Was Jesus “radical?” The word carries a lot of political baggage nowadays, as it is used to describe extremism. Lately, I’ve heard this word being used to describe Jesus and his teachings relative to the religious customs of his time. Some of these were used to criticize “traditional” Christianity, suggesting that conservative Christianity is pharisaic and contrary to the radical spirit of Jesus who challenged the religious elites of his day. So, was Jesus radical?
It is true that Jesus often challenged the Pharisees and the religious leaders (e.g. Mt. 23:1-36), as they often tested him (e.g. Mt. 16:1) and challenged his authority (e.g. Mt. 12:24, 21:23). Therefore, it’s understandable why one would read through Jesus’ ministry and describe him as “radical.” His teachings were indeed different and convicting. It often struck the audience with awe and shock, as they had never heard someone teach with such authority (Mt. 7:28-29). It set him apart from the religious leaders of his time, because he was indeed set apart; he is the Son of God after all. The danger here is that many who label Jesus as radical today also define the word as relating to a complete or thorough social or political reformation. What we have to understand is that Jesus did not come to reform what God had already given the world. That would suggest that the purpose of Jesus’ ministry was to change what God already established. Suggesting that is to say that God is fallible, which we know is not consistent with the mission of Jesus (Jn. 6:38).
Jesus did not teach change that reformed religion, as many—even some Christians—would propose today. I believe it is more accurate to say that Jesus taught a kind of change that restored the heart. The reason Jesus challenged the established religion of his time was not to make the religion different; it was to turn the hearts of his listeners back to God. He was not opposing God’s laws that were given to the forefathers; rather, he was challenging the traditions and hypocrisy of man that had accumulated around it. We know this, because Jesus himself tells us in the beginning of his sermon on the mount: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Mt. 5:17). A few verses down, he says that one’s righteousness has to “exceed that of the scribes and the Pharisees” (Mt. 5:20), implying that their righteousness was inadequate for the kingdom of heaven, not the Law. Jesus also cites the Scriptures as evidence for who he claims to be (Jn. 5:39). Jesus was the biggest proponent of God’s Word, even more so than his contemporaries who were supposed to be teachers of the law (Jn. 3:10).
Was Jesus radical? Yes. He taught with true authority, which by its very nature challenged the established traditions of the Pharisees and the religious leaders of the time. That, however, wasn’t because Jesus taught something different than what God already gave the people. Rather, it was the people who deviated from what God intended and built flawed traditions and customs based on their own interpretations of the Law (Mt. 15:1-9). Jesus’ ministry was built around breaking those barriers down, so that the truth could reach the people burdened by these artificial requirements (Mt. 23:2-4; cf. Mt. 11:28-30). Let us be radical like Jesus, not politically or socially, but in the matters of the spirit and heart, which promotes true change that affects the soul.