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Jesus: Debate Kung Fu Master

SERIES INFO: This series of blog articles will include topics (and bonus sections) I couldn't fit into my book Reintroducing Jesus: Uncovering Jesus of Nazareth in the Misinformation Age.

A lot of people hate confrontations and do everything they can to avoid them. On the other hand, Jesus confronted his hostile adversaries not by passive-aggressively talking about them behind their backs or cyber-bullying them over social media, but by confronting them face-to-face. Not only that, he silenced them.

Chief priests, scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, and Herodians were all out to get him, but Jesus never avoided a showdown. He never shied away from speaking the hard truth about hypocrisy, empty religion, and evil. He knew when to prod gently, when to give even-handed pushback, and when to go head-to-head in a no-holds-barred slobberknocker. Jesus warned his disciples,

Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. (Matthew 10:16)

In Jesus’ debates, we see him model this again and again. For instance, in Luke 20 we find three attempts by religious leaders to outsmart and repudiate Jesus, but he shrewdly thwarts their efforts like a theological ninja.

First, they challenge his teachings, asking where he received his authority to say such things. Jesus responds, “I also will ask you a question… [W]as the baptism of John from Heaven or from man?” (Luke 20:3–4). This is a humdinger for the religious leaders because if they say John the Baptist’s work was “from Heaven,” they know Jesus will ask why they didn’t obey him. But if they say “from man,” the many, many people in Jerusalem who believed John was a prophet of God would turn against them. So, they decide to play it safe: We don’t know where he came from. So, Jesus shuts them down: “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things” (Luke 20:8).

Next, Jesus’ opponents try to trap him by asking about whether Jews should pay taxes to Caesar. If he says no, they’ll have him arrested by the Romans. If he says yes, he’ll lose credibility with the Jews who resent the Roman occupation. So, Jesus asks to see a coin and asks whose image is on it. The answer: Caesar’s—the Roman emperor’s. So, give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, says Jesus, and give to God what belongs to God.

Jesus cleverly avoids their trap: the Romans can’t arrest him, but this is a respectable answer for a devout Jew. Go ahead and give Caesar his money back, he says, but give to God what he deserves. What does God deserve? As our Creator, he deserves not just our allegiance, but our whole being! Luke tells us, “[T]hey were not able in the presence of the people to catch him in what he said, but marveling at his answer they became silent” (Luke 20:26).

Lastly, we have another encounter where the Sadducees think they finally got him. They give their challenge in the form of a thought-experiment: a woman marries a man with seven brothers and her husband dies before they have children, so the woman marries her husband’s brother. But the second husband dies before they have children too. This same thing continues to happen until the woman has married all seven brothers and all seven have croaked (and she somehow avoids a homicide investigation and the media branding her “The Black Widow Killer”). Then, the Sadducees ask Jesus: After the supposed resurrection of the dead, who would she be married to?

You see, the Sadducees didn’t believe in the future resurrection of the dead as many Jews, like Jesus, did. They also didn’t believe in the afterlife. So, Jesus straight-up tells them, “You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God!” (Matthew 22:29). Boom! (Who ever said Jesus was a softy?)

Then, he references the passage when God spoke to Moses through the burning bush, where God uses the present tense to describe himself as the God of the long-dead Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God says to Moses, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Exodus 3:6)—not “I was…” Thus, these three godly men of old are still alive in God’s presence. Jesus concludes, “Now he is not God of the dead, but of the living, for all live to him” (Luke 20:37, 39). Jesus certainly pulled no punches, and “they no longer dared to ask him any question” (Luke 20:38–40).

My point? Jesus isn’t a doormat. If he were a high schooler, I’d want him on my debate team.

Did you notice how many questions Jesus asked? He often used questions to derail his challengers’ aggression and expose the folly of their thinking. For instance, one way Jesus’ enemies attacked him was by accusing him of violating the Old Testament law when he would (miraculously) heal on the Sabbath day of rest. So, he asks them, “Which of you, having a son or an ox that has fallen into a well on a Sabbath day, will not immediately pull him out?” Luke tells us, “And they could not reply to these things” (Luke 14:5–6).

When a lawyer decides to “put him to the test” and asks Jesus what ought he do to gain eternal life, Jesus asks in return, What is written in the Old Testament Law? The lawyer answers, To love God and love your neighbor. Jesus tells him he answered correctly, yet the lawyer “desiring to justify himself” continues to push: “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus goes on to tell one of his most famous parables, the Parable of the Good Samaritan: a traveler is attacked and robbed and left for dead on the side of a road. First, a priest passes and doesn’t help him. Then, a Levite, another religious leader, passes and ignores the half dead man as well. Afterwards, comes a Samaritan, a hated enemy of the Jews, but the Samaritan binds his wounds, brings him to an inn, and even pays the innkeeper to look after him while he’s gone. Jesus concludes by asking yet another question: Which was the true neighbor? (Luke 10:25–37)

At another time, Jesus goes on the offensive, asking, “How can the scribes say that the Christ is the son of David? David himself, in the Holy Spirit, declared [in Psalm 110:1], ‘The Lord said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet.’” Jesus pointedly asks, If David calls him “Lord,” how is the Messiah David’s son (Mark 12:35–37). Jesus, a black belt in mental judo, was a master at using questions to knock his opponents off-balance and using their own momentum to take them down.

Let’s look at one more example—one of my favorites—of how Jesus boldly and wisely bobs-and-weaves the aggression of his opponents.

As mentioned, Jesus’ enemies were greatly annoyed that he would (miraculously) heal on the day of Sabbath rest. So, one Sabbath they were keeping a close eye on him. When Jesus began speaking to a man with a deformed hand, you can bet his enemies perked up. Once again, Jesus used questions to show the shallowness of their thinking: “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” His opponents stayed silent, and he looked at them “with anger,” grieved by their hard hearts. Then, Jesus tells the man with the withered hand to stretch out his hand. The man does so, and the hand becomes “healthy like the other” (Mark 3:1–6; Matthew 12:9–13).

Did you notice what Jesus did here—or, rather, what he did not do? His enemies were waiting for him to heal someone so they could accuse him of violating God’s law, and Jesus does just what they hoped: he heals a man. Or did he? Notice what he didn’t do: he didn’t say something like, “I will heal you” or “Be healed!” Afterwards, he didn’t say anything like, “Behold! I have made you well.” Instead, he simply said, “Stretch out your hand.” When the man tried, his hand started functioning as a normal, healthy hand. What could his enemies accuse Jesus of? Making suggestions?

Float like a butterfly; sting like a bee. Wise as a serpent; innocent as a dove.


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