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What You Need to Know about the Character of Jesus

  • Timothy Keller TimothyKeller.com
  • 2016 28 Oct
  • COMMENTS
What You Need to Know about the Character of Jesus

The Character of Jesus

When we read the Gospels about Jesus, then, what do we see?

One striking feature of the accounts is how they give us no description of Jesus’s appearance. It is inconceivable that a modern journalistic account of any person would fail to tell us something of the kind of figure he cut or even of what he wore. We live in an age intensely concerned with image and nearly obsessed with looks. But here all the emphasis is, we might say, not on the quality of his skin but on the content of his character. And that character was remarkable.

Particularly impressive to readers over the centuries has been what one writer has called “an admirable conjunction of diverse excellencies in Jesus Christ.”[i] That is, in him we see qualities and virtues we would ordinarily consider incompatible in the same person. We would never think they could be combined but, because they are, they are strikingly beautiful. Jesus combines high majesty with the greatest humility, he joins the strongest commitment to justice with astonishing mercy and grace, and he reveals a transcendent self-sufficiency and yet entire trust in and reliance upon his heavenly Father. We are surprised to see tenderness without any weakness, boldness without harshness, humility without any uncertainty, indeed, accompanied by a towering confidence. Readers can discover for themselves his unbending convictions but complete approachability, his insistence on truth but always bathed in love, his power without insensitivity, integrity without rigidity, passion without prejudice.

One of the most counterintuitive combinations in Jesus’s life, that of truth and love, is seen everywhere in the pages of the Gospels. Then as now, people rejected and shamed those who held beliefs or practices that they thought wrong and immoral. But Jesus astonished everyone by being willing to eat with tax collectors, collaborators with the occupying Roman imperial forces. This outraged those we might call the “Left,” those zealous against oppression and injustice. But he also welcomed and ate with prostitutes (Matthew 21:31–32), which offended those promoting conservative, traditional morality on the “Right.” Jesus deliberately and tenderly touched lepers (Luke 5:13), people who were considered physically and ceremonially contaminated but who were desperate for human contact. Yet he also ate repeatedly with Pharisees (Luke 7:36–50; 11:37–44; 14:1–4), showing that he was not bigoted toward the bigoted. He forgave the enemies who were crucifying him (Luke 23:34) and the friends who were letting him down in the hour of his greatest need (Matthew 26:40–43).

SEE ALSO: How the Psalms are Actually Songs of Jesus

Nevertheless, though welcoming and befriending all, Jesus was surprisingly insistent on bearing witness to the truth. Zacchaeus, the despised tax collector, was stunned by Jesus’s love and embrace of him, yet, when hearing his call to repent, stopped his government-backed extortion racket (Luke 19:1–9). When Jesus encounters women who were considered sexually immoral by the society, he engaged them with a respect and graciousness that startled onlookers (Luke 7:39; John 4:9,27). Yet he gently points out to the Samaritan woman the wreckage of her many failed relationships with men and calls her to find the soul satisfaction she has sought in his eternal life (John 4:13–18). In the famous account of the woman caught in adultery, Jesus says to her, in one breath, “Neither do I condemn you,” and in the next, “Go now and leave your life of sin” (John 8:11).[ii] Here we see the counterintuitive but brilliant conjunction of both truth and love, both a passion for justice and a commitment to mercy. He is full of grace and truth (John 1:14).

New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg explains that the religiously respectable of Jesus’s day refused to associate or eat with people considered sinners, such as tax collectors and prostitutes, for fear of becoming morally contaminated by them. Their friendship and love was given only conditionally, to those who had made themselves clean and pure. But Jesus turned the dominant social pattern on its head. He freely ate with the moral and social outcasts. He welcomed and befriended the impure and called them to follow him (Mark 2:13–17). He did not fear that they would contaminate him; rather, he expected that his wholesome love would infect and change them, and again and again this is what happened.[iii]

Content taken from Making Sense of God by Timothy Keller. Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2016 by Timothy Keller.

Timothy Keller was born and raised in Pennsylvania and educated at Bucknell University, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and Westminster Theological Seminary. He was first a pastor in Hopewell, Virginia. In 1989, he started Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City with his wife, Kathy, and their three sons. Today, Redeemer has more than five thousand regular Sunday attendees. Dr. Keller also founded Redeemer City to City, which has trained leaders to start more than three hundred new churches in nearly fifty cities around the world. The author of The Reason for God, The Prodigal God, Prayer, The Meaning of Marriage, and The Songs of Jesus, among other books, Timothy Keller lives in New York City with his family. 

SEE ALSO: 10 Things You Should Know about the Love of God


[i] Jonathan Edwards, “The Excellency of Jesus Christ,” in The Works of Jonathan Edwards: Sermons and Discourses 1734–1738, vol. 19, ed. M. X. Lesser (New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 2001), p. 565. The rest of the ideas in this paragraph are from this great sermon by Edwards.

[ii] It is well known that the episode of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1–11) is not found in the oldest New Testament manuscripts, so most scholars believe it was not originally part of the Gospel of John but rather is a very old account, from another source, that became attached to the Gospel of John. Also, the Greek grammatical constructions and vocabulary do not match well the rest of the book of John. Nevertheless, “there is little reason for doubting that the event here described occurred” and was preserved accurately. D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Leicester, UK: Inter-Varsity, 1991), p. 333. It is quite in line with the rest of the Gospels’ testimony to Jesus’s character.

SEE ALSO: 10 Things You Should Know about God's Attributes

[iii] See Craig Blomberg, Contagious Holiness: Jesus’ Meals with Sinners (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2005).

Publication date: October 28, 2016

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