2-14 The Radical Language Of Jesus

Because of the gracious words and manner of speaking of Jesus, therefore God so highly exalted Him (Ps. 45:2). The Father was so impressed with the words of His Son. Lk. 4:22 records how people were amazed at the gracious words He spoke; there was something very unusual in His manner of speaking. Evidently there must have been something totally outstanding about His use of language. God highly exalted Him because He so loved righteousness and hated wickedness (Ps. 45:7), and yet also because of His manner of speaking (Ps. 45:2); so this love of righteousness and hatred of evil was what made His words so special.  

The Lord's choice of language was therefore radically different. Indeed, the Father Himself has inspired His word in a way which uses language quite differently to how we do. Thus there are many examples in Scripture of where even basic rules of grammar are broken- an obvious example is the way Leviticus and Numbers begin with “And…”, what scholars call a “waw conjunctive” that is not ever used to start a sentence let alone a book. The Father’s Son likewise used language in His own way. “’Peace’ [‘shalom’- the usual Semitic greeting] is my farewell to you” (Jn. 14:27) is an example of how He seems to have almost purposefully delighted in using language in a startlingly different way. There are times when the Lord Jesus seems to have almost coined words. The adjective epiousios in " our daily bread" is one example; there in the midst of the prayer which the Lord bid His followers constantly use, was a word which was virtually unknown to them (1). Our bread only-for-this-day was the idea. When He addressed God as abba, 'dad', the Jews would have been scandalized(2). But this was the experience He had of God as a near at hand, compassionate Father. He purposefully juxtaposed abba with the Divine Name which Jews were so paranoid about pronouncing: " Abba, glorify your name" (Jn. 12:28). This was nothing short of scandal to Jewish ears. And we  are to pray as the Lord prayed, also using " Abba, father" (Rom. 8:15; Gal. 4:6). Seeing it was unheard of at the time for Jews to pray to God using 'Abba', Paul is clearly encouraging us to relate to God and pray to Him as Jesus did (cp. Jn. 20:17). The Lord made a big deal of calling God 'Abba', even forbidding His Jewish followers to use the term about anyone else (Mt. 23:9). The Lord's attitude to prayer was radical in itself. The observant Jew prayed three times / day, the first and last prayers being merely the recital of the shema. Yet Jesus spent hours in those morning and evening prayers (Mk. 1:35; 6:46). Perhaps He was motivated in His prayers by the lengthy implications of the fact that Yahweh is indeed one, and this demands so much of us.  

He asked us to drink His blood, another idea repellent to Jewry. His healings broke all the purity boundaries of His social world. He touched lepers and hemorrhaging women. He ate with the outcasts and well known sinners. Women followed Him around the country, yet He was unmoved by all the scandal mongering which inevitably must have gone on. He allowed Mary to wash Him with her hair, and to speak with Him in public- even though the hair, legs and voices of women were felt by Judaism to be especially enticing. Jesus refused to share the usual Jewish fears of female sexuality. Believing that sexual desire was evil and uncontrollable, the Jewish world coped with women by secluding them. The Lord, however, accepted women into His company of disciples. He was comfortable with His humanity, He wasn’t paranoid about the ‘thin end of the wedge’. And moreover, He expected His responsible and comfortable-with-his-humanity attitude to rub off upon the men He’d chosen to be with those women. He valued persons for who they were, and this had radical results in practice. And yet He spoke with " authority" in the eyes of the people. What gave Him this? Surely it was His lifestyle, who He was, the way there was no gap between His words and who He was. The word of the Gospel, the message, was made flesh in Him. There was a perfect congruence between His theory and His practice. The repeated amazement which people expressed at the Lord's teaching may not only refer to the actual content of His material; but more at the way in which He expressed it, the unique way in which word was made flesh in Him. The way the Lord could ask men to follow Him, and they arose and followed (Mk. 2:14), is surely testimony to the absolute, direct and unaccountable authority of Jesus. It was surely His very ordinariness which made Him so compelling.  

Jesus juxtaposed ideas in a radical way. He spoke of drinking His blood; and of a Samaritan who was good, a spiritual hero. It was impossible for Jews to associate the term 'Samaritan' and the concept of being spiritually an example. And so the stark, radical challenge of the Lord's words must be allowed to come down into the 21st century too. Lk. 6:35 has Jesus speaking of " children of the Most High" and yet Mt. 5:45 has " children of your father" . What did Jesus actually say? Perhaps: " Children of abba, daddy, the Most High" . He juxtaposed His shocking idea of abba with the exalted title " the Most High" . The Most High was in fact as close as abba, daddy, father. 

“Amen” was what you usually said in the first century about the words of someone else. To use it about your own words was, apparently, unthinkable (3). But the Lord Jesus was so quietly sure of Himself that He could say this of His own words. Without being conceited or proud, the Lord valued His own person to this extent. Truly “Never [did a] man spake like this man”.

