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Irresistible: Reclaiming the New that Jesus Unleashed for the World
by Andy Stanley
Learn More | Meet Andy Stanley
The New Standard American Version
Much of what makes American Christianity so resistible to those outside the faith are things we should have been resisting all along. While many of us have been working hard to make church more interesting, it turns out that fewer people are actually interested. And while most people outside the church continue to have a favorable view of Jesus, they don’t necessarily have a favorable view of his body, the church.
That’s a problem.
It would be like me saying, I like you; I just don’t want to be around your body.
The decline of Christianity in America, the popularity of the New Atheists, and the meteoric rise of the nones underscore something that’s been true for generations but didn’t matter much until now. Modern, mainstream Christianity is fatally flawed. These flaws make it fragile and indefensible in the public square. The populist version of cultural Christianity we see today is anchored to two assumptions that create a straw-man version of our faith. Sadly, this straw man passes for actual faith in many evangelical churches.
This version of Christianity is simplistic and easily discredited. For decades, college professors with biases against religion have found Christian freshmen easy targets. I’ve talked to, listened to, and read interviews, blogs, and books by dozens of folks who’ve left the Christian faith. I’ve yet to hear a story from anyone who abandoned Christianity based on anything directly related to Christianity—at least the original version, anyway.
I recently read a blog by a former worship leader who left the faith after she read a book “proving” contradictions in the Bible. Apparently, she grew up believing the foundation of our faith is a non-contradicting book.
A renowned New Testament scholar recently acknowledged he lost his faith and embraced atheism because of suffering in the world. But the foundation of our faith is not a world without suffering. Pain and suffering don’t disprove the existence of God. It only disproves the existence of a god who doesn’t allow pain and suffering.
Whose god is that?
Ours promised it.
People leave the faith because they had a bad church experience.
Quantum physics doesn’t undermine the claims of Jesus. Neither does natural selection. Unverifiable Old Testament miracles don’t cause our house to come tumbling down.
By the way, if something in the previous paragraphs made you wince, I can’t tell you how happy I am you’re reading this book. Keep reading and you’ll be introduced to a better, more robust, version of your faith.
In all my years of ministry, I’ve only had one conversation with an unbeliever—a Jewish friend—who had an objection to Christianity based on anything to do with the claims of Jesus. “Andy,” he said, “I just don’t believe someone can pay for someone else’s sins. I believe each of us is responsible for our own sins.” I smiled and said, “Well, congratulations, you’re standing on the threshold. That is the issue.”
The Way Forward
The way forward is not complicated, though some will find it controversial. It’s not original with me. It’s hidden in plain sight in the Gospels and the epistles of Paul. We know it works because it already worked. Once upon a time, members of a Jewish cult called The Way, against all odds, captured the attention and, ultimately, the dedication of the pagan world, both inside and outside the Roman Empire. So perhaps we need to hit pause on much of what we’re doing today—which isn’t working all that well anyway—and take notes from the men and women credited with turning the world upside down.
What did first-century Christians know that we don’t?
What made their faith so compelling, resilient, and, in the end, irresistible?
How did a religious cult birthed in the armpit of the empire, whose leader had been rejected by his own people and crucified as a wannabe king by Rome, survive in the face of overwhelming resistance? How is it that this same upstart religion would eventually be embraced by the very empire that sought to extinguish it?
I’m not the first to ask these questions. Scholars and historians have pondered these mysteries for generations. For the most part, they’ve all arrived at the same conclusion. British author Karen Armstrong, no friend to evangelical Christianity, sums it up this way:
- Yet against all odds, by the third century, Christianity had become a force to be reckoned with. We still do not really understand how this came about.
Historically speaking, she is correct. It’s virtually impossible to explain. Anthropologists, historians, and even skeptics with agendas have reached the same conclusion. Namely, something happened in the first century that resulted in Christianity spreading like an airborne disease. There was something about the faith of these first-and second-century believers that made it attractive, compelling, and seemingly irresistible.
The role of scholars and historians, like medical doctors diagnosing a disease, is to look for natural causes. We seek rational explanations as to why things happened the way they did. So when it comes to the seemingly unexplainable meteoric rise of the church, I’m convinced we should accept the explanation offered by those closest to the actual events. The testimonies of Peter, Luke, James, Paul, and others provide ample explanation for why the Jesus movement not only survived the first century but eventually overcame the very political and religious machines intent on destroying it.
Sandwiched between the Jewish temple and the Roman Empire, the Jesus movement should have been buried right alongside its founder. But it wasn’t. At this very moment, Christians from all over the world are visiting the ruins of the Roman Forum, while fifteen hundred miles away, tourists are snapping pictures of the temple mount. Rome is adorned with crosses. Jerusalem is filled with Christian tourists.
Rome and Jerusalem are connected at the hip by the church. Two thousand years ago, the cross symbolized the power of empire. Today it symbolizes the power of God.
How did that happen?
What can we learn?
And, most importantly, could it happen again?
I believe so.
New, Not Improved
Jesus stepped into history to introduce something new.
He didn’t come to Jerusalem offering a new version of an old thing or an update to an existing thing. He didn’t come to make something better. Jesus was sent by the Father to introduce something entirely new. People gathered by the thousands to listen. To see. To experience. Read the Gospel of Mark and circle the word crowd. There’s a crowd in practically every chapter.
But it wasn’t just his new message that made Jesus irresistible. It was Jesus himself. People who were nothing like him liked him. And Jesus liked people who were nothing like him. Jesus invited unbelieving, misbehaving, troublemaking men and women to follow him and to embrace something new—and they accepted his invitation.
As followers of Jesus, we should be known as people who like people who are nothing like us. When we invite unbelieving, misbehaving troublemakers to join us, they should be intrigued—if not inclined—to accept our invitation.
“Pastor Stanley, why doesn’t everybody in America go to church?”
In the Gospels, we discover two groups that considered Jesus a threat—the self-righteous and those whose political and financial fortunes were secured by the fragile peace between temple and empire.
For the most part, Jesus’ critics did not target his character. No one accused him of being immoral, dishonest, or cruel. They were threatened most by his teaching and his popularity. Religious leaders around Jerusalem were jealous of the favor he found with the populace. When you read the transcripts from his trials, you can’t help but agree with Pilate when he announced to Jesus’ accusers: “I find no basis for a charge against this man.”
He found none because there was none.
Pilate knew why temple leaders were insistent that Jesus be crucified. It had nothing to do with their law or their exclusivist religion. They wanted to be rid of Jesus purely out of “self-interest."
The tipping point for those opposed to Jesus was not a scandal. It was a miracle. An extraordinary act of compassion. Jesus raised a well-known citizen from the dead. When news of this particular miracle circulated, the chief priests and Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin. That may not mean much to us, but it was unusual in first-century Judea.
These groups disagreed on just about everything. But in Jesus they found common ground. A common threat. A common enemy.
After multiple attempts, neither group had succeeded in diminishing Jesus’ influence with the crowds. So in a moment of desperation, they joined forces. All they needed was a . . . how did Pilate put it? A basis for a charge. The apostle John knew or later met someone in attendance. At one point, someone’s emotions got control of their mouth and they blurted out what everyone in the room was thinking:
- What are we accomplishing? Here is this man performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.
Forty years later, that’s exactly what happened.
More on that in a bit.
In the end, religious leaders were able to manufacture a basis for a charge. Jesus was found guilty of bad theology and terroristic threats against the temple. Pilate joined the charade to keep the people who kept the people happy, happy. This was never about justice. No crime had been committed. When we step back from the chaos and the rapid-fire string of events leading to his crucifixion, it’s abundantly clear Jesus was arrested and crucified because he was too popular. He was crucified for drawing too large of a crowd. People who were nothing like him liked him. And he liked them back. He was hard to resist. Impossible to dismiss. Why? He offered something new. Something brand-new.
But new brands rarely sit well with those whose fortunes are tied to the old ones. Those who profit most from the status quo are least inclined to let it go.
