Jesus: The Master of Confrontation

by Cliff McManis

The Prince of Peace
Some Christians think the essence of true spirituality is being conflict-free…or being “nice.” All anger, all arguing, all conflict, all confrontation is bad. Many would have us imagine that Jesus was happy all the time, was at peace with everyone, lived as a political pacifist like Gandhi, never got upset or raised His voice and was committed to keeping unity at any cost. Hippies of the 60’s and 70’s believed the same thing. John Lennon gave the world the song “Imagine” in which he sang, “Imagine…no hell below us…no religion too, Imagine all the people living life in peace.” Utopian, idealistic New Age drivel. Buddhism strives for this unrealistic ideal as well. The pacifist doctrine is alive and well in today’s world.

Contrast all this thinking with the way Jesus actually lived His life 2,000 years ago. He is the “Prince of Peace” and the only sinless, perfect person who ever lived, and yet His life, especially His three years of public ministry, were anything but conflict free. An objective look at the four Gospels in the New Testament paints a very different picture of the nature of Jesus’ public ministry. He was familiar with conflict, debate, verbal scuffles, exposing error, and rebuking sin on a regular basis, much more than many people realize. As a result, He had an ongoing ministry of confrontation. Consider several examples from the Gospel of John.

Of its twenty-one chapters, Jesus is in a dispute with someone in almost every chapter. It is breathtaking.

Christians often tell inquiring unbelievers and new believers to start their Bible reading with the Gospel of John. This is the case for several reasons. John’s Gospel is easy to read, written in a simple Greek style with familiar vocabulary. It is also evangelistic in purpose, so unbelievers clearly see the purpose of Jesus’ life and death. And it also has several amazing miracles and unique dialogue that makes the deity of Jesus explicit in a way not expressed in the other three Gospels. But one feature about John’s Gospel that is not mentioned much is the amount of conflict that occurs throughout between Jesus and others. Of its twenty-one chapters, Jesus is in a dispute with someone in almost every chapter. It is breathtaking.

John 2
John starts out with Jesus and some of His disciples at a wedding in Cana of Galilee (2:1-2). This is the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry—He was thirty years old. His mother Mary was at the wedding as well, assisting with the food. When they ran out of wine, Mary went to Jesus and said, “They have no wine.” Jesus’ response to her is startling. He didn’t say, “Oh, OK Mother Mary, what do you want Me to do? I’ll do whatever you tell Me.” Instead, Jesus told her bluntly, “Woman, what do I have to do with you? My hour has not yet come” (2:4). This is how Jesus began His public ministry—putting His mom in her place…or at least it kind of comes off that way. It seems a bit confrontational. The fact is, Jesus was speaking respectfully to her, but He was clearly letting her know there were new parameters of His relationship with her now that He officially began His public ministry as the Messiah. He was no longer just her oldest son. His priority moving forward was the will of His Father in heaven (John 4:34; 5:30; 6:38).

Immediately after this wedding Jesus went to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. The city was bustling with pilgrims everywhere who came to worship at the Temple. In the Temple area Jewish moneychangers were selling animals for sacrifice primarily to make a buck. Jesus knew this and became disgusted…and outraged by the crass defilement of the holy Temple. So He confronted the moneychangers publicly, on the spot, and with a loud fury. “He made a scourge of chords” (2:15). That means He made a whip! And He started using the whip, whipping the moneychangers, chasing them out of the Temple along with their animals. But that is not all. “He poured out the coins of the moneychangers, and overturned their tables.” He was breaking and throwing stuff around; in public; in broad daylight; in the busiest time of the year of the Jews; with hundreds of spectators watching …probably most of them in shock, never having seen anything like this in their lives. Then He shouted at them saying, “Take these things away; stop making My Father’s house a house of merchandise” (2:16). What an incredible scene.

