Occasionally it is claimed that while Jesus stood above most people in terms of moral goodness, nevertheless at times he revealed that he was not perfect. He had spiritual lapses, he yielded to weaknesses; hence, the honest Christian would do well to concede this. To say that such charges are false is to understate the matter. Allegations of this nature proceed from souls that either are ignorant or wicked—or both. Let us analyze a few of the representative accusations that have been leveled at the Son of God.
Intemperate to His Mother
Jesus, along with his mother and brothers, had been invited to a wedding feast in Cana of Galilee. When the wine ran short, Mary approached her son and said, “They have no wine,” with an obvious hint that he remedy the situation. Jesus responded, “Woman, what have I to do with you? My hour is not yet come” (John 2:4). The claim frequently is made that Christ was disrespectful; supposedly, his actions certainly were not consistent with one who claimed perfection. The following observations are in order.
The Lord’s reply is most significant. He said, “Woman, what have I to do with you?” The Greek text literally reads: “What to me and to you, woman?” In his translation, Charles Williams rendered the clause as follows: “Woman, what have you to do with me?” What actually is meant by the expression?
(1) While it was not the most common mode of address, the use of “woman” was not disrespectful. It similarly was employed by the Savior in one of the most tender moments of his ministry—when he spoke from the cross, indicating that he was dispatching John to care for Mary after his death(John 19:26; see also 20:15 where the expression was used of Mary Magdalene).
(2) Clearly, the statement is a disclaimer of a common authoritative relationship, as if to say, “What have we in common?” Compare similar phrasing in Joshua 22:24; Judges 11:12; Mark 1:24; Luke 8:28. Olshausen observed that though the Lord’s statement was a “reproof,” it was a very “gentle” one (1862, 340). Noted Greek scholar, Nigel Turner, comments as follows: “The remark of Jesus to his mother appears to be a polite request to refrain from interference and to leave the whole matter to him” (1965, 47).
(3) The truth is, though Mary’s motive doubtless was noble, she was presumptuous in attempting to press her son into action according to her time schedule, and the respectful remonstrance was justified. There is no legitimate criticism of the Savior’s conduct in this incident.
Cursing the Fig Tree
Can the incident where Jesus cursed a fig tree be explained so as to harmonize with noble moral principles? Did Christ have a right to curse a tree? What is the meaning of “curse”? Since the tree died, did Jesus destroy property that did not belong to him? Such a conclusion regarding this incident is quite misdirected and is the result of a lack of understanding of what was involved in this episode near the end of Christ’s ministry.
The situation involving the cursed fig tree is recorded in two places in the Gospel records—Matthew 21:18-19, 20-22 and Mark 11:12-14, 20-25. We will introduce Mark’s version for the purpose of this discussion.
And on the morrow, when they had come out of Bethany, he [Jesus] hungered. And seeing a fig tree afar off having leaves, he came, if perhaps he might find anything thereon: and when he came to it, he found nothing but leaves; for it was not the season of figs. And he answered and said unto it, “No man [will] eat fruit from you from now on—for ever.” And his disciples heard it . . . . And as they passed by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered away from the roots. And Peter calling to remembrance said unto him, “Rabbi, behold, the fig tree that you cursed is withered away.”
For brevity’s sake, we have taken the two references that refer directly to this event in Mark’s Gospel and combined them. We are omitting verses fifteen through nineteen, which provide some transitional information that occurred between the two successive days related to this scene. Likewise, we are stopping short of the Savior’s subsequent discussion of this matter (vv. 22-25). We will analyze this controversial text as follows:
(1) The term “cursed” is used only once in the two New Testament records of this incident. On the second day, as Christ and his disciples passed by the tree en route to Jerusalem, it was noticed that the fig tree was completely dead. This compelled Peter, speaking on behalf of the others as well (cf. Matthew 21:20), to comment: “Rabbi, look! The fig tree which you cursed has withered” (Mark 11:21).
It should be noted first that the term “curse” is not used in biblical parlance in the modern sense of profanity. Rather, a curse was a pronouncement of judgment upon a person or object (cf. Matthew 25:41). In this case, words spoken by Christ caused the tree to die. It was not a purposeless act of intemperance. It represented a strong object lesson that the disciples needed to learn (and numerous others since that time as well).
