The Unexpectedness of Jesus

Jesus Series - 1

The Unexpectedness of Jesus

(Luke 7:36-50)

Jesus’ personality surprises us, and challenges conventional values. This message, the first in a series on ‘The Challenge of Jesus’, was given at an evening service in St. Albans Presbyterian Church, Palmerston North, New Zealand, on 9 February 1997.

1. We don’t know what Jesus looked like

The first surprising feature about the person of Jesus is that we have no idea what he looked like. There is no description of him in the Gospels. There are no contemporary drawings of him. For a fashion-conscious television age like ours that is preoccupied with physical appearances, this is a real shock, because it suggests you can influence the world without having a promotional profile or a media image. For the first five centuries the only artistic representations of Jesus make him look like a Greek god, clean-shaven, with short curly hair - not the blue-eyed Scandinavian with long blond hair that we’ve gotten used to, and certainly not the Semite that he was. Those portraits can’t possibly be right, because whoever else Jesus was, he wasn’t Greek.

Actually, there is one description of Jesus in the Bible. Eight centuries before Jesus was crucified, Isaiah penned this description of a future suffering Messiah who would die for his people:

There were many who were appalled at him -

his appearance was so disfigured
beyond that of any man
and his form marred beyond human likeness. . . .
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him . . .
like one from whom men hide their faces,
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
(Isaiah 52:14, 53:2-3)

Hardly appealing to the fashion-conscious, but a great consolation to those who suffer.

2. Jesus was a first century Jew

No, Jesus wasn’t a Greek god. He was a first century Palestinian Jew. This seems so obvious to us today that it’s astonishing how the Christian Church, burdened with anti-semitism, could have lost sight of it for nearly nineteen centuries. In the twentieth century, since the Holocaust and the return of Jews to the land of Israel, there has been a rediscovery by Jews of the Jewishness of Jesus. Today there are literally hundreds of books and articles written by Jews about Jesus. An example is Professor David Flusser’s Jesus (New York: Herder & Herder, 1969). What is called the Jerusalem School of Synoptic Studies, a co-operative effort between Orthodox Jewish and Evangelical Christian scholars, is shedding new light on the person of Jesus by seeing him in a Jewish context for the first time since the destruction of the Jewish state in AD70. Jesus wasn’t some nebulous religious figure, but a Jewish boy going to barmitzvah, a Jewish rabbi teaching in the synagogue, a Jewish prophet lamenting the fate of his nation, a Jewish Messiah dying for his people.


Jesus lived at a time when the Jews were rediscovering their national identity after being submerged by the cultural and political imperialism of the Roman Empire - just as Maoris are reclaiming their culture in New Zealand today. There was an intense debate raging among Jews about what attitude to take towards their own culture and the culture of their oppressor. This debate ranged all the way from the compromisers - the Sadducees - who recommended getting along with the dominant power, to the Zealots and other revolutionary groups who wouldn’t have a bar of it and wanted to overthrow the Romans by force. Somewhere in the middle were groups like the Pharisees who wanted to recover Jewish history, cultural independence, and religious purity. We can see from the Gospels that Jesus lived in the thick of these debates and interacted with them.

3. Jesus didn’t act like a religious Jew

Jesus was a thoroughly observant first century Jew, but many things he did or said were a direct challenge to contemporary Jewish belief and practice. Jews were intensely monotheistic, believing fervently in one transcendent God. Jesus made himself equal with God, and greater than Abraham the Jewish patriarch, when he said ‘before Abraham was, I am’ (John 8:58). He pronounced forgiveness of sins - something that only God could do. He claimed to be Lord of the Sabbath, the day of rest which Jews believed to have been instituted by God at creation. He went behind current Rabbinic sophistries allowing men to divorce their wives, and asserted the Creator’s original intention for marriage to be a lifelong bond.

The Jews had strict rules to safeguard their racial and religious purity. The very architecture of the temple separated Jewish worshippers from non-Jewish. Like the Exclusive Brethren today, Jews wouldn’t even have non-Jews into their homes or to share their meals. But Jesus completely upset the applecart, putting the apples among the pork, so to speak. Where the whole of the Jewish law - all 613 commandments - seemed to say, ‘No one who is different is allowed,’ Jesus seemed to say exactly the opposite: ‘Only those who are different are allowed.

Jesus went to a woman who had been excluded from the temple for eighteen years because all that time she’d had a menstrual haemorrhage - and he touched her and healed her, making her welcome. He allowed a group of lepers, excluded from society by their contagious disease, to approach him - and he touched them and healed them. He let ‘a woman who was a sinner,’ probably a prostitute, wash his feet with her tears, and he defended her from criticism and forgave her sins. He told a story about a Samaritan traveller who helped a man who had been mugged, risking contamination from touching the body if it was already dead.

