Book 3 – The Secret Message of Jesus: Uncovering the Truth that Could Change Everything

Brian McLaren observes that what American Christians put forward as Gospel (Good News) about Jesus bears little resemblance to what Jesus himself said was Good News. I believe he is right and the implications for, not just the followers of Jesus, but the whole world are profound.

If evangelists understood and embraced what he calls the Secret Message of Jesus they would tell a very different story and engage the world in very different and much more transformative ways.

In many ways The Secret Message of Jesus continues the conversation that James Choung brought us last week. Namely that the gospel according to Jesus is:

The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. (Mark 1:15 ESV)

The rest of the book articulates what this kingdom is, how it is announced, who it’s citizens are, and where it is going. Virtually every page challenged my imagination and invited me to take a fresh look at what Jesus was actually saying. I loved it!


Several phrases stuck out and are helping me reframe the message of Jesus and my own response:

1. I really like what he says about worldview (p. 77) – Not just that it is a “way of seeing,” but his advice that we are “wiser to immerse ourselves in Jesus’ worldview rather than drag him into ours.” Jesus worldview is better than ours (p. 87). The story he tells about an imaginary TV reporter in Chapter 7 is brilliant.

2. Eternal Life he says (p. 63) doesn’t refer to “life after death” burt rather “an extraordinary life to the full centered in a relationship with God.” Naturally, this sort of life would continue on and on, but the focus is on life here and now.

3. Signs and Wonders are real “touches of God’s grace” (p. 82) and serve to free us from the Tyranny of the Impossible – I LOVE that phrase! He describes the significance this way:

But when the kingdom of God comes near, when we experience it, the word impossible deconstructs. It melts and evaporates, and its tyranny over us ends. (p. 83)

He says that signs and wonders are a sign of the kingdom – namely that the King is present (at hand) working all around us from the inside.

4. The purpose of parables is to hide the message (p. 71-74). Jesus says this plainly in Mark 4:9-12

Then Jesus said, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.”

When he was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables. He told them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that,

“‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, 
and ever hearing but never understanding; 
otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’ 

Those of us in InterVarsity tend to draw attention to the danger of being an outsider, emphasizing the importance of asking questions. We say that the secret of the kingdom of God is given to those who ask questions – or maybe, ask questions of Jesus. But Brian suggests that the intention of Jesus is to hide the message in such a way that it transforms hearts.  He keeps it away from the “know-it-alls” who never ask questions and reveals it to those who have nothing but questions, i.e. children. I’m not sure this is good news for me or the people I hang out with at Harvard…

5. The Five Moves for immigration to the kingdom (Chapter 13) are brilliant:

1. Repentance – Hear from the heart and think deeply about what you hear

2. Faith – of believing, of trusting

3. Receptivity

4. Going public with repentance, faith and receptivity – Baptism

5. Learn to follow Jesus every day for the rest of your life



1. The scandal of the kingdom (p. 100) is that it needs to fail to succeed. This is a shocking idea and I’m sure he’s right. It reminds me of a talk our faculty advisor Bill Stuntz gave at the Law School a few months before his death. Bill said that God’s law is designed to fail. Spot on!

2. Brian says that it is necessary to exclude from the kingdom – namely those people who are themselves exclusive! At first glance this seems like some sort of logic problem. What he’s saying is that, if someone rejects the fundamental character of God’s inclusive kingdom, for the sake of inclusion, then they must be kept outside the territory and community. This is hard, right? I understand that he is trying to protect those who have come in for reconciliation and want to be reconcilers. At the same time, I wonder where I would be today if my inclusion depended on my satisfying some criteria of inclusiveness.

3. He doesn’t attempt to solve every theological problem around the eschatology of Jesus and some (maybe many) of my friends might be nervous about his  ideas about the future and the end times. He comes down sort of hard on “prognosticators” – and not just those who are looking for the world to end on August 22. It’s not that I have a better summary of Revelation (cf. p. 223). I mostly don’t know how he holds onto hope that the kingdom will someday come (really come) in fullness in the midst of all this realized eschatology.

4. Brian writes that the kingdom isn’t about making people nice – good news for me! – but rather to help them become secret agents of another realm. He goes on to mention a variety of jobs (including military service!) that can be engaged as agents of the kingdom. But what does this really mean? And what jobs are outside the boundaries of kingdom work? Tobacco framing? Brothel management? Partner in a hedge fund? (a friend of mine from the Business School says that today this work is outside what Jesus would approve) I believe this is an area for prayer, honest conversation, mentoring, accountability and Spirit-guided-creativity.

