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Home > Catholic Encyclopedia > J > The Character of Jesus Christ

The Character of Jesus Christ

The surpassing eminence of the character of Jesus has been acknowledged by men of the most varied type:

Not that the views of the foregoing witnesses are of any great importance for the theological student of the life of Jesus; but they show at least the impression made on the most different classes of men by the history of Christ. In the following paragraphs we shall consider the character of Jesus as manifested first in His relation to men, then in His relation to God.

Jesus in his relation to men

In His relation to men Jesus manifested certain qualities which were perceived by all, being subject to the light of reason; but other qualities were reserved for those who viewed Him in the light of faith. Both deserve a brief study.

In the light of reason

There is no trustworthy tradition concerning the bodily appearance of Jesus, but this is not needed in order to obtain a picture of His character. It is true that at first sight the conduct of Jesus is so many-sided that His character seems to elude all description. Command and sympathy, power and charm, authority and affection, cheerfulness and gravity, are the some of the qualities that make the analysis impossible. The make-up of the Gospels does not facilitate the work. At first they appear to us a bewildering forest of dogmatic statements and moral principles; there is no system, no method, everything is occasional, everything fragmentary. The Gospels are neither a manual of dogma nor a treatise on casuistry, though they are the fountain of both. No wonder then the various investigators have arrived at entirely different conclusion at the study of Jesus. Some call Him a fanatic, others make Him a socialist, others again an anarchist, while many call Him a dreamer, a mystic, an Essene. But in this variety of views there are two main concepts under which the others may be summarized: Some consider Jesus an ascetic, others an aesthete; some emphasize His suffering, others His joyfulness; some identify Him with ecclesiasticism, others with humanism; some recognize in Him the prophetic picture of the Old Testament and the monastic of the New, others see in Him only gladness and poetry. There may be solid ground for both views; but they do not exhaust the character of Jesus. Both are only by-products which really existed in Jesus, but were not primarily intended; they are only enjoyed and suffered in passing, while Jesus strove to attain an end wholly different from either joy or sorrow.

(a) Strength

Considering the life of Jesus in the light of reason, His strength, His poise, and His grace are His most characteristic qualities. His strength shows itself in His manner of life, His decision, His authority. In His rugged, nomadic, homeless life there is no room for weakness or sentimentality. Indecision is rejected by Jesus on several occasions: "No man can serve two masters"; "He that is not with me, is against me"; "Seek first the kingdom of God", these are some of the statements expressing Christ's attitude to indecision of will. Of Himself He said: "My meat is to do the will of him that sent me"; "I seek not my own will, but the will of him that sent me." The authority of the Master does not allow its power to be questioned; He calls to men in their boats, in their tax-booths, on their homes, "Follow me", and they look up into His face and obey. St. Mathew testifies, "The multitude...glorified God that gave such power to men"; St. Mark adds, "the kingdom of God comes to power"; St. Luke says, "Thou hast given him power over all flesh"; the Book of the Acts reads, "God anointed him...with power"; St. Paul too is impressed with "the power of our Lord Jesus". In His teaching Jesus does not argue, or prove, or threaten, like the Pharisees, but He speaks like one having authority. Nowhere is Jesus merely a long-faced ascetic or a joyous comrade, we find Him everywhere to be leader of men, whose principles are built on a rock.

