John Stuart Mill is known as the great liberal political philosopher of nineteenth century England. He was also an atheist, but later in life he came to write of Christ: ‘When this pre-eminent genius of Christ is combined with the qualities of probably the greatest moral reformer and martyr to that mission who ever existed upon earth, religion cannot be said to have made a bad choice in pitching on this man …’ This sounds rather patronizing, and gives the impression that Christianity was carefully planned, perhaps by a committee of intellectuals. Actually, it rather reminded me of Cicero’s statement that ‘There is nothing so absurd that some philosopher has not already said it.’
When it comes to the man Jesus, the first issue must be as Tennyson said: ‘His character was more wonderful than the greatest miracle.’ The most cursory reading of the New Testament leaves us with the striking impression that Jesus is good, in fact, very good, even sinless. He is so good that John the Baptist – whose baptism is a baptism of repentance – was hesitant to baptize Jesus but instead confessed that Jesus should be the one baptizing John (Matt.3:13-15). Jesus had that effect on people. After a miraculous catch of fish, Peter was overwhelmed not by the number of fish, but by Jesus Himself: ‘Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord’ (Luke 5:8).
Christians are meant to be very conscious of their own sins. In his diary, not designed for any eyes but his own, Andrew Bonar lamented: ‘Imperfection stamped upon everything I ever undertook.’ It is rather embarrassing, apart from anything else, to read of how the mother of James and John approached Jesus to ask that her two sons sit, one at His right hand and the other at His left, when He comes in His kingdom (Matt.20:20-28; Mark 10:35-45). True to form, the other ten disciples become indignant and resentful when they heard about this outlandish request (Mark 10:41).
Yet none of the disciples was indignant about the implied claim that Jesus Himself would hold centre stage in God’s kingdom. They were sheep, Jesus is the shepherd; they were servants, He is the Master; they are sick, He is the Great Physician. He made far greater claims than they ever did, yet these claims fit in with His character. The Pharisee prayed to God and thanked Him that he was not like other men, and Jesus says that he was talking to himself (Luke 18:11). Jesus is unlike other men in that all things had been handed over to Him by His Father (Matt.11:27), yet He is the friend of sinners (Matt.11:18-19; Luke 7:36-50; 15:1-2). He accepts the worship of Himself (Matt.28:9, 17; John 9:35-38), yet He says He is ‘lowly in heart’ (Matt.11:29). He will judge the world (Matt.7:21-23); He Himself will not be judged.
The crux of the issue is now clearer. We mere mortals make far more moderate claims, yet they come back to bite us. Jesus makes the most exalted claims and they somehow suit His character. If Jesus’ character is good, it becomes both blasphemous and irrational to place Him besides other great teachers. If I make out I am a wonderful man, I am only likely to irritate those who know me. The character and the claim do not fit together well. In fact, the greater the claim that I make, the more irritation I am likely to engender. Yet strangely this is not so with Jesus.
It does, however, leave us with a point so obvious that many people miss it. The character of Christ can only be praiseworthy if His claims are true. To praise His ideals but reject His claims is nonsensical, even if it is made in the name of scientific rationality. For us to be good, we need to recognise that we are not, which leads us to repent and to trust the Saviour. On the other hand, if Christ is good, He must be God.