Scripture: John 4; 2 Timothy 3:16-17
Leading Question: Was Jesus always gentle in his ministry?
Human beings are visionary creatures. Isaiah’s vegetarian kingdom is a powerful, tantalizing, and attractive vision, even if we can scarcely imagine it:
Isaiah 11:6-9 (NRSV):
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
7 The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
9 They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.
Similarly, the idealistic side of our nature can tempt some of us to see Jesus’ entire ministry as one of pure gentleness. He took the little children into his arms and blessed them (Mark 10:16), a huge contrast with the God of Sinai who warned Moses that whoever touched the mountain, whether human or animal, must be put to death, “stoned or shot with arrows” (Exod. 19:12, 13).
On the other hand, some of us, seeking to recover a more rigorous view of the divine presence, may point to Jesus’ cleansing of the temple to illustrate their point. But as one author has pointed out, when Jesus cleansed the temple, he attacked the furniture, not the people (cf. Matt. 21:12-13). And what was so astonishing about Jesus’ anger in that setting was that the evil people fled in terror, but the children came running to him (cf. Matt. 21:14-16). I would give anything to be able to display that kind of anger.
Question: What examples in the New Testament point to a more rigorous side of Jesus’ nature?
Example: Woes against the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 23)
Example: Command to the young ruler to sell all and give to the poor (Luke 18:22)
Counter-example: Zacchaeus who was allowed to keep much of his wealth (Luke 19:8, 9)
In short, Jesus was very pragmatic. He could be firm or gentle, as needed. The apostles were also very pragmatic, realizing that some needed more muscle, some less. As Paul put it: “What would you prefer? Am I to come to you with a stick, or with love in a spirit of gentleness?” (1 Cor. 4:21, NRSV).
Question: According to New Testament, how approachable was Jesus, understanding Jesus to be God in the flesh?
The testimony of Jesus’ followers:
1 John 1:1-4 (NRSV): “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life – 2 this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us – 3 we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. 4 We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.”
Question: What clues might be found in the Old Testament of God’s ultimate goal as revealed in Jesus?
“Law” as an example. To ears attuned to English, the word “law” has a rigorous sound. You’ve never heard anyone say, “It’s the law!” with a smile on their face. But the Hebrew word torah is a much friendlier term, pointing to wholesomeness and health. Psalm 119 points to this positive perspective! The longest psalm in the Bible celebrates law, torah, wholeness. And when Moses touted this positive side of “law” to the people, he noted that even Israel’s pagan neighbors would be attracted by Israel’s “laws”:
Deut. 4:5-8, NRSV: “See, just as the Lord my God has charged me, I now teach you statutes and ordinances for you to observe in the land that you are about to enter and occupy. 6 You must observe them diligently, for this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!’ 7 For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is whenever we call to him? 8 And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today?”
Jesus’ ministry, in sum. If we are to minister “like Jesus,” we will be attentive to whatever the people need. Matthew tells us at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, how the people reacted to Jesus’ teaching: “Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, 29 for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes” (Matt. 7:28-29, NRSV). His teaching, his healing ministry, his example, is for us to follow.