The Severe Kindness of Jesus

Hearing Mercy in His Hard Words

Jesus has a popular reputation with many as a gentle, lowly teacher and healer who calls the sick, the shamed, and the sinners to come to him and receive his grace and kindness. And for good reason: Jesus is the most fundamentally kind and gracious person you’ll ever encounter.

But if you come to him only expecting to experience the comforting side of his grace and kindness, you may be in for a shock. Because Jesus is also the most discerning and honest person you’ll ever encounter. And by “honest” I mean that he’s often more honest than you want him to be. He can be ruthlessly honest — to the point that he can sometimes seem cruel, not kind.

Jesus has an unnerving ability to slice through all of your misconceptions, delusions, and self-deceit with a simple phrase that exposes the secret thoughts and intentions of your heart — ones you hardly knew you had. He wields his discernment with the innocence of a dove and the wisdom of a serpent, which can make him unpredictable. Sometimes he can be severe when you expect him to be gracious, and gracious when you expect him to be severe. You often don’t see his exposing statements coming.

So, when you come to Jesus, certainly expect to receive his grace and kindness. But don’t expect them to always feel comforting. Because sometimes his kindness is severe and feels anything but comforting.

Come for Rest or Death?

In the Gospel accounts, Jesus invites people to come to him a number of times. But sometimes, these invitations sound radically different. Let’s examine two of them.

We’re all familiar with the first one, because it’s one of the most well-known, beloved, comforting statements Jesus ever uttered:

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Matthew 11:28–30)

This invitation explicitly reveals the gentle and lowly Jesus we, for good reason, find so attractive. It aligns with the Jesus of much popular imagination, who bids weary souls to come to him to receive restful, reviving grace.

But the second invitation reveals a different dimension of Jesus’s grace, and it has a very different effect on his hearers:

If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:26–27)

This invitation doesn’t align so well with Jesus’s comforting reputation. In fact, it sounds more like a dis-invitation. Instead of comforting, we find it disturbing.

If this invitation is disturbing to us who have heard it many times, imagine how offensive and disorienting it would have sounded to his original Jewish audience who heard it from his lips — most of whom thought they really wanted to follow him. They had been taught since childhood to honor their father and mother if they wanted God to bless them with long lives (Exodus 20:12). Now Jesus commanded them to hate their parents (as well as their siblings and children) if they wanted to follow him. And far from promising them a long, blessed earthly life, Jesus required them to embrace a death sentence if they wanted to be his disciples — the worst death sentence imaginable, in fact: Roman crucifixion.

This second invitation is as relevant to us disciples today as the first. So, where is the kindness of Jesus in this severe invitation?

What Jesus Came to Reveal

We could consider many other disorienting words of Jesus. Like when he told us not only to hate those who love us (as in Luke 14:26–27), but also to love those who hate us (Matthew 5:43–45). Or when he told a would-be disciple to sacrifice the needs of his ailing father (Luke 9:59–60). Or when he told another would-be disciple to abruptly leave all those he most dearly loved — and to endure the misunderstanding, hurt, and scorn they would feel for him (Luke 9:61–62).

In order to perceive Jesus’s kindness in his severe, discomforting, disturbing invitations, we need to keep in mind what he is doing through his words and works:

  • First, Jesus is revealing what God is like in his full triune nature.
  • Second, Jesus is revealing what we are like in our full fallen nature.

I think it’s accurate to say that Jesus was doing both kinds of revealing in everything he said and did, though some of his words and works reveal more of one than the other. But both revelations are gracious and kind, and both are necessary for his gospel to make sense to us.

What God Is Like

In the teaching and deeds of Jesus that have rightly earned him the reputation as loving, gentle, and forgiving — typified in his beautiful, comforting invitation to the weary and heavy laden (Matthew 11:28–30) — he is revealing God’s fundamental nature: “God is love” (1 John 4:16). The primary reason Jesus came was to reveal this love:

God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. (John 3:16–17)

Jesus came to announce the good news that God — because of the fathomless, merciful love pouring out from the core of his triune being — is offering to every one of his enemies full forgiveness and reconciliation. And Jesus came to accomplish all that was required to make that forgiveness and reconciliation possible by receiving, through his own death in our places, “the wages of sin” we’ve accrued (Romans 6:23). That is what God is like: willing to so love his enemies that he’ll die in our place to make us his children (1 John 3:1).

“When Jesus spoke severely, he did so, ultimately, for kind, gracious, servant-hearted reasons.”

This, above all else, sets Jesus apart from abusive, narcissistic leaders who might use both kind and harsh words to manipulate and deceive people for their own benefit. For he did not come “to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28). When he spoke severely, he did so, ultimately, for kind, gracious, servant-hearted reasons — one of which was to help us see more clearly our own sinful thoughts, intentions, and idolatrous loves.

What We Are Like

When Jesus disturbs and disorients us, when he offends us and makes us cringe, it’s helpful if we read his words through the lens of John 3:19:

This is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.

Jesus didn’t come only to reveal God’s love to us; he was also “appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel . . . so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed” (Luke 2:34–35). He came to reveal our hearts to us.

This is often what’s taking place when Jesus issues his offensive invitations and responses. This is why we hear him make bewildering, even repulsive claims, like he did after he fed the five thousand and then said, “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life” (John 6:54). This provoked many to respond, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” (John 6:60). Jesus wields an otherworldly discernment and wisdom as he calls out his sheep (enemies who will receive his gospel offer of forgiveness and reconciliation) in the midst of wolves (enemies who won’t). The Lord, “who know[s] the hearts of all” (Acts 1:24), was revealing those hearts.

And through his sometimes cruel-sounding words, Jesus is still revealing our hearts, what we really, truly treasure. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21).

Behold His Severe Kindness

In Romans 11:22, Paul, speaking of God’s mercy and his judgment, writes, “Behold then the kindness and severity of God” (NASB). But in speaking of Jesus’s hard words, we can say, “Behold the severe kindness of God.” Because if Jesus doesn’t reveal to us the deceitfulness of our sin, we may continue to be ensnared by it and never “obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:21).

So, when Jesus, on one hand, extends to us his comforting invitation to come to him and find rest for our souls (Matthew 11:29) and then, on the other hand, issues to us his discomforting warning that unless we renounce all that we have we cannot be his disciples (Luke 14:33), he is not speaking out of both sides of his mouth. He is speaking out of his one gracious and kind heart by revealing both God’s incomparable love for us and whether or not we love God. The former is intended to comfort us; the latter is intended to test us.

But to all who receive him — who hear his offensive words and ultimately say, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” — Jesus gives “the right to become children of God” (John 1:12; 6:68). And these children discover that Zion’s great “stone of stumbling [and] rock of offense” (Romans 9:33) was, in every word and work, always pursuing them with goodness and mercy so they might dwell in his house forever (Psalm 23:6).

And these will then fully know what Jesus means when he says, “Blessed is the one who is not offended by me” (Matthew 11:6).