Jesus had just delivered what we now refer to as the Bread of Life discourse. The conclusion was, “Whoever eats my body and drinks my blood has eternal life” (John 6:54). Many of his followers found this offensive and questioned if anyone could accept it. Jesus response was not to restate his point in softer language but to give them what one might call a you-haven’t-seen-anything-yet answer. If his teaching on the bread of life was offensive, then how would they handle his ascension into heaven (John 6:62). He added that some of them didn’t really believe and it was because the Father had not made it possible. At this point many of his so-called followers abandoned him.
What does this tell us about Jesus that is relevant to how his followers today should conduct themselves? One thing is that he would not bend the truth in order to gain or maintain a following. Perhaps the greatest weakness of the contemporary church is its willingness to adjust the message (at least, the way it is presented) with the hope of gaining numbers. That would have been foreign to Jesus. I believe he would applaud Justice Scalia who counseled, “Have the courage to have your wisdom regarded as stupidity. Be fools for Christ. And have the courage to suffer the contempt of the sophisticated world.”
Jesus’ reaction to his followers taking offense was not to find a way to bridge the gap caused by truth. While his apparent lack of concern at the moment could be questioned by some, there comes a time when we simply hold truth to be true. I am not suggesting a belligerent defense but a simple acceptance of the fact that truth by its nature rules out falsehood. Could that be embarrassing? Certainly. Could it separate? Yes, but that appears to be acceptable as long as it isn’t the result of an unwise and contentious defense. When it comes to proclaiming what God has done in Christ for sinners, it is the same as it has always been — tell the story openly, clearly, confident that it is now God’s responsibility to speak to the heart of listeners. No one is brought to Christ because of what we do. Our role is to proclaim the message; it is God who draws sinners home. I believe this is the model Jesus left for us.
My reason for writing these columns about Jesus is to learn how he related to the many different events that filled his days. I want to spend more time watching how he lived out his life day by day. Perhaps the most effective way to learn how to live as he lived is to pay a bit more attention to him in action.
In Matthew 15 we have the story of Jesus feeding the 4,000. What impresses me is the way Jesus continued to take the initiative. He called his disciples together, he expressed sorrow for the plight of those needing food, he asked his disciples about available loaves and fish, he told the crowd to sit down, he took the little they had, he gave thanks, he broke the bread into pieces and gave it to the disciples to be distributed. Jesus was the one definitely in charge. Had he not taken the initiative it would have been quite a different story. What can we learn from the way Jesus responded to a crowd away from home and hungry?
One thing is that we are to be acutely aware of the needs of others. The developing problem may have passed through the minds of several of the disciples but since the answer wasn’t obvious it was dismissed. They supported their inaction arguing that (1) they were in a desolate place, and (2) there was no way to get any food. (Never mind that just a short time before they watched Jesus turning five loaves of bread and two little fish into enough food to feed 5,000 men, to say nothing of the women and children who would have been there.)
That Jesus assumed leadership in this situation strikes me as important. Over the years I have tended to think of him more as responding to need than initiating action. I had the feeling that he was there to do the right thing rather than to trigger action. Obviously there needs to be a balance but at least on this occasion if Jesus hadn’t taken the initiative the 4,000 would have gone away hungry.
What the account suggests is that living like Jesus did requires us to be increasingly aware of the needs of others and how they can be met. It is all part of the life-long reversal of self-concern that must be taking place in the heart of every true believer. One problem with self-absorption is that it blinds us to the needs of others. To be like Jesus is to get over self and step up to the challenge of caring for the other. That’s what Jesus did from his first day of public ministry all the way to that last day on the cross. And it is what we do as well if we are following him.
In the story of the healing of the deaf mute (Matt 15) we can’t help but notice the difference between what was important for Jesus and what interested the crowd. Jesus had gone from the seacoast to the hill country in order to teach the crowds. They, however, were more interested in his power to heal. So they brought to him all who were in need of physical healing. His major concern was to inform the mind and heart — theirs was to heal the body.
One person they brought to Jesus was a man who could neither hear nor speak. When it came time to heal him, Jesus he took man away from the crowd. The people swarmed after him anyway. As soon as the deaf mute was cured Jesus told the crowd not to tell anyone about what had happened. They paid no attention and began to spread the news everywhere.
What we see here are two distinct priorities. Jesus wanted to teach; they wanted him to heal. Jesus wanted to be alone with the deaf mute; they wanted to watch a healing. Jesus wanted them not to tell others about what he had done; they did it anyway. There is no question but that their concerns were different from those of Jesus.
