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Jesus, just ‘a man of his time’?1

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Published: 31 January 2017 (GMT+10)
Jesus-Bible
Did Jesus teach error during His earthly ministry?

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Astonishingly, there are people in today’s churches who, while strongly proclaiming their evangelical credentials, actually teach that Jesus could have been mistaken about some of His teaching! Of course, since the earliest days of Christendom, people with heretical views have plagued the Church. This is why there are so many warnings in the New Testament against false teachers—to imbibe their ideas is to wander off into myths, with the serious risk of ‘faith-wreck’ (see From fables to truth). Unfortunately, the advocates of a fallible Jesus are not merely a fringe group. Rather, their ideas are becoming increasingly and worryingly influential.

In all the cases that I am aware of, it is the insistence of these church leaders and theologians upon the ‘fact’ of molecules-to-man evolution and millions of years that is driving their claim of Jesus being wrong about certain matters—for instance, in His teaching that people had existed from the foundation of the world, the very beginning of creation (Luke 11:50; Mark 10:6). Writers for the theistic evolutionary website Biologos are an example of this. This brief article is not the place to comprehensively unpack and critique these ideas and claims.2 Nevertheless, it is important to be aware of such insidious teaching, and worthwhile for Christians to consider just some of the ways in which we might respond.

Scripture’s testimony of Jesus’ words

That liberals deny the authority of the Bible is hardly news. However, those who profess to hold to the Bible as the very Word of God must be held to account using its own teaching. The number of verses which put the lie to these claims of Christ’s fallible knowledge is legion; here are just a few considerations. Jesus was filled with the Holy Spirit (Luke 3:22; 4:1), who is the “Spirit of Truth” (John 15:26; 16:13)—and that without limit (John 3:34). In Him “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:3). This makes sense, “For in Him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Colossians 2:9). In view of these verses alone, it is both illogical and blasphemous to claim that Christ, the Son of God, could err in His teaching. Did these statements from Colossians only become true of Jesus after He had ascended to heaven?

Let us consider the testimony of the Lord Jesus Himself: “For I have not spoken on my own authority, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment—what to say and what to speak. And I know that his commandment is eternal life. What I say, therefore, I say as the Father has told me” (John 12:49–50; my emphasis). Also, “I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me” (John 6:38). Esteemed British preacher Dr Martyn-Lloyd Jones (1899–1981) once stated,

“The Son of God did not hold on to His prerogatives; He humbled Himself, He became a servant, He set aside His own will, and all He said and all He did was determined by the will of the Father” (my emphasis).3

Thus, claims that Jesus erred are equivalent to saying that God erred. And since that is logically impossible—for He is all-knowing—such assertions actually amount to an accusation that God has lied. One is reminded of Satan’s words to Eve: “Did God actually say?” (Genesis 3:1).

Elsewhere, too, Lloyd-Jones has pertinent words for our subject. Talking of the various heresies concerning Christ during Church history, he says,

“They preach of Jesus Christ as God and Jesus Christ as man in isolation from each other. We must never do that. Jesus Christ is always the God-Man: so we must be very careful and wary about saying that He did certain things as God, and other things as man. No! He is the God-Man, indivisible. Christ cannot be divided in any sense. Thank God for this. He is always the same, He always will be the same. ‘Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, and today, and forever’ (Hebrews 13:8)”—my emphasis.4

Those ‘evangelicals’ who try to argue that Jesus erred during His earthly life (but obviously did not do so before His incarnation, or after his ascension into heaven) run aground on this rock of God’s Word.

Scripture’s testimony of Jesus’ works

One might think that any professing Christian, aware of the amazing miracles that Jesus wrought during His ministry, would refrain from any suggestion that He could be mistaken about anything at all. Think about it:

“At his [Jesus Christ’s] command the winds ceased and the troubled sea grew calm; the fish brought a silver coin in its belly; the stones shattered, bearing witness to him; the veil of the temple was torn in two; the sun was darkened, the tombs opened and many bodies rose to life. There was nothing in heaven or on earth which did not testify that Jesus Christ was its God, Lord and Master, and the ambassador sent to earth by the Father to obtain salvation for men. All these things are heralded, revealed, written and sealed in this testament, by which Jesus Christ makes us his heirs in the kingdom of God his Father.”

