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Digression 5 The Teaching Style Of Jesus

Patient Leading

The Lord Jesus spoke the word to men “as they were able to hear it”, not as He was able to expound it (Mk. 4:33). He didn’t always relay to men the maximum level of understanding which He Himself possessed. The language of Jesus as recorded in John's Gospel is very different to that we encounter in the other Gospels. Indeed, the difference is so striking that some have claimed that John put the words into Jesus' mouth in his account. My suggestion is that the Lord did in fact say all the words attributed to Him in all the Gospel records. But He had two levels of talking with people- a Heavenly, spiritual kind of style (which John picked up on); and also a more earthly one, which Matthew, Mark and Luke tended to record. In our context, the simple point that emerges is that Jesus spoke in different ways to different people; He tailored His language in accordance with His audience. It's significant that there are no records of Jesus casting out demons in John's record; this occurs only in the more audience-friendly accounts of the Synoptics.

There is a tendency amongst some personality types to turn every disagreement over interpretation of Scripture into a right : wrong, truth : error scenario. Matters relating to basic Gospel doctrine are capable of being dealt with like this. But to turn the interpretation of every Bible verse into a conflict area is a recipe for disaster in relationships. This is perhaps why the Lord seems to have let some issues go without immediate comment- His use of the language of demons is a major example. He lost a battle to win the war- of showing men that the power of God was so great that there was no room for belief in the existence of demons. Yet on the way to that end, He commanded ‘unclean spirits’ to leave men, with the result that observers marvelled that ‘even unclean spirits obey him!’. He didn’t on that occasion challenge the wrong belief directly, even though this meant that in the short term the wrong belief was perpetuated. But over time in His ministry, and in the whole New Testament, reference to demons becomes less and less, as His preaching of Truth by example and miracle made the point that these things really don’t exist. Likewise the gods of Egypt were not specifically stated to not exist: but through the miracles at the Exodus, it was evident that Yahweh was unrivalled amongst all such ‘gods’, to the point of showing their non-existence (Ex. 15:11; 18:11). When accused of being in league with ‘satan’, the Lord didn’t read them a charge of blasphemy. He reasoned instead that a thief cannot bind a strong man; and likewise He couldn’t bind ‘satan’ unless He were stronger than Satan (Mk. 3:23-27). He doesn’t take the tack that ‘Satan / Beelzebub / demons’ don’t exist; He showed instead that He was evidently stronger than any such being or force, to the point that belief in such a concept was meaningless. Faith must rather be in Him alone.

We must speak the word as others are able to hear it, expressing the truths of Christ in language and terms which will reach them. There are some differences within the Gospels in the records of the parables. It could be that the different writers, under inspiration, were rendering the Lord's Aramaic words into Greek in different styles of translation. Also, we must bear in mind the different audiences. Mark speaks of the four watches of the night which would have been familiar to Romans (Mk. 13:35 cp. 6:48), whereas Lk. 12:38 speaks of the Jewish division of the night into three watches (cp. Jud. 7:19). Yet Luke seems to translate the Palestinian style of things into terms which were understandable by a Roman audience. Thus Lk. 6:47; 11:33 speak of houses with cellars, which were uncommon in Palestine; and in Lk. 8:16; 11:33 of houses with an entrance passage from which the light shines out. The synagogue official of Mt. 5:25 becomes the " bailiff" in Lk. 12:58. In Palestine, the cultivation of mustard in garden beds was forbidden, whereas Lk. 13:19 speaks of mustard sown in a garden, which would have been understandable only to a Roman audience. It seems in these cases that inspiration caused Luke to dynamically translate the essence of the Lord's teaching into terms understandable to a non-Palestinian audience. Even in Mt. 5:25 we read of going to prison for non-payment of debts, which was not the standard Jewish practice. Imprisonment was unknown in Jewish law. The point of all this is to show that we must match our terms and language to our audience; and this principle is revealed in the way that 'demon' language is used about the curing of some diseases in the Gospels.