(b) Poise

It may be said that the strength of Christ's character gives rise to another quality which we may call poise. Reason is like the sails of the boat, the will is its rudder, and the feelings are the waves thrown upon either side of the ship as it passes through the waters. The will-power of Jesus is strong enough to keep a perfect equilibrium between His feelings and His reason; His body is the perfect instrument in the performance of His duty; His emotions are wholly subservient to the Will of His Father; it is the call of complying with His higher duties that prevents His austerity from becoming excessive. There is therefore a perfect balance or equilibrium in Jesus between the life of His body, of His mind, and of His emotions. His character is so rounded off that, at first sight, there remains nothing which could make it characteristic. This poise in the character of Jesus produces a simplicity which pervades every one of His actions. As the old Roman roads led straight ahead in spite of mountains and valleys, ascents and declivities, so does the life of Jesus flow quietly onward in accordance with the call of duty, in spite of pleasure or pain, honour or ignominy. Another trait in Jesus which may be considered as flowing from the poise of His character is His unalterable peace, a peace which may be ruffled but cannot be destroyed either by His inward feelings or outward encounters. And these personal qualities in Jesus are reflected in his teaching. He establishes an equilibrium between the rightousness of the Old Testament and the justice of the New, between the love and life of the former and those of the latter. He lops off indeed the Pharisaic conventionalism and externalism, but they were merely degenerated outgrowths; He urges the law of love, but shows that it embraces the whole Law and the Prophets; He promises life, but it consists not so much in our possession as in our capacity to use our possession. Nor can it be urged that the poise of Christ's teaching is destroyed by His three paradoxes of self-reliance, of service, and of idealism. The law of self-sacrifice inculcates that we shall find life by losing it; but the law of biological organisms, of physiological tissues, of intellectual achivements, and of economic processes shows that self-sacrifice is self-realization in the end. The second paradox is that of service: "Whosoever will be the greater among you, let him be your minister: and he that will be first among you, shall be your servant." But in the industrial and artistic world, too, the greatest men are those who have done most service. Thirdly, the idealism of Jesus is expressed in such words as "The life is more than the meat", and "Not in bread alone doth man live, but in every word that proceedeth from the mouth of God." But even our realistic age must grant that the reality of the law is its ideals, and again, that the world of the idealist is impossible only for the weak, while the strong character creates the world after which he strives. The character of Jesus therefore is the embodiment of both strength and poise. It thus verifies the definition given by such an involved writer as Emerson: "Character is centrality, the impossibility of being displaced or overset...The natural measure of this power is the resistance of circumstances."

(c) Grace

But if there were not a third essential element entering into the character of Jesus, it might not be attractive after all. Even saints are at times bad neighbours; we may like them, but sometimes we like them only at a distance. The character of Christ carries with it the trait of grace, doing away with all harshness and want of amiability. Grace is the unconstrained expression of the self-forgetting and kindly mind. It is a beautiful way of doing the right thing, in the right way, at the right time, therefore opens all hearts to its possessor. Sympathy is the widest channel through which grace flows, and the abundance of the stream testifies to the reserve of grace. Now Jesus sympathizes with all classes, with the rich and the poor, the learned and the ignorant, the happy and the sad; He moves with the same sense of familiarity among all classes of society. For the self-righteous Pharisees He has only the words, "Woe to you, hypocrites"; he disciples, "Unless you become as little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven." Plato and Aristotle are utterly unlike Jesus; they may speak of natural virtue, but we never find children in their arms. Jesus treats the publicans as His friends; He encourages the most tentative beginnings of moral growth. He chooses common fishermen for the cornerstones of His kingdom, and by His kindliness trains them to become the light of the world and the salt of the earth; He bends down to St. Peter whose character was a heap of sand rather than a solid "foundation, but He graciously forms Peter into the rock upon which to build his Church. After two of the Apostles had fallen, Jesus was gracious to both, though He saved only one, while the other destroyed himself. Women in need are not excluded from the general graciousness of Jesus; He receives the homage of the sinful woman, He consoles the sorrowing sisters Martha and Mary, He cures the mother-in-law of St. Peter and restores the health of numerous other women of Galilee, He has words of sympathy for the women of Jerusalem who bewailed His sufferings, He was subject to His mother till He reached man's estate, and when dying on the Cross commanded her to the care of His beloved disciple. The grace of the Master is also evident in the form of His teaching: He lays under contribution the simple phases of nature, the hen with her chickens, the gnat in the cup, the camel in the narrow street, the fig tree and its fruit, the fishermen sorting the catch. He meets with the lightest touch, approaching sometimes the play of humour and sometimes the thrust of irony, the simple doubts of His disciples, the selfish questions of His hearers, and the subtlest snares of his enemies. He feels no need of thrift in His benefits on the few as abundantly as the vastest multitudes. He flings out His parables into the world that those who have ears may hear. There is a prodigality in this manifestation of Christ's grace that can only be symbolized, but not equalled, by the waste of seed in the realm of nature.

