WHO IS JESUS by Greg Gilbert (FAN AND FLAME Book Reviews)

Greg Gilbert. Who is Jesus? (9Marks). Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2015. 144 pp. $12.99.

Life is full of questions. Many of them, however, don’t really matter.

You want fries with that? Are we there yet?

But some questions do matter.

Honey, did you remember to get the kids from school? Any idea why I pulled you over today? Will you marry me?

In my own life, another question has been, and continues to be, very important.

Who is Jesus?

Greg Gilbert—a pastor in Louisville, Kentucky—agrees; that’s why he wrote a book with that title. In fact, Gilbert states that it is “the most important question you’ll ever consider” (23).

For many, however, this question seems, at best, irrelevant. For many, the thinking goes like this: “I’m sure Jesus was a great moral teacher and he helped people find their way, but he lived so long ago—what difference could Jesus possibly make to me?

Rather than dismissing these sentiments altogether, Christians can certainly agree that Jesus’s fame is in stark contrast to many aspects of his life that ought to have made him historically obscure. Gilbert writes,

After all, we’re talking about a man who was born in the first century into an obscure Jewish carpenter’s family. He never held any political office, never ruled any nation, never commanded any armies. He never even met a Roman emperor. Instead, for three-and-a-half years this man Jesus simply taught people about ethics and spirituality, he read and explained the Jewish Scriptures to Jewish people… (15)

Christians and non-Christians alike can look at details such as these and wonder why anyone would even speak about Jesus today, let alone worship him.

But it’s interesting that Jesus didn’t think the question of his identity was irrelevant; he believed it mattered a great deal what others thought of him. In fact, in one of the gospel accounts, Jesus asked his followers this very question: “Who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15). Jesus cared a great deal about what others thought about him because he believed great things were at stake for others in how they related to him. Jesus even believed an individual’s eternal destiny was contingent upon how he or she related to him (John 14:6).

But if when you hear this, you are inclined to dismiss it as “hype”—the over-inflated rhetoric so common in religious circles—then Gilbert’s book is for you. It’s not written primarily for those already convinced but for those with questions. This is obvious in several ways.

For starters, consider the way readers are addressed. Near the beginning, Gilbert writes, “Think about it: You probably have at least one or two acquaintances who would say that they are Christians” (16). The assumption, obviously, is that Gilberts understands that many of his readers will not already be deeply committed Christians involved in a local church where they would certainly have more than “one or two [Christian] acquaintances.”

Also, throughout the book Gilbert preemptively raises the kinds of questions that an interested skeptic might have. For example, questions about the Bible. Gilbert writes,

Now wait a second before you close this book! I know some people recoil when the Bible is mentioned because they think of it as “the Christians’ book,” and therefore they think it’s biased and useless for getting accurate information… (19)

Right after this quote, he goes on to make a superb defense for the relevance and reliability of the Bible, and he does so without stuffing the prose with confusing, technical terms. Never does he refer to the “perspicuity” of Scripture, which is an unclear word that actually means clarity. Nor in the book will you read the phrase “hypostatic union,” though the truth that Jesus was “fully God and fully human,” is in there. In other words, the book is accessible—not simplistic or childish, but accessible.

An additional strength of the book for non-Christians is that what the book does teach, it teaches in narrative. By this I mean that Gilbert unfolds the answer to “Who is Jesus?” in the same way the New Testament does—one story at a time. The effect is that we, the readers, are given the same vantage point as Jesus’s early followers. Gilbert writes,

We’re not going to work page by page through any one of the New Testament documents. Instead, we’re going to use all those sources to try to get to know Jesus in the same way that one who was following him might have experienced him—first as an extraordinary man who did wholly unexpected things, but then with the quickly dawning realization that “extraordinary” doesn’t even being to describe him… He was more than a teacher, more than a prophet, more than a revolutionary, even more than a king. As one of [Jesus’s followers] put it to him one night, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” (21-22)

There are other ways this book will help non-Christians consider who Jesus is—such as its length (only 144 pages) and its balance between humor and urgency—but what if you are already a Christian? What’s in it for us?

If you are a Christian reading this review, which I suspect most are, you shouldn’t find the book boring. As a pastor, I didn’t. I even learned a few new things, but perhaps more importantly, I was re-confronted with the many things we tend to forget about Jesus—but shouldn’t. And if you’d like to go deeper with the book, there is a helpful study guide available as well. I could see great benefit in giving Who is Jesus? to a non-Christian friend with the hope of meeting for several weeks to discuss “the most important question [they’ll] ever consider” (23).