The Tolerance Of Jesus

Jn. 8:31 credits some of the Jews with believing on Jesus- and yet the Lord goes on to show how they didn’t ‘continue in His word’, weren’t truly confirmed as His disciples, and were still not true children of Abraham. Yet it would appear God is so eager to recognize any level of faith in His Son that they are credited with being ‘believers’ when they still had a very long way to go. The Lord condemned how the Pharisees “devoured widow’s houses”- and then straight away we read of Him commending the widow who threw in her whole living to the coffers of the Pharisees. It wasn’t important that the widow saw through the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and didn’t ‘waste’ her few pennies; her generosity was accepted for what it was, even though it didn’t achieve what it might have done, indeed, it only abetted the work of evil men. The Lord was criticized for “receiving sinners” and eating with them (Lk. 15:2). Instead of the usual and expected Greek word dechomai, we find here the Greek prosdechomai- He welcomed them into fellowship, symbolizing this by eating with them. This was an act which had religious overtones in 1st century Palestine. Notice that prosdechomai is used by Paul to describe welcoming a brother / sister in spiritual fellowship (Rom. 16:2; Phil. 2:29). The Lord fellowshipped people in the belief that this would lead them to repentance, following His Father’s pattern of using grace in order to lead people to repentance (Rom. 2:4). He didn’t wait for people to get everything right and repented of and only then fellowship them, as a sign that they were up to His standards.

The Teaching Style Of Jesus

The Lord and the Gospel writers seem to have recognized that a person may believe in Christ, and be labeled a 'believer' in Him, whilst still not knowing the fullness of "the truth": "Then said Jesus to those Jews which had believed on him, If you continue in my word, then are you truly my disciples; and you shall know the truth" (Jn. 8:31,32). Clearly the Lord saw stages and levels to discipleship and 'knowing the truth'. The life of Jesus was a life of outgiven grace and seeking the salvation of men, after the pattern of Joseph going to seek the welfare of his brethren. Even when he was delirious, according to the Hebrew text of Gen. 37:15 [AV “wandering”], he told the stranger that he was seeking his brethren (who hated him); seeking them was his dominant desire. And so it was in the life of the Lord. Like His Father, He was willing to be incredibly patient, in order to win people.

Consider some examples:

The Demon Issue
The centurion seems to have believed in demon possession. He understood that his servant was “grievously tormented” by them. He believed that the Lord could cure him, in the same way as he could say to his underlings “go, and he goes” (Mt. 8:6-10). And so, he implied, couldn’t Jesus just say to the demons ‘Go!’, and they would go, as with the ‘demons’ in the madman near Gadara? The Lord didn’t wheel round and read him a lecture about ‘demons don’t exist’ (although they don’t, of course, and it’s important to understand that they don’t). He understood that this man had faith that He, as the Son of God, had power over these ‘demons’, and therefore “he marvelled, and said… Verily… I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel”. He focused on what faith and understanding the man had. With the height of His spirituality, with all the reason He had to be disappointed in people, the Lord marvelled at a man’s faith. It is an essay in how He seized on what genuine faith He found, and worked to develop it, even if there was an element of false understanding in it (1).

Legion believed he was demon possessed. But the Lord didn’t correct him regarding this before healing him; indeed, one assumes the man probably had some faith for the miracle to be performed (Mt. 13:58). Lk. 8:29 says that Legion “was driven of the devil into the wilderness”, in the same way as the Lord had been driven into the wilderness by the spirit (Mk. 1:12) and yet overcame the ‘devil’ in whatever form at this time. The man was surely intended to reflect on these more subtle things and see that whatever he had once believed in was immaterial and irrelevant compared to the Spirit power of the Lord. And yet the Lord ‘went along’ with his request for the demons he thought were within him to be cast into ‘the deep’, thoroughly rooted as it was in misunderstanding of demons and sinners being thrown into the abyss. This was in keeping with the kind of healing styles people were used to at the time- e.g. Josephus records how Eleazar cast demons out of people and placed a cup of water nearby, which was then [supposedly] tipped over by the demons as they left the sick person [Antiquities Of The Jews 8.46-48]. It seems to me that the Lord 'went along with' that kind of need for reassurance, and so He made the pigs stampede over the cliff to symbolize to the healed man how his disease had really left him.

“By whom do your sons cast them [demons] out?” (Lk. 11:19) shows the Lord assuming for a moment that there were demons, and that the Jews could cast them out. He doesn’t directly challenge them on their false miracles, their exaggerated reports of healings, nor on the non-existence of demons. He takes them from where they are and seeks to lead them to truth.

