Review of ‘The Jesus I Never Knew’ by Philip Yancey

I’ve been listening to the audio version sporadically over the past month. Just finished it today!

This isn’t an academic theological treatise, but contains a more devotional quality of reflections on the Christ of the Gospels. Yancey brings in his personal journey to grasping Jesus as well as some of the journeys of others, including literary greats such as Leo Tolstoy and Shusaku Endo.

Yancey’s journalist background is obvious. He is great writer! He paints stunning word pictures and presents the profoundness of Jesus with power and impact. He works his way through Christ’s life chronologically, picking out highlights, insights, and general truths from Jesus’ birth to resurrection, telling many anecdotes along the way.

Yancey seems to enjoy emphasizing how different the true Jesus is from our expectations. He gives criticism of those who have misunderstood Jesus  – including himself. Yancey has a humility and self-effacement throughout. This makes his contentions with others ( The Christian Right, Revolutionaries, etc.) tied to looking at ourselves to see how we impose our own expectations on Jesus to make him fit us, rather than making us fit to Jesus.

Yancey also gives considerable attention to the problem of suffering and evil, something about which he has written extensively already (Where Is God When It Hurts, etc.). He stated the problem very well and notes how Jesus answered it superbly.

I didn’t care for some things in the book. For instance, he seems to have pacifist interpretations of certain verses, something with which I would respectfully disagree. Calvinist folk wouldn’t like his discussions on free will, which I would admit is a little over-stated at times.

That said, the book is an easy and pleasant read that exalts Christ and attempts to look at Him for who He really is. I came away in awe of God, which makes it de facto a good book. I would recommend it to anyone.

Here are some of my favorite quotes:

“If Jesus had never lived, we would not have been able to invent him.” (quoting Walter Wink).

“The only time Jesus met with powerful political leaders, his hands were tied and his back was clotted with blood. Church and state have had an uneasy relationship ever since.”

“The genuine realist, if he is an unbeliever, will always find strength and ability to disbelieve in the miraculous. And if he is confronted with a miracle as an irrefutable fact, he would rather disbelieve his own senses than admit the fact. Faith does not spring from the miracle but the miracle from faith ” Theodore Dostoevsky.

“Jesus miracles, they note, do not usually contradict natural law but rather replicate the normal activity of creation at a different speed and on a smaller scale.” (quoting C.S. Lewis).

“Jesus knew that spiritual disease has a more devastating effect than any physical ailment. Every healed person ultimately dies. Then what? He had not come primarily to heal the world’s cells, but to heal its souls.”

On reading in the Gospel about holy week: “[E]ach time I feel swept away by the shear drama. The simple, unadorned rendering has a grinding power. I can almost hear a base drum beating dolefully in the background. No miracles break in, no supernatural rescue attempts, this is tragedy beyond Sophocles or Shakespeare. The might of the world, the most sophisticated religious system of its time allied with the most powerful political empire arrays itself against a solitary figure – the only perfect man who’s ever lived. Though he is mocked by the powers and abandoned by his friends, yet the gospels give the strong ironic sense that He Himself is overseeing the whole long process. He has resolutely set his face for Jerusalem knowing the fate that awaits him. The cross has been his goal all along. Now as death nears, he calls the shots.”

“As Jesus used supernatural power to set right what was wrong. Every physical healing pointed back to a time in Eden when physical bodies did not go blind, get crippled, or bleed nonstop for 12 years, and also pointed forward to a time of recreation to come. The miracles he did perform, breaking as he did the chains of sickness and death give me a glimpse of what the world was meant to be, and still hope that one day God will right its wrongs. To put it mildly, God is no more satisfied with this earth than we are. Jesus’ miracles offer a hint of what God intends to do about it. Some see miracles as an implausible suspension of the laws of the physical universe, as signs though, they serve just the opposite function – death, decay, entropy, and destruction are the true suspension of God’s laws. Miracles are the early glimpses of restoration. In the words of Yorgan  Multman, ‘Jesus healings are not supernatural miracles in a natural world. They are the only truly natural things in a world that is unnatural, demonized, and wounded.”

“In a sense, the paired thieves present the choice that all history has had to decide about the cross.”

“The problem of the church is no different than the problem of one solitary Christian. How can an unholy assortment of men and women be the body of Christ? I answer with a different question – how  can one sinful man, myself, be accepted as a child of God? One miracle makes possible the other.”

On the cross: “In the most ironic twist of all history, what Satan meant for evil, God meant for good…  In that act of transformation God took the worst deed of history and turned into the greatest victory.”


One comment

  1. Liam Moran


    I also enjoyed reading this book. Yes, Yancey is a great writer, one of the most prolific evangelical writers today. He has some incredible insights into the life of Jesus which I thought were profound.

    I especially liked his section on the grace of Christ.

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