Jesus: The Negative Factor
"You foolish ones!" Jesus said to his host and the reclining dinner guests.
He had only just arrived as the primary guest at the gathering of prominent Pharisees and scribes. A look of horror passed across their faces. One of their number had merely noted that Jesus had not ceremonially washed before the meal -- and the result was this angry outburst.
"You clean the outside of the cup and platter; but inside you are full of robbery and wickedness. Woe to you, Pharisees! You are like concealed tombs."
A lawyer interrupted. "Teacher, when You say this, You insult us too."
"Woe to you lawyers as well!" Jesus answered. (Luke 11:37-54)
* * *
How inopportune! How crass! How tactless! How just like Jesus!
This scene was a classic, godly response to the lurking evil in the Jewish leadership of Jesus' time. But when we read it, we immediately distance ourselves from its reality. It becomes a movie-like fantasy. We enjoy seeing the Pharisees "get theirs." We, however, would never accept such behavior in our time. It is simply too negative.
I remember a recent discussion with a friend. Mike and I sat on his lawn in the late afternoon. I had dropped off some work at his house for typesetting, but he invited me to stick around because something was troubling him. I chewed on a piece of grass while he explained his concerns that an all out assault had been launched against the traditional family by Portland's City Council. A homosexual "rights" ordinance was being contemplated. And there had been no response whatsoever from the Church. They were afraid to talk, Mike explained, about evil for fear of "closing the door" to preaching the good news of the Gospel.
The ordinance was eventually passed over much objection -- but the Church was nearly absent from that resistance. Instead, most of the objections came from a state-wide political group. This group was attempting to challenge the ordinance by initiative, but many churches were afraid to be linked publicly with the group so they were still silent.
There was a moment of silence as we watched the fleecy Cumulus clouds in the late afternoon sky. "People don't become Christians by believing in Jesus alone," Mike suddenly said risking the label of heretic. "They have to believe in sin first."
I pondered his comment. He explained further that someone coming to Jesus without believing in sin is like a healthy man coming to a doctor -- he didn't really need to do it. If a man does not see his own sin, he has no need of Jesus as a savior, deliverer, or lord.
Talk of sin, though, is regarded as negative . And negative is what we are all loathe to be. Christians in this country want to be positive -- we want focus on the good things, the blessings, and not dwell on the bad. Jesus, however, was negative -- unfashionably negative, at least by today's fashion. And, to read the text of the gospels, unfashionably negative by His day's standards as well. Nowadays, we avoid the seeming rash and ill-mannered things Jesus did and said. He spent more time talking about hell than heaven, for instance. Jesus certainly spent little time on preening his listeners on how valuable they were. "You are of more value than many sparrows" was the exception, not the rule (Matthew 10:29-31). Interestingly, Jesus did not allege that they were worth more than an innumerable host of sparrows, just "many" sparrows which were sold two for a penny -- a laborer's wages for a day, $40-50 at 1994 prices.
Jesus did, however, demonstrate the Father's sacrificial love for us despite our sinfulness. His love was in action, not in niceness and flattery.
On the occasion mentioned above, where Jesus was invited by one of the Pharisees to have dinner, the event began and ended with offense. The lawyer, doing what we might try to do in similar circumstances (imagine yourselves at a pastor's banquet for your denomination). He tried to get Jesus to lighten up. "Don't be so negative, Jesus," he said (deParrie International Version), "Talk like that makes us all look bad." Jesus answered, "Woe to you lawyers as well!"
How does all this fit into the American theology of niceness? It doesn't!
Many American Christians have become Dualists -- that is, we see the universe as divided into equal portions of "negative" and "positive" energies. Good and evil, black and white, God and the Devil all form pairs that oppose and struggle against each other. But Christianity is not a Dualist religion because God is completely outside the imagined dichotomy -- and He is all good! He is so much good that evil fades into virtual nonexistence and the struggle between good and evil becomes no contest. What's worse is that our decisions on what constitutes good or evil rest on whether they are pleasant, or "nice," or don't hurt people's feelings. Much of what we call "bad" today is an integral part of the goodness of God. The "good news" of salvation must be preceded by the bad news of human sin and depravity.
