Remembering the Unpopular Jesus


Not long ago a friend sent me the Jesus film entitled The Gospel of John.  This is a movie that tells the story of Jesus through the lens of John’s gospel.  I don’t typically watch Jesus movies, but he assured me this was worth my time.  So, one afternoon I put in the DVD and sat down to watch.  It was a well done film and, generally speaking, very faithful to the gospel of John.  But, as I watched the movie, something struck me at a level of depth that I had never experienced before:   Jesus was very unpopular.

Of course, this is a truth we all know well—so well, in fact, that we often forget it.  But, it was abundantly clear in the film version of John’s gospel.  We rarely sit down and read a gospel through in one sitting anymore.  We just don’t take the time to do it.  But in the film version, I got the gospel in one large dose.   And I was blown away by the amount of arguing, debating, and polemical interactions that Jesus experienced.   There was yelling, screaming, and shouting.  Accusations and charges.  Heated exchanges.  And there was Jesus, right in the middle of all of it.  He kicked it off himself by the aggressive move of cleansing the temple (2:13-22).   The Jews grumbled about his teachings (6:41), found him to be rather ordinary (6:42), and considered his words to be offensive (6:52).   They plotted against him and tried to arrest him (7:25-30).  They called him a liar (8:13), a Samaritan (8:48), one who is demon possessed (8:52), and picked up stones to stone him on several occasions (8:59, 10:31).  And they eventually murdered him by nailing him to a cross (19:18).

Measured by standard human criteria, Jesus had a remarkably unpopular and ineffective ministry.   Most people simply weren’t persuaded.  They were not convinced.  They saw Jesus (and his teachings) as ridiculous, absurd, and offensive.

If so, then the way we measure the success of our own ministries needs a serious recalibration.   A few take aways:

1. We need to adjust our expectations about how people will receive our message.   Often when the message of Christ is rejected, we wonder whether we have presented it with enough sophistication and clarity—perhaps we needed to be more articulate.  While we certainly want to improve the manner in which we present the message, we must remember that there was no better and clearer communicator of the truth than Christ himself.   If the son of God himself delivered a message, with the clarity and profundity that only he could achieve, and yet people still found it to be unpersuasive, then we can only conclude there is something else keeping people from the truth.   Indeed, Paul tells us what this thing is: “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing” (1 Cor 1:18).  People are darkened by their own sinful hearts.

2. We need to prepare ourselves for ministry marked by conflict and hostility.  When students graduate from seminary and consider the average ministerial calling, they do not expect one that would be marked by persecution and rejection.   But, our world is changing.  It is clear now that we live in a world that doesn’t just practice immorality, but demands that every American citizen show approval and acceptance of that immorality. Make no mistake, the gay movement in this country is not interested in just freedom to be gay—they want a stamp of approval from the government and all of its citizens.  It is not all that different from the way the Roman Empire required all its citizens to bow down to the image of the emperor and pay homage.  Christians would not do this and were killed by the thousands.  We need to prepare for a serious stage of persecution in this country.  The question isn’t whether it’s coming.  The question is whether we are ready.

But, it’s not just external conflict that is a challenge.  Pastors need to be prepared to receive opposition from members of their own congregations.    People in our own flocks will be offended by our faithful stand on controversial issues—and may even hate us as a result.   In the world of the celebrity pastor who is lauded by thousands, this will be difficult to take.  But, we must again remember that the bulk of the opposition to Jesus was from the nation of Israel, God’s own people.

3. We need to remember that there is a proper place for debate and disagreement in our ministries.  One thing that modern ministry has lacked is a proper understanding of the role of polemics.   The number one goal for most of our ministries is to avoid conflict as much as possible.  And in many ways that is a positive; we certainly shouldn’t seek conflict.  However, there is a right biblical place for debate and disagreement—exemplified by Jesus himself in the gospel of John.   Indeed, if a ministry has no conflict at all, one might wonder whether it is really presenting the same message that Jesus himself presented.  A servant is not greater than his master.





Remembering the Unpopular Jesus — 11 Comments

  1. Fantastic article, Michael. You’re right on target.

    Jesus said that the world would rejoice when He got what was coming to Him (John 16:20). And guess what, church: the world feels the same way about us (John 15:18-25).

    It’s the sad truth that most ministries avoid conflict and debate at almost any cost. Either they make such vague statements that no one could possibly be upset, they play around with compromise or they’re ready wipe the dust off their feet at the first sign that what they say isn’t being accepted.

    Thanks for this reminder of what Jesus’ example teaches us! Lord, help us stand for the truth!

  2. I couldn’t agree more! I’ve had lots of talks with my wife about unbelieving family members. Predictably, we come back to Jesus’s words “I didn’t come to bring peace, but a sword.” Although he also said the reverse elsewhere, We’ve had to remind ourselves repeatedly of the reality of conflict. It just amazes me that the God/man who was embroiled in conflict on a daily basis was also embraced as the lover of our souls. I’ve not yet learned how to balance that out in my own personal life!

  3. Mike,

    Excellent article.

    1. I remind myself that if Jesus was killed for the following:
    a. Preaching an Unpopular Message (the need to be born-again, John 3:5).

    b. Proclaiming an Unbelievable Claim (that he is the Son of God, Messiah, God; John 8:58; 10;30).

    c. Practicing Unacceptable Behavior (healing on the Sabbath (Lame Man at Pool of Bethesda, John 5:9b-10; the Blind Man in John 9:14-16), raising of the Dead, i.e. Lazarus [BTW, I would not be too surprised that if this had occurred on the Sabbath], John 11:38-44).
    d. Preventing the Unauthorized Action of the Crowd (Making Him King by Force, John 6:14-15)
    e. Pronouncing Unacceptable Requirements (Eat My Flesh, Drink My Blood, John 6:51-56, 66).
    f. Promoting Unacceptable Hermeneutics (Use of Scripture, John 5:39-47; Before Abraham was, I AM [referring to the of EGW EIMI in Isaiah 40-66], John 8:58; I and the Father are One, John 10:30).

    2. When the opposition cannot win an argument based on the facts, they resort to name calling, innuendo, change the subject (red herring or rabbit trail), etc.
    a. Nathanael’s remark in John 1:46, “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” (NIV).
    b. Samaritan Woman, John 4:16-20.
    c. Question His Birth, John 8:41. The response of the Crowd was, “We are not illegitimate children” (NIV). This implied that Jesus was a “bastard,” while they were not. The KJV say, “We be not born of fornication.”

    3. Finally, I Peter 4:17, “For the time is come that must begin in the house of God;…” This is clearly evident from the increased persecution that is occurring in the world.

  4. Persecution & The Apostle Paul… miracles/conversions do happen. Where do you draw the line though, between gentle instruction, speaking boldly & speaking (& living) the truth plainly.

    Looking at the 7 churches in Revelation, they each had their challenges to face for various reasons.

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  8. This is a very timely post. I do believe that we are here already. Those who are not suffering to some extent are not being bold witnesses for Christ. Witness how few megachurches there are where the pastors preach a bold, biblical gospel. Most of the megachurches are that large because they tickle ears. There is only a remnant left. And you are right, we need to settle it in our own hearts that this world is not our home, we will not find heaven on earth. But God is faithful, Jesus is worth it and we will spend eternal life with HIm.