The entire Old Testament system was based on the principle of contamination. If you touched a bleeding woman, or a diseased man, or a dead body, then you would be contaminated. Jesus reversed this whole thousand-year-old system. When he touched a woman who had been haemorrhaging for eighteen years he didn’t become unclean - she stopped bleeding. When he touched the lepers, he didn’t get sick - they caught health. When a sinful woman touched him he didn’t become immoral - she received a moral transformation. When he touched a corpse he didn’t become contaminated with death - the corpse was resurrected and sprang to life.

4. Jesus wasn’t particularly successful

Like the culture we live in, a lot of modern Christians are preoccupied with success. Older Christians hanker for the good old days when the churches were more respected and had a greater influence in society. Younger Christians long to be successful in terms of the adulation of their peers in the youth or music cultures. In America some conservative Christians are even talking about winning the ‘culture war’ - the battle for cultural values in society.

Jesus seemed to be blissfully unconcerned with this kind of cultural or political dominance. He lived among a minority people in the large and overwhelmingly pagan Roman Empire, but it’s hard to imagine him bothering to advise who should be ‘God’s man’ in the Roman forum. Should it be Nero, or Julius, or Octavius? Or should it be the philosopher Seneca, or a woman, Cleopatra perhaps?

In fact, Jesus’ energies went into advising how we should conduct ourselves as a despised and persecuted minority. ‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. . . . Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.’ (Matthew 5:5,11). ‘Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world - therefore the world hates you.’ (John 15:19). ‘Make up your minds not to prepare your defence in advance, for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.’ (Luke 21:14-15).

Jesus never seemed to envisage a time when Christians would be a majority. He called us the ‘salt of the earth’ (Matthew 5:13); likening us to a small amount of preservative that would stop a big hunk of meat from decaying, or a small pinch of flavouring that would give tang to a tasteless meal.

5. Jesus wasn’t a very good salesman

Jesus wouldn’t have made a very good free marketeer. He could do miracles, he could heal people, he actually did heal people. But what did he do when he healed people and crowds gathered in response? At least seven times in Mark’s Gospel he told the people he healed to keep it a secret: ‘Don’t tell anybody.’ What a bungled publicity opportunity!

What he could have done was print brochures saying, ‘You could be one of those healed if you subscribe to my scroll for 10 drachmas a month.’ But he didn’t - he sent them away and told them to keep quiet about it.

One time, when things were really on a roll - when he fed a crowd of 5,000 men together with their wives and children on a bread roll and a few sardines - they tried to make Jesus their leader by force. But he offended them by talking about eating his body and drinking his blood, and he slipped away to be by himself.

Malcolm Muggeridge, well-known Christian journalist of two decades ago, said in his book Christ and the Media that if Jesus came back today the devil would offer him a fourth temptation: to appear on empire-wide Rome TV to promote his cause - and Jesus would refuse!

We have a phrase ‘saviour complex’ which we apply to do-gooders who feel the whole future of the world depends on them. But journalist and author Philip Yancey says, ‘The only genuine saviour the world ever had didn’t have a saviour complex.’ (‘Jesus, Not the God I Would Predict,’ Reality, No. 18 [December 1996], p. 10). When there was a crowd of needy people on the shore he would sometimes get in a boat, start the outboard, and cross the lake in the opposite direction. When people flocked to his door he would get up early and go into the Galilean hills to pray, or move on to the next village.

Jesus issued the most unusual invitations. He said, ‘Take my yoke.’ ‘Take a towel and wash each others’ feet.’ ‘Take up you cross.’ These are not usual ways to get people to sign on.

‘Who does more for a people,’ asks Boris Pasternak in Doctor Zhivago (Ch. 4, § 12), ‘the one who coddles them or the one who forgets all about them and simply draws them after him into universality and deathlessness by the sheer beauty of his actions? -- Well, of course, there can’t be any argument about that . . . .’

The Unexpectedness of Jesus

Jesus was so unconventional that Philip Yancey in the article I have cited concludes that ‘You wouldn’t have wanted Jesus at your barbecue.’ Yancey says, ‘We tend to think of Jesus as a nice, sweet, gentle, "be-nice-to-your-Mummy-and-Daddy" great uncle, but actually that’s not what he was like. A lot of the time, people who invited him over for meals seemed to regret it later. He disrupted their party.’

Take the Sermon on the Mount. We are so used to the image of a man on a hillside in a pastel-coloured skirt that we miss the shock and challenge of what he actually said. He said, ‘You see those Roman soldiers who just charged into your village and killed one out of every ten babies in reprisal for some terrorist act? Love them. Go up to one of them and ask if you can carry his pack. And if he slaps you on the cheek for being a smart-alec Jew, offer him the other cheek. Be glad if he swears at you. Your reward is coming.’

Jesus’ advocated a second mile ethic. ‘If someone compels you to go one mile, go two.’ This is unexpected behaviour. These are the actions of a truly free person, unbeholden to anyone else. This is the lifestyle of Jesus. This is the freedom from self-interest the world so desperately needs.

Rob Yule
9 February 1997

© 1997, St Albans Presbyterian Church,
Palmerston North, New Zealand