The Legend of the Social Justice Jesus

By Published on November 14, 2021

I want to tell you a story of an ancient sage who changed the world.

This wise man fought for justice, championing the cause of the poor and the oppressed. He rejected organized religion, showing tolerance — not judgment — for the outcast and the socially marginalized. He promoted universal love and the brotherhood of man. His unflinching commitment to speak truth to power cost him his life, but his legacy lives on. He is a model for us today of love, acceptance and inclusion. His name is Jesus of Nazareth.

That is the story, in sum. It’s a noble tale, to be sure. But it’s a falsehood, a fiction, an urban legend. Though the story is parroted like a mantra by multitudes — even echoed reflexively by otherwise sound spiritual leaders who ought to know better — no such Jesus ever existed. Rather, taken as a whole, this version of Jesus is just another example of another Jesus bringing another gospel like the ones the apostle Paul anathematized to the Galatians.[1] 

A Myriad of Myths

This is not the first legend about Jesus, of course. Paul chastised the Corinthians — somewhat sarcastically — for their own cavalier embrace of teachers fabricating a false Christ generated by a false spirit bringing a false gospel:

For if one comes and preaches another Jesus whom we have not preached, or you receive a different spirit which you have not received, or a different gospel which you have not accepted, you bear this beautifully. (2 Cor. 11:4)

The Corinthians were being led astray by the serpent’s crafty deceptions, Paul said, just as Eve was (v. 3) — abandoning simple devotion to the genuine Jesus for an alluring invention, an alternate Christ.

The trend would continue in the future, Paul warned, with the church turning their ticklish ears from truth to myths — legends — choosing man-made fictions over doctrinal facts (2 Tim. 4: 3-4). Jesus himself warned of future interlopers, imposters masquerading as messiahs who would mislead many (Matt. 24:24).

Times have changed, but the trend has not. New “Jesus legends” abound: the legend of Jesus, the (mere) itinerant moral teacher; the legend of Jesus, the prophet of Allah; the socialist Jesus legend; the legend of the Gnostic Jesus of the Gospel of Thomas; the legend of Jesus, the universal Christ; the LDS legend of Jesus, the spirit brother of Lucifer; the New Age Jesus-the-Hindu-guru legend. Et cetera, et cetera.

The remaking of the Jewish Messiah from Nazareth into a progressive advocate of social justice is just the latest example of the tendency people have to fashion Christ in their own social/spiritual/political image.

Of course, in one sense that shouldn’t surprise us. Most folks have a genuine respect for Jesus — as they should. It’s understandable, then, that on weighty matters they’d want Jesus on their side.

Here the tail wags the dog, though. The point is not for any of us to get Jesus on our side, but for us to get on Jesus’ side — hands to the plow, not looking back, fit for the kingdom.[2]

What precisely is “Jesus’ side,” though? Given the mishmash of myths, how do we separate wheat from chaff, fact from fiction, legend from history? We cannot follow Jesus if we do not have a clear idea of who the real flesh and blood Jesus of history was and which direction he was heading. But how do we know with any confidence?

Searching for Jesus

There is a reliable, uncomplicated method I employ to get an accurate, balanced, big-picture take on any topic in any section of Scripture, and it’s perfectly suited for this task.

Say, for example, I want to know everything about how God supernaturally guided the early church, or what Proverbs teaches on leadership, or what the New Testament instructs on prayer, or how the disciples of Jesus preached the gospel in the book of Acts, etc.[3] I simply read every word of the biblical material I’m interested in, isolate every passage that’s germane to my topic, then collate the passages in an orderly way to create a thorough, complete, precise portrayal of the topic. It’s a simple — if labor-intensive — technique anyone can use to get the full counsel of any section of Scripture on any topic.

This approach might be problematic for some, though — particularly the more progressive types who favor the social justice Jesus version. They simply do not trust the record. To many of them, Scripture is not an authoritative account of what God revealed to man, but simply one version of what certain ancient people believed about God. The Gospels are humanly “inspired,“ not divinely inspired — man-made, not God-breathed.

No matter. That distinction makes absolutely no difference to my assessment. Here’s why. Nothing about my case has anything to do with whether or not the Bible is divinely inspired. Though that is my view, it’s a separate issue for now.

