It’s very complex,” you would hear a peasant living in Roman-period Palestine sigh when asked about politics and religion in his town.
Jesus Claims the Center
By Gerald A. Klingbeil
It’s very complex,” you would hear a peasant living in Roman-period Palestine sigh when asked about politics and religion in his town. Besides the daily struggle to survive, people living in first-century A.D. Palestine had to contest with oppressive Roman occupation, local leaders desperate for more power, nationalist parties who were ready to start the rebellion tomorrow—and religion. Religion played a major role and was entangled in everything. It affected dress style; what, when, and how to eat; how to relate to other people; and even covered what should be planted in one’s field.
“It’s very complex” was the refrain of everyday life in Roman-controlled Palestine when Jesus was born in “the fullness of the time” (Gal. 4:4).
“It’s very complex” marked His interaction with Jewish leadership, including scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees. “It’s very complex” also sounds familiar to people living in the twenty-first century, regardless of where you live. Whether in secular Europe or in a favela in Brazil; whether in the politically charged atmosphere of Washington, D.C., or in strife-torn Syria or Iraq: we live in a fragmented world, divided by profound religious, political, or economic convictions.
Even in our own church we can see increasing fragmentation instead of the utterly committed interaction and integration Jesus prayed for in John 17:21. Just throw out hot-button issues like “women’s ordination,” “spiritual formation,” or “creation and evolution and Genesis 1” in a fellowship lunch conversation after church, and you will most likely be part of a fervent discussion, often leading participants to look suspiciously on those with different opinions.
How did Jesus live in such a divisive context? How did He relate to those on the “right” or the “left” of religious opinion? How did the Savior of our world (not just the known Roman or Mediterranean world) manage to be faithful to His own divinely established principles, yet stay fully engaged in His world?
Jesus and Conflict
Conflict was a staple in Jesus’ ministry. Not that He looked for it; rather, it seems, His mere presence caused people to take a stand. Some were strongly opposed to the Upstart from Nazareth. Others were intrigued or just stood by and watched conflict unfold. Mostly, Jesus’ antagonists belonged to the leadership circle of Jerusalem. John calls them “the Jews” (John 1:19; 2:18; 5:16-18; 6:41; etc.); on other occasions they are introduced as scribes, elders, or rulers (Matt. 9:3; 16:21; Mark 3:22; Luke 23:35; etc.), or, more specifically, as Pharisees and Sadducees (Matt. 3:7; 9:11; 16:1, 12; Mark 12:18; for more about the religious groups of first-century Palestine, see the sidebar).
Conflict was also present in Jesus’ inner circle. At times we find Him reprimanding His own disciples as they, too, struggled to make sense of their world, their Master’s mission, the traditions they had grown up with, and their own human (and thus fallen) nature. Just remember the repeated discussions about who would be the greatest in God’s kingdom (Mark 9:34; Luke 22:24).
Yet, in the midst of conflict, Jesus was always willing to engage everyone, even His avowed enemies. For example, we find Jesus in an intimate nighttime conversation with Nicodemus, a Pharisee, and one of the leaders of the Sanhedrin (John 3:1). Jesus can also be seen in the house of Simon, another Pharisee, who was giving a party in His honor (Luke 7:36-50). Scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, rulers, and teachers of the law always seem to be around Jesus, listening carefully to His reasoning, arguing stringently their convictions, disagreeing violently, and, finally, plotting desperately to silence the One they just could not prevail upon.
At times Jesus responds in creative and surprising ways to traps laid out by some of His opponents. Remember the time when the unholy alliance of Pharisees and Herodians wanted to know if it was “lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not” (Matt. 22:17; cf. verses15-28)? They thought they had Him cornered, yet His unexpected response amazed them and left them wringing their hands in frustration.
One reason Jesus caused Jewish leadership so much grief was that He could not be easily stuck at some spot along the theological spectrum of His time. One moment He “silences” the Sadducees when He responds to their misguided trick questions regarding the resurrection (verses 23-33); then He navigates expertly a tricky and delicate question regarding the “greatest commandment in the Law” (verse 36, NIV) put forward by the Pharisees. Again and again He refuses to answer their faithless demand for a sign (Matt. 12:38-45; 16:1-4),1 but on other occasions engages them directly in discussions (Matt. 22:41-46).
Matthew’s Gospel includes one of Jesus’ most noteworthy interactions with Pharisees, scribes, and the teachers of the law. In a series of seven woes Jesus laments the spiritual pride and blindness of His opponents (Matt. 23).
In Hebrew culture a woe indicated mourning and imminent (or recent) death. Just reading the text without hearing the tone of His voice, we could come to the conclusion that these were the words of an angry Jesus. Yet we know that Jesus’ mission at that moment was not one of retaliation, anger, or an irritated temper; instead, His rebuke was marked by a spirit of compassion and a plea to return. “Divine pity marked the countenance of the Son of God,” writes Ellen White, “as He cast one lingering look upon the temple and then upon His hearers. In a voice choked by deep anguish of heart and bitter tears He exclaimed, ‘O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!’ . . . In the lamentation of Christ the very heart of God is pouring itself forth.”2
Claiming God’s Center
Jesus’ interaction with people around Him was not guided by “political correctness” or strategic opportunities. Instead, driven by a love that “wilt not let me go” (as nineteenth-century Scottish minister George Matheson wrote), He knew Himself in the center of God’s will. This attracted people to Him. Jesus was truly different: He spoke differently; His theology was understandable and of the salt-and-earth type everybody could appreciate; His humility was exemplary; His drive to alleviate suffering seemed indefatigable.
