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The Controversial Christ
Jesus came as a "sign of contradiction," laying bare the hearts of men and women. He comes to us today in just the same way.
The early chapters of Luke's gospel are like a laser light show of prophecy. The Spirit of God comes upon person after person and they prophesy under the power of the Holy Spirit. Mary to Elizabeth. Elizabeth to Mary. The angel to Mary. The dream to Joseph.
Simeon, that good and holy man who longed to see the Messiah, who had been promised by the Holy Spirit that he would not taste death until he had seen the Lord's anointed. In due time, the Holy Spirit led him into the temple just at the moment that Mary and Joseph were bringing Jesus to be circumcised:
When the parents brought in the child Jesus to perform for him the customary ritual of the law, [Simeon] took him in his arms and blessed God in these words, "Now master, you can dismiss your servant in peace; you have fulfilled your word. For my eyes have witnessed your saving deeds displayed for all the people to see: a revealing light to the Gentiles, the glory of your people Israel."
The child's father and mother were marveling about what was being said about him. Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother: "This child is destined to be the down fall and the rise of many in Israel, a sign that will be opposed-and you yourself shall be pierced with a sword-so that the thoughts of many hearts may be laid bare." (Luke 2:27-35)
Jesus has been placed in our midst by God the Father as a sign of contradiction, a sign that will be opposed, in order to reveal our hearts and to bring us to a point of decision that will bring about our downfall or our rise.
A Scandalous Birth
This began even with the very circumstances of his birth. Remember how Joseph responded to the news that Mary was expecting? He "decided to divorce her quietly" (Matt. 1:19). We are so accustomed to the doctrine of the virgin birth that we sometimes fail to appreciate the tremendous conflict all this must have caused in Joseph. Imagine how hard it would be to believe that the woman you're engaged to is pregnant-showing!-but hasn't been unfaithful. Imagine how hard it would be to under stand what it could mean to become pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Imagine the challenge to Joseph's faith. Already his heart was being revealed! Jesus was a sign of contradiction in the womb of Mary. But Joseph's heart came through to a place of unconditional surrender and trust.
Does it seem harsh that God should force this choice? Actually it is the mercy of God, giving us a chance to be rescued, to be set free.
This happened time and time again as Jesus grew up and as he carried out his public ministry. It has happened time and time again as the gospel of Jesus Christ has been proclaimed through almost 2000 years. The gospel reveals the secrets of hearts.
The approach of Jesus is an awesome thing. God's word doesn't return to him void; when the word of God goes forth, it reveals the secrets of hearts. And Jesus is the word of God. His coming forces us to take a stand. Either our heart melts and surrenders and believes, or our heart grows cold and cynical and rejects.
Does it seem harsh that God should force this choice? Actually, it is the mercy of God, giving us a chance to be rescued, to be set free, to come home. It is God giving us a chance to be delivered from sin and death and sickness and depression and futility and hopelessness.
The three wise men came to Herod and said, "We are seeking a king who has just been born." When he heard about this newborn king, the secrets of Herod's heart were laid bare.
The angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph with the command, 'Get up, take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you otherwise. Herod is searching for the child to destroy him.' (Matt. 2:13)
What got revealed in the heart of Herod was jealousy and fear, hostility and anger. There was a clutching of position, a fear that somebody else might get what he had.
Jesus is a threat to anybody who would like to be lord. Jesus is a threat to anybody who would like to control their own kingdom. Jesus is a threat to any body who would like to shape reality to their own purposes. Are not all of us like that to some degree? And so a crisis breaks in our life when the true king, the true lord, approaches. Either we turn to Jesus in repentance and faith, or we harden our hearts and become cold to Jesus and his messengers.
"Too Much to Take"
Even Jesus' own family had a difficult time accepting him.
