A popular writer admired by many—whose noble book, Will God Run? emphasizes the thrilling willingness of God to pardon the penitent sinner—recently penned an article that, in this writer’s view, requires some exegetical adjustment.
In a piece titled “What Does ‘Good’ Mean?” the author discussed the case of the “rich young ruler” who approached Christ, addressing the Lord as “Good Teacher” (Mark 10:17ff). Jesus responded with: “Why do you call me ‘good’? None is good except one, God” (v. 18).
Our friend describes this as an occasion when “even Jesus did not act like Jesus.” He depicts the young ruler as being sincere and polite, and yet, astonishingly, says that Jesus “explodes” and “was abrupt, even gruff, over the word ‘good.’” This would appear to put the young ruler in a nobler light than the Savior.
The respected gentleman complains: “Man has always tried to tame Jesus. But He cannot be tamed. ‘Sweet little Jesus’ is not Jesus.” He further speculates that “Jesus was saying that He, humanly, had and could not master goodness. He needed God!” (Hodge 2007b, 48).
I respectfully suggest that this sincere soul is mistaken in his characterization of this event.
First, there is absolutely nothing in the context that necessitates “gruffness.” To the contrary, Mark records that Jesus “looking [emblepo – the participle suggests an intense, analyzing look] upon him loved him” (v. 21).
“Loved” translates the Greek verb agapao, which signifies devotion with a view to another’s best interest. This context must be viewed within a framework of delicate compassion, not “gruffness” or “harshness.” It certainly is possible to probingly ask a question, or even to admonish, and yet do so tenderly.
When Christ enjoined: “Go, sell whatever you have, and give to the poor” (v. 21), was he harsh and unreasonably demanding? If one adopted a similar approach to Jesus’ command, such a conclusion might follow, but such would be wholly irresponsible.
Even in Matthew 23, when the Savior was extremely forceful with the scribes and Pharisees for their ingrained and outrageous hypocrisy, most would probably hesitate to characterize the Master as “harsh” or “gruff.” Both of these terms portray a less-than-ideal disposition.
Think about this comparison. When one reflects upon the temperament and conduct of the Lord during the rigors of his civil trial procedure, and the subsequent six-hour agony of the cross, not once is the Son of God shown to be gruff. He forgave the penitent robber who previously had “railed on him” (Matthew 27:44; Luke 23:40, 43), and promised him an abode in paradise. Concerning even his murderers, he said, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).
Here is an important point. If the Lord remained a “sweet Jesus” during the much greater stress of his brutal trial, and the suffering of crucifixion (cf. Hebrews 12:2), why should anyone assume that he was a “gruff Jesus” under much less strenuous circumstances? This does not pass the test of logical reasoning.
Finally, in light of the full flavor of the total context of the “young ruler” episode, it should be pointed out that the question issuing from the Savior—“Why do you call me good? No one is good except God”—is an attempt to nudge the young ruler toward thinking more seriously about his use of the term “good,” in view of the demand about to be made of him.
There clearly is a distinction being drawn by the Lord that differentiates the young man’s use of “good,” and that which legitimately belongs to Christ. The ruler employed the adjective in a casual, relative sense; the Master used it in an absolute sense, i.e., as one who is perfectly good—in other words, deity. As Hiebert observed: “There was a contrast between the man’s view of Him and what He was” (1994, 286). R. C. Foster amplified the matter:
Jesus’ answer is the beginning of His effort to puncture the shallow self-complacency of the young ruler, just as He did with Nicodemus. Matthew’s report shows that the young man also asked concerning some “good thing” which he could do. In other words, he spoke glibly, using this word good twice in his request, and Jesus immediately began to uncover the chief weakness of the young man, which was his shallow character" (1971, 1021; emphasis in original).
McGarvey captured the spirit of the exchange: “Why do you call me good? There is none good but one, that is, God. If you mean what you say you should acknowledge me to be divine” (1875, 327).
The Wrath of God
Elsewhere, along similar lines, and in a discussion of “wrath,” our friend has written:
Modern interpretations also maintain that Jesus had no temper, that Christianity condemns all anger. Read the Gospel Accounts. Jesus had a temper! As Jesus cleansed the temple, He was not laughing and singing. God has a temper (Hodge 2007a, 112; emphasis in original).
I understand the point the author was attempting to make, but one must be careful of the impressions he possibly leaves. First, no informed person contends that “Christianity condemns all anger” (see Ephesians 4:26). Second, one must not assume that the “wrath” of God, and that of man, is qualitatively equivalent. Humans “react” angrily. Men are “soon angry” (cf. Titus 1:7). We “explode,” “react,” “flip our lids,” have “temper tantrums,” “blow a fuse,” etc. The metaphors are almost endless. God does not “fly into a rage”; neither did Christ.
There is a common figure of speech in the Bible known as “anthropopathy” or “condescension.” It derives from the Greek anthropos, “man,” and pathos, “feelings.” It is defined as “the ascription of human passions, actions, to God” (Bullinger 1968, 871). Thus, God is depicted sending forth “wrath” (Exodus 15:7), as “hating” all "workers of iniquity (Psalm 5:5), being “jealous” (Deuteronomy 32:16), and taking “revenge” (Nahum 1:2).
These attributes, however, are not to be construed as analogous to common human responses depicted by the same adjectives. As Professor William Shedd (1820-94) once observed, there is an “infinite difference in kind between divine and human anger” (1971, 405; emphasis added). Another scholar has noted that in “the total biblical portrayal, the wrath of God is not so much an emotion or an angry frame of mind as it is the settled opposition of his holiness to evil” (Robinson 1999, 561).
With reference to those incidents in the ministry of Christ—which our friend under review has referenced as “explosive,” “harsh,” “gruff,” and an expression of “temper”—we would call attention to a masterful essay in the celebrated Dictionary of Christ and the Gospel, edited by James Hastings, on the “self-control” of Jesus. R. W. Moss, professor of systematic theology, Didsbury College, Manchester, England, wrote:
“Self-control,” as exhibited in Christ, means not only steadiness and freedom from irritability, a calm temper unruffled by influences from without, but the inflexible direction of the spirit and will upon the accomplishment of purposes than which neither ethics nor religion can disclose any worthier" (1909, 597; emphasis added).
There is one final matter. There is nothing in this context to warrant the suggestion that Jesus was saying “that He [Jesus], humanly, had and could not master goodness” apart from some extraordinary assistance from the Father. If the Lord was suggesting that idea, how can it be said that “he was tempted in all points like as [i.e., ‘in quite the same way’ – cf. Danker et al. 2000, 707] we are” (Hebrews 4:15)?
Certainly there was a close relationship between the Son and the Father; but the Lord was intrinsically and perfectly “good” himself. He never developed in goodness.
We must be extremely careful as to how we describe the attitudes and actions of our blessed Lord Jesus. We should never speak in such a way as to provide the adversaries of Christianity with an accusation that appears to have some plausibility. We must never even get close to implying there were flaws in the character of him who was “without blemish and without spot” in every respect (1 Peter 1:19). Jesus’ flawlessness constitutes the very foundation of his ability to be a substitute for us as a sin-offering.