(2) As to the charge that Jesus destroyed an object that was not his, several things must be noted.
First, it cannot be established that the tree had an owner. Matthew observes that it was growing “by the wayside” (21:19). It may have been a “volunteer” tree, as such are known in any land. It is worthy of notation that Peter did not rebuke the Lord for destroying another’s property, even though the impetuous apostle was not reticent to admonish his Master when he felt the circumstance warranted such (cf. Matthew 16:22).
W. M. Thompson, a scholar eminently familiar with Palestine customs, pointed out that it was common for travelers to pick fruit from roadside trees, or from any tree that was not enclosed; there was no censure associated with such (1863, 350).
(3) It must be emphasized that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. He possesses the nature of deity (John 1:1; 10:30; 20:28). As deity, therefore, the earth and its fullness are his (Psalm 24:1). He has the sovereign right to use the elements of creation to accomplish higher goals which men, limited in knowledge, may not perceive and appreciate at a given moment in time. That includes the destruction of a tree, or even a herd of swine (cf. Mark 5:13). No man has the right to say of him, “What doest thou?” (Daniel 4:35; cf. Romans 11:33-36).
(4) In order to put this situation into sharper focus, the student needs to examine the meaning behind this action by Christ. When the Lord first saw the tree, he was yet “afar off.” He could discern only that it had leaves (v. 13). One must conclude that this circumstance reveals that though he was deity, Jesus did not exercise the full range of his divine powers constantly; he did not know the details regarding this tree until he was in close proximity (v. 13b).
When the Savior arrived at the tree, he observed a curious thing—the fig tree was fruitless. Of what significance is this? Alfred Edersheim called attention to the fact that “in Palestine the fruit appears before the leaves” (1947, 374; emphasis added). Thus, to see a leafed fig tree (especially at an unseasonable time [v. 13b]), warranted the assumption that there would be fruit. But this tree was an oddity; the leaves were there, but it was fruitless. This phenomenon, therefore, served as a perfect visual aid for an important lesson the Savior wished to teach.
Centuries earlier, the Hebrew nation had been separated from the pagan peoples of antiquity to serve in a special role in the divine economy. In the days of Moses, the Israelites were designated as Jehovah’s “firstborn” (Exodus 4:22), i.e., they were granted a priority status. God thus said to Pharaoh, who held Israel captive, “Let my people go” (Exodus 5:1).
Across the centuries, however, the Israelite people frequently rebelled against their Creator. Isaiah once characterized the situation in the following fashion: “The ox knows his owner, and the donkey his master’s crib, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand” (1:3). Read the prophet’s stirring rebuke of a wicked nation that refused to be governed by the Sovereign of the universe (5:1ff).
While there were occasional periods of spiritual revival among the Hebrews (as in the days of Josiah, a good king [see 2 Kings 22-23]), the tragic fact is, the nation was on a gradual, degenerative slide—a path of apostasy that would culminate with the bloodthirsty cry, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” (Luke 23:21). The Jewish people, through the influence they exerted upon the Roman authorities (see Matthew 20:19; Acts 2:23), had Jesus killed. They murdered the very Messiah for whom they had waited across the centuries (see Matthew 21:33ff). Though they had enjoyed every conceivable spiritual advantage, they had become, for the most part, a renegade nation—in the symbolism of the Scriptures, a fruitless, withered tree worthy of being cut down (cf. Psalm 90:6; Hosea 9:16). “Withering” was a symbol of imminent death (Joel 1:12). In the blasting of this fruitless fig tree, the Son of God was suggesting this:
- The nation, as a political entity, had become a worthless mechanism in the sacred scheme of things. It thus was deserving of destruction.
- That destruction would shortly come (within forty years [A.D. 66-70]) with the invasion of the land by the Roman armies (cf. Matthew 22:7ff; 24:15ff).
- The punishment would be complete and final; the “tree” would be dead from the very “roots” (Mark 11:20).
There was a very good reason why Christ acted as he did on this occasion. It was not an impulsive deed; it was not a misguided, irresponsible gesture. It was a deliberate, highly instructive warning. Unfortunately, the lesson conveyed has been lost upon the minds of many. This episode is a deadly refutation of the false notion that there will be a revival of the old nation of Israel in the “end times,” as advocated by dispensationalists and premillennialists.
