The Merry Jesus

It is the heart that is unsure of its God,
that is afraid to laugh.

— GEORGE MACDONALD

*    *    *    *    *

   In the year 1514, someone published a sensational forgery in Venice, Italy, purporting to be a description of Jesus Christ by one Publius Lentulus. This Lentulus was said to have been the Roman procurator of Judea either before or after Pontius Pilate. The Lentulus family actually was prominent in the ancient Roman Empire, and one member is recorded as being governor of the province of Syria 60 years before Christ.

   "Publius Lentulus," however, never existed except in the fertile mind of some medieval perpetrator of hoaxes.

   Nevertheless the phony document has been widely circulated throughout Europe down even to our own time. It was titled "The Epistle of Lentulus to the Roman Senate," and the description of Jesus of Nazareth follows in English translation, as I found it in the rare book room of the Library of Congress:

He is a tall man, well shaped and of an amiable and revered aspect, his hair is of a color that can hardly be matched, falling into graceful curls . . . parted on the

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crown of his head, running as a stream to the front after the fashion of the Nazarenes; his forehead high, large and imposing; his cheeks without spot or wrinkle, beautiful with a lovely red; his nose and mouth formed with exquisite symmetry; his beard, of a color suitable to his hair, reaching below his chin and parted in the middle like a fork; his eyes bright blue, clear and serene . . . 1

   In the next paragraph appears the statement "No man has seen him laugh," which has had an astonishing impact on the church.

   Bruce Barton described the counterfeit document in his book The Man Nobody Knows, published in 1926.2 Barton told of reading a contemporary English book in which the author said he visited a certain "Lord Fisher" (Probably Sir Norman F.W. Fisher) and found him depressed in spirit. The usually lively English lord had just come across the bogus Lentulus statement and it had shaken his faith as a Christian. Said his visitor, "To worship a Lord who never laughed it was a strain, and Lord Fisher made no pretence about that."

   The inference here is that Jesus never did laugh, and therefore humor, which does so much to alleviate the stress of our daily existence, had no part in our Lord's life. Barton said that the Lentulus forgery "robbed the world of the joy and laughter of the friendliest man who ever lived." The document implied further that since we are followers of Jesus, presumably humor should have no place in our lives either.3

   This fabricated document is not only laughable, but it is theologically unsound. Orthodox doctrine since the Council of Chalcedon (A.D. 451) has held that Jesus Christ is "perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a reasonable soul and body . . . in all things like to us, without sin." "All things" includes laughter! How could Jesus be truly man without laughing at some of the incongruous things that happen in life, like this duplicitous letter? If Jesus wept, He also laughed. Laughter is one of the characteristics that distinguish humans from the primates. It is also a characteristic of the

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kingdom of God at least that is the way I read the apostle Paul. He wrote to the Romans, "The kingdom of God is . . . joy in the Holy Spirit" (14:17).

   If given half a chance in any era, genuine human joy naturally expresses itself in merriment. Not in ridicule, or mocking, or jeering, or off-color stories, but in the playful expressions of people making light of the bumpy circumstances of life and having fun with each other. Many of us have worked for a living in atmospheres where the banter was objectionable, but thank God there are also Christian groups and bands where merry spirits can take their difficulties in stride and even "count them all joy," and where the unexpected blessings of heaven bring shouts of "Hallelujah!"

   An old Shaker philosopher, Brother Calvin Fairchild, put it this way: "Some people think it vulgar to laugh, but let such stand in life's gloomy shadows if they choose. As a general rule the best men and women laugh the most. Good, round, side-shaking laughter is healthy for everybody."

   Plenty of merriment is recorded in the Old Testament as the Israelite people enjoyed their festivals. There was also merriment in New Testament times, if one cares to look for it. Jesus Himself, as a true Man of Joy, had a merry outlook on life. A few books have been written describing our Lord's wit, His repartee, His keen sense of the absurd (the camel and the needle's eye), and His ability to see the comical side of many a human situation or predicament. I have found that even when no humor whatever was involved, as in the accounts of Jesus' conversations with the woman at the well and the woman taken in adultery, the dialogues carry a unique style, a twist and a flair that betray the Master's touch. His good-natured approach to life seems to have been rooted in a great inner joy.

   Thus when His contemporaries accused our Lord of being a "winebibber" (what we would call a "wino"), He laughed it off. When they reproached His disciples because they did not fast, He said they couldn't because they were part of a wedding party. When He was compared unfavorably to His friend John the Baptist, He grasped the opportunity to praise John. When His

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disciples were accused of violating the Sabbath by plucking ears of grain, Jesus took delight in pointing out that David once violated the same law at Nob by eating the sacred bread which Ahimelech told him was reserved for priests, and then passing it out to his troops.4

   What do you suppose was the attraction that caused the Galilean fishermen to leave their nets and follow Jesus? What made Levi the tax collector abandon his booth and cash box to join His team? One answer might be: Jesus was a man of such joy, such merriment, such gladness of Spirit, such freedom and openness that He was irresistible. Today that may seem hard to visualize, but in ancient Palestine it is clear that people wanted to be near Him, to catch His bright spirit, and if possible to learn His secret, to share His joy and join in what He was doing for other people.

