Jesus the Intolerant
We’re all about tolerance these days. We are demanded by the public at large to be tolerant of those who disagree with us, or fear the collective wrath of society. Of course, most of us know that tolerance never seems to operate as a two way street. When people demand tolerance, what they are really demanding is affirmation. We need to tolerate them, but they don’t need to tolerate us. It’s a false premise that makes absolutely no sense, but for the sake of argument, let’s just roll with it.
Tolerance seems to be the litmus test for whether someone is a good person or not. If you are judged to be a relatively tolerant person, then you are good and wholesome human being. However, if you are judged to be an intolerant person, you are a total bigot. At least it seems to work something like that. We are told from the media and the culture that our job is to tolerate people who differ from us and give support to whatever their various beliefs or behaviours might be.
In most cases, Christians are accused of being intolerant. I know that this charge has been levied against me on more than one occasion. Usually it is because a Christian is stating a moral or religious belief that stems from the Bible. Any time that happens, those who are outside of Christianity accuse us of being intolerant. We hate gays, or we hate women, or we hate Muslims, or whatever the various group happens to be that there is some disagreement with. It is usually pointed out that Christians who are intolerant are being hypocritical. After all, we follow Jesus, a man who was all about radical love! Surely Jesus would never approve of our intolerance towards others. If he were to just show up one day in 2016, almost assuredly he would chastise his followers for their hate and intolerance towards others. Or so the narrative is suggested.
Is Jesus Really Tolerant?
But hold the horses on that one for just a moment. Is it accurate to portray Jesus as someone who, if he were to be transported into today’s world and faced with the cultural firestorm we are, would be nothing but affirming and accepting and tolerant? Would he be cool with all the various beliefs and behaviours that seem to go contrary to the Bible? He is, after all, the guy who let the woman caught in adultery off the hook!
What would Jesus do?
The best predictor of the future is the past. So if we want to know what Jesus might do in our culture today, we should look back into the past and see how Jesus handled controversies back then. Was Jesus ever intolerant of anyone? Or was he always affirming?
You might be surprised to find that Jesus, at least at times, was extremely intolerant.
Not In My House!
I think for example of the story in Matthew 21. In this passage, we see Jesus enter the Temple and go absolutely bonkers on the money changers there. He literally overturned tables, sent money and birds flying, and had everyone running for cover. It was a scene that would have been utterly shocking to everyone present—borderline violent even. He condemns them for their wickedness and accuses them of being thieves basically in the middle of the church foyer. A viral YouTube hit if ever there was one!
I’m not sure about you, but if that footage were to air on the internet today, Jesus would probably get called intolerant.
Jesus was also known to use some pretty harsh language and levy some pretty significant criticisms at times. He is known to have called religious leaders “hypocrites”, “blind guides”, “fools”, “bleached tombs”, and “snakes”, as well as accusing them of being murderers, liars, and full of wickedness. Oh, and all of that came in just one uninterrupted, scathing rant (Matthew 23).
He was known to call out political leaders, teach that God will judge us and send some people to hell, demand that sinners repent, ask his followers to be more devoted to him than to their families, predict that some cities would be brought to ruin by God, say to the Pharisees that their dad is Satan, and tell people to their face that they were wrong and didn’t know what they were talking about.
Make no mistake about it: the Jesus of the Bible is not as tolerant as some have been led to believe.
When Jesus Explicitly Denounced Tolerance
There was also that one time Jesus got really mad because people were being tolerant. See for yourself! In Revelation 2 and 3, Jesus critiques seven churches and gives them some commendations for what they are doing well and some rebukes for what they are doing poorly. Listen to what he has to say to the church in Thyatira:
I know your works, your love and faith and service and patient endurance, and that your latter works exceed the first. But I have this against you, that you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servants to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols. I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her sexual immorality. Behold, I will throw her onto a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her I will throw into great tribulation, unless they repent of her works, and I will strike her children dead. And all the churches will know that I am he who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you according to your works. But to the rest of you in Thyatira, who do not hold this teaching, who have not learned what some call the deep things of Satan, to you I say, I do not lay on you any other burden. Only hold fast what you have until I come.
It couldn’t be any clearer. Jesus reprimands this church because of their tolerance. Now, granted, he is not condemning every form of tolerance here. That would make no sense. But he is condemning their tolerance for sin, specifically sexual sin and idolatry. These are perhaps the very two areas that today we are supposed to be most tolerant of: sexuality and religion. Evidently in Thyatira, people were practicing all kinds of “alternative lifestyles” and holding to varying religious beliefs. Nowadays, onlookers would simply give their affirmation (ie. tolerance) to these people as being who they are. Yet Jesus looks on and is fuming mad. He warns the church that they should not tolerate such things (specifically among their own people) and threatens significant judgment against them. Later on, in Revelation 19, we see Jesus coming back to earth to set up his own kingdom and basically killing all evildoers on the face of the earth.
What’s the Point?
My point is not to take the caricature of sweet little Jesus who likes to hold baby lambs all day and turn it into fiery UFC Jesus who just berates everyone and has no patience or love for sinners. Rather my point is to push back against the idea that Jesus was a completely tolerant person who was cool with everyone about everything. He most certainly wasn’t and he most certainly still isn’t. He’s God, and he’s a complicated mixture of love and patience and understanding and wrath and judgment and intolerance. Ultimately, his is HOLY, which essentially means he is unlike us. He holds in perfect balance all of these attributes and executes them in perfect harmony. He is not lopsided in any way.
In the end my desire is that we would have the full, biblical picture of Jesus. One that sees him as the Creator God of the universe who will judge sinners and condemn them accordingly, but also who is the loving Saviour who came to earth to die on behalf of evildoers like you and I. He will not tolerate sin or anything that robs him of glory. But he is also patient with us and gives us a way out. He opens the door to complete acceptance with him—something which is far better than mere tolerance of us—and does so at the cost of his own life. What kind of God is this, a righteous Judge who offers himself for the guilty? A great one, in my estimation. One worthy of my worship and trust. But also one who exercises tolerance only for a time. I have chosen to repent and believe in the forgiveness he offers before it is too late. I hope that you will too.