Christians who have a strong belief in a divine Jesus may feel reasonably safe from the distortions, caricatures, and demeaning of him that we see among entertainers and postmodern scholars. But there are more subtle traps within the Church itself that snare many because they are set by preachers and teachers whom many trust.
You do not have to go far on television or the Internet—or perhaps in your own community—to find a Christian preacher who will tell you that Jesus wants you well and wealthy. This unorthodox version of Jesus' gospel is referred to as "prosperity theology" or the "health and wealth" gospel. There is nothing inherently wrong with being well and wealthy. But as a basis for theology, it is far from the good news of the gospel that Jesus preached.
Prosperity preachers usually have no trouble attracting a large following since they appeal to the basest of human instincts: the desire to avoid suffering (be healthy) and the desire for gratification (be wealthy).
Jesus' own life on earth is far from being an example of the health and wealth gospel. It's true that there is no record of him ever being sick. And, as the Son of God it could be argued that he had the wealth of heaven at his disposal. But when he came to earth, he emptied himself of his divine prerogatives and took upon himself "the form of a bondservant, and [came] in the likeness of men" (Philippians 2:7). He came as a humble servant, identifying with the weakness and travail of the human condition (Mark 10:45; Philippians 2:8; Hebrews 2:17-18; 4:15; 5:8).
As for wealth, Jesus said of himself, "Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head" (Matthew 8:20). Jesus came to earth as a servant and lived like a servant, unconcerned with material comfort. And his apostles lived the same way. The apostle Paul interrupted his missionary work to make tents to provide for his own livelihood (Acts 18:3). It seems that if Jesus' gospel had included wealth, He would have demonstrated that fact in his life and the lives of his apostles.
As for health, Jesus certainly reversed the effects of sickness and disease. But he did so not primarily to relieve suffering but to demonstrate the power of the kingdom of God over the kingdom of darkness (Acts 10:38). Jesus did not heal everyone who was suffering. Indeed, at one "hospital," the Pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem, he healed only one person of the many sick who gathered there (John 5:1-9).
The picture of Jesus painted by prosperity preachers bears little resemblance to the Jesus of the New Testament. I could cite other examples of how Jesus is being misrepresented in our culture. It's true that various church teachings have deviated from Scripture for two thousand years. But never in my lifetime have I seen them to be as subtle and widespread as they are today. The challenge for every Christian is to know the truth of Scripture so well that errors are immediately apparent—not if, but when, they are encountered.
We are all familiar with Muzak, or "elevator music"—the ubiquitous background music that plays in elevators, shopping malls, department stores, airports, and other venues. Muzak may be the reason a song sometimes pops unbidden into your consciousness. Because elevator music is always there, we pay little conscious attention to it, yet our subconscious minds are taking it all in.
Cultural messages can be like this background music—always on, always being absorbed into the brain, consciously or not. And religious messages—including messages about Jesus Christ—are part of that background cultural noise. If you search YouTube.com using the key word Jesus, you'll find there are approximately 2.7 million videos on the subject. Many are devoted to Bible teaching, worship, or honoring Jesus in some way. But many ridicule and abase him.