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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 992

Philip Yancey frequently writes about questions that have puzzled or alienated believers and nonbelievers alike, working to set aside traditional ideas in search of spiritual truth. He recalls how Jesus was presented to him in his youth: first as a comforting, neighborly figure, and later as an all-powerful God who...

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Philip Yancey frequently writes about questions that have puzzled or alienated believers and nonbelievers alike, working to set aside traditional ideas in search of spiritual truth. He recalls how Jesus was presented to him in his youth: first as a comforting, neighborly figure, and later as an all-powerful God who nonetheless spoke casually to individuals as a friend. Yancey felt remote from these images of Jesus and suspicious of the way modern American Christians portrayed him.

However, motivated by the impact Jesus had on his own life, Yancey was moved to reexamine these traditional views. He used Gospel accounts and historical knowledge to rediscover who Jesus was, why he came to earth, and how he made a lasting difference to humankind. Yancey was also inspired by films about Jesus’ life; he felt movies could make biblical events seem more vivid and less predictable. In The Jesus I Never Knew, he breaks down his inquiry into three parts, examining Jesus as a first century Jew; Jesus’ teaching, miracles, death, and resurrection; and what Jesus’ ascension means for the world.

Yancey contrasts sentimental Christmas cards with biblical accounts of Jesus’ birth, which actually occurred during a time of political scandal and religious conflict. He imagines the impact of the virgin birth on a first century Jewish community, noting that under Jewish law Mary could have been stoned for becoming pregnant while betrothed to Joseph. When Jesus was born, Palestinian Jews were rejecting the Greek culture popular among Romans and instead celebrating their own heritage. Yancey notes that Jesus’ genealogy is traced back to Abraham, the founder of Israel; Jesus was circumcised according to Jewish custom; and he worshiped in the Jewish temple. Under despotic Roman rule, the Jews waited for their Messiah. They did not believe Jesus was the Messiah because he did not seek to become a king, and rather than freeing the Jews, he preached that they were somehow already blessed.

Before beginning his ministry, Jesus faced three temptations: Satan asked him to turn a stone into bread, bow down to Satan in exchange for power over all nations, or jump from a great height and allow God to save him. Yancey sees in the temptations the human desire that God perform miracles to bring prosperity and peace to individuals and to the world. The temptations demonstrated that God would not coerce obedience through divine power or bargain for the human love and respect that would bring order to the world.

Yancey imagines how he might describe Jesus for a journalistic profile. Crowds of people wanted to follow and listen to him. He was quick to compliment others, gentle and sensitive with women and children, and an effective teacher, telling stories full of familiar agricultural images. He claimed to be the Son of God and performed miracles, but in many ways he was like any man, showing a range of emotions, sometimes becoming fatigued, and wandering from town to town without any apparent plan.

Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount can be difficult to accept. Yancey describes his own initial view of the sermon as a guilt-inducing and irrational set of ideals and notes that it must have been just as difficult for first century Palestinians to hear. The Beatitudes express the value of meekness, generosity, and acceptance over personal, financial, or political success; Jesus taught that the poor and oppressed were actually blessed and would later be rewarded. Jesus also puts forth a call to holiness, commanding that people be as perfect as God. His standards seem impossible for humans to uphold: An angry thought is as sinful as murder, and a lustful look the same as an adulterous act. Yancey briefly surveys how theologians over the centuries have interpreted the sermon in ways that made human failure acceptable.

Over time Yancey came to believe the Beatitudes were proved true in everyday life; as proof he offers stories of people who have found satisfaction in lives of quiet sacrifice for others. Yancey has synthesized a personal response to the theological difficulties of the sermon from the Russian novelists Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevski, whose lives and novels represent respectively the struggle for perfection and hope for redemption.

Yancey surveys the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ miracles and compares his own childhood view of miracles (magical signs proving Jesus’ deity, promising personal safety, and calling him to greater faith) with his adult view (miracles can be naturally explained, believers often come to harm, and miracles rarely build faith). Yancey believes miracles show how God will one day restore the world to a natural, undamaged state.

All four Gospels give detailed accounts of Jesus’ death. Yancey quotes several modern authors on Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, the Last Supper and first communion with his disciples, and Judas’s betrayal of Jesus; Jesus’ personal struggle in the garden of Gethsemane and the disciples’ failure to support him; his questioning before Herod and Pontius Pilate; his crucifixion at Calvary; and finally his resurrection from the dead. Yancey imagines the disciples’ reactions to Jesus’ resurrection by wondering how he would feel if a deceased friend was suddenly found alive. He briefly discredits two popular theories about the Resurrection: that the disciples were deceived or that they conspired to spread a fable about Jesus come back to life.

In a final section Yancey looks at what it means that Jesus left his followers to carry out his ministry on earth. He knew many would not believe in him—even believers might forget him or behave as if he were never present—and he foresaw that the world would be left in a dire state while believers awaited his return. The modern church sometimes fails to follow through on Jesus’ ministries to the outcast and oppressed and just as often distorts the biblical portrait of Jesus. In his final chapter Yancey sums up Jesus as a healer, holy yet a friend to sinners, and a God who yearned to love humankind.

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