The man Jesus

What manner of man was Jesus? No one can fully enter into the consciousness of another or completely understand him. No two human beings are exactly alike. The differences are often subtle and yet the very qualities which elude observation and precise description may be the most important. How impossible it must be, therefore, adequately to understand and to describe one who stood out so markedly from his contemporaries and from all men, both before and since. In the first century and through the generations that have followed opinions have sharply differed. It is evidence of his importance, of the effect that he has had upon history and, presumably, of the baffling mystery of his being that no other life ever lived on this planet has evoked so huge a volume of literature among so many peoples and languages, and that, far from ebbing, the flood continues to mount. More men notice Jesus than ever before, but appraisals have never been as varied or as numerous as in the past two centuries. This is the more extraordinary in view of the brevity of the records which have survived from the memories of his intimates. It is not his teachings which make Jesus so remarkable, although these would be enough to give him distinction. It is a combination of the teachings with the man himself. The two cannot be separated, but if they could the man would be the more important.

While all of this is true, some characteristics stand out so distinctly in the accounts which preserve the impressions of those who had an opportunity to know him best, that they are a guarantee of authenticity, so obviously are they from life and not invented or even seriously distorted. They also reveal to us much of the man himself and help to make clear something of the problems which confront those who seek a complete understanding.

Jesus was a great lover of nature. His sayings abound in references to the sun, the clouds, the rain, the birds, the flowers, seed-time and harvest, growth and decay. He was a minute observer, recognized the pain and the beauty about him, and with a few pregnant words could make vivid to others what he saw. In the technical sense of that term, he was, perhaps fortunately, not a philosopher, but he discerned the cosmic issues beneath the passing pageantry. The sharp contrast between grain and weeds posed for him the problem of good and evil, although he would never have put it m those abstract terms, and of how the sovereignty and righteousness of God in which he so profoundly believed could be compatible with the existence of what was bad. The seeming indifference of the weather to the moral qualities of men was to him evidence of the impartial love of God.

Jesus liked to be with people. He enjoyed social gatherings and good fellowship. He craved friendship. He quickly saw through the individuals whom he met. He was quick to discern and scorn insincerity, pomposity, and pride, but he was fully as prompt to penetrate beneath the surface into hidden and bewildered frustrations and timid longing for the good.

The sympathies of Jesus were as broad as the human race. To be sure, some incidents appear to belie this generalization. On one occasion Jesus seemed to put off the plea of a woman of another nation by saying that he was sent only to "the lost sheep of the house of Israel" and in dispatching his disciples on a mission of preaching and healing he instructed them not to go to non-Jews, whether Gentiles or Samaritans, but only to these same "lost sheep of the house of Israel." Yet in each instance there is another possible explanation than that of exclusiveness. In dealing with the Canaanitish woman he rejected the suggestion of the disciples that he send her away and did as she requested when she proved herself in earnest. The mission of the twelve was for a special purpose and did not imply a continuing exclusion of Gentiles from the Gospel. Again and again there are incidents and sayings which are clear evidence that Jesus went out of his way to reprove racial bigotry and believed his message to be as broad as humanity. Among these were his initial sermon at Nazareth in which he angered his fellow-townsmen by calling attention to occasions in the Scriptures in which Gentiles had been helped by the prophets when those of the house of Israel were apparently passed by, his selection of a Samaritan as the example of a good neighbour, his healing of the servant of the Roman centurion, and his commission to his apostles after his resurrection to make disciples of all nations.

Deeply religious himself, Jesus was impatient with professional or ostentatious religiosity. He challenged those about him to apply their minds to religion and morals. While honouring the past and the great prophets and lawgivers of his nation, he rejected blind and stubborn adherence to the letter of the law and of the writings which he revered, and treated the traditions of his people with a vigour and a freedom which in some aroused anger and in others were greeted with amazed admiration. While for almost all, and perhaps all of his moral and religious teachings parallels and precedents can be found in the writings of the Jewish sages, Jesus had about him a freshness and an originality which gave them such vivid expression and put them in such proportion and perspective that they were seen as both old and new.

