I find one question asked by Jesus especially compelling for our time. It arises during His discourse with the disciples after he feeds a hungry five thousand who subsequently seek to make Him king. The people had read the scriptures but were seeking an ultimate fighting messiah who could deliver them from oppression. Jesus challenged them to receive Him, for kingdom work includes heart surrender. He did not offer them liberty to take another side; they were to abandon all other approaches and embody Him. Faced with this challenge, the multitudes that had popularized Jesus left, and Jesus turned to the remaining twelve and asked, “Do you also want to go away?” (John 6:67, NKJV).
Why did the crowds leave Jesus?
Living under oppression, the people longed for the eradication of their oppressors. They abhorred the corrupt civil and religious leaders that harmed the marginalized and enriched the few. Rome had gained rulership over the land and it seemed that the people were living in the midst of moral decay. The Pharisees and Sadducees were the righteous elite, who used religion to exercise political and social power. They wanted to rule the people of Israel but first had to reclaim their nation, as the Romans had stolen their right to rule it. Jesus, however, refused to usurp power to rule and perpetuate oppression. As He employed no external force or coercion, the masses left. While some remained, not all who stayed were truly with Jesus (John 6:67–71).
Judas was a follower of Jesus who seemed to have a social conscience about the needs of the poor. Judas thought life could be made better and was concerned with social justice. When Mary, the sister of Martha, anointed Jesus with costly perfume, for example, Judas asked, “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” (John 12:5, ESV). Jesus, however, reproved Judas, saying “For the poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me” (John 12:8, ESV).
Concern for the poor finds biblical support, but when Jesus did not back his agenda, Judas was aggrieved. Biblical justice is an important result of obedience to God’s caring rule, but Judas had no real heart for the poor as his selfish desires aimed to benefit and enrich himself, the sin of avarice, which led to bad results (John 12:6). Though justice for the poor and needy is a vital aspect of what we are called to do, not all calls for social reform are good—only those that proceed from converted hearts. Jesus subordinated social change to our love for Him. Only as we accept God’s forgiveness and respond to His love are we able to love our neighbor.
When Jesus assumed the place of a servant at the last supper, it was the final straw for Judas. Jesus had long been speaking of His suffering and death, and Judas recognized that the trajectory of Jesus’ life would not lead to national glory. His theocratic impulse for a deliverer who would vanquish his enemies drove him to conspire with the religious establishment of the temple state to betray Jesus. Judas preferred a politics of coercion, seeking to shape Jesus to suit his own nationalistic desires, by forcing Jesus into delivering Himself. Jesus’ last interaction with Judas occurred at night—a darkness empowered by an enemy who portrayed God in a false light (John 13: 2, 21).
The people’s desire for equality and fairness and their leaders’ thirst for power only fueled hatred and contempt for their enemies. Without Jesus’ grace or forgiveness, one doesn’t seek fairness but instead ugliness, oppression, or even violence. Such social justice is based in resentment and grievance, and its social change comes at the expense of others. After all, Caiaphas’ justification for the death of Jesus was the betterment of society (John 11:50; 18:14). Without grace or forgiveness, one doesn’t want equality; one wants the world to look like Jesus. Whether the lack of grace we see in today’s cancel culture or the quest for power among segments of the religious right, all emphasize allegiance to human empire. Religion can be used like a celebrity endorsement, but being on the right side requires recognizing Jesus as the true image of who God is.
We need Jesus’ message now more than ever. I’m not trying to make a religious point. I don’t care much for religion, as it is often hypocritical and twisted by dogma. I’m simply trying to understand Jesus’ words. The crisis of the disciples’ faith has become a way to view Jesus and the world. Today, the tensions between Christianity’s view of God and its view of the world are the church’s problem. Detached from Jesus, the church looks like the world, as it has copied the powerful. If we’re not careful, the power-grabbing of politics will take over. I’m not interested in conservative or liberal labels. I have my opinions, but I want an alternative to empire. I find the beauty of Jesus far more compelling and charming.
I can’t help but think that what Jesus offers is especially significant for everyone right now. We often dilute the gospel into a message of hope for a distant future, considering the ticket to heaven as “pie in the sky by and by.” Certainly, death and the fear that existence is meaningless concern all of us, and I want to know that our lives matter here on earth. So, what real improvements can we make now? After all, the gospel asserts that we can be saved here in the space we occupy. What does that religious jargon mean? What does Christianity offer if Jesus is not right here, right now, in our hearts and lives?
Jesus is both the ruling King and suffering servant. Many look to a second coming, when Jesus will not come as a meek and mild lamb but as a fighting King reimaged from popular depictions of conquerors vanquishing enemies. I suggest that this is the same distorted disconnect between religion and public life and between sacrifice and kingdom that was accepted by the failing disciples. Laying down His life was as much a part of Jesus’ messianic mission as His glory and power. Does it offend our view of power to see Jesus coming as the slaughtered lamb? Could it be that what we are missing is that Jesus is the image of who God is?
Mary’s costly expression of love poured out on Jesus was praiseworthy. She saw His role as that of a suffering servant, and it won her heart. The forgiveness and costly love of Jesus evoked her repentance, transformation, and grace—changing her world is a result of that love.
Jesus has demonstrated what God looks like when He becomes King and rules people’s lives. Embracing a messiah shaped by the cross leads us to the right impulse. We dare not separate power and glory from a crucified Christ. As Professor of New Testament Craig Koester puts it, “the crucifixion defines what glory is” (The Word of Life, 2008, p. 122). If we don’t see Jesus correctly, we will miss God’s substance. We should thus love one another and forgive one another as Jesus did. The church cannot reach the position of being able to help the world until it does.
What alternative do we have? We are totally dependent on something higher than ourselves. Without Jesus, spouses will cheat, and we will fill our empty lives with drugs and other seedy pleasures. What will prevent hatred, division and war as we struggle for survival? I ask these questions honestly, but I love it when Jesus asks, “Do you want to leave me too?”
If we accept an answer besides Jesus, what will we miss? How will we make sense of our inability to achieve justice, goodness, and peace? The Christian message is that humanity is out of sync with God’s love, and thus one another. Jesus is the solution. As Jesus’ remaining disciples replied to his question, “Where else can we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68, NKJV).
I too choose to stay with Jesus.
Craig Ashton Jr.