Charles Sheldon’s book, What Would Jesus Do?, has had a profound impact on many lives. There have been countless times in my own life and ministry when I have stopped to consider that very question, “What Would Jesus Do?”
What Would Jesus Do? –often shortened to WWJD or W.W.J.D.–is a slogan so famous that millions of objects have been emblazoned with it.
The earliest known instance of the full slogan “What Would Jesus Do?” dates all the way back to 1886 from a series of serial sermons by an American Congregational minister from Topeka, Kansas by the name of Charles Sheldon. Each week, Sheldon would tell an entertaining story, posing the question, “What would Jesus do?” when characters came across a difficult moral decision or situation. These sermons proved to be immensely popular. Spurred on by their popularity, Sheldon got them published in the Congregationalist Magazine, and they were soon put together into the book, In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do?
So, what brought on the resurgence of W.W.J.D. bracelets and other products a little over a 100 years later in the 90’s? Janie Tinklenberg read Sheldon’s book in 1989 and had taken the message of “What would Jesus do?” to heart. She decided to use it in her job as a youth leader at a church in Holland, Michigan where she encouraged her students to keep it in mind as they went about their daily lives.
As a way to make sure the kids didn’t forget, Janie decided to emblazon the slogan on something wearable, settling on wristbands, since, “At the time, 1989, beaded friendship bracelets were popular. I figured a bracelet was perfect: They could wear it all the time and it was even kind of cool.”However, since the phrase, “What would Jesus do?”, was kind of awkward to fit on a bracelet, she opted for the abbreviation W.W.J.D. Along with looking neater, this was doubly ingenious since it prompted others to ask what W.W.J.D. meant, thereby spreading the message a little further and giving an opportunity for her students to tell others about Jesus.
Before long the 300 bracelets she had made weren’t enough, forcing her to order hundreds more. When the company making them, Lesco, saw how popular they were, they quickly began churning out and selling millions of their own.
Much like Charles Sheldon, Janie was also initially happy that her little abbreviation, and the message that went with it, was spreading like wildfire. However, after seeing a $400 necklace with W.W.J.D. on it, she felt it had become more about commercialism than the message.
The effects of commercialism had made the slogan appear on wristbands, mugs, T-shirts, bumper stickers, necklaces, bracelets, pins, bumper stickers, banners, decals, stickers, wall posters – on just about anything that could be worn, hung or stuck to an object. It was also imprinted on teddy bears, lunch boxes, underwear, and baby bibs. It started appearing on placards at political protests and occupy movements. And sadly, it became a punch line for many jokes among non-believers and an object of ridicule.
The commercialism and misuse of this acronym, however, cannot negate the influence this slogan has had on the lives of many. The original question "What would Jesus do?" was taken seriously by millions of Christian teenagers who have worn it over the last 20 years as a reminder to live their lives in the right way. For a season it had a positive impact on both Christians and non-Christians alike.
I wonder though if we could ask the question from a different angle. Instead of asking, “What would Jesus do?”, which often invites an abundance of conjectured responses from morally accurate to morally ridiculous, what if we asked the question, “What did Jesus do?” There is a lot of clarity in the Bible on this question, which if the church modeled these things, it would be a lot healthier and effective in carrying out its mission.
What Did Jesus Do?
1. He Spent Time in His Father’s Presence
Jesus cultivated intimacy with God, by praying early and often. Forty-five times the gospels tell us that Jesus went alone to pray. Every aspect of his life and ministry was saturated with prayer.
In the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel we find Jesus calling the twelve to follow him, travelling to Capernaum, teaching at the synagogue and casting out spirits. He healed Simon’s mother-in-law and soon the crowds began to gather. He healed people and cast out more demons. In the midst of the whirlwind of ministry we find him rising early in the morning in order to spend time with the Father in prayer. You and I probably would have slept in a bit to “recover” from the fatigue of the past few days’ ministry. But no doubt we’d be better off doing what Jesus did.
2. He Included Outcasts
If we are going to do what Jesus did, we are going to need big hearts for the outcasts. Jesus demonstrated God’s love by including society’s outcasts. The religious elite criticized and ridiculed him for it, but Jesus was quick to embrace those who were sinful, sick, ignored and despised. He treated the woman caught in adultery with kindness and respect. He healed lepers and invited them to follow Him. He engaged the woman at the well in conversation and went to Zacchaeus’ place for dinner.
Again, Jesus was criticized and dismissed because he not only went to a banquet at Levi the tax-collector’s house, but he invited Levi to follow him as one of the apostles. In response to the proudly spiritual, Jesus pointed out he came to earth for the very purpose of reaching out to the outcasts like Levi. (Luke 5:27-31)
3. He Met the Needs of People
When John the Baptist, was in the doldrums of prison, he found himself doubting, he asked Jesus for proof that He was the Messiah. Jesus replied, ‘Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor’” (Luke 7:22). Consider also the miracle of Jesus feeding 5,000 people, when all the disciples could do was to send them away (Mark 6:30-39).
When proving Himself to be God, he did not rely solely on preaching and teaching. Maybe we would be more effective when introducing people to Jesus if we did as He did, meeting their needs, while telling them about Jesus.