What does this suggest about living a Christ-like life? One thing is the importance of maintaining focus on that which is of eternal importance. It’s wonderful that the poor man was cured so that for the remaining years he could hear and speak. That was a concern for Jesus. But think of the eternal consequences of hearing and accepting the good news that the kingdom of God had come! The prospect of such a magnificent reality was a higher priority for Jesus.
But why did Jesus insist that the crowd not tell others what had happened? The answer is that he did not want his healing ministry to be considered as the focus of his ministry. People are naturally attracted to the sensational. There may be a warning here for the prominent role of the highly stimulating in today’s worship service. It is scripture that must continue absolutely central and not be side-lined by that which is best understood as supportive. Both/and is good theory but the balance tends to shift quite regularly away from what is truly important.
Mark 7:24-30 tells the story of Jesus as he travels north out of Galilee into the seacoast area of Tyre and Sidon. The text tells us that he did not want anyone to know where he was staying. Exactly why we don’t know. Perhaps for a time of rest or perhaps because God the Father had planned that he meet a certain Syrophoenician woman whose daughter was demon possessed. In any case, when she rushed to him pleading mercy for her daughter, he “gave her no answer, not a single word.” A most unsuspected response for the one who had been spending so much time and energy doing that very thing.
The disciples, disturbed by the woman and the racket she was making asked Jesus to get rid of her. He, however, turning to the woman explained that he had come to “help the lost sheep of Israel and no one else.” She paid no attention but fell at his feet and begged him to drive the evil spirit out of her daughter. Once again Jesus explained that his priority was to feed his own children, the Jews. He said, “It wouldn’t be fair to take their bread and throw it to the dogs, the Gentiles.”
Ouch! But she came back with, “But even the little dogs get to eat the scraps that fall from their master’s table.” Jesus couldn’t help but respond to her remarkable faith, so he told her to return home where she would find her daughter healed. An unusual encounter! What can we possibly see in Jesus’ actions and attitude that would help us to live a more Christ-like life?
What stands out for me is how focused Jesus was on his primary responsibility, that is, to tell his own people of the coming kingdom. Mark 1:5 records the first words of Jesus as he began his ministry — “The time has come. The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news.” Yet at the close of the story he acknowledged the “even the Gentiles” get to eat the scraps that fall from the table. Here we see the importance of maintaining focus while not neglecting the needs of others. Granted, that is hard to apply in life today. Obviously we know that our major responsibility as believers is to spread the message of salvation around the world (Matt 28:19). What we can learn from Jesus’ encounter with the Syrophoenician woman is that in this task we are not to overlook the practical needs of others along the way.
The question I keep asking myself is whether Jesus was as reserved and soft-spoken as we customarily think of him. The common view has Jesus mingling with the crowds, healing the sick and telling simple stories about how we are to live. And he did that. Wherever he went the crowds gathered to hear what he had to say, bringing their loved ones for healing. But is that all? Lets think about that for a moment. Perhaps the text will provide a clearer picture of his life among us? I’d like you to consider his encounter with the religious leaders as recorded in Matthew 15 and Mark 7. (Quotes are from my Jesus in His Own Words).
One day some Pharisees and other religious authorities came to where Jesus was teaching. They noticed that his disciples had not washed their hands in the accepted ceremonially manner. One might expect that Jesus would quietly explain to them that people are not defiled from the outside, but from that which lies within. And he did, but not exactly in that reserved manner. He said, and I think he spoke with emphasis, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites . . . you honor me with your lips but your hearts are far from me” (Matt 15:7). Does this not expand the customary view of how Jesus related to others? It’s safe to say that it certainly raised the ire of the Jewish fundamentalists who were the targets of his criticism. The gentleness and humility that marked the life of Jesus (cf. Matt 11:12-29) did not rule out the use of stronger language when appropriate.
Immediately following this the disciples went to him and asked for an explanation of what he meant by being defiled from within. I have to think that the encounter with those he called hypocrites was still very much with him. In answer to the disciples’ query he retorted, “Are you as dull as the others?” The words he chose reveal how he felt, do they not?
So what does his reaction in both of these settings infer about how we should live a Christ-like life? One thing, it encourages us to think of Jesus as more “human,” than we normally do. Someday I really do want to hear Jesus laugh. I’m sure he did every time Peter came up with a new fish story. Why does goodness always have to be so saintly? We know that Jesus was fully God but he was also fully human; he was “tempted in every way just as we are — yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). I believe that regarding Jesus as one of us does not diminish his divinity in any way but encourages us to embrace how completely human he was. I believe Jesus wants us to celebrate what it means to be a redeemed human being. Plaster of Paris Christianity has attracted very few to the faith.
