The Playfulness of Jesus

How many are your works, Lord! In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures. There is the sea, vast and spacious, teeming with creatures beyond number—living things both large and small. There the ships go to and fro, and Leviathan, which you formed to frolic (play) there. -Psalm 104:24-26

This week I have been speaking at a camp in Arkansas and decided the theme of my messages would be “Jesus as You have Never Seen Him.” The second evening I talked about “Jesus, the Playful Comedian” and shared some situations where although we often miss it, Jesus used humor to highlight spiritual truth and seems to have a playful personality. In this article, I would like to build the case of this often overlooked reality. This is something I have only recently begun really seeing and thinking more seriously about (pun intended!).

First of all, just think of creation itself. Built into all of creation is a certain playfulness. From dolphins, to dogs, to cats, to many other animals, they love to simply play and exhibit playful characteristics. The passage this blog started with speaks to this truth when it says that a certain sea creature was created by God simply for this very purpose, to frolic or play! As human beings (especially children) we also love to laugh, play and have a good time. If creation truly does reveal certain attributes of God, then surely humor, laughter and play are one of those realities.

I think the problem (at least for me) is that the older we get the easier it is to lose our child-likeness. I shared with the kids at this camp that while it is a good thing to grow out of childishness, it is a horrible thing to cease being child-like. And what do children do? Children play! In fact, it seems that creation itself was God playing. Why after all, did he create all the kinds of animals he created, or different scenery, or make things look like they do? And why so many of certain things?

G.K. Chesteron, a well-known writer, once put it this way, Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, ‘Do it again’; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, ‘Do it again’ to the sun; and every evening, ‘Do it again’ to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.

In Proverbs 8:27-31 is clear that God had fun when creating. While it was certainly awe-inspiring, it was not sober and serious. Read carefully the language and tone used as the world was being created, I was there when he set the heavens in place, when he marked out the horizon on the face of the deep, when he established the clouds above and fixed securely the fountains of the deep, when he gave the sea its boundary so the waters would not overstep his command, and when he marked out the foundations of the earth. Then I was constantly at his side. I was filled with delight day after day, rejoicing always in his presence, rejoicing in his whole world and delighting in mankind.

Rejoicing. Delighting. Filled with joy. Is this how we think of Jesus? Is this how we think of God? Is this how we think of creation? One author began by saying, the world is a vast and magical playground of jumping dolphins, spray-blowing whales, frolicking baby deer. Yes, the world, because of sin, is a battleground, but God created it first as a playground. It was sin that made us serious and caused us to lose our joy, playfulness and child-like awe.

And then there is Jesus himself. We miss what several scholars have noted as humor, because Middle East humor at that time was very different than what some of our cultures might find funny today. For example, when Jesus spoke about the hypocrisy of religious leaders (Matthew 7:3-5) he said it is like walking around with a plank or tree truck sticking out of their eye while trying to remove the speck in another person’s eye. His audience probably laughed or at least smirked at that imagery. Jesus didn’t have to describe it like that. He could have just warned about hypocrisy using normal language but it would not have been as memorable. Humor, satire and absurdity can help people remember spiritual truth. This is really what the best professional comedians do, and Jesus seemed to utilize this method at times as well!

There also appear to me to be moments of playfulness especially after Jesus rises from the dead and begins appearing (and disappearing) to his disciples. In one situation (John 21), Peter tells the others he is going out to fish. That night they catch nothing. As they begin to come back to shore, they see a figure standing there and he calls out to them, Friends, have you caught anything? When they say no, this man tells them to cast their nets on the other side. They do so and suddenly they catch a lot of fish. It was at this point that Peter makes the connection that this whole situation is strangely familiar to what happened to them once before a few years back when Jesus first called Peter to follow him (Luke 5). He suddenly recognizes the man on the shore is Jesus. Peter jumps out of the boat, swims the rest of the way, greets Jesus and then you know what Jesus does? He cooks them breakfast with some of the fish they caught.

This whole story is loaded with a sense of playfulness! First of all, who prevented the boys from catching any fish? Secondly, why did Jesus call out and ask them if they caught anything? Why did he then grill some fish for them and have breakfast with them? The man was just resurrected from the dead, but there he is doing something as ordinary as cooking and eating with friends! I imagine this all happened with a twinkle in Jesus’ eyes. He is playing with them!

In another situation, (Luke 24) some of the disciples are walking together on the road to Emmaus, completely depressed over the events that had just transpired with Jesus being crucified. They are also completely confused because some of the women were claiming to have seen Jesus alive. While they are discussing all these things, guess who turns up? Jesus himself. However, he very casually begins walking with them and asking them what they are talking about. He does all this in such a way that they are kept from recognizing that it is even him! It’s as if Jesus is amused by all this! Only later, when he breaks bread with them, are their eyes opened and do they recognize him. And then, just like he appeared, he disappears again!

My kids love playing hide and seek. What kid doesn’t? I think Jesus likes that game too. However, he doesn’t make it so hard for us that we can’t find him. The younger are kids were or are, the easiest we make it for them to find us. And if they begin getting frustrated, we sometimes even begin to give some clues to re-orient them towards finding us.

The same is true with Jesus. Scripture does speak of God hiding himself, but also clearly revealing himself. If we seek him with all our heart, he promises we will find him (Jeremiah 29:13). And he has given clues to all those who want to find him. Creation. The Bible. Transformed lives. Our conscience.

Maybe we have just sadly grown up from the joy of seeking and finding God. Maybe it is we who have walked away and become too serious. Maybe it is we who have lost our child-likeness that is required for real relationship with a playful God.

Jesus has a playful personality. The last proof in fact that I will submit to you is this: just take a look in the mirror if you doubt his sense of humor!

It is the glory of God to conceal a matter; to search out a matter is the glory of kings. -Proverbs 25:2