Making Sense of Jesus’ Countercultural Teachings
Written By Lim Chien Chong
Chien Chong joined Singapore Youth For Christ (SYFC) full-time in 1998 after a six-year teaching career in a local junior college. In 2005, he became SYFC’s National Director. Since Jan 2021, he has taken the role of the Teaching & Resource Director. He currently serves in the pulpit, Bible class and children ministry in church, and also preaches, trains, and teaches in different churches and youth groups in Singapore. He has been married for 19 years and has two teenage boys.
We all know people who make striking comments just for the attention they get. They often appear countercultural, but rarely live out what they preach. It’s almost like they just want to be different.
“The problem with our society is we prize knowledge more than compassion,” said one of my friends.
Another claimed that “we are losing a generation of young people because we give them too many options too early in their lives.”
What do these statements even mean? And how do we respond to them?
When Jesus’ teachings went against the culture of His time, was He trying to be different just to gain an audience?
When we read the Gospels carefully, we know that this was definitely not the case. Jesus knew who was going to follow Him, and who was not. When people flocked to Jesus (especially for the wrong reasons), Jesus would often turn them away or teach truth which He knew they could not swallow (John 6:60-66). Jesus did not come to the world just to gain a following.
How then do we make sense of His countercultural teachings?
In my opinion, a short and quick answer is: Jesus is essentially teaching us—who generally have a “Me-first” mentality—that we need to have a “God-first” perspective and value system.
Let’s take a brief look at a couple of things Jesus taught.
One of the first statements Jesus made was in His sermon, also commonly known as the Sermon on the Mount.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3)
When Jesus first made this statement, it must have raised some eyebrows and puzzled many people. Jesus was saying, “You need to be poor to have all the riches of God’s kingdom.” This statement challenges the normal way we look at life. In our culture, we expect the rich to inherit everything, and the hardworking to gain all the wealth they can get.
How do you become rich by being poor?
Undoubtedly, if we were to consider both riches and poverty in merely material terms, then what Jesus says certainly sounds self-contradictory. However, if we were to understand it from God’s perspective, and see riches and poverty as descriptions of our spiritual conditions, then the meaning is easier to grasp.
I think this is what Jesus was trying to say: If someone sees himself lacking in terms of his ability to do what is right and pleasing to God, and recognizes how desperately he needs God, then this person would surely embrace Jesus’s rule in his life when he is introduced to the good and powerful Savior and King. When that happens, this person enjoys all the rich blessings of God that come with being a child in His kingdom.
Conversely, when a person is self-sufficient and thinks that he has no need for God, he will not see the value of being in God’s kingdom. As a result, he will also not have access to all that a child of God has.
This teaching of Jesus’ has proven so true in the lives of people I have met. I have come across many youth who think that they have everything in life, and that all is “going well” for them. They do not think that they need God. In fact, some of them are so confident in themselves that they think of God only as a crutch for people who are psychologically and emotionally weak. But in reality, these young people are depriving themselves of the opportunity to see the full reality and richness of the abundant life—the life that Jesus promises to all who come to Him.
We read stories of celebrities and famous people who talk openly about the struggles they face in their lives and their relationships. Some are given to drugs while others have even taken their own lives. But on the other end of the spectrum, we read the testimonies of many ordinary and not-so-rich people who became followers of Jesus. Some of them were ex-offenders, others stricken with terminal illnesses. Although they are not rich materially, their lives are marked with richness, hope, and joy. These different responses have left many wondering why the rich are so “poor” and the poor are so “rich”. As Christians, we know that it is consistent with what Jesus taught.
Let’s see if we can use this “God-first” instead of “Me-first” idea to understand another of Jesus’ countercultural teachings.
In Matthew 20:25-26, Jesus tells His disciples that, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant.” (emphasis added)
Generally, we do not associate greatness with servanthood. Society measures a person’s greatness by how much he is worth, how much he earns every hour, how high he stands on the social ladder. In fact, great people by society’s standards are served and waited on by others.
Servants are the opposite. They are the ones assigned to do the menial and lowly tasks that people, in general, would rather not do themselves. Must a person really be a servant if he wants to be great? And do we know any great men who are servants by vocation?
Again at first glance, the statement sounds rather illogical. But we are to understand “greatness” in the context of the kingdom of God, not by society’s standards.
If someone is prepared to put God first in everything, he will be willing to soil his hands, move out of his comfort zone, and do anything to serve God’s purpose. When that happens, this person will learn to do different things well and try to be as useful as possible in different situations. Through time, more people will come to him because his help would have been known to be constructive and timely. It is not difficult to see then how the Lord greatly uses that person to bless the lives of many.
On the other hand, I have also met people who lament that they are not being used by God. Interestingly, these individuals can be quite selective in what areas they want to serve God in, because they may not want to do things that are inconvenient, “demeaning”, or uncomfortable.
On 21 February this year, we learned about Billy Graham’s “homegoing”. He had brought the Word of God to more than 180 countries, preaching the gospel to as many as 200 million people. My father became a Christian in one of his nightly crusades in 1978. In addition, he has spoken to kings, princes, and heads of state. He has been described by many as “the great evangelist.”
But Billy Graham started out as a farm boy. Even when he was an itinerant evangelist, he was only drawing a modest salary and staying in a humble home. Yet, there have been few people whom God has used to the same extent as He did Mr. Graham. In him, we find a true servant of God—one who was willing to serve others and do whatever his Master gave him to do. Billy Graham’s life demonstrates the teaching “whoever would be great among you must be your servant.”
I am certain that in availing himself to serve God by meeting the needs of so many different people in so many different settings, there had been times where Billy Graham might have felt that he was taken for granted. In fact, he might even have felt that he had been “used” by others or treated like a lowly servant (which is a lousy feeling). But on deeper thought, people approached and “used” him because he had been useful. If not, they would not have thought of engaging him in the first place.
So you see, Jesus’s teachings are indeed countercultural, but true and real to life!
Although Jesus’ teachings went against the societal norms, it is evident that He wasn’t just different for the sake of being different. Jesus challenges us not to have a “Me-first” mentality. A “Me-first” mentality undermines Christ’s rule in our lives, and this is (what is commonly known as) “sin”. But Jesus came to die for our sins and reverse our lives which were torn apart by sin. Being raised to life, He gives us a new life. With a “God-first” perspective and value system, we can truly live the life that He has intended for us right from the start, which is very different from the life as we know it. And this is the heart of Jesus’ teaching!
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