Coping with What Jesus Said

02_mink_books_jn2By Bob Mink

I Wish Jesus Hadn’t Said That 
Stephen Timmis
Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014

The Hard Sayings of Jesus
F.F. Bruce
Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1983

Some book titles get your attention by implying they are about something you may not agree with. When I was a youth minister in the 1970s, I used Fritz Ridenour’s book How to be a Christian Without Being Religious, and was taken to task by a mother who misunderstood the title. Steve Timmis’s book, I Wish Jesus Hadn’t Said That (Zondervan, 2013), does the same thing. The title is his initial response to 10 of Jesus’ most demanding challenges, noting in the introduction that “sometimes being a follower of Jesus can be rather inconvenient” and that “following Jesus can be the proverbial ‘pain in the neck.’”

After he considers each example of Jesus’ call, however, Timmis concludes he doesn’t really wish Jesus hadn’t made these statements. That’s because Timmis believes obeying these demanding challenges brings joy.

Timmis’s premise will remind some readers of F.F. Bruce’s book The Hard Sayings of Jesus. The difference between the two is that Bruce deals with many more of Jesus’ sayings and focuses both on Jesus’ teachings that are hard to understand and those that are hard to obey. While Timmis gives attention to the meaning of Jesus’ demands, his focus is on the difficulty of putting them into practice. Bruce deals with only 4 of the 10 challenges Timmis addresses; this article will explore what both have to say about those 4 challenges (followed by brief mention of the other 6 challenges considered by Timmis).

Self-Denial

In chapter one, Timmis paraphrases Jesus’ call to follow him as a call to self-denial and cross carrying (Mark 8:34). Most have a sense of what self-denial is, but carrying one’s cross is probably not as obvious.

Timmis suggests self-denial is “rejection of all self-worship and of every attempt to run your own life in pursuit of your own self-obsessed, self-glorifying dreams and ambitions.” I don’t think anyone would disagree with the emphasis of this definition.

While we may not grasp what Jesus meant when he challenged followers to take up their cross, those who first heard his words would have understood them. Under Roman rule in the first century, public crucifixion was fairly common. Those slated for crucifixion were forced to carry their cross (or at least the crossbeam) to the place of execution. Jesus’ words suggest his followers must be willing to give up their lives if called upon to do so.

Bruce notes that because Jesus’ demand in a “literal sense is remote from our experience” today, it is now used in a “watered-down way.” Christians today speak of all kinds of inconveniences, whether they have anything to do with faith or not, as being “a cross they have to bear.” Some of Jesus’ first and earliest followers did literally take up their crosses and die for their faith. Christians today probably best understand “taking up one’s cross” as akin to denying oneself. Bruce explains it this way: “A decisive saying no to oneself, to one’s hopes and plans and ambitions, to one’s likes and dislikes, to one’s nearest and dearest, for the sake of Christ.”

Early in his explanation, Timmis affirms that Jesus’ call is not to asceticism. “Enjoying the good things of this life that God gives us is not wrong,” he says. Perhaps the key to answering Jesus’ call is to keep in mind both what Timmis says about not selfishly focusing on oneself and what Bruce says about making sure what we do give up is for the sake of Christ.

Enemy Love

In his second chapter, Timmis turns to Jesus’ call to his followers to “love your enemies” (Luke 6:27-36). Timmis underscores that this is a hard saying to obey by confessing, “I don’t want to love my enemies, . . . I want to hurt them, gossip about them, undermine them, and generally make them pay.” Bruce also acknowledges the challenge: “We should resist the impulse to pay someone who harms back, . . . but does that involve loving him?” Says Timmis, “It flies in the face of natural justice.”

Bruce notes that the instruction to “love your enemies” in Matthew’s account comes right after Jesus’ reminder of the popular teaching of the day to “love your neighbor and hate your enemy” (Matthew 5:43, 44; italics added).

Jesus offers a partial definition of our enemies as “those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44) and “those who hate you . . . curse you . . . [and] mistreat you” (Luke 6:27, 28). In telling us to love our enemies, Bruce contends, Jesus is speaking about the practical attitude we should have toward them, not “the sentimental associations that the word love has for many of us.” One’s feelings are not the important thing, he says.

