There are many cultural myths about Jesus; ways in which people have come to describe Him that arise from particular traditions. Often they are not matters of right or wrong, but rather expressions which have helped people relate to Jesus from their unique backgrounds. For example, in our sensitivity to race and ethnicity, when we speak of a Black Jesus or Brown Jesus it recognizes those who have felt marginalized by a majority culture which has envisaged Jesus as White.
In our social justice era, we often hear a chorus of voices who propose that Jesus was a refugee in Egypt in spite of the significant Jewish presence in North Africa (seems likely that the Holy Family had relatives there or at least friends—e.g. Mary’s, mother of Mark, family and perhaps Simon’s). To connect with the poor, we paint a picture of a desperately impoverished Jesus ignoring the tremendous wealth gifted to Him by the magi from the east. Seems absurd to say, but such wealth appropriate for a king would have made the Holy Family one of the most affluent refugees in human history.
The idea in no way detracts from the fact that Mary and Joseph fled with Jesus from the persecution of Herod (Matt 2:13-23). Nor does it detract from Christian responsibility to care for those on the margins of society (Matt 25:31-46). Rather, it recognizes the fact that Jews had long ago migrated to the North African part of the Roman Empire and were exceedingly prosperous. Indeed, Mary and Mark, for instance, appear to have had homes in Cyrene, Jerusalem, and Rome (see Oden’s The African Memory of Mark for more on this).
In times of war, or even in election years, different sides will claim Jesus for their cause—not all that different from what we see today in relationship to Putin’s war in Ukraine or Christian nationalism in the US. You’d think that after the atrocities of Nazi Germany we would have learned what happens when faith aligns with the government.
In the cultural myths surrounding Jesus, we not only portray a Jesus-as-we-want-Him-to-be, we tend to also humanize Him to such an extent that we risk forgetting His awesome nature, one which He prayed would be restored (John 17:5). With good intentions, we can end up reading contemporary contexts of injustice back into Jesus’ story and impose modern definitions of immigration, internally displace peoples, racial inequality, and political ambition on the first century AD testaments to His life.
Contrastingly to modern myths of Jesus, when we read about Him in the Gospels, we deduce the most remarkable portrait of humanity as God intended, indifferent of race, socio-economic status, or political stripe. Jesus, no doubt, provides an example of who we are to be. His manner of life—the way He interacted with people and His passion for the work of the Father—is a model to be emulated (1 Cor 11:1; Eph 5:1). His life and ministry, His suffering and sacrifice, all point to what God expects from us—to be like His Son (Rom 8:29). Still, we know that there is more to Jesus than what we read in the Gospels. For example, unlike the Gospels which describe Jesus from the view of eyewitnesses, the Jesus of Revelation is the Jesus as He has described Himself (Rev 1:1).
This time of year is an obvious reminder of the Word made flesh, who brought light to the world, and dwelled among us (John 1:1, 9, 14). This Holy week, as is remembered in the Christian calendar, reminds us of the glory due Him as He rode into Jerusalem (John 12:12-19), of His service in washing the feet of His disciples (John 13), of His purpose in coming to redeem His people (John 17:6-8), and of the price He paid so that we could be united with Him (John 19:17-30).
This Sunday, once again, we will remember His victory over sin, death, and the devil, what is often referred to as Christus Victor. It is a beautiful expression that is used to this day in Nepal and India when Christians greet each other—Jaimaishi or Jaimasihki—a reminder that Jesus is victorious. Indeed, He is victorious, the evidence for which is revealed to the Apostle John in Revelation. Here, Jesus sits, highly exalted in the glory that He had before His incarnation. Here is the Jesus-as-He-truly-is today; the Jesus we will meet on the day of our eschatological hope. This Jesus who John saw is completely other in form from the Jesus with whom John walked; however, ontologically He is unchanged as the eternally, pre-existent Son.
“Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest. The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength.” (Rev 1:12-16, ESV)
Yet, as we read further, something unexpected happens. John, the beloved disciple, doesn’t seem to know who he has seen. The awesome Being standing in front of him can hardly be described in words that make sense to his human understanding. John, who with Peter and James, saw Jesus transfigured in the garden (Matt 17:1-13), had never seen anything like the One before him now. And he was frightened to death, almost literally. He writes, “When I saw him, I fell at his feet as if dead” (Rev 1:17).
And Jesus, as we have come to learn of Him in the Gospels, is sympathetic and understanding towards John’s terror. It took two things for him to finally recognize the One who “died and was alive forever more.” First, Jesus touched John; and second, Jesus spoke to John. A touch and words that were familiar to John, “Fear not. I am the first and the last, the living one” (Rev 1:17-18).
In Revelation, we meet Jesus in His glory and He reminds the church to be faithful in times of economic, social, and political turmoil (Rev 13:10). He is not White, Black, or Brown. He is not an impoverished refugee. He has no political affiliation. He is the victorious Christ who reaches out to touch and speak to us to ensure us that there is nothing to fear. After all, He is “coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay each one for what he has done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end” (Rev 22:12–13).