The disciples had just returned from a long and arduous trip proclaiming the good news that Jesus had entrusted to them. The days were so full that they hardly had enough time to eat. So, what was Jesus response? “Being a missionary preacher is tough work, so buck up!” Well, not exactly. What he said is recorded in Mark 6:31 — “Obviously they were tired so I encouraged them to join me in a quiet place where they could rest.”
What strikes me here is the importance of common sense not only in the ordinary issues of life but in the more important as well. There was nothing more important than telling the people throughout Galilee that God’s kingdom was breaking in. It was crucial that they learn about it so doesn’t that mean that every last ounce of energy and every remaining moment be used to spread the message? So we might think and in the contemporary world we would work at it all the harder (and probably solicit donations as well.) But Jesus suggested that they find a quiet place and take a rest.
So what does this suggest about how we are to carry out our responsibilities as ambassadors for Christ? One thing that Jesus’ recommendation suggests is that God’s kingdom doesn’t depend in an ultimate sense on how diligently we carry out our part of the task. Hard work pays off in earthly pursuits because as a general rule everything depends on us. Spend three or four extra hours on the job and we will earn more. Use ever evening and every vacation working on “your book” and your fellow academicians will praise you for your contribution to knowledge in the field. Preach hard every day of the week and . . . . here it seems to break down because no longer does everything depend on our hard work. Along with Paul we plant the seed but it is God that makes it grow (1 Corin. 3:6). Jesus was pleased with the disciples’ work but more effort wasn’t the key to success. It was God stepping in and making their seeds grow. He knows that our enthusiastic involvement is not the key when it comes to matters of the spirit.
Interestingly enough, as they sailed away to the quiet place, the crowd got there first. When Jesus saw them “his heart went out to them . . . they were like sheep without a shepherd” (Mark 6:34). So the day was spent in teaching and healing and then at the end of the day Jesus fed 5,000 with nothing but five loaves and two fish. Sometimes the quiet time has to be postponed but let it be Jesus who makes the recommendation.
One day when Jesus was teaching, his mother and brothers arrived but were unable to work their way through the crowd to get to him. So they sent a message asking him to come out where they could speak to him (Mark 3:31ff). ()Shortly before this they had heard about the large crowds he was attracting so they had tried to bring him home thinking that he was out of his mind (vs. 21). Getting the message, Jesus asked rhetorically, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Then looking around and pointing to his disciples he said, “Look, these are my mother and my brothers” and added that whoever did the will of God was his brother, sister, or mother (vs. 35).
The question that arises is Jesus’ apparent indifference to his own blood family. Of all people one would think that Jesus would have been more sensitive to the mother that had nurtured him and the siblings that had grown up at his side. Here, once again, it will be helpful to pay attention to context. Jesus had very recently chosen the Twelve to be with him and become bearers of the message of the coming kingdom. Wherever Jesus went, he was surrounded by large crowds. Using simple stories taken from everyday life he taught them about the ways of God and how to live in a world that had had gone astray. When he wasn’t teaching he was healing. The lame and the blind along with the demon possessed came for his healing touch and went away cured. These highly personal experiences emphasize the oneness that existed in the growing family of God. It was without rebuke that he could look into the faces of his listeners and pronounce them family — his mother, his sister, his brothers.
Although we have no way of looking into the mind of Jesus it is not difficult to imagine how this new family of believers was of increasing importance. In life, a second love in no way disparages the first. That Jesus was a member of this new spiritual family in no way diminishe his love for his earthly family. That he was a loving son is clear from his words to his mother from the cross, “Mother dear, John is now your son” and to his beloved disciple, “My mother Mary is now your mother.“ (John 19:26-27)
The point of this for those who are part of the family of God is that we are to honor and care for one another as members of the great family of God extending through time. We are all brothers and sisters, parents and children. God would have us live together as a family in the bond of Christian love. Yes, God himself is our father and Jesus is our brother. The bond cannot be broken
In an earlier blog I wrote that on one occasion Jesus left Jerusalem for Lake Galilee because his life was being threatened by the religious establishment. In contrast to the clerics who were set on putting him to death, Jesus appeared to be a calm and gentle man.
However, we also know that on occasion his anger could rise. This is clear in Matthew 12 when he denounced the religious leaders who claimed that he had an “unclean” (read “Satanic”) spirit. He rebuked them, “You brood of vipers! How can you say anything good since you are evil?” (vs. 34). To call leaders of the religious elite “vipers” would be to castigate them in the worst possible way. But Jesus was angry. The sacred tradition, which he had been taught to honor and respect, was being violated by the very ones charged to teach it. In the following verse Jesus says that they are evil and will have to answer for every thoughtless word they have spoken.
