In 2000 my first book, Missions in the Third Millennium, was published. It was the culmination of about a decade in missions journalism, and I poured everything I knew about the topic into that volume. It was a unique book in the way it came together, and in my heart of hearts I wasn’t sure I could write another one. I’ve often had doubts about my abilities, and even though I am by all accounts a good writer, I wondered whether I had anything else to say.
Several years later, while working for Christianity Today, I had the opportunity to interview many authors at the annual International Christian Retail Show, where an acquisitions editor scheduled an appointment with me to see if I had any other book ideas. I jotted some ideas down in a little notepad but wasn’t sure if they were any good. As I talked with various writers, I was impressed by their drive, their work ethic, and their vision for ministry. But it struck me—and this will sound conceited—that they were no smarter than I was. It was as if the Wizard of Oz had told me that they didn’t have any more brains than I did! So I felt encouraged to more actively pursue a book, knowing that God had given me certain gifts, and that I shouldn’t be afraid to develop and use them.
To entice publishers, writers have to come up with fresh, even unique, ideas. One of the ideas in my little notepad was about the questions of Jesus. While a few obscure books had been written about the questions, I hadn’t seen them, and I thought this would be an unusual, and easily graspable, approach to studying him. I figured this would be a fascinating way to see what was important to him. Instead of the usual book in which we ask God questions, this one would allow him to ask us questions. The publisher agreed this was a great approach and offered me a contract.
Of course, I’m not a New Testament scholar, though the well-known Donald Guthrie—no relation—is. This book therefore couldn’t be an academic tome or a reference work. It would have to come out of my experiences and abilities, as any good book does. I would write for the laity, sharing what I was learning along the way.
How were you personally impacted by thinking about the questions of Jesus afresh?
You can’t dig into the life and words of Jesus day after day without being affected. Sometimes it’s very hard for writers about Christian topics to avoid becoming jaded or bored; we’ve all heard about the relationship between familiarity and contempt. That never happened with me and the questions of Jesus. The New Testament presents almost 300 questions from the mouth of Jesus. While many no doubt are repeats, the cumulative effect was amazing.
The last couple of years have been difficult personally. My mother was very ill—and thank God pulled through; I was laid off at Christianity Today and my wife, Christine, had to return to the paid workforce; and I had to have fairly extensive shoulder surgery.
Yet through all this I felt a calmness of spirit and a close connection with Jesus that were better than I had ever experienced in my many years as a Christian. The question that grabbed me the most was, “Who do you say that I am?” If we get that one right, it seems to me the rest will follow.
As I, week after week and month after month, mulled his questions and the way he graciously dealt with people, my faith in and love for him was renewed, strengthened, and deepened. I don’t take any credit for this. Because I was on a disciplined writing schedule, I almost couldn’t help it! I was reading the Bible more consistently than ever before, wrestling with its implications, and being confronted with the untamed beauty of Jesus all the time. I hope my book has a similar effect on readers.
Were there any surprising themes that emerged as you looked at all the questions of Jesus together?
To get a handle on all the questions, I divided them into 26 chapters, under five broad themes. Here are the section headings: Who Is Jesus? How Do You Follow Him? Where Is Your Thinking? Why Is Character So Vital? and What Are Some Critical Doctrines? Others might have divided the questions differently, but to my mind these were how they naturally fell into place.
Looking at those themes, I’m surprised at how comprehensive Jesus’ questions are for our lives. They run the gamut from knowing and serving him to the intellectual and moral aspects of our lives until, finally, they force us to confront key truths of the Christian faith. We are unified wholes of mind, will, and body, and the questions recognize this. Remember, the questions are just one aspect of his life and teaching. There are so many more, such as parables, sermons, his example, and so on.
But the questions, in a way some of the other aspects don’t, invite our introspection and participation in the things of God. This to me is mind-blowing, that the Lord who knows everything asks for our input and respects us enough to wait for our answer. The questions assume that human beings have special dignity because we can relate with God on a very real level. Probably because we are made in his image, we can connect with him. That’s an amazing truth that the questions bring to the fore, and also an awesome responsibility.