It is true as he said of Jesus’ secret message:

…if we take it in and manage not only to look at it but also to learn to look through it, our world and our lives will look different to us at the end of our exploration. And if that happens deeply enough for enough of us, everything could change. (p. 19).


About Jeff Barneson

Husband to Tara Edelschick Dad to Zachary, Ezra & Nafisa Keeper of Bees Campus Chaplain Bicycle Racer Coffee Drinker Follower of Jesus View all posts by Jeff Barneson

13 responses to “Book 3 – The Secret Message of Jesus: Uncovering the Truth that Could Change Everything

  • David Heitmeyer

    I liked the McLaren’s call for us to hear again and respond more fully to Jesus’s message that “the Kingdom of God is at hand.” Several of themes from the previous two books from Jeff’s summer reading list were certainly echoed in “The Secret Message of Jesus”.

    I liked MacLaren’s re-telling of a lunch conversation with a “well-known scholar and writer” (un-named) and MacLaren as a self-labeled evangelical (Chapter 11, “The Open Secret”), in which two seemingly different summaries of “what the gospel really is” are laid out. MacLaren offered up an answer along the lines of justification by grace through faith, the free gift of salvation, and Christ being the substitutionary sacrifice for our sins; to which his lunch partner responds with an answer “the kingdom of God is at hand.” We evangelicals have robbed the former of any mystery and wonder and made it into a formulaic incantation. The latter explanation offers a fuller and more open-ended answer — and, like Jesus’s parables, invites hearers into conversation, participation, and response.

    I thought a few of the latter chapters (Peaceable, Borders, Future, Harvest) dealt cursorily with some rather complex subjects. Perhaps I misread the tone of these chapters, but I came away with the impression that conclusions were being offered after brief treatments as opposed to ways of beginning to think about these subjects.

    I was disappointed in the chapter “Why Didn’t We Get It Sooner?”, in which MacClaren argues that only now are we at a special alignment in history for us to finally be able to understand the secret message of Jesus. Sure, there is the context of history and life circumstance — but I know that for myself it is sin and hard-heartedness that provides fog and darkness instead of clear understanding and vision. The fact that some of us are just now “getting it” argues not for specialness, but rather simply for slowness on our part — individually and collectively. I think the better answer to “Why Didn’t We Get It Sooner?” goes something like:

    Well, actually, “we” have gotten it all along. By “we”, I mean individuals and communities that have been following and living the way of Jesus for the past two millennia. The throngs of “us” (and this includes me) who “haven’t gotten it” or are slow at “getting it” have simply failed to recognize and embrace the kingdom of God that is in our midst. This “us” would have been in the camp of people who failed to recognize Jesus and the prophets before him. Despite the wrong thinking and the wrong deeds that have pervaded our individual and collective history, God continues to call to us and draw us in to hear and understand this secret message of Jesus.

    However, MacLaren’s “The Secret Message of Jesus” certainly compels the reader to re-evaluate their understanding of Jesus’s message and invites them into a much grander vision than many of us have settled for — thanks for the book.

  • Jeff Barneson

    Thanks David – that is a thoughtful and helpful note. I felt the same about “Why Didn’t We Get It Sooner?” Yea, it’s sin. That pretty much says it I think.

    So what is it going to take to get us unstuck?

