Sample Book Review on Philip Yancey’s book, The Jesus I Never Knew

Almost everyone has their own cultivated and influenced vision of Jesus Christ, that ranges from being a wise rabbi to the perfect image introduced in the Sunday school. Not many people have had or have the drive to  further investigate the figure of Jesus Christ. Philip Yancey’s book, The Jesus I Never Knew, goes a step further to find who Jesus was and is really like. In its entirety, the book discovers an unpredictable, complex, disturbing and exhilarating Jesus Christ, able to transform life and faith. The book explores Yancey’s view of Jesus Christ both as a child and from a more adult and  informed perspective. It offers a new and unique view on the life of Jesus Christ and his work. The book has three major sections; Who Jesus was, Why he came, and What he left behind.

Yancey’s main objective in writing was to put together the life of Christ with the fact that those who wish to follow his path, need to adjust their lives in a big way. The title of the book is self-explanatory and states that people have grown up without knowing the actual truth of who Jesus was. Through the guide of the Bible,  Yancey strives to show Christ as whom he really was.  He tells that he grew up knowing Jesus through the stereotyped image he got from the Sunday school. Also, he admits that even after he had completed Bible College, he did not have a real picture of Jesus. The aim of this book is to look beyond the traditionally perpetuated belief about Christ, inviting believersto embrace the real facts about his life and teaching as reported through the gospels. Besides reflecting on the life of Jesus Christ, the book offers some interesting points of view on Christians life, posing as well critical questions through all the book, to help in getting a more real and better concept of Christ. In all, the book is an honest interpretation of Jesus Christ’s life and character through an analysis of Christianity most complex and difficult issues. It is a book meant to enhance our understanding of Jesus Christ.

The Jesus I Never Knew

In the first part of the book, Who Jesus Was, Yancey delves into the significance of Christ to the world. He describes how Jesus has become a central figure in history, even going to the extent of holding an allegiance of more than a third of all people on the planet: a simple Galilean that has been able to enter so deeply in all aspects of life so that “what I think about him and how I respond will determine my destiny for all eternity.”[1]Yancey is still fascinated by the influence that Jesus has had on people throughout history. He starts his journey even before Christ, quoting  Biblical characters such as Moses and Job, who questioned whether God was present. Besides the Old and New Testament, Yancey remembers his encounter with Jesus during his childhood, describing the various images of Christ he had adopted as a child and during his college days.

Most importantly, he describes the perceptions of Christ that he has developed after the rise of theology in the 1970s, a subject which has played a huge role in his life, as it made him questioning everything he previously used to think and believe about Christ. For example, the movie The Gospel According to St. Matthew, directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini, is shown to be a critical intervention in Yancey’s life because it helped him to re-evaluate the image of Jesus and his significance to the world. This is a reflection that helped the author in writing the book, given that the mystery of Jesus had overcome him for so long. He admits that a part of him wrote the book as a means to confront his own doubts about the mystery of Christ: “If only I could hear the voice from the whirlwind and, like Job, hold a conversation with God himself.”[2]  Yancey considers his doubts and wishes are  a consequence of how the image of Jesus has been muddied by different scholars in history. Even as regard the Gospel, many information about Christ seem to be omitted, such as that details of his physical appearance or family life information; also many facts about his biography are either scanty or non-existent. Yancey traces a chronological review of Christ beginning with his birth, his Jewish background, and his work on earth, clearly showing that Jesus was a Jew, despite many readers today try to separate him from his origins: the Jesus that many people may not know  had a strong Jewish background. Also, the book shows that he was just an ordinary man and even the name  Jesus was quite common. The author dwells on the fact that Jesus came to earth as a common person and yet divided attention throughout his life.

In an attempt to solve the mystery of Christ, Yancey aims to “draw Christ as deep as possible into the flesh.”[3] The humanity of Christ can be shown since it is known he was a Jew in Galilee, had a family, and a personality. Yet, he was different from any person who had lived on earth. As Yancey candidly recalls during his journey in discovering Christ, he highlights the various misconceptions about Christ’s physical appearance, his character and his interactions with the public. It is a book that is intent on questioning the preconceived notions on who Christ was and is, drawing from various sources besides the gospels, including films.

