Religious Thespians & Radical Ambassadors
We don’t often think about it, but there are passages all throughout the New Testament that evidence the human emotion of Jesus Christ. It’s something that I, personally, don’t often consciously meditate about either (often enough), but our Lord Jesus was fully Man even as he was fully God, thus giving him every emotion that any normal human being could possess.
He was overcome with grief and sympathy for Lazarus and his family after Lazarus passed away from illness. The Scriptures say that “Jesus wept.” (John 11:35) Jesus truly felt deep sorrow and she’d real tears for his lost friend, mourning with Mary and Martha over their loss. We also can’t ignore the intense passion and agony that overcame Christ while he was praying in the garden of Gethsemane, where it says, “His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.” (Luke 22:39–46)
Jesus certainly possessed positive emotions as well, as he is seen rejoicing in the salvation of the lost (Luke 15:5–6; John 10:11–14), and in the victory over the influence of the devil (Luke 10:21–23), among others. Jesus also displayed a touch of humor and satire, which we often ignore. Recall where he says, “How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye?” (Matt. 7:4) Or consider the hilarious image of “straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel.” (Matt. 23:24) Or how Christ explains the efficacy of prayer when we asks his disciples, “What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?” (Luke 11:11–12) Or when Jesus retorts, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mark 10:25) Or further, still, “Is a lamp brought in to be put under a basket, or under a bed, and not on a stand?” (Mark 4:21) There are many other amusing moments during the whole of Christ’s earthly-ministry that we customarily forget, or at the very least, roughly glance over without comprehending their full meaning.
These references, however, exude hyperbolic sarcasm employed to prove a point, and I can only imagine Peter and the Sons of Thunder (James and John) getting quite a chuckle when Christ uttered retorts and remarks like these to the religious elite of the day. Examples of Christ displaying pure, human emotion are riddled throughout the New Testament, further demonstrating and bolstering the fact that Jesus Christ was, indeed, 100% Deity and 100% man — fully God and fully man — at the same time. For now, though, I will set aside those extensive passages and reserve the right to develop a later discussion further expounding upon them.
Nevertheless, I wish to bring your attention to Matthew 23, in which Jesus unleashes righteous indignation on the Pharisees and other Jewish religious leadership for their hypocritical teachings and understandings of the Old Testament Law. I recommend reading through the entire chapter first, as each section flows continuously into the next as Christ exposes the Pharisees for leading them.
The conflict with the Pharisees and other religious leaders of the day wasn’t anything new. Throughout Christ’s earthly-ministry the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes were dealing Jesus and his followers consternation at every turn. Matthew 23 is essentially the climax of this mounting contention between the two sides, which stems all the way back to Matthew 7 and continues through to chapters 15 and 21–23. Nearly every point of conflict between the Pharisees and Jesus (and his followers) arose because of accusations that Christ had offended the law in some form or another. The Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes were all strict adherents to the Old Testament Law, but each group failed, in their own way, to fully grasp the purpose of these ordinances and their functional application to daily life.
The Pharisees adhered to the Torah, or the Written Law given to Moses on Mount Sinai, but also believed in an Oral Law, the Talmud, which had been preserved and codified through three centuries of oral tradition. The Sadducees differed from the Pharisees, in that they didn’t acknowledge the existence of the Talmud, but rigidly followed the Torah and insisted upon the literal interpretation and application of it’s commandments. The last group, more obscure, the Essenes were essentially Jewish monks, emerging and distinguishing themselves out of disgust with the other two religious sects. They established themselves outside of Jerusalem and adopted rigorous dietary and celibacy laws. Each of these groups, primarily the Pharisees, tried on numerous occasions to “test” Jesus and his knowledge and application of the Old Testament Law, attempting to embarrass and disprove his Messianic claims.
The context in Matthew 23 comes shortly after Christ has once again shut-up the religion elite. At the end of Matthew 22, a lawyer attempts to make Jesus stumble over the Law once again by asking the question, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” (Matt. 22:36) The response that Christ gave was profound, surprising, and would’ve been quite radical in the minds of these “religious” devotees. Christ responded: “And he said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.’” (Matt. 22:37–40)
When Christ said this, I’m sure those listening were quite taken aback. How could one proclaiming to be the prophesied Messiah condense the entire law of God into a simple phrase? More than that, into one word, that being “love.” Jesus changed the narrative of the law with that message, from do to just be — be loved and therefore show love to others. Understand, though, the Pharisees had overcomplicated the duties and responsibilities of the religious person, to the extent where they were actually pushing people away from religion instead of drawing people into it.
