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What Would Jesus Do?

Blog title card; topic is Jesus on social issues
What Would Jesus Do?

In 1898, Charles Sheldon published In His Steps, a short fiction novel about a small-town pastor and his congregation. Anyone unfamiliar with that title will certainly be familiar with the book’s subtitle: “What Would Jesus Do?” That slogan, as it turns out, was popular well before the 1990s was saturated with WWJD bracelets.

In His Steps was a fiction so it could portray Charles Sheldon’s interpretation of how Jesus would have conducted Himself in Sheldon’s culture, the early 1900s. Whether the interpretation was Biblically accurate is beside the present point. What we need to understand, instead, is that every generation must answer the WWJD question. Predicting how Jesus would answer the questions of our time is a perpetual debate. Of course, although everyone has the same Bible, not everyone interprets the actions and words of Jesus accurately and faithfully. The streaming show The Chosen interprets Jesus one way. The He Gets Us campaign (which Pastor Johnson recently preached on here), has another interpretation. Nationally recognized pastors have contrary takes on culturally relevant counseling issues. What would Jesus say about immigration, or college loans, or the homelessness problem, or same-sex attraction, or Biden, or Trump, or giving aid to Israel? And on and on.

Every professing Christian wants Jesus to take their side. Each preacher and Christian-branded influencer and parachurch organization wants to think that Jesus would agree with their position on social and even gospel issues. But not everyone is right. There are genuinely bad interpretations of the teachings of Christ out there. Sometimes, the words of the Lord are twisted or taken out of context to justify sinful positions. Sometimes, the interpretations are off, but not by much. And sometimes, of course, the reasoning is truly Biblical and the gospel records are handled accurately. This battle for the words and actions of Jesus is present in every generation. Our time is no exception. Several passages are especially controversial now; we should pay close attention how they are interpreted. Two of these passages have been addressed in recent Strength for Life sermons: Jesus’ washing the disciples’ feet in John 13 (mentioned above) and His exhortation about judging in Matthew 7 (the link to which is at the end of this article). This article will examine three other situations from the gospels that all ask the same question: how did Jesus view His ministry to sinners? And by application, how much should believers accommodate people who are sinning in culturally acceptable ways?

Eating with Sinners

Jesus’ teaching, preaching, and healing ministry brought Him into contact with a wide variety of people. If they were willing to accept Him, Jesus would receive them (Mark 8:38). The Pharisees took issue with this philosophy on several occasions. The most well-known instance is probably the one recorded in Matthew 9:9-13 and Luke 5:27-32. Matthew (also Levi) is called by Jesus to follow Him and obeys. Matthew then “made [Jesus] a great feast in his house; and there was a great company of publicans and of others that sat down with them” (Luke 5:28). To the Pharisees’ question of “Why do ye eat and drink with publicans and sinners?” Jesus responds by saying that He came to heal the sick and “not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Matthew 9:13).

A few details are important to remember. Matthew has just become a believer, having repented to follow Christ. It was at this new disciple’s house that the feast was prepared, and to his home that Jesus was invited. To the Pharisees’ challenge, Jesus quotes Hosea 6:6 to substantiate His presence there: “I will have mercy, and not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13). However, the mercy that Jesus spoke of was not sharing a meal, but calling sinners to repentance, as His last words in both Matthew and Luke’s account clarify. It wasn't Jesus' eating with the sinners that was His work as the Great Physician; it was to call them to repentance. As a brand new disciple, Matthew was the most obvious example of that purpose, and of the effect of Jesus' ministry: a changed life.

The Woman Taken in Adultery

In John 8:1-11, Jesus is challenged by the scribes and Pharisees to pronounce a judgment on a woman allegedly “taken in adultery, in the very act” (John 8:1-4). Jesus does not pronounce a verdict; instead he wrote in the dirt and told them, “He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone” (John 8:8). When all the accusers’ guilty consciences drove them out, Jesus tells them woman that he doesn’t condemn her either, but to “go and sin no more” (John 8:11).

In this situation, the scribes and Pharisees were demanding Jesus make a legal pronouncement of guilt— specifically, capital punishment by stoning. However, this situation was manufactured to trap Jesus. We know this for a few reasons. First and most obviously, the man she had committed adultery with was missing. Second, Jesus was not a judge; His enemies knew this, of course, and only wanted to entangle Christ with whatever verdict He gave. Third, once the men had left, the mock trial dissolved, for a person could not be condemned without at least two witness testimonies (Deuteronomy 17:6; 19:16). Jesus even called the men accusers. Therefore, Jesus’ statement that He also did not condemn the woman was a reflection that she was legally acquitted.

Those that assert the situation was spiritual and not just legal are correct. Any situation involving Jesus must have a greater point. Part of that point might have been in Jesus’ writing on the ground. Jeremiah 17:13 gives us an indication of what Jesus’ scribbling might have meant: “O LORD, the hope of Israel, all that forsake thee shall be ashamed, and they that depart from me shall be written in the earth, because they have forsaken the LORD, the fountain of living waters.” There was double reason for the accusers to be convicted; even if Jesus wasn’t writing their specific sins, the Spirit might still have brought this prophecy to their mind. The woman seems to be of a different spiritual disposition, for she called Jesus Lord in verse 11. She wasn’t defiant and antagonistic the way the scribes and Pharisees were. So Jesus releases her with a command to change her ways. He wasn’t showing mercy by letting a rebellious adulterer leave to go back to her former sin.

The Prodigal Son

This famous parable in Luke 15 begins with the scribes and Pharisees making a familiar complaint: “This man receiveth sinners and eateth with them” (Luke 15:2). Jesus responds with three related parables: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. The moral of the story is easy to find. Each story ends with the successful seeker telling others about the lost being found, and the hearers rejoicing at the news (except the infamous older brother, of course). Since “there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth” (Luke 15:10), the Pharisees and scribes ought to rejoice that sinners are repenting. But they are not. They are like the older brother; they are also angry that their repenting brothers are being welcomed back into God’s family.

These three parables are not justification for Christians to soften their condemnation of sin. Nor do they chastise believers for refusing to compromise truth and accept the sinner’s terms of relationship. The father in the story of the prodigal son did not leave home to pursue his unrepentant son, so it is no indictment on the older brother for also remaining home. Further, the son was welcomed back in full fellowship and rejoicing when he demonstrated his change of heart by returning to the home he had left, not while he was still an unrepentant profligate. The test of Christian behavior is not our willingness to compromise with the wayward, but our eagerness to rejoice when our lost family and friends return. Is it appropriate to go seeking for the wayward? The shepherd (who is a picture of God) did. However, consider the question Jesus asked in Luke 15:4 about the lost sheep: “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness and after that which is lost until he find it?” For a human shepherd to leave ninety-nine sheep alone and unprotected to look for one sheep makes no sense, but here God is the shepherd and He knows how to keep His sheep safe. The point of the parable of the prodigal son is whether our hearts are enough like the Father’s so we rejoice when sinners repent.


Every Tuesday, SFL publishes relevant Bible-based content. Check back next Tuesday to read the next SFL article.


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