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Spirit of Grace Ministries
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Jesus, Man of Controversy

Jesus challenged

by Dennis Pollock

Often our concept of Jesus is based more upon what we suppose Him to be rather than what we have seen of Him in the Scriptures. For example, because we know that Jesus is God's gift of love and because we have seen so many paintings of Him with a lamb around His neck, we suppose Jesus to be the most gentle, the most mild, the least-offensive person who ever lived. Surely He never became angry, never engaged in arguments, and would never speak critically of anyone!

We need to look a little more closely at the Scriptures. Clearly Jesus was an expression of the love of God, and He constantly reached out with compassion to individuals other religious leaders would never touch. But He could also be exceedingly fierce in His defense of God's truth, and seemed not the least bit reticent to label certain people with words not particularly complimentary. And strangely, Jesus argued. We might think arguing to be something far below our Lord, but the Scriptures reveal that Jesus got into some pretty strong arguments with the religious leaders of Israel. When He was submitting to the cross, Jesus, like a lamb "opened not His mouth," as the prophecy declares, but earlier, during His ministry and discussions with the Pharisees, scribes, and others, He opened His mouth plenty. In fact His fearless labeling of Israel's religious elites as hypocrites and fools paved the way for His arrest and crucifixion.

It is important that we see this side of Jesus, lest we come to the wrong conclusions about how His life is to be expressed in His people. Some Christians have incorrectly assumed that inoffensiveness is the ultimate goal of Christianity, and in trying to shape their lives in such a fashion they have blunted the piercing ability of the word of God. Being nice is a fine general objective, but it is never the final goal. The revelation of Jesus Christ through us is our aim, the Jesus who can be both stern and tender, both gentle and forceful, whose eyes can sometimes reflect pools of compassion and other times resemble flames of fire.

Clashes with Jewish Leaders in John

In the gospel of John we are given several instances of very forceful clashes between Jesus and the Jewish leaders. In chapter 5, the religious leaders became upset because Jesus healed a lame man on the Sabbath. Jesus defended Himself by saying, "My Father is working until now, and I am working" (John 5:17). Calling God His Father enraged His critics even more, and they were determined to kill Him. Jesus could have slunk away, or perhaps apologized for breaking protocol, but instead He addressed His critics with words that were guaranteed to make them hate Him even more. In His blunt and forceful accusatory response, He declared the following:

  1. You do not have his word abiding in you, for you do not believe the one whom he has sent. (John 5:38)
  2. I know that you do not have the love of God within you. (John 5:42)
  3. How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God? (John 5:44)


Ecclesiastes tells us that there is a time and a season for everything, and the Son of God determined this was not the time or the season for gentle words and kindly expressions. These hard-hearted religious experts were blocking multitudes from entering the kingdom of heaven, and the Messiah of Israel was not at all happy about it!

Another clash is recorded in the eighth chapter of John. Here the Pharisees accused Jesus of bearing witness of Himself. Again Jesus could have let the remark pass or tried to gently placate His critics. But this He will not do, and instead wades into the debate with holy indignation. Some of His charges in the interchange that follows are these:

  1. You know neither me nor my Father. If you knew me, you would know my Father also. (John 8:19)
  2. You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father's desires. (John 8:44)
  3. Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God. (John 8:47)
  4. If I were to say that I do not know Him (God the Father), I would be a liar like you. (John 8:55)


Pharisees & JesusCalling men sons of the devil, telling them that they don't know God or hear His words, and calling them liars… These are not the kinds of expressions we would expect to hear from the One who tells us "I am gentle and lowly in heart." But Jesus is just as much Jesus when He is blasting the haughty Pharisees as when He is healing the lame or forgiving the adulteress. In Matthew 23 Jesus devotes an entire sermon to the wickedness of the Pharisees, and says, "You travel land and sea to win one proselyte, and when he is won, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves" (Matthew 23:15). As He progresses from one indictment to another, He calls them hypocrites, blind, fools, whitewashed tombs, and a brood of vipers.

Rebuking His Own

Many Christians and even non-Christians who know a little about the Bible have become immune to this tough side of Jesus due to the fact that most of His accusatory words were leveled at the religious leaders of Israel. Their thought is: "None of this applies to me. Since I live in Memphis, or New York City, or Houston, and since I make no claims of being a religious leader, I can count on a free pass from Jesus." However there is a place in the Scriptures where Jesus deals with His people, the church, and where He is also forceful, blunt, and critical. That place is found in the second and third chapters of the book of Revelation, in the letters Jesus dictates to the churches through the apostle John. Here Jesus addresses seven different churches, giving commendations and criticisms as were necessary. He does encourage the churches with comforting words, promising eternal rewards and consolations for those who overcome. But Jesus is also not the least bit timid about criticizing His people for their sins and foolishness, including the following:

