son he says,
“Your throne, O God, is forever and ever,
the scepter of uprightness is the scepter of your kingdom.
9 You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness;
therefore God, your God, has anointed you
with the oil of gladness beyond your companions.”
“You, Lord, laid the foundation of the earth in the beginning,
and the heavens are the work of your hands;
11 they will perish, but you remain;
they will all wear out like a garment,
12 like a robe you will roll them up,
like a garment they will be changed.
But you are the same,
and your years will have no end.”
13 And to which of the angels has he ever said,
“Sit at my right hand
until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet”?
14 Are they not all ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation?
This section begins and ends with a brief reflection on the nature of angels. Yes, he says in verse 7, they are powerful and devoted servants (he quotes Psalm 104:4 to illustrate this), but they pale in comparison to the king of Israel.
So in verses 8-13 the author again draws from the wealth of scripture to reveal that Jesus is the ruler of all (Psalm 45:6-7; Psalm 102:25-27; and Psalm 110:1). Psalm 110—the last psalm quoted—is a favorite among writers of the New Testament to emphasize Jesus’ superiority.
CLOTHED IN HIS GOSPEL
In one of his works on the life of Christ, N.T. Wright devotes considerable attention to the ways that the early Jews longed for two specific things to happen. First, they longed for a day when God would physically be among them. Second, they longed for the day when—once again—a King from the line of David would rule over them. But, Wright observes, in the years surrounding the arrival of Jesus, no one seemed to ever expect that both of these expectations would be fulfilled in the same person.
Why should this matter? Because Christianity insists that the identity of Jesus is anchored not in popular imaginations or t-shirt slogans, but instead it is deeply embedded in Israel’s history. When we open the pages of Scripture, we find not a “Jesus in jeans” but instead what John Calvin once called a “Christ who is clothed in his gospel.” The good news for folks like Steve Case is that we still get a Savior who identifies with us, who shares in our every human experience—both bad and good. But if Jesus identifies with me it’s not because he’s “just another guy.” I don’t want just another guy I can have coffee with. Left to my own devices, I can only make my life a greater disaster. I need a Savior with the capability and desire to lift me from the ruins and expand my vision of his Kingdom. I need a Jesus clothed in his gospel.