What follows in Matthew 23, Jesus’s last earthly sermon before his crucifixion and ascension, is one of the boldest, most courageous scathings of popular religious figures ever recorded. Jesus, infamous for his kindness, gentleness, and meekness, radically switches the narrative in this passage by unleashing a series of disparaging remarks, unmasking these religious charlatans and exposing their misplaced self-righteousness. Jesus denounces their “blind” piety and false religion in expert fashion. Understanding their true hearts in full disclosure, he knew they were wearing masks of religiosity, and he rips those masks off. Not one for mincing words, Christ compares them to “tombs” (Matt. 23:27), and calls them “serpents,” “fools,” “blind,” and “hypocrites.” (Matt. 23:13–17, 19, 23–27, 29, 33) He calls them front-runners and “full of hypocrisy” (Matt. 23:28), yearning for their fellow-man’s exaltation but unwilling to practice the selfsame precepts they preach.
The scribes and Pharisees (Matt. 23:2) were hypocrites, giving their followers commands that they themselves weren’t adhering to. They “preach, but do not practice.” (Matt. 23:3) They were hypocrites to the very definition of the term. (In sweet, ironic justice, search for the term “hypocrite” in a thesaurus and you’ll find that one of the entries is “Pharisee.”) Moreover, the Greek word for hypocrites used throughout this discourse is a term that originated from the world of ancient Grecian drama, the word being translated “actor,” “stage-player,” or “pretender.” And just as a trained actor attempts to evoke certain emotions and reactions by inhabiting the lifestyle and mannerisms of another person or created character, the Pharisees wanted so desperately to be called “Rabbi” (Matt. 23:7) that they were play-acting their Christianity — doing things and saying things only to be seen and heard of men.
The Pharisees were religious thespians performing on the stage of men’s souls. They were leading the masses to death and destruction. (Matt. 23:33) “Let them alone; they are blind guides. And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.” (Matt. 15:14) Sadly, and regretfully, I believe this accurately describes the state of most modern-day churches and pulpits, “blind leading the blind.” We concern ourselves with so many outward ordinances and standards, declaring one person to be “backsliding” or “un-Christian” simply because of the clothes they wear (or don’t wear) or because of the music they listen to (or don’t) or because of the entertainment they watch, etc.
Believers of all denominations consider their religious practices and interpretations to be wholly Biblical and Scriptural, when in reality they are nothing more than finite dissections and interpretations of an infinitely Holy Book. Why do we see churches, denominations, and religious groups forming in rapid numbers? Why do we see so many church separations and divisions? I believe the answer is because our view of Christianity is flawed.
A Flawed Perspective
We care too much about how mankind views our gospel message, trying at any length for it to be accepted. And thus, we’ve sacrificed reverence on the altar of relevance. (We must remember that don’t have to alter Jesus’s gospel — it’s eternally relevant in and of itself; man doesn’t have to try and make it relatable or acceptable for this generation) We’ve lost track of the important things in God’s Word. We’ve “neglected the weightier matters of the law” (Matt. 23:23), and have become twenty-first century Pharisaical factions (read: denominations), adhering to tradition instead of genuine dedication, to man-made measurables and regulations as opposed to a divinely-holy standard.
We grow up hearing our Sunday School teachers saying, “Do this, do that, then” — and we’ve come to the conclusion that our lives are all about our performance, what we do, and what we can achieve, forgetting that our salvation and sole purpose for living only exists because Jesus has already done it all! “It is finished,” Jesus cried (John 19:30) — and with that, the necessity to do something in order for true change to be seen and experienced died as well. We must stop trying to perform our Christianity! We must stop trying to be religious thespians donning masks of empty piety for men to see!
The Pharisees took pride in themselves for going further than the Law and doing religious things in excess, making themselves noticed in the streets and the synagogues. (Matt. 23:4–7) They concerned themselves only with the outward evidences of faith, and therein lies the battle we continue to face today. Jesus said they were “like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” (Matt. 23:27–28) They forgot the most important thing, and likewise we neglect it too: the heart.
Sometimes, Christians are the greatest actors because we can fool others into believing that we’re people of integrity and honor, when in reality there’s so much filth and wickedness in the shadows of our hearts. Trust me, I know . . . because I was one, a religious thespian. I grew up a pastor’s kid; I grew up in church, in Sunday School (basically). I knew the Bible, I knew the gospel (or so I thought). I understood the language. Heck, I even taught some devotionals and preached a few sermons before I was genuinely redeemed by God’s everlasting mercy! I was a religious thespian. I knew how to walk and talk like a Christian, but behind that mask was a pretender fooling everyone, everyone but God.
Once Jesus became my Savior from sin and Lord of my life, I understood the reality and the severe dichotomy between an actor and an ambassador. And certainly my growth in Jesus is a small sliver of where I yearn and strive to be, but Jesus and his gospel of grace has influenced me greatly to look past any outward appearances and connect with men’s hearts. There’s an inwardness with Christianity that’s unlike any other religion in the world. While the Pharisees were only concerned with outward appearances instead of inward changes, Jesus sees your heart! Where other religions and various belief-systems focus on the believer’s responsibility to a higher power, true biblical Christianity centers on Jesus, on what he’s done and on how good he is! Our banner reads, “It is finished”: there’s nothing more to be done! There’s nothing left that needs to be accomplished. God’s work of redemption is finished and secured in Christ. The gospel is God’s beacon of hope and life. And it’s because of this gospel that we realize that Christianity is not primarily a religion, it’s a relationship!