The Sting In The Tail

The radical nature of the Lord Jesus is reflected in His teaching style. His parables work around what I have elsewhere called "elements of unreality". They involve a clash of the familiar, the comfortable, the normal, with the strange and unreal and radical. The parables are now so well known that their radical nature has been almost buried under the avalanche of familiarity. The parables begin by getting the hearers sympathetic and onboard with the story line- and then, in a flick of the tail, the whole punch line is turned round against their expectations, with radical demands. Take the good Samaritan. The story of a man travelling the Jerusalem-Jericho road alone would've elicited sympathy and identity with the hearers- yes, that road is awfully dangerous. And then the priest and Levite pass by and don't help. That was realistic-"priests and levites were known to have quarters in the Jordan valley near Jericho where they retreated from the beehive of activity surrounding the temple" (4). The common people were anticlerical, and yes, they could just imagine the priest and Levite passing by. "Typical!" would've been their comment. They're all set up to expect the Messianic Jewish working class hero to stride in to the rescue. But... it's a despised Samaritan who stops and gives saving help. They had expected a Jewish Saviour- and Jesus, the teller of the parable, claimed to be just that. But... in the story, He's represented by a Samaritan. Remember that Samaritans and Jews had no dealings, and people were amazed that Jesus would even speak with the Samaritan woman at the well. Even in desperation, a Jew wouldn't have wanted to be helped by a Samaritan. You had to be utterly desperate to accept such help. Moments earlier, the audience had been identifying with the injured Jewish man. But... were they really that desperate, did they appreciate their desperation to that extent, to keep "in" the story, and accept that that desperate man was really them? They wanted to be able to identify with the hero. But no, they had to first of all identify with the wounded, dying, desperate Jew. And only then were they bidden "Go and do likewise"- 'be like the Samaritan'. The Lord's initial audience would have been left with knitted eyebrows and deep introspection at the end of it. The whole thing was too challenging for many. They quit the parable, quit identifying with the story... just as we can when it gets too demanding. It's a tragedy that this amazing story, crafted in such a radically demanding way, has been reduced to merely 'Be a good neighbour to the guy next door, so long as it doesn't demand too much of you'- which is what the story has come to mean for the majority of professed Christians today. That of itself indicates a discomfort with the radical nature of the demands.

It's the same with Nathan's parable to David. It elicited David's sympathy- and then it was turned back on David: "You are the man!". But he didn't quit the parable. He acted on it, as we have to. The parable of the self-righteous older son is just the same. The parable's story line leads us to expect that the wayward son repents and is accepted back by his father. But then right at the end, the whole thing takes a biting twist. We suddenly realize that the prodigal son and the need to forgive your wayward son isn't the point of the story- for that's something which comes naturally to any father and family. The whole point is that the son who played safe, who stayed home and behaved himself... he is the one who ends up outside of the family's joy because of his self-righteousness. He ends up the villain, the lost son. Again, there'd have been knotted brows and an exit from identity with the story line. And the way generations of Christians have described the story as "the parable of the lost / prodigal son" shows how they [we] too have so often missed the essentially radical point of the story.