The point is that unless these people Jesus spoke to were confronted with their own sins and their need for God's grace, they could never be saved. But it took being negative and talking about sin to do it. Sometimes it calls for being rude about it, too, because rudeness's reward may be the salvation of a soul. Exposing sin is important to the proper proclamation of the gospel. Every revival -- personal, ecclesiastical, or national -- has been preceded by a profound disturbance over sin. That disturbance results in the desperate search for an escape or a solution. Eventually, the person hits upon the despairing thought that there is nothing he can do about his plight. The revival enters when Jesus reveals Himself and we respond by blessing and heeding Him and those whom He sends to us.
And who is responsible for this misery and despair preceding revival? Why, it is the Holy Spirit -- sent by Jesus for the "negative" work of convicting the world of sin.
"Ah-ha!" I hear someone counter. "Convicting of sin is the Holy Spirit's work. We should not try to 'play' Holy Spirit."
Fair enough, but how will they hear unless there is a preacher? (Romans 10: 14-15) We are commanded to reprove, rebuke, and exhort -- to expose the evil deeds of darkness (2 Timothy 4:2 and Ephesians 5:11). As Gregg Cunningham puts it, "There is not one recorded example of Christ teaching or modeling evangelism by ignoring sin. Was He mistaken? Are we smart enough to correct His error?" 1
Bad News for Modern Man
(Apologies to Franky Schaeffer)
- All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. (Romans 3:23)
- The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked. (Jeremiah 17:9)2
- While we were enemies, we were reconciled by the death of His Son. (Romans 5:10)
- Men love darkness rather than light, for their deeds were evil. (John 3:19)
These Scriptures are God's description of the human condition. Not a pretty picture. Now, try applying this to your friends, your family -- yourself for a moment. This chapter does not describe Charles Manson or Adolf Hitler any differently than it describes us. This is the condition of all men in God's sight and it is the condition from which we were purchased by the blood of Christ.
- There is none righteous, not even one;
- there is none who understands,
- There is none who seeks for God;
- They have all turned aside,
- together they have become useless;
- There is none who does good,
- there is not even one.
- Their throat is an open grave,
- with their tongues they keep deceiving,
- The poison of asps is under their lips;
- whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness;
- heir feet are swift to shed blood,
- estruction and misery are in their paths,
- and the path of peace have they not known.
- There is no fear of God before their eyes. (Romans 3:10-18)
Modern Americans, though, repulse such images. Even those of us who believe doctrinally in the fallen nature of man reveal in our actions and words that we still think of people as basically good -- though slightly flawed. Most of the sin, it seems, comes not from an evil heart but a bad environment -- parents, traumas, poverty and the like. Sin is excused with "I can understand why . . ." in hopes that others will likewise excuse our sins. We find it hard to say that nice, civilized people are as evil as Scripture informs us they are.
I doubt that most of us will clearly understand the depth of depravity and wickedness in our own hearts until we see our Savior face to face. Then, we will see the great chasm between the character of God and ourselves. Because of this vision of His holiness, we will be instantly full of worship because we will finally comprehend the great love the Father had for us -- and how undeserving we truly were. Yet, it is needful for us to recognize in our limited way that we were grievous sinners before God and deserved nothing short of death and hell.
How will anyone come to Jesus Christ if he does not acknowledge his transgression? And how will anyone know that they are in sin if none will speak against it? It is important that all people recognize -- as much as possible -- the truth about their sinful condition before meeting Him face to face.