There may well be more examples of this kind of thing in the New Testament than may appear to the English reader. The warning that the wicked will be cast into the everlasting fire prepared for the Devil (Mt. 25:41) was referring to the apocryphal fate of supposedly ‘wicked angels’ as recorded in 1 Enoch 54. The references to Tartarus and sinful angels in 2 Peter and Jude are also clear references to wrong beliefs which were common in Jewish apocryphal and pseudo-epigraphical writings. These wrong ideas- and they are wrong- are not corrected directly, but rather a moral lesson is drawn from the stories. This is the point of the allusion to them; but there is no explicit correction of these myths in the first instance. The way the Lord constructed His parable about the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16 is proof enough that He Himself alluded to false ideas without correcting them, but rather in order to make a moral point within the faulty framework of understanding of His audience. Indeed, the Bible is full of instances of where a technically ‘wrong’ idea is used by God without correction in order to teach a higher principle. Thus an eagle doesn’t bear its young upon its wings; it hovers over them. But from an earth-bound perspective, it would appear that [looking up], the eagle is carrying its young on its wings. God accommodates Himself to our earthly perspective in order to lead us to Heavenly things. He doesn’t seek to correct our knowledge at every turn, or else His end aim would not be achieved.

"Satan has an end"

In Mk. 9:23, the father of the child was asked whether he could believe [i.e., that Jesus could cast out the demon]. The man replied that yes, although his faith was weak, he believed [that Jesus could cast out the demon]. His faith was focused on by Jesus, rather than his wrong beliefs. Faith above all was what the Lord was focusing on in the first instance. The Jews accused the Lord of being in league with the prince of the demons, Beelzebub. His comment was that if the family / house of Satan was so divided, then Satan "has an end" (Mk. 3:26). His approach was 'OK you believe in demons, Beelzebub etc. Well if that's the case, then according to the extension of your logic, Satan will soon come to an end, will cease existence. That's the bottom line. As it happens, I am indeed 'binding the strong man', rendering Satan powerless, making him 'have an end', and so whichever way you look at it, believing in demons or not, the bottom line is that My miracles demonstrate that effectively Satan is powerless and not an item now'. The way the New Testament is written reflects the same approach. When the Lord was alone with His disciples, He explained further: "If they have called the Master of the House [i.e. Jesus] 'Beelzebub', how much more shall they call them of his household?" [i.e. the disciples] (Mt. 10:25). By saying this, the Lord was clarifying that of course He didn't really mean that He was part of the Satan family, working against Satan to destroy the entire family. Rather was He and His family quite separate from the Satan family. But He didn't make that clarification to the Jewish crowds- He simply used their idea and reasoned with them on their own terms.

Note in passing how the Jews actually thought Jesus was Beelzebub, or Satan. This would be one explanation for their mad passion to kill Him; for those labeled 'Satan' were hunted to their death in such societies, as seen later in the witch hunts of the middle ages. The Jews say Jesus as a false miracle worker, a false Messiah, a bogus Son of God- all characteristics of their view of 'Satan'. Some centuries later, the Jewish sage Maimonides described Jesus in terms of the antichrist: "Daniel had already alluded to him when he presaged the downfall of a wicked one and a heretic among the Jews who would endeavor to destroy the Law, claim prophecy for himself, make pretenses to miracles, and allege that he is the Messiah" (Maimonides' Epistle To Yemen). It's been suggested that the way the Jewish rabbinical writings call Him Yeshu is an acronym for the Hebrew expression ימח שמו וזכרו (yemach shemo vezichro – "May his name and memory be obliterated"). This was the very Jewish definition of Satan. They saw Jesus as Satan himself; hence they were so insistent on slaying Him. Yet by the deft twist of Divine providence, it was through the death of Jesus that the real Devil (i.e. the power of sin) was in fact slain (Heb. 2:14). To those with perceptive enough minds to see it, yet once again the Jewish ideas had been turned back upon them to reveal the real nature of the Devil to them, within their own frames of reference and terminology. Likewise Beelzebub means literally 'the lord of the house'; and the Lord Jesus alludes to this in describing Himself as the Master of the House of God.