Here’s the real issue. We have one body of detailed information about Jesus: the canonical Gospels. We can accept them as divinely inspired or not. We can accept them (as many scholars do) as non-inspired human documents that are, on the main, historically accurate. We can even accept them as error-ridden musings by primitive people about God and Jesus. What we cannot do, though, is reject the Gospel accounts out of hand and then advance our own personal opinion of the Jesus of the Gospels, since there will be no Jesus left to have a personal opinion about.

Reject the record, and you forfeit your opinion of the man of the record. It’s that simple. Of course, if you cherry-pick verses to fashion a Jesus in your own image, then I have nothing to offer you. If that’s your project, you are welcome to your fantasy, but do not mistake the views of your make-me-up Christ for the views of Jesus of Nazareth. That legend will reflect your opinions, not his.

Jesus and ‘Social Justice’

Our question here is simple: What did Jesus come to do? Preach a socialistic redistribution of wealth? Introduce New Age Hinduism to Torah-observant Jews? Prophesy for Allah? Teach us how to attain personal godhood or accomplish Christ consciousness? Advocate for the poor, the marginal, and the disenfranchised in a campaign for social justice? Let’s see.

To separate the real Jesus from legendary christs of any sort, I simply employed my system. I carefully read every line of every Gospel and isolated every passage that spoke of Jesus’ purpose — references either from Jesus himself, from clues in the birth narratives, or from statements from Jesus’ forerunner, John the Baptist. I also isolated every reference to the poor.

My search regarding the poor revealed something surprising, considering the breadth of the record. It turns out that Jesus almost never spoke of the poor. He made only ten specific references to “poor” of different sorts,[4] not counting parallel passages. Even this small number overstates the issue because of an interesting pattern my search revealed, one I have noted elsewhere:[5] 

In the vast majority of cases where Jesus mentions the poor, he does so not to commend the poor as such, but to make a point about something else — hypocrisy, a widow’s generosity, Zacchaeus’s repentance, the rich young ruler’s confusion, or a lesson about the afterlife.[6]

Jesus did care about the financially destitute, of course, and enjoined charity and compassion for them through kindness and voluntary giving to the disadvantaged (Lk. 12:33, 14:13-14), a point John the Baptist emphasized as well (Lk. 3:11). Campaigning for the poor, however, was not part of his project.

In one case, Jesus actually was dismissive of the poor when compared to something else that was his greater concern: “For you always have the poor with you; but you do not always have Me” (Matt. 26:11, cf. Mk. 14:5-9, Jn. 12:8).[7]

What was it about Jesus himself that defined his mission in a way that completely eclipsed a legitimate and appropriate concern for the financially destitute? Jesus’ three remaining references to the poor answer that question.

In only two instances did Jesus identify anything about his mission with those people he considered “poor.” When preaching on the Sabbath at the synagogue in Nazareth he said:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord. (Lk. 4:18-19)

When John the Baptist sent word from prison questioning in his dark moments whether or not Jesus was indeed “the Expected One,” Jesus responded to his doubts by reporting the fulfillment of his earlier claim:

Go and report to John what you hear and see: the blind receive sight and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. (Matt. 11:4-5, cf. Lk. 7:22)

Note two important things about the poor and oppressed from these passages. First, it is clear in both references that foundational to Jesus’ ministry of mercy — giving sight to the blind, healing the lame, cleansing the lepers, raising the dead — was preaching the gospel to the “poor.”

Second, Jesus’ sermon on that Sabbath in Nazareth is the only place he makes mention of concern for the “oppressed.” Peter, however, gives us insight into the kind of oppression Jesus had in mind:

You know of Jesus of Nazareth, how God anointed him with the Holy Spirit and with power, and how he went about doing good and healing all who are oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.… Of him all the prophets bear witness that through his name everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins. (Acts 10:38, 43)

Taken together, these passages about the poor paint a clear picture of Jesus’ intent. The poor were to receive the gospel, have their sins forgiven, and be released from the devil’s power — that last point underscored by Jesus’ consistent practice of freeing people from demon possession.

What kind of “poor” would receive this gospel message of forgiveness and thus be freed from the oppression of the devil? Not the proud, pharisaical self-righteous, but rather those who understood their spiritual poverty — which is precisely the point Jesus makes in his sole remaining reference to the poor: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:3, cf. Lk. 6:20).

Clearly, contending for the financially destitute as such was not his concern, nor was campaigning on behalf of the marginalized, the disenfranchised, or the socially oppressed.

