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Did Jesus Just Offend the Religious Elites?

Two local ministers met for coffee. One pastored a small, struggling church while the other pastored a large, thriving church. “Why is your church growing?” the first pastor asked. “Because I preach the Gospel!” the successful pastor answered. “And you?” he asked. “Why is your church not growing?” The first pastor shrugged and said, “Because I preach the Gospel.”

Does the preaching of the Gospel attract people or repel people?

Charles Spurgeon once quipped that “We cannot expect those to approve of us whom we condemn by our testimony of their favorite sins.” Likewise, despite Christ’s mercy and compassion, He made enemies. A.W. Tozer noted that Jesus was either perfectly loved or perfectly hated, but people were rarely indifferent to Him. Jesus was a polarizing figure… which doesn’t happen when you’re Mr. Nice Guy.

The Gospels tell us that immediately after Christ’s baptism He went forth proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 4:17). Calling people to “repent” is hardly the way to attract followers. Nor is it conducive to the caricature of Jesus often painted as a gentle, compassionate, tolerant, humble, emotive, rather namby-pamby individual. Rather, Jesus spoke Truth, despite whom it triggered.

Before the Gospel is “good news,” it is “bad news.” The “bad news” about the “good news” is that we are sinners in need of a savior. And if we don’t repent of our sins and turn to the Savior, we will “die in our sins” (Jn. 8:24). At least, this according to Mr. Nice Guy. No matter how kindly and lovingly one presents the “good news,” it will be “bad news” to someone.

But I’m not sure if the Church believes this any more.

I engaged in an online discussion recently about the Church’s treatment of outsiders, namely those in the LGBTQ community. There’s an assumption in such conversations that if the Gospel was REALLY preached to the LGBTQ community, and if Christians were REALLY loving, then more of these individuals would be wooed to Christ and embrace the Gospel. In other words, if we just embraced sinners rather than scolding and finger-wagging, urging them to repent, our churches would be bursting at the seams.

For example, Ray Ortlund, a popular Christian pastor and teacher, recently stated that what “impedes the Gospel’s advance” is the Church’s “tone.” He says,

“…we decide if the Gospel is going to advance. And we decide that not just at the level of what our formal doctrine is, but at what our informal relationships are. And when our nation can see in us the kind of grace, mercy, love, the dropping of judgment — God has lowered His gun in looking at us and embraced us to His heart — when we can demonstrate that kind of mercy toward one another, that joy over one another, that receiving of one another, then the Gospel will explode. “

So if Christians were just nicer, friendlier, more gracious, more forgiving, and less judgmental, the Gospel would advance.

Of course, when it’s pointed at that Jesus, the Original Gospel Preacher, was not always a nice, non-judgmental, tolerant kind of guy, allowances are made. Plan B of the Gospel Tone Police is then to point out, that “Jesus only offended the religious elites.”

I evoked that response in a Twitter dialog just yesterday.

So Jesus only vented and passed judgment on the religious elites. He did not express “righteous anger” to the average person. Tax collectors, prostitutes, fishermen, and widows were all free from Jesus’ stern gaze. To them, He was patient, gentle, empathetic, soft-spoken, and tolerant. But when the Pharisee showed up, He let ‘im have it!

Such an approach offers several advantages to the Gospel Tone Police. For one, it legitimizes condemnation of the “elite.” Why rebuke the “little guy” when Jesus targeted the oppressors, the rule-makers, and the societal upper-crust? This frees us to broadly condemn religious authorities, influencers, systems, and power structures which are deemed “oppressive.” Why? Because Jesus did. He always punched up. For another, this approach falsely frames the Gospel as a “feel-good” missive and strips it of bite. I mean, if we’re watching our tone, telling someone that they are a sinner who needs to repent is a bit forward. If our goal is to preach the Gospel in such a way that it attracts sinners, we may not want to use Jesus are our example.