The Gadarene Swine
This question is sometimes posed: “How does the Christian justify Jesus Christ who supposedly destroyed a large herd of pigs that did not even belong to him (Matthew 8:28-34)?”
On the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, Jesus encountered two men who were possessed of demons. (Note: both Mark and Luke, in their parallel accounts, mention only one man [Mark 5:1-20; Luke 8:26-39]. But this is no cause for concern. Obviously these two writers focused only on the more prominent of the two. Just because one account supplements another account, this does not imply a contradiction. There is nothing either in Mark or Luke’s record that suggests one man only.)
When the Lord commanded the unclean spirits to leave the unfortunate men, the demons requested permission to enter a herd of swine feeding nearby. Christ granted that request. The demons entered the hogs that, in turn, rushed down an embankment into the sea and drowned.
Thus Bible critics have charged Jesus with destroying the property of others. It is alleged that his conduct was reprehensible. There are several things that may be said in response to this baseless accusation:
(1) No charge can be made against the Lord unless the event actually happened. Those who censure Christ must concede that this account represents a factual incident; otherwise, their allegation is baseless. Are skeptics willing to admit that Jesus actually cast out demons? If so, exactly what did that act demonstrate?
(2) If Christ is a divine being, then he is sovereign over the entire creation and, in reality, everything belongs to him (cf. Colossians 1:16). God said, “For every beast of the forest is mine, and the cattle upon a thousand hills” (Psalm 50:10). Hogs, too! It is interesting to observe that the demons obviously acknowledged the right of the Savior to use these swine for his own purpose in this episode. Demons have a greater respect for the authority of the Lord than most men! Also, the man himself subsequently worshipped Jesus (Mark 5:6). Does one worship another whom he perceives to be a mere rogue who destroys the property of others? When the citizens of the region learned of this miraculous feat, they came to where Christ was. Out of fear, they asked him to leave the area. No appeal was made to the authorities for arrest and incarceration! Rather, the people “marveled” (Mark 5:20). Thus, in the interest of a higher good, the Lord had every right to sanction this incident.
(3) According to Old Testament regulations (Leviticus 11), swine were unclean. Edmond Hiebert noted that it “is generally assumed that the owners were non-Jewish, but it is possible that Hellenizing Jews, lured by the good market for swine flesh in the cities of the Decapolis, may have engaged in raising pigs for financial gain” (1994, 133). If such were the case, the Savior’s economic rebuke certainly would have been warranted.
(4) The scholarly R. C. Foster once observed that Christ “permitted the destruction of the swine knowing that it would awaken the Gergesenes from their indifference and ultimately assist in the salvation of a multitude in the community” (1971, 599). There are things that transcend the material, and hardship can have a benevolent result in the final ordering of one’s affairs. Who knows how much these folks might have been blessed by the loss of their livestock! Of course, the spiritually insensitive cannot fathom this concept.
(5) Anyone who thinks that the value of two thousand hogs transcends that of a human soul made in the image of God (see Matthew 16:26), is so obtuse that likely no argument would be effective in unscrambling the logical and spiritual confusion within his skull.
In view of these factors, no legitimate indictment can be leveled against the Son of God in connection with this episode.
Deception Regarding the Feast
Bible critics charge Christ with dishonesty in connection with an incident recorded in the Gospel of John (7:1ff). On a certain occasion, Jesus’ half-brothers (cf. Matthew 13:55; John 2:12), who did not yet believe in him (John 7:5), urged (we are inclined to say, challenged) him to go into Judea. The motive was this: “so that your disciples also may see the works that you are doing” (7:3). They buttressed their taunt with what they perceived to be a logical argument. If we may slightly paraphrase the scoff, they said: “For no man does anything in secret when he is seeking to be known openly” (v. 4).
But the Lord responded that his time had not yet come (v. 6). He then rather sharply rebuked his stubborn brothers. The Savior declared, “The world hates me because I testify that its works are evil.” By way of contrast, however: “The world cannot hate you” (v. 7). The implication obviously was this: “You have not yet identified with me; you have not had the courage to accept the truth regarding my identity and therefore put yourselves on the line.”
Christ then told his brothers to go on up to the feast, but said regarding himself, “I am not going up to this feast; because my time is not yet fulfilled” (v. 8).
