Majesty among Outcasts
Imagine if we gathered together all of the believers throughout history and lined them up for a massive family photo. Whom would we see? What kinds of people would be there?
We may be surprised.
Dotting the horizon of this picture, we’d find people with unflattering stories. Some are known as the chief of sinners, the sinful woman, the thief on the cross, and the prostitute. We’d also see those who were overlooked and disregarded by society. We’d find weak people unable to give God anything. We’d even see those who wore the uniform of opposition to God. Here in the portrait of grace, we’d find a multitude of misfits. It would be quite the picture.
If this were your family, would you hang it on the wall or hide it in the attic?
Now zoom in closer. Focus on the middle of the picture. Jesus is there. Seems out of place, doesn’t he? There, in this panorama of redemption, is Jesus, the perfect Son of God, wedged shoulder to shoulder with people marked by their depravity. Jesus, identifying with men, women, and children of all ages and backgrounds.
Bearing the scars that narrate their painful stories and sinful histories, they surround Jesus.
At first glance, we might think that Jesus doesn’t belong with people like this. What business does majesty have with outcasts?
But poring over the Scriptures, we see something else. In this family photo, Jesus may seem out of place, but in reality he’s exactly where he belongs. Even more, he’s right where he wants to be. Instead of being ashamed of them, he calls them family.
Jesus wouldn’t hide his family picture. He’d hang it on the wall.
What a staggering reality! How do we forget it? From beginning to end, the Bible includes emphatic examples of the types of people Jesus identifies with. Take, for instance, Jesus’s family tree listed in genealogies in the New Testament. Matthew’s list (Matt. 1:1–16) includes Judah, Tamar, Rahab, Bathsheba, and Manasseh. These aren’t exactly the all-star cast members of the Old Testament. Why does he include them? Every name carries a generous portion of depravity, separation, and shame that mark all who would follow Jesus. These are the people that Jesus comes to identify with and save. Don’t forget this vital truth: Jesus not only comes from sinful people, but he also comes for them. He’s not ashamed of people like you and me (Heb. 2:11).
We need help remembering this. We rob ourselves of joy and Christ of glory when we forget where we came from and Christ’s heart for us.
We Can Easily Forget Where We Came From
With each passing day, Christians move further away from the hour of their conversion. And it can become easy to forget where we came from. This is natural. Days tick by, as do months, years, and decades. Our minds are full of current burdens and recent memories. It’s tough to recall the experiences and emotions that characterized our lives before.
So easy to forget, but so important that we remember.
The Bible constantly reminds us to look over our shoulder. Paul tells his readers to look back:
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. (Eph. 2:1–3)
He continues with this retrospective approach in Ephesians 2:11–12:
Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands—remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.
Our gratitude to God should correspond to our understanding of what we have been forgiven.
Paul reminds these Christians of their hopelessness and helplessness apart from Christ. He opens up their spiritual biography and begins reading from the ugly pages of their past. His words remind all believers that our natural disposition was one of opposition to and alienation from God. We were fully engaged in a rebellious insurgency against him. Listening to the direction of the commander of this world, we fell in line and marched to his cadence. Our mission was to satisfy our flesh. In a word, this is depravity. Depravity describes who we were, which in turn explains what we did. We were depraved, so we lived in sin.
Several years ago, someone made a video clip of John Piper saying in a sermon, “I don’t just do bad things, I am bad. And so are you,” accompanied by music from Michael Jackson’s “I’m Bad.”1 While the arrangement might make us laugh, the theological truth is dead on. Our natural status is alienation from and enmity with God (Rom. 5:10; Col. 1:21). Although some may sin in larger font (bigger, bolder, and more noticeable sins), we all have a past characterized by rebellion against God. We all have something written on the page. To say it another way, none of us were as bad as we could’ve been, but we weren’t as good as we should’ve been. As he surveys the whole of human history (except Jesus), God declares, “None is righteous, no, not one” (Rom. 3:10), “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23).
Forget this truth, and we dull our spiritual senses. Our gratitude to God should correspond to our understanding of what we have been forgiven. If we are forgiven little, our love will be little. But if we have been forgiven much, then we will love much (Luke 7:47). And, the truth is, we all have been forgiven much. Consider the alienation we all once experienced. Because of our sin and God’s holiness, we were infinitely separated from him. But God in Christ reconciled us to himself! How could we ever get over this?
When we look into the family photo of Jesus and consider the lives we see there, I am sure we’ll notice people just like us. And this should encourage us. Jesus identifies with people like you and me.
We Can Easily Forget the Heart of Christ
In addition to forgetting our sin, we can forget Christ’s heart. We can forget how he views his people. You can forget how he sees you. The types of people that attract Jesus make other people uncomfortable. Jesus is different. His heart is drawn to the battered and broken. Nobody has a story that can make Jesus blush. Our sin doesn’t repel such a compassionate Savior. It attracts him. This is something religious people tend to forget. To them, Jesus is a scandal, not a Savior. We see this all over Luke’s Gospel.
And the Pharisees and their scribes grumbled at his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” (Luke 5:30)
The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, “Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” (7:34)
Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” (7:39)
And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” (15:2)
And when they saw it, they all grumbled, “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” (19:7)
Let’s make sure we’re not following the playbook of the Pharisees and religious leaders who were scandalized by Jesus. Pharisees teach us to scoff at sinners. Jesus welcomes them. Jesus is the Savior we need: someone we can be honest with and trust that he will welcome us, someone with whom it’s okay not to be okay, someone who’s not ashamed of us. We need Jesus.
Read this slowly. Jesus “is not ashamed to call [us] brothers” (Heb. 2:11). Although Jesus has every reason to be ashamed of us, the staggering fact is that he isn’t at all. We sometimes use family terms like brother or sister to communicate close relationships. It was no different at the time when Hebrews was written.2 Whether you’re male or female, brother means the same thing here. When Jesus calls us his brothers, he’s communicating the removal of all barriers imposed by his superiority.
To put it another way, he’s pulling us close to himself and publicly owning us as his own. What could be more encouraging than this? “No unworthiness in them, no misery upon them, shall ever hinder the Lord Christ from owning them and openly avowing them to be his brethren.”3 No matter what we’ve done or what we’re going through, he’ll never love us any less. This should give believers unspeakable joy!
- “John Piper is Bad,” YouTube video, October 5, 2006, https://www.youtube.com.
- “In the Graeco-Roman world of the first century ‘brother’ was occasionally used for persons of comparable social status, but when a person from another level of society was called ‘brother’, social distinctions gave way to a sense of unity.” Peter T. O’Brien, The Letter to the Hebrews, Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010), 109.
- John Owen, An Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews, vol. 20 of The Works of John Owen, ed. W. H. Goold (Edinburgh: Johnstone and Hunter, 1854), 423.
This article is adapted from He Is Not Ashamed: The Staggering Love of Christ for His People by Erik Raymond.
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