In the second part, Why he Came, Yancey focuses on the birth of Christ, his Sermon on the Mount, the Grace notion  and his miracles, his death and eventual resurrection. This is the section where the author studies Christ’s message to his followers, seeking to dispel the confusion that is often found in interpreting his teachings. First Yancey contrasts the Biblical accounts of the birth of Christ  as shown in the common  Christmas cards, noticing how the Biblical scenario carries a very different tone. The birth of Christ occurred in fact during a period of religious and political conflict, and Yancey tries to imagine what a birth such as that of Jesus would have meant to Mary within the Jewish society:  a community that was known to stone any woman bearing a child out of wedlock. This was also a period when the Palestinians were in conflict with the Roman-Greek culture; although the Jews were also waiting for a king who would lead them against the Romans, yet Jesus was adamant that he did not mean to be seen as a king, even when he declared himself the Messiah.

Yancey tries to show that Jesus Christ was accepted by Mary after an inner struggle and a possible fight with Joseph concerning the legality of the birth. This is something that still happens in the 21st century, where people are allowed to contemplate abortion whenever they are faced with an unplanned pregnancy. Yancey shows that Jesus Christ’s birth could not have been any easier than it is today because community, authority, and culture could not stand unplanned pregnancies. He even questions whether Joseph carried Mary to Bethlehem to save her face from the critical neighbourhood. However, he observes that the Christmas celebrated by Christians is “purged of any hint of scandal. Above all, we purge from it any reminder of how the story that began at Bethlehem turned out at Calvary.”[4] Not many people realize the conflict that arises with the birth of Christ, and they prefer just to make merry,  forgetting the scandal related to Jesus Christ’s birth. In this part of the book Yancey also shows that Jesus  was a tremendous force that was destined to undermine world powers. Born in a world filled with terror,  he had to become a refugee, yet, the historical status and conditions surrounding his birth were largely ignored by the coeval chroniclers, . The Christmas cards do not capture the struggle and the horror related to Herod’s Massacre of the Innocents at the time of the birth of Jesus, rather tending to depict a region covered with snow and full of symbolic pictures, such as lambs and glittering stars. Yancey goes even deeper, showing how Jesus’ birth was shrouded in trouble coming from an unsteady authority that was intent on preserving the social and world order: to maintain his status, in fact,Herod would execute people almost at will, including his wife, sons and brothers-in-law. This is a big part of Jesus’ background people do not know.

Yancey also recreates the harmony that surrounded the figure of Christ in the Gospels, yet reminding the readers of some critical details that they may take for granted. He may have chosen to stick with the traditional image of Christ, but he chose to shed an additional light on the wonder that Christ’s life and work has become a phenomenon. Furthermore, “Christmas, rhymed in carols…….. illustrated on cards, have become so familiar that it is easy to miss the message behind the facts.”[5] They do not help to bring out that Jesus, or rather God, has been so humble to introduce Christ through a teenager, hence having to face the hardship of a young family.

The book highlights that Christ’s modest birth in Bethlehem is very different from the luxurious lifestyle of most world leaders, such as Queen Elizabeth II,  when on a brief visit to another nation. This book seeks to show that God’s visit occurred in the most possible humble way and it was witnessed by the most possible humble human beings: in fact just a well assorted choice of “social misfits”  witnessed the birth of the new king, such as the shepherds, who were commonly regarded as godless. Also the foreign astrologers who went to see Christ were seen as “unclean” by the Jewish community. Jesus Christ was, therefore, a sort of friend to sinners. The book also depicts an approachable and accessible God,very far to the image the Jews were accustomed to since the time of Moses and of Ark of the Covenant. In more ways than one, the arrival of Christ on earth helped to reduce the existing distance between God and human beings. Yancey describes how Jesus came to save the downtrodden, the humble, and to bring down the great and the powerful from their thrones: God understood the plight of the oppressed, the fearful and the meaningless. Jesus himself was considered an outcast,  rejected by people who saw him as a traitor and even possessed by Satan.The significance of Christ’s interaction with Satan is also deeply analysed by Yancey, focusing on the temptations and hard times that Jesus went through because of Satan, hence showing a side of Jesus that is not always visible or given the right importance. When Jesus is led into the desert by the Holy Spirit, he is tempted after having been a long time without food.

