Interestingly, all religions (except Judaism, perhaps) recognize Jesus as some sort of spiritual prophet (which can not be said of Krishna, Buddha, or Mohammed). But what is interesting about Jesus, and perhaps all prophets, is that a closer inspection of his life reveals that he defies some expectations, if not violates some of our own ideas of what a holy man should say or do.
One of my favorite ‘violations of holiness’ is told in John 2:13-17:
It was nearly time for the Jewish Passover celebration, so Jesus went to Jerusalem. In the Temple area he saw merchants selling cattle, sheep, and doves for sacrifices; he also saw dealers at tables exchanging foreign money.
Jesus made a whip from some ropes and chased them all out of the Temple. He drove out the sheep and cattle, scattered the money changers’ coins over the floor, and turned over their tables. Then, going over to the people who sold doves, he told them, “Get these things out of here. Stop turning my Father’s house into a marketplace!”
Then his disciples remembered this prophecy from the Scriptures: “Passion for God’s house will consume me.”
Let’s talk about the religious taboos he may have violated.
1. He threatened people with physical harm and destroyed personal property
Admittedly, he did not do this often, and most of his teachings are far more ‘pacifistic’ than this, including such teachings as:
- Love your enemies (Matthew 5:44)
- Turn the other cheek (Luke 6:29)
- Give a man you coat (Matthew 5:40)
- Do not resist an evil person (Matthew 5:39)
So what is different in the story above? This situation is different because he was confronting religious people from his own subculture, not those outside of it.
2. He rejected the truth content of non-Judaic religious systems
However, his rebuke was not only for his own people. He was frank about the absence of truth in other traditions. Perhaps the only and best example we have of Jesus engaging with a non-Jewish individual is the Samaritan woman (admittedly, still very Judaic in view and origins). After a long dialogue, he lets her know about the quality of the content of her faith:
“You Samaritans know very little about the one you worship, while we Jews know all about him, for salvation comes through the Jews. But the time is coming—indeed it’s here now—when true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth. The Father is looking for those who will worship him that way. For God is Spirit, so those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth.” (John 4:22-24)
3. He defied religious rules, hypocrisy and pretensions
It is human nature to allow faith to degrade into external rule keeping – it’s easier than maintaining internal piety. Jesus nicely turned rule-based piety on its head when the Pharisees “caught” his disciples “working” on the Sabbath Day.
One Sabbath day as Jesus was walking through some grain fields, his disciples began breaking off heads of grain to eat. But the Pharisees said to Jesus, “Look, why are they breaking the law by harvesting grain on the Sabbath?”
Jesus said to them, “Haven’t you ever read in the Scriptures what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He went into the house of God (during the days when Abiathar was high priest) and broke the law by eating the sacred loaves of bread that only the priests are allowed to eat. He also gave some to his companions.”
Then Jesus said to them, “The Sabbath was made to meet the needs of people, and not people to meet the requirements of the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord, even over the Sabbath!” (Mark 2:23-38)
If you go to Mark 2, you can read earlier verses where he challenged their motives and practices for other spiritual disciplines, including fasting and giving. Bottom line? The rules are guidelines that serve US and guide us to God, not rules which we serve, or by which we earn points with God or man.
4. He called religious people unkind names
More than a few run-ins with the religious people of his day are recorded in the gospels. My favorite escalates to some amazing name calling. It’s long, but worth reading – see how the argument escalates out of control until finally, the enraged Pharisees just try to kill him!
Jesus said to the people who believed in him, “You are truly my disciples if you remain faithful to my teachings. 32 And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
33 “But we are descendants of Abraham,” they said. “We have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean, ‘You will be set free’?”
34 Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave of sin. 35 A slave is not a permanent member of the family, but a son is part of the family forever. 36 So if the Son sets you free, you are truly free.37 Yes, I realize that you are descendants of Abraham. And yet some of you are trying to kill me because there’s no room in your hearts for my message. 38 I am telling you what I saw when I was with my Father. But you are following the advice of your father.”
39 “Our father is Abraham!” they declared.
“No,” Jesus replied, “for if you were really the children of Abraham, you would follow his example. 40 Instead, you are trying to kill me because I told you the truth, which I heard from God. Abraham never did such a thing. 41 No, you are imitating your real father.”
They replied, “We aren’t illegitimate children! God himself is our true Father.”
42 Jesus told them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, because I have come to you from God. I am not here on my own, but he sent me. 43 Why can’t you understand what I am saying? It’s because you can’t even hear me! 44 For you are the children of your father the devil, and you love to do the evil things he does. He was a murderer from the beginning. He has always hated the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, it is consistent with his character; for he is a liar and the father of lies. 45 So when I tell the truth, you just naturally don’t believe me! 46 Which of you can truthfully accuse me of sin? And since I am telling you the truth, why don’t you believe me? 47 Anyone who belongs to God listens gladly to the words of God. But you don’t listen because you don’t belong to God.”
