What We Get Wrong About W.W.J.D.

If you want to follow Jesus, you have to know what He was really doing.

Most of us would say we want to follow Jesus—we want to do what Jesus would do, as the faded W.W.J.D.? bracelets of the 1990s suggested we ask ourselves constantly. But here's the truth: You can’t follow Jesus if you don’t know what he was doing.

Think about the problems we have following Jesus. If Jesus walked on water, should we likewise stop using life jackets as a sign of faith? If Jesus mixed his spit with Mediterranean mud and wiped it on a blind man’s face, should we carry around a Ziploc bag of dirt in case we run into a blind person? If you read that Jesus flipped over tables and whipped unfair businessmen on Temple grounds, does that give us the right to throw a temper tantrum and physically harass unjust people? If so, I have always thought the concession prices on nachos and warm pretzels at stadiums were outrageous. Maybe I’ll start smashing hot dog warmers and flip over some grills at the next game.

His words do teach us, but His actions have a message we'd better not miss.

There are many confusing questions along these same lines. But most of us either ignore enigmatic actions of Jesus in the Bible, or we settle for generic interpretations. We take His actions, mix them with our assumptions, and produce advice for life that reflects more our opinions than his intentions.

Jesus acted symbolically

We must understand that Jesus falls into a long line of God’s prophets who acted out their messages. The prophet Ezekiel built a model of the city of Jerusalem and laid down buck naked next to it for a year. He was trying to catch people’s attention (that’s also why you don’t see “Ezekiel” films alongside films about Joseph, Moses and David). Another prophet Elijah called down lightning to burn up a bull. That wasn’t a random idea, but a specific challenge to a pagan God that claimed to control thunder and lightning.

In the New Testament, Jesus picks up the same tactic and acts symbolically.

We must realize that Jesus’ actions sent specific messages to his world. His actions were not generic. Each decision recorded in the Gospels is rife with the intentionality of a man on a mission. He understood the culture and context in which he lived and set out to reorder it. So we cannot simply observe his actions without asking what it meant to those around him. There are messages we will miss and paths we will walk by if we are not careful.

Jesus was a cultural revolutionary

When you look closer at Jesus’ actions in his historical context, you find a cultural revolutionary. I spent years exploring the meaning of His actions while I studied the historical context of the Gospels in Israel, Turkey and Greece (remember Luke and John wrote for an audience that lived outside of Israel). The findings I uncovered blew me away—revealing a Savior with culture-shaping purposes behind even His most mysterious actions.

Jesus’ bold cultural engagement began at his birth and continued throughout his life. Too many of us think about baby Jesus born in a backwoods barn when Luke tells the story to challenge Roman imperial claims that Augustus is the savior of the world. Luke wants readers to believe Jesus has the solutions to society’s toughest problems and not pretentious propaganda from politicians.

Many of us set out to follow Jesus without knowing Him very well.

Challenges to cultural values and practices dominated Jesus’ life. Every healing of unclean diseases dissolved a cultural barrier between the sick and God himself. Sick people Jesus healed were excluded from Temple worship and told God had given up on them. In that context the miracle of Jesus’ healings is in restoring access to redemption rather than just making people feel better.

Specifically, when Jesus healed a disabled person sitting in a Greek god’s sanctuary just north of the Temple, He was demolishing cultural lies about the path to freedom. He wasn’t just doing generic miracles to prove divinity. He was taking on the loudest cultural voices of His day that competed with the truth. And that is our example to follow.

Reenacting the way of Jesus

Many of us set out to follow Jesus without knowing Him very well. We know He was born miraculously, taught profound truths, died and came back to life. So we say thanks for the death and resurrection part, particularly around Easter. We celebrate Christmas to remember the miraculous birth part. And then we are left with a vision of Jesus teaching profound truths. So we tend to do the same. We read. We study. We debate. And we look to tell other people what we know. That isn’t all bad, but it isn’t all there is, either.

