7 Hard Sayings of Jesus


A popular adage has regularly been applied to the person of Jesus—he comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. This was true for his original audience and continues to be so for his contemporary readers. Sometimes this is true even of the same party, at the same time. People often enthusiastically embrace some of his teachings while deploring other parts. Indeed, his early followers sensed this challenge: “On hearing it, many of his disciples said, ‘This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?'” (John 6:60)

So which of Jesus’ teachings are especially difficult to swallow given our modern sensibilities? The following highlights seven of these sayings, and though this isn’t an attempt to explain away some of his radical ideas, their perplexity is softened somewhat when they are read contextually in their historical setting and with appropriate literary atunement. Notice also that this approach to hearing Jesus also challenges the all too popular and simplistic attempt to contrast a radical “historical Jesus” with the “domesticated Jesus” of the early church or the Apostle Paul.

1. Let the Dead Bury the Dead (Matthew 8:22; Luke 9:60)

How could Jesus be so insensitive as to provoke a grief-stricken seeker to forego a proper burial for his parents? Some scholars have discovered a Jewish custom for having two ceremonies. It may be that Jesus was referring to this second, redundant ceremony. Others still suggest that the wording of the young man’s request means that the father was still living, and the son was asking for permission to fulfill his family duties until his father passed. Either way, Jesus is heightening the urgency of his kingdom work and placing loyalty to his cause above cultural expressions of family loyalties.

WATCH: “Remembering the Humanity of Jesus” video by Jerome Van Kuiken

2. Whoever Divorces and Marries Another Commits Adultery (Matthew 5:27-32; Mark 10:11-12; Luke 16:18)

The western church has seemingly lost its right to speak to issues concerning sexuality since it has looked the other way when professing Christians divorce without biblical warrant. Could it be that Jesus, even against the Jewish culture of his day (which permitted a certificate of divorce for the most trivial of reasons), actually leaves room for very few exceptions to this covenant commitment (see “Remarriage and Divorce in Biblical Perspective” by Craig Keener)? Perhaps the church needs to repent of its loosening the bonds of marriage. This isn’t to say that divorced and remarried persons should live with perpetual shame for past mistakes. However, we should acknowledge that Jesus’ teaching here touches a sore spot for his church body.

3. You Must Hate Your Parents, Spouse, Siblings, and Children (Matthew 10:37 Luke 14:26)

If loving your neighbor must extend to include your enemies, how could it be that it is now restricted to exclude your family? Clearly this is an instance where Jesus is employing rhetorical hyperbole to drive home a point. This is obvious since in the Matthean account the author softens the effect by recording it as, “Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me.” (10:37) This interpretation comports well with Paul’s admonishment in 1 Timothy 5:8 that caring for the family is essential to being a Christian. Nonetheless, it’s true—sometimes family ties can be so consuming that it leaves us with little time or resources in the way of working for his kingdom. I believe this temptation is all too real for many families today.

4. You Must Be Perfect (Matthew 5:48)

Our culture is paradoxically obsessed with perfection, as is evidenced by the rise of near cult-like gym and fitness followings, while also eschewing perfection and condemning it as an expression of self-righteousness and hypocrisy. So what could Jesus mean, if in other places Scripture asserts that humans fall short of perfection (Romans 3:10; Philippians 3:12; 1 John 1:8)? The word translated “perfect” in Hebrew could also mean complete, or whole. Still, Jesus raises the bar on righteousness earlier in this speech (5:20), and thus points his followers to the need for an atoning sacrifice which indeed makes us whole and endows us with the Holy Spirit who enables us to fulfill God’s law. Instead of despairing for having flaws, Christians may enter into the peace of Christ by his effectual work (Phil. 4:7).

5. Fear Him Who Has Power to Cast into Hell (Matthew 10:28; Luke 12:4-5)

This saying doubly offends because it seemingly advocates fear, which modern Christians reject as the basis for a relationship with God (see 1 John 4:18), and because it threatens the judgment of hell, which some consider to contradict the loving character of God. First it must be said that the word for fear has multiple senses. In the Greek language it likely refers to a strong respect or reverence, which is why in Acts 9:31 the church can “go on in the fear of the Lord.” Elsewhere it appropriately refers to the temporal or foundational affection that positions us before the holiness of God. Second, Jesus’ reference to hell (hades, or gehenna) is consistent with his overall teaching and concern for God’s mercy and judgment of evil and injustice. Whatever the existential nature of hell, Jesus and Paul authoritatively teach us that it is God’s way of dealing with evil and injustice outside of his kingdom.

