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When Jesus Doesn’t Seem Gentle

Admiring the Toughness of Christ

Making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple. (John 2:15)

He made a whip. Gentle Jesus, meek and mild. It was “a whip of cords,” John reports. Whether any human or animal actually caught it on the backside, we don’t know. We might reasonably doubt he drew any blood. After all, he came to Jerusalem to spill his own blood, not to take it from others. Either way, we do know the whip was effective. “He drove them all out of the temple.”

True, this was an unusual event, but it was not unique — he would do it again at the outset of his Passion Week (Matthew 21:12–13). Jesus didn’t go around wielding whips on a regular basis. He didn’t keep a whip or weapon on his belt. But he also wasn’t afraid to pick one up from time to time. So we dare not reduce the God-man to someone too docile to do anything but play nice and keep thin peace.

He was tender. Oh, the compassion of Christ — a virtue attributed only to Christ, and no other, in the Gospels. His tenderness led him to heal lepers (Luke 17:13–14), to restore sight to the blind (Luke 18:38–42), to help a grieving widow (Luke 7:13) and the distressed father of a demonized son (Mark 9:22). He had compassion on the crowds (Mark 6:34). Even as God in the flesh, without any sin of his own, his life was not driven by righteous anger but sustained by joy. He was known for his compassion.

His wonderful, welcoming tenderness, however, need not rule out his holy strength and grit. In fact, it must not. If he had no spine, it wouldn’t be nearly so precious to know his heart.

His Piercing Tongue

His tenderness, which we love and so desperately need, is all the more striking because of his toughness toward sin and unbelief. His compassion for the afflicted would be undermined if not flanked by righteous anger toward their afflicters. He emphatically did not demonstrate compassion for wicked kings, conniving priests, and self-righteous Pharisees — which makes his tenderness all the more precious as he turns to his trusting sheep.

“It is often the offensive side of Jesus that we need most,” writes John Piper.

Especially offensive to the modern, western sentiment is the tough, blunt, fierce form of Jesus’s love. People with thin skin would have often felt hurt by Jesus’s piercing tongue. People who identify love only with soft and tender words and ways would have been repeatedly outraged by the stinging, almost violent, language of the Lord. (Seeing and Savoring Jesus Christ, 93)

“Christ’s tenderness is all the more striking because of his toughness toward sin and unbelief.”

In Christ, we see that compassion incarnate will, at times, take up the veritable whip of strong words to sting imperiled addressees. Memorable, of course, is Jesus’s pronouncement of sevenfold woe on the Pharisees (Matthew 23:1–36). To their faces, he said they were “like whitewashed tombs” (Matthew 23:27), “like unmarked graves” (Luke 11:44). Jesus found himself in the midst of a “faithless generation” (Mark 9:19), “an evil and adulterous generation” (Matthew 16:4), and he wasn’t afraid to say it. He assumed his hearers were fallen, even evil, and named it (Matthew 7:11).

And he informed his recalcitrant opponents to whom they truly belonged: “You are of your father the devil” (John 8:44).

Hard Words to Friends

We should not mistake “the tough, blunt, fierce form of Jesus’s love” as a severity reserved for his foes, though. Even Peter, first among equals, felt the verbal lash — and it was a grace to him.

Looking back, what a horror for Peter, to think he took Jesus aside and tried to redirect him from obedience to the point of death, even death on a cross (Matthew 16:22). But Jesus rescued himself, and Peter, from the all-too-powerful temptation, with the shocking and appropriate, “Get behind me, Satan!” (Matthew 16:23). In hindsight, Peter would see it as love. So too, all his disciples have our moments when, like Peter, we need to be stunned wide awake to all that’s at stake in this life.

In John 6, Jesus’s offensive language turns away the crowds — not foes, mind you, but those who were, to this point, following him (even if presumptuously). Here Jesus is not seeker-friendly. “You are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves” (John 6:26). He challenged the carnality of their “faith” with confounding language designed to drive away those with no spiritual apprehension.

Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life. (John 6:53–54)

Even his own disciples had to confess, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” (John 6:60). And he did not relent even then, this time speaking of another disciple, not Peter: “One of you is a devil” (John 6:70).

Hard Words to Families

Genuine, deep, lasting peace is his goal, and Jesus knows hard words are often vital to that goal. When Satan and sin have taken root, we dare not pretend there is peace when there is not.

First, Jesus comes as Truth into a world of lies, and division ensues. “I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled! . . . Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division” (Luke 12:49, 51). Even our most basic of bonds, even the most intimate of earthly peace, will be broken to reveal the wickedness of sin and worth of God.

If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. . . . Any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:26, 33)

You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and some of you they will put to death. You will be hated by all for my name’s sake. (Luke 21:16–17)

I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. (Matthew 10:35–36)

“We need the whole Jesus, the real Jesus. Both gentle and lowly, and honest and courageous.”

Who else can demand such allegiance? Even short-term peace in our own homes, and extended families, will be challenged by the uncomfortable, tough side of Christ. And on the far side, he promises to make up for every loss — and they are genuinely painful losses. “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time . . . and in the age to come eternal life” (Mark 10:29–30).

Hard Words to Churches

Jesus’s strong words, even for his own people, appear again in his seven letters to the churches in Revelation 2–3. Along with his words of praise to the church in Ephesus (Revelation 2:3), he cuts to the chase: “I have this against you . . .” (Revelation 2:4; cf. 2:20). He warns, “I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent” (Revelation 2:5).

So too to the church at Pergamum: “I have a few things against you” (Revelation 2:14). And he speaks to the church at Thyatira of “that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servants to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols” (Revelation 2:20). And to the church at Sardis: “You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead” (Revelation 3:1). And of course to Laodicea: “Because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth” (Revelation 3:16). In the mouth of Christ, this is love — tough words, for love’s sake: “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline” (Revelation 3:19).

Again Piper writes,

What we meet in the biting language of Christ is a form of love that corresponds with the real world of corruption and the dullness of our hearts and the magnitude of what is at stake in our choices. If there were no great evils and no deaf hearts and no eternal consequences, perhaps the only fitting forms of love would be a soft touch and tender words. But such a world does not kill the Son of God and hate his disciples. There is no such world. (94)

Coming Omnipotent Wrath

In the end, hard words, and a whip in the temple, will not prove to be the height of Christ’s severity. One day his wrath will fall, not with words, but in fire. And no one spoke about hell like Jesus, or more often than he did. The angels will separate the evil from the righteous, he says, and “throw them into the fiery furnace” (Matthew 13:50). Better to cut off a hand, or gouge out an eye, than to go to “the unquenchable fire . . . where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:43, 48) — to “the outer darkness” where “there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 8:12; 22:13; 25:30). Apart from Christ, humans will not only coast and choose hell; they will be thrown there, into “eternal punishment” — “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:30, 41, 46).

Revelation 6 gives us a stunning glimpse of the coming final judgment. A sixth seal is opened. The earth quakes, the sun goes dark, the moon turns to blood. Stars fall, and the sky is rolled back like a scroll. The earth’s kings and “the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful . . . hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains” (Revelation 6:15). So terrified are they at “the wrath of the Lamb” that they call to the mountains and rocks to fall on them: “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?” (Revelation 6:16–17). They would rather be crushed to death than to face the omnipotent wrath of gentle Jesus, tender and tough.

Tough Serves Tender

The tough side of Christ, the words and acts hardest on modern stomachs, is not instead of his tenderness, but in service of his mercy. He doesn’t rescue us to rough us up; he roughs us up to rescue us. He shows wrath and makes his power known “in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory” (Romans 9:22–23). In the coming ages, having seen his toughness and strength, we will see, and enjoy, “the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us” (Ephesians 2:7). His toughness serves his tenderness; his power serves his mercy.

The glory of Christ and his Father, at its apex, is the glory not of wrath and power, but of mercy and grace. We need this Jesus, the whole Jesus, the real Jesus. Both gentle and lowly, and honest and courageous. We need ears to hear the love and compassion of Christ even in his most piercing words and uncomfortable acts.