“Do you think Jesus could beat LeBron James in a basketball game?” This question from a student was passed along to me from a high school teacher. My first thought was, I’m not really sure, maybe? But to be honest, I have a really hard time imagining Jesus playing basketball. Entertaining the thought a little longer, I realized this student was actually asking a super keen question. In recent years, LeBron has been labeled the G.O.A.T. (greatest of all time)—the best basketball player ever, bar none. For this high school student, LeBron is the epitome of what it means to be an outstanding athlete—any high school basketball player could only dream of being as good as he is. Pitting Jesus against LeBron in this question is really asking: Is Jesus better than my greatest hero; is Jesus really the greatest person of all time; is he the person that I could only dream of being like? That is a fantastic question!
Is Jesus better than my greatest hero
Yes, Jesus is the greatest person of all time—but maybe not in the ways that we naturally expect. In reality, Jesus may not be able to beat LeBron in a one-on-one basketball game, but Jesus could teach LeBron what it means to be a more virtuous athlete.
Contemporary Christians like you and me have no trouble letting Jesus be the ideal spiritual authority in our lives, but we often have a difficult time allowing him to be the intellectual authority in our lives. Failing to recognize Jesus as a type of philosopher who has the primary intellectual authority in our lives puts the church in imminent danger.
During the time of the ancient church, philosophers were considered to be the “G.O.A.T.” Philosophers were the ideal humans: smart, virtuous, and spiritually in tune with reality. The Gospel writers were intentional to show how Jesus was not only like the ancient philosophers but superior to them—spiritually and intellectually.
Let’s just say it: Jesus is a philosopher. He is the greatest philosopher of all time. You may have a difficult time agreeing with this because philosophy seems too “liberal” or flatly “irrelevant.” Or perhaps you have no problem seeing Jesus as a philosopher. No matter where you are coming from, I would encourage you to consider this: In the ancient world, it was a cultural fact that philosophers were attempting to live a lifestyle that was in perfect harmony with their beliefs about the world.1 Philosophers’ views of the world shaped how they lived in it.2 This ancient method of philosophy was a lifelong journey in the search for truth and could only be successful if a philosopher’s lifestyle could keep up with their beliefs.
Jesus is a philosopher. He is the greatest philosopher of all time
Some scholars have written entire books comparing Jesus to ancient philosophers, showing how Jesus was similar (but far superior) to the ancient philosophers in his ability to live a life that held his claims and actions with integrity.3 We have found paintings in ancient churches depicting Jesus wearing the robes of the philosopher and teaching like a philosopher.4 Philosophers were the ancient world’s heroes, the kind of people everyone wanted to be like; they had coherence between their beliefs and actions, they were public figures who helped others find meaning in life, and they constantly searched to discover truth and live virtuously. This way of life was intellectual as well as practical.
The Gospel writers saw Jesus as a philosopher because he accurately described how the world was and he was able to live in perfect harmony with those claims. Jesus said that it is best to love one’s enemies and pray for persecutors, modeling this by perfectly praying for those who came against him and loving his enemies (Matthew 5:44). Jesus proclaimed the truth, and the fruit of those beliefs was demonstrated in action.
There was an intellectual side to Christ’s teachings that the ancient church took seriously. Paul taught the ancient church to understand the teachings of Jesus in comparison with merely “human” philosophy, and not to be taken captive by false beliefs (Colossians 2:8). The ancient church had to choose between the philosophy of the culture and the philosophy of Jesus—they gave Jesus intellectual authority over their thoughts and actions. As Jesus said, “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” (Luke 6:46).
Jesus came into the world during a time when philosophers were well-known and he behaved like a philosopher for good reason. He wants not only spiritual authority in our lives but also intellectual authority. An intellectual authority instructs others how to think. A mathematics professor is an intellectual authority in mathematics. Jesus is the intellectual authority for Christians. Here at Summit Ministries, we like to tell students that “ideas have consequences.” Think about it, ideas that you hold to be true become beliefs, beliefs that you consistently act upon become habits, and habits are patterns that form your lifestyle. Ideas lay the tracks that your life runs on. Your ideas have real consequences—good and bad.
He wants not only spiritual authority in our lives but also intellectual authority
If the church neglects giving Christ the intellectual authority in our lives, we are in terrible danger because our ideas and beliefs govern our behavior. We all may claim that Jesus knows the best way for us to live our lives, but many of us don’t really believe in what he commands us to do, or it would show up to some degree in how we behave. Jesus states repeatedly in the Gospels that a true sign of a disciple is obedience to his commands.5 Discipleship begins when you start to think that what Jesus teaches is a good idea—you’ve begun to believe in Jesus’s ideas.
There are at least four dangers of not accepting Jesus as, “the smartest man who ever lived.”
- One, your Christian faith will become disconnected from every other part of your life.6 Distracted by other things, Christianity gets put in the “Church” box and is only opened for an hour and a half on Sunday morning. It makes no real impact on your thoughts or behavior.
- Two, you will begin to listen to alternative gurus, people who offer wisdom for living.7 Stressed to find out how you should really be living, the alternative guru—anything from an influencer to a personality test—starts to have ideas that sound better for your lifestyle than Jesus’s ideas do. These other ideas aren’t necessarily bad, but they must be filtered through Jesus’s ideas if he is really the primary intellectual authority in your life.
- Three, you won’t ask big questions anymore:8 What good is in the world that I can cultivate? What is missing in today’s culture that I can create? What evil can I help to curb? What is broken that I can help cure?9 The Bible helps us answer these big questions and it also inspires us to ask them. Not allowing Jesus to have intellectual authority will lead to apathy.
- Four, your witness to the world will be silenced or muted.10 If you are not formed through trials and challenges by Scripture, then you will be formed by something else. The ideas that you are formed by will either mute your witness for Christ or they will amplify it.
If you are not formed through trials and challenges by Scripture, then you will be formed by something else
It is not hard to see that many Christians are malformed. To overcome this sad reality, we should believe that what Jesus teaches is a good idea, accepting his intellectual authority. This will lead to a lifestyle that holds our beliefs and actions together with integrity. This does not mean the challenges of apathy, stress, distractions, and trials will no longer be hurdles. But if we do not respond to them correctly, disconnectedness, alternative gurus, shallowness, and a muted witness will be quick to follow and that is a gigantic danger to the Christian church today.11
To cultivate the degree of Jesus’s authority in your life, I would suggest a few things.
- First, take charge of your “information diet,” reading and watching things that will help you to understand Jesus’s teachings, and weeding out unhelpful information.
- Second, study your Bible. There is no better way to know what Jesus teaches than to read about him and what he taught.
- Third, expose yourself to ideas that you don’t agree with to solidify your true beliefs. Don’t just identify what you disagree with, understand why you disagree and why your beliefs hold true.
- Fourth, develop a conscientious lifestyle, asking the question: What do my actions tell me (and others) about what I believe?
- Finally, identify apathy, stress, distractions, trials, and challenges that could derail you from taking Jesus’s words seriously.12
I hope that by trusting Jesus as your intellectual and spiritual authority, the greatest philosopher of all time, that you will have a whole, meaningful, and flourishing life.