In the light of faith

In the light of faith the life of Jesus is an uninterrupted series of acts of love for man. It was love that impelled the Son of God to take on human nature, though He did so with the full consent of His Father: "For God so loved the world, as to give his only begotten Son" (John 3:16). For thirty years Jesus shows His love by a life of poverty, labour, and hardship in the fulfillment of the duties of a common trademan. When His public ministry began, He simply spent Himself for the good of His neighbour, "doing good, and healing all that were oppressed by the devil" (Acts 10:38). He shows a boundless compassion for all the infirmities of the body; He uses His miraculous power to heal the sick, to free the possessed, to resuscitate the dead. The moral weaknesses of man move His heart still more effectively; the woman at Jacob's well, Mathew the publican, Mary Magdalen the public sinner, Zacheus the unjust administrator, are only a few instances of sinners who received encouragement from the lips of Jesus. He is ready with forgiveness for all; the parable of the Prodigal Son illustrates His love for the sinner. In His work of teaching He is at the service of the poorest outcast of Galilee as well as of the theological celebrities of Jerusalem. His bitterest enemies are not excluded from the manifestations of His love; even while He is being crucified He prays for their pardon. The Scribes and Pharisees are treated severely, only because they stand in the way of His love. "Come to me, all you that labour, and are burdened, and I will refresh you" (Matthew 11:28) is the message of His heart to poor suffering humanity. After laying down the rule, "Greater love than this no man hath, that a man lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13), He surpasses as it were His own standard by dying for His enemies. Fulfilling the unconscious prophecy of the godless high-priest, "It is expedient for you that one man should die for the people" (John 11:50), He freely meets His sufferings which He could have easily avoided (Matthew 26:53), undergoes the greatest insults and ignominies, passes through the most severe bodily pains, and sheds His blood for men "unto remission of sins" (Matthew 26:28). But the love of Jesus embraced not only the spiritual welfare of men, it extended also to their temporal happiness: "Seek ye therefore first the kingdom of God, and his justice, and all these things shall be added unto you" (Matthew 6:33).

Jesus in his relation to God

Prescinding from the theological discussions which are usually treated in the theses "De Verbo Incarnato", we may consider the relations of Jesus to God under the headings of His sanctity and His Divinity.

Sanctity of Jesus

From a negative point of view, the sanctity of Jesus consists in His unspotted sinlessness. He can defy His enemies by asking, "Which of you shall convince me of sin?" (John 8:46). Even the evil spirits are forced to acknowledge Him as the Holy One of God (Mark 1:24; Luke 4:34). His enemies charge Him with being a Samaritan, and having a devil (John 8:48), with being a sinner (John 9:24), a blasphemer (Matthew 26:65), a violator of the Sabbath (John 9:16), a malefactor (John 18:30), a disturber of the peace (Luke 23:5), a seducer (Matthew 27:63). But Pilate finds and declares Jesus innocent, and, when pressed by the enemies of Jesus to condemn Him, he washes his hands and exclaims before the assembled people, "I am innocent of the blood of this just man" (Matthew 27:24). The Jewish authorities practically admit that they cannot prove any wrong against Jesus; they only insist, "We have a law; and according to the law he ought to die, because he made himself the Son of God" (John 19:7). The final charge urged against Christ by His bitterest enemies was His claim to be the Son of God.

The positive side of the sanctity of Jesus is well attested by His constant zeal in the service of God. At the age of twelve He asks His mother, "Did you not know, that I must be about my father's business?". He urges on His hearers the true adoration in spirit and in truth (John 4:23) required by His Father. Repeatedly He declares His entire dependence on His Father (John 5:20, 30; etc.); He is faithful to the Will of His Father (John 8:29); He tells His disciples, "My meat is to do the will of him that sent me" (John 4:34). Even the hardest sacrifices do not prevent Jesus from complying with His Father's Will: "My Father, if this chalice may not pass away, but I must drink it, thy will be done" (Matthew 26:42). Jesus honours His Father (John 2:17), and proclaims at the end of His life, "I have glorified thee on the earth" (John 17:4). He prays almost incessantly to His Father (Mark 1:35; 6:46; etc.), and teaches His Apostles the Our Father (Matthew 6:9). He always thanks His Father for His bounties (Matthew 11:25; etc.), and in brief behaves throughout as only a most loving son can behave towards his beloved father. During His Passion one of His most intense sorrows is His feeling of abandonment by His Father (Mark 15:34), and at the point of death He joyfully surrenders His Soul into the hands of His Father (Luke 23:46).

Divinity of Jesus

The Divinity of Jesus is proved by some writers by an appeal to prophecy and miracle. But, though Jesus fulfilled the prophecies of the Old Testament to the letter, He Himself appears to appeal to them mainly in proof of His Divine mission; He shows the Jews that He fulfills in His Person and His work all that had been foretold of the Messias. The prophecies uttered by Jesus Himself differ from the predictions of the Old Testament in that Jesus does not speak in the name of the Lord, like the seers of old, but in His own name. If it could be strictly proved that they were made in virtue of His own knowledge of the future, and of His own power to dispose of the current of events, the prophecies would prove His Divinity; as it is they prove at least that Jesus is a messenger of God, a friend of God, inspired by God. This is not the place to discuss the historical and philosophical truth of the miracles of Jesus, but we know that Jesus appeals to His works as bearing witness to the general truth of His mission (John 10:25, 33, 38), and also for the verity of some particular claims (Matthew 9:6; Mark 2:10-11; etc.) They show, therefore, at least that Jesus is a Divine legate and that His teaching is infallibly true.