The problem, as commonly perceived, is this: the text subsequently declares, “But when his brothers were gone up to the feast, then he went up also, not publicly, but secretly” (v. 10). It thus is alleged, by those ever anxious for some discrepancy, that the Lord was duplicitous regarding his intention.
Before exploring this further, we should observe that some translations render the controversial verse in this fashion: “I go not up yet to this feast” (v. 8b, NIV, NKJV). Many scholars believe, however, that the adverb, oupo (yet) reflects a scribal insertion, intended to alleviate the seeming “inconsistency between ver. 8 and ver. 10” (Metzger 1971, 216).
Whatever the case, we do not hesitate to say that a scribal “rescue” of the Son of God was unnecessary. It must be emphasized again: there are safeguards to the careless charge that the biblical record contains contradictions. When two statements are alleged to be in conflict—with a seeming irreconcilable difference—it must be proved that both statements either cannot: (a) refer to the same person; (b) allude to the identical time period; or, (c) employ language in varying senses.
If the adverb oupo were to be taken as genuine, that would remedy the matter in terms of the time factor. Since, however, that option usually is dismissed, one must consider another possibility.
A careful examination of verses three through five clearly indicates that Jesus’ unbelieving half-brothers were daring him to do what they surmised he could not do, i.e., demonstrate his powers in a grandiose fashion at the feast of the tabernacles in Jerusalem. The issue was not whether Christ would go to that feast; such was required of Jewish males (Deuteronomy 16:16-17). Rather, the crux of the matter was the manner in which he would go.
It was not his time to go in an open, demonstrative way (v. 8). It was his aim to go up “not publicly, but in secret” (v. 10). A. T. Robertson observes that Jesus “simply refused to fall in with his brothers’ sneering proposal for a grand Messianic procession with the caravan on the way to the feast. He will do that on the journey to the last Passover” (1932, 120).
It is clear, therefore, that no deception may be charged against the Savior—the reason being that “going to Judea” was used in two different senses. The brothers challenged him to go openly (flamboyantly)—which he refused to do (v. 4). On the other hand, consistent with his own purpose and schedule, he would not presently go in that fashion; rather, for the time being, he simply would go secretly (v. 10). There is no conflict.
Baptism: Consciousness of Guilt
John the Baptizer preached in the vicinity of the Jordan River, proclaiming to the Jews a need for repentance and baptism for the remission of sins (Mark 1:4). When many came for his baptism, the Lord’s messenger warned them of the necessity to bring forth fruit worthy of repentance lest they be subjected to the punishment of unending fire (Matthew 3:8, 11-12). Presently Jesus arrived on the scene, requesting to “be baptized” of John (3:13). Some have alleged that since Jesus sought John’s baptism, and inasmuch as the design of that immersion was for the forgiveness of sins, this revealed that Christ had a consciousness of guilt, hence was not perfect.
This theory is void of merit for the following reasons: First, Jesus emphatically declared that he was without sin (John 8:29, 46; 14:30). Second, John initially resisted immersing the Lord, insisting that he needed the baptism that Christ might administer, not the reverse. The protest carried the strong implication of the Savior’s innocence. Why then was Jesus immersed? There are at least three reasons. First, it was to identify the Lord as the Son of God at the beginning of his ministry. Second, it was a commencement token of the total dedication of Christ in carrying out Heaven’s plan. Finally, it was a visual precursor to the Savior’s ultimate death, burial, and resurrection. Each of these points needs some development.
(1) John the Baptizer was a remarkable character. Isaiah prophetically described him as a voice crying in the wilderness, preparing the way of the Lord (40:1-3). The Old Testament closes with the promise of the coming “Elijah” (Malachi 4:5-6), an allusion to John, whose mission, in the spirit and power of Elijah, was to make ready for the Lord a people prepared (Luke 1:17).
John announced Jesus as “the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). The expression “Lamb of God” reveals that Jesus was the antitype (fulfillment) of the Old Testament sacrificial system. It argues for the atoning nature of the Lord’s death and potentially the universal accessibility of that blessing.
