We believe the things about Jesus that are important to us personally—we insist that these are the essential things—and we leave everything else in a category called “optional” or “for extra credit.”
Most Evangelical Christians believe, for example, that Jesus is loving, that he has personally forgiven them for their sins, and that as a result they will go to heaven when they die.
But there’s something interesting about that belief:
It costs us nothing. It changes us not at all.
It can exist as pleasant background noise, like leaving the TV on while we get ready for work in the morning, or leaving the radio on in the car during our commute.
But once we get to the office, the gospel is a difference that makes very little difference in most Christians’ everyday lives. Like the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, we can walk away from Jerusalem more or less believing that Jesus’ tomb is empty, and yet we can still be sad. Our eyes can still be blinded because we may believe that Jesus saved us, but we can’t believe that he has redeemed Israel—meaning, we can’t believe that the day of the Lord has been inaugurated and all eighteen dimensions of what the prophets foretold are exploding around us as one age grinds to an end and a new one begins.
And we’re not alone in that. In fact, if you read the story of Jesus carefully in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, you’ll see that from the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, people struggled to believe that all that he was saying was true. There were parts of it that they found easy to believe. If all Jesus had shared was the gospel that many evangelicals believe today—“I am God in the flesh. I have come to die for your sins. Load them up on my back and I will carry them to the Cross where God will punish me instead of you”—I think he would have been the most popular man in Jerusalem! I think people would have carried the cross for him! “Go Jesus go!”
But from the very outset, it was Jesus’ insistence that all that the prophets had spoken was being fulfilled in his ministry—that all eighteen dimensions of the day of the Lord were being inaugurated by him—that caused people to stumble and ultimately reject him because they didn’t see all these promises coming to pass in his ministry.
Remember, for example, the first public announcement of his ministry in Luke 4. That’s the one where he was in his hometown synagogue and he said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor,” etc—“today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” When he finished his message, his hearers first “spoke well of him and marveled at his gracious words” (v. 22)…and then they literally tried to throw him off a cliff (v. 30)!
And remember what we mentioned earlier: Even after Jesus was raised from the dead, amidst reports that he might yet be alive, his disciples were sad—because from what they could see he had clearly failed to redeem Israel.
Even the guy you would think would be Jesus’ biggest supporter—John the Baptist—the forerunner—the prophet—the Elijah sent to prepare the way for Jesus—was confused by Jesus’ insistence that the kingdom of God was at hand. Check out Matthew 11:2-6:
2Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples 3and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” 4And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. 6And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”
Don’t misunderstand this Scripture. It sounds like Jesus is saying, “Hey, come on, John—I’m doing the best that I can here! Isn’t this impressive enough for you?”
But that’s not at all what Jesus is saying. To understand John’s confusion—and the confusion of many (including perhaps even Judas, who betrayed Jesus)—you have to go back to the expectation of the prophets about “the great and terrible day of the Lord.”
You don’t even need to go back to the Old Testament for such prophecies; John himself repeats these same messages when he is preparing the way for “the one who is to come”. Let’s look at John the Baptist’s prophecy in Matthew 3:10-12. John says:
10“Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
11“I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
Like all the Old Testament prophets, John saw “the day of the Lord” as the end of history. The earth would shake, stars would fall from the skies, and fire would descend from heaven to consume the unrighteous. Then Jesus shows up, and John recognizes him as the one who is to come—in John 1:29 he says, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” And in 1:32 he says, “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him.” And then in 1:33-34 he says, “This is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit. And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.”
But then as Jesus’ ministry gets underway, John can’t help but notice that the earth isn’t shaking and the stars aren’t falling from the skies. No sign of burning chaff or unquenchable fire. The world was continuing on as it always had…yet Jesus insisted that the day of the Lord was at hand at the kingdom of God had come. John couldn’t figure it out. And neither could the religious leaders. It violated everything they knew from the Old Testament about the day of the Lord. So it’s no wonder that the religious leaders rejected him so completely.
It was in fact quite ridiculous if you think about it: Jesus claimed that the very kingdom of God was at hand and that the day of the Lord had come…and all that he had to show for it was a small band of tax collectors, prostitutes, and fishermen who didn’t even wash their hands before they ate! These were the “chaff” that were supposed to be consumed by the fire, poked by the winnowing fork! Instead, they were the only ones who believed Jesus, and he insisted that they were entering the kingdom of God ahead of the righteous (cf. Matthew 31)! Worse, he insisted that they were the righteous ones because they believed in him!
We are wrong to simplify this by saying, “The Pharisees and the religious leaders were trying to work their way to heaven. They rejected Jesus because he said you could only get to heaven by grace.” The concept of grace runs way, way deep in the Old Testament. Jesus’ challenge to the Pharisees wasn’t faith versus works; it was his claim that the kingdom of God had come in him—that he was inaugurating the day of the Lord—that all that the prophets had written was coming to pass in him—despite the fact that everything the Pharisees and John the Baptist and the religious leaders knew about the day of the Lord wasn’t happening. God’s enemies remained in power. Fire did not fall from heaven. Mountains did not shake. Not everyone who came to Jesus was healed. And he surrounded himself with those whom the Old Testament prophets had clearly said would not inherit the kingdom of God:
- tax collectors who had collaborated with God’s enemies;
- prostitutes who had defiled their bodies for money;
- ordinary people who hardly even knew God’s law and who often did not obey it.
And in response to it all, Jesus talked about a mystery. He said to his followers in Matthew 13:11-12, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.”
In other words, to those who believed him, Jesus explained things. To those who didn’t, he never sought to justify or explain himself. Not even to John the Baptist! He just pointed to what could be seen. And in fact he goes on in Matthew 13:12 to say, “For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” Believe Jesus even when you don’t understand, and he’ll open the mysteries to you. But if you struggle to believe in him or what he says, even what little faith you have will evaporate.
So what was the mystery he shared with those who believed?
We’ll save that for our next post. After all, what would a good mystery be without at least a little suspense?