Allow me to relate two recent incidents as a way of introduction to this book review. The first was on a recent Sunday morning in a church associated with a popular Christian movement (they do not want to be called a “denomination”) located in the midwest. The man who preached is a well-known missionary, a man who has been on the side of Christ for more than 40 years. His message that morning was taken from Luke 15, the story we know as the Prodigal Son. The missionary made it through his sermon without once mentioning the name of Jesus. Not one time. Oh, and the message he shared from this parable was that there are three levels of maturity we all must pass through in order to be of useful service to God.
The second incident was also recent, also in the midwest as I was visiting family. A woman asked me if I knew of any DVD series that used New Testament characters to teach positive character traits. Another woman, a teacher in a Christian school, needed it for her middle school classes. I said, “No, I don’t know of any.” Then I continued, “And that would be the wrong use of Scripture.”
“What do you mean?”
“Scripture is given to us for one reason only,” I said. “And that is to reveal Jesus to us. If you want to teach positive character traits, try a book like Mickey Mantle’s The Quality Of Courage. That’s much better to use to teach that kind of thing.”
As you can tell, I am not always a hit at family gatherings.
Both of these situations, along with many others I could relate but won’t, tell me that Jesus may need to mount a PR campaign just to be remembered by his own followers.Â How is it that we who call our selves “little Christs” can so quickly forget Jesus? Why is it that we talk about everything else but Jesus when we are together?
Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola have teamed up to write Jesus Manifesto: Restoring the Supremacy and Sovereignty of Jesus Christ. It is meant to draw the reader’s focus back to the center, back to Jesus himself.
“Who do you say that I am?” is the question required of every generation, and every generation must answer it for itself…Unfortunately, “Who do you say that I am?” is no longer the only question. “What are you doing to bring in the kingdom of God?” is now an equally asked question, as is “What are you doing for justice?” and “In what causes are you engaged?” Or “What are you doing to evangelize the world?” and “To whom are you accountable?” and “What’s your gift?” And especially, “What kind of leader are you?”
Yet Jesus quizzed Peter with one ultimate question, and only one. And that one decisive question is the same one He asks us today.
If you have trouble answering the question, “Who do you say that I am?” then this book is a great primer for you. And if you think you have a good handle on the answer, this book will show you insights into Jesus that just may cause you to rethink your answer.
The authors spend time showing how that Jesus is the central figure in all of Scripture, both Old and New Testaments. “Jesus Christ makes Scripture intelligible,” they write. “He is the key that unlocks the entire biblical canon.” When they speak of Jesus revealed in Genesis, it seems that read Chaplain Mike’s series on creation.
The book of Genesis further demonstrates the Scriptures’ preoccupation with Christ. Genesis 1 and 2 were never intended to be the battleground for the Creation-versus-evolution debate. They are rather an unveiling of Christ and His church. Jesus is the new Adam. The church is the new Eve. And the gospel of John is the new Genesis.
Sweet and Viola hold that the New Testament writers were “completely consumed with Christ.” They ask us to picture the three thousand new converts we read of in Acts 2. What would the apostles teach them? First, Sweet and Viola list some things that today’s churches would teach new converts, including:
- how to live a good, clean life
- the mark of the beast and end-times prophecy
- signs, wonders, and miracles
- divine healing
- how to live by faith
- how to save the lost
- Creation versus evolution
- leadership principles
- social justice
- spiritual warfare
They compare that with what John tells us was taught in the early church:
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life—the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare to you that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us—that which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ (1 John 1:1-3, NKJV).
Sweet and Viola spend a lot of time discussing the use of the Bible by those not focused on Jesus, by those whose eyes are on how they can live better lives.
[M]any Christians have turned the Bible into a form of the knowledge of good and evil. They approach the Bible as raw material by which they can gain control over their lives, so life can be more understandable and under control, less unnerving and unpredictable. This is a profoundly grievous misuse of the Bible. Jesus didn’t misuse the Scriptures to gain control and predictability in His own life. To Him, the Scriptures were simple the joystick on the Father’s controller. They were the instrument through which He got to know His Father better and to discover how to live out His mission.
This book will make a great companion to Michael Spencer’s Mere Churchianity. Both point to Jesus as the author and finisher of our faith, both point out the weaknesses of today’s Western church. For instance, Sweet and Viola say,
In times of crisis, the church doesn’t need rules established, laws passed, or wolves shot. She needs a seismic revelation of her Lord—the fullness of the Godhead in bodily form. Sadly, many of us today combat problems and erroneous teachings with laws, rules, religious duty–and the mother of all religious tools: guilt.
The authors do not fall into the trap so many preachers today succumb to, that is to try to exhort each of us to “try to be like Jesus.” Sweet and Viola say this is an impossible task, and only leads to frustration. The answer, they say, is to do as Jesus did. Jesus only did what he saw his Father do, only spoke what the Father gave him to say. We need to be filled with the presence of God, say the authors, and live out of that rather than trying our best to be someone we can never be: Jesus. This seems to allow the reader to breathe a sigh of relief.
Be aware that this book is written in “popular style,” by which I mean it is not a scholarly work, nor is intended to be. This is for the common man and woman, not the theologian looking for additional resource material for his doctorate. This is for the one who has gone to church most all of her life, has heard sermon after sermon telling her she needs to work harder to be like Jesus, has done the fill-in-the-blanks Bible studies about Jesus, but doesn’t really know Jesus at all. This is meant to whet her appetite for Jesus so that she will bypass all of the fast food and go for the real meal. Don’t get this book expecting to come away smarter. But if you read Jesus Manifesto, you may just come away changed.
Update: Frank Viola, a friend of the iMonk community, has a blog where you can discuss this book with him, as well as read interviews with him and Leonard Sweet.Â Check it out at here.