Other Examples In The Teaching Of Jesus
- The Lord’s men were accused of ‘threshing’ on the Sabbath because they rubbed corn in their hands (Mk. 2:23-28). The Lord could have answered ‘No, this is a non-Biblical definition of working on the Sabbath’. But He didn’t. Instead He reasoned that ‘OK, let’s assume you’re right, but David and his men broke the law because they were about God’s business, this over-rode the need for technical obedience’. The Lord Jesus wasn’t constantly correcting specific errors of interpretation. He dealt in principles much larger than this, in order to make a more essential, practical, useful point.

- The eagerness of the Lord for the inculcation of faith is seen in the way He foresees the likely thought processes within men. “Begin not to say within yourselves....” (Lk. 3:8), He told a generation of vipers; and He eagerly strengthened the centurion’s faith when it was announced that faith was pointless, because his daughter had died. And we sense His eager hopefulness for response when He said to the woman: “Believe me, woman...” (Jn. 4:21 GNB). Even though she was confrontational, bitter against Jewish people, and perhaps [as it has been argued by some] pushing a feminist agenda...the Lord sought for faith in her above correcting her attitude about these things. God too seeks for faith, and some of the ‘flash’ victories He granted in the Old Testament were to otherwise unspiritual men who in their desperation turned to Him. He so respects faith that He responded (e.g. 1 Chron. 5:10-20).

- When the Jews mocked Him for saying that He had seen Abraham, the Lord didn’t respond that of course that wasn’t what He meant; instead He elevated the conversation with “before Abraham was I am”.

- The disciples didn’t have enough faith to cure the sick boy. Jesus told them this: it was “because of your little faith… if ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove…” (Mt. 17:20 RV). Think carefully what is going on here. They had not even faith as a tiny grain of mustard seed; they didn’t have the faith to cure the boy. But Jesus says they did have “little faith”. He recognized what insignificant faith they did have. He was so sensitive to the amount of faith in someone, even if it was insignificant in the final analysis. We likewise need to be able to positively and eagerly discern faith in those we preach to and seek to spiritually develop. In a similar kind of way, God was disappointed that His people had not only been disobedient to Him , but they had not even been obedient to their conquerors (Ez. 5:7). He so values obedience, and had an attitude that sought to see if they would show it to at least someone, even if they had rejected Him.

- The Lord spoke of not making the Orthodox Jews stumble by not paying the tribute; yet He goes on to say that one must beware lest we make the little ones who believe, to stumble (Mt. 17:27; 18:6). Is it not that He saw in Orthodox Jewry the beginnings of faith… a faith which was to come to fruition when a great company of priests were later obedient to the faith in Him? None of us would have had that sensitivity, that hopefulness, that seeking spirit. It is truly a challenge to us. As the Son of God, walking freely in His Father’s house, Jesus didn’t have to pay the temple tax. He could have insisted that He didn’t need to pay it, He could have stood up for what was right and true. But doing this can often be selfish, a defence of self rather than a seeking for the Father’s glory. And so He told Peter that “lest we should offend them”, He would pay it. He was so hopeful for their salvation one day that He was worried about offending these wretched men, who weren’t fit to breathe the same air that He did. We would have given up with them; but He worried about offending what potential faith they might have.

- When the disciples foolishly sought to have what they thought were to be the favoured places at His right hand and His left, the Lord could have answered: ‘You foolish people! Those on my left hand will be condemned!’. But He graciously didn’t comment on their glaring error. He pushed a higher principle- that we should not seek for personal greatness, seeing that God is the judge of all (Mt. 20:23). Yet sadly, so much of our preaching has been solely concerned with pointing out the errors of others without being sensitive to what little faith and understanding they do have, and seeking to build on it.

- When the people asked: “What sign do you shew then, that we may see, and believe you?” (Jn. 6:30), the Lord could have spoken words similar to Heb. 11:1 to them- He could have corrected them by saying that actually, faith is not related to what you can see. You cannot “see and believe” in the true sense of belief. But the Lord doesn’t do that. He says that He in front of them is the bread of God, miraculously given. And their critical tone changes: “Lord, evermore give us this bread!” (:34). This surely is our pattern- not to necessarily correct every error when we see it, but to pick up something the other person has said and develop it, to bring them towards truth.