  1. Therefore, remember from what high state you have fallen and repent! Do the deeds you did at the first; if not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place – that is, if you do not repent. (Revelation 2:5)
  2. Therefore, repent! If not, I will come against you quickly and make war against those people with the sword of my mouth. (Revelation 2:16)
  3. If you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will never know at what hour I will come against you. (Revelation 3:3)

Jesus, the Prophet

It seems beyond dispute that Jesus did not consider it His mission to make everyone happy, and offend nobody. Indeed many have been offended by His words and ministry, both in the gospel accounts and even to this day. The truths that poured forth from His eloquent lips could be comforting or scorching, encouraging or fearful, depending upon the state of your soul. He did not come to tell men and women that we have nothing to fear from God – and that God thinks we are all terrific. Jesus' words were more like vegetables and steaks than jelly doughnuts and cotton candy. His words were life-giving, encouraging, and comforting – but they also had "bite" to them, and made no allowances for the hypocrites and those who refused to give up their sins.

In speaking as He did, Jesus followed in the path of the prophets who had gone before Him. These firebrands and spokesmen for the God of Israel did not mince words. Isaiah's writings are barely begun when he blasts his people of Israel, saying: "Ah, sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, offspring of evildoers, children who deal corruptly! They have forsaken the LORD, they have despised the Holy One of Israel, they are utterly estranged…" (Isaiah 1:4). Early in the writings of Jeremiah we read: "For my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water" (Jeremiah 2:13). As a result of their painfully blunt preaching, many if not most of the prophets suffered persecution, beatings, ridicule, and sometimes martyrdom. These things were occupational hazards endured for the privilege of being a spokesman for the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Is this of any relevance to Christians today? It surely is. As ambassadors for Christ and oracles of the most high God, we have a duty to represent our God faithfully. It is incumbent upon us to so study the words and life of Jesus that we will be forceful when He would be forceful, and tender when He would be tender. We must not go about offering jelly doughnuts to a world desperately in need of vegetables and meat. Telling broken and hurting people that "God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life" may be just what they need to hear, but saying the same thing to the mockers and scorners is probably not going to move them. Sometimes the message they need to hear may sound more like, "Be saved from this perverse generation" (Acts 2:40).

Preparing the Way

construction dynamite

When road builders are clearing the wilderness for an expressway, they sometimes must dislodge huge boulders, uproot enormous trees, and cut through tons of dirt. They cannot possibly do this using small little shovels and pocketknives. Their job requires dynamite, and setting off controlled explosions in various areas. The dynamite is noisy, loud, messy, and can be dangerous if mishandled. Still if a road is to be built it must be used. The status quo, with its boulders, mounds of earth, and large trees is entirely unacceptable. Change must occur or a road will never be built. And that change requires force and the use of means that would be inappropriate in most other situations. But in this case dynamite is exactly what is called for, and it does its job masterfully.

In our wicked world, we delude ourselves if we suppose that we can turn hard-hearted sinners and mockers into Christians without a little spiritual dynamite and the use of anointed, forceful arguments and words that might not always sound pleasant. The status quo must be changed. As the church reflects the nature, the character, and the Spirit of Jesus Christ, there will be times when we must, like our Master, speak out against the depravity of our world. There may be occasions when we must even debate, dispute, and argue for the truth of Christ. If we fancy ourselves too refined or too holy for such disputes we place ourselves above Jesus, who was willing to vigorously defend the truth, even when it would have been easier and seen as more dignified to simply ignore His critics. We will be called haters, bigots, and fundamentalists when we declare that "the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God."Still we must speak for God's truth.

And if this is true for Christians in general, how much more true is it for pastors and Christian ministers. As with Jesus, and as with the prophets before Him and the apostles after Him, those called to ministry dare not blunt the word of God or dilute it until it becomes offensive to no one. An inoffensive gospel is a powerless gospel. A gospel that does not confront the ungodly will be unlikely to change the ungodly. Pastors and ministers who make it their goal to be popular with all and to offend none will do little more than draw a crowd. Certainly God gives no points for being obnoxious, but neither does He bring about lasting transformation through ministers who do not have the courage to speak the whole truth.

The apostle Paul serves as a perfect example of this. Paul could be incredibly tender and comforting, writing that neither "height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 8:39). But he could also be tough, telling the believers not to even eat with someone calling themselves a Christian but living in sexual immorality (1 Corinthians 5:11). Let us read and reread the Scriptures and the gospels again and again until we gain a sense of the very nature of our Lord – His ways, His words, His attitudes, His values. And then, out of the abundance of our hearts, our mouths will speak.

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