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Four Judgements About Jesus

 

John 3:2   “You are a teacher.”            (John 7:12)   “He is a good man.”

“My Lord and my God.” (John 20:28)       “He is possessed by Beelzebul [Satan].” (Mark 3:22 )

 

When most people hear the name “Jesus” they immediately think of “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild.” When they think of “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild” they think of a kind fellow walking through the countryside patting little children on the head, spouting “bromides” here and there, being as kind and helpful as any one of us would want to be. Those who imagine Jesus to be like this always assume that everybody in first century Palestine liked him.

Then again there are those who know that every now and then Jesus said or did something that riled the people around him. He must have done something to rile others, or else his life wouldn’t have ended the way it did. People who think like this assume that the larger part of the population understood him and liked him, while a small minority didn’t understand him or like him yet had enough political “clout” to have Jesus executed.

The truth is, the reactions to Jesus throughout his earthly ministry were always mixed. Some people loved him (a few), some people hated him, some people were puzzled by him, some people understood this or that aspect of him, some people followed him at a distance (or thought they could), others followed him more closely but only for a short while.

Reaction to Jesus was always mixed; and not only mixed, extreme. Those who loved him couldn’t have loved him more; those who hated him loathed him beyond telling; those who were indifferent were cemented into their indifference. The written gospels reflect all these judgements about Jesus. Today we are going to examine four such judgements.

 

I: —  One judgement was wholly negative: “He is possessed by Beelzebul, by Satan.” We mustn’t think that such an assessment occurred once only. “He is possessed by Beelzebul” was pronounced in Nazareth , in his home town. In Jerusalem his detractors hissed, “He has a demon.” The bottom line is the same: what was meant is, “He’s evil.” Some people accused him of being a wolf in sheep’s clothing; others accused him of being a wolf in wolf’s clothing. In other words some people thought him to be sneaky-evil; others thought him to be blatantly evil. But in any case, they thought him to be in league with the evil one himself. They judged him to be destructive, fiendish, accursed himself and cursing others. From that time until this the world hasn’t lacked those who render this judgement concerning Jesus.

When I was recovering from my fractured spine I had to have periodic check-ups with the orthopaedic surgeon who had treated me. One afternoon that I shall never forget, in the old medical arts building of downtown Toronto , this man flew into a tirade upon learning that I was a theology student. “Every society that your Jesus has penetrated now thinks it has to look out for its physical and mental cripples”, he raged, “and I want to tell you that no society has ever been able to afford the upkeep of its physical and mental cripples. You Christians have done it to us. You Christians are responsible for the economic millstone around society’s neck; and this millstone is going to spell financial ruin for all of us. No society can afford what you Christians say we must.” But to maintain that Christians have done this foul deed is to say that our Lord himself is foul. “He is possessed by Beelzebul; he has a demon.”

The next time educators speak of “Values Education,” examine closely what is put forward as “values”. The assumption is that “values” are purely subjective; “values” are really “preferences”; “values” are opinions; “values” reflect no more than what an individual or a society likes or wants. Nowhere is it even hinted that there is such a thing as truth; nowhere is one allowed to speak of the will and purpose and command of God. As soon as Christians say, “But our lives aren’t shaped and directed by what we prefer or by what we like or by opinions we have; the lives of Christians are shaped and directed by a truth of God that is as much the structure of the universe as the law of gravity. Is the law of gravity a human invention? Can we set it aside if we don’t like it? Are we going to vote on it? Is it part of the smorgasbord of choices that is arrayed before youngsters? Then why do you think that that which orders the lives of Christians is mere subjectivism? mere preference? mere whim? mere opinion?” — as soon as Christians say this we are dismissed. If you think I’ve got it wrong about “Values Education” then you should raise the issue of truth in the midst of such a discussion and see what the reaction is. The reaction will be, “These Christians are possessed by Beelzebul” — which is to say, he who forms them and informs them has a demon.

 

II: —  Not every judgement of Jesus was negative, however. Some people said, “He is a good man.” “He’s a decent fellow.”

On the one hand I am convinced we live in a fallen world whose depravity is bottomless. On the other hand, I am aware that there remains among some people who make no profession of faith an apprehension of decency. Decency can disappear, to be sure; yet as it disappears and life becomes unendurable, decency reasserts itself if only because without it social existence is impossible.

People who say of our Lord today, “He’s a good man”, aren’t making any Christian profession and don’t care to. Yet their assessment of Jesus shouldn’t be scorned for that reason. After all, the fact that they find Jesus decent means that they appreciate decency. And therefore they are aligned with all who stand on the side of decency and stand against degradation.

We must always remember that the balance between decency and degradation is a precarious balance; the scales can be tipped by only the slightest pressure. Anyone who supports decency is to be encouraged, since our society will never lack those who are shameless, who violate that decency which, if rampant, renders social existence impossible.