- Another woman thought that by touching His garment, she would be made whole. She had the same wrong notion as many Orthodox and Catholic believers have today- that some physical item can give healing. The Lord corrected her by saying telling her that it was her faith- not the touch of His garment- that had made her whole (Mt. 9:21,22). Again, He had focused on what was positive in her, rather than the negative. We know that usually the Lord looked for faith in people before healing them. Yet after this incident there are examples of where those who merely sought to touch His garment were healed (Mk. 6:56; Lk. 6:19). They were probably hopeful that they would have a similar experience to the woman. One could argue they were mere opportunists, as were their relatives who got them near enough to Jesus’ clothes. And probably there was a large element of this in them. But the Lord saw through all this to what faith there was, and responded to it. It is perhaps not accidental that Mark records the link between faith and Jesus’ decision to heal in the same chapter (Mk. 6:5).

- Yet another woman was evidently a sinner; and the Lord made it clear that He knew all about her five men. But He didn’t max out on that fact; His response to knowing it was basically: ‘You’re thirsty. I’ve got the water you need’. He saw her need, more than her moral problem; and He knew the answer. When she replied that she had no husband, He could have responded: ‘You liar! A half truth is a lie!’. But He didn’t. He said, so positively, gently and delicately, ‘What you have said is quite true. You had five men you have lived with. The one you now have isn’t your husband. So, yes, you said the truth’ (Jn. 4:16-18). He could have crushed her. But He didn’t. And we who ‘have the truth’ must take a lesson from this. He let Himself be encouraged by her response to Him, even though her comment “Could this be the Messiah?” (Jn. 4:29) implies she was still uncertain. Raymond Brown has commented: “The Greek question with meti implies an unlikelihood” (The Gospel According To John, Vol. 1, p. 173). And so this Samaritan woman was at best being deceptive when she said that “I have no husband / man / fella in my life” (Jn. 4:17). The Lord could have answered: ‘Don’t lie to me. You know you’re living with a man, and that you’ve had five men in your life’. Instead, the Lord picks up her deceptive comment positively, agreeing that her latest relationship isn’t really a man / husband as God intends. I find His positive attitude here surpassing.

- The Lord knew that Peter had a sword / knife hidden in his garment when in Gethsemane. But He did nothing; He didn’t use His knowledge of Peter’s weakness to criticize him. He knew that the best way was to just let it be, and then the miracle of healing Malchus must have more than convinced Peter that the Lord’s men should not use the sword. For their Master had healed, not murdered, one of the men sent to arrest Him.

- “John bare witness unto the truth [i.e. the legitimacy of Jesus’ claims]. But I receive not testimony from man [e.g. John]; but these things I say, that ye might be saved…I have greater witness than that of John… the works which the Father hath given me… bear witness… the Father himself… hath borne witness of me”. I wish to stress the Lord’s comment: “But these things I say, that ye might be saved”. The Lord wanted men to accept His Father’s witness; but He was prepared to let them accept John’s human witness, and actually this lower level of perception by them, preferring to believe the words of a mere man, would still be allowed by the Lord to lead them to salvation.

- There is no record that the Lord corrected the disciples’ misunderstanding that He was going to commit suicide in order to “go unto” Lazarus (Jn. 11:16). He let events take their course and allowed the disciples to reflect upon the situation in order to come to a truer understanding of His words.

- The disciples thought the resurrected Christ was a spirit, a ghost. They returned to their old superstitions. Yet He didn’t respond by lecturing them about the death state or that all existence is only bodily, much as He could have done. Instead He adopted for a moment their position and reasoned from it: “A spirit has not flesh and bones as you see me have” (Lk. 24:39). The essence of His concern was their doubt in Him and His resurrection, rather than their return to wrong superstitions.

- The record stresses the incongruity and inappropriacy of the young man’s self-righteousness: “The youth answered, all these have I kept from my youth up”. He was young- and he says that since a young man he had kept all the commands. Now the Lord doesn’t lecture him about self-righteousness, nor does He point out that the young man is way over rating his own spirituality and obedience. Instead, the Master focuses on the positive- as if to say ‘You are zealous for perfection? Great! So, sell what you have and give to the poor. Go on, rise up to the challenge!’.

