Presenting Portraits of Jesus

Let me challenge us to reflect for a moment on pictures. First, a picture may be a photograph that catches subjects or objects in a single time frame. A series of photographs may be joined together to form a running picture (a movie, a television story, video, or some other form of visual media). Second, a picture may be the result of a drawing or painting, and it can take several forms, from a catchy cartoon to abstract art that challenges the observer to make a mental connection between the reality of a subject or object and the crafted image on a canvas or lithograph. Such a picture provides an impression for the imagination that may or may not seem to have much relationship to a direct observable form. Third, a picture may be a portrait, a painting or drawing that usually bears a close connection to the person being represented and yet, because it is painted by an artist, also represents what catches the artist’s attention as the important features of that person. In other words, a portrait goes through the mind and feelings of the artist before it appears on the canvas.

Accordingly, when Mark sketched out our first Gospel account of Jesus, he was not simply writing a direct history or creating a photo account about Jesus. He was doing something far more significant than recording a Vine. He was providing a testimony about the figure he believed was the most important person who ever lived on the face of planet Earth—namely, the Son of God! The other Gospel writers followed his lead and penned their testimonies as well. These evangelists did not use all the information they had at their disposal (cf. John 20:30), nor did each of them use the stories and messages of Jesus in the same order. They organized what they used so that it would fit their presentations or testimonies. Each Gospel writer had his own organizing principles, and the result is that each portrait of Jesus has a slightly different emphasis. But each testimony is a legitimate portrait or account of who they believed Jesus to be.

Our task then is to read each Gospel carefully and discover what type of portrait emerges of Jesus. This issue is crucial to our task of being messengers—or witnesses—of Jesus. The portraits of Jesus in the New Testament are not all alike, and that means the authors’ use of the various periscopes (segments) or patterns of theologizing on Jesus may be different. These differences in the presentation should never be viewed as mistakes or errors. They are instead the result of different foci in the Gospels and the other books of the New Testament.

We must try to grasp if possible the entire argument of each biblical book so that we do not misrepresent the use and meaning of a single pericope (or section) in that book. Particularly in the Gospels, it is imperative to see the full picture of Jesus that is being portrayed so that we do not misinterpret the point of any particular pericope (a story, a teaching, or a question) in its context. Many believers and seekers who listen to our presentations hardly think about variations in this manner. Many think that presentations about the Gospel stories should be exactly the same, and if not, then something must be wrong with the presentations. And perhaps some Christian presenters have given biblically illiterate listeners this impression.

Note that what I have said about the Gospels also applies to the New Testament epistles, the book called Acts, the sermon designated as Hebrews, and the book of Revelation, which may seem strange or daunting to many in the task of explaining its meaning.

It may come as a surprise to you that in presenting portraits of Jesus, I have attempted to link each Gospel with at least one other representative book in the New Testament. I have purposely made these connections not with other Gospels but with other books that may not be linked by other contemporary commentators. The reason is to try to show how each picture of Jesus affects the way the message of one author is being presented. It is my intention to provide you as a reader with representative examples so that you will have models for continuing to develop your own approaches to understanding how the New Testament writers formulated their works.

For instance, I have linked the Mark Gospel with 1 Peter so that you will ponder the implications of how Mark’s surprising Jesus might relate to or contrast with the purpose of the powerful first epistle of Peter and the reality of Christians who felt displaced as they suffered for their faith. In making this connection, we must not forget the tradition that tells us Mark served not only with Paul but also, and more importantly, with Peter.

This post originally appeared in the Introduction of Portraits of Jesus for an Age of Biblical Illiteracy by Gerald L. Borchert.

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