Do You Believe in a Pharisee Jesus?

If you close your eyes and picture Jesus looking at you, what kind of look does he have on his face? I don’t know where I first heard someone ask that question, but I think answering it can be very helpful in revealing what we believe—on a day-to-day, real life basis—about who Jesus is and how he relates to us.

For example, do you see a Jesus who is constantly tallying up your sins and failings? Do you see a displeased Jesus, one who condemns you for a failure? Or maybe you see a Jesus that has little empathy for your problems and sufferings, one who either doesn’t care or is content for you to “get what you deserve.”

I’m convinced that a lot of Christians tend to see Jesus (and God the Father) in this light. Even so, this picture has more in common with the Pharisees that he repeatedly clashed with than in does with the real Jesus, the one we find in the pages of the Bible. So if you’re someone who is prone to think this way, consider the following truths about Jesus:

That first step is a long way down. Think about what actually happened in the incarnation. Jesus possesses every bit of the power and glory of God (Hebrews 1:1-3; Colossians 1:15-17). He flung the stars into existence. He upholds every speck of creation by his word. He experiences perfect love and joy in his relationship with God the Father and the Holy Spirit. And yet he took an incalculable step down from all that to become one of us. He entered into a world of limitation, evil, and suffering. And why did he do it? “Not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).

The nature of Jesus’ ministry. Far from repelling sinners, Jesus routinely attracted them with his words and his actions. And at every turn, he rolled back disastrous consequences we experience as a result of sin. He healed the sick, made the deaf hear, gave sight to the blind, delivered people from spiritual bondage, and even raised people from the dead. “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest,” he said. “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).

The compassion of Jesus. While he and his hard-pressed disciples were trying to get away to rest, what did Jesus do when he was confronted with a crowd of people wanting to see him? “He had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd” (Mark 6:34). Likewise, he had pity on a man before healing him of his leprosy (Mark 1:40-41 ESV), and his heart went out to a widow who had lost her only son (Luke 7:11-15). And faced with death and sorrow—the tragic consequences of sin—before his friend Lazarus’ tomb, Jesus wept the most profound tears to have ever fallen (see John 11:32-36).

The motivation of Jesus’ “hard edges.” Yes, Jesus can say and do some hard things. But consider why. Replying to a man who was wrongly trusting in his own righteousness, Jesus laid down a hard path for him to follow, one that was designed to help him see idols of wealth and moral performance. Even so, Mark tells us that he did so because “he looked at him and loved him” (Mark 10:21). Jesus addresses the shame and sin of a Samaritan women. But he does so in order to bring her to the revelation that he is the Messiah she’s looking for (John 4:16-26). And in the case of Lazarus mentioned above, Jesus clearly allows his friend, whom he loved, to die. Why? To powerfully demonstrate to everyone involved his all-important revelation: “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die” (see John 11:1-15, 45).

Jesus’ patience and forbearance. John the Baptist experienced serious doubts about Jesus, as did Thomas his disciple. But in both cases Jesus gives each man what he needs to believe (see Matthew 11:1-6 and John 20:24-27 respectively). Faced with the soon to be conspicuous failure of Peter to stand with him in his trials, Jesus revealed that he had already prayed for his protection and restoration (Luke 22:31-34). And famously, in the midst of his agony on the cross, Jesus prays “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Mark 23:34).

Jesus’ answer to sin and suffering. What’s Jesus’ response to our sin and suffering? To enter into it and fully endure it. He was betrayed by one of his closest followers, deserted by the rest of his friends, subjected to a series of sham trials and judgments, brutally tortured through flogging, mocked and beaten by soldiers, and insulted by his fellow Jews…all so he could bear the full and terrible weight of God’s wrath against the sin of his people (see, e.g., Mark 14-15). And he did it willingly. To save people who didn’t deserve to be saved. He is no ivory tower Jesus.

With all that in mind, I’ll ask the question again. How do you think Jesus—the real Jesus—looks at you? And does it make sense to run away from that Jesus, or toward him? Isn’t he worth trusting in and following?

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