4. He Confronted Hypocrisy
Jesus demonstrated the heart of God by standing against lifeless religion. He openly confronted religious hypocrisy (Matt. 23:13-39), igniting great opposition that ultimately led to his execution.
Jesus repeatedly rebuked religious people who buried the true heart of God in their manmade traditions (Matt. 19:3-8, Luke 13:10-17). He cleansed the temple because people were using God's house for their own gain (Luke 19:45-46). What did Jesus do? He called people out when their words and behavior were out of sync. He lived with integrity and expected others to also live with integrity.
5. He Taught the Word of God
Though Jesus was Himself, the very Word of God, he brought people back to the written Word. When a religious expert asked Jesus, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus replied, "What is written in the Law?" (Luke 10:25-26). The rich young ruler asked the same question, and Jesus answered him from the Scriptures as well (Matt. 19:16-21).
People don’t need more social and moral gibberish from the pulpits in our nation. They don’t need theologians and historical revisionists expunging those things from the Biblical record or historical literature that they are uncomfortable with. Sadly, many think the Bible is nothing more than just a compilation of antiquated myths. It can be ignored, changed, expunged, and even disregarded when necessary.
The Bible is not a book that we can bring down to our level so that it can accommodate our lifestyle and makes us feel better about our sinful behaviour. Instead, the Bible is a book that compels us to live our lives according to its commands, that is of course, if we take our commitment to follow Jesus seriously.
Yes, Jesus definitely taught the Scriptures. And you can be sure, Jesus wasn’t out to win a popularity contest. Remember, His words ended up getting him crucified. I wonder how much change we would see in our churches if we would do that one thing that Jesus did more often–teach and preach the Word of God without compromise.
6. He Served Others
Service marked Jesus' life from start to finish. He served through sacrifice, putting the needs of others above his own. At the last supper, he put on a towel and washed his disciples' feet (John 13:2-17). Jesus knew his mission and articulated it clearly, saying “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and give his life a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:28) His life of service culminated at the cross, where the Son of God died to pay our spiritual debt.
We can all start today being a servant like Jesus by living out these principles found in Phil. 2: 3-5, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus.”
7. He Equipped Leaders
Finally, Jesus demonstrated God's character by equipping leaders who continued his mission and changed the world after his departure. He refused to let the ministry pressures of his day stop him from identifying and investing in the leaders of tomorrow (Matt. 10:1-4). He chose twelve men and poured his life into theirs. Wherever he went, they went. They observed him doing ministry. When needed, he taught them and explained to them what he was doing and why.
By the time his ministry on earth was over, Jesus said they would be able to “do even greater things than he had done.” (John 14:12) If you and I as Christian leaders want to leave a powerful legacy, we will do what Jesus did and equip leaders who will take our labors for Christ to levels we never achieved in our lifetimes.
Many churches have been influenced by our culture, becoming crippled in ministry effectiveness. The result has been a slow and subtle demise of biblical discipleship. Instead, churches are producing a syncretic, tolerant, lax and even muted version of what it means to be a disciple. Today’s disciple is more likely to see their priority as assimilating into today’s culture, being nice, offending no one, never mentioning their faith or taking about Jesus, while being a champion for social justice.
Christians, churches and church leaders should heed the late Dr. Billy Graham’s words: “No one would deny that the church has a prominent role to play in the social injustices of mankind, but we are in danger of putting the cart before the horse. A person’s problem is not just their environment; it is a spiritual disease called ‘sin,’ and the cure for the disease is the Gospel, which is the good news about God’s love and His provision through Christ Jesus for salvation to all who will repent and believe.
Some forms of modern evangelism are in danger of being almost totally concerned with material comforts for everyone rather than the proclamation of the ‘good news’ which they so desperately need. In short, we are dangerously near to saying to the prodigal son, ‘It is not necessary to return to your father and home–we can make you comfortable in the pigpen.”
Jesus called for people to deny themselves if they wanted to follow him. Are we training leaders for a radical change? If we are, then let’s not leave people in their pig pens of selfishness and sin but call them instead to discover the abundant life that Jesus promised them. Disciples may want to be liked and who doesn’t? But being liked isn’t a requirement to be a disciple. In fact, Jesus said we could very well be hated for following him because the world first hated him.
Have you ever wondered why Jesus just didn't grow a mega church or expand the size of a local synagogue or Herod’s temple? Wouldn’t that have been simpler? He could have taught thousands all in one place. Jesus could have just given them some positive sound bites for 20 minutes every Sabbath and continued to build his “enterprise”.
Why then did he settle instead for 12 disciples and a few women in his first church, when he could have had so many more? The answer is really quite simple: making disciples was more important than gathering crowds.
A.B. Bruce, in his book, The Training of the Twelve, underscores the importance of our Lord’s personal investment of time and energy into discipleship, "The careful, painstaking education of the disciples secured that the Teacher's influence on the world should be permanent, his Kingdom should be founded on deep indestructible convictions in the minds of few, not on the shifting sands of superficial impressions on the minds of many."
Jesus had enough vision to think small. Focusing did not limit his influence—it expanded it.
Let’s stop speculating on, What Would Jesus Do? and start doing the things he modelled for us to do. Remember, Jesus was all about doing and he expected the same from all that would follow him. That’s why he said, "Why do you call me, 'Lord, Lord,' and do not do what I say (Luke 6:46)?