Was he, or was he not? Was Jesus of Nazareth a perfect man, completely flawless both spiritually and morally? The importance of this question cannot be exaggerated. If he was not, the whole of humanity is hopelessly and eternally lost. Here is the problem:
How would it be possible for a God, who is both absolutely holy (Isaiah 6:3; Revelation 4:8), and yet entirely just (Psalm 89:14), to let sinful humanity “off the hook,” so to speak, with no sin consequence of any kind? If the Lord is holy, he cannot ignore sin as if such does not exist. Sin is an assault upon his divine nature.
If God is just, then sin must be punished. If left unpunished, divine justice is ruptured. What therefore was to be the solution to this problematic equation in the heavenly order of things? How could God remain just and yet justify sinful people? Paul addressed the matter in his letter to the saints in Rome (Romans 3:19-26).
A consideration of a collection of biblical data reveals the following facts:
- Christ would come to earth as the Son of God.
- He would be tested as an ordinary human is tested.
- If he passed the test by not yielding to sin, he would be qualified to step in and assume the penalty.
- He did pass the test, never yielding to temptation.
- He thus went to the cross on behalf of fallen man.
- Those who obediently submit to the saving plan of redemption may obtain the pardon that releases them from the penalty of their sin.
The issue now becomes: did Jesus pass the test? Was he the “tried stone” of “sure foundation” of whom the prophet Isaiah had spoken? (28:16). Let us address the matter in the following order: (a) Jesus’ claim about himself; (b) the testimony of those closest to him who had occasion to observe his daily conduct; (c) the impression upon his foes, i.e., those who normally would have had very negative feelings about the man from Galilee. Where will the evidence lead us?
Christ’s Personal Claim
John chapter eight (vv. 12ff) is a record of intense controversy between the Lord Jesus and his animated Hebrew critics. It was a verbal contest in which the Son of God gave far better than anything he received. The flow of the discussion can be traced by the “he said, they said” exchanges.
As the debate progressed, Christ declared, “And he who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone; for I do always the things that are pleasing unto him” (v. 29). The statement is absolutely shocking. Who would possibly make such a claim—even in the presence of his friends, let alone his enemies? If Jesus was an ordinary human, flawed by the weaknesses common to all, his affirmation of perfect obedience has to be the most egotistical boast in human history. His statement either was a grand delusion, an unconscionable lie, or else it was expression of fact—there are no other options!
One would think these Jews would have arisen with a mighty voice of solidarity, nailing him with evidence of known transgressions. The fact is, they avoided a response and deflected the exchange by an appeal to their heritage as the offspring of Abraham.
When Jesus pealed back the façade, charging that they were the offspring of the patriarch in blood only—certainly not in spirit—they emphatically protested that they were not “born of fornication” (v.41). This doubtless was a backhanded slap at the record of his birth to an unmarried woman (i.e., to the virgin)—as if he had a biological father in addition to his stepfather, Joseph.
The Lord was not deterred. He relentlessly pursued his indictment of these hypocrites, affirming even, “You are of your father the devil” (v. 44). This was not an emotional tirade; it was a calm statement of fact.
Then with incredible courage he challenged them: “Is there anyone here who can convict me of sin?” (v. 46). The daring question must have elicited a deafening silence. Who would step forward with a charge? Not a soul! William Barclay once noted that this narrative is as important for its implied silences as for the verbal exchanges. Indeed! The Savior’s claim of perfection was never refuted. They could not indict him with any sin; with blood in their eyes they could only seek to kill him (v. 59).
Later, in addressing the apostles at the Passover supper, we find Jesus saying, “[T]he prince of this world [Satan] is coming, and he has nothing in me” (John 14:30). The meaning clearly is this: “Not even Satan, vicious and relentless as he is (1 Peter 5:8), can find any fault with which to destroy my redemptive mission.”
The Testimony of Friends
How was Jesus assessed by the people among whom he lived—who saw and studied him on a regular basis? Even our friends, who may hold us in the highest regard, know we have weaknesses and that we have made mistakes. But such was not so with the Son of God.
(1) John the Baptizer was engaged by God in preparing the Jews for the coming kingdom of Christ (Isaiah 40:3-5; Malachi 3:1ff). These first-century Hebrews were taught the identity of the “Lamb of God” (John 1:29), and commanded to repent of their violations of divine law and submit to baptism for the remission of sins (Mark 1:4).
But when Jesus approached John for baptism as an introductory rite to initiate his earthly ministry, John dramatically resisted: “I have need to be baptized by you; and yet you come to me?” (Matthew 3:14). John knew that the perfect Savior did not need a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” as normally administered.
(2) On one occasion, Jesus used Peter’s boat as a platform from which to teach the gospel to the multitudes (Luke 5:3). After concluding his presentation, he charged Simon to push out into deeper water and to let down his net. The fisherman protested that they had fished all night, but without results. Nonetheless, “at your word I will let down the nets.” When the nets were submerged, immediately they were full of fish to the breaking point. They (Peter and Andrew – cf. Matthew 4:18) summoned their fishing partners (James and John – Matthew 4:21) in a nearby vessel to help with loading the massive catch. Both boats were filled to the point that they began to sink.