Religion says do, Jesus says done. Religion is man searching for God, Jesus is God searching for man. Religion is pursuing God by our moral efforts, Jesus is God pursuing us despite our moral efforts. Religious people kill for what they believe, Jesus followers die for what they believe. (Bethke, 28)
Relational & Radical
Christianity is a relationship — a real relationship, with a real Person, whose name is Jesus! And just like any other relationship we have with other people here on this earth, our relationship with Jesus requires time, determination, effort, and dedication; it requires the truest form of genuineness that cannot be found by play-acting and putting on a mask and lying about who we are. We aren’t called to be “religious thespians,” rather, we’re called to be radical ambassadors. “Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” (2 Cor. 5:20)
God has called you to a divine purpose, a designation of such privilege, one that requires such unique dedication and commitment that even his angels cannot carry the burden of the task. God has chosen you to reveal his glorious plan of redemption and showcase the power of his transforming gospel to this world. (1 Pet. 1:10–12; Eph. 3:10–12) God has entrusted, enabled, and empowered you with the mission of furthering his gospel, multiplying his Kingdom — living a life of genuine integrity and boundless love. In short, we’re called to be radical — for what is more radical than an all-powerful, all-knowing, infinitely-loving, holy Being seeing rampant filth and wickedness and sin in his Creation and declaring those same violators of his holiness to be righteous and blameless?
This type of radicality scares people and even stirs up some fearful emotions. The fear comes because we’ve been trained (and born) to care too much about what others think about us or might do to us because of this radical lifestyle. We forget that we don’t have to fear man’s threats or condemnations because a condemnation from man is simply a coronation with God. Peter says in his first epistle: “Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous [radical] for what is good? But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled . . . For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.” (1 Pet. 3:13–14, 17) As a follower of Christ, if your determination for the gospel and dedication to Jesus culminates in severe persecution or damnation, even unto death, that day you will surely hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” (Matt. 25:23)
To be sure, we aren’t all called to be martyrs for the cause of Christ, nor are we all called to be missionaries to some foreign, exotic nation. But we all have been appointed to be God’s radical ambassadors of his Name, his Grace, and his Truth in a world diametrically opposed to anything to do with the True God and his Word. Religious thespians accomplish nothing, save that for which they have practiced or memorized to do. It is the radicals, the zealous advocates and representatives of the gospel of Jesus Christ that make a difference and bring about true change.
Others become apprehensive when confronted with the sort of radical conduct we see from Jesus in the Gospels. But I contend that if Christ were walking around today, I doubt he’d be completely comfortable in our “cookie-cutter” churches and grandiose cathedrals, with our steeples and pews and hymnals and programs and shows and the like. I think we’d call Christ a radical, and I think he’d love that.
Honor in Obscurity
Have you ever stopped to think about how unconventional our Savior was? He interacted with the outcasts and the dregs of society. (Luke 5:27–32; 15:1–2; 19:7) He was called a friend of sinners (Matt. 9:9–12; 11:19; Mark 2:17; Luke 19:10), and was even accused of being a sinner. (John 9:24) The point remains, it’s for that very reason he came to us in the first place! Jesus came for sinners, for the wrecks, and for the messes. It was the mission of Christ to save the broken and heal the sick, not exalt the healthy. It was his mandate to come down to us, the lowest of lows (Phil. 2:5–8), as he literally became nothing so that we could have everything.
What’s more, Jesus’s greatest disciple, John the Baptist (Luke 7:28; Matt. 11:11), was probably the most unconventional and radical Christ-follower in history. Aside from his appearance, which has been said to be historically eccentric, to say the least (Matt. 3:4), John the Baptist, the first prophet and chief herald of the ministry of Jesus Christ, brought the message of repentance and the return of the Messiah to forefront of the culture of the day (Matt. 3:1–3), even going so far as challenging Herod Antipas for his sins and telling him his need for repentance to his face.
You see, we aren’t called to be “radical” for the sake of being radical alone. No, we are called to be the type of radical ambassadors for Jesus and his gospel that only flows from the truest and most honest love and commitment to his Name and his Word. We’ve been commissioned to be zealous sentries that proclaim the good news of Jesus’s gospel. This type of radicality springs out of our grasp of grace, out of a deep sense of our unworthiness and Christ’s perfection, out of our nothingness and his everythingness.
If we truly want to see God work in and through our lives, we must ignore the trepidation and the fear and trust in him completely, with no reserves. We must let the love God has shown for us through his Son flow through us, and subsequently overflow from us to others. That’s our mission. That’s the gospel. God’s after real, sincere, genuine believers. Not actors, not Christian pretenders seeking only the praise and adoration of peers in the garb of piety. On earth, you will find no higher calling, no more honorable capacity.
So, what are you: religious thespian or radical ambassador?
- Jefferson Bethke, Jesus > Religion: Why He Is So Much Better Than Trying Harder, Doing More, And Being Good Enough (Nashville, TN: Nelson Books, 2013).