We’ve often heard that Jesus was a rebel. Examples are cited of how he ate with tax collectors and prostitutes, ate from a farm on the Sabbath, overturned tables in temples, and called out the bluff of the religious authorities of the land.
Surely, to whip people in a Temple of worship and eat with sinners was a mark of rebellion in a society that valued piety as dearly as the Old Testament Jewish society did. Surely Jesus seemed to have been acting in contradiction to the rules of the land. People have said that Jesus rebelled against the Pharisees and their clique, that
“Jesus was the ultimate rebel…. He was the most non-conformist person ever so when people talk of certain submission and stuff regarding supposed authority figures, it goes against all Jesus taught.”
Jesus staged political protests to challenge the church, threw money changers out of the temple with a whip to protest corruption, hung out with lepers and sex workers and was ultimately crucified because he posed a threat to the power structure.
These are just a few of what people say about Jesus the Rebel, but what shall we make of these claims? Was Jesus really a rebel?
Jesus indeed was an odd one; the religious authorities of the land could not place him in a box and tag him. But then, who could box God and tag Him? No one. Jesus was odd and seemed to live above the rules of the land because He was(is) God. While He walked in Judea, He was
- the image of the invisible God
- the Person in whom the fullness of God dwelled fully ,
- before all things, whether social norms, traditions or human laws.
- above both valid and unjust laws, and above both the laws upheld by Godly fear and those upheld by hypocrisy.
Because Christ was before all things, He was odd and didn’t conform to the standards of the world. (Colossians 1: 15,16, 18,19.) Being the image of God, He was incomprehensible and a wonder to many who interacted with Him. This we can say of Jesus, but what could we say about His being a rebel? We will answer this more accurately by defining the noun rebel. A rebel is
- A person who resists an established authority, often violently
- a person who rises in opposition or armed resistance against an established government or leader
- synonyms for rebel include: revolutionary, insurgent, anarchist, mutineer, subversive, terrorist( well, terrorist is a bit extreme but the dictionary lists it)
To say Jesus was a rebel, based on the fact that he lived against the norms of His society, is a bit of a reach. Defining Jesus as a rebel does not capture the fullness of His identity because the word does not suit the person, ministry and behaviour pattern of the Christ who walked Judea. It doesn’t suit because:
- Christ did not adopt violent or physical means of fighting against the established social-political and religious systems of Judea.
- Jesus encouraged his disciples and his audience to obey the rules of the land. Examples of such teaching can be found in Matthew 22:21. In this scripture Jesus teaches His followers to “Render to Caeser the things that are Caeser’s; and to God the things that are God’s.”
Similarly, Romans 13:1 teaches this: “Let every person be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God and those which exist are established by God.”
If we will agree to the assumption that all scripture is inspired by One and the same Spirit, then we will arrive at the conclusion that it was the same spirit which operated in Christ that operated in Paul, the writer of the Roman Epistle.
If the Same Spirit inspired Paul’s words in Romans, it will mean that Paul could not possibly be teaching a contrary doctrine to what Christ taught and believed. Christ Himself believed and taught that His followers to be in subjection to the governing authorities. A rebel does not teach his disciples to obey the rules of the land, therefore Jesus could not have been a rebel.
- The precision and clarity of Jesus’ ministry was so important to Him that He found it necessary to remind his disciples that He had not come to overthrow the government or the existing political class. To ensure that His disciples saw Him as who He was and not as a superman or some hero, He reminded them in Matthew 5:17-20Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
For those of us who believe that the Bible cannot contradict itself , it should be clear to us to see that we cannot say that Christ was a rebel and at the same time quote and affirm Matthew 5. To do that would be an active exercise in contradiction. Christ cannot be a rebel and at the same time tell his followers that He had come to fulfill the very law he is purported to have rebelled against.
- Jesus was not a rebel because He was submissive to the Laws of God. Obeying and keeping the laws of God was Israel’s first charge and call. The Sabbath, the rules of cleanliness and of tithing- they were all to reveal the Holiness of God. But instead of these Laws revealing the True one of Israel to the Israelites, the religious authorities of the land made the laws another god unto themselves, seeing the Law as an avenue for self-righteousness.
What Jesus was kicking against was the double-standards and hypocrisy. Jesus was against the self-righteousness and masquerades, and against man-imposed standards that oppressed the poor and prevented them from seeing the glory of God. It was against the hypocrisy He rebelled, and even in His disagreement with the Pharisees, he did not stage a revolt or encourage dissent.
Why did Jesus refuse to conform to the religious hypocrisy of His milieu? It was simple: the rules deviated from the truth of God. So instead, He conformed to all the actual Laws of God and fulfilled them on the cross. To call Him a rebel and a revolutionary is to overlook His reason for coming to the Earth, which was to reveal God to mankind, and through His death reconcile us to the Father. In fact, calling Jesus a rebel is to toe the line of C. S. Lewis’ trilemma. In this trilemma, we can call Jesus only one of three options: a “Lunatic, Liar, or Lord”, or “Mad, Bad, or God.” Calling Jesus a rebel is choosing the option of Bad, and Jesus cannot be both Bad and God.
POST SCRIPT: LEWIS’ TRILEMMA
I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Christ: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.’ That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic – on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse….You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him or kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come up with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”
C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity.