A while back, a publisher sent me an advanced copy of a new children’s Bible that was about to be released. I remember this particular Bible because its illustrator had decided to make Jesus look like a superhero — totally buff body, chiseled jaw, abs of steel — that sort of thing. His robe could have been a cape.
Within a few days, this Bible was passed all around the office; it made people smile to see Jesus as a superhero. But as unusual as that book was, I realized it wasn’t so different from other popular children’s Bibles — even ones I had as a child.
Jesus isn’t quite as ripped in those books, but their depictions of God’s Son share one common feature with Super Jesus: He always has it together. It’s not often those illustrations show him laughing or having an ugly cry or clenching a fist — no, in most of them, Jesus is calm, cool and collected. And that reminds me that too often, even as adults, when we talk about Jesus, we talk about a man who seems more like the Man of Steel than an actual human being.
Jesus on His Own Terms
Into the grayish-blue waters of the Sea of Galilee, the gruff fisherman submerged his hand to lay hold of his catch. The chill of the water and the wriggle of the fish against his skin was a sensation he knew well. He had done this same task 10,000 times before. What he had not done, however, was lift the fish up to his face to peek inside its mouth.
Holding the wriggling creature steady was the trick. And try as he might, Peter couldn’t get the large fish to stop slapping its body to the left and right in a futile attempt to free itself. As the fish twisted and lurched, a spray of fresh water covered Peter’s face. Finally, with his thumb on the fish’s lower mandible, he found the angle needed to look into its mouth.
There, just where Jesus said it would be, was a four-drachma coin shining up at Peter. It was the exact amount he would need to pay the temple tax for the two of them. (Matthew 17:24-27).
Like some second-rate magician, Jesus could have pulled the coin out from behind Peter’s ear. He could have made it appear in Peter’s pocket and saved His friend the trouble of fishing for it. Either method would have still been miraculous. But instead, Jesus chose to direct a certain fish to swallow a particular coin, and then He had that same fish nibble on Peter’s hook. At the very least, Jesus possessed supernatural knowledge of a fish with exact change in its mouth, and sent Peter to get it.
Have you ever wondered why?
As we seek to understand Scripture, we often approach the Bible looking for divine purpose in every passage and parable. That’s not an entirely bad thing. Papyrus — the paper of the ancient world — was expensive. Every word in the Bible, therefore, was chosen carefully. Not one is wasted. There is a purpose behind every “jot” and “tittle” of Scripture (Matthew 5:18, NKJV).
Sometimes, however, in our search for deeper meaning, we can miss the most important message, a message which can be as plain as the text on the page: The Gospels were written to show us Jesus. Every healing, every teaching, and every moment spent hanging from a Roman cross reveals the heart of God’s Son. This strange episode with the coin and the fish is no exception.
So what does the image of a tough-as-nails fisherman trying to avoid the slaps and sprays of a wild fish tell us about the heart of the Son of God? It would seem Jesus has a terrific sense of humor. He has a personality.
This scene with the fish isn’t the only place we see Jesus’ sense of humor in the Gospels. He was full of one-liners that are sometimes lost in our English Bibles. Take, for example, Jesus’ famous rebuke of the Pharisees in Matthew 23:24: “You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!” While the idea of swallowing large mammals is itself comical, it’s also a brilliant play on words. You see, in Aramaic, the language Jesus likely spoke most often, the word for “gnat” is galma, and the word for “camel” is gamla. The line would have left everyone in earshot chuckling (apart from the chastised Pharisees, of course). Jesus is funny.
I used to know this instinctively. My younger self somehow understood that Jesus was the life of the party wherever He went. It wasn’t something I thought about; I just knew that Jesus would have been more at home with those who inspire joy and laughter than those who button up for the sake of being serious. For those of us who, as children, were more likely to be reprimanded than rewarded in Sunday school, the thought of Jesus smiling at the jokes we shared in the back of the classroom is a comforting one.
But it wasn’t that Jesus never got angry. Oh, He could get mad.
You may have read about the time Jesus flipped over tables and chased moneychangers out of the temple court. There’s no doubt about what Jesus was feeling. He was angry because His Father’s house — the temple — was supposed to be a house of prayer for all the nations. But the moneychangers and merchants had turned it into a crooked convenience store to take advantage of the devout. Those who were most hurt were God-fearing Gentiles; the shopping mall was located squarely inside the outer court God had set aside for them.
Jesus clears the temple court in all four Gospels, but John lets us in on an important detail the others leave out. He tells us,
In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers sitting there. And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables” (2:14-15).
Did you catch that? This wasn’t some spur-of-the-moment tantrum. Jesus had time to make a whip — by hand. His was a thought-out, reasoned response to a scene that broke the Father’s heart and sidelined an already marginalized group of people. This was anger, pure and simple, but it was righteous anger grounded in love.
This wasn’t an isolated incident, either. John tells us that when Jesus came to the tomb of His friend, Lazarus, He was “deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled” (John 11:33). Though we tend to read “deeply moved in his spirit” as “saddened,” it is more likely that the feeling was closer to anger than sadness. This has led some translators to render the phrase, “a deep anger welled up within him.” Death is not natural. Funerals were never supposed to be a part of God’s good creation. Lazarus’s sisters, Mary and Martha, weren’t meant to endure such a loss. And as Jesus saw His friends weeping tears they were never supposed to shed, it made Him mad.
The Heart Behind It All
Many books and blog posts have been written about the danger of crafting Jesus in our own image. These warnings are right and worth heeding. But sometimes I wonder if, in our attempts to keep from making a Jesus who loves the things we love and hates the things we hate, we may have forgotten that Jesus is truly human, just as He is truly divine. And in His humanity, He is more like us than we ever dared to imagine.
Jesus is a complicated person — just like you and me. He welcomed children into His arms (Matthew 19:13-15), derided hypocrites (Matthew 23:1-39), dined with notorious sinners (Matthew 9:10), wept (John 11:35), and reached out to those whom no one else would touch (Matthew 8:3). He expressed life’s highs and lows, which is how we know we can come to Him with everything we’re struggling with, rejoicing over, or sorely confused about. No matter how messy things may seem, He will understand.
Then again, maybe Jesus isn’t all that complicated after all. The Gospels reveal a Savior who experienced the full range of human emotion, but they also show us a Messiah who couldn’t be swayed by every passing mood. His heart was connected to the Father’s. Therefore, everything Jesus said and did reflected the Father’s love for a lost and hurting world. If we want to know what Jesus feels about something, we need only look to the pages of the Bible, where the heart of God has been put on display.
When we see an act of injustice, we don’t have to wonder if it would make Jesus mad. It does. When we beam over something good, true or beautiful, we need not ask whether Jesus would smile along with us. He is. And when we are hurting, we can know that Jesus is weeping with us for the pain that, apart from the curse of sin, we were never supposed to know. This is the God who mourns with His friends — and thinks it’s hilarious to hide coins in the mouths of fish.
Copyright 2017 John Greco. All rights reserved.