WATCH: “Why Jesus Was More Than Just a Man” video by Jerome Van Kuiken

6. Sell What You Have (Matthew 19:21; Mark 10:17-22; Luke 18:22)

This challenge strikes at the heart of western Christians who live in a free market economy. Could Jesus really mean that we’re supposed to sell all that we have? Is this not also modeled in the early church in Acts 2 and 4? This is likely a localized, or conditional requirement for Jesus for that particular young man. It was common for ancient teachers and philosophers to require their followers to leave the comforts of their aristocratic world in order to focus intensely on the project of the teacher. Jesus was uttering a challenge of allegiances, one which we need to hear today as well, although it may take on different forms. See 1 Thess. 4:11. Whatever the particular challenge for us, Scripture teaches that Christian virtue does consistently require extravagant giving to those in need.

7. Let Him Who Has No Sword Buy One (Luke 22:36)

Didn’t Jesus in another place command us to turn the other cheek (Matt. 5:39)? It would be difficult to reconcile this advice about buying a sword with his admonitions at other times where he advised against using violence. It is likely that Jesus here is speaking ironically, suggesting that the arrest and charge they’re about to be indicted with would only be just if they would be political revolutionaries like the zealots (Isaiah 53). We know this because when Peter actually follows the command literally he is rebuked by Jesus. Rather than being an affirmation of modern gun laws or the use of self-defense, this passage is meant to highlight the injustice of the Roman and Jewish leaders violence against Jesus.

The background research here was a result of consulting with Gospel commentaries and especially the works of F. F. Bruce, The Hard Sayings of Jesus, and Craig Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament.


Andrew is an editor for Seedbed. He enjoys spending his free time with family and friends, doing design, photography, and gardening. He lives with his family in Tennessee.


  1. Your interpretation of “Be ye perfect…” is quite weak and I am surprised to see it on a Wesleyan website. Matt 5.48 must be understood in light of the illustrations Jesus uses in the preceding verses. Just as God sends sun and rain on the fields of good and bad people alike, you must greet your enemy with the same honor you show to your best friend. Be generous as God is in the way you relate to your enemies, because I have commanded you to love your enemies. Just as God loves even his enemy, as shown in Christ’s death for sinners, you must love your enemies, too. A good illustration today would be to greet your Muslim friend just as you greet your fellow Christians. This is the perfection Jesus demands of us. It is a modern fiction that Jesus didn’t really mean “perfect” but only “complete, mature.” Let’s not offer the world more psycho-babble.

  2. Your interpretation of “Be ye perfect…” is quite weak and I am surprised it shows up on a Wesleyan website. Matt 5.48 must be interpreted in light of the illustrations Jesus uses in the preceding verses. Just as God sends rain on the fields of good and bad people alike, you must greet your enemy with the same honor and love you show to your best friend. Be generous as God is in the way you relate to your enemies. A good illustration today would be to greet your Muslim friend just as you greet your fellow Christians. This is the perfection Jesus demands of us. It is a modern fiction that Jesus didn’t mean “perfect” but only “complete, mature.” This is psycho-babble that obscures the Word of God.

  3. I should have added that “Be ye mature are your Father in heaven is mature” is the necessary conclusion of the view that perfection means only maturity, reducing God to a psychological projection of our minds. It isn’t good theology.

  4. I find it interesting when christians try to say that the rich man having to give up everything was “likely” just specifically for the rich man. In the same context when the disciples asked who can be saved Jesus reminded them that they gave up everything to follow him.

    “Christian” starts to panic, ok, ok, so it’s just that rich guy and every single one of Jesus’s disciples…

    Jesus also in the same context mentions that it would be insanely hard for any rich man to enter heaven in response to the rich man not selling all he had.

    Modern day christian in America, ok ok, so all his disciples had to give up everything for him, he demanded that a rich man sell everything he had and give it to the poor. It’s almost impossible for any rich man to enter into heaven in the same context of the rich man not willing to sell everything.

    Ok, ok, well I’m not wealthy! I’m just middle class! Let me drive off in my Lexus to the house I own and watch my big screen 4k TV with my surround sound while I eat this delicious steak and check my retirement accounts with my brand new smartphone. yup, Jesus wasn’t talking about me thank goodness I’m not wealthy and only middle class! He would never actually ask me to give up everything I have, sure feels good to follow Jesus! Yup, that’s me just a good old faithful disciple of Jesus! Whew, I’m sure glad I’m not wealthy, I might not make it to heave if I was.