Jesus went to his native place and spent his time teaching them in their synagogue. They were filled with amazement, and said to one another, "Where did this man get such wisdom and miraculous powers? Isn't this the carpenter's son? Isn't Mary known to be his mother and James, Joseph, Simon and Judas his brothers? Aren't his sisters our neighbors? Where did he get all this?" They found him altogether too much for them." (Matt. 13:5~57)
It should make us think twice, to realize that we can know all there is to know about somebody else- where he is from, who his parents are, what his occupation is, what schools he went to, how much money he makes-and still not know the most important thing about that person, which is how God sees him and what Godhas determined to do with him. The hearts of Jesus' relatives were laid bare at his approach. They knew everything there was to know about him, and yet "they found him altogether too much to take.
Pharisees, Then and Now
Perhaps most striking of all, Jesus was a sign of contradiction to the religious, to people who prided themselves on their devotion to God-especially to religious leaders.
When Jesus healed the paralyzed man - and in the process proclaimed that the man's sins had been for given- some of the scribes said to themselves, "The man blasphemes" (Matt. 9:3). When Jesus sat down to supper with the tax collectors and publicans, "the Pharisees saw this and complained to the disciples" (Matt. 9:11). When Jesus' disciples ate grain on the Sabbath because they were hungry, the Pharisees objected again (see Matt. 12:7-8). Then we read of this shocking incident:
Moving on from there, he went into their synagogue. And behold, there was a man there who had a withered hand. They questioned him, "Is it lawful to cure on the Sabbath?" so that they might accuse him. He said to them, "Which one of you who has a sheep that falls into a pit on the Sabbath will not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable a person is than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath." Then he said to the man, "Stretch out your hand." He stretched it out, and it was restored as sound as the other. But the Pharisees went out and took counsel against him to put him to death. (Matt. 12:9-14)
When Jesus comes close, it is threatening. It threatens the world view we've built. It threatens the little world we've constructed, that we've let Jesus be part of, but not lord of.
This is true when Jesus initially comes to us. It's also true when Jesus comes to bring renewal to his people. A sad story has been repeated many times in church history. God sends a great renewal and people benefit from it greatly. Then a period of lukewarmness and complacency sets in, and God sends his Holy Spirit again. Sometimes, those who are the leaders of the first wave of renewal become the opponents of the next wave. They say, "You're not doing it the way we did it, so it must not be right." They sound just like the Pharisees before them. "Real renewal is supposed to come from Bethlehem, and this is coming from Nazareth." "Real renewal shouldn't happen through sinners and tax collectors and prostitutes, it ought to happen through us."
Jesus is a threat to anybody who would like to be lord, to anybody who would like to control their own kingdom.
Our human hearts are such that we always run the risk of constructing a comfortable system that we rely on rather than on the Lord of the system, Jesus himself. We need to operate, not by a system, but by a relationship with Jesus, who wants us to hear his voice from one year to the next, from one generation to the next, and follow him however he wants to work. We dare not put limits on the Lord of the Sabbath!
Let me make a particular application at this point to my own church. Now, I am a committed Catholic. I am a Catholic by conviction, not just by culture. I believe what the Catholic church teaches about itself. But I grieve when I see a certain kind of pride in "the Catholic system" blind us to the fact that all over the world, God is having mercy and pouring out his Spirit on all those who are hungry and thirsty for him, even if they aren't part of our system. In fact, all over the world people are leaving the Catholic church because they are hearing the gospel of Christ proclaimed loudly and clearly, and experiencing the power of the Holy Spirit in a way that's bringing renewal and healing to them, from other sources.
As Catholics, we cannot simply shake our heads and say, "This shouldn't be happening outside the Catholic church." Instead we should say, "Why isn't it happening more in the Catholic church? Why aren't people finding more life in the Catholic church?" We should be humbling ourselves, repenting and interceding - asking God for revival to come in the Catholic church.
Sometimes, those who are the leaders of the first wave of renewal become the opponents of the next wave.
