The saying “It’s all about a personal relationship with Jesus” is a modern invention. Flip through the pages of your Bible from front to back and you will never find it. During the 1940s and 1950s, the rise of evangelicalism and pop culture shifted the Gospel to an individualistic entity. Evangelists such as Billy Graham, Charles Templeton, and Torrey Johnson were drawing crowds in the thousands with a simple and personal message. Today, we have perfected this message in our American Christianity and have reduced the Gospel message to a simple presentation: sin leads to hell, the cross offers forgiveness, thus we must accept Jesus as Savior.
Don’t get me wrong: those elements are an essential part of the Gospel message, and to be a disciple of Jesus means to follow him. He stated in John 17:3, “this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” The Apostle Paul practically writes a romantic ballad in Philippians 3 with such language as, “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord,” … “that I may gain Christ and be found in him,” … “that I may know him,” … and “Christ Jesus has made me his own” (Philippians 3:7–12).
However, by stating that “it’s all about a personal relationship with Jesus,” we have automatically muzzled whatever else the Bible might have to say. Perhaps there is more offered to us. In the beginning of the biblical narrative we find the perfect goodness of creation, yet God had made one thing “not good”: man was alone. God could have created man with no other relational need, but God did not. He specifically created humanity to need something other than what already existed in Eden: food, resources, and God. For an omnipotent deity, this is telling. It would seem the Creator created all of creation and intentionally left something out so Adam (and we) would learn a valuable lesson: We need relationship with others.
When sin enters the story, we find it not only damaged our relationship with God, but it also equally damaged our relationship with other humans. The first consequence of sin was shame. Adam and Eve were ashamed of their nakedness and they covered themselves and hid. When God shows up, they dodge and blame. The death warned of in connection to the tree they ate of shows up not in Adam and Eve’s death, but when a brother rises against a brother. In fact, the story of Cain and Abel is structured to parallel the story of the fall in Genesis 3 (to read more, check out my post about the Tale of Two Brothers). Sin wrecks havoc on our relationships with our brothers, sisters, parents, family, friends, and mankind.
The prophets are saturated with calls for God’s people to restore justice, to love mercy, and walk in righteousness. These are not individualistic calls, but rather communal: the way we position ourselves towards other people. We are to be a people who care, who serve, who speak for the voiceless, who fight for the broken, who stand for the fallen, and take in the outcast. Every prophet addresses the failings of God’s people on account of these. This is why Jesus will say that the Law and the Prophets hang on the two commands of loving God and loving people (Matthew 22:40).
It would make sense then that one of the primary redemptive works of Jesus would be to restore our relationships with each other, and it is. Over and over again, he emphasized the connection between loving God and loving people. He would even go as far to say they are just like each other: to love God means to love others (Matthew 22:39). His message was one of forgiveness, not just between God and man but also between man and man. He declares that love for one another would be the proof of his disciples. He explains that serving the lowest would be serving him. Jesus’ redemptive work on Earth was not simply to heal the rift between earth and heaven, but also to heal the rifts on earth itself.
His apostles would go on to explain this further. Paul makes the audacious claim that all of the 613 Torah commandments hung on the one command of loving your neighbor (Galatians 5:14). Consider that! List the first half of the ten commandments in your mind and realize that they are fulfilled in the command of loving your neighbor. John would then state it is impossible to love God without loving others (1 John 4:20). In the opening of his first epistle, he says that “if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another” (1 John 1:7). To be in right relationship with God means we also must in be right relation with others. We can’t have one without the other. By using language such as “walk” and “light,” John is alluding to the Garden of Eden, when Adam and Eve would walk with God in the light. Jesus came not only to save you but to save your relationships, too.
Scan through Hebrews 12, Galatians 5, Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 13, Philippians 2, Ephesians 2, or any page within your New Testament and you will find an imperative, if not many, that is a relational command. Paul will describe all of us as individual parts of a whole body. He also tells us that “we” are the temple of Holy Spirit, and not you individually. Peter will be even clearer, stating that each of us are stones being built together as a single temple. To be “saved” is not an individual thing but a collective group thing. A finger cut off from the body or a stone lying in the field is not saved. The perfect man of Genesis 1 still needed others and Jesus did not come to fill that need but rather to restore that need.
By coming into right relationship with Jesus, we agree to be a part of his kingdom, which is also full of people living under his authority and mission. A kingdom divided cannot stand (sounds like something Jesus might say). We have to get this right, and buying into a “gospel” that makes it primarily about “me and Jesus” means we end up stripping Jesus’ kingdom away from him. He, instead, becomes MySpace’s Tom with billions of friends who don’t know each other. It is simpler. Real relationships are messy. They require that we be vulnerable, and that we stand naked and exposed, and refuse to feel shame (Genesis 2:25). And that is exactly where Jesus’ kingdom wants to rule.