When Peter saw this great miracle, he fell down before Jesus, exclaiming, “Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:8). He knew he was in the presence of incarnate purity, and he could only wilt under the experience. How very similar this episode was to that of Isaiah, who became so conscious of his personal sinfulness when viewing the glory of Jehovah (Isaiah 6:1-5; see John 12:41 for the application of this Old Testament text to Jesus).
The Testimony of Christ’s Foes
One could well expect that Jesus’ friends testified of his perfection. Critics eventually would claim these were but misled dupes (though the evidence does not support that misguided slur). Surely, though, it never could have been anticipated that his enemies would inadvertently become some of the strongest witnesses to the pure life of the Savior.
(1) Judas Iscariot lives on in infamy for his treachery in selling out his Master for a filthy thirty pieces of silver. Astounding, however, is the fact that ultimately he brought the money back to the chief priests and elders, confessing, “I have sinned in that I betrayed innocent blood” (Matthew 27:4). That he was consumed by guilt is evidenced by his tragic suicide.
The expression, “innocent blood,” is a figure of speech that depicts the traitor’s role in the execution of an innocent man. This alludes to the unjust murder of Christ (due to his claim of being a sinless, divine person – John 8:29, 46, 58). The miscarriage of justice was acknowledged by the person least likely to have done so. This is powerful testimony—that of a hostile witness.
(2) Then there is the admission of the judge who presided over Jesus’ trial, Pilate. Though too weak to administer justice, he nonetheless conceded: “I find no crime in him” (see John 18:38; 19:4, 6). Note Luke’s use of “fault” or “evil” (Luke 23:4, 14, 22). His focus was upon legalities, of course, but that would embrace the Lord’s claim of perfect deity (involved in the charge of blasphemy). Incidentally, note the appeal of Mrs. Pilate to her husband: “Have nothing to do with this just man” (Matthew 27:19).
(3) Finally, there is the exclamation of one of the Lord’s executioners, the Roman centurion: “Certainly this was a righteous man” (Luke 23:47). What possible self-serving motive could have compelled such an acknowledgement from one whose hands were blood red from the execution? The soldier, together with others standing nearby, merely joined nature’s chorus (Matthew 27:44) proclaiming the death of a faultless man!
The Theology of the New Testament
The grand message of the gospel of Christ is that salvation is grounded in the death of a sinless victim, Jesus Christ. Consider the following illustrative (though not exhaustive) texts, in order of their appearance in the New Testament:
(1) Preaching in Jerusalem in the early days of the Christian movement, Peter would courageously proclaim Jesus to be the “Holy and Righteous One,” even before hostile authorities (Acts 3:14). The expression doubly underscores the sinless nature of God’s Son.
(2) In 2 Corinthians 5:21, Paul wrote: “Him who knew no sin, he [God] made to be sin [i.e., a sin-offering, cf. Exodus 29:14 ASVfn; Hebrews 9:28b] that we might become the righteousness of God in him.” To say that Jesus “knew” no sin, is to say that he never was intimate with such; he did not ever commit a sin.
(3) The writer of the book of Hebrews declared: “For we have not a high priest who cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but one who has been in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin” (4:15). Tempted, but never tainted! Later in the epistle the inspired writer says: “For such a high priest became us, holy, guileless, undefiled, separated from sinners, made higher than the heavens” (7:26). The sacred writer stretches his vocabulary to emphasize the absolute perfection of the Savior.
(4) In his first epistle, Peter affirms that Jesus was the antitype (i.e., the prophetic fulfillment) pictured by the Passover lamb, that was required to be “without blemish and without spot” (1:19; cf. Exodus 12:5). The apostle went on to state that Christ “did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth” (2:22). The verb “did” (epoiesen—an aorist form) implies that the Lord did not sin—even one time! Thus the apostle argues that he was qualified to “[bear] our sins [i.e., the punishment of our sins] in his body on the tree” (v. 24).
Presently he would again contend that “Christ also suffered for sins once, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us unto God; being put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit” (3:18). Note how the sinless life of Jesus is connected with Heaven’s plan for human salvation. Without Jesus’ perfection, the world would have no hope.
(5) Near the end of the New Testament, the apostle John, the closest of all the disciples to Jesus, wrote: “You know that he was manifested to take away sins; and in him is no sin” (1 John 3:5). Perhaps John had in mind the testimony of his earlier account wherein he recorded the words of his Master: “Which of you is able to convict me of sin?” (John 8:46).
It is, therefore, a cause that is as futile as it is pathetic to contend that Jesus sinned. It is an equally reckless idea, alleged by some, that while Jesus may never have “sinned,” he certainly made numerous “mistakes.” The alleged theological or moral blunders of Christ, as advanced by the ignorant, will not stand the test of critical investigation.