- The Pharisees had reasoned themselves into a position whereby plucking heads of corn whilst walking through a corn field on the Sabbath was regarded as reaping. When the Lord was questioned about this issue, He didn’t reply as most of us would have done: to attack the ridiculous definition of ‘work on the Sabbath’. He seeks to teach by general principle that the extent of His Lordship meant that He and His men were free to do as they pleased on this kind of matter.

- The Lord explained that “the least in the Kingdom of Heaven” would have broken “the least” commandments, and would have taught men so (Mt. 5:19); and yet “the least in the Kingdom” was a phrase He elsewhere used about those who would actually be in the Kingdom (Mt. 11:11). Here surely is His desire to save, and His gracious overlooking of intellectual failure, human misunderstanding, and dogmatism in that misunderstanding (‘teaching men so’).

- The Lord wasn’t naive, although He was so positive. He told the disciples quite frankly that they were full of “unbelief”, and couldn’t do miracles which He expected them to because they didn’t pray and fast (Mt. 17:19-21). And yet when quizzed by the Pharisees as to why His disciples didn’t fast, He said it was because they were so happy to be with Him, the bridegroom (Mt. 9:15). Here surely He was seeing the best in them. They come over as confused, mixed up men who wanted the Kingdom there and then and were frustrated at the Lord’s inaction in establishing it. But He saw that they recognized Him as the bridegroom, as Messiah, and He exalted in this, and saw their lack of fasting as partly due to the deep-down joy which He knew they had.

- Similarly, His parable of the sower concluded by lamenting that His general Jewish audience did not understand, and He spoke the parables knowing they wouldn’t understand and would be confirmed in this. And He stressed that a feature of the good ground is that His message is understood. In this context, the Lord commends the disciples because they saw and heard, in the sense of understanding (Mt. 13:13,15,16,23). Yet so evidently they didn’t understand. And yet the Lord was so thrilled with the fact they understood a very little that He counted them as the good ground that understood.

- The wedding feast at Cana had been going on for some time, to the point that men had drunk so much wine that they could no longer discern its quality. The Lord didn’t say, as I might have done, ‘Well that’s enough, guys’. He realized the shame of the whole situation, that even though there had been enough wine for everyone to have some, they had run out. And so He produced some more. He went along with the humanity of the situation in order to teach a lesson to those who observed what really happened (Jn. 2:10).

- The Lord evidently knew how Judas was taking money out of the bag. As the Son of God He was an intellectual beyond compare, and sensitive and perceptive beyond our imagination. And He noticed it; and yet said nothing. He was seeking to save Judas and He saw that to just kick up about evident weakness wasn’t the way. If only many of our brethren would show a like discernment.

- His attitude to John’s disciples is very telling. He saw those who “follow not us” as being “on our part”, not losing their reward, as being the little ones who believed in Him; and He saw wisdom as being justified by all her children, be they His personal disciples or those of John (Mk. 9:38-41; Lk. 7:35). John’s men had a wrong attitude to fellowship- they should have ‘followed with’ the disciples of Jesus; and it would seem their doctrinal understanding of the Holy Spirit was lacking, although not wrong (Acts 19:1-5). Indeed, they are called there “disciples”, a term synonymous with all believers in Luke’s writing. And the Lord too spoke in such an inclusive way towards them. No wonder His disciples had and have such difficulty grasping His inclusiveness and breadth of desire to fellowship and save.

- This focus on the positive is shown by the way the Lord quotes Job 22:7 in the parable of the sheep and goats: “You have not given water to the weary to drink, and you have withholden bread from the hungry”. These words are part of Eliphaz’s erroneous allegations against Job- for Job was a righteous man, and not guilty on these counts. Yet the Lord extracts elements of truth from those wrong words, rather than just contemptuously ignoring them. Likewise Job 22:25 speaks of God being our “treasure… our precious silver” (RV). Surely the Lord had this in mind when saying that our treasure must be laid up “in heaven”, i.e. with God (for He often uses ‘Heaven’ for ‘God’). And James follows suite by approvingly quoting Job 22:29 about the lifting up of the humble (James 4:6).

