In Chapter Three* of his book Basic Christianity, John Stott is trying to introduce Jesus Christ to people who really don’t know Him well. In the previous post entitled “The Character of Christ,” I commented on Stott’s argument that Jesus’ character was revealed by what He did. What do we do when we meet someone? We watch how they behave. Some people listen to what someone says about their own behavior, but the most believable indicator of a person’s character is what they do.
In essence, we have a man who behaved like He was sinless. He met the temptations that we all face in life and He did not give in to them. In short, He truly lived a righteous life.
Now it is time to turn to two more sources of revelation of Jesus’ character: what His friends thought about Him and what His enemies thought about Him. Think about how we judge people in your life. In making a judgement about someone, would we not consult friends and enemies of the person in question?
What did His friends think about Jesus? One would expect that they would be biased in favor of Him. What did His enemies think about Him? Likewise one would expect that they would be biased against Him.
The bottom line is that we need to come to some conclusion about someone we don’t know; we need to make an attribution. What if someone is a “new” Christian, maybe someone is seeking answers to life questions, trying to deal with life’s problems. Who is this person that everyone calls Jesus? Can they really help me?
Stott writes “it may be thought that the Disciples of Christ were poor witnesses…they deliberately painted Him in more beautiful colours than He deserved. But in this the Apostles have been greatly maligned. Their statements cannot be so lightly dismissed” [Basic Christianity, 39].
Why is that? How can he support their positive evaluations?
One reason is the closeness of the Apostles with Jesus. Think about it; for three years they ate together and slept together. They often found themselves in the same cramped quarters. They operated Jesus’ ministry from the same common treasury. Did they ever have moments when they did not like each other? Of course they did, but they never wrote down any account of Jesus having the sins that they did. When we spend countless hours with other people their quirks can lead to a “falling out” but the Apostles never found themselves at odds with Jesus. Even Jesus’ “inner circle” of Peter, James and John don’t reveal His shortcomings.
Secondly, all of the Apostles were Jewish, a people steeped in Old Testament doctrine. As Old Testament believers, they knew that man was a sinner [Stott calls this concept the “universality of human sin”]. To call someone like Jesus sinless is a giant leap for the Apostles: they are going against Scripture like “Everyone has turned away, all have become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one” [Psalm 14: 3]. “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all” [Isiah 53: 6]. They had strong Old Testament teaching and they were turning against it.
Thirdly, the testimony from the Apostles was more powerful because it was indirect; Stott calls their remarks “asides.” They don’t come right out and claim sinlessness for Jesus; they call Him the “lamb without blemish or spot.” John declares that all men are sinners, but if we say we have no sin, we are liars but “No guile was on Jesus’s lips.” The Apostles did not set out to prove that Jesus was without sin. They discuss other subjects and toss in the sinless comments.
But if we consult the Apostles and find support for a sinless Jesus, surely we can find some strong negative comments that would discount this idea if we look at the words of His enemies. We know His enemies watched Him and they tried to trick Him when He spoke. It almost seems to be a universal rule that if you can’t establish facts to attack someone or employ some type of logical argument, then “slinging mud” will be good enough for some. One can turn to the Gospel of Mark and find four such criticisms hurled at Jesus.
Blasphemy was one of those charges because Jesus said He could forgive man’s sins. This was “Divine” territory, so the religious leaders felt that forgiveness was God’s work alone. In doing this, Jesus was supremely arrogant.
Secondly, Jesus spent time with sinners. He ate with tax collectors and allowed harlots to approach Him. Pharisees would never dream of this: Stott writes “[A Pharisee] would gather his skirts around him and recoil from contact with such scum. He would have thought himself righteous for doing so, too” . The Pharisees could not appreciate the grace and tenderness of Jesus.
Thirdly, Jesus’ religion was “frivolous.” He did not fast; He liked to eat and drink. They even went so far as to call Him Christian life [surely a glutton and a drunkard. Jesus was full of joy and they could not understand that joy is a sign of righteous one of the fruits of the Spirit].
Jesus was a Sabbath-breaker. He healed people on the Sabbath. This put Him in opposition to the Pharisees who had extensive rules about what could or could not be done on this special day. Did Jesus intentionally flaunt the rules of the Sabbath? Stott does not think so for He was submissive to the law of The Lord, but Jesus felt that the Sabbath was made for man and He thought of Himself as Lord of the Sabbath. He claimed the right to set aside the many false traditions if need be. In Luke 14: 5 we see Him ask a question which highlights this attitude. “Then He asked them, ‘If one of you has a child or an ox that falls into a well on the Sabbath day, will you not immediately pull it out?’” Remember He was surrounded by hateful, powerful religious leaders who saw walking through the cornfield plucking an occasional kernel as reaping and threshing.
Who are we going to believe about the character of Jesus? When Jesus was on trial for His life, His enemies stepped forward to hurl false accusations against Him. They tried to impugn His character but anyone in the crowd could see that His enemies were trying to maintain their own power. Pilate could find no fault with Him. Herod could find no fault with Him. Judas the traitor returned his thirty pieces of silver to the Pharisees because he knew Jesus was innocent.
I agree with Stott, that mudslinging was the best that His enemies could muster.
In the end however, even His detractors gave in to declare His innocence.
Pilate went so far as washing his hands so he could be seen as “innocent of this man’s blood.”
The penitent thief on the cross told the other thief “this man has done nothing wrong.”
The centurion at the foot of the cross declared “Certainly this man was innocent.”
The people who knew Him best…
The Apostles who lived with Him and His enemies who watched every move He made, looking for a mistake…
And they found none…
*Chapter Three “The Character of Christ” is in “Part One: Christ’s Person.”