Do we find it scandalous that God is blessing the preaching of the gospel by uneducated third worlders who don't even belong to any historical church? That God is rushing to the rescue of his people wherever the gospel is being proclaimed, even if those who are proclaiming it haven't got all their theology and their ecclesiology just right? How much more might God want to do with good theology and good ecclesiology if we could really let Jesus be Lord!
Leaders Or Learners?
Jesus warns us not to get so focused on human leadership, even religious leadership that we forget who the real leader is.
Then Jesus told the crowd and his disciples: "The scribes and the Pharisees have succeeded Moses as teachers; therefore, do everything and observe everything they tell you. But do not follow their example. Their words are bold but their deeds are few. They bind up heavy loads, hard to carry, to lay on other men's shoulders, while they themselves will not lift a finger to budge them. All their works are per formed to be seen. They are fond of places of honor at banquets and the front seats at synagogues, of marks of respect in public and being called "Rabbi" (my master). As to you, avoid the title "Rabbi." One among you is your master, the rest are learners. Do not call any one on earth your father. Only one is your father, the One in heaven. Avoid being called teachers. Only one is your teacher, the Messiah." (Matt. 23:1-12)
This is radical teaching!
Let's be clear: Jesus is not saying, "Don't call the father of the family your 'father.' " He's not even saying, "Don't call anybody a 'teacher' ." Scripture itself tells us that "God gave some as apostles, others as prophets, others as evangelists, others as pastors and teachers" (Eph. 4:11). Obviously it is appropriate to call them what they are. But in another place scripture says, "You do not have any need for teachers because the Holy Spirit himself that has been given to you will lead you into all the truth and will show you what you are to believe" (1 John 2:27). There is a tension in the New Testament about human leadership, between the way God works through human leadership on the one hand, and yet relativizes human leadership now that the Messiah is on the scene.
The source of truth, the source of life, the source of protection, is not human leadership, not even God ordained human leadership. The source of life and truth and protection is Jesus himself - the Teacher and the Father in heaven. All the rest, in comparison, are learners. We who have some position of leadership need to remember that in comparison to Jesus, all the rest of us-leaders and people-are learners. Our function as leaders is to point people to Jesus as the teacher and master, and to God as the Father
The Real Heroes
Jesus doesn't unnecessarily offend the established order. He doesn't unnecessarily provoke the Pharisees. But if he senses that there is not a sincere openness in their hearts, and if he has done the deeds and spoken the words that his Father has given him to do and speak, then he doesn't waste time. He moves on.
His disciples approached him and said, "Do you realize the Pharisees were scandalized when they heard your pronouncement?" "Every planting not put down by my heavenly father will be uprooted," he replied. "Let them go their way; they are blind leaders of the blind." (Matt. 15:12-14)
Jesus says, "Don't worry that they're being scandalized. Don't worry that they're getting upset. We've done what we had to do. Some will respond, some won't. Let's go."
At one point Jesus turns to the religious leaders and says, "I assure you that tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you" (Matt. 21:31). Who emerges as heroes in the New Testament? The learned? The gifted? Those in positions of human respect?
No. Those who emerge as heroes in the New Testament are those who believe and repent-even the tax collectors and prostitutes. Those who know their need for God and aren't ashamed of crying out like the blind man on the side of the road, "Son of David, have mercy on me!" Those who aren't afraid of being embarrassed about what their friends are going to think, but who in their need run to Jesus and say, "If I just touch him, I'll be healed." Those who over come the counsel of their friends and the strictures of the social decorum and, in their hunger and thirst for God, reach out to Jesus. The hungry and thirsty are filled. The self-satisfied and self-righteous re main empty.
The Last Straw
Jesus was a scandal, not just to his relatives, and not just to the religious leaders, but even to his disciples.
He scandalized them by his teaching of radical love, forgiveness, and faithfulness. He taught about loving your enemies and people said, "How can we do it?" He talked about remaining faithful to one wife in marriage and people said, "How can we do it?" He taught about how hard it is for rich people to enter the kingdom of God, and his disciples said, "Who then can be saved?"