   My pastor, Dr. Michael MacIntosh, has captured this spirit of joy accurately in his book The Tender Touch of God:

The joy of the Lord was at the tomb of the resurrected Lazarus, overshadowing the sadness and disappointment of the dead man's sisters. Joy was there when the leper returned to thank Jesus. Joy was there when a woman caught in the very act of adultery was forgiven and released from her sin. Joy was there when the deaf heard, the blind saw, and the lame walked. Joy was there on the mountainside as the multitudes listened to the profound teachings of Jesus. Joy was there when the little children flocked to Jesus. Joy was there when the boy gave Jesus his lunch so that He could work a miracle and feed the thousands. Joy was there when Jesus forgave Zacchaeus for abusing his authority. Joy was there when Jesus stood up in the boat and stopped the storm. Joy was there when dawn broke and the women knew that Jesus was resurrected from the dead. Everywhere Jesus went, joy tagged along.5

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   Most pictorial representations of Jesus show Him looking serious, mournful, even weeping in agony of spirit and body, or else grim, resolute, and defiant. The very thought of His appearing in a lighthearted or jocular mood is evidently shocking to some religious minds. A merry Jesus seems to such to be offensive and sacrilegious. The creeds and catechisms of the church have taken great pains to enshrine the biblical truths for us, but in their sedate form they may have omitted important aspects of the man Christ Jesus.

   The rank and file of Christians have done better down the years. They seem to have caught something of the Man of Joy and His message of good cheer. Even totally unchurched folk have been known to admire Jesus as a "good guy," and "upbeat Person who got set up." But normally the solemn religious element continues to dominate and the joy is lost.

   Billy Graham wrote in The Secret of Happiness, "We never hear of Jesus laughing, though I am sure He did."6 Above everything else, what convinces me that Jesus laughed is the fact that when people are "in Christ" they also begin to laugh.

   Luke records one priceless scene when the Holy Spirit filled Jesus with merriment. He had sent out 70 evangelists to the cities and towns He intended to visit. They now returned from their tour exuberant over the results of their preaching. Were they laughing? Of course they were laughing. It was at this point, Luke writes, that Jesus captured the true hilarity of the scene when He said, "I praise You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and prudent and have revealed them to babes."7

   The Bible reminds us again and again of the "voice of mirth." The book of Proverbs says that "the merry heart has a continual feast," and that such a heart is "good" medicine. The psalmist sings, "Then our mouth was filled with laughter." In another psalm he speaks of "God my exceeding joy." How do we express exceeding joy? What do we do? We laugh! Isaiah exults, "Sing, O heavens! Be joyful, O earth!"Jeremiah describes the "voice of joy and the voice of gladness . . . of the bridegroom and . . . bride." Jesus told His disciples that after He left them "your

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grief will turn to joy . . . [which] no one will take away." The apostle Peter declares that the Christians to whom he is writing "are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy."

   In the twelfth chapter of the letter to the Hebrews is a verse that gives an unusually clear insight into our Lord's mental attitude as He began His ministry. The verse reads, "Let us fix our eyes on Jesus . . . who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God" (12:2 NIV). Joy? What joy? The joy of heaven, of course.

   "Don't worry about tomorrow," Jesus advised His disciples. "Your heavenly Father knows what your needs are." To Peter's question about John's future prospects Jesus replied, "What's it to you? You follow me." And to the brothers who were quarreling over their inheritance He said simply, "Who made me a judge over you?" In each incident there was perhaps a twinkle in His eye.

   Because of heaven, Jesus could take what He had to face on earth. Because of the thrill and wonder of eternity, He could run the crossfire of time. Because of the glory of God His Father, He could put up with the sinful pride and unbelievable mistakes of the children of men. And because of the presence of the Holy Spirit in Him, He could carry the buoyancy of His eternal joy with Him into the time zone of Palestine, sharing it with others while carrying out His Father's will. "Be of good cheer" that is, "Courage! Brighten up!" He told His disciples, "There are tribulations in this life, but I have overcome the world."8

   As Professor John Knox says, Jesus was "a Man of incomparable moral insight, understanding and imagination, of singular moral purpose and integrity, of extraordinary moral courage and ardor, of intense devotion to duty, and of joyous trust in God. Although He took His life very seriously, there is no reason to think He took it solemnly; perhaps He took it too seriously to take it solemnly . . . He faced the whole gamut of human life with absolute fidelity and with freshness and great good humor. . . . He believed that what is beautiful and good in this world and in human life is to be enjoyed without apology."9

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   Consider the way Jesus conducted Himself with children. He actually rebuked His disciples for being killjoys and interfering when the children climbed on His back (as they probably did) and tugged at His beard and kissed Him. What a merry time!

   Women, sick people, and people of other races and cultures all came to Him with their troubles because they knew they would be treated with gentleness, respect, compassion, and love.

   In a hundred places the Bible tells us that the message of salvation in Christ is a message of love bathed in joy. The very word gospel means "good news, glad tidings." The Westminster Shorter Catechism declares that the chief end of man (or as we would say, humanity) is "to glorify God and enjoy Him forever." I'll let my friends who are better qualified tell you how to glorify Him. My aim is to get you to enjoy Him.

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1. The published English translation of the Lentulus document does not mention date or translator. The original Italian version is also in the Library of Congress.

2. Bruce Barton, The Man Nobody Knows (London: Constable, 1926), pp. 49-50.

3. Cf. Elton Trueblood, The Humor of Christ (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1964); Cal Samra, The Joyful Christ (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985).

4. Matthew 9:15; 11:19; 12:3,4.

5. Michael K. MacIntosh, The Tender Touch of God (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 1996), p. 200.

6. Billy Graham, The Secret of Happiness (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1955).

7. Luke 10:21

8. See John 16:33

9. John Knox, The Man Christ Jesus (Chicago: Willett & Clark, 1942), pp. 56-59.

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