Ask someone to describe Jesus in one word and you may get responses like:
Okay, you get the picture. Our overall perception of Jesus is that of a ‘nice’ guy. A man everyone wants to like. But that’s not the picture that I get when I read the Gospel accounts. I’m not saying I don’t see the qualities listed above, I do, but that’s not the total picture of Jesus. There is one word I would add to the list. It’s a descriptor that is seldom attached to Jesus’ persona. In fact, it’s a quality that some of us might not even like in a person, but time and time again I see Jesus displaying it. The word is confrontational.
Now before you dismiss me, or say that Jesus was only confrontational with the Pharisees, let’s look at a few examples of Jesus stepping into confrontation rather than avoiding it.
Example #1: The Cleansing of the Temple
Imagine that spring day in Jerusalem. The city is bustling during one of it’s busiest times of year. Jews from all over the world are visiting on this Passover week. The city’s population doubles during these feast days, and as is the case with most holidays the atmosphere is both festive and chaotic. The Temple is easily the busiest part of town. Not only was it the center of worship, it was also a banking center and marketplace. At these times of year the outer courts could easily be packed with thousands, if not tens of thousands of people.
Peter and the guys are excited. A trip to Jerusalem was a big deal for these fishermen from Galilee, but Jesus has a determined look on His face. As they enter the outer court Jesus walks up to the nearest table, the moneychangers, and grabs it with both hands and flips it over. The moneychangers were thieves, exchanging Roman currency for Temple currency and charging a whopping exchange fee, bleeding the thousands who passed through those gates. Jesus moves to the next booth: the animals pens. He sets the sheep and goats free driving them out with a homemade whip. The priests had a nice racket going with the animals. Bring in your own sheep, the best of your flock, and it wasn’t good enough for these guys. No. You had to buy one of their sheep to sacrifice to God, but not to worry, they would ‘dispose’ of your sheep for you, only to put him in the for sale pen when you weren’t looking so they could sell it too. It’s little wonder why Jesus is upset. The religious elite preying on the devout and taking advantage of even the poorest worshiper was more than enough to get the God-man upset.
Jesus doesn’t resort to negotiating. He doesn’t teach us any conflict resolution skills. He doesn’t shrug and say ‘Dem’s da breaks.’ Jesus confronts the issue head on. There is no mistaking where He stands and there is no room for compromise. In fact, a couple of years later Jesus would offer up an encore performance as He clears the Temple during His final week. When it came to worship, Jesus was serious about having the right heart.
Example 2: Healing on the Sabbath
Here is where Jesus and the Pharisees constantly butted heads. John 5 records the story of the lame man by the pool of Bethesda. The pool was by the sheep gate, a gate so named because this was where the sheep were brought by worshipers who wanted to be declared ‘clean’ from some sort of ailment. It was also near the stalls where the Temple kept there own stock of sheep. The barnyard smell would have permeated the air around the pool. Under normal circumstances the ‘unclean’ visitors and foul smelling atmosphere would have been enough to make this part of Jerusalem unsavory to visit. Now add the pool fed by an underground spring that would occasionally bubble giving credence to the story that an angel stirred the water and the first one in the pool would be healed and what you get is an overcrowded sick ward.
Bethesda. Unclean. Rotten Air. Sickly. I doubt it was on any of the tour maps of Jerusalem, but when Jesus comes to town He heads straight for it. Instead of coming through the main gate of the Temple to make a grand entrance as Messiah, Jesus anonymously visits the forgotten hospital. He makes his way to an elderly fellow. A man who has laid on his mat for 38 years. A man who has no friends to get him to the pool when it bubbles. A man whose last hope is a legend about a water-stirring angel from a God whom he cannot properly worship because he is too sick to be allowed in the Temple. The man doesn’t know who this stranger is who sits by his mat. He doesn’t know that the friendly fellow with the Galilean twang in His voice is the maker of the universe. He doesn’t realize that this bearded fellow sits in the shadow of the very Temple built to honor Him. All He knows is that this is someone who has decided to treat him like a human today, so when Jesus requests the ridiculous, to rise up, take up his mat and walk (did He really just say walk?!) the old man gives it a try. At first the man is shocked. Then he celebrates. As he turns to thank the mysterious stranger, he finds that he has disappeared into the crowd. But the stranger healed him, and he is walking. Walking! He does as he was told, he rolls up his mat and starts to go along his way. He doesn’t get far when the joy killers, AKA Pharisees, show up. They want to know why he dares to carry his mat on the Sabbath. Doesn’t he know that constitutes work in their book? His only explanation is a simple one, ‘the one who healed me told me to!’
