Christians around the world began one of the most important seasons in the liturgical calendar this week: Advent. From the Latin word “coming,” Advent marks four weeks of anticipating and preparing for the coming of the savior of the world.
Of course, Christmas marks not the powerful and earth-shaking return of the savior at the eschaton. It is the quiet and seemingly inconsequential coming of a newborn baby in an impoverished manger, born of lowly Mary in the nowhere town of Bethlehem. Baby Jesus, meek and mild, we look upon this gentle child, as Charles Wesley put it long ago.
The infant savior was indeed meek and mild, the Prince of Peace, and many assume that he remained this way throughout his life. He did, to be sure, but he was not only this way as he grew. In his adult years, he also demonstrated a decidedly less gentle side that was just as much a part of Christ as his meekness and mildness. It is important that we know and appreciate this fullness of Jesus, his grace and his truth, his kindness and his severity, as we adequately prepare for his coming each year.
Was the Temple-Smashing a Fluke?
For most Christians, 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 kind, understanding, and patient.
Yes, there was that one time he got so angry that the temple had been turned into a swap meet run by unsavory merchants and money changers. He went off, fashioning a whip to clear the crowds and throwing the furniture around. Angry Jesus.
We also know Jesus wasn’t all peace, love, and understanding with the hypocritical religious leaders of the day who made the masses slaves to their burdensome religious laws. In all other instances, though, he was gentle, meek and mild. The rough side of Jesus is largely confined to these two instance in most minds that consider the savior.
It is indeed wonderful truth that when we are caught in some sort of besetting sin or want the sure promise of eternal joy, Jesus is who to go to. His grace and plan for humanity is exponentially kinder and more hopeful than Karma. But is there more to who Jesus is?
I wondered if it was only the money changers and Pharisees Christ got hard-core with. So I read the four gospels straight through in two sittings, putting aside previous conclusions from my own denominational traditions, to simply see what kind of Christ emerged from the plain text. It was an interesting and surprising exercise. I recommend it for believers and non-believers alike.
Take the Blinders Off and See Jesus as He Is
Two truths about Jesus seem to be at odds with the modern Christian understanding and presentation of God’s son. First, the God-man, unbound by time, held a decidedly ancient and unenlightened view of the world by contemporary standards. Second, he did hurt others’ feelings and didn’t apologize for it—and not just those of the religious fat cats of the day. Along with the tender Lamb of God, we find a lion as well. We must admit to and accept all of this if we want to know the whole divine person of Christ.
Let’s start with the first. In this modern, scientific age, it’s silly to believe that the devil, demons and hell exist. That’s old-school, and not the good kind. Best-selling Christian preachers have told us as much. But Jesus is unapologetically old-school. As we read the gospels straight through, it cannot be missed that he talked quite often about Satan, evil, and demonic possession. Doing exorcisms was all in a day’s work. Jesus speaks of Satan and his legions of demons as actual beings that roam and rule the earth, possessing and ravaging people relentlessly. His deliverance is not real if demons are not real.
Jesus dropped a bomb on a large group of everyday Jews, declaring they were not the children of Abraham, but “of your father the devil.” Mistake No. 1 in winning friends and influencing people is telling folks they are sons of the devil. Leaves a bad taste.
Why did he speak in these ways? Because he actually believed it. Those who say they take Jesus seriously must as well. It’s why he gave his disciples power over Satan and his minions. He knew they would face them just as he did.
Jesus Believes in Judgment
Jesus also believes the old Sunday-school flannel board stories. He tells us that what happened to Sodom and Gomorrah was literal and horrid. He uses those cities as the illustration of severe judgment many times throughout the gospels, including what would happen to the towns and their citizens that didn’t welcome his disciples.
He believes that Jonah actually lived three days in the real belly of a real fish. He believes God created a real Adam and Eve and that their son Cain truly murdered his brother Abel. He believes Noah and his ark are factual. He gives no hint these were merely instructive folk tales. Jesus was not an enlightened modernist. In fact, he even doubled down on some Old Testament laws (here and here, for instance).
Second, Jesus also believed in the reality of sin, its seriousness, the need for repentance, and the punishment of a real hell. Literally. Flames and great suffering. He talked about them regularly. The reader can’t avoid it in the text. He didn’t speak of sin and hell conceptually or metaphorically, but personalized this bad news to actual people, face to face.