So wrote sixteenth century Reformer, John Calvin.5 Indeed, those disciples who witnessed His calming of the storm marveled—they knew this was no ordinary man (Matthew 8:27). Bearing in mind the obvious signs of Jesus’ Lordship over this world during His earthly ministry (His miracles), it is preposterous that a Christian could seriously conclude that Jesus was mistaken about matters relating to Earth’s creation or the age of the universe.6 Yet that is what’s at stake when people teach that Jesus was ‘just a man of his time’.

A true Christian’s response

Did the Lord Jesus voluntarily lay aside certain privileges in becoming man? Of course. He who was rich beyond imagination “became poor” (2 Corinthians 8:9). He who was fully God “emptied Himself” (Philippians 2:7) and was frequently subjected to the hostility and opposition of sinners (Hebrews 12:3)—some of the very reasons why Christians throughout the centuries have worshipped Him! Certainly, the extent to which Jesus may have laid aside aspects of His limitless knowledge is a great mystery—we do well to tread here with extreme care, limiting ourselves to what the Bible says and avoiding groundless speculation. Alexander Pope’s famous words seem very apt here:

“For fools rush in where angels fear to tread.”7

The Creator God who has condescended and stooped to our menial level to rescue lost sinners deserves our highest adoration and praise. In view of the growing compromise in today’s churches, we must redouble our efforts to uphold the truth and authority of the Bible from its first verse, including its testimony concerning Jesus’ infallible teachings.

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Further Reading

References and notes

  1. This is a slightly modified version of an article that first appeared in Prayer News, CMI-UK/Europe, July 2016. Return to text.
  2. To do so requires a careful assessment of Christ’s two natures (divine and human) and much else besides. A detailed counter-challenge to these claims is covered in a chapter of my book, in preparation. Return to text.
  3. Lloyd-Jones, D.M., The unsearchable riches of Christ: An exposition of Ephesians 3:1 to 21, Banner of Truth Trust, 1979, p. 294. Return to text.
  4. Lloyd-Jones, D.M., Christian Unity: An exposition of Ephesians 4:1 to 16, Banner of Truth Trust, 1980, p. 98. Return to text.
  5. John Calvin, (transl. by Robert White), An epistle showing how our Lord Jesus Christ is the end of the law and the sum of all that must be sought in Scripture, Preface to the French Geneva Bible, 1534; revised 1543. Return to text.
  6. Wieland, C., Jesus on the age of the earth, Creation 34(2):51–54, 2012. Return to text.
  7. From his poem, An essay on criticism, 1711; available at poetryfoundation.org, accessed 16 December 2016. Return to text.

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Readers’ comments
Samuel H., United States, 13 February 2017

Jesus indeed was a man of his time and for all times. A creation story just is what it is. A symbolic and allegorical story. The true value and meaning and point of the story matters not on whether the story is historically and factually true. The purpose of almost all creation stories found in almost all religions and cultures is simply to express the simple truth that God is the Creator of all things, both visible and invisible.

Philip Bell responds

It seems you are unwilling to engage with any of the points made in the article. Merely asserting that something is a story does not make it so. Merely asserting that the purpose of the Bible's 'creation story' is "simply to express the simple truth that God is the Creator" does not make it so. Christianity is not based on assertions (which do not connect to the real world and which may not even be true); rather upon historical facts and evidence, not to mention much eye-witness testimony. While I have the resurrection in mind as a good example, I would point out that God was an eye-witness to His own creation. Yes, His testimony (unlike that of man) is valid as He cannot swear by anything or anyone greater than Himself (see Genesis 22:16 and Hebrews 6:13).

Moreover, Jesus cannot be merely "a man". He was fully human, yes, but also fully God, the 'God-man'. C. S. Lewis comments:

"I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: 'I'm ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don't accept His claim to be God.' That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic - on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg ‑ or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come up with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to." (In his book Mere Christianity, 1952).

