Intro: Was Jesus a controversialist? We are not asking if He was/or is a controversial figure, or if other people engage in controversy about Jesus. Certainly they do. But did Jesus Himself engage in religious controversy? Many today view Jesus as a peaceful, amiable, never disagree with anyone, kind of person. But even a casual reading of the gospels easily shows us that Jesus often engaged in controversy with the religious leaders of His day (Pharisees & Sadducees). He did not hesitate to challenge their convictions and practices, even openly describing them as hypocrites, false teachers, and snakes.
- Matt 23:33 – Serpents, brood of vipers! How can you escape the condemnation of hell?
- John 2:14-16 – 14 And He found in the temple those who sold oxen and sheep and doves, and the money changers doing business. 15 When He had made a whip of cords, He drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and the oxen, and poured out the changers’ money and overturned the tables. 16 And He said to those who sold doves, “Take these things away! Do not make My Father’s house a house of merchandise!”
- John 8:44 – 44 You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you want to do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own resources, for he is a liar and the father of it.
- John 8:55– 55 Yet you have not known Him, but I know Him. And if I say, ‘I do not know Him,’ I shall be a liar like you; but I do know Him and keep His word.
In today’s world Jesus would be labeled as intolerant and hateful. But Jesus did some of His greatest and most compassionate teaching in the midst of controversy. Our study for July focuses on Jesus and His enemies. In this context we will study Jesus as a controversialist, or One who openly engaged his enemies. We will look closer at the dialogue between Jesus and His enemies, and the doctrines and practices involved.
I. Why Did Jesus Engage in Controversy? Let me suggest three reasons:
1) Because He understood truth to come from God, not men.
2) He understood truth to be objective, not subjective.
3) Third, He understood truth to be binding. God demands obedience.
- If any of these is not true, then we might conclude that debating religious issues is unnecessary or even wrong. (Have you ever hard two people argue over something that did not matter, or something that could not be objectively determined (no real answer)? But truth does matter; and it is objectively revealed by God. Jesus recognized the necessity of controversy teaching the truth. Moral neutrality is a myth. Jesus stated it this way: Matthew 12:30 – 30 He who is not with Me is against Me, and he who does not gather with Me scatters abroad.
- As we study through some of the events of Jesus’ controversy with the Pharisees and Sadducees, we will notice how these three views come to the front of the discussion.
II. A Controversy Over Righteousness: As we mentioned, earlier, Jesus’ religious confrontations centered with the Pharisees and Sadducees, the religious leaders among the Jews. His objections differed among these two groups, but when viewed as a whole, Jesus typified his objections as a contrast in righteousness – How a person is accounted right before God.
A. Consider Jesus’ words in Matthew 5: after describing the character of the citizen of God’s kingdom in the “beatitudes”, Jesus affirms the eternal validity and jurisdiction of God’s law – Matt 5:17-19 – “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. 18 For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled. 19 Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus taught the priority of strict obedience to law. But notice Matt 5:20 – For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. Jesus objected to their teaching and practices on several levels, but the differences were not trivial or inconsequential. Jesus said these things would keep one out of the kingdom.
III. Points of Controversy: On what issues did Jesus and the Religious leaders (Pharisees and the Sadducees) disagree? Do these same issues create controversy today? Whose part do we take? Let me suggest five points of question and controversy found in the Jesus’ confrontation with His enemies: (John Stott, in his book, Christ, the Controversialist, mentions some of these as well).
- Authority: Tradition or Scripture. What is the source of God’s authority, Traditions of men or the scripture revealed by God? (Mark 7 – why do you transgress the traditions of the elders?)
- Salvation: Merit or Mercy. Is a person’s salvation based upon the merits of his life or the mercy of God? In whom do we trust? (Pharisee and the Publican contrasted)
- Morality: Outward or Inward. Does God look only outward at the hands, or does He look inward at the heart? Does one exclude the other? Why does Jesus call them hypocrites?
- The Sinner: withdraw or Engage. What is the Christian’s responsibility to those on the outside? Are we to shun them or engage them? Jesus was condemned for eating with sinners.
- Ambition: Our Glory or God’s Glory. Jesus criticized the Pharisees because they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God.
IV. Courage in Controversy: In the controversial events of Jesus’ ministry we see His courage. Jesus did not back away from or fear the confrontation. Although He was not contentious, He recognized the teaching opportunities that existed when truth and error were placed in conflict before others. Instead of attempting to avoid the conflict, so as to appear peaceful and amiable, He often openly challenged those who opposed Him.
A. Why did Jesus heal on the Sabbath? Did He just forget what day it was? I do not even think Jesus considered it irrelevant that it was the Sabbath. Rather He intentionally chose to do miracles on the Sabbath so as to engage the Pharisees in an open debate on the issue of His identity.
- John 7:21 – 21 Jesus answered and said to them, “I did one work, and you all marvel. What work is Jesus referring to? The healing of the lame man in John 5. That happened several months earlier when Jesus was in Jerusalem on a previous visit. He brings it back up again because it was the heart of the Jews objection to His teaching. Would it have been easier, and less controversial to just not mention it? But He is using their reasoning (and objection) against them to teach a further lesson on righteous judgment.