  • Ryan Andrew Moore

    I almost don’t want to comment on this book, because as I read it for the second time, I realized that as wonderful as this book is (I’m a big fan of McLaren’s work, as you’ll see), for me it’s just a warm up for some of McLaren’s recent work. I feel like the most worthwhile takeaway from this book is starting to get us to break outside of the schema of the Bible as a sort of textbook for the universal science of Christianity (I say “universal” because apparently the Bible takes a position on everything from nuclear warfare to global warming to what types of physical contact is it OK for adolescents to give each other at what ages). Those of you who have read the book are now ready for the meat and potatoes of McLaren’s insight’s into breaking out of the Christianity of the “Greco-Roman narrative” (as he calls it) or of the Industrial Revolution (If a person says X, and believes Y in his/her heart, the result is Z… It’s like we’ve created a cotton gin of the Christian faith).
    While I haven’t yet read the book, it seems like Phyllis Tickle in “The Great Emergence” ( is also on the forefront of capturing the role of “Why we didn’t get it sooner”. Her and McLaren (more in “A New Kind of Christianity” than in this book) both are starting to look at why every generation seems to feel like “We get it now.” My perspective is that no generation truly “has it” nor will we ever have it. I think David is on the right track by saying that sin gets in the way, but I also think there’s a bigger picture which to me is one of the beautiful things about God. In the time of Abraham, God was dealing with warring, rape-sanctioning, violent gods all around Abraham. In Luther’s day, the challenges were very difference and the protestant reformation dealt with those challenges accordingly. In our day, the solutions to the problems of Luther’s day have solved some problems but created their own problems.
    The beautiful thing about God (and concordantly about Jesus) is that He speaks to our needs. Not just today I’m hungy and God feeds me, tomorrow I’m thirsty and He gives me water, but on a more societal level as well. As the 20th century brought about huge changes in the world (much as Luther’s world was changing around him), so God speaks to our current needs through Scripture. In conclusion, it’s not that “we’ve got it”, it’s just that was Luther and Saint Francis got is maybe not the same thing our society needs in the 21st century.
    Really, I’m sure I’m doing a mock-up job of thinking through the ideas of people much more intelligent than I, but if these kinds of macro-level faith issues interest you, do read the books above. McLaren’s “A New Kind of Christianity” talks about everything from why the apparently-violent God of the Old Testament was a drastic improvement over the prior conception of God held by pre-Abrahamic peoples to how to read Paul’s epistles without feeling like his good news is different from Christ’s good news to how reading the Bible as a Constitution tends to give authority to the educated and the powerful (quite the opposite of Christ’s focus on the outcasts and the weak).

    Back to “Secret Message”…my biggest takeaway from this book is McLaren’s concept of mystery, which I believe is one of the biggest things we lost in the mechanization of Christianity during the last few centuries. Sorry, Wayne Grudem, 10 years ago I thought it was so “cool” that there existed 1264 pages of Systematic Theology ( which answer everything there is to know about God as if God were the newest version of Adobe and we need to make sure we can use all of God’s features correctly. Sadly (or fortunately), Jesus didn’t have the intention of giving us all the answers, as we see even to the disciples on the “inside” not getting easy answers from Jesus.
    I take away from this book that one of the greatest commands of Jesus is to SEEK, which McLaren concludes is the reason Jesus seems not to give us all the answers. He wants us to keep at it, keep searching, keep SEEKING his (Peaceful) Kingdom and all the rest will be given to you.
    In accordance with Jeff’s rules of style:
    McLaren’s focus on language. Particularly his focus on how reading the Bible at face value (linguistically speaking) may often lead us down the wrong road entirely. I liked his alternative metaphor for the Kingdom of God:
    1. The dream of God
    2. The revolution of God
    3. The mission of God
    4. The party of God
    5. The network of God
    6. The dance of God

    I think it was in “Everything Must Change” that he comes up with “God’s counterinsurgency”, which I thought was extremely clever.
    Anyways, I think McLaren’s the ideal person to get at this aspect of our faith as a former Pastor and English professor. Speaking of metaphors, I often use the metaphor of Shakespeare for how we read the Bible. How many of us would pick up a modern translation of Shakespeare, read through it and say we understand Shakespeare Elizabethan sensibilities and double entendres. Of course not, which is why I think it’s dangerous to do the same with the Bible. Don’t get me wrong, just as picking up Shakespeare, even in translation, is still a worthwhile venture, reading the Bible teaches us much more than Shakespeare ever could, but I think we have have to be careful about giving ourselves the authority to quote a passage with a rotund smile on our face, saying “Well, I’m glad I understand God’s position on ______, now. I guess I can’t be friends with So-and-So anymore.” Again, don’t get me wrong, I don’t know Greek or Hebrew, but again, that’s ok because Christ is seemingly OK with a little ambiguity and a dose of mystery. We don’t have to boil Scripture down into a formula with which all of life makes perfect sense.
    McLaren has touched on this at some point, but I’m not sure what the logical extreme is to some of this new ways of seeing the gospel. If it’s not a formulaic approach to the gospel anymore (one way of breaking down powers and authorities, in Paul’s words), what’s the endgame? Or is there an endgame? Do we have to go down the road of “I think” and “I feel” or does it end up back in the systematic theology realm, just with new theologians writing the texts.

