Judging Jesus

Everyone makes some kind of judgement about Jesus. Either he didn’t exist or he did. Either he is just a man or he is also God incarnate. Either he only teaches helpful wisdom or he also teaches truth about himself. Either he is not worth the time of day or he is worth living and dying for. We all make judgements about Jesus.

In our sermon series we are now looking at the time following Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem which is a time of judgement. The religious leaders judge Jesus. Consider:

  • In 11:18 there is a desire to kill Jesus. Jesus is judged as being a troublemaker who should be deleted.
  • In 11:27-33 the religious leaders question Jesus’ authority. They have judged Jesus as being a fraud.
  • In 12:12 the religious leaders want to arrest Jesus. He is judged as being an enemy.
  • In 12:13-17 the religious leaders ask Jesus about taxes. This is a very political question which betrays their judgement of Jesus as being a traitor.
  • In 12:18-23 the Sadducees question Jesus about marriage. They have judged Jesus as being naive.

All the way through we see the religious leaders standing in a place of judgment against Jesus. However, look again; it is the religious leaders who stand in the place of being judged by Jesus. Consider:

  • In 11:11 when Jesus looks around, it is not, as one Bible scholar says “as a tourist”, but rather as a “quality inspector” ready to make a judgement.
  • In 11:12-14 and 20-25 Jesus enacts a parable with a cursed fig tree representing God’s judgement against Jerusalem.
  • In 11:15-17 Jesus makes a scene at the Temple pronouncing judgement against the status quo of worship.
  • In 12:1-11 Jesus judges the religious leaders in “The Parable of the Wicked Tenants “.
  • In 12:24 Jesus says to the Sadducees: ‘you are wrong. you don’t know the Scriptures or the power of God’.
  • In 12:35-37 Jesus in effect says ‘you don’t know the Scriptures as well as you think!’
  • In 12:38-40 Jesus is explicit in his judgement of the scribes.
  • In 12:41-44 Jesus may as well have come out and said ‘the poor widow is a better Jew than you religious leaders’.
  • This all leads to chapter 13 where Jesus teaches on judgement becoming effective, just as it had done centuries before, through the destruction of the temple.

The religious leaders of Jesus’ day did not stand in a position of judging Jesus. Rather they stood in the place of being judged by Jesus. Do we think that we are in a position to judge Jesus? Where does the evidence lead? While we don’t have the time to unpack that here, it is worth investigating and there are many resources available including this resource by a cold-case detective who knows how to follow evidence. For now, here is where the evidence leads: We, like the people of the first century, do not stand in a place of judging Jesus. We stand in a place of being judged by Jesus. Regarding this we have some bad news and some good news.

First the bad news: We stand in a place of being judged by Jesus because of our sin. We do not need to go to a checklist of rules to realize this. The greatest sins should naturally be the breaking of the greatest commandments. So let us go there:

One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” 29 Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30 you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Mark 12:28-31 (NRSV)

My faith dropped from my head to my heart on the day a good friend died. I knew in my head that I was sinful and needed God’s grace, but being quite good at keeping rules, had trouble really “getting it”. But on the day of my friend’s death, I got it. Though he was a good friend, sadly I knew that I was not. On that day I read 1st Corinthians 13.

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 1 Corinthians 13:1-7 (NRSV)

While you often hear this passage read as a celebration of love at weddings, on the day of my friend’s death day I read it as a passage of judgement on my lack of love. I did not love God or people appropriately. I needed forgiveness and grace. We don’t need a checklist of rules to know that we stand in a place of judgement. The Great Commandments are enough to convince us.

Now for the good news. While we stand in the place, not of judging Jesus, but of being judged by Jesus, when we stand at the foot of the cross we stand in a place of grace.

What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? 32 He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? 33 Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Romans 8:31-34 (NRSV)

Through Jesus God Himself stands in the place of judgement upon us. Will God judge us? He has already given His Son for the forgiveness of our sin, so no. Will Jesus, who has the power to condemn us, do so? No, not when he already chose to die for us and is now alive, interceding for us. God is for us and not against us. Unless, of course, in our “better judgement” we want to have nothing to do with Him.