Just hang on, you may say, did you not just list all the moments of, at times, eye-popping conflict in the life of Jesus—and now you suggest that, in spite of seemingly constant conflict, He managed to reach His world? Yes—and yes. While Jesus did not shirk from conflict—especially theological conflict—He picked His battles carefully, and He never fell into the trap of putting people into neatly marked categories. You know—the type that says “liberal,” “conservative,” “ultraconservative,” “mainstream,” or “does not care.” Whether Pharisee or Sadducee, rich or poor, educated or illiterate, Jesus saw the person, not the theological bent. Yet He never wavered on truth and divinely established principles.
A year ago I spent a summer reading again through the Gospels. It was vacation time; I had more time with the Word than would be available when working in a busy editorial office, and felt intrigued by how Jesus engaged the theologians and leaders of His time. Six important principles stuck out as I
followed Jesus through the pages of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
Jesus never picked sides—rather, He engaged Scripture. While Pharisees focused on the Torah and ritual purity and the law’s intricacies pertaining to anise and cummin (Matt. 23:23), the Sadducees, at the other end of the theological spectrum, ignored the Word because they doubted its inspiration. Their enlightened Hellenistic thinking abhorred the primitive literalness of their theological opponents. Jesus clearly identified this when He summarized the Sadducees’ dilemma as “you do not know the Scriptures nor the power of God” (Mark 12:24). When we consider Jesus, however, we hear Him constantly quoting and explaining texts from the Word.
Jesus focused upon His mission—God’s mission—and did not get sidetracked by power games and theological sparring. Following the healing of Simon’s mother-in-law, and a multitude of others, Jesus prayed in a quiet place (Mark 1:29-39). The disciples were still awed by what they had seen the previous day. This was the moment to solidify their gains in Capernaum. Everybody was looking for Jesus. However, instead of solidifying, Jesus moved out—His mission so much bigger than Capernaum. “Let us go into the next towns,” Jesus says to Peter, “that I may preach there also, because for this purpose I have come forth” (Mark 1:38). Somehow, it seems mission-mindedness goes a long way to overcoming theological stalemates.
Jesus engaged all people, even His enemies. We already noted that His love for people drove every action. Here is another great example. We can find the story in Matthew 19:16-24: A ruler tosses Jesus a tough yet vital question: “What . . . shall I do that I may have eternal life?”
I am sure everybody listened in on this one. Jesus highlights the second part of the Decalogue, the commandments governing human relations. “All these things I have kept from my youth,” the ruler replies. Jesus never questions this statement, but puts His finger right on the sore spot: “Sell what you have . . .” You remember the rest of the story. The ruler turned away sorrowful because he had great possessions. Jesus does not turn away; He looks at him—sorrowful and lovingly.
Jesus recognized the importance of the prophetic word. He came on time; He ministered on time; and He died on time (cf. Dan. 9:24-27). In His preaching, Jesus identified God’s plan proclaimed by the prophets of old. Following the imprisonment of John, Jesus left Nazareth and made Capernaum the center of His operation. Matthew 4:14 tells us that He did this to fulfill prophecy (cf. Isa. 9:1, 2). When Jesus was traveling outside of Palestine along the Mediterranean coast in the region of Tyre and Sidon and a woman pleading for her sick daughter followed Him, He recognized that His ministry was first “to the lost sheep of . . . Israel” (Matt. 15:24). Every moment of His ministry was in harmony with the prophetic word.
Jesus spoke in a different way. Somehow, beyond the miracles and the signs, Jesus’ audience recognized this difference. Matthew summarizes His wow effect like this: “The people were astonished at His teaching, for He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (Matt. 7:28, 29). Jesus not only used fresh and accessible language—He spoke with authority, something that His opponents could not muster. The Pharisees were experts in the oral traditions of the law; the Sadducees spoke Greek fluently and tried to assimilate to Hellenistic culture. Yet Jesus spoke with an authority that did not come from an office or an appointment.
Jesus ultimately exhibited God’s power. Beyond the talk there was action. He demonstrated God’s power, and people were “amazed” (Matt. 12:23; Mark 1:27). Instead of empty word shells, Jesus’ healing ministry touched a raw nerve of people hungering for God-with-us: a God who would touch and embrace His creation and walk with them on the dusty and dirty roads of a world that was (and still is) searching for authenticity.
It’s Very Complex
Can we learn from the Master as we try to navigate the complexities of a church facing a crucial General Conference session in San Antonio this year? Can we discover how He engages people of all stripes and colors? Jesus’ focus upon God’s revealed Word—in its entirety and recognizing Scripture-based principles of interpretation—and His ability to continue the conversation with all people challenges me. I tend to listen to people whose positions I like, and get sidetracked by those I don’t.
His focus on His mission—our mission—and the recognition of the importance of the prophetic word is a good reminder of first things first. Finally, there is the crucial question of whether our engagement is based on God’s authority (and not mine) and accompanied by God’s power (or lack thereof).
No doubt: it’s very complex. No doubt: we have been hurt. But we are called, together, to move forward and claim the place where Jesus is: right in the center of God’s will. n
1 Jesus did promise them the “sign of Jonah” (Luke 11:29; Matt. 12:39; 16:4).
2 Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1898), p. 620.
Gerald A. Klingbeil serves as associate editor of Adventist World. A some-time Pharisee and a some-time Sadducee, Gerald is happy to find his center in Jesus.