Imagine you are Nicodemus, on your way to meet Jesus this evening. What would be going through your mind right now? Or how would you really feel about Jesus if you were John the Baptist … or Pontius Pilate? Let your imagination be ignited as you read these encounters with Jesus in contemporary settings as the individuals themselves might have retold them.
Years ago I used to sit at the back of the church to help welcome people to the services and to be available if needs arose during the services. Towards the end of the service, as the talk drew to a close, the preacher would often say, ‘Let me tell you a story.’ I would see rows of heads immediately lift at this phrase. Everyone loves a good story.
A while back I was sitting at my computer – a book was inside me, waiting to burst out. I imagined I was Nicodemus, the man who met Jesus, as recorded in John chapter 3. I’d heard many talks on this passage, how he came to Jesus at night and the conversation that then followed. But I wanted to put the whole episode into a contemporary setting. It was something of an experiment at first – would it work? I’d always imagined I was more of an editor than a writer – and here I was editing the Bible text, or as I put it, thinking aloud. I imagined what might have gone on in Nicodemus’ mind as he was about to meet up with Jesus that evening… how he may have avoided a committee meeting, how he had heard about Jesus, what his hopes and fears were. I went back to the Bible text and imagined the situation… he’d rung Jesus from a call box at lunch time… they were due to meet in a new Thai restaurant in town, where people hopefully would not recognize him… what were his thoughts as Jesus talked? and what might have been his response? And then I thought of other New Testament people. In today’s setting, might Joseph (husband of Mary, mother of Jesus) have played football with Jesus? Taken him to school? What might it have been like to have been there when Jesus threw the money changers out of the temple? And what about the guard at Jesus’ tomb that first Easter Day, as he really wanted to do some DIY?
I worked on a few stories, showed them to some friends, who reacted positively, and passed them to Mark Woods, editor of the Baptist Times, who responded enthusiastically and in due course published well over a dozen of these stories.
So here we are: encounters that Jesus had with 52 men as recorded in the New Testament, put into contemporary settings as the individuals themselves might have retold them.
But is it OK to go beyond the Bible text in this way? Some might argue that we should not distort the Bible text. I would certainly agree with that and I affirm in my own life the regular practice of reading and studying the Bible individually, in small groups and in larger church meetings. But alongside that basic affirmation comes two needs. First, at times in my own personal devotional life I have found that the Bible is no longer speaking clearly to me. I have at times become so familiar with the words that the meaning behind them isn’t fresh any more. (On such occasions I have found paraphrases in contemporary English very helpful.) Second, I believe we need a bridge to help us connect the people in the Bible with the people of today. The settings of the Bible stories may have changed, but human character and the human heart hasn’t – we still face the same basic fears and have the same joys as many people two thousand years ago. So I believe it is permissible to transfer those stories into contemporary culture.
I also believe firmly in the creativity of what we are. Part of being human, being made in the image of God, is this creative aspect of our nature. I believe God gives us permission to think aloud; in his terms thinking is allowed (word play intended!).
What themes emerged? One of the key ones was identity: Jesus’ sense of identity with his Father, his sense of vocation and mission and his love for individuals. Jesus honoured and respected each person he met as a unique individual. But I didn’t expect to find him giving those he met such a completely new sense of identity as well – see doubting Thomas, for example. Another major theme was integrity: Jesus’ character and his actions and words were all in harmony with one another in a way that the lives of people he met with (and my own life) often are not. In fact as I wrote the last few (Caiaphas, Herod Antipas, Pilate) -- although I’m a dictionary writer by profession I didn’t write them in alphabetical order! -- I was struck by the enormous inconsistencies between these men’s public profile and their own personal lives. One further theme was response. Jesus met so many people who were changed by that encounter but there was a deeper question: would they have the courage to respond more publicly and more fully to that encounter?
I have in mind two audiences: First, Those unfamiliar with the New Testament record, who perhaps dismiss the validity of Jesus Christ and his claims. Many books have been written on the evidence of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and I don’t want to add to them. Instead I’ve zeroed in on human character, which hasn’t changed in the 2,000 years or so since Jesus walked on earth. I invite you to read these stories and allow Jesus to challenge you. Secondly, those who are familiar with the New Testament. You know the stories, their content and their form. Perhaps you are so familiar with them that they have lost some of their impact. Come with me and transfer these stories to our present-day culture.
The main source has been the New Testament record itself. Time and time again I have gone back to that, searching for clues as to the background, comparing one account in one Gospel with the similar record in another Gospel. I’ve imagined… I’ve listened to those present and to what they might have been thinking… I’ve reflected on what goes on in my own life and I’ve listened to those around me and what people around me are thinking too. (I admit that before I began writing this book, I thought I knew the Gospels quite well. Writing these stories made me realize I didn’t as I reread them in detail.)
The stories are listed in alphabetical order. Each heading has a Bible passage (or a selection of Bible passages in many instances) if you want to look up the original. At the end of the stories, I’ve included questions to help you make a response.
My ultimate aim in retelling these stories is to see ourselves – our own lives – and to allow Jesus to meet with us. As we encounter Jesus, how are we changed? What is our response to Jesus Christ coming to us? Each one of us is different. Will we join him on our own unique adventure of trusting him?