Taking to Heart the Things Jesus Didn’t Say

“It takes one to know one.” “Oh, yeah? You and what army?” “Go ahead…make my day!”

As of February 2011, it would seem that I have arrived at a point in my personal study of Scripture wherein I can immediately “recognize my Master’s voice.” If that sounds perhaps a little too much like how one refers to the training of a lower-order animal, well…I guess I am OK with that. Not only was there a time – not all that long ago – when I did not recognize my Master’s voice, but there were many, many years of my young adult life wasted, deliberately ignoring His call altogether. In many ways, then, the “wild animal” analogy was (and is) quite suitable.

Today, however, I would classify myself as a “red-letter Christian” in that I can immediately recognize the spoken words of Jesus when quoted by someone else, especially true if they are using an NIV or ESV translation of the Bible. Unlike my wife, who long ago passed me up in her ability to cite Scripture, I may not be able to recall at once which Gospel account is being quoted, though at least I can normally make the obvious distinction between the spoken words of Christ during His earthly ministry and those found in the Book of Revelation. Not a huge achievement, certainly. Nevertheless, one tangible benefit I have derived from even just this meager bit of Bible knowledge is an increased ability to discern between, “Yes, Jesus said that,” and, “No, Jesus did not say that.” Additionally, there has simultaneously developed an eminently-practical ability to consider pieces of everyday conversation in light of a much-larger truth: “Jesus never would have said that.”

Nowadays, for whatever reason, I am regularly astonished at the things that Jesus does not say. I think it goes without saying that what He does say requires our full attention, and many of us (myself included) would do far better in our lives of faith if we had a deeper, more-commanding grasp of all four of the Gospel accounts. Still, paying closer attention to the words that Jesus leaves unspoken has been very helpful for me, most noticeably in contrasting the sickness of my own soul with the perfect, loving, all-wise and all-knowing Spirit of the God-Man we worship. Jesus regularly confounds His disciples, and these days I find myself joining their ranks (at least in my own level of confusion and bewilderment, if nothing else).

How about a couple of examples?

In John 3, Nicodemus, a Pharisee and “a ruler of the Jews,” comes to visit Jesus by night for fear of talking with Him openly during daylight hours, and perhaps being too closely associated with His earthly ministry. Were Jesus anything at all like the rest of us, He might have considered the cloak-and-dagger visitation as a rather-pointed insult. Instead, Jesus receives Nicodemus into His company, and Nicodemus leads off the interview with an over-the-top statement that confirms his belief that Jesus was indeed sent by God: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” (John 3:2). The fact that a man of Nicodemus’ stature addresses Jesus as “Rabbi,” a learned title showing high respect, is nothing short of jaw-dropping.

It is precisely at this moment in the conversation when Jesus completely confounds every prideful human expectation. Had any one of us somehow been present in the room to witness this exchange, I think it is safe to say that our hearts would have been furiously manufacturing all kinds of self-congratulatory responses, witty ripostes or several pointed put-downs. It is not at all difficult to imagine the disciples being amazed that Nicodemus (Nicodemus!) was coming out by night to talk with their Lord, and you can almost “hear” them waiting for Jesus to respond to this dignitary with something like, “If you truly believe I am sent by God, why do you not endorse my ministry in public?” or, “Why do you call me ‘Rabbi’ and sneak out here in the middle of the night like a frightened little school girl?”

Instead, Jesus completely ignores the high compliment paid to Him and at once takes the conversation in a completely different direction: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3) You can almost see the “Huh?” response that must have followed in that room on that night. Given that Nicodemus himself, a man of great learning, found this to be a very confusing response (John 3:4, 3:9) is it any wonder that the disciples, many of them fishermen, were also scratching their heads over this response? Here Jesus had been given a tailor-made opportunity to validate their ragtag, wandering ministry – with the Jewish elite, no less – and perhaps even insert some of them into positions of power within the synagogue…and yet He had chosen instead to enter into a conversation about flesh, and being reborn of water and Spirit. How, they must have wondered, did this response and the ensuing discussion advance their cause?

Or consider instead the episode in Luke 9:51-56 in which a Samaritan village rejects Jesus. Verse 52 tells us that Jesus sent some of His own messengers into that village ahead of His visit, “to make preparations for him,” in other words, to let everyone in the village know that He was headed that way, seeking to minister to them and proclaim the Gospel. The Samaritans in this particular village, however – in stark contrast to the Samaritan villagers who gladly received Jesus in John 4 – reject both Him and His disciples, probably because Jesus had by that point so closely identified the end point of His public ministry with the city of Jerusalem, and perhaps because the net that would ultimately close around Him in that city had already begun to draw tight, causing anyone invited to join Him to think twice about the power of those who were seeking to end His life.

Whatever their reasons, the Samaritans “did not receive him” (verse 53), and this rejection clearly hacked off James and John, aptly nicknamed by Jesus as “Sons of Thunder” (Mark 3:17). Thinking perhaps that a powerful display of Jesus’ deity (as well as God’s judgment on unbelievers) would serve their purposes quite well as they headed into the very real dangers of Jerusalem, the brothers ask Him in verse 54, “Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” Having walked with Jesus for some time, the brothers seem confident not only that Jesus is able to control the elements (Mark 4:35-40) but that this would indeed be a fitting time to unleash some judgmental mayhem on His opponents.

And again, it is precisely at this moment that what Jesus does not say makes itself readily apparent (and maybe even a bit awkward). Jesus does not answer the Sons of Thunder by saying that they are quite right in asserting that these people very clearly deserve a fate such as this. He does not provide any sort of answer that would allow His disciples to get a sneak peek at the awful condemnation awaiting the inhabitants of that particular village. In fact, He does not even make a response aimed at unbelieving Samaritans whatsoever. Verses 55 and 56 simply inform us that He “…turned and rebuked them. And they went on to another village.” It’s probably safe to say that James and John were a bit more circumspect about pulling the Judgment Pistol out of their holsters in the wake of this unanticipated response, yeah?

I confess I sometimes find myself reading the Gospel accounts with my brain parked on cruise control. The words, so often repeated, can have the impact of dulling my perceptions to what is actually happening. Even though I’ve committed various portions of the Bible to memory, I can find myself repeating the words without giving adequate attention to what those words really mean, and how those words would have been perceived in first-century Palestine. Some extrabiblical study on the manners and customs of that era are immeasurably valuable for helping me understand just how shocking and scandalous some of Jesus’ words and actions really were. For those of us not able to find time to dig into Josephus or other historical accounts, however, my recommendation would be to listen more closely to the setup of some of Jesus’ most memorable sayings, and then read those sayings within the larger context of what else was going on at the precise time He spoke those words.

For me, of late, one of the more useful methods for learning deeper truths about the Person and work of Christ is to spend at least a few minutes considering (without blaspheming!) what I might have said when hemmed in by the haughty verbal traps and tricks of a group of committed enemies. What might I have said had I somehow been given the power and authority with which Jesus conducted His earthly ministry? How would I have responded to snide remarks about my ancestry (John 8:48) had I been invested with the power of an Elijah or an Elisha (2 Kings 2:8-9)? I really do think that it may well prove profitable for us to read the words of Christ and keep the question tucked in the back of our mind, “Why on earth did He respond like that?!” Allow yourself to be surprised all over again at how often and easily Jesus offends (Matthew 23:1-36), interrupts (Mark 12:18-27), appears to digress (Luke 7:36-42), chooses not to finish a very dramatic parable (Luke 15:11-32) and/or makes no response at all (Luke 23:6-11). Who was this Man, and how is it that no one before or since has ever spoken like Him (John 7:45-46)?

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