    Sorry, Jeff and all, for the soapbox treatment, but I’d love to hear your pushback on my rather verbose treatment of emergent theology. And, Jeff, if the very busy Brian McLaren comments on this post, you’re on a roll…can you make it three for three?

  • Jessica

    This is really interesting. I generally like MacLauren, although at times he goes a bit far even for me. The realized eschatology makes me a bit nervous — reminds me of after my brother died, and we had a pastor who was very into that angle and preached about how we we actually living in heaven now. My dad came home Sad and frustrated, and said something along the lines of “if this is heaven, it’s not much of one.”. I’m enough of a charismatic to fully embrace the ways in which we are in the “already” but there is certainly a lot of “not yet.”. Btw, thanks for posting the Stuntz link. I hadn’t seen that yet. What an amazing role model. I really miss him. It still makes me cry. (although I can hear him replying, “now, don’t cry for me”)….

  • Brian McLaren

    Hey Jeff – thanks for the thoughtful read! All the things you identified as needing more thought constantly require more thought from me as well. Especially the issue of eschatology. There are few subjects that are less easy to get all the loose ends tied up on. (The ungainly syntax of that sentence sort of makes the point.)

    And David – thanks for your comment on “why didn’t we get it sooner.” I could have said that it’s simply sin … but that would imply (to some, at least) that those of us who are beginning to “get” the gospel of the kingdom are in some way less sinful than our forbears in the faith.

    By identifying the historical advantages that we have at this moment, I’m able to tell what I perceive to be the truth: we’re no better than our forbears – we’re just as sinful and dull – but the “secret” of the kingdom is able to break through, at least a little, even to us, through no virtue of our own.

    Also – you’re absolutely right: I felt I needed to address, even cursorily, some topics that deserve so much more in-depth treatment. I chose what I perceived to the be lesser of three evils: 1) fail to address the issues at all, 2) address them in a more thorough way that would have made the book too long for most people to read, or 3) split the difference.

    So glad this book is proving helpful … and so glad to see it being read with James Choung’s and Carl Medearis’ books.

  • Jessica

    And now I see that the author was actually posting at the same time as me! How cool! I’m looking forward to reading your book, Brian — I really enjoyed more Ready than You Realize, and it meant a lot to me when I read it several years ago.

  • Helen

    What a great discussion! And refreshing to see such respectful discussion going on…Such a rare thing these days on these types of forums. I have enjoyed reading everyone’s thoughts.

    I must confess that I have not read all of Secret Message of Jesus yet. I was in the middle of it and then got sucked into Generous Orthodoxy and New Kind of Christianity – both of which rocked my face off. Much confirmation for me in both about things Papa has been teaching me in my journey — The Kingdom is sooo much bigger than paradigms, doctrines, etc, the beauty of signs and wonders and the liberating understanding that I am free to discover the Bible in a way that is different from my conservative evangelical background (a stream that I still follow in some ways but diverge from in others).

    I have to agree that eschatology is probably the trickiest topic to grasp. I have never felt comfortable with the Left Behind worldview and finally just decided that I would leave that all up to God to work out…My job is to love Jesus, people, and creation – to be a vessel of light and grace wherever I go. It is very true that one’s eschatology informs how one lives today. If I believe Jesus is coming ‘very soon’ to swoop down and take all us believers away, I’m probably not going to do much about the suffering in the world today other than try to save souls for the ‘great evacuation.’ I am with Jessica in that I think I lean more into the ‘already and not yet’ camp. The Kingdom is available right now to anyone who wants it- but will everyone ever, all at the same time, ‘get it’ and ‘live it’? I think at some point Papa will have to do something else on His end to secure that…But then what happens? Does everyone in the new heaven and earth just become incapable of failing and starting it all over again? How would that happen? Deep questions for sure!

    Side note – if anyone has any interest in exploring what it means to read the Bible as a ‘Community Library’ rather than a constitution (as Brian suggests in ANKOC), feel free to join a few of us on the Facebook page called “Fresh Eyes” ….


  • John Murphy

    I wonder how much Mr. McLaren’s “realized eschatology” is shaped more by the culture in which he lives than the Scriptures. It is all fine and well to focus on the kingdom of heaven is now in Canada/America/21st century, I suspect that his eschatology would be radically different if he were living in North Korea or Iran, or if he happened to be a slave in the south prior to 1865. We live in an unprecedented epoch in the history of Christianity, perhaps its not unusual that he might theorize about an unprecedented eschatology, that seems in places at odds with both Christ’s and Paul’s eschatology.


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