What would happen to you if you went up to someone’s lemonade stand on the corner or on the sidewalk and started whipping the person who owned the stand, then you turned their table over and threw their money all over the ground and then yelled at them really loud telling them to leave? People would be afraid of you, call you crazy, and maybe even call the police. This would be a public spectacle of the first order. Well, it was a public spectacle of the first order when Jesus did it. And this is how He began His public ministry as the Messiah! The Jewish leaders witnessed this act and they hated Jesus from day one because He did this. And they would spend the next three and half years figuring out how to kill Him for it.

It is interesting, and significant, that three years later, in the last week of His life, Jesus did it again! After His triumphal entry into Jerusalem during Passover week, the first thing Jesus did upon His arrival was to go into the Temple and cleanse it again. He went to the moneychangers, overturned their tables and their money boxes, threw their chairs and chased them out of the Temple grounds…and yelled at them, saying, “you are making My house of prayer a robbers’ den” (Matt 21:12-14). This time the Jewish leadership would be successful in killing Him for His confrontational preaching and iconoclastic ways. Jesus the peace-maker began and ended His ministry with a scandalous act of confrontation—a loud, open-aired cleansing of the Temple were the bookends of His public ministry.

John 3
In John chapter three Jesus had a nighttime conversation with the preeminent religious teacher in Israel and a ruler of the Jews, a man named Nicodemus (3:1-21). Nicodemus began the conversation by complimenting Jesus for being a good teacher. Jesus’ response caught Nicodemus off guard. Jesus did not say, “Oh, thanks for the kind words; I appreciate it; glad you like my teaching.” Instead, Jesus told this religious Jew that he needed to get saved! Jesus told him his religion would not cut it, but rather he needed to be born again, born from above, born by the work of the Holy Spirit. Nicodemus questioned Jesus’ commands, so Jesus responded with some confrontation. Jesus asked Nicodemus why he was so ignorant about true religion (v. 10). Then Jesus rebuked him for not believing His words (vv. 11-12). And then Jesus closed with a basic Bible lesson from the Law of Moses, pointing out the ignorance of the great Jewish teacher (vv. 13-15). So although he was at first fascinated with Jesus, it was clear that Nicodemus did not believe in Jesus in accordance with the truth. This had to be humiliating for Nicodemus. He was not used to someone talking to him this way. But Jesus’ confrontation about the truth paid off in time, for after a few years the truth Jesus spoke about the gospel began to sink in with Nicodemus. In John 7 Nicodemus seemed to be sympathetic to the ministry of Jesus while all the other Pharisees rejected Christ’s ministry (7:50-52). And when Jesus died, it was Nicodemus who helped Joseph of Arimathea bury Jesus (John 19:38-42). More than likely, three years after first being confronted by Jesus for unbelief, Nicodemus was eventually born again and joined the family of God.

John 4
Next, in John chapter four Jesus confronts an immoral Samaritan woman (4:1-42). The two meet alone at a well in Sychar. It’s midday, hot and Jesus is thirsty. Jesus starts the conversation with this outcast stranger by asking her for a drink. The woman is surprised that He, being a Jewish man, would talk with her, a non-Jewish woman. Jesus proceeds to offer her living water, or eternal life. She is at first clueless and thinks He was talking about literal water. The conversation reaches a climax when Jesus finally exposes her sin by saying, “Go, call your husband” (v. 16). She said she didn’t have a husband. Then Jesus confronted the skeleton in the closet of her personal life by saying to her, a complete stranger He just met: “You have well said, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands; and the one whom you now have is not your husband.”

Here, Jesus basically called her a prostitute! She was a Samaritan woman. Samaritans supposedly believed in the Law of Moses. Moses condemned adultery with the death penalty (Exod 20). This woman should have been stoned to death four times over. She knew she had been exposed. She felt the guilt and as a result thought maybe Jesus was a prophet with the gift of extra-sensory perception. Jesus continued with His confrontation telling her that she was ignorant about true worship (v. 22). Then He revealed to her that He was the Old Testament Messiah, the great I AM (v. 26). At that comment the woman split the scene and ran to her home town telling everyone that Jesus was the Messiah. As a result, many of the Samaritans in that city believed in Jesus because of the woman’s testimony. Jesus courageously spoke truth to her, confronted her sin, and called on her to believe in Him. Instead of being offended when being called out for her sexual escapades upon confrontation, she responded in humility and embraced the truth and as a result received eternal life—the living water that Jesus promised. This scene is a classic example of Jesus’ “loving confrontation.” It was one of many times when He loved the sinner so much He had to tell her the truth about her sin that would damn her, and the truth that could set her free.