- The Lord's tolerance is demonstrated by how He handled the issue of the tribute money (Mt. 22:21). The coin bore an image which strict Jews considered blasphemous, denoting Tiberius as son of God, the divine Augustus (2). The Lord doesn't react to this as they expected- He makes no comment upon the blasphemy. He lets it go, but insists upon a higher principle. 'If this is what Caesar demands, well give it to him; but give what has the image of God, i.e. yourself, to God'. He didn’t say ‘Don’t touch the coins, they bear false doctrine, to pay the tax could make it appear you are going along with a blasphemous claim’. Yet some would say that we must avoid touching anything that might appear to be false or lead to a false implication [our endless arguments over Bible versions and words of hymns are all proof of this- even though the present writer is more than conservative in his taste in these matters]. The Lord wasn’t like that. He lived life as it is and as it was, and re-focused the attention of men upon that which is essential, and away from the minutiae. Staring each of us in the face is our own body, fashioned in God’s image- and thereby the most powerful imperative, to give it over to God. Yet instead God’s people preferred to ignore this and argue over the possible implication of giving a coin to Caesar because there was a false message on it. Morally and dialectically the Lord had defeated His questioners; and yet still they would not see the bigger and altogether more vital picture which He presented them with.

I am not suggesting from these examples that therefore doctrine is unimportant. But what I am saying is that we must look for the positive in others, and like the Lord in His attitude to demons, bear with them and recognize faith when we see it. God worked through the pagan superstitions of Laban regarding the speckled animals, and through the wrong beliefs of Rachel and Leah regarding their children… in order to build the house of Israel. He didn’t cut off His dealings with men at the first sign of wrong understanding or weak faith or mixed motives. Moses seems to have shared the primitive idea that a god rose or fell according to the fortunes of his worshippers, when he asks God to not cut off Israel in case the nations mock Yahweh. He could have responded that this was far too primitive and limited a view. But no, He apparently listens to Moses and goes along with his request!

John the Baptist showed the same spirit of concession to human weakness in his preaching. He told the publicans: “Extort no more than that which is appointed you” (Lk. 3:13 RV). He tacitly accepted that these men would be into extortion. But within limits, he let it go. Likewise he told soldiers to be content with their wages- not to quit the job. Consider too how the disciples responded to the High Priest rebuking them for preaching; he claimed that they intended to bring the blood of Jesus upon them (Acts 5:24). The obvious, logical debating point would have been to say: ‘But you were the very ones who shouted out ‘His blood be upon us!!’ just a few weeks ago!’. But, Peter didn’t say this. He didn’t even allude to their obvious self-contradiction. Instead he positively went on to point out that a real forgiveness was possible because Jesus was now resurrected. And the point we can take from this is that true witness is not necessarily about pointing out to the other guy his self-contradictions, the logical weakness of his position… it’s not about winning a debate, but rather about bringing people to meaningful repentance and transformation.

Another example of the Biblical record going along with the incorrect perceptions of faithful men is to be found in the way the apostles nicknamed Joseph as ‘Barnabas’ “under the impression, apparently, that it meant ‘son of consolation’ [Acts 4:36]. On etymological grounds that has proved hard to justify, and the name is now generally recognized to… mean ‘son of Nabu’”(3). Yet the record ‘goes along’ with their misunderstanding. In addition to this, there is a huge imputation of righteousness to human beings, reflected right through Scripture. God sought them, the essence of their hearts, and was prepared to overlook much ignorance and misunderstanding along the way. Consider how good king Josiah is described as always doing what was right before God, not turning aside to the right nor left- even though it was not until the 18th year of his reign that he even discovered parts of God’s law, which he had been ignorant of until then, because the scroll containing them had been temporarily lost (2 Kings 22:2,11).


(1) It is likely that to some degree the Father overlooks the moral and intellectual failures of His children on account of their ignorance, even though sins of ignorance still required atonement and are still in some sense seen as sin. This could explain why Eve committed the first sin chronologically, but she did it having been “deceived” by the serpent; whereas Adam committed the same sin consciously and was therefore reckoned as the first sinner, the one man by whom sin entered the world.

(2) Documentation in E. Bammel and C.F.D.Moule, eds., Jesus And The Politics Of His Day (Cambridge: C.U.P., 1984) pp. 241-248.

(3) Margaret Williams, "Palestinian Personal Names in Acts" in Richard Bauckham, ed. The Book of Acts Vol. 4 p. 101 (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1995).