Jesus is the ultimate outsider – adapted by foreign cultures, rejected by His own, at conflict in His day with Pharisees, Sadducees and Zealots – translate as the radical, establishment and rebellious branches of Judaism. And with every new generation, Jesus is adopted by traditionalists and progressives alike, each convinced that His true teaching agrees with theirs.
Jesus is a religious outsider. According to Hebrews 5, Jesus is “a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.” The first mention of any priest in scripture is a reference to Melchizedek, King of Salem (“peace”) and Priest of the Most High God (“Elyon El”). Melchizedek came from out of nowhere. “Without father or mother, without genealogy, without beginning of days or end of life, resembling the Son of God, [Melchizedek] remains a priest forever.” (Hebrews 7:3)
The people of His day expected the Messiah to be a King, not a Priest. Melchizedek was both, the first of his kind and honored by Abraham, father of Israel and many other nations. Through Joseph, Jesus’ lineage was accepted as in the house of David. With the virgin birth, that lineage is cast into doubt. And Jesus could not be a traditional priest because he was not a Levite, the priestly tribe. “For it is clear that our Lord descended from Judah, and in regard to that tribe Moses said nothing about priests.” (Hebrew 7:14)
Wrong place, wrong time, wrong people, friend of sinners and the outcast. In Him the Gentiles place their hope. Jesus was, and still is, the ultimate outsider.
In the late 1960s and 1970s, boys could be expelled from school for wearing their hair too long or growing facial hair. In response, we all pointed to Warren Sallman’s “Head of Christ”, the iconic Jesus image with shoulder-length hair and that perfect beard. The painting sold more than 500 million copies, and that Jesus was also featured in other Sallman paintings. With that, our parents were forced to admit that “we don’t actually know what Jesus looked like”. That, in turn, opened the door to even the even more radical possibility that Jesus was more Middle Eastern than White.
Still, each generation tends to see Jesus as looking like themselves – in opinion and morality, if not physically. In 1939, German theologians established the Institute for the Study and Eradication of Jewish Influence on German Religious Life. It’s purpose was to remake Jesus in the Nazi image, the perfect Aryan who started Christianity to oppose Judaism. The notion turns history on its head, and yet it isn’t so different from many anti-Semitic, Aryan groups that exist even today.
In Matthew, Jesus sent out the twelve disciples, saying, “Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel.” (Matt. 10:5-6) But the people Jesus healed were largely Gentiles and Samaritans. And at John 12:21, the Greek visitors seeking Jesus during the festival was taken as a sign that Jesus’ ministry was nearly done. (“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” 12:23)
This outsider status of Jesus has spiritual significance. None of us can claim to possess Jesus; we are either grafted-in Gentiles to a Jewish Rabbi or descendants of His people who rejected Him. Jesus does not mimick our looks, our politics, our morality, nor anything else about us. He possesses us, not vice versa, and He is the cornerstone to which we must square our lives – not vice versa.
It is tempting to remake Jesus into our image. But Jesus knows no political party, because the parties hold the moral high ground like the gambler holds cards – some good, some not so much. All have sinned and fallen short of the Glory of God – and Jesus is the standard by which that is determined.
This outsider status is also a tool for evangelism. “But you were raised Christian; I wasn’t.” Jesus was not raised Christian! “If I was blessed like you, I’d be a Christian, too.” Jesus was a blessing, but few people would describe Jesus as “blessed.” “I just don’t fit in; I’m not like you.” Jesus was not like anybody. He was unique, from out of nowhere, after the order of Melchizedek.
In short, Jesus comes from somewhere else, from outside of our world, our opinions, our viewpoints. We are equally challenged by the life of Jesus, and we all fall short. We can’t use Jesus to control others – indeed, we can’t use Jesus at all! Rather, Jesus uses us to forward His kingdom. We pray for God’s will, not our own, and we see Jesus as the ultimate example of one putting God’s will above His own.
Jesus comes from out of nowhere. When we embrace that concept, we empower the Gospel story to bring eternal life to whoever believes, from all nations, cultures and generations. Remake Him like us, and we take Him away from those who are different. A Jesus who is more like us is less like Jesus. God forbid that we should compromise the Gospel to fit our agenda, regardless of which direction it leans.