John 5
In John chapter five Jesus got into a huge skirmish with the Jewish religious leaders because He healed a lame man on the sabbath day (5:1-47). They began to persecute Him for doing miracles on the Sabbath. Jesus did not blow it off, ignore it, run from it or try to compromise with them over their persecution and criticism. He boldly confronted them to their faces saying, “My Father is working until now, and I Myself am working” (v. 17). That infuriated them all the more and so they then tried to kill Him! Jesus countered with a long public rebuke telling them they were not believers (v. 38), that they did not know anything about Scripture (v. 39), that they did not have eternal life (v. 40), that they did not love God (v. 42), that they follow false teachers (v. 43), that they were man-pleasers (v. 44) and that they were spiritually condemned (v. 45). This is the ministry of confrontation in action. Jesus was the Master at it.

John 6
In chapter six things do not calm down. Jesus is in Galilee by the sea and He feeds a multitude with fish and bread (6:1-71). Most in the crowd follow Jesus for free food, not because He was the Savior. So Jesus confronts them for their crass self-centeredness and then declares to the whole massive crowd, “you seek me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate of the loaves, and were filled” (v. 26). Then He told them that He was “the bread of life” who came down from heaven and so they need to believe in Him. That made them angry. As a result, “The Jews therefore were grumbling about him” (v. 41). Right there on the spot, right after He gave them a free meal, they turned on Him and began to mock Him. Jesus did not back down. He confronted them even more. He quoted from Isaiah and Jeremiah proving that He was the promised Messiah. That just made them “argue” (v. 52) and “grumble” all the more (v. 61). Jesus poured it on even more saying, “no one can come to Me unless it has been granted to him from the Father” (v. 65). As a result of this long public verbal altercation, “many” of Jesus’ disciples withdrew and followed Him no more (v. 66).  

John 7
In John chapter seven the confrontations continue. At the time of the feast Jesus is laying low in Galilee. His brothers, who were his younger half-siblings, were taunting Him about His claim to be the Messiah. He gave them a terse rebuke: “My time is not yet at hand; but your time is always opportune” (v. 6). This sharp word did not go unnoticed.

Jesus’ confrontation was always efficacious, whether it culminated in salvation for those who would believe, or in guilt and greater accountability for those who would reject Him.

A couple years later after Jesus died and rose again, His brothers, James and Jude, would come to believe in Jesus and they were privileged to even write a New Testament epistle each. Jesus’ confrontation was always efficacious, whether it culminated in salvation for those who would believe, or in guilt and greater accountability for those who would reject Him. Jesus ends up going to the feast in Jerusalem and gets into a confrontation at the Temple with the Jews again. They say He is demon possessed! (v. 20). Jesus retorts with, “You shall seek Me, and shall not find Me” (v. 34). The Jews sought all the more to arrest him.

John 8
Confrontation and conflict reach a fever pitch in John chapter eight. Jesus went to the Temple in Jerusalem to teach. He began His teaching by declaring, “I am the light of the world!” (v. 12). That infuriated the Jewish leaders. They rebuked Jesus publicly on the spot, in front of the massive crowds. They shouted, “Your witness is not true.” That did not silence Jesus. He went on to give them a tongue-lashing telling them they were ignorant (v. 14), that they were false witnesses (v. 15), that they would die in their sin (v. 21), that they were worldly (v. 23), that they would murder the Messiah (v. 28), that He was the only one who pleased God the Father (v. 29), and that they were slaves of sin (v. 34). They responded in kind by saying He was a bastard child! (v. 41). Jesus countered by telling them they were from Satan himself! The devil was their father (v. 44). So they accused Him again of being demon possessed (v. 48). Jesus answered that by giving the gospel and then He called them liars (v. 55). Then He revealed to the whole crowd that He was the great I AM—the eternal One (v. 58). With that comment, they picked up stones to stone Him for blasphemy!   

