It used to be taken for granted that, by and large, many people who did not give much thought to the matter would almost instinctively agree with Peter’s words that Jesus of Nazareth ‘went about doing good’ (Acts 10:38). They might not think that this means much more than what we find in the next chapter where we read that Barnabas was ‘a good man’ (Acts 11:24). Even the pagans on the island of Malta could show ‘unusual kindness’ to Paul and his crew (Acts 28:2). They were, in a sense, good, for evil people can do good things (Matt.7:11). So perhaps our vague friend would be prepared to say that the Maltese pagans did a good deed, while Barnabas could be described as a good man, but probably Jesus was better than the Maltese pagans and also Barnabas.
This might seem fairly straightforward but it is not. To be good, one’s words and actions must go together. The more we know people, the more we realise that we are all mixed. All of us do some good things, but somehow there is an undercurrent of selfishness, bad temper, lust, greed, indifference to others, and vanity in us all. There seems to be more than one understanding of ‘good’. Jesus told the rich young synagogue ruler: ‘No one is good except God alone’ (Mark 10:18). Is that what Luke, the author of Acts, when he described Barnabas as ‘good’? Certainly not! When the crowd at Lystra got rather excited at an apostolic healing, they declared Paul and Barnabas to be gods (Acts 14:11) and could barely be restrained from sacrificing to them (Acts 14:18). So Barnabas, and Paul for that matter, were a long way from regarding themselves as good in the sense that God is good. In fact, Paul could say that nothing good dwelt in him (Rom.7:18) and that at one time Barnabas was swept along by hypocrisy (Gal.2:13). The generosity and encouraging nature of Barnabas (e.g. Acts 4:36-37) meant that he was a spiritual and amiable fellow-worker, but not bereft of blind spots.
What, then, about Jesus of Nazareth? He certainly seems consistent, in that His actions and deeds go together. His words are often treated by unbelievers even as wondrous words – even if misunderstood. Many a non-Christian has read parts of the Sermon on the Mount, and declared in the words of the officers sent to arrest Jesus: ‘No one ever spoke like this man!’ (John 7:46) A problem arises in that Jesus does not utter the kind of ‘inspiring thoughts for daily living’ that we might expect. Without the slightest attempt to puff Himself up, He speaks authoritatively on the characteristics of a disciple, adding that He Himself would be the Judge who determined the eternal destiny of those who came before Him (Matt.7:21-23, 24-27). By calling John the Baptist the messenger to come, He necessarily implies that He Himself is the Lord (Matt.11:1-19). He offers rest to weary souls who come to Him (Matt.11:28-30). While He is David’s son, He is also David’s Lord (Matt.22:41-46). Throughout His ministry, He provides insights into daily life, but they are invariably connected to understanding who He is. Jesus is the good shepherd (John 10:11), the resurrection and the life (John 11:25) and the way, the truth and the life (John 14:6).
A similar problem arises with Jesus’ deeds. It is not just that He did what is good, but that He only did what is good (e.g. John 8:46; 1 Peter 2:22). Furthermore, He did what is good in a supernatural way – He healed the sick; He caused the lame to walk; He gave sight to the blind and gave hearing to the deaf; and He raised the dead (e.g. Matt.11:4-5). So overwhelmingly good and obvious were His deeds that even the pagans in Tyre, Sidon and Sodom would have responded to Him had they see Him (Matt.11:20-24). Because the miracles were done out in the open, and hence were undeniable (e.g. John 11:47-53; Acts 4:16), those who would not believe in their divine origin were forced by their own logic to say that Jesus was doing the work of the devil (Matt.12:22-32). He is regarded not as the best of men, but the worst; there is no mid-point.
The Swiss Protestant scholar Alexandre Vinet (1797-1847) once said that one could construct the most exalted ethic from every man’s standards for his neighbour and the most degraded ethic from every man’s own conduct. We human beings are a mass of inconsistencies. Not so with Jesus. He is good, but not in the Barnabas sense. He is good in the sense that God is good. In fact, it only makes sense to say that Jesus is good if He is God.
With warmest regards in Christ,