The Moral Perfection of Christ

In a letter published after his death, the poet Robert Browning cited several statements of men of learning concerning the Christian faith, and among them was this one from Charles Lamb: “In trying to predict with some friends as to how they would react if some of the great persons of past ages were to appear suddenly in the flesh once more, one of the friends said, ‘And if Christ entered this room?’ Lamb changed his attitude at once and said, ‘You see if Shakespeare entered we should all rise; if HE appeared, we must kneel.’“ This was his view of the glory of Christ.

A similar conclusion was drawn by a brilliant Brahmin (Hindu) scholar. Disturbed by the progress of the Christian faith among his own people, he determined to do all in his power to arrest it. His plan was to prepare a book for widespread distribution highlighting the weaknesses and failings of Christ and exposing the fallacy of believing in Him.

For eleven years he diligently studied the New Testament, searching for inconsistencies in Christ’s character and teaching. Not only did he fail to discover any, but he became convinced that the One he sought to discredit was what He claimed to be—the Son of God. The scholar boldly confessed his faith in Christ.

The moral perfection of Christ impresses itself on the serious reader of the Gospels. The evangelists present the portrait of a real man who displays perfection at every state of His development and in every circumstance of His life. This is all the more remarkable as He did not lock Himself in some secluded cloister but mixed freely and naturally with the imperfect men of His own generation. He became so deeply involved in the life of the ordinary people that His tendency to mix with sinners drew the most bitter criticism of the sanctimonious Pharisees.

And yet there was a perception that He was so ordinary that many of His contemporaries saw Him only as “the carpenter’s son,” a lowly Nazarene. With eyes blinded by sin and selfishness, they saw no beauty in Him that they should desire Him (Isaiah 53:2). To all except those whose eyes were enlightened by love and faith, His moral grandeur and divine glory passed unnoticed. The ignorant crowds were deceived by the entire absence of pride and self-seeking in Jesus.

Perfect Blending of Character

The character of our Lord was wonderfully balanced, with no excessive or deficient qualities. His excellence is recognized not only by Christians but also by Jews and those of other religions. It stands out as faultless and perfect, so even and proportioned that its strength and greatness are not immediately obvious to the casual observer. It has been said that in Jesus’ character no strong points were obvious because there were no weaknesses. Strong points necessarily presuppose weakness, but no weaknesses can be found in Him. In the best of men there are obvious inconsistencies, and since the tallest bodies cast the longest shadows, the greater the man, the more glaring his faults are likely to be. With Christ it was quite the contrary. He was without flaw or contradiction.

Virtue degenerates into vice in different ways. Courage may degenerate into cowardice on the one hand or rashness on the other. Purity may slip into either prudery or impurity. The pathway to virtue is narrow and slippery, but in our Lord there was no straying off the path. Throughout His earthly life He maintained every virtue without stain.

His perfect balance of character was displayed in speech as in silence. He never spoke when it would have been wiser to remain silent, never kept silence when He should have spoken. Mercy and judgment blended in all His actions and judgments, yet neither prevailed at the expense of the other. Exact truth and infinite love adorned each other in His winsome personality, for He always spoke the truth in love. His severe denunciations of apostate Jerusalem coincided with His tears (Matthew 23:37). True to His own counsel, He manifested the wisdom of the serpent and the simplicity of the dove. His tremendous inner strength never degenerated into mere self-will. He mastered the difficult art of displaying sympathy without surrendering principle.

The best qualities of both sexes combined in Him. But while possessing all the gentler graces of the female, He could never be regarded as effeminate. Indeed, He was linked in popular thought with the rugged Elijah and the austere John the Baptist (Matthew 16:14). There is contrast yet no contradiction in His delicacy and gentleness in handling people who merited such treatment, and the blistering denunciations He poured on the hypocrites.

Another distinctive feature is that our Lord’s character was complete in itself. He entered on life with anything but a passionless simplicity of nature; yet it was a complete and finished character, with entire moral maturity. Most men are notable for one conspicuous virtue or grace—Moses for meekness, Job for patience, John for love. But in Jesus you find everything. He is always consistent in Himself. No act or word contradicts anything that has preceded it. The character of Christ is one and the same throughout. He makes no improvements, has no excessive behavior and no eccentricities. His balance is never disturbed or adjusted.

Uniqueness of Character

The uniqueness of Christ is demonstrated most clearly in the things that every other great human teacher has done, but that He did not do.

No word He spoke needed to be modified or withdrawn, because He never spoke unadvisedly or fell into the sin of exaggeration. No half-truth or misstatement ever crossed His lips. He who was the Truth spoke the whole truth, and no occasion arose for modifying or retracting a single spoken word.

