Who is Jesus?

Ask that question in any crowd, and you’re sure to get many different answers ranging from historical facts about His life to cynical remarks to denial that he ever actually existed.

A year ago, Judah Smith, lead pastor of City Church in Seattle, dared to ask that question in his book Jesus is ______, challenging people to truly examine what they think about Jesus and how those views affect their lives.

We talked to Smith about stereotypes about Jesus, good and evil and how a healthy view of Jesus can transform our lives.

Q: You’ve mentioned that you’ve been on a journey of challenging stereotypes the past few years. What stereotypes of Jesus did you want to upturn?

A: Jesus has, I think, for a long time been portrayed as very serious. To a fault. Meaning I don’t think a lot of seekers or believers have it in their thinking at all that Jesus actually had a sense of humor.

The way we were created, the way we function, our emotions, our soul, our laughter, our joy—all of these things reflect—they are because of God’s glory and they are for God’s glory. Jesus was the full and complete embodiment of all that God is, and so, no doubt, He would have enjoyed a good time.

I mean, look at the guys he chose, the 12 blue-collar, average, ordinary dudes. Some of them royal screw-ups. Jesus chose them and no doubt they were cracking jokes and laughing and having a good time.

Q: That’s an interesting take on the dynamic of the disciples. It seems like we usually think of them as very serious and somber.

A: We have the luxury of reading the end of the book, so we look at these 12 guys with colored glasses. We know all of these guys do great things later in life. So we minimize how rough, ragged and ridiculous they were when Jesus chose them to be His earthly crew. When He chose them … they were an absolute joke in terms of their lifestyle and probably their vocabulary and how they functioned socially.

Q: Yeah, they worked with fish for a living!

A: Exactly! Peter is a cussing sailor, there’s no question about it. But we have deified these guys, and because of that I think it’s reflected in our lifestyle. Christians are afraid to befriend people who are rough, befriend people who are lost, people who are notorious. We feel like we should only befriend people who are upstanding, good, right, godly.

And you look at who Jesus chose, you also look at who He hung out with—Zacchaeus is a horrible guy. He cheats little old ladies out of their pension. And Jesus says “Let’s sit down, let’s go have dinner.” They had dinner probably in front of an open air window, so people walking the streets could see that Jesus, who claimed to be God, is sharing a meal with essentially the drug lord of the day.

Q: Jesus was always pushing the boundaries and reaching out to people who were outcasts. Why do you think that in our version of Christianity today we keep coming back to this idea of a clean-cut Jesus and a clean-cut Gospel?

A: I think the greatest illusion in all of human history is control. We’re addicted to control more than anything else. So if Jesus is calculated—He’s clean, everything’s clear, there’s no blurry lines, there’s no messes—it feeds that inner need for being in control.

But the message of grace assumes a horrible mess. Saving people is messy business. It’s chaotic. It can’t be scheduled. It can’t be controlled.

Jesus, who obviously is God, the savior of the universe, did not come for a clean, calculated approach. He came in the mess of it all and he got dirty with the people—obviously sinless and perfect, but was not afraid to be associated [with people]. He was very passionately invested, to say the least, as He put on skin and bone as God to really help humanity.

It’s embarrassing to admit, but the reason I have either sidestepped some friendships or avoided them altogether is because [I worry] What will people say? What if I’m in the wrong place at the wrong time and someone sees me and it doesn’t make sense?

The Pharisees and Sadducees grew up from a premise that dirty always affects clean, but Jesus came and, for the first time, the whole New Testament narrative is that the dirty now can be made clean. The Gospel, in its nature, in its essence, is far more contagious than even sin itself. And I believe with all my heart that righteousness is contagious, moreso than even sin.

Q: That goes back to this whole bottom line question of are humans good or evil inherently? How do we live in this tension that we are sinners, yet we are saved by grace?

A: Obviously, biblically we must believe that all are born in sin and we are sinful. Part of that though is that when you experience Jesus, when we turn our faith toward Christ, we are granted a new nature.

Corinthians tells us “he who knew no sin became sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Christ Jesus.” So now I am righteous—not based on what I do or what I’ve done, but based on what He has done. I am permanently, forever, in right standing with God. And now I am free to live this life that I otherwise would be so far from.

What’s difficult is because sin is so real to me. I was a prolific sinner and still struggle with it today. Do I believe that I’m righteous? Or though I’m righteous, do I still go back and believe “no, see I still sin, so I’m a sinner. That’s who I am. I’ll always be defined that way.”

What it comes down to, to be frank, is we still have more faith in sin than we do in our savior. God is not intimidated by sin. He is in control, and the blood of His son has canceled and conquered the power of sin forever for all who simply believe.

When we find that place of just trusting God and realize we are righteous permanently and our past, present, future sins are forgiven, all the sudden there is a contagiousness. We discover things like self-control and morality and purity—these things we’ve strived for our whole life that don’t come by discipline, but come by a real trust in the person of Jesus.

And that’s what I mean by “righteousness is contagious.” You start discovering this real freedom to live free from past sins and condemnation and guilt and shame. I’m telling you, people will take notice, and they will want what’s on your life. It’s not because we’re extraordinary or some exceptionally disciplined person, it’s because faith in Jesus sets your soul free and allows you to live a whole new kind of life.