Christians around the world have begun one of the most important seasons in our calendar: Advent. As we remember the arrival of our Savior in God’s incarnation, it is a good time to consider the fullness of Jesus. He is indeed the comforting, welcoming Prince of Peace. But Jesus also demonstrated a decidedly less gentle side, one that too many of us are not terribly comfortable with. It is important that as we sojourn through our Advent preparation, we see Jesus in His biblical fullness.
If you hear someone say, “Well, what about Jesus turning over the tables of the money changers?” you likely know the topic under discussion. It’s the stock response one gives to the assertion that Jesus was always about peace, love and understanding. Yes, there was that one incident of violence in the Temple. Angry Jesus. We also know that Jesus was exceedingly harsh with the hypocritical religious leaders of the day.
Unfortunately, the dominant script today has it that in all other instances He was gentle and appealing. This is simply untrue. Just take time to read the Gospels straight through and we clearly see a more complex, multi-layered Jesus emerge from the plain text.
There are two truths about Jesus that seem to be at odds with the modern, happy understanding and presentation of God’s Son.
First, the God-man, unbound by time, held a decidedly ancient and “unenlightened” view of the world. Second, He regularly hurt folks’ feelings and did so without apology. The tender Lamb of God is also a fierce lion.
Let’s start with the first.
In this modern, scientific age, it is silly to believe that an actual devil, demons, and hell exist. But Jesus is unapologetically Old School. Reading the Gospels straight through, it cannot be missed that He talked quite often about Satan, evil and demonic possession. Each were extremely real to Him. Doing exorcisms was all in a day’s work and Jesus’ deliverance is for nothing if demons don’t exist.
Jesus dropped a bomb on a large group of everyday Jews who the scriptures say were very favorable to His message. He told them they were not the children of Abraham, but “of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires.” That’s rough stuff, telling folks they’re sons of the devil. He spoke this way because He believed it. And He left them to wrestle with that truth.
Jesus was certainly not “enlightened” by today’s fashionable standards. He believes the old Sunday school stories. His take is that Sodom and Gomorrah was literal and horrid, using those cities as the illustration of severe judgment throughout the Gospels. He believes that Jonah actually lived three days in the real belly of a real fish. He believes in an Adam and Eve and that their son Cain truly murdered his brother Abel. He believes Noah, the flood and his ark are factual. All part of God’s judgment. He gives no hint these were merely instructive folk tales.
Second, Jesus also believed in the reality of sin, the need for repentance, and the punishment of a real hell where people weep and gnash their teeth. Yes, it is uncomfortable and unattractive, but He spoke of it regularly. We’ve not room to list all the instances here. Nor did He speak of sin and hell conceptually or metaphorically, but personalized this bad news to actual people in vibrant ways. They easily grasped his full meaning and He left them with it.
Jesus likened some folks to weeds who, in His words, He will “send His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace” where “there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
He explains how the final judgment will work.
One group who does His will is welcomed into His Kingdom. To the other, He says, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” Jesus also warned the crowds not to fear those who can kill the body, “but fear Him, who after He has killed, has authority to cast into hell.” If we were Jesus’ tour manager, we would be inclined to remind Him honey attracts more bees. But Jesus doesn’t need our P.R. help. He would remind us that He’s got this, only doing what His Father does.
Jesus is not shy in telling us He can be a harsh judge. He came into the world to judge and is eager (eager!) to cast fire upon the earth. It wasn’t only the hypocritical religious leaders of the day who received this message. He warned everyday folks who came to Him that if they didn’t repent, they would all perish in unspeakable ways. Most will be cast out as “workers of evil” into the place of eternal “weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Lastly, God’s Word concludes in John’s Revelation with an extremely distressing Jesus. He is down-right frightening. John, who once rested upon the Savior’s breast and was given care over our Lord’s mother, encounters Jesus some years later in the Revelation. It wasn’t a happy reunion. John fell as if dead before the Jesus whose eyes are fire. Jesus told him, “Fear not.” From the Prince of Peace’s mouth came a massive and mighty sword with razored edges with which He will strike down the nations. Revelation Jesus, the very same tender Christmas manger baby, is fierce beyond description.
Jesus indeed has distinct sides to Him. Some are beautiful and welcoming. Others are deeply unsettling. But they all make up a divine harmony that is the Son of God. Hell-fire Jesus and Amazing-grace Jesus are never in conflict with one another, just as God’s grace is never at odds with His judgement. Each illuminates the other.
And yes, it is wrong and imbalanced to emphasize one at the exclusion of the other. His Good News is really good because it overcomes really, really bad news. After all, the cross is the central symbol Christians identify themselves with.
Half Jesus is exactly what the great theologian H. Richard Niebuhr famously denounced in the liberal theology of his day.
A God without wrath
brought men without sin
into a Kingdom without judgment
through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.
Half Jesus brings what the great Bonhoeffer called cheap grace, “the deadly enemy of our Church.”
Christ’s grace is costly because our collective sin was so great that it cost God what was most dear to Him, His only Son. And Advent is the beginning of that drama. Jesus offers His costly grace freely to all who seek His profound forgiveness for their deadly transgressions, turn from their sin, and live to follow and love Him with all their hearts.
Half Jesus is certainly not who the world is looking for. He is not who God sent to us. Thus the Church must preach and present the fullness of the One of the sacred Gospels. To do anything less is to preach a manufactured, hobbled Christ.
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