Satan also tempts him with others acts of betrayal and earthly possessions, but Jesus did not fall for any of them: he was not a person who would take the easy way out! The timing of the temptations found Jesus when he was  most vulnerable. This suggests that Christ had a strong character even when there was no one watching, unlike most of mankind that usually choose shortcuts to greatness. Also, Yancey compares the temptations  to the human desires that want Jesus to perform miracles in order to bring success and peace to the world. Yet God shows that he does not manipulate obedience for praise and Yancey delves into this topic throughout the mission of Christ whenever the chosen Messiah has to face harsh conditions from his followers. A good part of the section Why Jesus came is dedicated to the Sermon on the Mount. The author goes in depth into the teaching of the sermon, because readers have usually just a casual and quick look at it. After having set the Sermon of Mount in the right historical context, he breaks it into simpler bits that show what Jesus meant by his teaching. The “Great Reversal” provides a glimpse of how Christ was impressed by the poor and how he has provided a new perspective on morals. Specifically, Yancey uses several religious and literary sources, including Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, to illustrate how the Sermon on the Mount shows God’s ideal and notion of Grace. Grace is absolute and inflexible, but is it for us all.   Christ’s Grace is considered an important part of pursuing perfection, although the book describes how perfection is a challenge to Christians. The part that many people do not understand is that Jesus came for the sinners, the poor and for “those who cannot make it on their own” and he did not intend to condemn.[6] Yancey makes this very clear by observing Jesus’ miracles and actions throughout his mission, and he states that “faith may produce miracles, miracles do not necessarily produce faith.”[7]

In his mission, Christ preferred not to reveal his real identity as the Messiah, rather letting people to decide by themselves by judging his actions: “a sign is not the same thing as proof; a sign is merely a marker for someone who is looking in the right direction.”[8] Often people just marvelled at the miracles, but failed to acknowledge and appreciate the one who performed them. Rather than proudly demanding proofs from God, Jesus preferred to teach and preach, as the faith in his teaching and his signs was a part of his message. Even in modern times,  God respects individuals free will. God wishes to love and be loved but does not force anyone to follow him.

Through the pages of his books, Yancey also walks”with Jesus through his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, participates to the Last Supper, suffers the betrayal and gpes all the way up to the Calvary. His point is that power leads to suffering, while love reigns over it. And this is that part where Jesus’ intervention should be clear for all readers, because he was big enough to give up power and embrace love on the cross, representing the ultimate abdication of Jesus’ earthly power in a way that proved God’s love.  God’s love is unconditional and all what Christians have to do is to accept it in their hearts and in their belief. If they believe in God’s love and resurrection, they can have hope that the world will be restored, despite all the squalor and the violence that it may have witnessed. Yet the book shows how difficult it is to believe in resurrection, despite how Christians celebrate the Easter with much conviction.  It is true that the occurrences surrounding the death and resurrection of Christ lead many to be sceptical, but Christ’s Resurrection is the epicentre of belief and every single step had to be taken precisely in that way here on Earth, in order to be significant to a believer.[9]

In the third part, What Jesus left behind, the book offers a look into the impact that the life and death of Christ should have on believers in modern days. It is in this section that Yancey states that Jesus has left humanity responsible for carrying on his message in this world, focusing as well on what followers should do after having learned about the mission of Christ. It is vital to let the believers carry on with the message and head a unique kingdom as they wait for Jesus second coming. As the Church is the institution that gather all the believers, it is upon the Church to carry on Christ’s legacy.


Yancey’s book offers a new perspective on and into the mission of Christ. It is an important report of Jesus work on earth, because many readers often tend to forget the facts of Jesus as presented in the Bible. Yancey combines both a personal and historical approach to bring out the best possible perspective on Jesus after having struggled much of his life trying to go beyond the church and Gospels traditions to find the real image of Jesus. By all means, the book is insightful and helps the readers to reflect on the real events that have surrounded Christ rather than hold on to the brightened and naive version that they have got and perpetuated since their childhood. It is a paradigm-shifting book that renews one’s view of Christ and puts him into a perspective of modernity.



Yancey, Philip.  The Jesus I never knew. Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan Pub. House, 1995.


[1]              .

[1] Philip Yancey, The Jesus I never knew (Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan Pub. House,. 1995), 17

[2]              .

[2] Ibid., 11.

[3]              .

[3] Ibid., 24.

[4]              .

[4] Ibid., 33.

[5]              .

[5] Ibid., 35.

[6]              .                               Ibid, 174.

[7]              .

[7] Ibid, 171.

[8]              .

[8] Ibid., 187.

[9]             .               [9] Ibid., 41.