Did Jesus teach that He is God? He certainly claimed to be the Messias (John 4:26), to fulfill the Messianic descriptions of the Old Testament (Matthew 11:3-5; Luke 7:22-23; 4:18-21), to be denoted by the current Messianic names, "king of Israel" (Luke 19:38; etc), "Son of David" (Matthew 9:27; etc), "Son of man" (passim), "he that cometh in the name of the Lord" (Matthew 21:9, etc.). Moreover, Jesus claims to be greater than Abraham (John 8:53, 56), than Moses (Matthew 19:8-9), than Solomon and Jonas (Matthew 12:41-42); He habitually claims to be sent by God (John 5:36, 37, 43; etc.), calls God His Father (Luke 2:49; etc), and He willingly accepts the titles "Master" and "Lord" (John 13:13-14). He forgives sin in answer to the observation that God alone can forgive sin (Mark 2:7, 10; Luke 5:21, 24; etc). He acts as the Lord of the Sabbath (Matthew 12:8; etc), and tells St. Peter that as "Son" He is free from the duty of paying temple-tribute (Matthew 17:24, 25). From the beginning of His ministry he allows Nathanael to call Him "Son of God" (John 1:49); the Apostles (Matthew 14:33) and Martha (John 11:27) give Him the same title. Twice He approves of Peter who calls Him "the Christ, the Son of God" (John 6:70), "Christ, the Son of the living God" (Matthew 16:16). Four distinct times does He proclaim Himself the Son of God; to the man born blind (John 10:30, 36); before the two assemblies of the Jewish Sanhedrin on the night before His death (Matthew 26:63-64; Mark 14:61-62; Luke 22:70). He does not manifest His Divine Sonship before Satan (Matthew 4:3, 6) or before the Jews who are deriding Him (Matthew 27:40). Jesus does not wish to teach the evil spirit the mystery of His Divinity; to the Jews He gives a greater sign than they are asking for. Jesus, therefore, applies to Himself, and allows others to apply to Him, the title "Son of God" in its full meaning. If there had been a misunderstanding He would have corrected it, even as Paul and Barnabas corrected those who took them for gods (Acts 14:12-14).

Nor can it be said that the title "Son of God" denotes a merely adoptive sonship. The foregoing texts do not admit of such an interpretation. St. Peter, for instance, places his master above John the Baptist, Elias, and the Prophets (Matthew 16:13-17). Again, the Angel Gabriel declares that the Child to be born will be "the Son of the most High" and "Son of God" (Luke 1:32, 35), in such a way that He will be without an earthly father. Mere adoption presupposes the existence of the child to be adopted; but St. Joseph is warned that "That which is conceived in her [Mary], is of the Holy Ghost" (Matthew 1:20); now one's being conceived by the operation of another implies one's natural relation of sonship to him. Moreover, the Divine Sonship claimed by Jesus is such that he and the Father are one (John 10:30, 36); a merely adopted sonship does not constitute a physical unity between the son and his adoptive father. Finally if Jesus had claimed only an adoptive sonship, He would have deceived His judges; they could not have condemned Him for claiming a prerogative common to all pious Israelites. Harnack (Wesen des Christentums, 81) contends that the Divine Sonship claimed by Jesus is an intellectual relation to the Father, springing from special knowledge of God. This knowledge constitutes "the sphere of the Divine Sonship", and is implied in the words of Matthew 11:27: "No one knoweth the Son, but the Father: neither doth any one know the Father, but the Son, and he to whom it shall please the Son to reveal him". But if the Divine Sonship of Christ is a mere intellectual relation, and if Christ is God in a most figurative sense, the Paternity of the Father and the Divinity of the Son will be reduced to a figure of speech. (See CHRISTOLOGY.)

About this page

APA citation. Maas, A. (1910). The Character of Jesus Christ. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08382a.htm

MLA citation. Maas, Anthony. "The Character of Jesus Christ." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 8. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08382a.htm>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Joseph P. Thomas. In memory of Archbishop Mathew Kavukatt.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. October 1, 1910. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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