We can’t view Jesus as a talking head if we want to follow Him. His words do teach us, but His actions have a message we'd better not miss. When we discover the point of His actions, then we find a mission for us to remake in our culture. It’s how we learn to follow Him. If your knowledge of Jesus doesn’t extend into the purposes of everything else He did between the birth and death parts of the Gospels, you are in trouble. Again, how can you follow Jesus if you don’t know what He was doing?

We must see Jesus in action. We must see the roles that He played to take on corrupt cultural norms so we can reenact them in our culture today. We must faithfully reenact why He did what he did. And we must creatively carve out paths in our culture that accomplish the same purposes He had in His context. Let’s get going.

10 Comments

J Conley

44

J Conley commented…

I agree. A lot of what constituted the WWJD movement was shallow assumptions about moral goodness, and, like the "True Love Waits" campaign, rarely dived into deeper, meaningful discourse.

Living as American Christians has made us complacent and, in my opinion, satisfied with simplistic, and usually politically-motivated moral messages. There's no need to go deeper into real issues of faith, wisdom, and righteousness because we're generally well-off. We rebel against culture because we're uncomfortable, not because it's life or death.

Anyway, I appreciate the heart of this article.

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Martin

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Martin commented…

The WWJD culture was never a bad thing - because it encouraged us to think in the correct direction. One of the flaws with WWJD thinking is that we live our lives in the world and expect to do exactly as Jesus did when faced with a snap decision.

Jesus lived a life that built up to what he did, He was well prepared for every one of the miracles He performed, for every decision He made, for every word he said, simply because He had immense spiritual/emotional/physical discipline - Jesus never had to stop and think: "What Would I Do?" in any situation - he was prepared for everything.

A good book to take a look at to learn more about this is Dallas Willard's The Spirit of the Disciplines. Great reading.

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Lawrence

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Lawrence commented…

I have never like the question "What would Jesus do?" because I can not do what Jesus did: He is divine, I am not. Instead, I have always preferred the question "What would Jesus have ME do?". It's a much more honest question.

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Paul Penley

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Paul Penley replied to Lawrence's comment

Lawrence, let's make sure to remember Jesus' words in John 14:12, "those who believe in me will take the same actions as I have done and do even greater things." We are continuing Jesus' redemptive mission in our culture with access to the same power he had. Understanding the significance of his bold, culture-shaping activity gives us a trajectory to follow in freshly fitting ways in our culture but with the same power resident in Jesus' own actions.

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Stefan Stackhouse

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Stefan Stackhouse commented…

The problem with WWJD is that we often just don't know what he would have done. He lived in a place and time so distant from our own. For example: a few years ago there was the question "What would Jesus drive?" The only literally correct answer would have been: nothing, because he didn't drive (even a chariot), he walked everywhere - except for the occasional boat trip and that one ride on the back of a donkey. I don't think that is the answer that most people asking the question would have wanted to hear, but it is the biblical answer. Most WWJD questions don't even have this much to go on.

The author is right: getting to really know Jesus certainly helps. The right question should actually be WWJHMD: What would Jesus HAVE ME do? That is a question that should always have an answer that is consistent with his teaching and his example, for the main thing he would have us do is to become more like himself.

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Isaac Roscher

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Isaac Roscher commented…

Thins just get so much easier if we simply read what Jesus tells us to do. We don't need to ask what would jesus do. We nees to ask "what does Jesus tell us to do in the BIBLE".

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Paul Penley

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Paul Penley replied to Isaac Roscher's comment

Isaac, we should be careful about settling for what is "easier" rather than pursuing his call to follow no matter what it takes. Jesus did say believers would do what he did in John 14:12. Understanding Jesus' actions and their significance in his cultural context points us in the direction to follow faithfully and fittingly in our culture. Plus, where would the significance of Jesus' life be if we only paid attention to his words and failed to pursue the significance of his actions, such as the meaning behind his death and resurrection?

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