Since believers have always been urged to live Christ-like lives, does not Jesus’ response on this occasion allow us to become angry? Does it not suggest that where Christian truth is being distorted anger is permissible? That is what Jesus did. The rebuttal that pops to mind is that Jesus also walked on water, so why shouldn’t we follow his example at this point? The answer, of course, is that we are not Jesus. While our lives cannot duplicate his in some precise way we are to allow his indwelling presence to transform us to be like him. Sanctification (the biblical word for becoming more like Jesus) is a life-long process not an instantaneous reversal of all we are as children of Adam.
Yes, there are times when Christians should be angry. It is clear that God hates sin and so should we. Paul condones Christian anger but cautions “in your anger do not sin”(Eph. 4:26). Obviously, since God is who he is, we can’t pretend to hate sin exactly he does. His is a righteous anger while ours at best is an anger that should be expressed with care and only in connection with an acknowledged injustice.
In the gospel of Matthew we read the story of Jesus healing a man’s withered hand on the Sabbath. When the religious clerics were extremely displeased when they saw this “violation” of the Sabbath. Storming out of the synagogue they met with the Herodians on how they could destroy this man. Then, as I translate in Jesus in His Own Words, “Aware of their plot to kill me, I withdrew with my disciples to the shores of Lake Galilee.” The question for those who model their life after Jesus is, “If someday my life is actually threatened for what I believe, should I remain true to my convictions or take cover?” On the basis of what Jesus did in this situation it would seem that the martyrs of the early church may have been foolish for having chosen the lions rather than recant.
We know, of course, that Jesus was anything but a coward. When opposed by the clerics in Jerusalem who were in cahoots with Rome he remained true all the way to the cross. We know from scripture that had he needed help his Father could have dispatched “more than twelve legions of angels” for his protection (Matt 26:53). We can certainly rule out timidity or cowardice as the motivating factor for his retreat to the lake.
We do not know exactly why he withdrew from danger on this occasion but it would seem that he merely wanted to continue this stage of his ministry and that would have been less likely had he exposed himself needlessly to danger. In time his adversaries did carry out their villainous plan but in the meantime the crowds needed to hear the message of the kingdom and the sick to be healed. I see Jesus as a thoughtful person who went about his mission in a rather quiet and humble way. Tired from the day’s journey he sat by the well and let his disciples go for food (John 4). Even the day before he was crucified he gathered with the Twelve for a quiet meal. “Let not your heart be troubled” characterized his life. So, here in our verse when he was threatened by angry clerics, Jesus simply decided that it would be better for him to move away from such a menacing environment and go where he would be more free to carry out the work his father had assigned.
The prayer that begins, “Our Father, who art in heaven” is normally referred to as the Lord’s Prayer, but since his disciples had just asked him to teach them how to pray it should probably be called the Disciples’ Prayer. In any case, a bit later on in his Galilean ministry we are privileged to listen to Jesus as he prays. It is recorded in Matthew 11:25: "Inspired with joy by the Holy Spirit, I prayed: "I praise you Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that although you have hidden these truths from the wise and discerning, you have made them known to the childlike.” So much can be learned if we allow him to be our mentor as we learn how to pray as he did.
The first thing that strikes me about his prayer is that it was inspired by the Holy Spirit. It was the joy of the Spirit that moved him to pray. So often we think of prayer as a serious obligation to stay in contact with God and bring before him such issues as physical health, how to meet the traumas of life, and thanks that it didn’t rain. By contrast, it was the sheer joy of the Spirit’s presence that called forth praise from the Son of God. How can we not pray if we recognize that the Holy Spirit is present and wants to talk it all over with us? Remember that the Spirit is one with God the Father and God the Son. Some have referred to him as the “shy member of the trinity” as though he wasn’t quite sure of his status and didn’t want to draw the spotlight. To genuinely sense the presence and power of the Spirit leads to an incomprehensible joy that must of necessity give birth to prayer.
The other thing that stands out for me is that the eternal truths he was teaching were hidden from “the wise and discerning,” but were made known to “the childlike.” Why is it that spiritual truth doesn’t seem to make sense to the intellectual, but is easily grasped by the innocent? Perhaps because the world’s intellectual giants are by definition those who have ventured ahead of us and don’t need any insight we might come up with. Ignorance is such a serious fault because it doesn’t know that it doesn’t know. The childlike can accept spiritual truth because it doesn’t threaten their certainty that there is nothing they need to learn. The truly wise know how little is known even of our natural world, to say nothing of all that lies in regions beyond.
Jesus, inspired by the joy of the Spirit, lifts his voice in praise, thanking the Father for revealing his truth to the childlike. Three quick suggestions: stay open to the Spirit, grateful to the Father, and active in praise like the Son.