Jesus Versus the Church


Bill Muehlenberg’s commentary on issues of the day…



The more I study about the life and teachings of Jesus, and the more I study contemporary church methodology and practice, the more of a major disconnect I see. The very methods and gimmicks being used by so many of today’s churches have absolutely nothing to do with the way Jesus went about gaining disciples.


The way so many churches today deal with non-believers is to make life as easy as pie for the sinner: it is to tell them there are no obligations, no difficulties, no demands, and no anything which they need to worry about. It is all just an easy ride and an instant fix to salvation.


They insist that the church in the past has been too narrow, too harsh, too difficult, too divisive, too demanding, and too restrictive in offering the gospel to non-Christians. They even apologise to sinners, saying they are sorry we have made demands on them and tried to make entry into the Kingdom difficult.


Yet no one reading the gospel accounts without churchian ideological blinders on can see that Jesus took a 180 degree opposite approach to sinners. He actually made things exceedingly difficult for people to get into the Kingdom. It almost seemed as if he did not expect many would get saved, and he seemed quite OK with that.


In fact, he made the cost of discipleship the focal point of his teaching, and we read constantly of those who were driven away by his harsh and demanding words. We read time and time again that the crowds were divided by him, offended by him, and found his teachings too hard and too demanding.


The examples of this are many, but since my daily reading right now has me in the Gospel of Matthew, let me confine myself to just that one book. It is perfectly clear that everywhere in this Gospel Jesus made very strong conditions for coming to him. He made the cost of discipleship very demanding indeed. He almost seemed to go out of his way to turn people away!


This is all in such marked contrast to most churches today. They refuse to say a word that might antagonise anyone, and make it seem that sinners are doing God a favour if they show up at a church or raise their hand in an emotional appeal.


Consider for example the Sermon on the Mount in Matt 5-7. Here the demands and costs of following Christ are utterly strenuous and exacting. Discussing worldly and heavenly riches for example, he said this quite straightforwardly: “No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.”


Wow, probably 80 per cent of churches today would ban Jesus from preaching in their services with a hard word like that. It is either money or God: you cannot serve both. Today we tell would-be believers that if they come to Christ they can have all the money, riches and material goodies they can imagine.


And in Matt. 7:13-14 he made it pretty clear that most folks would not even accept his message and prescribed means of entry into the Kingdom: “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”


And consider this story of some would-be followers: “Then a teacher of the law came to him and said, ‘Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.’ Jesus replied, ‘Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.’ Another disciple said to him, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ But Jesus told him, ‘Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead’” (Matt. 8:19-22).


I can just see all the church growth experts rebuking Jesus here: “Jesus, you got it all wrong. You seem intent on turning people away. That is not how you are supposed to do it. You are supposed to make it easy for non-Christians to follow you. You need to eliminate every obstacle and difficulty and allow them to waltz right in to your Kingdom.”


Indeed, so severe was Jesus that many of them wanted nothing to do with him. After his little episode with the exorcism and the pigs, we read this: “Then the whole town went out to meet Jesus. And when they saw him, they pleaded with him to leave their region” (Matt. 8:34).


The whole population had enough of him and wanted him to leave! But our seeker-sensitive services today, and our emergent churches, would condemn Jesus for turning people away. They would insist that we make things easy for the sinner, and allow nothing to stand in their way.


And Jesus even warned his disciples ahead of time that plenty of folks would not be the slightest bit interested in their message. Many would reject it outright. As we read in Matt. 10:13-15 “If the house is worthy, give it your blessing of peace. But if it is not worthy, take back your blessing of peace. Whoever does not receive you, nor heed your words, as you go out of that house or that city, shake the dust off your feet. Truly I say to you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment than for that city.”


Indeed, in Matt. 10 Jesus warned his followers that they would face heaps of rejection, hatred, and contempt. Consider just v. 22: “You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.” That sure does not sound like what I am hearing in most churches, where it is assumed that the multitudes will flock to us as we speak of God’s welcome and acceptance.


Also in ch. 10 we read of Jesus telling us what his intentions were really about: “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace on the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matt 10:34). “Come to Jesus and find peace” we are told today. Jesus seemed to have something different in mind.


In fact, this message of division reaches fever pitch in the following verses: “For I have come to turn ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law— a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’ Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 10:35-39).


This text alone is one of the strongest and harshest of the sayings of Jesus – yet we have entirely dismissed it or ignored it today, completely robbing it of its force and vehemence. Given how important the family unit was back then, this was an utterly revolutionary call which Jesus demanded of would-be disciples.


Today all our marketing experts and advisors on seeker-sensitive services would be appalled at how Jesus made things so overwhelmingly difficult for people to follow him. They would insist that only a Teflon slide into the kingdom is acceptable, one entirely free of any requirements, restrictions or hard demands.


And as if what Jesus said there was not bad enough for First Century seekers, he even repeated these conditions in Matt. 16:24-26: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?”


His routine calls for repentance, renunciation and self-denial of course got most people mad at him. We often read about how people took offence at him. Here are just four examples from Matthew’s account:
-Matt. 13:57: And they took offense at him. But Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town and in his own home.”
-Matt. 15:12: Then the disciples came to him and asked, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?”
-Matt. 24:9-10: Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me. And then many will be offended, will betray one another, and will hate one another.
-Matt. 26:31: Then Jesus said to them, “All of you will be offended because of me this night.”


And just in case the message had not yet sunk in as to how hard it is to be a true disciple of Christ, Jesus comes up with this thunderbolt in Matt. 19:21-23 to a rich young man: “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”


And the result of this stringent demand? “When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth. Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven’.”


Once again today’s church growth crowd would be pulling the hair out of their heads, decrying yet another wasted opportunity by Jesus. “Jesus, don’t you know that the name of the game is church growth? We are trying to get the numbers up, yet you are driving people away. That is just not helping things here!”


But as a final slap in the face to the megachurch philosophy of today, consider this stern reminder from Jesus as found in Matt. 22:14: “For many are invited, but few are chosen.” Jesus even told his followers ahead of time that most people would not respond to the message.


And probably by this point many of the disciples might have been thinking, “Of course not; not the way you are making things so ridiculously difficult for others.” And this mindset is of course fully with us today: “Jesus you were turning people away by your over-the-top requirements. That is not how we are going to fill churches and win the masses.”


But it was never the intention of Jesus to win the masses. His intention was to make disciples – real disciples. And real disciples know that there is a huge cost to pay to properly follow Christ. So I repeat what I said at the start: What we find in the Gospels bears little or no bearing to what we find in most churches today.


I for one prefer to stick with what Jesus said and did – even if it means plenty of fake converts and un-discipled followers end up turning away. We don’t need such half-hearted followers, and Christ is not interested in them either. God rewards the diligent seeker, not the casual inquirer.


We are cheating the lost, and cheating God, when we present to them anything other than the costly, difficult, demanding, and self-renouncing gospel of Jesus Christ. Spurgeon summed it up well when he said: “If you really long to save men’s souls, you must tell them a great deal of disagreeable truth.”


Jesus certainly did this, but I don’t see too many churches doing the same today.


[1982 words]

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