It is often that recognition of sin coupled with the acceptance of God's grace that propels us to seek holiness in our lives. Jesus told of this in the parable of a moneylender who forgave two debtors -- one for 500 denarii, another for 50. "Which of them therefore will love him more?" He asked Simon the Pharisee. Then he applied the principle to the sinner woman who was washing His feet. "For this reason I say to you, her sins, which are many, have been forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little." (Luke 7:36-47)
But, once having acknowledged sin, what then is our Standard of Life?
A Plumb Line
In his space trilogy, C.S. Lewis describes the Eldils (angels) as heavenly creatures of light that are so straight that the whole of the world seemed crooked beside them. This is the precise use of a plumb line -- to gauge the straightness of any upright object or beam. A housing framer will tell you that the studs in a wall may look upright to the eye and still be off when measured with a plumb. All of them could simply be equally wrong. One could be perfectly vertical and the others wrong -- and the one that is correct could look wrong by comparison to the others. There is only one way to know for sure -- use the plumb line! 3
In Scripture, the plumb line is the Word of God -- in the flesh or otherwise. (Amos 7:7-8) The final arbiter of whether someone is straight upright is not by comparison to others who stand nearby, but the very Son of God and His Word.
A plumb line means judgment -- a judicial determination by God of whether a man is upright. But that judgment is not necessarily final. After discovering a man is "out of plumb," he may yet be straightened (revival) or he may be rejected like a condemned building. It is the prodding of the Holy Spirit that brings men to realize that they are out of plumb with God's Word. God, however, most often uses other men to announce the results of judgment. Depending on whether someone is ready to bless those sent in the name of the Lord, men may turn toward God or head toward final condemnation.
Looking at the situation from the outside is difficult. You might well ask, "Why would anyone refuse the words of Jesus? What would impair them from recognizing Him?
The answer lies in the human spirit and its incalculable manifestations of pride. Nobody likes to admit they are spiritually blind.
The Sound of Judgment
"But now you say, 'We see,' your sin remains," Jesus told the Pharisees.
The Pharisees of Jesus time were so ensconced in tradition that there was -- in their minds -- little difference between the Torah and the Traditions. It was, however, their dogged, prideful insistence that they could already see that made them impervious to having their eyes opened. Had they merely been blind, their sin could easily have been dealt with. But, because they were unwilling to examine their presumptions in light of the Word, their sin became completely their own -- the responsibility, theirs.
This displays the two-fold purpose in reproof, rebuke, and exhortation. First, to expose the evil and prick the conscience with the result of a conversion of the heart. Second, to inform the hearer and make him responsible before God for his deeds. In both cases, the justice of God is vindicated. The one will have obtained the judgment of acquittal through the blood of Christ; the other condemnation for knowingly rejecting the offer of His mercy.
The kings of Israel offer an illustration. God often sent them prophets to warn them of impending judgment. The sudden and decisive death of King Ahab in battle, for instance, was not a case of a man being "blind-sided" by the Lord. The story reveals that he wanted to hear a specific message so badly that God actually appointed a deceiving spirit (demon) to bring him a false prophecy. (2 Kings 22) On the other hand, the remarkable mercy shown to David was largely due to his willingness to instantly repent when confronted by his own evil deeds. (2 Samuel 12) Unlike King Ahab, David had been immersed in the Scripture all his life yet he still fell into sin and needed to be rebuked on such an elementary matter. Had the prophet Nathan thought, "Oh, well, David surely knows that what he has done is sin and this is such a negative message. . ." David would have died in sin and perhaps taken much of the nation of Israel down with him.
So the command to reprove, rebuke, and exhort is not to be some rarely exercised option but a consistent practice demanded by grace and mercy and the need for judgment. As my friend and I discussed in the beginning of the chapter, one must believe in sin to believe in a savior from sin. And God's ultimate judgment depends on our exposing the evil deeds of darkness so that the unrepentant are without excuse.
God will vindicate His use of the blood of Jesus Christ in each case with either a just forgiveness of sins or a just condemnation of them.
