Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Balancing Act of Jesus

One thing that has always puzzled me about the ministry of Jesus is why he would exert so much effort to squash the buzz surrounding him. There are seven separate occasions recorded in the book of Mark where Jesus instructed the recipient of a healing miracle to "Tell no one!" Even more fascinating are the accounts of Jesus telling demons to be silent when they cry "You are the Son of God!" as they are cast out. Luke says that he rebuked them and would not allow them to speak, because they knew he was the Christ (4:41).

However, I think these are indicators of the type of ministry Jesus was setting out to create. He was not simply trying to bring the kingdom of heaven to earth with his teachings. He wasn't just aiming to start a movement. He didn't want to amass a large group of followers. At least not yet.

Jesus, from the very beginning, had his eyes set on the cross. He knew that all his teachings and ministry would be futile if atonement was never made for the sinfulness of mankind. No amount of wisdom from the mouth of God would accomplish what he knew must take place through the cross in his death and resurrection.

Jesus had to keep his followers few enough, his teachings hard enough, and his identity vague enough that the cross would become a reality.

So with this little insight, many strange things in the Gospels start to fall into place. Two of the three recorded temptations from Satan in the wilderness would have instantly revealed Jesus' true identity and drawn the militant masses ready to fight Rome in the name of the Messiah. The same would have taken place if all the healed were proclaiming him. This also would explain why Jesus snapped "Get behind me, Satan!" when Peter tried to dissuade him at saying he would die in Jerusalem. When an overt temptation to bypass the cross failed in the desert, Satan tried again in the form of a trusted friend.

Jesus would be seen as Messiah all the more by the masses if the demons were allowed to proclaim the truth that he was the Son of God as they were cast out. Instead, when Jesus was asked by whose authority he performed his miracles, he replied with a question. When his challengers were unable to answer his question, he said "Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things". Even so Jesus, on at least one occasion, had to escape "knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force".

And it was not just the masses who had trouble deciding about Jesus. In an amazing twist, John the Baptist, while in prison, sent a few of his own followers to ask Jesus if he was the Messiah or if they should expect someone else. This from the very person who prepared the way for Jesus and even proclaimed him the Lamb of God at his baptism.

And what of all his hard teachings? Hate your brother and mother and father? Eat my body? Drink my blood? Tear this temple down and in three days I will raise it up? Through the lens of the cross and the harmony of Scripture we see the truth and beauty of his words, but on the front end of his death he sounded kinda nutty. Though the disciples knew he had the "words of eternal life", there are several points recorded in the Gospels where they grasped Jesus' teaching only after his resurrection and glorification. And while the disciples hung on and remembered even when they didn't understand, many others were driven away by Jesus words.

This starts to become quite distressing when considering all the people "driven away" from the Gospel by Jesus himself! That is, of course, unless Jesus "knew what was in a man" and knew that many had just come to be entertained by the talk of the town. Disturbing, unless Jesus knew that "All that the Father gives me will come to me", and "No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him". Confusing, unless Jesus spoke in parables precisely to weed out those who, "Though seeing they do not see, and though hearing they do not hear or understand". The behavior of Jesus is quite frustrating unless he has a cool confidence in the sovereignty and election of God to bring all the sheep out from among the rebellious and cold-hearted wolves into the fold of the Shepherd and not lose one.

So throughout the Gospels I see a balancing act emerging, a tight-rope walk on the part of Jesus. His words of life tempered by hard teachings. Questions answered contrasted with questions left unanswered. Jesus proclaiming his own divinity (often vaguely) but squashing overt proclamations from the demons. Miracles performed followed by miracles refused. Crowds drawn and beckoned, and then driven away. All this to ensure the climax and apex of his incarnation, his death and resurrection. If you still find this hard to believe, consider Jesus' own words to his disciples: "What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the roofs." Jesus himself was aware that he was whispering in the dark during his own ministry.

Jesus' goal on earth was never to evangelize the nations himself. In deed, his ministry was quite localized and relatively brief. Rather, his goal was to prepare a small group of followers and equip them with the "words of eternal life" and the Holy Spirit so that they were prepared to go to the nations after he had purchased salvation for the world. This is why Jesus kept his followers few enough, his teachings hard enough, and his identity vague enough that the cross would become a reality.

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