I have something to confess: Sometimes I forget that Jesus is a real person. I would never claim something like that; I would openly declare that Jesus is alive. But my practical theology—the way I live my life—often shows that I view the teachings of Jesus as good suggestions rather than authoritative mandates. Without even fully realizing it, I slip into the belief that Jesus is just another character in a story. When that happens, whether or not I follow what He has to say is left up to me. If He’s only an idea, then He has no authority over me, and there are certainly no consequences for ignoring Him completely. Let me explain what I mean.
I’m a big fan of superheroes, and our culture is, too. Movie studios have spent billions of dollars over the past decade putting these characters of modern mythology on the big screen, and moviegoers have spent even more buying tickets to watch them. We don’t think twice about seeing a tattoo of the Batman symbol, or a Wonder Woman license plate, or a Captain America T-shirt. Superheroes are everywhere in our world right now, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. They’re a fun idea, and the superhero mythos can lead to a lot of great storytelling.
I believe we can draw a parallel, however, between the way we view superheroes and the way we are sometimes tempted to view Jesus. Our caped crusaders are fictional, of course, but many of them represent values that are worth pursuing. Superman—the most influential superhero of all time—is known to stand for truth, justice and the American way. While the merits of the American way can be argued, Christians and most of the secular world would agree that truth and justice are valuable pursuits. Spider-Man—the ordinary teenager who suddenly finds himself with extraordinary abilities—is famous for embodying the line, “With great power comes great responsibility.” This, too, is a worthy motto.
But when was the last time Superman asked you to deny yourself and follow him (Matt. 16:24)? When did Spider-Man ask you to sell your possessions and give to the poor (Matt. 19:21)? The answer is never, obviously. While these characters might have traits that can be admired and should be emulated, they don’t ask anything of us. And even if they did, would you need to listen? What would be the consequences for ignoring them? Superheroes are meant to entertain and explore ideas—even inspire people—but they have no real authority because they only exist in our minds.
Jesus, on the other hand, is not just a character in a story, and He exists outside of our ideas about Him. Jesus is God, and the authority He holds over our lives is as real as He is. While the story of the entire Bible culminates in the life of Jesus, He does not remain within its pages. Jesus is alive—and that’s no metaphor. Our faith is not in a set of virtuous ideals or the memory of a great moral teacher; our faith is in the person of Jesus, who is “the head of all rule and authority” (Col. 2:10). And that person asks us a question: “Who do you say that I am?” (Matt. 16:15).
Too often, our culture views Jesus as just another voice in a kind of “take-it-or-leave-it” pantheon. He has a lot of great ideas, and if you want to try to follow His lead, more power to you. But to many, He’s no different than the members of the Justice League. “Do unto others” (Matt. 7:12) is a nice suggestion—a Golden Rule—but it’s as disposable in our modern world as any other moral platitude.
How many of us are guilty of this kind of thinking even as Christians? I know that I regularly fail to recognize Jesus for who He is: a living, breathing person who demands every part of my life. I am constantly asking the Spirit to remind me that Jesus is my living King—not just an idea, not just a memory and not just a character in a story. We must remember that “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to [Him]” (Matt. 28:18b), and that should have a far greater impact on our lives than the influence of a fictional hero. If we claim to follow Jesus, we must be willing to give up what He asks us to give up and pursue what He asks us to pursue. He is our living Lord, and that good news should cause us to rejoice and fully submit to His Lordship.