The Bitter Pill
"Woe!" Jesus said. "Woe!" Almost like an incantation, Jesus pronounces doom on the "righteous" of His time. (Matthew 23) The message is real -- and to a real group of people whom He actually addresses. But there is more than that. This is more than a diatribe against long-dead Jewish leaders and certain sects among them. God records this event for our edification -- and, perhaps, for our accusation.
The words of Jesus in Matthew 23 are raw, uncut, and devastatingly accurate. After a particularly trying verbal bout with the Jewish religious leaders, Jesus launched into an unstinting exposure of the evil that lay beneath the religious surface of these leaders.
This was not an angry diatribe to merely embarrass the Pharisees but a critical examination of how even God's religion can go wrong -- and do it with the appearance of godliness. It was a bitter pill for these proud, self-assured men to swallow, but if they had chosen to swallow it, it would have resulted in their salvation.
It is important to note the choice of words. Jesus chose to call them hypocrites, a Greek word referring to a stage actor who spoke through a mask. These oversized masks contained mechanical devises to augment the sound of their voice. 4 What a description of these Pharisees! Actors hiding behind an oversized, false front and having their words amplified for a show to the people.
He calls them blind, fools, children of hell, vipers, and more. But the astonishing thing is that these derisive words fit very well with the lengthy quote in Romans from the previous segment that describes all mankind . So the words may apply to us as well. The Pharisees were simply acting out normal, fallen human behavior. And it is the same fallenness that we all share -- in Christ or out. In Christ we are able to combat and overcome this fallen nature, but entering into Christ means swallowing the bitter pill of our own degenerate sinfulness.
" If we confess our sins," John the Beloved tells us, "He is faithful and just to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." (1 John 1:7 KJV) But the verse before this gives us warning, "If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us."
Nor are we permitted to acknowledge our sins in some manner that minimizes them. They are no mere mistakes, but the cruel, awful, twisted results of rebellion against God. The price for one "small" sin is death -- either your own death or the substituted death of the spotless Son of God. There are no small sins. They all have great consequences.
The Leaven of the Pharisees
Leaven -- a wonderful substance that, though used in small amounts, permeates an entire lump of dough causing it to double or triple in size. The yeast produces gasses within the lump which bubble inside increasing the size. Because of it, breads become a delight of soft, chewable, delicious food. This process of leavening has been known through all recorded history -- and it was known to Jesus.
In one case, the Kingdom of God was like leaven permeating the world. This was a positive portrayal of yeast. But the majority of references place leaven in a bad light. In one dire warning, Jesus told His disciples to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees -- which is hypocrisy. (Luke 12:1)
The comparison between hypocrisy and leaven is almost humorous. The leaven "puffs up" the dough and makes it larger than life -- much like the oversized masks of the Greek actors (hypocrites). The amplification of their voices may be compared with the gasses produced by the fermentation of yeast. The danger, however, is very real.
In Matthew 23, it seems that Jesus exposes various leavening agents that had distorted the Jewish faith. Each one, though first brought in small doses, had made the "lump" a monstrous caricature of what God had first established. The true faith of Israel was distorted and eventually destroyed by the infusion of carnal yeast. The appearance of religion remained, but it was nothing like the faith established by Abraham.
Jim could hardly believe his eyes as he rounded the corner of the supermarket aisle. There, at the end of "Canned Goods," near the frozen food section, was Pastor Allan -- laughing -- arm around a petite blonde -- who was not his wife.
The pastor leaned over and kissed the strange woman.
Jim blushed and stepped back behind the potato chip display. What do I do? he wondered. Then he offered a silent prayer of precisely the same disconcerted words. Instantly, he knew what he must do -- he must walk up and confront the couple.
But hesitation rode in on the wings of the respect he had always had for Pastor Allan. How could he face him at such a time?
Jim wanted to run away -- to pretend he had not seen or that he had misunderstood what he had seen. But he had seen and the only way to insure that he had not misunderstood was to talk to the pastor and the woman -- now.