John declared that it was his mission to prepare the way for Christ, who was to come after him, i.e., John’s work would precede the Lord’s (1:30). But John affirmed, “[H]e is before me,” i.e., Christ, due to his divine nature, was to take precedence over “the Baptist,” because, as John says, “[H]e was before me.” The imperfect tense verb, en (was), asserts the abiding existence of Jesus before John was born (cf. John 1:1).
But the baptizer continued: “I knew him not; but that he should be manifest to Israel, for this cause came I baptizing in water” (v. 31). The verb “knew” is very significant. It derives from oida, which suggests a clear, more or less complete knowledge. The pluperfect tense casts the situation into the past. John is confessing that, prior to the phenomenal events at the Jordan, he did not know “in an absolute way” (Wuest 1961, 211) that Jesus was the Messiah. John knew that the Nazarene was an exceptional person, for he resisted immersing the Lord, insisting, “I have need to be baptized by you” (Matthew 3:14). He did not have, however, a clear understanding of the Savior’s true identity until he saw the Spirit descend in the form of a dove and he heard the divine voice break the silence of fifteen centuries in the acknowledgement: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (v. 17).
After this occurred, the baptizer could testify, “This is the Son of God” (John 1:34). Accordingly, one of the reasons for Jesus’ baptism was to confirm the Lord’s identity so that John could make the good news “manifest to Israel” (v. 31) that the Messiah had arrived.
(2) In his argument to persuade John to administer baptism, Christ said: “[T]hus it becomes [i.e., is proper] us to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15). Perhaps we cannot plumb the full depth of this abbreviated clause; one thing is certain though: it is an affirmation of the submissive disposition of the Lord Jesus to the Father’s will. “Righteousness” is associated with the commands of God (Psalm 119:172). To fulfill righteousness, therefore, is to be obedient to Jehovah.
The life of Jesus is a commentary on what obedience is. In the fortieth Psalm, which is clearly messianic in its import (cf. Hebrews 10:5-7), the submissive demeanor of Christ is prophetically set forth. Jesus, through David, a thousand years before his own birth, affirmed: “I delight to do your will, O my God; Yes, your law is in my heart” (v. 8).
It is one thing to grudgingly go through a form of service; it is quite another to delight in doing the Father’s will. Again, while some may have the elements of divine law in their heads, the issue is: do we have, as did Jesus, the law in our hearts? Christ demonstrated by his baptism, therefore, on the first day of his public ministry, that he was committed to doing his Father’s will. In this regard, as in all others, he is our perfect model.
(3) In his first epistle to the Corinthians, Paul set forth the fundamental components of the gospel:
Now I make known unto you, brothers, the gospel . . . . that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; and that he was buried; and that he was raised [perfect tense; permanently raised] on the third day according to the scriptures (1 Corinthians 15:1-4).
The death of Jesus, as the key ingredient in the plan of redemption, was in the mind of God before the foundation of the world (cf. 1 Peter 1:19-20). Christ himself, though, matured as a normal human being, including the expansion of mental consciousness (Luke 2:52). One cannot but wonder at what point in his mental and physical development the blessed Savior became aware of his ultimate destiny at Calvary. We know that by the age of twelve Jesus was cognizant of his unique status as the Son of God (Luke 2:49). From the time of his infancy, Mary was privy to the dark shadows that loomed in her Son’s future (Luke 2:35). One thing seems clear: by the time he submitted to immersion at the hands of John, he knew of his appointment with the cross—and likely long before that.
At this point it is imperative that we give some attention to the mode of baptism. Those who argue that baptism may be administered either by the sprinkling or pouring of water fly directly in the face of linguistic evidence, New Testament usage, and the testimony of early Christian history.
(1) The verb baptizo means to “dip, immerse” (Danker et al. 2000, 164). Even the translators so understood its meaning in non-theological contexts where their bias did not overpower them (cf. Luke 16:24; John 13:26).
(2) Baptism is clearly identified with a burial (Romans 6:3-4; Colossians 2:12).
(3) Sprinkling was first introduced in the third century A.D. (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History VI.XLIII), and the innovation did not become the official practice of the apostate Roman Church until A.D. 1311, when the Council of Ravenna first allowed a choice between immersion and sprinkling (Schaff 1894, 201).
Clearly then, the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River involved a burial beneath the water and a resurrection from the water. Mark specifically states that Jesus was baptized of John "in [eis, "