I have long found what I regard as the shameless vulgarity of CFRB radio broadcasting difficult to endure. Yet I listen to CFRB if I need up-to-the-minute traffic reports. Not so long ago I needed a traffic report, turned on CFRB, and was exposed to yet another wretched phone-in scene. This time people were to phone in to the station (and have their phone call broadcast) as they answered the broadcaster’s question, “What was it (i.e., sexual intercourse) like the first time?” Can you imagine it? – the utmost human intimacy blabbed as though it were less significant than a baseball score. Scripture speaks of “the way of a man with a maid” as a wonder beyond telling. The prophets use the intimacy of marriage as an analogy for our most intimate relationship with God — a relationship so intimate as finally to be inexpressible. And vulgar oafs, devoid of decency, superficially titillate radio-listeners while the broadcaster eggs them on. One young man described his first encounter in a shopping mall. “Where’s the mall?” the broadcaster laughed lasciviously.

The people who believed no more about Jesus than “He’s a good man” at least believed that much. Many today believe no more than that. But at least they are tipping the balance between decency and degradation in the right direction. I, for one, am not going to speak ill of those who share my horror at the coarsening of society and who are endeavouring to restore a modicum of wholesomeness.

For a long time ethical humanists have perplexed Christians. Ethical humanists don’t attend church, don’t worship, don’t make a profession of faith, don’t agree with the church’s assessment of Jesus — but are morally upright. We shouldn’t look upon such people as a perplexity; we should thank God for them. In his providence he has seasoned the world with those who are going to resist the erosion of decency.

Regardless of what Jesus claimed for himself concerning Israel’s hope of a Messiah; regardless of what Jesus elicited from his disciples concerning his unique relationship with his Father; regardless of any of this the common people couldn’t help noticing that the sick were attended to, women were elevated, the deranged were restored, children welcomed and the poor honoured. Anyone could see this much; anyone with a shred of decency had to say, “He’s a good man.”

 

III: — There was yet another judgement of Jesus: “He is a teacher.” To say this isn’t to say, “He is an able instructor; he has mastered the technique of teaching.” When those Israelites who profited from him concluded, “He is a teacher”, they meant, “His teaching comes from above; he is a prophet; he has an authoritative word from God.” In biblical thought only the person who has first listened to God can speak for God. Only the person who has first heard can speak. The teacher, the prophet, is one whom God has drawn to himself, to whom he has disclosed himself, and whom he now commissions to teach concerning himself. When the people said of Jesus, “He is a teacher”, it was no little accolade. Moreover, in naming Jesus “teacher” they were admitting themselves to be without excuse if they didn’t take his teaching to heart.

Inasmuch as you and I honour Jesus as teacher we have logically committed ourselves to heeding his teaching; and logically we are without excuse if we do not.

At the beginning of the sermon I mentioned that more than a few people look upon the teaching of Jesus as nothing more than the handing-out of bromides, commonplaces that any thoughtful person would come up with if she thought for five minutes. Actually, our Lord’s teachings are anything but bromides, anything but commonplaces. We need to read the written gospels and re-read them until the startling teachings of Jesus jar us awake.

“Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is in heaven.” Our reward will be granted us in heaven; in heaven, be it noted, and not one day before. Even so, just because it will be granted us in heaven we must and may rejoice and be glad right now. This is anything but a commonplace.

“No one after lighting a lamp covers it with a vessel, or puts it under a bed, but puts it on a stand, that those who enter may see the light. For nothing is hid that shall not be made manifest, nor anything secret that shall not be known and come to light.” Christians are the light of the world, says Jesus. The purpose of light is to enlighten. Therefore the light should always be held up so that others may be enlightened by the same light that has enlightened us. Our Lord’s teaching here readily makes sense and isn’t startling. Then Jesus adds a word that ought to ring in our heads constantly: there is nothing hid that isn’t going to be made manifest, and there is no secret that isn’t going to be brought to light. Yes, Christians are and are to be the light of the world; but if there is any hint of darkness in them at all, anything smudged, anything covered up, anything painted out (supposedly) — it’s going to be exposed. Finally, there aren’t going to be any secrets. That in us which contradicts our discipleship, which is anything but bright and would never illumine life for anyone; that which we think we have hidden from everyone for so long that it’s going to remain hidden forever — “think again”, says Jesus, “and deal with it now, otherwise it is going to be dealt with in a way that will shame you publicly.”

When I hear “the teacher” in such matters I sink down into a chair and ask myself, “What is there in me that would humiliate me if it appeared on the front page of the newspaper? What is there about me that would shame me if it were aired at an official board meeting? What is there that I’d prefer my wife not to see?” And then I know that there is only one thing to do: deal with it now.

When some of the men and women who surrounded Jesus remarked, “Not only is he a good man, he’s a teacher”, they meant, “God has appointed him to instruct us. We should hear him and heed him.”

Our Lord is still a teacher. And therefore still we must hear and heed.