Jim's stomach knotted as he steeled himself to round the corner again. In the ensuing conversation, Pastor Allan tried to explain how Jim needed to "understand" his position -- why Jim should say nothing of the affair. Jim told the pastor that he saw no option except his confession of sin and resignation as pastor.
"I'll pray about those things," said the pastor. "I'll let you know my decision at the end of the week."
God, however, was unprepared to wait a week. Within days, the huge center beam of the church roof broke on the nearly-new building where Allan was pastor. The beam plummeted straight down and crushed the pulpit like an exclamation point.
In the flurry that followed, the adulterous affair came to light and the pastor resigned. Allan -- unashamed -- divorced his wife, continued with the other woman, and ended up on the pastoral staff of another church over a thousand miles away.
This may sound like a "preacher story" used to make a point, but it is not. This was a real pastor who had found religious justification for his deeds. 5
* * *
What was it that made the Pharisees so impervious to rebuke? It was religion.
It is much simpler to reprove the worldly adulterer than it is to approach one who has cloaked adultery in Biblical doctrine. The Pharisees had created an appearance of righteousness by linking their evil deeds with spiritual sounding reasonings. This was most clearly demonstrated when they excused a man's responsibility to his parents if he would say, "Corban," thereby dedicating his wealth to the temple and other religious works. Conveniently, this tradition allowed children to abandon the care of their parents and spend the "corban" money on themselves. (Mark 7:9-13) It wasn't a matter of shame for them -- in fact, it was positively their religious obligation to ignore the needs of their aging parents.
There is no excuse harder to break than a firmly held religious excuse. With it, people can justify anything. Most of all, it prevents us from seeing ourselves as we really are.
The bright, fiery scar running down my chest was ugly. My gnarled hair, week-old growth of beard, and sunken, ringed eyes looked back at me. Despite my being overweight, I looked strangely gaunt and pallid. The phrase "death warmed over" sprang immediately to mind.
I looked bad -- very bad -- but it was true.
I did not like how I looked a week after my heart attack and bypass surgery, but it would have done me little good to pretend that it was any better than it really was. I tried to imagine the impact it must have had on my children. What must they have thought to see me in this condition? It would be useless for me to try to lie to them about the situation -- to pretend that everything was normal. Even if I wanted to fool myself, I would not fool my four-year-old.
What was needed was truth. I had to see my condition for what it was and respond appropriately.
* * *
Billy Graham once said that the Bible tells the truth about God and the truth about man. The Word also acts as an unflinching mirror for the Church. It is easy for us to measure the Church of past centuries by the Word or to measure other present day denominations by the Scripture, but the rose-colored glasses go on when it comes time to look at the Church as a whole.
However, we, the Church, who say we see, are without excuse. We have the words of Jesus as a mirror to see our true condition -- and we ignore what we see. In Matthew 23 and the prophets, we find that death-warmed-over look that we wish to deny but cannot be hidden from a four-year-old child -- much less from a world that delights in exposing our hypocrisy.
We might ask ourselves, "Why would Jesus want our faults exposed? Doesn't that besmirch His name?" Yet, the Word tells us that judgment must begin at the house of the Lord. (1 Peter 4:17) Christ is preparing His bride to be without spot or wrinkle. It would be much more damaging to God's name to have that bride wallowing in the mud at His coming -- and blind to the fact, besides!
Holiness is an essential with God and if it takes exposure of our sin to the world to renew the Church's commitment to it, it is worth the price.
Sin in the Church creates a sickness in the Body of Christ but the Scriptures offer a proper purgative medicine -- church discipline as described in Matthew 18. Much of the current debased condition of the American Church is due to our unwillingness to use this corrective. Reproof and rebuke have come to be regarded as "unloving." The false notion that God's love is lavished unconditionally on everyone has led to the belief that uncritical acceptance of continuous sinners by the Church is required -- that no demands can be made of people to alter their lives.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer pointed out, "Only he who believes is obedient, and only he who is obedient believes." The American Church, however, recoils at such simple truth because we believe in a "non-judgmental" Jesus.