B. Jesus was like us. He was not acting as God, but as man in submission to God when he confronted evil in His life. He could have chosen, as we can, not to take a stand. But Jesus used even the most natural and common items and occurrences of his day to teach the truth to others.
V. How Did Jesus Engage Others in Controversy? What were His methods of teaching?
A. Jesus answered hypothetical questions by universally appealing to the scriptures alone. Read Matthew 22:29-33
1. Matt 22:29 – 29 Jesus answered and said to them, “You are mistaken, not knowing the Scriptures nor the power of God. Jesus says the Sadducees did not know the scriptures or the power of God. Both of these deficiencies flow from their unwillingness to listen to what God had revealed in scripture. Even though they were right in their rejection of the traditions of the elders (Pharisees) , they had failed to come to the right conclusions from the word.
a. Jesus would not allow others to pose moral or religious questions without appealing to God’s word. He spoke to issue at hand. The hypothetical situation posed did not prove anything.
b. God was powerful – He could change the physical to the spiritual. He could so transform the situation that the present circumstance of marriage did not even apply.
c. God had spoken – God had already said He was the God of those dead physically, but resurrected spiritually, and therefore still alive.
2. Another confrontation: Mark 2:23-28 – Now it happened that He went through the grain fields on the Sabbath; and as they went His disciples began to pluck the heads of grain. 24 And the Pharisees said to Him, “Look, why do they do what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” 25 But He said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he was in need and hungry, he and those with him: 26 how he went into the house of God in the days of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the showbread, which is not lawful to eat except for the priests, and also gave some to those who were with him?” 27 And He said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. 28 Therefore the Son of Man is also Lord of the Sabbath.”
a. Jesus was unwilling to simply argue about what was traditionally practiced or accepted. He desired for others to fully understand the meaning of scripture. (The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath).
b. Again Jesus points out that a disregard for God’s revealed truth is at the heart of the controversy. It is truth against error, not just a matter of opinion or taste. In vs. 10-13 He provided a specific application and example of their violation. Notice the contrast presented in vs. 13 – it is the tradition that you have handed down or the actual word of God. God never wants us to confuse the two. More on this later…
B. Jesus answered hypocritical questions by demanding consistent application of God’s word. Matt 21:23-27 – 23 Now when He came into the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people confronted Him as He was teaching, and said, “By what authority are You doing these things? And who gave You this authority?” 24 But Jesus answered and said to them, “I also will ask you one thing, which if you tell Me, I likewise will tell you by what authority I do these things: 25 The baptism of John — where was it from? From heaven or from men?” And they reasoned among themselves, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ He will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ 26 But if we say, ‘From men,’ we fear the multitude, for all count John as a prophet.” 27 So they answered Jesus and said, “We do not know.” And He said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.
1. Jesus was not being rude or evasive. He recognized the teaching opportunity in exposing the hypocrisy of his detractors, and demanding consistent application of God’s word.
C. An appeal to Scripture (the Law) would force Jesus’ opponent (or pupil) to draw a self-searching conclusion. Jesus was looking for personal applications. Luke 10:25-28 – And behold, a certain lawyer stood up and tested Him, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What is written in the law? What is your reading of it?” 27 So he answered and said,” ‘You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind,’ and ‘your neighbor as yourself.'” 28 And He said to him, “You have answered rightly; do this and you will live.”
1. Jesus immediately takes this lawyer to the law. (vs. 26) He also points out that the purpose of the law of love was to give life through the obedience of the individual. Jesus’ answer was comprehensive. If properly understood it was enough to encompass every individual act of obedience.
2. He knows the law, but that is not all that is required. He seems to reject the idea of application, in favor of discussion. He wanted to justify himself. (vs. 29)
3. So Jesus uses the story of the “good Samaritan” to bring home the application of the law. He sought to make this lawyer face his own bigotry (as he was called to support the actions of the Samaritan) and well as understand the full meaning of this law to his life. – “Go and do likewise”
Conclusion: In Mark’s parallel account in Mark 10 it tells us that Jesus looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “one thing you lack: Go your way, sell whatever you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, take up the cross, and follow Me.”
A. Jesus was a courageous teacher. He did not back down from controversy. Yet is all of the situations He was motivated by His love for those whom he taught. Jesus’ love for others demanded an appeal to truth. Paul asked rhetorically, “have I become your enemy because I tell you the truth”?
B. Luke 9:51-56 – 51 Now it came to pass, when the time had come for Him to be received up, that He steadfastly set His face to go to Jerusalem, 52 and sent messengers before His face. And as they went, they entered a village of the Samaritans, to prepare for Him. 53 But they did not receive Him, because His face was set for the journey to Jerusalem. 54 And when His disciples James and John saw this, they said, “Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them, just as Elijah did?” 55 But He turned and rebuked them, and said, “You do not know what manner of spirit you are of. 56 For the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them.” And they went to another village. God is not interested in winning arguments, but winning souls. We must be willing to follow Jesus into the fray, but never without his spirit.