You see, Jesus was an equal opportunity offender. His terms for discipleship — whether for the Pharisee or the fisherman — were quite high. He often angered and turned people away, whether they were the “religious elite” or the peasant just seeking a free meal. For example:

  • Jesus went everywhere preaching “Repent and believe” (Matt. 3:2, 4:17; Mk. 1:15)
  • Jesus issued strict terms for discipleship, like denying one’s life, family, possessions, etc. (Lk. 14:26 and many others)
  • Jesus told the adulteress “go and sin no more.” (Jn. 8:11)
  • Jesus told the rich young ruler to sell everything and give it to the poor. The man went away sad. (Matt. 19:16-29)
  • Jesus drove away the multitudes and lost “many disciples” when He commanded them to eat His flesh and drink His blood. (Jn. 6:66)
  • Jesus cautioned the healed invalid to stop sinning lest something worse come upon him. (Jn. 5:14)
  • Jesus drove the moneychangers out of the temple. (Matt. 21:12)
  • Jesus rebuked Peter and even called him “Satan.” (Matt. 16:23)
  • Jesus rebuked His disciples on numerous occasions (for their unbelief Lk. 9:37-41a; their inability to understand His betrayal 9:44-45; their pride 9:46-48)

Yes, Jesus’ “yoke was easy and His burden was light.” He is meek and lowly of heart (Matt. 11:29). He is a friend of sinners (Matt. 11:19). He knows us intimately and loves us deeply. We should be incredibly thankful for these things! However, He also came to bring a sword and divide households (Matt. 10:34). He came to call sinners to repentance (Lk. 5:32). And He will return as a fiery-eyed warrior king, riding on a white horse, leading an army of saints against the powers of hell. “With justice he judges and wages war” (Rev. 19:11 NIV).

The Gospel Jesus came to preach is for both the “religious elites” and the “common man.” To them, John wrote, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them” (Jn. 3:36 NIV). That term “whoever believes” encompasses both rich and poor, “oppressor” and “oppressed.” Likewise, that phrase, “whomever rejects” equally applies to all. In this way, neither the “religious elite” nor the Man on the Street gets a Gospel pass.

Jesus’ love for people, whether the cold-hearted Pharisee or the world weary everyman, didn’t stop Him from speaking the truth to them… even if it hurt.

Jesus loves you so much that He will risk offending you.

It’s fallacious to assume that if people reject our message, either our presentation is off or our message needs modified. If someone is offended by your Gospel, the tone police scold, you’re not sharing it in a loving manner.  However, even when truth is lovingly spoken it can potentially turn people away and hurt their feelings. I mean, the same mob that shouted “Crucify Him!” were likely some of the same who’d flocked to Jesus’ tent meetings. Shall we accuse Christ of being a big meanie because His message left some angry, confused, offended, or upset?

It’s equally fallacious to conclude that Christ only offended the “religious elite.” Would a harsher judgment fall upon those religious leaders who misrepresented God and made one’s path there more difficult? Absolutely! (See the Seven Woes of the Pharisees and Scribes.) Nevertheless, “WHOEVER rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them.” The road to salvation was indeed narrow, but it was the same road for all. The religious elite or the Average Joe would encounter different obstacles along that road. But the Gospel preached to both was the same.

And no matter how kindly and lovingly one presents that “good news,” it will always be “bad news” to someone.

{ 10 comments… add one }
  • Bill White April 14, 2021, 1:41 PM

    Jesus offended anyone that saw himself (or herself) as sinless. The Pharasies saw themselves as sinless and the LGBTQ community sees itself as sinless. So the Gospel will offer the LGBTQ community as much as it offended the Pharasies.

    • Kate April 15, 2021, 2:52 PM

      Yikes! I’m disappointed such a false and sweeping generalization is stated with such hubris.

      • Bill White April 18, 2021, 7:18 PM

        Allow me to be more specific. The LGBTQ community does not see itself as free of every kind of sin. However, they do see themselves as sinless within the areas that identify their group. That is they see themselves as sinless in regard to having sex with people of the same gender or with identifying themselves as different from their anatomical gender of birth.

        My statement was in regard to those particular issues. As such it was not a false or sweeping generalization. It is just true. Gay people do not see gay conduct as sinful.

        To accuse me of hubris is uncalled for and illogical.

        I live in the middle of the worlds largest LGBTQ community and I constantly see the attitude that they are doing nothing wrong. It offends them to have their morality challenged, just as it seems to have offended you.

        Jesus loves the members of that community but he would definitely challenge and offend them.

  • Steve Rzasa April 14, 2021, 2:59 PM

    Excellent summary, Mike. One thing I’d like to contest, though – Jesus being gentle, compassionate, and emotive does not equate being namby-pamby. Caricature of him allowing everything? Yes, I suppose that could be namby-pamby. But Jesus was gentle with people when he needed to be, he was compassionate to them, and he was very emotive. None of those things should be lost when we look at the complete portrait.