Jesus’ central concern was bringing forth a kingdom in a way that secured liberty for the captives[8] through forgiveness of sin — a fact that every one of my remaining Gospel passages about Jesus’ mission makes manifestly clear.

On this point, I will simply let the record speak for itself.

In the Beginning

From the outset, the Gospels paint a clear picture of Christ’s purpose. The earliest reference comes from the prophet Micah:

And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least among the leaders of Judah; for out of you shall come forth a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel. (Matt. 2:6, cf. Micah 5:2)

Zacharias weighs in next when he prophesies at the birth of his son, John the Baptist:

And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare his ways; to give to his people the knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, with which the Sunrise from on high will visit us, to shine upon those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace. (Lk. 1:76-79)

At the annunciation, the angel Gabriel told Mary not to be afraid, since she had found favor with God and would be given a matchless gift:

And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give him the throne of his father David; and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and his kingdom will have no end. (Lk. 1:31-33)

Joseph, grieved and alarmed by the strange turn of events he faced, received counsel from an angel of the Lord in a dream. The angel said:

Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife; for the Child who has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son; and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins. (Matt. 1:20-21)

At Jesus’ birth, an angel appeared suddenly before shepherds in the field, saying, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Lk. 2:10-11).

When Mary and Joseph brought the infant Jesus to the temple soon after his birth, they encountered a righteous and devout man named Simeon and a prophetess named Anna who served continuously in the temple with fastings and prayers.

When Simeon took the infant Jesus into his arms, he said, “Now Lord, you are releasing your bond-servant to depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation” (Luke 2:26, 28-30).

Anna spoke next: “At that very moment she came up and began giving thanks to God, and continued to speak of Him to all those who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem” (Lk. 2:38).

At the outset of Jesus’ public ministry, the forerunner John the Baptist fulfills his father’s prophecy by giving “the knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins.” He points to Jesus and says: “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn. 1:29). He also says that this Jesus would baptize with the Spirit and with fire, with salvation or with judgment (Matt. 3:10-12).

In these initial Gospel passages, a precise profile emerges.

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A savior named Jesus, who is Christ the Lord, the Son of the Most High God, will be born in Bethlehem to shepherd Israel. As the sacrificial Lamb of God, he will bring salvation and redemption through the forgiveness of sins, baptizing some with the Holy Spirit and others with the fire of judgment. He will be given the throne of His father David and rule over an everlasting kingdom.

Something seems to be missing here, though. There is nothing in these descriptions of Jesus by any of his various forerunners that suggests a single element of the social justice Jesus described earlier. As it turns out, there is nothing like that in Jesus’ own claims about himself, either.

Jesus on Jesus

Jesus had much to say about his own mission. He said he came to preach the good news of the kingdom of God (Lk. 4:43). He made clear, though, that his kingdom was not of this world (Jn. 18:36), at least initially. It was not a physical kingdom bringing social justice, wealth redistribution, or political and cultural equity. Rather, it was a spiritual kingdom bringing forgiveness, salvation and eternal life. Listen:

  • Luke 19:10 — The Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.
  • John 3:17 — For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him[9] (cf. Lk. 9:56).
  • Luke 5:32 — I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance (cf. Mk. 2:17, Matt. 9:12-13).
  • Matthew 20:28 — The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many (cf. Mk. 10:45).
  • John 6:38-39 — For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. This is the will of him who sent me, that of all that he has given me I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day.

For Jesus, salvation was not economic prosperity, equal distribution of goods, or sexual liberty without judgment or shame. Instead, salvation came through belief in him, bringing forgiveness of sins and eternal life.

  • John 3:16-17 — For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him.
  • John 3:36 — He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.
  • Matthew 9:6 — “But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” — then he said to the paralytic, “Get up, pick up your bed and go home” (cf. Mk. 2:10-11).
  • Luke 5:20 — Seeing their faith, he said, “Friend, your sins are forgiven you.”
  • Luke 7:47-48 — “For this reason I say to you, her sins, which are many, have been forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little.” Then he said to her, “Your sins have been forgiven.”

Jesus knew that in order to accomplish this mission, he must suffer, die, and be raised again, just as Moses and the prophets had foretold.

