I write a quarterly column for Preach magazine, in which I explore a significant word or phrase in the Bible, or a theme or section of Scripture, and the ideas that it expresses. At the end of this piece I list the previous articles I have written for them. Here I explore the question of encountering Jesus.
What was it like for people encountering Jesus in his earthly ministry? Though the gospels are very brief and condensed compared with modern writing, they give us vivid descriptions of people’s reactions to their encounters with him.
Mark’s gospel summarises Jesus’ early preaching as ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the good news!’ (Mark 1.15, see also Matt 4.17). Whilst we might read this as encouraging, taking at face value the term ‘good news’, it would have sounded much more challenging to Jesus’ listeners. Jesus is claiming that the day of God’s reign over his people, and the whole world, is about to break in—which is good news for some, but true terrifying for others, the ‘great and terrible day of the Lord’ (Isa 2.12, Joel 2.31, Amos 5.18, Zeph 1.14, Mal 4.5). It is therefore no surprise that Jesus talks of ‘the path to destruction’ (Matt 7.13) and ‘outer darkness’ for those who do not respond to his message (Matt 8.12).
When his disciples get a glimpse of who Jesus really is, they are terrified. When they see Jesus walking on the water, they ‘cry out in fear’ (Matt 14.26). When he is ‘transfigured’ and they hear the voice of God, they fall down in terror (Matt 17.6). The crowds, too, were sometimes ‘afraid’ at the miracles of Jesus (Matt 9.8). Gentle Jesus, meek and mild, he is not!
Jesus often puzzled people—and at times deliberately so. We are told that his main way of teaching the crowd baffled them, and that this was intentional. ‘He did not speak to them without a parable, but privately explained everything to his own disciples’ (Mark 4.34). In John 3, Nicodemus is baffled by Jesus’ teaching about being ‘born again’. And the woman at the well in Samaria in the next chapter is equally baffled by his claim to have access to water she does not know of. Both later become disciples—but the Twelve themselves often found Jesus’ teaching puzzling. They cannot grasp how Jesus can both be the anointed one of God (the ‘Christ’ or Messiah’) and yet also be the suffering son of man who will be handed over to death. Peter is confident enough that Jesus has got it wrong that he chastises him (Mark 8.32)!
Even John the Baptist, his relation who was preparing the way for the ministry of Jesus, is unsure about who he is (Matt 11.3). In his reply, Jesus says that it is possible to ‘stumble’ on account of him. He is not always what we expect!
Alongside fear and puzzlement, it is clear that the crowds are consistently drawn to his teaching and actions, especially in the first part of his ministry in the north of the country. And the individuals who meet him find their lives transformed.
In one chapter in Mark (chapter 5), we find a demon-possessed man, an outcast from his community, delivered, healed, and restored to his people. We find a wealthy and respectable leader, Jairus, receives his daughter back from the dead, and an unnamed women is healed from a debilitating affliction. In Luke 13, a woman bent double stands upright for the first time in 18 years, and in Luke 19 a tax collector comes down from a tree and finds his life turned upside-down and inside-out. Alongside Jesus’ power we repeatedly find his compassion for those he meets, and this is the turning point of each encounter (see Luke 7.13)
The one who warns us of the narrow gate and the hard path to life of following him, in which we must ‘take up our cross’, is also the one who invites us to find true rest in him (Matt 11.28). No-one who encounters Jesus is left unchanged.
At first, this might seem a strange combination of responses—but in fact we have seen this all before. In the Old Testament, it is clear that the God is Israel is quite unlike humans—he is transcendent, awesome, and to be feared. And yet this transcendent God is ‘gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, and rich in love’ (Ps 103.8). He has compassion on us, just as a (good) human father has compassion on his children, or a mother who will not forget her child (Is 49.15).
Reflecting on Jesus’ encounters warns us against two dangers—either domesticating Jesus, making him our ‘celestial chum’, or separating him from the God of the Old Testament. ‘It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God’ (Heb 10.31), and yet we know, through all the Scriptures and supremely in Jesus, that these are the hands of a God who loves us.
My previous articles have been on the themes of:
- the phrase ‘Word of God’
- the theme of ‘Mission’
- the meaning of ‘Apocalypse‘
- the ministry of ‘Healing’,
- the question of ‘Welcome’,
- the biblical understanding of ‘Justice’,
- the biblical view of creation
- what the Bible means by the term ‘church’.
- what the Bible says about grief and grieving.
- what is so good about the Old Testament?
- Why should we welcome the stranger?
- How can we rejoice in an imperfect world?
- What does scripture say about disability?
- What are the scriptural roots of our understanding of preaching?
- How do we make sense of the psalms of conflict?
- What does Scripture say about poverty and our response to it?
- What is the meaning of Sabbath?
(The image at the top is of the woman touching the edge of the garment of Jesus in Mark 5 from the extraordinary painting in the Chapel of the Encounter at Migdal on the shores of Galilee. Worth a visit!)