He never apologized for any word or action. And yet, is it not true that the ability to apologize is one of the elements of true greatness? It is the small-minded man who will not stoop to apologize. But Christ performed no action and spoke no word that required apology.

He confessed no sin. The holiest men of all ages have been the most forthright in their confession of shortcoming and failure. Read for example the classic diary of Andrew A. Bonar, the Scottish preacher. But no admission of failure to live up to the highest divine standards came from Jesus’ lips. On the contrary, He invited the closest investigation and scrutiny of His life by friend or foe. “Can any of you prove me guilty of sin?” He challenged (John 8:46). His life was an open book. Nothing He did was done in secret. He shouted His criticism from the housetops. No one else could have survived the withering criticism of His enemies, yet He emerged with His reputation untarnished.

Because that was the case, He never asked for pardon. Nowhere is it indicated that he ever felt remorse for sin or exhibited any fear of future punishment. He admonished His disciples when they prayed to say, “Forgive us our debts,” but He never related those words to Himself, because He owed no debts either moral or spiritual.

He never sought advice from even the wisest men of His day. All other great leaders consulted learned men, even Moses and Solomon. On the rare occasions in which well-meaning friends gave advice to Jesus, He rejected it, as for example when His mother reminded Him of the lack of wine at the wedding feast (John 2:4-5).

He never sought to justify unclear conduct, as, for example, when He lay sleeping in the stern of the boat in the midst of a raging storm, apparently indifferent to the fears of His companions. Jesus volunteered no explanation and offered no apology (Mark 4:37-41). His delay in responding to the urgent appeal of the two sisters when Lazarus was ill was equally open to misunderstanding. We would have been unable to refrain from explaining and justifying our seeming lack of concern, but He was content to leave the message of time and the unfolding of His Father’s plan to vindicate His mysterious actions, as in the story of the raising of Lazarus (John 11).

Finally, He never asked or permitted prayer for Himself. True, He invited His three intimate friends to watch with Him but not to pray for Him. Their prayer was to be for themselves lest they enter into temptation (Matthew 26:36-46).

Combination of Characters

There have been other people who have lived two lives, one open to the scrutiny of all, the other hidden from most people. In His one person, Jesus possessed two natures that were manifested and exhibited at the same time. Certain qualities that seldom coexist in the same person combined without any contradiction in Him.

An unusual mixture of dependence and independence was observable in the life of the Master. Although conscious that He had at His disposal every human and divine resource, He desired the comfort of human company and sympathy. He exhibited a strong independence from the praise or censure of the crowd, yet the companionship of His inner circle of friends was warmly appreciated.

Joyfulness and seriousness blended in Him perfectly and naturally. The tender words of His farewell discourse are shot through with Christ’s particular joy: “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete” (John 15:11). He was “a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering” (Isaiah 53:3), yet the Scriptures say of Him: “God, your God, has set you above your companions by anointing you with the oil of joy” (Hebrews 1:9).

Although there is no record of our Lord laughing, He leaves the very opposite impression of gloom or legalism. Did He ever actually laugh? Surely if He was anointed by God with the oil of gladness above His contemporaries, there must have been room for holy laughter. It is unthinkable that He constantly paraded His sorrows, poignant though they were. The Gospels unite to present a man winsome, radiant, and irresistibly attractive.

Perhaps the most arresting of these combinations of qualities were those of His majesty and humility. He was a man who was always meek and lowly: “For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves” (Luke 22:27). On occasion His divine majesty blazed through the veil of His humanity. When He was arrested, He said to the soldiers, “I AM,” and “they drew back and fell to the ground” (John 18:6). The demonstration of both qualities is seen on the occasion of the foot washing of His disciples. The utter humility of Christ is highlighted by the fact the it was in the full consciousness that “the Father had put all things under his power and that he had come from God and was returning to God,” that He took a towel and washed His followers’ dirty feet (John 13:3-5).

The wonder of the unity and uniqueness of His character is the more amazing since he had so short a time in which to work out the seeming contradictions of His soul. He was surely Lord of Himself and of all else besides.

To sum up, “He is altogether lovely.” Every element of moral and spiritual beauty resides in Him. In a painting by Michelangelo, Christ is depicted sitting with other men, but the artist has been careful to ensure that the light most strongly falls on His face. The same impression is conveyed in the word pictures of the four Gospels.

31 Days on the Life of Christ by J. Oswald Sanders, Moody Press, Chicago, IL, 2001, chapter 1, pages 11-16

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