 

IV: — The final assessment of Jesus is one beyond which there is no advance. It is the confession of Thomas following the risen one’s appearance to him. Our Lord’s appearance to Thomas ended forever the disciple’s vacillating, his uncertainty, his roller-coaster conviction and feeling. “My Lord and my God”: everything that had been unsettled in Thomas was settled in that instant. It is an unqualified confession of the incarnation. What Thomas affirmed in his five words Charles Wesley affirmed in his Christmas carol, “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; hail th’Incarnate deity; pleased as man with man to dwell, Jesus our Emmanuel” — “God-with-us”.

I have always believed that doctrine has eversomuch to do with life. The doctrine of the incarnation has everything to do with where we live.

(i) Think first of our suffering. Scripture tells us that God himself suffers in our suffering. Does he? How much does he suffer? With what kind of suffering does he suffer? Does he suffer in my suffering the way I “suffer” in the suffering of those in Mexico who were devastated by a hurricane? When I read about the hurricane I feel dreadful. I am moved at the plight of people who lost children, homes, livelihood, even their own lives. But as moved as I am at their plight, their plight isn’t mine. I am aware of it, am informed of it, suffer it (to some extent) with them. Nonetheless, alongside the suffering they undergo through enduring the disaster my “suffering” upon being informed of the disaster is nothing.

So God suffers in our suffering. Does that mean he is moved when he observes ours? Does it mean he is merely informed of it even as he safely remains a spectator of it?

When Thomas cried to Jesus, “My Lord and my God;” when Thomas confessed the truth of the incarnation, Thomas knew that God knows our suffering not the way we know of Mexico’s through reading about it in a newspaper; God knows our suffering in that he has lived the worst human suffering himself. In the person of his Son he has tasted first-hand the bitter taste of rejection, misunderstanding, hostility, slander, abandonment, mental anguish, physical torment. He suffers in our suffering not because he sympathizes with us (largely a useless sentiment); he suffers in our suffering just because there is no suffering afflicting us that he hasn’t endured himself in his Son. It is for this reason alone that he can comfort us profoundly, comfort us realistically, comfort us really.

Non-Jews have to be very careful in speaking of the God who comforts when they speak with Jewish people. Sooner or later our Jewish friends are going to raise the matter of the death-camps, particularly the camps like Theresienstadt where a million children perished. When I am asked how I can continue to affirm God in view of such suffering, as gently and sensitively as I can I say that I can continue to live with the God who permitted it to happen only because I see that particular horror comprehended in, gathered up in the abandonment and execution of his own Son. And because the incarnation is what it is, God himself has suffered in the distress of his Son the hideous distress of the one million children. Apart from my conviction on this matter what could I say, as a pastor, to any suffering person?

(ii) There are few things worse than our suffering. As often as the people of Israel insisted there was nothing worse than their suffering, however, the prophets of Israel insisted there was one thing worse: their sin. The people kept saying there was nothing as horrible as their suffering; the prophets kept saying there was one thing more horrible: their sin. The prophets were right.

All the questions we raised about God’s involvement with our suffering we can raise as well about God’s involvement with our sin. We say that God forgives repentant people. And so he does. Does he do so because he is indulgent? Don’t so much as breathe the suggestion that God is indulgent: the just judge indulges nothing. Then does he forgive because he is constitutionally incapable of doing anything else? Anyone who can’t help doing what he does is merely obsessive/compulsive. God is able to forgive repentant sinners for one reason: in the person of his Son he has so entered into our sinnership, so taken it upon himself, so absorbed in himself his just judgement upon it, that he can now show forth his mercy without compromising his holy opposition to it. God doesn’t know sin the way I know brain tumours: through informing myself about them. He knows sin by immersing himself in a fallen world — and all of this in order to restore those who are not ashamed of him when he comes to restore them in the humiliation of his Son.

The incarnation isn’t an abstraction good only for teasing those with a philosophical turn of mind.   The incarnation has everything to do with life. When Thomas cried, “My Lord and my God”, he knew that his suffering and his sinning had been dealt with — and would continue to be dealt with — in a manner that would leave him with the profoundest comfort in his pain and the profoundest assurance of his pardon.

 

Whenever people came upon Jesus in the days of his earthly ministry they couldn’t avoid having to assess him. The assessments varied.

Whenever people are face-to-face with Jesus Christ today they can’t avoid having to assess him. What is our assessment going to be?

“He’s possessed by evil.” Entirely the wrong assessment, and rendered only by those who seek to work evil themselves.

“He’s a good man.” The pronouncement of those who recognize decency when they come upon it and long to exalt it.

“He’s a teacher.” The judgement of those who hear in his teaching the ring of authority just because what he teaches is the truth of God.

“My Lord and my God.” This is a confession of faith. Anything less than this, while true, remains inadequate. “My Lord and my God.”

                                                                                              Victor Shepherd                                                                                                                                                                                        

November 2004