    • mike duran April 16, 2021, 5:50 AM

      I can agree with that. Being gentle and compassionate does not make one namby-pamby. I suppose what I’m getting at is this caricature painted of Jesus in which He’s more like a peacenik or a therapist than the Son of God.

  • Michael April 14, 2021, 4:40 PM

    Great thoughts on paper in this post. The LGBTQ community comments in your post and above, strike a nerve though. It is childish to assume there were no LGBTQ people alive listening to what Jesus had to say,

    I think when religious figures quit deciding on their view of who Jesus spoke to, meant or didn’t mean, said or did not say, the world will move a lot closer to joining and practicing at the church of their choice.

    In the moment, no one has a lock on whether anything said by Jesus is recorded, changed or omitted because it was or is not fashionable for the time. Outsiders are not willing to put their faith in some pompous speaker who thinks they have the Jesus insight.

    Once again great post, hope I did not get too far off track.

  • Cheryl Unruh April 14, 2021, 4:41 PM

    I really appreciated this article. Thank you.

  • Tiribulus April 15, 2021, 8:44 AM

    Amen Mike.

  • Tiribulus April 15, 2021, 9:48 AM

    Micheal says: “Outsiders are not willing to put their faith in some pompous speaker who thinks they have the Jesus insight.”
    If I might please sir.

    All true preachers of the true gospel of the true Jesus Christ will have some things in common.

    First is that they will never compel that somebody put their faith toward themselves as the speaker. This is where false christian, usually personality based cults are born. A true preacher of the true gospel of the true Jesus Christ will always point his hearers to Christ alone, His sinless life, sacrificial death and victorious resurrection as the one and only means of forgiveness of sins and adoption into the family of the one true and living God.

    Secondly, all true preachers of the true gospel of the true Jesus Christ, throughout all of history have agreed on all of the mortally important features of the true gospel of the true Jesus Christ, Though have some have proclaimed this gospel with more clarity than others.

    Taking issues of sexuality and family as a prime example for a minute.

    The literal whole of Judeo-Christian history from creation until a few decades ago was of one voice in the proclamation of the sexual union as being male and female only in the context of the covenant of marriage. Any other model or practice was universally condemned as being a sinful attack upon the created order of God himself.

    Therefore those who continue to declare this truth are simply saying what Christians have always said because few issues are spelled out with more incontrovertible clarity in the ancient Christian scriptures.

    This is not narrow, or bigoted, or self righteous. It is simply standard historically orthodox Christian doctrine. Although some who preach these truths can and certainly do do so from a stance of hateful, self righteous condemnation, not understanding that their own sin was sending them to the same judgement as the very people they look down their noses at.

    True preachers of the true gospel of the true Jesus Christ understand that even the smallest and seemingly insignificant disobedience to the perfectly holy God is eternally damnable, but also that there is no sin, no matter how spectacular or heinous, that is more powerful than His blood.

    I fully understand that you may see me as just another dogmatist who thinks he has the “Jesus insight.” No sir. This what Christians have always said.

    My driving point is that no true preacher of the true gospel of the true Jesus Christ holds any new and or unique views and Mike is right. At least for anybody who takes the bible seriously.

    A gospel that does not offend the self exalting sensibilities of sinful man is not the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Regardless of who or what somebody is, the first step in true salvation is the recognition that one is lost. That cannot and will not ever be fun. However, the joy that follows, which depends on nothing in this world, is eternally worth it.

    2nd Corinthians 5:
    17-Therefore if anyone is in Christ, this person is a new creation; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.

    21-He [God the Father] made Him [God the Son] who knew no sin to be sin in our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.

    In Christ there is mo: “Greek and Jew, male and female, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, and free, but Christ is all, and in all. ”

    Galatians 3:28, Colossians 3:11

  • Jay DiNitto April 15, 2021, 6:07 PM

    One thought here: the matter of the Pharisees and their Hellenized traditions was a matter of debate for Jesus’ contemporaries, and also a matter of practicality. The Pharisee leaders aligned themselves (not completely, though) with Rome’s secular political power, which had very real effects for the common Hebrew man. It makes sense that the writers of the gospels would emphasize what Jesus did and said about those religious leaders.

    Regarding LGBT people, there wasn’t a debate about where God stood on that issue, neither with the Hellenized Pharisees nor the common Jew, nor any of the other Jewish religious groups of the time. Wordpress wasn’t invented until the medieval period, so writers back then preferred to document the essentials.

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