  • Luke 12:51 — Do you suppose that I came to grant peace on earth? I tell you, no, but rather division.
  • Matthew 16:21 — From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised up on the third day.
  • John 12:27 — Now my soul has become troubled; and what shall I say, “Father, save me from this hour”? But for this purpose I came to this hour.
  • Matthew 26:28 — For this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins (cf. Mk. 14:24, Lk. 22:20).
  • Luke 24:44-47 — Now he said to them, “These are my words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled. … Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in his name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (cf. Lk. 24:25-27).

There you have it — the complete record of Jesus’ own statements about his purpose and mission. Once again, something is missing — any evidence of any kind that Jesus saw himself as an advocate for social justice. It’s not there. Not a word.

To be clear, there is no question that God in Scripture has a heart for the genuinely oppressed and destitute, and Jesus as God shared that concern as did his church.[10] When Jesus encountered deep human need, he responded with compassionate action — characteristically healing the sick, casting out demons, raising the dead, and in two instances, physically feeding multitudes.[11] Even so, Jesus’ principal purpose was redressing spiritual poverty, not rectifying social inequities.

‘Who Do You Say That I Am?’

Reading through that plethora of Bible passages may have been a bit taxing, but there’s a point here.

Near the end of Jesus’ life, he asked his disciples the most important question anyone can consider: “Who do you say that I am?” (Matt. 16:15). The answer any person gives to that question seals his fate for eternity. We dare not be mistaken on this issue.

What I have tried to do here is to put Jesus in his proper place for those who have become confused by the cultural noise. I have done that by letting the record — the entire record — speak for itself.

Though I isolated every verse in the Gospels identifying Jesus’ purpose, I could not find a single sentence where Jesus championed the cause of the poor, the outsider, or the disenfranchised as such. There is not even a hint of it — in the sense that it’s commonly understood — in the entire historical account of the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

Did Jesus care about the poor, the downtrodden, and the marginalized? Yes. He also cared about the rich, the powerful, and the socially advantaged. Jesus cared about everyone, and he helped anyone who came to him — poor beggar or prostitute, wealthy tax collector or Pharisee.

The right answer to Jesus’ question is Jesus’ own answer, one that fits hand in glove with the message of each of his forerunners. He is the Christ, the Son of God, the Savior, the Lamb of God, the living sacrifice who secures forgiveness of sins and eternal life for anyone who bends his knee and beats his breast in penitence before him.[12]

It is the right answer because no other Jesus saves souls — and that, as it turns out, is what he came to do. Any other Jesus — Jesus the mere moral teacher, Jesus the prophet of Allah, the socialist Jesus, the Gnostic Jesus, the universal Christ Jesus, the spirit brother of Lucifer Jesus, the Hindu guru Jesus, even the social justice Jesus — is a falsehood, a fiction, an urban legend.

 

Originally published at Stand to Reason. Reprinted with permission.


[3] These are all studies I’ve done. Find “Divine Direction and Decision Making in the Book of Acts,” “New Testament Prayer,” and the “Preaching God’s Love in Acts?” at str.org.

[4] Poor in spirit vs. poor financially, for example.

[5] Gregory Koukl, The Story of Reality (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017), 114.

[6] Hypocrisy (Matt. 6:2-3), a widow’s generosity (Lk. 21:1-4), Zaccheus’s repentance (Lk. 19:8), the rich young ruler’s confusion (Matt. 19:21, Mk. 10:17-27, Lk. 18:18-27), a lesson about the afterlife (Lk. 16:20, 22).

[7] Note, by the way, that Deuteronomy 15:7-8, 11 — the passage Jesus may be alluding to here — does enjoin God’s people to care about the poor. In the context, though, this was not Jesus’ point.

[8] That Jesus probably had spiritual captives in mind here is clear from his short discourse on freedom and slavery in John 8:31-36.

[9] Judgment would come, as John promised, but later, at the end (Matt. 25:31-46; cf. Jn. 9:39).

[10] The New Testament Christian community readily responded to poverty — not as an expression of justice, however, but as a voluntarily demonstration of charity (love) and mercy (cf. Acts 11:29, 24:17; Rom. 15:26; Gal. 2:10; 1 Cor 16:1-4).

[11] Notice, though, that Jesus’ largess in feeding the masses became a distraction for them. He had to rebuke them for continuing to seek physical bread from him instead of hungering for Jesus himself, the bread of life (Jn. 6:26ff.).

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