Jesus advised them, if your eye or hand causes you to sin, pluck it out or cut it off. This was more desirable than your whole body being tossed into eternal hell. He actually uses the word. His dramatic advice on the first was figurative in order to illustrate the real-life seriousness of the latter. I would have chosen softer words, but I’m not him.
In parables, Jesus likened some folks to weeds to whom 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.” Just so his listeners get the full weight of things, Jesus adds, “In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Elsewhere, 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, in the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” He says that all those who do not make their home with Jesus will be gathered up like dead branches and tossed into the burning fire.
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 might be inclined to remind him honey attracts more bees than vinegar. He would remind us he knows what he’s doing. He only does what his father does.
This May Be Why Christmas Is Linked to the Apocalypse
With all the talk of hell and damnation, 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. His father leaves it to his son to execute judgment. Jesus is clear his judgment doesn’t turn out well for the great majority.
There’s the separation of the sheep from the goats, the wheat from the weeds, those who are lifted to life and those who “have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment.” It wasn’t only the hypocritical religious leaders of the day who received this message. Christ warned some common folks that if they didn’t repent, they would all perish in unspeakable ways.
Later, preaching to those in another town, he warned that few would be saved, that his way is quite narrow and not many would pass through. Most will be cast out as “workers of evil” into the place of eternal “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” A lot of teeth-gnashing talk.
Lastly, the scriptures conclude in the Apostle John’s “Revelation” with an extremely distressing Jesus. Consider this reality. One day in the gospels, John, the disciple Jesus loved dearly, was warmly reclining on the savior’s chest at the Passover meal. At the cross, Jesus entrusted this same John with the great honor of caring for his cherished mother.
But when John 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. John shook at his deafening voice, which was like the roar of many mighty waters. The Lord’s face scalds the eye like the noon-day sun, and one can only look away. From the Prince of Peace’s mouth came a massive and mighty sword with two razor-sharp edges with which he will strike down the nations.
His rule will be with an unforgiving iron rod. John is told of the furious wrath of God. Revelation Jesus, the very same tender baby Jesus of the manger, is fierce beyond description. Even John, with whom he shared the most tender friendship, is thoroughly undone.
What Happens When Jesus Shows Up
Jesus then puts this icing on the cake. We all want to be loved. We want people to accept us. We want others to think that what we believe is great. We want to attract, rather than repel. That is human nature.
But Jesus tells us numerous times that we will be hated by all nations merely by being identified by his name, just as he is hated because he tells us our works are evil. If offence must be given, we must make sure that it’s the truth of God’s word, the reality of Christ’s cross, and the necessary call to repentance that brings it, not our own dumb or arrogant behavior.
Jesus indeed has distinct sides to him, but they all make up a divine harmony. Hell-fire Jesus and Amazing-Grace Jesus are never at conflict but illuminate the other. It is wrong to emphasize one over the other. There is no Either/Or Jesus, only Both/And Jesus.
This is what makes him a wonderful and attractive God, and why he has literally changed the world and the course of mankind. His Good News is really good because it overcomes really, really bad news. The former is mere sentimentality without the latter. The latter is hopelessly cruel without the former.
But we must be honest. Name the last time you heard a sermon or read a book roundly presenting Hellfire Jesus. Seriously. It’s likely you never have. We mostly get Happy Jesus. Yet to preach only Happy Jesus is to do what A.W. Tozer warned about in a strongly titled and worded essay, “I Call it Heresy”: “To urge men and women to believe in a divided Christ is bad teaching for no one can receive half of Christ.”
A Half Christ Is Forgiveness Without Repentance
A Half Christ is what the great 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 Dietrich Bonhoeffer called cheap grace, “the deadly enemy of our Church.”
Cheap grace is “the justification of sin without the justification of the repentant sinner.” “Grace alone does everything…” as Bonhoeffer describes the cheapening of grace, “and so everything can remain as it was before.” Cheap grace “therefore amounts to a denial of the living Word of God, in fact, a denial of the Incarnation of the Word of God.”
This is simply not the Christ of scripture. Christ’s grace is costly because our collective sin was so great, so damningly consequential that it cost God what was most dear to him, his only son. He offers his costly grace freely to all who seek his forgiveness for their transgressions, turn from their sin and live to follow and love him with all their hearts.
That is indeed the very good news that overcomes desperately bad news. It’s the unmistakable gospel of the one and only Jesus Christ, the one to which his church must be absolutely faithful. Half Jesus is not who the world is looking for. This is the one we prepare for in this Advent season. May it be so.