This comes from a false view of Jesus Christ which paints Him in pink, blue, and gold pastel hues -- a somewhat effeminate, touchy-feely invertebrate who was satisfied to let people enter the kingdom on our own terms. This version of Jesus is of a God Who is so afraid to lose one person that He will not risk the hurt feelings of a rebuked disciple.
But Os Guinness notes another Jesus:
"Jesus was a forbidding and unsparing leader. He issued an invitation but made clear his demands. He supplied needs, but required sacrifice. He made promises, but emphasized costs. He was as offensive as he was appealing. No one who chose to follow him could have done so with his eyes closed." 6
Any realistic reading of Scripture will reveal the Jesus described by Guinness as a much more accurate portrayal than the American Wimp version.
The Price or the Possibility
- "[T]hey slew those whom they overtook without mercy, and set fire to the houses whither the Jews had fled . . . [a]nd made the whole city run down with blood, to such a degree indeed that the fire of many of the houses was quenched with these men's blood."
-- Josephus, on the destruction of Jerusalem,
Wars VI, viii, 5
* * *
This was the price of the Jewish unwillingness to say "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord" -- the price of not heeding the Son of God's "woes." Nevertheless, God also paid a price -- His Son's life -- to serve as an eternal redemption for such rebellion.
In ancient Israel, God always presented His people with prices and possibilities. "I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the cures," He told them. "So choose life in order that you may live, you and your descendants . . . " (Deuteronomy 30:19) The prophets are replete with such calls.
But such challenges are not limited to Old Testament times. Read the letters sent to the seven churches in the Revelation.
- Ephesus -- "I will remove your lampstand out of its place -- unless you repent . . . To him who overcomes, I will grant to eat of the tree of life . . ."
- Pergamum -- "Repent therefore; or else . . . I will make war against them . . . To him who overcomes, to him I will give some of the hidden manna . . ."
- Thyatira -- "Behold, I will cast her on a bed of sickness . . . unless they repent of her deeds . . . and I will give to each one of you according to your deeds . . . And he who overcomes . . . to him I will give authority over the nations . . ."
- Sardis -- "If therefore you will not wake up, I will come like a thief . . . He who overcomes shall thus be clothed with white garments . . ."
- Laodicea -- "I will spit you out of My mouth . . . be zealous therefore and repent . . . He who overcomes, I will grant to him to sit down with Me on My throne."
The offers of life and death, blessing and cursing, are still with us today. America was blessed by grace because of humility before God and militant, unflinching Christian obedience to His Word. The early settlers in America assumed that misfortunes were a sign that repentance and revival were needed. It is recorded in the daily journals kept by the Pilgrims, Puritans, and Quakers. Today, American Christians assume otherwise.
Can America face the kind of judgment that befell Jerusalem? There is nothing in Scripture to suggest otherwise. But, with a fearful expectation of judgment, there is always the hope of revival. Despite our staring down the muzzle of judgment, God has been known to relent -- remember Jonah and the evil Ninevah. That savage land was rescued from God's fiercest wrath by the repentance of one man -- the king. While the king's authority carried the national repentance, any man, used of God, may have similar impact.
Often we read of the Great Awakening and other revivals and long for such wonderful communion with God. But this communion has its price. God may have purchased our relationship with Him by the blood of Christ, but our price is the denial of our pride. We must be willing to look beyond our religiosity and listen to the voices of those He has sent. The commitment to cast off our settled ways and comfortable perspectives may be too high for some, but it is required for revival. Even if it is too late for the nation, a personal revival will certainly prepare the individual for eternity. The worthy seeker may save only himself -- or he may start a fire in the Spirit that will ignite the next -- and needed -- reformation.
Go To Chapter Two
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Copyright © 1999 Paul deParrie