As followers of Jesus, we believe we must not only follow his instructions, but also follow his example. The New Testament teaches us to be kind, patient, and gentle. It teaches us to turn the other cheek and bless those who persecute us. However, we also read that Jesus turned over tables and called people a “brood of vipers.” How do we reconcile this? Does Jesus’ harsh criticism and rebuke of evildoers justify us being harsh and critical? Here are some things I think we should seriously consider.
The Teaching vs. the Example of Jesus
Have you ever wondered why Jesus would tell his disciples not to call people, “fools,” but would himself call people “fools”? In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus plainly said, “Everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire” (Matthew 5:22). The Greek word Jesus says not to call others is, “moros” (from which we get “moron”). However, the next time the word “moros” is used is in Matthew 23:17, where Jesus calls the Pharisees, “You blind fools!”
Furthermore, Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount, “Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well” (Matthew 5:39-40). But how do we reconcile that with Jesus turning over the tables of the moneychangers (see Matthew 21:12-17)? What are we to make of the differences between what Jesus taught his disciples to do and what Jesus did?
I believe it is as simple as understanding the word, “authority.” There are plenty of times a person in authority can say, “Don’t do this,” but turn around and do the very thing they said not to do (without any hypocrisy). As a parent, I do this all of the time with my children:
- I tell my children not to touch the stove, yet I touch the stove.
- I tell my children not to get in the driver’s seat of the car, yet I get in the driver’s seat of the car.
- I discipline, scold, and punish my children, yet I don’t allow them to do those things to each other.
I am not being hypocritical. I am exercising an authority they do not have. There are simply behaviors that are appropriate for those who occupy positions of authority which are not appropriate for those under their authority.
When Jesus called the Pharisees a “brood of vipers” or “blind fools,” he was doing the same thing John the Baptist did, speaking with prophetic authority. Though, of course, Jesus speaks with even greater authority than John or any other prophet. Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of God. Consequently, he has an authority to criticize, judge, and rebuke that his followers did not have. Jesus never once taught his disciples to turn over tables, because they did not occupy the same position of authority he occupied.
Presumption to Rebuke
There is a passage in Jude 9 that references a story about Michael and the devil from apocryphal writing. Though the situation Jude was addressing is different than ours, I think this passage has bearing on our discussion. Jude wrote, “When the archangel Michael, contending with the devil, was disputing about the body of Moses, he did not presume to pronounce a blasphemous judgment, but said, ‘The Lord rebuke you.'”
Take note of the fact that Michael “did not presume to pronounce a blasphemous judgment” against the devil. And why did Michael not presume to rebuke the devil? Because it wasn’t his place to do so. Even as the “archangel” of the Lord, Michael knew that his authority was limited. Rather than rebuking the devil himself, he left the rebuke up the Lord, saying, “The Lord rebuke you.” Would you presume to rebuke the devil? Michael, the archangel, would not.
I say this simply to say, we must be very careful not to exceed our authority when rebuking others. I do not have the same authority Jesus had to rebuke people. I do not even have the same authority John the Baptist had to rebuke people. I do not have the authority to call anyone a “brood of vipers” or turn over their tables. I’m not the Messiah or even a prophet. I am simply a servant of the Lord.
Shouldn’t We Boldly Speak Truth
This isn’t to say, of course, that we shouldn’t speak truth or expose error. It isn’t to say we shouldn’t be bold or admonish those who do wrong. After all, that’s what I am attempting to do right now. I am speaking out against those who would try to use Jesus’ example as a way of justifying their own harsh and critical language. So, I do not think it is wrong to speak truth, admonish, or correct. But it is wrong if we fail to be gentle, kind, and patient when we correct others or speak truth.
Again, I want to be very clear that there is a place for stern “rebuke.” Paul commissioned evangelists, like Timothy and Titus, to “rebuke” with authority (see 1 Timothy 5:1; 1 Timothy 5:20; 2 Timothy 4:2; Titus 1:13; Titus 2:15). He also said elders should “rebuke” those who contradict the word (Titus 1:9). But there was a difference between rebuking those within the church and those outside the church (see 1 Corinthians 5:9-13). Furthermore, rebuking others never made Paul’s list of the Spirit’s fruit (Galatians 5:22-23) and Paul never gave the church general instruction to rebuke at will.
In the first century, there was sin all around them: sexual immorality, idolatry, greed, and oppression. However, in spite of all the sin in the world, the church was never instructed to go out and “rebuke” all the unbelievers by telling them all just how evil and wrong they were. Rather, the church was told to try to win over unbelievers through their “respectful and pure conduct” (1 Peter 3:2). Even to their persecutors, Christians were told to answer, “with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:13-17). They were told to bless those who persecuted them (Romans 12:14), live quietly (1 Thessalonians 4:11), and do good to everyone (Galatians 6:10).
I know we want to call politicians, entertainers, public figures, and even our neighbors all kinds of colorful names. I know we want to vent our “righteous indignation.” I know we want to put people in their place. I know we want to call down fire from heaven upon their heads. I know we want to yell and scream and tell people how ignorant and wrong they are. I know we want to stand up for ourselves and not be walked all over. Believe me, I am often tempted to do this as well.
It’s easy to convince ourselves we are “fighting the good fight” and doing the Lord’s work when we are harsh, but what if we are actually ignoring the Lord’s instructions when we do this? What if we are speaking out of turn? What if we are presuming to have authority we do not have? If someone needs rebuking, especially someone over whom we are not given charge, perhaps we should take a page from the archangel’s playbook and let the Lord rebuke them.
I love you and God loves you,