Jesus' response was, "With man it's impossible, but with God all things are possible." Even life-long fidelity in marriage? Even loving our enemies? Even rich people getting into the kingdom of God and getting their priorities right about who they're serving, God or mammon? Yes! All things are possible with God.
The ultimate sign of contradiction is Jesus hanging on the cross.
When the woman poured the costly ointment on Jesus' head, "the disciples grew indignant, protesting: 'What is the point of such extravagance? This could have been sold for a good price and the money given to the poor' " (Matt. 26:8-9). But Jesus commended her! This so scandalized Judas, scripture says, that he "went off to the chief priest and said, 'What are you willing to give me if I hand him over to you?' " (Matt. 26:14-15). Was this the last straw for Judas? Maybe he had high hopes that Jesus, with the support of the crowd, could take power and become an earthly king. Maybe as Jesus began to speak about how he had to be handed over and be crucified, Judas didn't like the direction things seemed to be headed. The secret of Judas' heart was revealed by his encounter with the extravagant love of Jesus.
The Ultimate Scandal
When Jesus began to speak to the disciples about his imminent crucifixion, "Peter took him aside and began to remonstrate with him. 'May you be spared, Master! God forbid that any such thing ever happen to you!' Jesus turned on Peter and said, 'Get out of my sight, you Satan! You are trying to make me trip and fall. You are not judging by God's standards, but by man's' " (Matt. 16:22-23).
Peter's response isn't really surprising. Isn't it the same response we would have made? And would we have behaved any differently than Peter did later on, after Jesus had been arrested, when Peter denied three times that he even knew his master? After all, when people get controversial, we sometimes don't want to be associated with them. We sometimes don't want to say that we know them. When a neighbor gets picked up by the police and hauled off to jail for some alleged crime, our first inclination is not necessarily to say, "Oh, yes, she's my best friend." We want to duck and say, "Well, actually, you know-I hardly know her."
The ultimate sign of contradiction is Jesus hanging on the cross. Jesus being spat upon and mocked by sinful men. Jesus being mocked by Roman soldiers, his own words tossed up in his face. Jesus humiliated, stripped naked, apparently weak, apparently helpless, apparently defeated, apparently a failure. When we look upon Jesus on the cross, the secrets of our heart are revealed. We either kneel down like Thomas the apostle and say, "My Lord and my God," or, like the foolish crowd, we mock him and say, "Save yourself."
Jesus wants to lead us to a deeper level of unconditional surrender.
The secrets of our heart are always in danger of being revealed as we encounter Jesus. Jesus constantly surprises even his closest disciples by the radicalness of his love and the radicalness of his sacrifice, and by the choice it confronts us with: unconditional surrender, or outright rejection. All our life we are moving in one or the other of these directions: either towards deeper, more unconditional surrender, or towards rejection. At the final judgment, there will be just those two things left: those who have rejected Jesus and are eternally in hell, and those who have unconditionally surrendered to Jesus and are with him forever in heaven.
The Controversial Christ
The controversial Christ scandalizes us in order to expand our horizons. He wants to bring us face to face with the shocking reality of his lordship, and lead us to a deeper level of unconditional surrender.
Jesus wants to take off any limitations we place on his work. He wants us to be ready to do whatever he wants and to be led by his Holy Spirit, to not settle for anything less than himself. He wants us to know that if we are relying on anyone or anything else, it is going to disappoint us. Only Jesus never fails. Only Jesus is Lord.
We can never place our hope in institutions or systems or human leadership the way we place our hope in Jesus. All of us are just learners. But Jesus knows everything. He has perfect self-control, perfect wisdom, and perfect authority. He has an overwhelming love, an overpowering desire to be close, to be near, to heal, to forgive, to set free from oppression, to take us out of despair. What hope there is in Jesus! May we all respond to the controversial Christ with the total surrender of our lives and hearts! -
Ralph Martin is host of the weekly television program, "The Choices We Face," and author of A Crisis of Truth and other books.