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Three true things said by Jesus’ enemies

August 2018 | by Geoff Cox

From painting by James Tissot (1836-1902)

Throughout his ministry the Lord Jesus Christ was subjected to intense scrutiny and criticism from his enemies. They made all sorts of false accusations against him.

Yet some of these accusations were gloriously true, in spite of their wicked intention. In this article we look at three occasions when Jesus’ enemies said, in hostility, true things about Jesus.

‘Only God can forgive sins’ (Luke 5:17-26)

This ‘accusation’ comes in a well-known account of a healing by Jesus. A paralytic’s four friends had let him down through the roof of the house where Jesus was preaching. ‘When Jesus saw their faith, he said, “Friend, your sins are forgiven” ’ (Luke 5:20).

It was the faith of all five of them that Jesus saw. By saying that the paralytic’s sins were forgiven, he didn’t mean that his sin had caused his illness, but rather that sin is a far greater problem than any physical ailment. Our bodies are going to die anyway — those whom Jesus healed, even Lazarus whom he raised from the dead, eventually died. The big problem is sin. Unforgiven sin will take us to hell.

Jesus’ enemies, always less concerned for the people than their own wounded pride, immediately begin to criticise. ‘The Pharisees and the teachers of the law began thinking to themselves, who is this fellow who speaks blasphemy? Who can forgive sins but God alone?’ (Luke 5:21). Those words were actually true! They were going to find out just what a great person the Lord Jesus is: he is God.

Jesus knew what they were thinking and asked, ‘Why are you thinking these things in your hearts? Which is easier: to say, your sins are forgiven, or to say, get up and walk? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins — he said to the paralysed man, I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home’ (Luke 5:22–24).

Jesus showed his deity by perceiving their thoughts (cf. 1 Samuel 16:7), and he asked them a question which they couldn’t and wouldn’t answer. How often Jesus silenced his critics with such a question. The miracle demonstrated that Jesus not only has power to heal, but the absolute right to forgive sins.

So, Christ is God and forgives sins. That suits us all, doesn’t it? We are all sinners, and he is the perfect Saviour. But notice how this forgiveness is received by faith alone. The Bible is clear that we are only saved by trusting the One who died for sinners. Obeying and worshipping Christ are the results of being forgiven; they cannot earn forgiveness.

Only the sick need doctors

‘He is a friend of sinners’ (Luke 5:27-32)

Jesus’ enemies, the religious leaders, had no time for the ordinary people. They considered themselves far too holy to have dealings with them and treated them with contempt. There are many examples of their attitude in the Gospels.

It was such an occasion, following the healing of the paralytic, that prompted further complaint against Jesus. ‘Then Levi held a great banquet for Jesus at his house, and a large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to his disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” ’ (Luke 5:29–30).

This criticism led Christ to utter this wonderful truth: ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance’ (Luke 5:31–32).

The same complaint was made in the well-known account of Zacchaeus, the hated tax collector, who climbed a tree to see Jesus. ‘When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today”. So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly. All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner” ’ (Luke 19:5–7).

On another occasion, Jesus showed his critics the inconsistency of their prejudices against him. He said: ‘For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and you say, he has a demon. The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners’ (Luke 7:33–34).

They criticised John for living a self-denying life and Jesus for living a ‘normal’ social life. They showed double standards — anything to criticise and reject the Lord.

But the thing for which these people criticised Jesus was the very reason he came: he came to be the friend of sinners. They thought that they weren’t sinners, they despised sinners; and, of course, this meant they thought they didn’t need Jesus.

But Christ’s friendship with sinners is a glorious truth. If someone goes on trial, they need a friend in court, and when we go on trial before the living God, the Lord Jesus can be our friend in court: ‘If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.

‘If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his Word has no place in our lives. My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defence, Jesus Christ, the Righteous One’ (1 John 1:9–2:1).

Is he your friend in that way? If he isn’t, then take urgent steps to make him your friend. The best way to start is to acknowledge that you are a sinner, to come to Christ and humbly ask him for that full and free pardon he gives to all repentant sinners.

Jesus could summon legions of angels

‘He saved others; himself he cannot save’ (Luke 23:35)

Perhaps this was the cruellest jibe Jesus had to endure. He was on the cross and had just uttered those wonderful words, ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing’ (Luke 23:34). But, far from appreciating his love, they cast lots for his clothing.

Worse was to come: ‘The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, he saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One’ (Luke 23:35).

We should be glad that he refused to save himself. He was quite capable of doing so; he had said, ‘Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?’ (Matthew 26:53). His whole purpose in coming — to save sinners — would have been destroyed had he used his divine power to save himself from the cross.

We admire people who put themselves in great danger for others. Military men receive the Victoria Cross for outstanding courage. Here, the sneer of Jesus’ enemies is an unsolicited and unwitting testimony to his work of salvation. He saved others by not saving himself: ‘The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’ (Matthew 20:28).

But Christ is worthy of our admiration for even more than this. No one gains a VC for rescuing an enemy soldier, yet rescuing enemies was exactly why Jesus came.

‘For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us’ (Romans 5:6–8).

God’s sovereignty

We rejoice in these truths from the mouths of Christ’s enemies in spite of themselves, and we see them as another example of the grand principle: ‘Surely the wrath of man shall praise you; with the remainder of wrath you shall gird yourself’ (Psalm 76:10). Our sovereign God indeed rules over all things for the good of his people.

Geoff Cox is a retired evangelist and associate with the Open-Air Mission.