Book Review – The Jesus I Never Knew by Philip Yancey

I can distinctly recall the picture on the front of the Vancouver Sun. It was a computer-generated idea of what Jesus might have looked like. The man was neither greatly attractive or unattractive. He was an ordinary, Arab-looking man. He had dark skin, dark hair, and dark brown eyes. He looked nothing like the pale, blue-eyed Jesus of my children’s Bible.

The Jesus on the cover of my Bible (I was probably around ten years old), looked a little like this:

He kind of looks like my friend’s dad. Who is Mennonite.

I remember looking at that picture in the paper and thinking, “This totally makes sense! Jesus was a Jew living in Israel! Of course he wasn’t blond!” I wasn’t a dumb kid but I’d literally never thought about the very simple fact that Jesus, as a Jew, would look Jewish.

I’d also already seen The Jesus Film countless times and in multiple languages, which stars this guy:

Philip Yancey’s book, The Jesus I Never Knew, was published in 1995, right around the time when I saw that picture on the paper.

My point is, many of us have a flawed idea of who Jesus is. Personally, I don’t think it much matters what Jesus looked like. If it did, the Bible would have included pictures. It matters more what Jesus did and what He said and that’s what Yancey explores in this book.

One of the things I appreciate most about Philip Yancey is that he isn’t afraid to be honest. He never seems to back off from talking about his own doubts or fears or frustrations with God. His book titles alone will tell you that, like a book of his I read last fall, Disappointment with God. And so Yancey dives head first into discussing Jesus as we know him from the New Testament. A man who made uncomfortable statements and alienated a lot of people around him. He said weird things about eating his flesh. He told people he would cause divisions in family. He let his friend die so he could resurrect him. We read these passages in church and we’ve heard them so often that they become commonplace but they’re not.

Yancey devotes a portion of his book to dissecting one of Jesus’ primary speeches, the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5 – 8). It’s the one that starts with all the “Blessed bes”. Yancey points out that this is a sermon that should really bother us.

“Jesus did not proclaim the Sermon on the Mount so that we would, Tolstoy-like, furrow our brows in despair over our failure to achieve perfection. He gave it to impart to us God’s Ideal toward which we should never stop striving, but also to show us that none of us will ever reach that Ideal. The Sermon on the Mount forces us to recognize the great distance between God and us, and any attempt to reduce that distance by somehow moderating its demands misses the point altogether.”

While Yancey does draw from varied theological sources (from Lewis to Tolstoy), he focuses primarily on the four gospel books and what they show us about Jesus. It’s surprising how surprising some of it is, when it’s taken from books many of us have read or heard read over and over again.

This is the heart of Christianity. Without Jesus, Christianity is meaningless. So if you’re interested in learning more about who this guy from Nazareth was, I recommend Yancey’s book.

“God is not mute: the Word spoke, not out of a whirlwind, but out of the human larynx of a Palestinian Jew.”

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