John 9-21
We are only at chapter nine now out of twenty-one chapters and there is lots more conflict to highlight, but space does not allow. So a brief summary will suffice to make the point. In John nine Jesus confronts the Pharisees telling them they are spiritually blind and lost in sin (v. 41). In John ten the Jews accuse Jesus for the third time of being demon possessed (v. 20) while He accuses them of unbelief and being without eternal life. They try to stone Him again. In chapter eleven Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead but the Jews respond by trying to arrest Jesus. In chapter twelve Jesus confronts Judas over his love of money.

In chapter thirteen Jesus confronts Peter about his wrong thinking (v. 8) and He confronts Judas the betrayer. In chapter fifteen Jesus warns His apostles that the world hates them (v. 18). In chapter eighteen Jesus confronts the mob who comes to arrest Him, Peter for wielding a sword, the High Priest who arrested Him and Pilate who tried Him. In chapter nineteen Jesus confronts Pilate again and then He is crucified. The Gospel closes in chapter twenty-one with the risen Savior lovingly confronting Peter three times about his commitment to Jesus. Peter gets the lesson and Jesus reinstates him into service to be the head Apostle who would lead the church which would be born on Pentecost.

Thus concludes our overview of the Gospel of John, highlighting the often-overlooked frequency with which Jesus was involved in holy confrontation with sinners. Jesus came into the world as the Savior, to seek and to save those who were lost because of sin. To save people from their sin, Jesus first had to expose their sin. The way He exposed sin was through confrontation. Sometimes His confrontation was subtle and sometimes it was overt. But it was always done in keeping with truth motivated by love for the sinner and the glory of the Father (John 6:38).

Matthew 23: Fools and Serpents
Space does not permit us to illustrate the many more examples of Christ’s ministry of confrontation replete in the other three Gospels, like the classic excoriation He gives the Pharisees in Matthew 23 where He calls them “hypocrites” seven times, as well as blind guides, fools, white-washed tombs, lawless, serpents and sons of hell! (vv. 13-33). And there are countless mild confrontations He makes in a gentle, patient and loving manner towards His Apostles as He trains them for leadership over the course of three years (cf. Luke 11:40; 22:25 ff., 24:45). And finally, some of Jesus’ most scathing rebukes are reserved for Christians in the churches of Asia Minor described in Revelation 2 and 3. There, He even threatens to kill people in the church if they don’t repent (Rev 2:16, 22; 3:16). Jesus even says that He manifests His love for His children through “rebuke and discipline” (3:19). Biblical confrontation is loving! The point is simple. Jesus is the model of true, pure, biblical ministry. He had a perfect balance in love for truth and love for sinners. As such, His life serves as the perfect balance of how to navigate the tension between mercy and justice, grace and truth, forgiveness and accountability, confrontation with compassion.

When we go to confront someone, we need to be guided by truth and biblical principles. The model of truth is Jesus Christ, and we can look at how He confronted people in Scripture. Those are the boundaries, and we need to be sure not to go outside these boundaries of confrontation. If you confront someone for the purpose of belittling them, shaming them, embarrassing them, retaliation, revenge, insult-ing them, or exonerating yourself, you are going outside the margins of biblical truth. Jesus maintained a perfect balance in confronting sinners; He pursued truth in the context of love. Jesus healed a man who was lame for thirty-eight years (John 5:9). That was sheer love. Jesus also told him after the healing, “do not sin anymore” (5:14). That was undiluted truth. That is difficult for us to do, because we are usually on one end of the spectrum—pursuing only truth, thus coming across as harsh, or interested only in love, thus letting the issue slide with no justice. Jesus struck the perfect balance, right in the middle of these two extremes—confrontation when necessary, with truth, love, forgiveness, and patience.

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