48 The people retorted, “You Samaritan devil! Didn’t we say all along that you were possessed by a demon?”
49 “No,” Jesus said, “I have no demon in me. For I honor my Father—and you dishonor me. 50 And though I have no wish to glorify myself, God is going to glorify me. He is the true judge. 51 I tell you the truth, anyone who obeys my teaching will never die!”
52 The people said, “Now we know you are possessed by a demon. Even Abraham and the prophets died, but you say, ‘Anyone who obeys my teaching will never die!’ 53 Are you greater than our father Abraham? He died, and so did the prophets. Who do you think you are?”
54 Jesus answered, “If I want glory for myself, it doesn’t count. But it is my Father who will glorify me. You say, ‘He is our God,’55 but you don’t even know him. I know him. If I said otherwise, I would be as great a liar as you! But I do know him and obey him. 56 Your father Abraham rejoiced as he looked forward to my coming. He saw it and was glad.”
57 The people said, “You aren’t even fifty years old. How can you say you have seen Abraham?]”
58 Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, before Abraham was even born, I am!” 59 At that point they picked up stones to throw at him. But Jesus was hidden from them and left the Temple. (John 8:31-59)
So in that passage, he called them sons of the Devil, denying that they were the spiritual sons of Abraham (and after they insinuated that he was a bastard). But he also used these epithets in Matthew 23:
- Hypocrites (repeatedly)
- Children of hell (Matthew 23:15)
- Blind guides (Matthew 23:16)
- Fools (Matthew 23:17)
- Whitewashed tombs (Matthew 23:27)
- Children of murderers (Matthew 23:31)
- Snakes (Matthew 23:33)
5. He told his disciples to move on when people were hard-hearted
We love to sing that “the mercy of the Lord endures forever” (Psalm 136:1) – but this mercy is not promised to the unrepentant, but rather to the imperfect person who is concerned about God. The scriptural picture of God’s mercy is that it is not extended forever. This can be clearly seen in the parables of the Kingdom listed in Matthew 25, including:
- The Ten Bridesmaids, half of whom were excluded from the Kingdom
- The Traveling Business Man who excluded those not working when he returned
- The Shepherd separating the sheep from the goats on the day of judgment
But even more explicitly, Jesus told his disciples to abandon towns that rejected them and their message, and that such were going to have a worse time on judgement day than even Sodom (which was totally destroyed, with all of its inhabitants).
If any household or town refuses to welcome you or listen to your message, shake its dust from your feet as you leave. I tell you the truth, the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah will be better off than such a town on the judgment day. (Matthew 10:14-15)
The truth here is that God’s patience and mercy do NOT extend indefinitely towards the wicked – after a while, He abandons them to their hardness (Romans 1:24). This is sometimes called the Wrath of Abandonment.
6. He purposely offended people
You might think Jesus was looking for a lot of followers, but the truth is, he was looking for quality, and not quantity. But even on this point, Jesus is counterproductive. His definition of quality is not perfection or even devotion or strength. Read this passage and see if you can determine what He looks for:
Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, Moses didn’t give you bread from heaven. My Father did. And now he offers you the true bread from heaven. The true bread of God is the one who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
“Sir,” they said, “give us that bread every day.”
Jesus replied, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry again. Whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. But you haven’t believed in me even though you have seen me. However, those the Father has given me will come to me, and I will never reject them. (John 6:32-37)
Not that clear, eh? This strange teaching started arguments:
Then the people began arguing with each other about what he meant. “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” they asked.
So Jesus said again, “I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you cannot have eternal life within you. But anyone who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise that person at the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Anyone who eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. (John 6:53-56)
What the heck is he doing? Promoting cannibalism? His hard sayings are a test, but of what, incredulity?
Many of his disciples said, “This is very hard to understand. How can anyone accept it?”
Jesus was aware that his disciples were complaining, so he said to them, “Does this offend you? Then what will you think if you see the Son of Man ascend to heaven again? The Spirit alone gives eternal life. Human effort accomplishes nothing. And the very words I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But some of you do not believe me.” (For Jesus knew from the beginning which ones didn’t believe, and he knew who would betray him.)
Then he said, “That is why I said that people can’t come to me unless the Father gives them to me.” (John 6:61-65)
There’s the reason – for the same reason that he spoke in parables – to hide the truth from the proud and self-seeking, and to reveal it to those who have been called by God (Matthew 13:10-17). The quality that Jesus looks for is those “whom the Father has given to me.” See Peter’s reply when Jesus challenged them with these same claims:
At this point many of his disciples turned away and deserted him. Then Jesus turned to the Twelve and asked, “Are you also going to leave?”
Simon Peter replied, “Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words that give eternal life. We believe, and we know you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:66-69)
Jesus’ teachings on continual forgiveness, love for everyone including enemies, and mercy have been lauded since His lifetime, and He has found his way into many non-Christian faith systems as a wise man and prophet.
But because He was more than a mere prophet, but also the unique Son of God, His actions sometimes defy our simple expectations. He taught and acted with hositlity against hypocrisy and religious pride, but he also claimed that God’s patience for those who resist him will end. And this is not out of step with God’s endless mercies and love – but those are only extended to those who have come to Him in faith.