Celebrating Past Beauty (7)
Arthur John Gossip’s Interpreter’s Bible Exposition on John 2:13-17 (2)
If you seek to draw your readers into a new discovery about the nature of Jesus Christ, one that many of them would prefer to avoid, how to begin?
But there are other aspects of him no less deniable; and it is fatal to ignore them, or to pretend that they are not there.
The chosen path is to directly identify the issue, face it and then state its moral import.
“And he looked around at them with anger.” (Mark 3:5), so we read. Those who knew him best remembered that his eyes could be as a flame of fire, and spoke with bated breath of something awesome in him which they tried to describe in the strange phrase “the wrath of the Lamb.” There was nothing gentle in that fierce message that he sent to Herod, “Go and tell that fox.” (Luke 13:32). Nor was there any trace of mildness in him at that tremendous moment when he turned upon his best friend, who had meant only kindness, with the terrific rebuke, “Get behind me Satan!” (Matt. 16:23).
This accounting of the instances where our Lord and Savior demonstrated anger and condemnation is meant to startle the comfortable Christian into a state of recognition that things may not be as simple as they had previously seemed.
If it is true, as it is true, that nothing does he underline more heavily than the duty of forgiveness–and this not once but over and over, declaring bluntly that salvation offered in the gospel is not unconditional, but that, as he says, if you forgive men not their trespasses, neither will your heavenly Father forgive you (Matt. 16:15)–nonetheless, he himself did not always forgive. The Pharisees did not find him gentle or meek or mild when he pursued them, ruthlessly and remorselessly, with those blistering denunciations as scorching as anything in literature. “You whitewashed tombs” (Matt. 23:27); “you serpents” (Matt. 23:33); “You make him [your proselyte] twice as much a child of hell as yourselves” (Matt. 23:15). Rather than make peace with such men acting so, he chose to go to his death. And when the traders would not cease from polluting the temple of God with their unseemliness and noise and chaffering, there came a time when he said that if they would not go then he would drive them out. And he rose up and did it.
Here the Rev. Gossip addresses the core of the Christian pacifist creed. For though forgiveness is an unalterable foundation of Christianity, it is demonstrated by Christ’s own words and deeds that forgiveness is not an excuse to accommodate evil.
Desperate attempts have been made by some who feel uncomfortable over it to tone down and edge out this incident. … And this was a wild scene, with cowering figures clutching desperately at their tables, as these were flung here and there; or running after their spilled coins, as these rolled hither and thither; or shrinking at the lash that had no mercy till the holy place was cleansed. For though it is possible to read this account as if only the cattle were actually struck, that seems very unlikely; and in the reports as given in the other Gospels, quite impossible. If this incident had been recorded of anyone else in history, it would universally have been accepted as the scene of violence it was. And those who try to explain it away do so because they feel unhappily that it will not fit into their preconceived idea of what Christ should do or be; that here somehow he acted for once out of character, and fell inexplicably below himself, forgot his own law of life, lost his head and his temper. All of which is painful and regrettable. And the best thing to do is to say as little about it as one can, and look the other way, and rub this unfortunate episode out of our minds, and think of him only at the great moments when he was his real self.
This is the crux of the issue. Too many of we Christians want to “control the narrative” on the character and purpose of Jesus Christ. We want all the benefits of comfort and forgiveness without any of the responsibilities or complexities. Jesus Christ must be who we wish Him to be rather than who the Bible actually says that He is. The good Reverend places his arm around our trembling shoulders and gently walks with us towards the precipice of our failure.
But that is foolishness. Surely our understanding of what Christlikeness is must be gathered, not from such incidents that we choose to select and to regard as typically Christlike, but from the whole of his life and character and conduct. For not only now and then, but always and in every situation, Christ did the perfect thing to do. He was as Christlike here in the temple as when dying for us on the Cross. Here to he was revealing God as truly as on Calvary. For, declares Paul with assurance, in God there is kindness–and severity (Rom. 11:22). And the one is as divine and glorious as the other.
Now that we have been shown the error of our ways, the process of recovery can begin. And that recovery can only be effective if we begin to understand that God’s Word is not something from which we can pick and choose. Rather, it is something before which we must bow and offer up our preconceptions and corrupted desires.
For what if he were not: were only flabbily good-natured, ready to make no fuss about our sins and to pretend that they do not matter greatly, and so push us through! “Ah, God,” cried Luther, “punish us we pray Thee … but be not silent … toward us.” A fearsome prayer! For what if he hears and answers it? But what if he does not, and lets us sin on undisturbed! For nothing do we owe Christ more than for the magnificence of his hopes for us, and his refusal to compromise with us, and the severity that pulls us up with sharpness.
The presented alternative is a world in which Christ has become a false idol to whom we sacrifice our children, fellows and selves to obtain license to sin.
And as for ourselves, if Christ is always to be followed, it is clear that while our usual rule of conduct is a frank, free, patient forgiveness, there are times when we must not forgive; when, as Hugh Mackintosh says bluntly, “Lack of indignation at wickedness is a sign, not of a poor nature only, but of positive unlikeness to Jesus Christ.” We must not so misread Christ that he becomes an ugly idol, blinding our understanding, and hiding the true God from us. The wrath of God is never thought of in scripture as opposed to his holiness. It is a necessary part of it. Christ would have lost my soul if he had not refused to compromise with me.
When Christ in His fullness is apprehended the soil is made ready to nurture a mature Christian conscience.
I look at this beautiful passage as a bookend to that of Jonathan Edwards’ sermon on Christ’s gentleness of heart towards us poor lost sinners. Edwards stresses Christ’s gentleness while acknowledging His wrath. Gossip stresses Christ’s wrath while acknowledging His gentleness. Between these two beautiful meditations on our Lord and Savior we begin to discern His full glory!