It’s easy to get lost in Jesus’ compassion in this story, but remember, He is also God. He can see ahead. When Jesus went to Bethesda’s pool He knew who He would find there. He knew He would heal the man. He knew the man had a mat and He knew that carrying a bedroll on the Sabbath violated the Pharisee’s laws concerning the Sabbath. Make no mistake, Jesus healed this man to show compassion, but He commanded Him to carry His mat to pick a fight. Jesus is looking to confront the misconceptions the Pharisees have about God and who He is and how He operates. The last half of John 5 is Jesus defending His identity and confronting the Pharisees with their own legalistic religion.
Example 3: Get behind me!
Peter is my favorite apostle. Not because he is perfect, but because he is so raw and rough around the edges. I see myself in Peter. The quick to speak slow to think mentality is something I can relate to. In Matthew 16 there are two prime examples of Peter’s mouth both serving him well and getting him into trouble. The first is a well-known statement that most of us can quote. Jesus asks what the world thinks of Him. The disciples answers vary. ‘A prophet.’ ‘A teacher.’ ‘Elijah returned to us.’ Then Jesus gets personal. ‘Who do YOU say I am?’ It is Peter who responds with his typical boldness, ‘You are the Christ the Son of the Living God.’
The implications of such a confession are staggering. To say that Jesus is the Christ; to say that He is the Son of God means that you are acknowledging His Lordship. Whatever He says goes because of who He is. Jesus then reveals that He must go to Jerusalem and die. Now Peter, the same man who acknowledged Jesus’ authority only moments before decides that Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God, needs some advice. I can see Peter taking Jesus aside and putting his arm around him. I can hear the concern in his voice as he tells Jesus, ‘Surely you don’t have to die. I mean, really? C’mon Jesus!’ Jesus’ response is abrupt and immediate, “Get Behind me Satan!” Jesus is not joking. Nor is He overreacting. The temptation to avoid Golgotha was real and it was great. Jesus is confronting Peter with the fact of his own confession. It’s as if Jesus is saying. ‘If I am the Christ as you say I am and you are advising me to abandon my mission, then you are not on God’s side, but Satan’s.’ Jesus isn’t being mean. He is forcing Peter to come to grips with his confession and with what he claims to believe.
Example 4: Woe to the Hypocrites
I think of Matthew 23 as a forgotten chapter in the gospels. You won’t hear many sermons on it. There aren’t any DVD studies built around it. It’s not a reference you are going to find on a flowery bookmark or on the side of your favorite coffee mug. Matthew 23 is confrontational Jesus in full swing. He’s come to Jerusalem to die, and if He is to get people to take His life He has to get them angry. Fighting angry. Murderously angry. Go ahead and read Matthew 23. It will make your hair stand on end. This is not the Jesus we are used to seeing. He pronounces some serious woes on the Pharisees. Multiple times He calls them hypocrites, but He doesn’t stop there. This Messianic tongue-lashing also includes some more serious names. Brood of vipers. Sons of Hell. The Pharisees are put on a public trial, and are found lacking. Lacking in mercy. Lacking in love. Lacking in integrity. In short, they are humiliated by a backwoods rabbi from Nazareth. Jesus confronts them now, because during His trial He will be silent. Jesus judges them now because later He will offer no defense. No explanations of His words or actions. We focus on the silence of Jesus during His trials and forget that He was brash and outspoken a day before. Nothing has changed. He is still Jesus, and His words are just as powerful as His silence. He came to die, but before He does He sets the record straight: Hypocrisy will not be tolerated. Loveless religion will not be accepted. Just being good isn’t good enough. In Matthew 23 Jesus confronts all the dangers of organized religion head on and we would do well to remember His words.
The above are just a few examples of Jesus’ confrontational style. There are times where He gently, but firmly confronts His parents with who He is (when He was left at the Temple is a prime example of this. Two distraught parents find a 12-year-old boy who reminds them both of who He is with a simple question, ‘Didn’t you know I had to be about my Father’s business?’) He confronts sinners with their sin, but offers grace as well. He confronts His disciples constantly with their lack of understanding. Even His revelation at the last supper that He knew who would betray Him was a confrontation to Judas’ guilty conscience.
But what does this mean for us? Why should we rejoice in the fact that Jesus is confrontational? Simply put, we rejoice because we would never repent of our sins if we weren’t brought face to face with them. We need a savior who is willing to make us uncomfortable. We need a redeemer who is willing to remind us of what we were redeemed from. We need a master who is willing to discipline us to keep us on His path lest we wander.
I hear too many believers say things like, ‘That’s not the Jesus I believe in.’ or, ‘My Jesus would never do that.’ Please allow me to confront you with one final truth: The only time the Jesus you believe in matters is when He lines up with the real Jesus we find in the Bible. The real Jesus is returning for one final confrontation. Will you be ready when He comes? Better to be confronted now while grace is abundant than later when the time for judgment has come.