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Christians engaging in gospel debate

Photo credit: Gillian Law

As followers of Jesus, how are we to think and speak in conversations and debates about the gospel? In this extract from his contribution to a recent book(1), Stefan Gustavsson argues for us to follow Jesus’ example throughout the gospel. Stefan will also be speaking at CMS Summer Conferences in January 2018.

Jesus in dialogue and debate

What characterised Jesus during his three years in the public eye? For most Christians, three particular things spring to mind immediately.

First, Jesus was a preacher. He proclaimed his message in the synagogues and gave immortal sermons, such as the Sermon on the Mount. Secondly, Jesus was a miracle maker. He healed the sick and the possessed and fed thousands of people in a supernatural way. Even the dead were brought back to life. Thirdly, Jesus was love incarnate. He saw the outcasts, touched the lepers, associated freely with people on the fringes of society, with suspect women and corrupt men. He manifested the essence of love through his life.

All of this is true. But I wish to add a fourth dimension, namely, Jesus as an apologist arguing for the truth of his message.

A review of the four gospels shows how strikingly often Jesus took part in dialogues and debates. To a large extent, the gospel texts are one long, ongoing conversation that Jesus conducted with different people. This claim can easily be corroborated with the help of statistics. If you search for the terms asked and answered in the four gospels using a modern Bible program, you will get the following results for the NIV 2011: ‘asked’ 303 times, ‘answered’ 144 times. Discourse and dialogue were evidently central to Jesus.

In dialogues, Jesus often challenged his audience to use their common sense, to think matters through, to question their own prejudice and hasty claims, to analyse their own positions and draw the right conclusions. This part of Jesus’ teaching—how he challenged his listeners to think independently and critically—is often overlooked. As Jesus says, “Stop judging by mere appearances, but instead judge correctly” (John 7:24). In other words: do not make superficial, prejudiced judgements. Make correct assessments.

When asked which commandment in the Law was the greatest, Jesus replied by combining two passages from the Scriptures, Deuteronomy 6 and Leviticus 19:

One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”

“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:28– 31)

It is interesting to note that in formal terms, Jesus did not quote the source correctly. If you look up Deuteronomy 6:5, you discover that the passage speaks of loving the Lord your God “with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength”. There is nothing about the mind! What Jesus does is to provide a clarification: We should not leave out our mind!

Jesus and the little children

Several passages in the New Testament stress that a Christian should not be like a child. In 1 Corinthians 14:20, Paul writes, “Brothers and sisters, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults.” We come across the same train of thought in Ephesians 4:14: “Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming.”

Thus naïveté, ignorance and childishness are not Christian virtues. But how does this relate to Jesus’ positive invitation that we should become like children? Is Paul on a collision course with his Master on this subject?

We need to take into account that both children and adults may have negative traits from which we want to distance ourselves as well as positive traits that we want to highlight. Thus Jesus uses children as a warning example when he criticises religious leaders. In Matthew 11:16–17, he says, “To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the market-places and calling out to others: ‘We played the pipe for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.’” Childishness and immaturity are not Christian virtues.

In other passages, however, children are put forward by Jesus as models to emulate: “Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven”, he says (Matthew 18:3). But what is it about the children that he highlights? The key is provided in the subsequent verse: “Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:4). It is a child’s humility, not his or her lack of knowledge or immature reason, that Jesus emphasises.

The point is not that each child is always humble, for who has not encountered obstinate and self-focused children, or been one himself? Jesus was well aware of that. No, his point is the humility displayed by children who accept their position as children, as they allow themselves to be carried and hugged by their parents and recognise their fundamental dependence. Children are aware that they cannot claim full autonomy vis-à-vis their parents.

Jesus and Paul are in agreement. We should be ‘adults in our thinking’ and we should ‘love God with all our mind’. And that of course precludes all manipulation.


Are you thinking about missionary service or want to find out more? In January 2018, Stefan Gustavsson will be speaking at CMS Summer Conferences around Australia. Register now for the opportunity to hear him and other Bible teachers speak on God’s call to take the gospel to the nations. Maybe it’s time for you to go!

1. Gustavsson, S. 2017, ‘The Priority of Truth—Jesus and Paul on Reason and Truth’, in R. Cunningham (ed.), Serving the church, reaching the world: essays in honour of Don Carson, Inter-Varsity Press, London