The First Time We Saw Him: Awakening to the Wonder of Jesus

I really needed this one because familiarity really can breed contempt.

Not that I would ever grow contemptuous of Jesus, but I’ve been reading and hearing the Gospel stories since I before I can remember. It’s too easy to let your eyes skip ahead, rolling down the page, knowing what’s coming next, jumping to the “moral of the story.” How could the Bible ever become so predictable? And boring?

Especially since the Bible makes clear that Jesus and his messages were anything but.

It’s why I often enjoy reading the Bible in different formats and translations. It’s why I enjoy translating the Bible. Or paraphrasing. Or reimagining.

9780801016301It’s why Matt Mikalatos has given us this fresh treatment of Jesus’ life and teaching. To remove the staid and stodgy of the ordinary and replace it with the shock and scandal of the original.

According to the Bible, Jesus stunned, surprised, offended, delighted, and captivated his audiences with his words and deeds. When was the last time you witnessed a modern audience reacting with even a fraction of that wonder?

So, with a hint of personal reflection, along with some helpful cultural commentary, Mikalatos tells the stories again. He retains the essence of the biblical account and infuses equivalent modern details to help his readers feel the impact of meeting Jesus like 1st century Judeans.

Each of the fifteen chapters focuses on an episode in Jesus’ life or on the effect of his teaching. Picture a pregnant teenage girl alone on a train to visit her cousin, or the frantic searching of a woman who has misplaced some of the money mailed to her by her migrant-worker husband. Smell the diesel fumes of a fishing boat as its crew takes shelter from a storm, or feel the soft leather sofa of a young CEO’s corner office while he ponders his philanthropic legacy. By telling the stories in our terms, the author sets us up to respond to the message we should be receiving.

For me, probably the most poignant was the thought of a man’s blood staining the backseat of a German sedan racing down the interstate to get him to a hospital. Or my own self-doubt as I wondered if I really would sell everything to purchase a rare collectible I knew to be worth ten times the asking price.

In short, this book works.

I only wish it worked better. I mean, Mikalatos’s method works so well, I wish he had taken it farther. I appreciate his respect for the original details, but, for instance, Jesus becomes “Joshua.” Peter is “Pete;” Andrew is “Drew.” Settings may be transposed, but dialogue is retained. It’s like the author stretched his imagination with some of the details but didn’t even try with others.

The problem is that when the reimagined elements resonate so strongly, the original parts fall flat. Or they’re merely cute, like when the disciples are talking baseball and Judas (“Jude”) brags about his switch-hitting. There’s a bit of dissonance.

There’s also a bit of confusion. As mentioned, this book contains stories and commentary. That’s a good thing because it gives the reader some of the thinking behind the retelling, showing why the new story is the same as the old one. But the author runs into trouble when he wades into theological territory.

The book focuses on narrative, emphasizing the heart with just enough head for it to make sense. So there’s not much room for nuance, and there’s certainly not enough space to clarify this statement: “Jesus didn’t want to die for you.” (p. 150)

I get what the author is doing. He’s using Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane (“Not my will, but yours be done…”) to show how much Jesus loved us:  he didn’t want to, but he did it anyway. Unfortunately, Jesus’ garden prayer does not allow for such a simplistic treatment. Jesus’ death required and accomplished more than any single statement can capture, and it is (at best) unclear that Jesus was praying to escape death.

So I think this is a mistake. I don’t question the author’s orthodox credentials. He affirms the biblical Gospel quite clearly in other places. But by ignoring the complexity of the atonement to draw out a simple implication, he practically negates the whole thing. The point is sound, but it requires paragraphs of support that would be out of place in a book like this.

Other than that, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I found it personally encouraging, a light, imaginative, devotional read. At first I worried that I would have to wade through a steady current of the “Love-Jesus-not-the-church” soup that’s currently swelling the evangelical markets, but all I found was “Love Jesus.” Or should I say that I simply found Jesus?

I’ll recommend this book to any ministry leaders who are looking for fresh ways to introduce people to Jesus.

And I’ll recommend it to anyone interested in meeting him again. For the first time.

BakerBooksBloggersSquareLogoDisclosure: I received this book free from Baker Books through the Baker Books Bloggers program. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255
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