By Jim Nieman
Tim Harlow, senior pastor with Parkview Christian Church, Orland Park, Ill., for almost 30 years, has written a new book with the provocative title, What Made Jesus Mad? Rediscover the Blunt, Sarcastic, Passionate Savior of the Bible.
In the book, to be released next Tuesday, Harlow explains that Jesus was most angry with people whose attitudes got in the way of his purpose, and he shares what that means for his followers today. He suggests it’s more important to ask, “What made Jesus angry” than the oft-quoted cliché, “What would Jesus do?”
Harlow—who cowrote the “Ministry Today” column for Christian Standard for several years—spoke with the magazine about his new book.
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QUESTION: How did this project come about and what’s the ultimate purpose of your new book?
ANSWER: God wants his children home. All of them. I’ve spent my ministry life fighting for the outsiders to get in. I’ve also realized that Jesus was often very hard on the religious people of his day. It was the moment I put the two things together that this book was born.
What made Jesus mad was when anyone got in the way of God’s reunion with his children. That is what the “church” was doing in Jesus day, and ironically, we’ve never stopped. With the rise of this next generation of young people deciding against the church, and therefore, their Father, I realized this book needed to be written.
I believe Jesus would tell us we have an image problem. People on the outside are watching us debate these issues, and they’re deciding they don’t want what’s on the inside.
My target audience is the prodigal son’s best friend. My hope is that Christians will read this and be given permission and even language to go back and talk to their friends about who Jesus is. He’s the guy who will throw stuff out of the temple, call people names, and literally take a bullet for them to have access to the Father who loves them.
Jesus definitely flashed his anger many times.
Yes, and it probably makes us uncomfortable. At one point the disciples even said, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?” [Matthew 15:12]. It’s pretty bad when the “sons of thunder” are concerned that maybe you’ve been too hard on someone.
What we’ve not likely ever considered is how Jesus might feel about our behavior, especially those of us who are church leaders. As I studied these issues, I had to ask myself, “Could this be me?” I always disliked the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. They killed Jesus, for crying out loud. But are we any better today?
What are some issues and lessons for modern-day religious leaders and churches?
I included Caleb Kaltenbach’s story in the book . . . of growing up in a lesbian family and thinking Christians hated gay people. That’s probably the classic issue of our day. [And also] how the church has handled the abortion issue, women’s issues, sexual and gender issues, etc.[The point] is not to look at the religious leaders and Pharisees as jerks or demonize anyone or take sides on an issue, but to interpret their actions to make sure I’m not doing the same thing.
One of the obviously ridiculous ones I handled poorly back in the day is the creation/evolution debate. I was deeply into creation science for a time. I felt passionate, and still do, that if we can resolve science and the Bible, it would help the faith of the average believer. [But here is] the problem: If we take that approach to the people outside of the faith, we end up creating a barrier that they have to break through to get to Jesus.
What approach to controversial issues and/or sinners is the most pleasing to Jesus?
This is our true dilemma. Truth and grace—where is the balance? Where do we lean? Well, Jesus leaned on grace for the outside world and truth for those inside the church. That’s the trick.
It is possible to believe in truth and act in grace with everyone. We can have expectations within our own people, but we have to lead with grace out in the world. That doesn’t mean I can’t disagree; it’s [really] about how I do it. When they threw the adulterous woman in front of Jesus, he led with grace (“neither do I condemn you”) and followed with truth (“go and sin no more”).
Can you speak a bit more about issues involving sex and gender which are so divisive today?
I’ve had all of my theology around sex and gender issues figured out or a long time. But when I started talking to actual human beings who were LGBTQ, my heart opened up to make me more like Jesus. I’m a long way from being like Jesus, but everything changes when you actually see a person for who they are.
It’s like in Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan. The Samaritan was the only one who really “saw” the guy lying by the road.
My first real conversation with a person who suffers from gender dysphoria was a game changer. To hear this person talk about how they didn’t really know which bathroom to go into at the age of 5 gave me a perspective that enabled me to understand, and listen, and love. It didn’t force me to change my theology, and I disagree with the way my friend has handled the issue, but listening keeps me from trying to get the speck out of someone else’s eye while I have a log sticking out of my own.
Recently, you said far too many churches have “older brother syndrome.” Please explain.
I believe everything comes back to the story of the prodigal son/older brother. God wants his kids home. All of them. Even after the older brother was a jerk, the father still loved him. The prodigal son obviously was a different kind of jerk, and the father also loved him.
Older brother syndrome happens when I start to think that I deserve to be at home because I’m good enough. It was the point of the story. Jesus told it because the Pharisees were mumbling about Jesus being with sinners. They thought they were above it. I also like to call it “gracism,” or religious racism. Gracism is like racism, but it’s not about the color of your skin, it’s about the color of your sin. Gracists say, “I deserve to be with the Father, but you don’t” . . . “I am deserving of God’s grace, but you aren’t.”
The religious leaders thought you should have to work your way into God’s love, and they stood in the way of anyone else getting in, as well. That’s what made Jesus mad. He said, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces” [Matthew 23:13].
Thankfully, the older brother was not in the field the prodigal came through to get back home. I’m pretty sure he would have never made it in.
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What Made Jesus Mad? Rediscover the Blunt, Sarcastic, Passionate Savior of the Bible is published by Thomas Nelson. Learn more at www.thomasnelson.com. The book can also be ordered from amazon.com and elsewhere.
Jim Nieman serves as managing editor of Christian Standard.