Both authors point out that Jesus gives us some direction in how to love our enemies—do good to those who hate us, bless those who curse us, and pray for those who abuse or persecute us. According to Timmis, “We must not just endure our enemies, but actively seek to bless them.” Bruce reports that those who put into practice Jesus’ call to pray for their enemies realize “a remarkable change in attitude.”

God, Not Money

Another statement Timmis wishes Jesus hadn’t made is this declaration: “You cannot serve both God and money” (Luke 16:13). Modern translations render the word as money, while older translations use mammon. Bruce says mammon refers to wealth, in particular some unworthy aspect of wealth, such as “many people’s attitudes to it.” Timmis reminds us: “In our culture, money gives meaning and importance to our lives . . . [and] wealth is what makes us significant.”

Jesus makes clear in his declaration that wealth is a rival to God. Bruce writes, “Service of mammon and service of God are mutually exclusive.” According to Timmis, “The two compete with each other for our affection and service.” Since followers of Jesus cannot serve or worship wealth, the issue seems to be how a believer views and uses money and wealth.

Timmis points to the parable of the shrewd manager (Luke 16:1-9)—which immediately precedes the “cannot serve both God and money” teaching. Interpreting and applying the shrewd manager parable is not easy, but Timmis suggests it is about how we use our money. Bruce points to Jesus’ words, “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist of an abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15), as well as to the parable of the rich fool that immediately follows (Luke 12:16–21). Here the point is about selfish accumulation and greed.

Timmis notes, “The point of all this is not to stop us from enjoying any of life’s good things.” (The apostle Paul says it is the love of money that causes trouble (1 Timothy 6:10) and affirms that it is God “who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment” (1 Timothy 6:17).

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Anger, All Bad?

In chapter nine, Timmis deals with Jesus’ teaching about anger. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus builds on the commandment against murder with this warning, “Anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment” (Matthew 5:22). Timmis notes not all anger is bad and suggests that, “Getting angry at injustice is a God-like response.” Bruce, however, notes Jesus “makes no distinction between righteous and unrighteous anger.”

Later in Matthew 5:22, Jesus says, “Anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.” Bruce notes that, as Jesus continues to speak, “There seems to be an ascending scale of seriousness.” Timmis suggests, “Jesus is talking specifically about anger that treats others with contempt.” Bruce, it would appear, is right to suggest that “You fool!” is worse than “Raca.”

Here’s my take: Anger can be sinful, and it often is. I agree with both Timmis (“Anger can lead to murder”) and Bruce (“Jesus points out that the murderous act springs from the angry thought”). However, I do not agree with Timmis when he writes, “[When in] our hearts, we despise and belittle someone, it is no different in God’s eyes from quietly spiking their drink with arsenic” or that “Our anger is as bad as murder.” I’m convinced Jesus is talking about an anger that sees another person as somehow being something less than created in the image of God.

In addition to the four items we have mentioned, Timmis highlights six other things he wishes Jesus hadn’t said. Among them:

• Jesus’ response to Peter that he is to forgive “not seven times, but seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18:22).

• Jesus’ instruction about his second coming—“Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come” (Mark 13:33).

• Jesus’ citation of the Old Testament commandment “Love your neighbor as yourself” and his illustration of the Good Samaritan.

• Jesus’ pronouncement that “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness” (Matthew 5:10).

• Jesus’ claim that those who do the will of God are his family (Mark 3:31-35).

• Jesus’ farewell instructions to his followers in Matthew 28:19, 20, what is known as the Great Commission.

While Timmis’s book is enjoyable—as is Bruce’s—his list is not identical to one we might come up with.

I think some of his chapters were choppy and could have been more focused. In some places I think he was a bit flippant.

The book’s title—I Wish Jesus Hadn’t Said That—serves to create interest, and I sense Timmis is not the first Christian to think that. I also think his subtitle—Finding JOY in the Inconvenience of Discipleship—is a great rejoinder to the main title.

Bob Mink continues his preaching and teaching ministry from Amarillo, Texas, after retiring in 2014 from 30 years of ministry with the Discovery Christian Church, Moreno Valley, California.

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