A Book Review from Books At a Glance
By Ryan Kucera
Summary of Content
Robert Murray M’Cheyne famously said, “For every look at yourself, take ten looks at Christ.” In Surprised by Jesus, Dane Ortlund takes four distinct looks at Christ, each from the vantage point of a particular Gospel. Ortlund points out that many Christians try to domesticate Jesus and conform him to their own image as opposed to letting the Jesus of the Bible conform them to his image (15). Following Jesus through the four gospels leads to the conclusion that he is surprising. “His coming fulfilled ancient prophecies but not expectations. He shattered expectations” (15).
The book is comprised of four major sections, each of which is devoted to a particular gospel account. The chapters focus on individual passages that serve as a sort of window into the whole Gospel account. Part one focuses on the surprise of disobedient obedience in Matthew. Part two covers the surprise of the king as a criminal in Mark. Part three looks at Jesus through the lens of Luke’s gospel, with the surprise of outsiders as insiders. Finally, part four examines the surprise of the Creator as a creature in the gospel of John.
In Matthew, Ortlund highlights Jesus’ teaching on life in the kingdom of God (specifically Matthew 19-20). The great surprise of Matthew is that participation in God’s kingdom is not found in “qualifying ourselves for it, but frankly acknowledging our disqualification—a disqualification that manifests itself not only in rule-breaking, but also in rule-keeping” (26). This was both shocking and infuriating for the Pharisees. They simply could not grasp that “keeping the rules no more extinguishes the sin in our hearts than buckets of gasoline extinguish the flames in our fireplace” (26).
Ortlund walks through four passages in Matthew 19-20: the disciples’ reaction to the children coming to Jesus, the story of the rich young man, the wrong assumptions of Peter and his friends, and the story of the laborers in the vineyard. While all important, Ortlund’s analysis of the rich young man is perhaps the most powerful. He uses the account of the rich young ruler to demonstrate that morality cannot be managed. Jesus is after far more than that. By calling the young man to sell all he has, “Jesus goes straight to the core of the young man’s deepest affection: financial security…and, sadly, like a child suffering from an irritating rash who prefers scratching to a healing steroid, the young man prefers the idol—and goes away sorrowful” (32). Jesus is after the young man’s heart. It was counterintuitive to people in Jesus’ day—and because of our propensity to prop ourselves up and earn our way, it’s counterintuitive to us. Through Christ’s death and resurrection, “our obedience can be compensated not by receiving his efforts in his self-emptying faith. If we try to use our obedience as some sort of compensation, it becomes disobedience” (64).
Part two focuses on Jesus’ counterintuitive mission in the gospel of Mark. Here we see the surprise of the king as a criminal, “or as Jonathan Edwards put it, the lion being treated like a sacrificial lamb” (70). Ortlund points out the first half of Mark’s gospel shows us Jesus as the regal Son of Man which culminates in Peter declaring to Jesus, “You are the Christ” (Mark 8:29). But from this point on, the second half of Mark shows us “Jesus increasingly hurtling towards the fate of a criminal” (71). The disciples will soon find out that Jesus is not the king they thought he was. They expected a powerful king to overthrow Rome, but they come to find out Jesus is a suffering, servant king.
Ortlund concludes this section by highlighting the reality that the Christian life is a bit of a microcosm of Jesus’ life and mission in Mark. Glory comes to Jesus through the cross—and, in a similar vein, glory comes to Christians through a willingness to embrace brokenness and suffering.
Part three looks at Jesus through the lens of Luke’s gospel, with the surprise of outsiders as insiders. Ortlund plays off C.S. Lewis’ language of an “inner ring” to describe our innate desire as relational beings to be included, to be in the know, and to know the right people. Jesus, however, turns the ring inside out. The Jews—who should be the insiders—are replaced by the socially marginalized Gentiles, who are anything but insiders. It is a great inversion. Jesus reserves some of his harshest rebukes for the Pharisees while showing unsurpassed mercy to tax collectors, prostitutes, Samaritans, and Gentiles (116).
Finally, part four examines the surprise of the Creator as a creature in the gospel of John. Here, we find Jesus’ identity is counterintuitive. John describes Jesus as “the Word” through which everything was made (John 1:3). But this same “Word” took on skin and lived among us (v. 14). For “the one who molded the clay became an earthen vessel. The Author of history wrote himself into the story” (152). Ortlund notes that in the end, the tragedy of John’s narrative is God’s creation rejecting its own Creator” (146).
Evaluation of Content
Anyone who may have found the structure of Ortlund’s Gentle and Lowly a bit hard to follow (that book contains twenty-three short chapters with no major divisions) will find the structure of Surprised by Jesus helpful and balanced. Ortlund mentions in his preface that the content of the book was birthed out of a class he taught at church. He does a remarkable job transposing that teaching onto the written page. Ortlund’s argument is clear and well-supported through Scripture, biblical scholars, and some of the greats of church history.
With that said, my only critique is in reference to Ortlund’s volume of quotations and number of sources cited. Ortlund says in his preface that this book is primarily aimed at everyday believers—not Christian leaders or the academy. I am not sure that everyday Christians with little theological acumen will appreciate the number of footnotes (134 total) as much as seminarians and pastors—especially in a book comprised of only 144 pages. By no means do I want to imply that the average person in the pew can’t handle deep theology, but I do wonder if lesser-educated, run-of-the-mill church attenders would find this book as accessible as Ortlund desires it to be. It’s clear Ortlund strove to put “the cookies on the shelf” so to speak, but I’m not sure how low that shelf will actually be for some. Nevertheless, Ortlund has the heart of a pastor, and it’s clear throughout the book that he wants men and women to be astonished by Jesus as they trace his life through the four gospels.
I loved Surprised by Jesus and heartily commend it. For me personally, this was one of the first books I read since the passing of Tim Keller. Soaking in a work that was laser focused on the grace of Jesus was refreshing, and, in some sense, reminded me of Keller. Avoid the temptation to rush through it. Linger long enough to take four distinct looks at the Savior, and by God’s grace, it may change the way you view yourself and the people around you.
Buy the books
SURPRISED BY JESUS: SUBVERSIVE GRACE IN THE FOUR GOSPELS, by Dane Ortlund