Jesus had the soul of a poet. While few of his recorded sayings are in poetic form, again and again his words breathe the spirit of poetry. His mind thought in terms of pictures and concrete scenes, not in abstract phrases. The parables and sententious sayings in which most of his teachings were couched were such that, once heard, they could not easily be forgotten. It is said that he chose that manner of speaking deliberately, but he could not have employed it so skillfully had it not reflected the quality of his mind. It is tantalizing to speculate whether he may not in part have acquired it from his mother, either by heredity or through long association, for the narratives in the first portions of The Gospel according to Luke which could have come only from her have much of the same quality, but with sufficient difference to make it clear that they and those sayings which are ascribed to him were not the invention of some one author.

There were about Jesus a quickness and a directness which no observing reader of the Gospel narratives can miss. Jesus could blaze forth in anger. Men remembered his glance. It is interesting to note how often, even in our brief accounts, Jesus is described as looking at a person. Here was a characteristic which stood out in the memories about him cherished by Jesus' intimates — his looking on the rich young ruler and loving him, his look at the time of Peter's denial which set that unhappy, loyal, puzzled soul to bitter, heart-broken weeping. Jesus enjoined decisive action — the cutting off of an offending hand or the plucking out of a wayward eye, striving (the Greek is the word from which our "agonizing" is derived) to enter in by the narrow door. He condemned the aimlessly drifting, un-thought-out life. He had no use for indecision — for those who said "I will follow thee, but" — and declared that he who put his hand to the plow and looked back was not fit for the kingdom of heaven. He who would become the disciple of Jesus — namely, learn of him — must renounce all that he had. He even had admiration for the vigorous action of the steward who, when his dishonesty had been disclosed, adopted a bold method of making his future secure.

Jesus could be very patient. He could see one in whom he had sensed possibilities for good and had enrolled among his intimates disintegrate morally and eventually betray him, and yet seek to hold onto him. For his other disciples, who often tried him by their slowness to understand what was obvious to him, he had a forbearance which must have been difficult for one of his quick and keen intelligence. Paul, who probably never knew Jesus personally, but who had heard much of him from those who did, was impressed by his meekness and gentleness, qualities in striking contrast with the quick anger which cruelty or callousness to human need evoked in him.

Another quality which has often been remarked was the absence of any sense of having committed sin or of a basic corruption in himself. The one possible exception is the reply to the inquirer who calls him "good master" — "Why callest thou me good? There is none good but one, that is God;" but another version of the incident gives a different phrasing which does not include a disavowal of goodness. It is highly significant that in one as sensitive morally as was Jesus and who taught his followers to ask for the forgiveness of their sins there is no hint of any need of forgiveness for himself, no asking of pardon, either from those about him or of God. Deep struggle of the spirit Jesus knew, but it seems to have been to discover what the will of God was and not from any inward division, any inability to follow what he knew to be right, such as Paul so poignantly describes in himself, or from any sense of recurring fault or of unconquered sinfulness such as the greatest of Christian saints have confessed.

Less important but still significant is the fact that we never hear of Jesus being ill. We read of his being weary, of his being grieved, of his suffering pain in spirit and in body, but the pain was inflicted by others and we have no hint that he knew what it was to be sick. He radiated confidence and health.

Fundamental in all of Jesus' life was his belief in God, his loyalty to Him, and his utter confidence in Him. Here was the fountain of his ethical convictions and teachings.

He took time to be alone with God in prayer. When he instructed his followers in praying to go into a room, shut the door, and pray to their Father who is in secret, he was but telling them to do what he himself did. We read of his spending an entire night alone in prayer, and of his rising early in the morning after a crowded day to go into a desert place and there pray. Even on that night before his trial and death, when he asked the inner group of his disciples to watch with him in the agonizing hour in Gethsemane, he went a little apart from them for prayer.

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