We’ve been studying the Gospel of Luke on Sunday mornings at Emmanuel—for 18 months. It’s been, for me, a life-changing and heart-shaping study. The journey of examining Jesus’ heart and ministry up close has been wonderful. So many aspects of His life rise to the surface—qualities you wouldn’t see by speed-reading the gospel.
One particular quality that has captivated and convicted me is Jesus’ responses to His antagonists. The depth and purity of His grace and love are never more fully on display than when Jesus is conversing with those who want Him dead.
Can you imagine loving someone who wanted to kill you? Can you imagine having a broken heart of compassion for someone who hates you? It’s so massively counter-intuitive to our human psyche.
I mean—I sometimes have a hard time loving someone who is antagonistic toward me at a traffic light! I can’t exactly say I’ve ever struggled with a broken heart for someone who despised my very existence.
But Jesus did. Jesus loved His antagonists. He was deeply compassionate for those who were plotting His assassination. In fact, every confrontation that Jesus had with the pharisees was motivated by love and grace. He was the epitome of truth and love—the perfect balance of tough but tender expression of unrelenting truth in the face of unrepentant unbelief.
Throughout His earthly ministry, Jesus was generally surrounded by three crowds—and Luke is especially careful to direct your eyes to the right crowd. It’s vital that you know who Jesus is speaking to if you want to understand the gospel. He speaks differently to different groups, and it is very easy to turn a discipleship passage into a salvation passage if you aren’t giving careful attention to the intended audience.
His three crowds are: The Devoted, The Doubters, and The Deniers.
Crowd #1: The Devoted—True Believers. These are the ones who accepted Him as Messiah and Saviour—though they didn’t fully grasp what that meant. This crowd was mostly marginalized, broken, sinful people. Beginning at about chapter 10, Jesus intensely begins training these believing followers for their future ministry.
Crowd #2: The Doubters—Skeptics and Spectators. They didn’t reject Jesus, but neither did they accept Him in faith. They liked His miracles and His meals. They went along with the crowd but remained undecided about Jesus as Saviour and Lord. Jesus, especially in chapter 12, implores this crowd to make up their minds before it is too late.
Crowd #3: The Deniers—Antagonists and Assassins. This is the crowd that has grown hostile toward Jesus and are ultimately plotting His murder. Ironically, they are the most religious—the spiritual leaders of Israel—the priests, scribes, lawyers, pharisees. Those most focused and dominated by the keeping of laws, performance-driven living, and religious tradition were also the most hostile toward Jesus.
It is Jesus’ response to the last crowd that is most astounding to me. He loves them enough to confront them, but His confrontations are not about winning a fight but about winning hearts.
He wants those who want Him dead! They want Him dead—He wants them to fully live! He wants them with Him for all of eternity! He wants them redeemed, renewed, recreated by His grace! He continually confronts them in compassion. He continually establishes their guilt that they might see their need for grace. He keeps having meals with them, reading their minds, responding to their traps, and turning toward them for conversation—all motivated by His love for them.
He had no other reason to address this crowd but to give them opportunity to repent and receive His love.
I must admit—as a younger, less mature Christian, I viewed these passages as Jesus “winning”—Jesus one-upping, Jesus putting them in their place. Of course, by default, there is that quality, but clearly that isn’t Jesus’ motive. Reading these passages with that tone was my imposing “my human motives” upon Jesus divine heart.
His motives were gracious not “gotcha!”
In Luke 15, the pharisees scorn Jesus for accepting sinners. Then Jesus tells the story of the prodigal—a story of an extravagant Father fully loving a wayward son, but also the same Father leaving a feast to appeal to and intreat an impudent older brother. The older brother (picturing the pharisees) is disrespectful, alienated from His father, and utterly defiant—but the Father (picturing Jesus) humbly goes out to the older brother and invites him to come into the feast. He tolerates the disrespect. He absorbs the scorn and disdain. He reaches out in love even when spited! Wow! What love!
In that moment, Jesus was intreating the pharisees to repent. In the story, He was lovingly portraying their scorn that they might see it and have the opportunity to receive His grace. Of course they refused.
In chapter sixteen, again in verses 10-31, He lovingly confronts the pharisees for their covetousness and hypocritical legalism (this time in relation to their rewriting of God’s laws on adultery). His goal is to establish guilt—to unmask their love of money, their estrangement from God, and their clear duplicity in breaking God’s laws while simultaneously shaming those who break God’s laws.
The confrontation is angering them even more—but that isn’t Jesus’ goal. He’s not poking them for pleasure. He’s not just winning. He’s appealing. He’s extending. He’s inviting those who most hate Him to accept His love.
See His heart on display here…
“And he said unto them, Ye are they which justify yourselves before men; but God knoweth your hearts: for that which is highly esteemed among men is abomination in the sight of God. 16 The law and the prophets were until John: since that time the kingdom of God is preached, and every man presseth into it. 17 And it is easier for heaven and earth to pass, than one tittle of the law to fail.” (Luke 16:15-17)
He is firmly but lovingly pulling down their man-made systems of self-justification in the eyes of men. In its place, He’s constructing an air-tight case of sinful hearts—guilt before God.
Why? Jesus always establishes guilt so that He can extend grace.
Then, like the prodigal Father, He again extends an invitation. He essentially says, “The kingdom is here, now, in me… and every man, including you, can have access into it! Even though you have failed and broken my laws, I am here to keep and fulfill those laws. Not one of them will fail. I will perfectly fulfill every one of them on your behalf. So come into the feast—through me!”
It’s hard to comprehend the kind of heart that would respond so graciously and lovingly to the very men who wanted to kill Him. It’s even more mind-boggling to consider that the death they would inflict was, in fact, the sacrifice for those very sins. What a staggering thought.
A convicting take-away for me is simply this. How do I respond or react to antagonists? Do I love them? Am I burdened for them? Or do I fight them and feel justified in having ill-will toward them? Am I trying to win the fight or do I try to win the heart?
Jesus loved antagonists. His heart was compassionate toward them. His love can empower me to do the same. His grace can work in me and ultimately flow through me. Undeserved love is exceedingly powerful when it is given in the moment when it is most clearly undeserved.
Perhaps you know unbelieving antagonists—in your community or at work. What is your heart toward them? How do you respond when they are the most spiteful and scornful? Through you, Jesus would extend a hand of compassion—even if it were to mean that they crucify that hand.
Perhaps you have Christians who have become your antagonists—at church, or abroad. What is your heart toward them? Does it break with compassion or puff up in self-defense?
This simple point is indisputable—Jesus loved everybody and wanted everybody to repent and be saved. His love extended to those who most hated Him. His responses were never to justify Himself but always to extend the offer of forgiveness. His confrontations were never to prove a point, but always to point to His grace. His expressions of perfect anger were also expressions of pure love—meant to lovingly jolt an unbelieving nation into an awakened awareness that their Hope had arrived.
Friend, we live in a “gotcha” culture. The conversation of our culture is about winning fights, proving points, and putting others “in their place.” Even many Christians have the “gotcha” spirit in all of its flagrant ugliness. It is quite counter to Jesus’ spirit and to our call to win hearts. It is toxic and does more to turn people away from the gospel than to invite them into it.
May God’s grace deliver us and our antagonists from the “gotcha” spirit.
“Jesus—I want your heart! Help me to love intensely. Help me to be so anchored in your love that I never need to justify myself, win an argument, or prove a point. Help me to purely love even the heart that is most antagonistic toward me—the heart I most want to “put in its place!”
“Please, make my motives gracious not “gotcha!”