17 December 2017

Who is Jesus? – part 4

In this the fourth of five articles, Dr Desi Alexander invites us to take a fresh look at how the Four Gospels give an extraordinary portrait of Jesus Christ. Who is Jesus?

WHO IS JESUS? Jesus Christ from four perspectives: part 4

Do you find religious people something of a turn off? You’re in good company, for on occasions Jesus also felt the same. He hated selfrighteous hypocrisy, especially when it fuelled a conceited criticism of others. Jesus came not to condemn but to save.

Of all the Gospel writers, Luke is especially interested in how Jesus saves others. By focusing on the compassion and humanity of Jesus, Luke portrays Him, above all, as the saviour of the world who seeks the lost.

To convey the concept of salvation to his readers, Luke highlights the theme of seeking the lost. Using three parables, two of which are unique to Luke’s Gospel, Jesus tells short stories about finding things that are lost.

A shepherd with one hundred sheep loses one of them (Luke 15:3-7). Leaving the ninety-nine he goes looking for the one that is lost. When he finds it, he rejoices, inviting his friends and neighbours to celebrate.

A woman with ten valuable silver coins loses one of them (Luke 15:8-10). She searches high and low until she finds it. When she does, she too celebrates with her friends and neighbours.

Building on this pattern, Jesus then tells of a man who has two sons (Luke 15:11-32). The younger son longs to get away from home and live his own life.

Asking for his inheritance prematurely, he abandons his family, goes off and squanders everything with promiscuous living. Eventually, severe destitution forces him to return home, in the hope that he will be hired by his father as a servant. To his surprise, however, he receives an unexpected reception. As Jesus tells it:

While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ (Luke 15:20-24)

Once more there are joyful celebrations as the father rejoices over the return of his lost son.

While the illustrations differ, the common theme is joy over the lost being found. Interestingly, Jesus uses these parables to challenge religious teachers who objected to His engagement with those they viewed as ‘sinners’. As the saviour of the world, Jesus’ mission was directed towards the lost. With good reason He declares, “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:32).

Luke underlines Jesus’ role as saviour of the lost in other ways. Only Luke, of all the Gospel writers, records Jesus’ meeting with the tax collector Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10). In the eyes of his Jewish contemporaries, Zacchaeus was a traitor. They despised him for collaborating with the Roman forces of occupation by collecting taxes for them. Zacchaeus was the lowest of the low.

With good reason, Luke recounts Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus. It encapsulates well how Jesus has come to save the lost. When Jesus expresses a desire to associate with Zacchaeus, the ‘sinner’, the crowd grumbles disapprovingly. Zacchaeus, however, immediately announces that he will give half of his possessions to the poor and will repay fourfold anyone he has defrauded. Jesus’ response is noteworthy, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:9-10).

The salvation brought by Jesus is offered to all, especially those ostracised by the religious elite. Fittingly, Luke highlights Jesus’ compassion for those who were viewed as the least important members of Jewish society: women; the poor; the disreputable; Samaritans and Gentiles.

Of all the Gospel writers, Luke gives the most attention to women. He highlights Jesus’ acceptance of women by making frequent references to them (e.g., the widow of Nain [7:11-12]; the crippled woman [13:11]; the one who anoints Jesus’ feet [7:37-50]). Contrary to the culture of His day Jesus encourages Mary to sit and learn as one of His disciples (Luke 10:38-42). Luke alone mentions that well-to-do women funded Jesus’ ministry (Luke 8:1-3). In these ways Luke demonstrates that women are no less important to God than men.

Luke’s Gospel notes Jesus’ concern for the poor. Jesus Himself was born into a poor family; the offering made at His birth reflects this (Luke 2:24; see Leviticus 12:8). At the beginning of His ministry, quoting from the prophecy of Isaiah, He announces that He was sent “to proclaim good news to the poor.” (Luke 4:18; compare 7:22).

In line with this emphasis upon the poor, Luke highlights the dangers of wealth (see Luke 1:53; 6:24; 12:16-21 [the rich fool]; 16:1-12; 16:19-35 [the rich man and Lazarus]). The warning to the rich young ruler (Luke 18:18-27) is followed soon afterwards by an account of Jesus healing a beggar (Luke 18:35-43). Next comes the story of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10), which is a vivid illustration of what a rich man should do.

As with the poor, Luke’s Gospel adopts a positive outlook towards those who were viewed by others as disreputable within 1st century Jewish society. Luke writes positively of shepherds, tax collectors and sinners: shepherds receive the angels’ message (Luke 2:8-20); tax collectors and sinners are at the feast given by Levi (Luke 5:30).

Luke describes in detail how an immoral woman washes Jesus’ feet with her tears and anoints them with perfume (Luke 7:37-50). With remarkable boldness, Jesus contrasts the love and affection of this ‘sinful’ woman with that of His host, a religious Pharisee.

In a parable that is unique to Luke, Jesus tellingly contrasts the attitudes of a contrite tax-collector and a self-righteous Pharisee when they go to the temple to pray (Luke 18:9-14). Of the two men, according to Jesus, only the repentant tax-collector comes away forgiven by God.

While Luke describes the salvation of Jews, he is especially concerned to demonstrate that this salvation is also available to Gentiles. Luke includes Simeon’s remarks that the Christ-child is “a light for revelation to the Gentiles” (Luke 2:32). When Luke quotes from Isaiah chapter 40 he includes, unlike Matthew (3:2) and Mark (1:2-3), several more sentences, ending with the words, “and all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (Luke 3:6).

Luke alone has the story of the Good Samaritan in which Jesus contrasts the self-giving compassion of a ‘heretical’ Samaritan with the loveless indifference of two ‘orthodox’ Jews who served in the temple (Luke 10:25-37). When Jesus heals ten lepers, the only one who returns to give thanks is a Samaritan (Luke 17:11-19).

From beginning to end, Luke’s Gospel presents Jesus as the saviour of the world. In the light of this, Luke highlights the irony of what others say at the crucifixion of Jesus.

The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at Him. They said, “He saved others; let Him save Himself if He is the Christ of God, the Chosen One.” The soldiers also came up and mocked Him. They offered Him wine vinegar and said, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.” There was a written notice above Him, which read:

One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at Him: “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” (Luke 23:35-41).

As all the Gospel writers recognise, it is through the offering of His life to atone for human wrongdoing that Jesus brings salvation to others. Yet, while of necessity the saviour of the world must die, this is not the end of the story. Jesus’ death is followed by both resurrection and, especially in Luke’s Gospel, ascension.

In the light of who Jesus is, it is no surprise that throughout Luke’s Gospel the story of Jesus is constantly accompanied by joy and praise. In the incidents associated with the birth of Jesus, Luke records the angels’ song (Luke 2:14), the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), the Benedictus (Luke 1:68-79) and the Nunc Dimittis (Luke 2:29-32). There is rejoicing over the lost sheep (Luke 15:6-7), the lost coin (Luke 15:9-10) and the lost son (Luke 15:23-25, 32).

In response to Jesus, people praise and glorify God (Luke 2:20; 5:25-26; 7:16; 13:13; 17:15; 18:43). Not surprisingly perhaps, Luke’s final words are these, “And they (the disciples of Jesus) stayed continually at the temple, praising God.” (Luke 24:20).

For Luke, nothing less than joy and praise can be an appropriate response to the good news that Jesus has come as the saviour of the world to seek the lost.

Dr Alexander has recently written a short introduction to the Four Gospels, entitled Discovering Jesus: Four Gospels, One Person (IVP, 2010).

Desi Alexander