The Scandalous Words of Jesus
I’ve been reading the Bible for the last 47 years, and I still haven’t found the verse that says, “If you follow Jesus, you are guaranteed to live out the American dream to the full.” Can anyone find it for me?
The truth be told, the words of Jesus are often challenging, unnerving, disturbing.
They talk about denying ourselves, about taking up our own cross, about dying that we might live.
They call us to leave everything for Him, to renounce even the closest family ties that would cause our hearts to turn away.
The words of Jesus are as clear as they are radical. Do we really believe what He said?
Yet Jesus declared that the people who were not offended by His words would be blessed (meaning, truly happy; see Matthew 11:6; Luke 7:23).
Interestingly, the word for “offend” in these verses is the Greek verb skandalizo, which can also mean “to cause to stumble, to cause to sin,” depending on the context. It is from this verb that we get our English word “scandalize.”
And while it is often bad practice to try to connect an ancient Greek word with a contemporary English concept, in this case, it actually works. Jesus is saying, “Blessed is anyone who is not scandalized by My words.”
The truth be told, to our natural ears, they often sound scandalous — unless.
Unless He really is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
Unless He really is God in the flesh.
Unless He really is the Lord who created us and was about to lay down His life for us — for our sins, for our misdeeds, for our rebellion.
In that case, His words make perfect sense. His demands are not just reasonable. They are also for our good. They are also words of love.
Taking Jesus Seriously
But do we take His words seriously? I mean really, truly, seriously.
Do we pray over them? Wrestle with them? Study them?
Do we recognize how impossible they are to follow in our own strength and ability?
On several occasions in the Gospels, the religious leaders tried to kill Jesus in response to His words (see, for example, John 8:57-59).
But it was not because they misunderstood Him. It was because they rightly understood Him. His very words were scandalous to their ears because they refused to recognize who He was.
When Jesus was just a newborn baby, a godly Jewish man named Simeon spoke this prophecy over Him: “This child is destined to be the cause of the falling and rising of many in Israel and to be a sign that will be rejected. Indeed, as a result of him the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed — and a sword will pierce your own soul as well!” (Luke 2:34-35, NET)
This prophetic word remains true to this day. As a result of Him the thoughts of many hearts are revealed. He still brings separation.
As He said, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For 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. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:34-37, with reference to Micah 7:6).
Do His Words Apply Today?
Some of His words are so challenging and so at odds with our contemporary form of Christianity that the easiest thing to do is throw them out: “Jesus said this to His Jewish hearers before the cross. His words don’t apply to us!” (The latest group to embrace this deadly error is what I and others have called the hyper-grace camp. I devote a chapter in my book on that subject to refuting the dangerous — and quite bizarre — idea that the words of Jesus do not apply to His followers today.)
Jesus also said this (in the Sermon on the Mount, no less): “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell” (Matthew 5:27-30).
There is obvious hyperbole in His words. (We don’t literally gouge out our eye or cut off our hand, and it is not our eye or hand that causes us to sin but rather our will.)
But the hyperbole is to underscore the gravity of His point: Willfully practicing sexual sin could land us in hell.
So said the Son of God.
To our natural ears, these words are scandalous. But to those with ears to ear, they are words of liberation, words of beauty, words of purity.
How do we hear His words?
They challenge us whether we are rich or poor. Whether we are famous or unknown. Whether we live in China or the USA.
And they will stand forever (Matthew 24:35).
Are we scandalized by His words, or do we embrace them?
In John’s Gospel, after another radical teaching by the Lord, all the disciples left Him, aside from the Twelve.
Jesus asked them, “‘Do you want to go away as well?’ Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.’” (John 6:67–69)
We do well to echo Simon Peter: “Jesus, You have the words of eternal life!”