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Great Expectations

We are sometimes quite clear in what we want God to do for us. We have clear expectations of a long life, a great life. We expect to not suffer. We expect God to work in power on our behalf. We expect our team to win. We forge ahead with our lives and expect that God will bless our agendas.

Expectations lay at the heart of what is known as Jesus’ “Triumphal Entry” into Jerusalem. Before the Triumphal Entry there were certain expectations of Jesus. The sick could expect to be healed. The curious could expect great teaching. The religious leaders could expect Jesus to say or do something blasphemous. All theses expectations were based on what Jesus had being doing. But at this point, there are not the kind of expectations that come with being a Messiah. Yes, Peter confessed Jesus as being the Messiah in Mark chapter 8, but Jesus told the disciples to keep quite quiet about that. The public at large were generally not thinking that Jesus could be the Messiah, but some thought he might be “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” Mark 8:28.

However, all that would change at the Triumphal Entry. In entering Jerusalem the way he did, Jesus was in effect saying “I am the Messiah.” The timing was right, for it was Passover, the celebration of freedom. What better time for a Messiah to show up and bring freedom. But it was the way Jesus entered Jerusalem that really sent the message. Consider Zechariah 9:9:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey. Zechariah 9:9

This corresponds with how the Triumphal Entry happened.

People had great expectations of the Messiah, which of course now meant great expectations of Jesus. These expectations can be summed up by the question of the disciples in Acts 1:6: “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”. People were expecting a free kingdom of Israel. They were expecting the Messiah to lead them to military and political victory taking them back to the glory days under King David. This meant freedom from Rome.

By the end of the week, things had changed. Jesus is a captive rather than captivating. He is beaten up. He is insulted and mocked yet puts on no show of force. If he were truly the Messiah, God could be expected to do something grand at some point. There is still a glimmer of hope, on the part of at least one man, that God would pull through and Jesus would be shown to be His Messiah:

At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 35 When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “Listen, he is calling for Elijah.” 36 And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.” Mark 15:34-36

But by the end of the day there was no rescue, of either Jesus from the Roman cross, or Israel from Rome.  There was no shock and awe, just a dead man. According to then current expectations, a dead Messiah was a failed messiah, which was no Messiah at all!
By dying Jesus failed to live up to the expectations aroused by His Triumphal Entry. Or so it seemed.

As we look at how Jesus failed the expectations of the people, we will learn something that will help us when we think God has failed ours.

First, we can expect God to exceed our expectations. What Jesus accomplished through his death was actually something far greater than what the people expected. Here is what happens when Elijah is a no show and there is no rescue:

Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. 38 And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. Mark 15:37-38

Elijah didn’t show up, but there was a rescue! Something remarkable did happen which is symbolized by the tearing of the temple curtain, a symbol of separation from God. In Jesus, God dealt with that separation. No one was expecting that! People were expecting the Messiah to be like King David, ensuring liberation from surrounding enemies. Jesus turned out to be King God, with liberation from the true enemies; sin and death, the things that separate us from God.

When it seems God fails to meet your expectations, trust God to actually exceed them.
We expect longer life, God offers eternal life. We expect God to work in power, He works in love and power. Expect God to exceed your expectations.

Secondly, our expectations need to match reality. The expectations of the people were not realistic in the first place. While they expected a military victory through the Messiah, they really ought to have expected judgement. This is why Jesus had a message of repentance from the beginning. This is why Jesus cursed the fig tree on the day following the Triumphal Entry, as an object lesson of judgement. When it seems God fails to meet your expectations, be sure your expectations are realistic.

Seven years ago I traded in a Triumph Sprint motorcycle with 123 horsepower for a Honda CBR125R which has 13. I remember taking such a Honda for a test ride and the parting words of the salesman: “Prepare to be underwhelmed”. If I were expecting the feeling of power, then yes, I would be disappointed. But what I expected was a frugal riding experience. My expectations matched reality and I was not disappointed. Do our expectations of God match reality? Do our expectations match His promises? Has God promised what we have been expecting?

Expect, not what you want, but what God promises. And expect God to exceed your expectations.

Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen. Ephesians 3:20-21

(All Scripture references are taken from the NRSV)

Seeing Jesus. Time to Clean Our Glasses?