    • Am I allowed to speak here?

      A simpler understanding of the rich man is that Christ told the man to get rid of his idol – he was committing idolatry. We see this is TOP PRIORITY in the NT church in Acts 15 —> that the Gentiles should not concern themselves with the rabbinical Jewish oral law – heavy burdens that often went against the written Law of God – and that they needed to repent of obvious idolatry and commit to attending a nearby synagogue every Sabbath to learn the rest of the Law of Moses.

      “Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood. For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.”

      For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements:”

      ‭‭Acts‬ ‭15:19-21, 28‬ ‭ESV‬‬

      To suggest that every wealthy person has to give all their wealth away is against Torah and the Prophets —> news flash: Jesus did not teach against the Torah. The Gospels plainly tell us that He taught His Father’s Law – otherwise He would have been a false prophet. Why is it that He re-iterated that He was speaking and doing according to the Father’s word and will? It’s because He WAS and this was a critical requirement for a prophet or messenger of God to be considered legitimate. If Jesus had said anyone who would seek salvation had to sell 100% of their belongings to enter into the kingdom, He would have failed the Deuteronomy 13 test for prophets of God and thus, He also would have “added to or taken away” from the commandments of God – which is a specific command for us NOT TO DO, once in Deuteronomy and once in Revelation.

      Ironically, almost every church denomination disregards MAJOR Laws of God that God, His Son & the apostles commanded that we follow. Namely, that first tablet of stone – not loving God HIS WAY and instead worshiping Him in vain wby re-purposing pagan traditions and calling them ”Holy Days”… Christmas, Easter, not keeping ANY VERSION of the Sabbath and not eating what God ordained as food and abstaining from that which is not food for us. Amazing! I never thought someone would refuse to enter into heaven over a dietary restriction… but people love their pork more than their Creator. And yes, modern theologians had to ADD WORDS in Mark 7 to twist the meaning and conclusion of that passage to suggest that Jesus ordained pork consumption. I would remind all that if He did that, he would not have been a perfect Lamb slain in the sight of God and therefore would have failed to atone for our sins…but I digress.

      ““Everything that I command you, you shall be careful to do. You shall not add to it or take from it.”

      ‭‭Deuteronomy‬ ‭12:32‬ ‭ESV‬‬

      Anyways, Jesus told that man to pay attention to the FIRST tablet of stone – that is, get rid of your idols. You can’t have fellowship in Spirit with God until you do that.

  5. I didn’t think you’d follow the sell all you have scripture with the if you don’t forsake all you have then you can’t be my disciple scripture.
    Nor did I think you’d stand up for real faith, a real walk with Jesus.
    There are multiple scriptures that tell us not to love the world, do not love the world or anything in it, if anyone loves the world or anything in it, the love of the father is not in them.
    The pearl of great price, the man sells all to purchase it.
    The narrow way, the carrying of the cross, it’s very clear .
    I’m sick of watered down Christianity, and you go on and on for years, expounding about why you haven’t got the spirit, why your not healed, why your impotent.
    The holy spirit is the kingdom, Jesus is saying that it will cost you everything.
    If you are lukewarm I will spew you out !!!

  6. Bruce is right on target. The Church, and even we Wesleyan’s, have made the Scriptures over into “our own image”! When I read the thoughts of some of “our thinkers”, we may be the very ones of whom Jesus said, “I will spit you out of my mouth”.

  7. 8. 56 Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. 57 Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” 59 He said this while teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum.
    Many Disciples Desert Jesus

    60 On hearing it, many of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?”

    61 Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, “Does this offend you?

  8. Awesome work here!! The journey to phatoming the entirty of all that exists in scripture is a gradual progression….Your work has painted a big picture!!

  9. When the man responds to Jesus in Matthew 8 saying, “Let me first bury my father…,” he is referring not simply to his father’s death and funeral service but the fact the when his father dies he will receive his estate as (presumably) the first born. In fact, it’s unlikely that his father is dead at this point and this was simply a polite way of saying that he will follow Jesus only after his financial future is secure, whenever that happens. This why Jesus responds sharply…let the (spiritually) dead bury the (physically) dead.

  10. For each of the hard sayings, a soft saying can be found to offset it. Having Christ Jesus be our high allegiance, who we serve faithfully without compromise is the focus of these admonitions.

  11. Fear Him Who Has Power to Cast into Hell (Matthew 10:28; Luke 12:4-5)

    I always thought this was referring to the ‘ruler of this world’, not God.