Jesus And The Temple

It was the Lord's radical usage of language which led to the huge, seething anger which He provoked, culminating in the demand for His death. He seems to have purposefully reinterpreted and reapplied symbols and ideas which spoke of Jewish national pride, and applied them to something quite different. His triumphal entry into Jerusalem on an ass, not a war horse, and in order to die... led to so much anger exactly because He had subverted such a familiar and longed for hope and symbol. We have to remember the huge value of symbols in the first century, living as we do in an age when the written word has become paramount. For the illiterate, symbols and acted parables were of far greater importance than the written word. We may think of 'Jesus' in terms of His teachings recorded at a specific chapter and verse of our Bibles. To the illiterate first century Jew, they thought of Him in terms of what He did- His cleansing of the temple, His image of the temple mount being plucked up and cast into the sea. The Lord's teaching about the temple was especially subversive- for the temple played a "decisive role... in resistance toward Rome" (5). It was "the focal point of the hope of national liberation, and hence was regarded as a guarantee of security against the pagans" (6). But what does Jesus teach about the temple? It will be destroyed, His body shall be greater than the temple, it was to be a place of blessing for pagan Gentiles, because of Israel's wickedness the abomination would be set there, every place was hallowed ground, He was the true priest, etc. According to the Mishnah Berakoth 9.5, the faithful were to wash the dust from their feet before entering it- and Jesus washed His disciples feet in likely allusion to this before they say down in a private room and broke bread with Him (Jn. 13:1-20). As the Lithuanian Jewish Rabbi Jacob Neusner commented about Jesus' institution of the 'breaking of bread': "The holy place has shifted, now being formed by the circle made up of the master and his disciples" (7). The Lord Jesus used the term "the blood of the covenant" at the last Supper, with reference to how Zech. 9:9-11 prophesied that the restoration of Israel's fortunes would be because of this "blood of my covenant". Yet the restoration / redemption which the Lord had in mind was not politically from Rome, but from sin and death through His blood. The temple had no great role in the Lord's teaching. By driving out traders from the temple, the Lord was effectively suggesting that the Kingdom prophecy of Zech. 14:21, of how in the restoration there would be no Gentile traders there, was coming true in Him. And the elders of the Jews are thus paralleled by Him with the Gentiles. He speaks of how "this mountain"- and He must've been referring to Zion, the temple mount- was to be plucked up and cast into the sea of Gentiles (Mk. 11:23). And He was alluding to Zech 4:6,7, which spoke of how the mountain of Babylon would be cast into the sea at the restoration- with the 'splash' expressed in the words "Grace, grace". This was to associate the Jewish temple system with Babylon- just as Revelation 17 likewise does. The Lord opened up a new universe of symbols; in an almost kaleidoscopic way, He twisted all the well loved symbols around. And when you mess with symbols, people get angry. Having lived in the Baltic States many years, I observed how inflammatory is the issue of messing with war memorials. Russians and Balts can slag each other off verbally all they wish, and people shrug. But mess with symbols, remove or rededicate a war memorial- and the crowds are on the streets. And this was, partially, what led to the fury with Jesus which led to His lynching. He who proclaimed non-violent revolution, the radical transformation of the inner mind into God's temple, Israel's true Messiah, was seen as the ultimate threat to all that it meant to be Jewish- all because His language and actions subverted the beloved symbols of the social club. When we experience this... we are sharing something of His sufferings. Time and again, the Lord uses language about the restoration from exile and applies it to Himself. Thus fasting was common amongst Palestinian Jews of His time, and it was involved with mourning the destruction of the temple and Judah's submission to Rome (8). And yet the Lord pronounced that the days of fasting were over, and His people were to be feasting because of His work (Mk. 2:19). But He brought no freedom from Rome, and spoke of the principles of the Messianic Kingdom as being non-resistance to evil rather than military resistance to it. He spoke of Yahweh as 'visiting' His people- but not to save them as they expected, but rather to judge them, with Messiah on His behalf at the head of the Roman armies who would come to destroy Jerusalem and the temple. And thus Jesus deeply disappointed people who didn't want to change their self-centred, nationalistic outlook- those who didn't want to see things spiritually rather than naturally, those who refused to accept the extent of Israel's sin.

The memories of the Maccabean heroes and their rebellion were strongly in the minds and consciousness of first century Israel. Their exploits were recited yearly at the feast of Hanukkah. Yet the Lord purposefully subverts the history of the Maccabees. Mattathias had taught violent resistance to Gentile occupation in the slogan: "Repay the Gentiles in their own coin" (1 Macc. 2:68 N.E.B.). But the Lord alludes to this, at least to the LXX form of the saying, when He advocated paying the Roman temple tax, giving the coin to them, and not violently resisting. The Hebrew writer likewise alludes to and subverts the defiant language of the Maccabees in repeatedly describing Christ as "priest for ever" (Heb. 5:6; 6:20; 7:3,17,21)- when this was the term applied to Simon Maccabaeus in 1 Macc 14:41. The Lord's Olivet prophecy as recorded by Mark has so many allusions to the Maccabean revolt under Mattathias ("the abomination", flight to the hills, "let the reader understand" and many other phrases are all quotations from 1 Macc. 1-3). But in this context the Lord warns of false Messiahs- as if He considered the Maccabean heroes to be just that. And interestingly it is Mark more than any other Gospel writer who stresses the Messiahship of Jesus throughout the crucifixion record. A crucified Messiah was to the Jews a contradiction in terms. The idea of Jewish revolutionaries marching triumphantly to Jerusalem to liberate it was common in Jewish thought at the time (9)- but Luke emphasizes that Christ's last journey to Jerusalem and triumphant entry to it was in fact in order to die the death of the cross there. The battle had been redefined by the Lord Jesus- not against Rome, but against internal sin and Jewish religious hypocrisy. Victory was by self-crucifixion, not military might. This was just too much for Jewish nationalism, just as legalists today end up baying for the blood of those who preach grace and not works.


(1) J.H. Moulton & G. Milligan The Vocabulary Of The Greek Testament (London: Hodder, 1949).

(2) Joachim Jeremias, The Prayers Of Jesus (London: S.C.M., 1967) pp. 96,97 comments on how he searched through " the prayer literature of ancient Judah...[but] in no place in this immense literature is this invocation of God as abba to be found...Abba was an everyday word, a homely family word. No Jew would have dared to address God in this manner" .

(3) J.D.G. Dunn, A New Perspective On Jesus (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005) p. 75.

(4) Robert Funk, Honest To Jesus (Harper San Francisco, 1996) p. 174.

(5) Marcus Borg, Conflict, Holiness And Politics In The Teaching Of Jesus (New York: Edwin Mellen, 1984) p. 174.

(6) N.T. Wright, Jesus And The Victory Of God (London: S.P.C.K, 2004) p. 420.

(7) Jacob Neusner, A Rabbi Talks With Jesus (New York: Doubleday, 1993) p. 69.

(8) N.T. Wright, The New Testament And The People Of God (London: S.P.C.K., 1992) p. 234.

(9) N.T Wright, ibid pp. 171-177.



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