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Unwrapping Jesus, by Philip Yancey



Yet Jesus Did Not Act Like a Jew

The very architecture of the temple expressed Jewish belief in a ladder of hierarchy reaching higher and higher toward God. Gentiles and “half-breeds” like the Samaritans could enter the outer Court of the Gentiles; a wall separated them from the next partition, which admitted Jewish women. Jewish men could proceed one stage further, and then only priests could enter the sacred areas.

The society was, in effect, a religious caste system based on steps toward holiness, and the Pharisees’ scrupulosity reinforced the system daily. All their rules on washing hands and avoiding defilement were an attempt to make themselves acceptable to God. Had not God set forth lists of desirable (spotless) and undesirable (flawed, unclean) animals for use in sacrifice? Had not God banned sinners, menstruating women, the physically deformed and other “undesirables” from the temple?

In the midst of this tight religious caste system, Jesus appeared, with no qualms about socializing with children or sinners or even Samaritans. He touched, or was touched by, the “unclean”: those with leprosy, the deformed, a hemorrhaging woman, the lunatic and possessed. Although Levitical laws prescribed a day of purification after touching a sick person, Jesus conducted mass healings in which he touched scores; he never concerned himself with the rules of defilement after contact with the sick or even the dead.

Somehow, everything Jesus said and did in 33 years on earth gets swept aside in the rush to interpret his life correctly.

Indeed, Jesus turned upside down the accepted wisdom of the day. Pharisees believed that touching an unclean person polluted the one who touched. Yet when Jesus touched a person with leprosy, Jesus did not become soiled—the leprous became clean. When an immoral woman washed Jesus’ feet, she went away forgiven and transformed. When Jesus defied custom to enter a pagan’s house, the pagan’s servant was healed. As Walter Wink puts it, “The contagion of holiness overcame the contagion of uncleanness.”

In short, Jesus moved the emphasis from God’s holiness (exclusive) to God’s mercy (inclusive). Instead of the message “No undesirables allowed,” he proclaimed, “In God’s kingdom, no one is any longer an undesirable.”

Jesus’ attitude convicts me today, because I sense a movement in the reverse direction. The church is becoming more and more politicized. As society unravels and immorality increases, I hear many calls that we show less mercy and more morality. Stigmatize homosexuals, shame unwed mothers, harass the homeless, punish the law-breakers. I share a deep concern for our society, and obviously Christians need to be a moral voice. In doing so, though, we must follow Jesus’ example, “loving the sinner while hating the sin.” I am struck by the power of mercy as demonstrated by Jesus, who came for the sick and not the well, for sinners and not for the righteous. I spent half my life rebelling against the legalism of my childhood; when I tasted the first draught of the Living Water offered by Jesus, I knew I was changed forever.



Jesus Lost the “Culture Wars”

Not long ago I addressed the topic “Culture Wars” before a large gathering that was tilted toward the liberal Democratic persuasion and included a strong minority of Jews. I had been selected as the token  evangelical Christian on a panel that included the presidents of the Disney Channel and Warner Brothers, as well as the president of Wellesley College and Anita Hill’s personal attorney.

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Category: Biblical Studies, Fall 1998, Pneuma Review

About the Author: Philip Yancey is the award-winning author of over twenty books. You can learn more about him at his website,

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