When I first read the Gospels, I couldn’t understand a lot of what Jesus said, because they sounded so contradictory.
One moment He would be saying to the sinful woman “Your sins are forgiven”, and to His disciples “Do not be afraid”, but at another time He might be preaching pages of laws in the Sermon on the Mount, or saying to the multitudes “whoever does not bear his cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple”. It sounded like grace and forgiveness on one hand, then requirements for dutiful living and strenuous obedience on the other.
Sadly, many of us end up seeing Jesus like this – grace plus requirements – for a long time, not least because many pastors preach and teach this way. But deep down inside, amidst the confusion and beyond the empty ‘amen’s, we know that this cannot be the truth. There has to be more to God.
Because the Bible tells us that God is the Father of lights, from whom comes every good and perfect gift from above, and with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning (James 1:17). And it also says that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8).
None of us can ever feel completely at rest with someone e.g. a parent or a spouse, if we have the idea that their love only goes as far as how good we perform for them.
And God is not double-minded, or unpredictable, or capricious. He is love, and He is grace, and that is a constant. When He says we are forgiven in Christ unconditionally and we have nothing to fear in His perfect love, He means exactly that.
My understanding of why Jesus spoke differently on different occasions began to open when I realised this: Jesus always spoke consistently the same things to the same type of people.
To those who came to Him in need and who came with nothing of themselves, the sick and the sinners and tax-collectors and prostitutes, Jesus gave words of forgiveness, He healed them, and spoke unto them words of grace and peace.
To those who came to Him boasting of their works and keeping of the law, those who sought to know what they had to do to inherit eternal life or the crowds that followed Him but were not emptied of themselves, Jesus gave the laws and the requirements, to expose their hearts and cause them to despair and to come to the end of themselves.
To His disciples, those who believed in Him and followed Him, Jesus always encouraged them with assurances of “Do not be afraid”, “Be of good cheer”, and admonished them by calling them “O you of little faith”, urging them to take more from Him, the supplier and author of faith itself.
To the teachers of the law, the scribes and priests and the Pharisees and Sadducees, Jesus not only gave the law in answering their questions, but He often also had the harshest rebukes for them, calling them “serpents” and “brood of vipers”, because they deceived the people with their religious teaching.
We see a clear example of this contrast between the first two groups in Luke 18 and Luke 19:
In Luke 18, the rich young ruler comes to Jesus, asking what he had to do to inherit eternal life, and addressing Jesus as a Teacher rather than as Lord and Saviour. He boasts in his works and law-keeping after Jesus responds to him with the commandments, self-sufficiently smug. But then Jesus points out one thing that he still lacks, and asks him to sell everything he has and give to the poor and follow Him, and the young man leaves sorrowful, being unable to part with his riches.
In Luke 19, Jesus spots the tax-collector Zaccheus on a tree, and self-invites Himself to Zaccheus’s house for a meal. Jesus doesn’t say anything more to Zaccheus, no laws, admonishments or rebukes, but simply extends the grace of His presence by hanging out with him. Afterwards, Zaccheus stands and pledges to give half his goods to the poor, and to return four-times over whatever he has cheated from anyone.
Earlier in Luke, it is the sinners and tax-collectors who remain to draw near to hear Jesus (Luke 15:1), after Jesus speaks of the cost of discipleship to the great multitudes (Luke 14:25-33), effectively thinning out the crowd and causing those who were eager to boast of their works and abilities to follow Him to fall away and leave. And Jesus proceeds to tell the sinners and tax-collectors the famous parables of Luke 15 that speak of the lavish love and grace of God to all who are lost, last, and least.
The contrast is clear and consistent, even throughout the rest of the passages in the Gospels.
If we come to Jesus boasting of our strengths and our works, that we can and will do this and that for Him, He will continue giving us laws upon laws, instructions upon instructions, until we finally tire and raise our hands in surrender to Him.
But if we come to Jesus boasting of our weaknesses and emptiness and need for Him, that we have nothing to offer and can do nothing in and of ourselves for Him, then He simply smiles and shows us how much He can fill us and be God in our lives and work through us.
The good news is, we don’t need to stay in one category. As soon as we reposition ourselves, the words that Jesus says to us will begin to change.
In truth, all of us have nothing to offer God. The sooner we realise this, the faster we can start to receive from Him, out of the fullness of His grace and abundance.
Some of us might be inclined to think, “Well, but I need to be honest; I may be weak or lacking in some areas, but in these other things I’m pretty good”. If truth be told, everything that we have, whether talents or ideas or revelations or anointing, is from Him.
And you might think, “Yes, I know it’s from God, I thank Him for this talent He’s gifted me with, and I use it for His glory”. Just remember: it’s never Jesus, and us. It’s Jesus and Jesus alone. Even if we use the gifts and abilities that He gives us to try to work things out on our own, it’ll be a matter of time before we realise that we won’t get very far or we start to struggle.
Only Jesus supplies both the ability and the favour to bring us farther and higher than we can ever imagine. And He will, when we rely on Him fully.
Because when we encounter Jesus, we encounter grace.