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Was Jesus Harsh?

I would suggest that sometimes it is not easy to navigate between the biblical directions clearly given to us or whether the descriptions of the actions of others are for us to follow. Many scriptures clearly command us how to approach correcting others and approaching matters of sin. In 2 Timothy 2:24-26 we find a very direct command from the Apostle Paul for us not to be quarrelsome in correcting others. We are to be kind, able to teach and to correct our opponents in gentleness. In 1 Corinthians 13, love is commanded so that in our teaching we do not become a clanging gong as if we are just annoying noise in the ears of those under instruction. In Galatians 6 we are to restore a sinning brother or sister in gentleness. These and many similar verses are all commands of Scriptures. Theologians call these prescriptive texts because they are prescribed for us to obey in full compliance. If we believe these Scriptures to be the infallible word of God and of the same authority of every other Scripture, then we are obligated to obey them and live them out in faith.

At the same time someone may express an objection to only considering the prescriptives in the bible. They might say that there are many descriptive texts that would seem to suggest that we should think about the prescriptive texts in another way. Descriptive texts are those that narrate the actions and words of others. For example, in Matthew 11:20-24 Jesus seems to be very direct with people to the degree that some might say he is not living out what he himself commands of us. Is there a difference between us and Jesus? Well, I would answer “Yes, there is.” Let’s consider this one text of Matthew 11:20-24. “Then he began to denounce the cities where most of his mighty works had been done, because they did not repent. “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you.” Sounds heavy, doesn’t it?

Often Jesus is talking about judgment in a way that you and I can never can. Everyone in these cities will one day stand before Jesus in judgment. Jesus, and only Jesus, is able to point a finger of judgment because he is the God who knows the heart of every human of all time. If we were to say words like this, we would be speaking outside of our authority. In fact, just earlier in Matthew 7, Jesus warned us in his Sermon on the Mount that we should not judge because we will be judged with the same standard by which we judge others. He is not saying that we cannot make good judgments based on Scripture, just that we should acknowledge that even by our own standards of judgments we proclaim upon others, we will fail. Only Jesus never fails his own judgments and only Jesus can rightly point a finger of judgment that we can never point without being harsh and hypocritical.

In our Matthew text above, Jesus also displays something in his speech that we can never reproduce. Jesus displays his sovereign will over all time and with every person. Jesus makes a very clear statement of knowing every contingent possibility in history. If the cities of Sodom, Tyre and Sidon had experienced the revelation of Christ, it would have been better for them than for Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum. Because they rejected Jesus as the Messiah, Jesus can stand in front of them and say the words, “Woe to you.” These are three words that come out of the mouth of God in righteous judgment as he alone can see the heart of man. If we used words such as “Woe to you,” we would be speaking from an authority and knowledge we simply do not have.

Does that mean that a Christian cannot tell another person that their position outside of Christ is perilous? Does it mean we cannot warn others that they may be under the threat of the eternal judgment of God in hell? Of course, we can and must tell people what the bible clearly says about those who reject Christ. We must call people to repentance of sin and faith in Christ. We could even point to Matthew 11 and show how rejecting the revelation of Christ places one under the seriousness of responsibility before God in judgment. We must be true, but we must not be Jesus. There is only one God, and I am not him.

I do not think there is any contradiction between the prescriptive and descriptive in the biblical text. I do, however, think there are many who want to use the descriptive as license to use harsh speech and claim an authority that God doesn’t give them. The point is, the authority of Christ is Christ’s. I live under it. I can point to and live under his authority. I can even show how this authority allows me to confidently make correct statements about the world and the human condition. What I can’t do, is live out something I am not and in doing so ignore his direct commands in Scripture. I can’t treat another human being as if I am above them.

At the same time, we can actually warn people about hell using gentleness and compassion, showing them what the true judge of every man has proclaimed. Matthew 11 shows us that Jesus says “woe” to anyone who has heard of the gospel of Christ and rejected it. Jesus is not harsh, he is the only one who can use words of judgment with full righteousness of character and an absolute knowledge of the person in question. Jesus is not harsh. He is righteous and all knowing. You…are not.

Steve Ham

Steve Ham is the senior pastor at Hyde Park Baptist Church in Cincinnati. He holds a Master of Divinity from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and is a certified biblical counselor. Steve has also authored various books and articles on theology and apologetics and has developed an evangelism series, “Answers for Life.” Steve is married to Trish and has two adult children. He is passionate about the supremacy of Christ and the sufficiency of Scripture.

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