A disclaimer is in order: First, I don’t think TobyMac is the Antichrist, a member of the Illuminati, or guilty of any other nefarious associations or behavior, and I think it is clearly helpful to the Christian movement worldwide that he won the Best Contemporary Christian Album at this year’s Grammy Awards. I also find many of his lyrics to be on target spiritually.
I must, however, take umbrage at one of his comments that shows up in interviews and was quoted in an article cited in Huffington Post. I am referring to an article entitled “Christian Music Bounces Back With TobyMac, Chris Tomlin, Lecrae And More.” According to this article, “Jesus didn’t hang out in the church,” the artist [TobyMac] said. “He hung out with the people, where they were. And that’s to me where Christian music should be.” Since everyone knows there was no Christian church in existence in the days of Jesus’ earthly ministry, this statement is designed for its rhetorical impact, rather than its historical accuracy. Sometimes, though, rhetorical statements have a life of their own, and hearers forget the limitations of rhetoric. More probably the rhetoric of this statement was meant to emphasize the viewpoint that Jesus did not spend time associating with religious/Jewish organizations or hanging out in Jewish meeting places or chillaxing with the officialdom of Jewish religion. A fact-check of this viewpoint led me to conclude that it did not represent the whole story of Jesus.
This anti-institutional view of Jesus has a long history, but it stands in stark contrast to the picture of Jesus given us by the major writer of the New Testament, Luke, and also by John the prophet. Let’s look at a few facts. There was a very small nucleus of Jewish people for whom God pulled back the curtain to allow them to see and understand the historic and spiritual realities associated with the nativity story. This nucleus found in the birth narratives of Luke 1-2 includes:
1. the priest and temple functionary, Zechariah, and his wife Elizabeth
2. Simeon who was guided by the Holy Spirit into the Jewish Temple (the epicenter of Jewish officialdom and pious folk) rather than into a local tavern to encounter there Mary, Joseph, and Jesus
3. and, finally, the prophetess Anna who would have only left the Temple if she were dragged out screaming and kicking (Lk. 2:37, “She never left the temple.”)
There were of course Jesus’ parents who had to be from the line of David and could not be priestly, but who seemingly went to the Temple at every ordained time. It seems that none of those chosen by God to be insiders into the miracle of Jesus’ birth felt compromised or dragged down by “hanging out in church” in their own day.
Then, of course, there is the 12 year old Jesus (Lk. 2:41-48), who had clearly broken away from the typical obedient child model and who began to establish his own spiritual identity. To establish his identity and mission early on, he chose to go to the center of Jewish formality and regulations. Since Jesus chose to be at the Temple discussing theology with Jewish teachers and theologians at the age of 12, he was about as churchy as a Jewish boy could be. When the frustrated parents of Jesus finally discovered him and questioned him about his behavior he replied (Lk. 2:49, The Message), “Didn’t you know that I had to be here, dealing with the things of my Father?” It would be difficult to construe this response into an anti-institutional statement by Jesus; in fact, it shows Jesus’ preference for hanging out at “Jewish church!” The words recorded next in Scripture preserve the response of Jesus’ mom and dad, but they also could have come right out of the mouths of many modern Christians who have been persuaded by the hip/hop-pop picture of Jesus, “But they had no idea what he was talking about” (Lk. 2:50, The Message).