Reading through the Gospel of Mark you may notice a reticence on the part of Jesus to fully reveal his identity. For example:

Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” 28 And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” 29 He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” 30 And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. Mark 8:27-30 (emphasis added)

Peter gets it right, Jesus is the Messiah! But the disciples are to keep that fact to themselves. We also see the reticence of Jesus to reveal his identity at his “transfiguration” on the mountain. There Jesus’ identity is made even more clear:

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3 and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. . . .7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” 8 Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. Mark 9:2-4;7,8

Jesus here is confirmed as being more than just the promised Messiah. He is also in some way superior to the law, as represented by Moses, and the prophets, as represented by Elijah. You can imagine the excitement of Peter, James, and John who I’m sure couldn’t wait to tell the others about what they had just seen! But then . . .

As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. 10 So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean. Mark 9:9-10 (emphasis added)

Why the secrecy? Why didn’t Jesus just tell everyone who he really was on the first day of his ministry? The reason is quite straightforward. Jesus kept his identity quiet because partial understanding can lead to misunderstanding. People had a partial understanding of what to expect from the coming Messiah. Such a partial understanding of the Messiah could quickly turn into misunderstandings about Jesus.

It may have escaped our notice, but is surprising nonetheless, that “Messiah” was not at the top of the list for the identity of Jesus in the mind of the public. Let us read again:

[Jesus] asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” 28 And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” Mark 8:27,28

While Peter gets it correct, “the Messiah” was not even on the list for people generally, never mind at the top. Why? Because in expecting the Messiah, the people were expecting something different than Jesus. They were expecting a focus on the Kingdom of Israel along with a message of doom for the Romans. Jesus was instead teaching about the Kingdom of God along with a message of repentance for Israel.

Even Peter, immediately following his confession of Jesus as the Messiah, displays this partial understanding:

Mark 8:31-33 (NRSV) 31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Peter is thinking on human things, like the Kingdom of Israel and taking back the land from the Romans. A suffering then dead Messiah is not going to help with that! If Peter is going to misunderstand Jesus’ role as Messiah, everyone else is too.  Jesus immediately tells the people to “deny themselves and take up their cross and follow” (v.34) The Messiah was expected to tell them to “pick up the sword and follow”.  A cross meant death by Romans rather than death to Romans. What kind of Messiah would lead us toward our deaths?! Only following the resurrection of Jesus would it all start to make sense.

Since a partial understanding of the Messiah would lead to terrible misunderstandings about Jesus, he keeps quiet publicly about his identity until less than a week before his death.

So what does this have to do with us today? Most people you rub shoulders with know something about Jesus. However, it may be a partial understanding, which can lead to a misunderstanding. Let us consider a few examples:

Partial understanding: Jesus was a great teacher. True! Misunderstanding: We should only go to Jesus for wisdom. Full understanding: Jesus is also God the Son, the Saviour. We go to him not just for wisdom, but for salvation.

Partial understanding: Jesus was a prophet. True! Misunderstanding: Jesus was just one prophet among many.  Full understanding: Jesus is also God the Son, unique in his teaching, his miracles, his claims. He is the only one who could reconcile us to God, and the only one who did.

Partial understanding: Jesus was a man. True! Misunderstanding: Jesus was only a man. Full understanding: Jesus is fully man, but also fully God.

Partial understanding: Through Jesus we are saved from hell, from separation from God. True! Misunderstanding: Salvation from hell is all we need to think about, care about, or sing about. Full understanding: We are not just saved from the consequence of sin; separation from God, we are also saved from its power as we walk in the Spirit.

This last one is an insight from John Stonestreet and Brett Kunckle in their book “A Practical Guide to Culture”. Partial understanding: In Jesus we are “saved from . . . “. True! Misunderstanding: Now that we have been saved from something, there is nothing for us to do. Full understanding: We are also “saved for”. We are saved for for relationship with God, and for good works in our relationship with the world and everyone in it.

Do we allow a partial understanding of Jesus lead to misunderstanding? Do we see clearly who Jesus is? Perhaps it is time to clean our glasses.

(All Scripture references are taken from the NRSV)

The full sermon can be heard here.