The plot twist was that Jesus’ crucifixion was more beginning than end. His death initiated the new he had spoken of throughout his public ministry—the new predicted by Old Testament prophets and foreshadowed in Genesis. What Jesus’ enemies did not know—could not have known—was that while ending Jesus’ life brought about an end, it was not the end they had envisioned. His death and resurrection initiated a chain of events that would eventually bring an end to ancient Judaism, as well as the Roman Empire in its current form, the empire directly responsible for his death.
The Jesus Movement
It was after the resurrection that Jesus’ reengaged followers began to understand he had not come to simply add an additional chapter to the story of Israel. Jesus had not come to introduce a new version of Judaism. His movement was not regional. The Jesus movement was an all-skate. It was for all nations. His followers claimed he was the final sacrifice for sin, eliminating the need for the Jewish temple. But not just the Jewish temple. Twenty years or so after the resurrection, the apostle Paul would stare down the idol-worshipping civic leaders in Athens and declare their temples were unnecessary as well. In that same speech, Paul labeled idol worship ignorant. Like a parent, waiting for a child to outgrow her childish ways, God had overlooked idol worship for a season.6 But now it was time for the world to grow up and acknowledge the living, portable, for-all-nations God.
Needless to say, the Jesus movement was immediately at odds with both Jewish and non-Jewish culture. Understandably so. Jesus claimed to be the fulfillment of Judaism and a replacement for paganism.
Jesus was new wine. Judaism and paganism were old wineskins. The new Jesus offered was a departure from the traditions of both. Jesus, along with his early followers, argued that Judaism and paganism both pointed to a day when God would unleash something new in the world, for the world. Those with eyes to see would recognize it. Those with ears to hear would listen and follow.
Specifically, Jesus came to establish a new covenant, a new command, and a new movement. His new movement would be international. The new covenant would fulfill and replace the behavioral, sacrifice-based systems reflected in just about every religion of the ancient world. His new command would serve as the governing behavioral ethic for members of his new movement.
The new Jesus introduced stood in stark contrast to the values and tempo of both empire and temple. The empire assumed might made right. And while Rome claimed the right to make the rules, those who maintained the temple were committed to protecting their rules at all costs. While the Roman Empire and the Jewish temple were worlds apart, imbedded within each were values and assumptions that knit them together, creating a formidable obstacle to first-century Christianity. That the church survived both is a testament to the power of the gospel and the courage of first-and second-century Christians.
The first-century church withstood the pressure to adopt and integrate the familiar streams of empire and temple into their new faith. This is a testament to how incompatible they understood the two to be. The new Jesus introduced stood in stark, blatant, and unambiguous contrast to the values and assumptions of both empire and temple. Those closest to Jesus understood this contrast. The gospel accounts underscore and illustrate the differences. The apostle Paul leveled his harshest criticisms at those who attempted to integrate empire and temple thinking into the new Jesus introduced.
For almost three hundred years, the church fended off pressure to integrate and incorporate the old ways. But with the conversion of Constantine the Great and the signing of the Edict of Milan, the church transitioned quickly from persecuted minority to empowered majority. Almost immediately, resistance to the old ways was replaced by adoption, integration, and incorporation.
Fast-forward to the sixteenth century and reformers would dedicate, and on occasion forfeit, their lives to free the church of the values, culture, and tone of empire and temple. For many, the birth of Protestantism signaled a revival of the new Jesus introduced. But the struggle would not end there. The temptation to pour the new wine Jesus offers into the old wineskins of temple and empire is with us today. Every generation needs imperfect reformers—men and women who, like the apostle Paul, become apoplectic when they see a trace of the old ways creeping into the new Jesus introduced. I’m convinced it’s the mixing, blending, and integration of the old with the new that makes the modern church so resistible. It’s the mixing, blending, and integration of the old with the new that make our faith indefensible in this misinformation age. Jesus warned us two thousand years ago against pouring new wine into old wineskins. In the end, both the wine and the wineskins are ruined. The result is a mess.
“Pastor Stanley, why doesn’t everybody in America go to church?”
To understand the uniqueness of Jesus’ message, movement, and ethic, we must first understand the old with which these were contrasted. To punctuate this contrast, it’s necessary for us to journey back through a stretch of familiar biblical history.
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