To be sure, the validity of Christian ministry is determined by the authenticity of its message and accompanying lifestyle and not by its location. Bars and brothels are certainly within the purview of modern Christian ministry, but we need to be clear that this was not the fundamental approach used by Jesus. Most of Jesus’ time was spent in synagogues, in travel through the Jewish countryside, and in Jewish homes. It does not seem to have been an erratic choice when Jesus decided to give his inaugural teachings in synagogues (Lk. 4:14-15). There were inns and taverns in the Roman world and apparently in the social knowledge of Jesus’ audiences (Lk. 10:34-35), but based upon the historical record preserved in the Gospels, it does not seem possible to place Jesus in them for the purpose of reconstructing his public ministry. Moreover, many of the “outcasts” and “sinners” that Jesus encountered were in fact Jewish. For example, we might remember Zacchaeus regarded as the “chief tax collector” and known by the crowd in Luke 19 as “one who is a sinner.” Even though Zacchaeus was a tax collector and sinner, according to Jesus, Zacchaeus was “a son of Abraham” (Lk. 19:9). From a Lukan theological perspective, this spiritual reclamation of Zacchaeus, the back-sliding “son of Abraham,” is seen as a clear manifestation of Jesus’ missional identity as the “Son of Man who came to seek out and to save the lost” (Lk. 19:10).
For sake of space, let me encourage you to read through Luke’s second volume, Acts, to see whether most of the gentile converts came from religious settings and religious buildings or from the bars and brothels of the Roman world. When Paul (if I may leave Acts of the Apostles for a moment) refers to saints in Corinth as former “fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, and robbers” (1 Cor. 6:9-10), there is no reason to exclude these converts out of paganism from the “outsiders or unbelievers” that would have heard the truth of God when they attended the church’s worship services in Corinth (1 Cor. 14:23-25).
Now let’s turn to Revelation. Admittedly John is not concerned primarily with evangelism and outreach, but his view of Christ, believers, and the church seems to have a different flavor than the idea that “Jesus didn’t hang out in the church.” In the mind of some, the statement that “Jesus didn’t hang out in the church” might leave the impression that one could love Jesus and ignore the church, for example. That outlook would strike John as unacceptable, based upon what Jesus told him in the beginning of the book of Revelation. For the seven congregations in Revelation the defining picture of Jesus was not, as many might expect, the sacrificial Lamb of God (which does not show up until chapter 5:6), but instead the Son of Man. John’s message for his contemporary Christians did not focus on Jesus on the clouds (Rev. 1:7), contrary to the belief of some fundamentalist millenarians and evangelicals. Rather, for the Christians of his own day, John the prophet’s focus was upon Jesus “in the midst of the lampstands” (Rev. 1:13), the very lampstands Jesus himself identifies as the seven churches to whom John wrote (Rev. 1:20). For John the prophet, the Enthroned Christ lives and moves among the congregations of God. As I noted in my commentary, (Seven Congregations in a Roman Crucible. A Commentary on Revelation 1-3, p. 89),
From first to last the Christ of Revelation is an ecclesiastical Jesus, a Jesus for the congregations of God. Whether seen under the rubric of the 144,000 sealed on their foreheads, or the Bride of the Lamb, or the city he loves, or the great multitude that no one can count, or the saints, or the witnesses of Jesus, or the New Jerusalem, the Jesus Christ that John knows and proclaims is one for the collective people of God, the congregations of Roman Asia. The prophet John’s identity is inseparably linked with congregations (ekklēsiai, ἐκκλησίαι, 1:4); the identity of Jesus is inseparably linked with seven congregations (epta ekklēsiai, ἑπτὰ ἐκκλησίαι, 1:11); and the significance of the book of Revelation is inseparably linked with congregations, “It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches” (epi tais ekklēsiais, ἐπὶ ταῖς ἐκκλησίαις, 22:16).
We contemporary believers just might need to reconsider whether we want to recapture apostolic belief by acknowledging and confessing “that Jesus is not a parachurch Messiah” (p. 89), but a churchy Jesus, notwithstanding all the abuses and heresies propagated by his ostensible followers, both past and present. It cannot be doubted that Jesus of Nazareth, Luke, and John the prophet all knew very well the abuses and unspeakable atrocities engendered by God’s people over the centuries, but it never seemed a viable spiritual choice for them to dishonor God in response to the lamentable behavior of his people.
Now, go and watch the official music video for TobyMac’s “Eye on It.” http://tobymac.com/videos/eye-it-official-music-video