Peter F., United Kingdom, 7 February 2017

I do think that this article brings up an interesting point but in reading I could not help but feeling that these thing don't actually matter and it's how we respond to the world of today that is of the utmost importance, and if CMI believes that through articles like this they can effectively and positively respond to the world then I think they are doing a great job! But at times I think we need to look at the past of Christianity and humanity itself and use it to construct a better future for tomorrow and not use it to attack people you call "heretics" who like the heretic Martin Luther completely believed in their interpretation of Christ and his works. We must understand before we judge. Thank you.

Philip Bell responds

Peter, I respectfully submit to you that, when Christian leaders, pastors and theologians are effectively teaching that twenty-first century Christians like themselves know more about history than did the incarnate Son of God, it does matter. A Christian is not to judge or despise his brother, knowing that all of us will stand before God in judgment one day (Romans 14:10). We are not to act hypocritically. However, this does not mean that we are never to point out error, for that would be to bring the Bible into contradiction with itself. Rather, Christians are to judge, but to "judge with right judgment" (John 7:24), which as the Lord Jesus taught in that verse, is to "not judge by appearances".

Part of what this means is that we should not assume or assign motives to those with whom we have to disagree. Disagreeable though it certainly is (and it gives me no pleasure to point it out), professing Christians and even true believers can be guilty of espousing heretical views. We need to pray that God will mercifully lead some of these otherwise able teachers to see their error, rectify it and thus glorify the Lord Jesus Christ.

Phil R., New Zealand, 5 February 2017

I Think you may be conveniently forgetting that much of the Bible was written hundreds of years after the event. I agree with you that Jesus and God can't be wrong but the men who wrote these accounts centuries later could be. And then of course there's whats been lost in translation and the influence of various earthly kingdoms such as the Greeks, Romans and even the British Empire (St James Bible). I can believe in the Truth of Jesus without believing that everything in the Bible (by man a long time after) is necessarily entirely accurate.

Philip Bell responds

You agree that Jesus/God cannot be wrong but how do you arrive at that belief? It is through God's revelation in Scripture that we come to a fuller knowledge of Him, a revelation that is described variously as, "perfect ... sure ... right ... pure ... clean ... true" (Psalm 19:7-9), "unbreakable" (John 10:35) and "breathed out by God" (2 Timothy 3:16). Moreover, the Bible is the Word of God, synonymous with its Author, The Word (logos), Jesus, the Son of God. That being the case, the Truth as it is in Jesus is tied up with that revealed in His Word.

Jean P., Australia, 3 February 2017

Jesus enraged the Jewish leaders because He claimed to forgive sin, which, as we all know, only God can do. So His "crime" above His head on the cross, was Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. Since the King of the Jews was understood to be God, the leaders wanted it changed to "He said He was..." So Jesus claimed to be God in human form and this was confirmed by the Resurrection. Our Heavenly Father would never have resurrected Him if He had not been who and what He claimed to be.

Dean R., Australia, 31 January 2017

The gospel according to man is the measure of all things is in stark contrast to the Scriptures cannot be broken of Jesus of Nazareth.

The church, in appearance looks very much like a sown crop of mixed seed.

And in these circumstances God calls us to defend His truth. In many respects it is no different to OT Israel as it meddled in competing cultures & broke faith.

Chritianity is not a pick, choose, disect & redact Bible study. It is one harmonious message from the one eternal God who does not change like shifting shadows.

Jared C., United States, 31 January 2017

The Gospel of John makes this idea that 'Jesus was simply teaching what was believed at that time' impossible to square. The nature of Jesus is too well defined in this Gospel to allow this foolishness. It's no wonder that this Gospel is always the first attacked.

My personal favorite response to this issue comes in John 3:9-13. In these verses, Jesus confirms the authority of His testimony and confronts Nicodemus' disbelief caused by relying on his own limited understandings. Versus 12, in particular, is shockingly on point to this topic.

Jeffrey H., United States, 31 January 2017

I’ve noticed in my reading of articles on various creation web-sites and videos aired on GSN that quotes from 1500’s―1800’s by Reformers and Puritan writers are becoming the norm. By close examination of those writings you’ll quickly see that they believed in the authority, accuracy, and historicity of the Bible. I recently dusted-off a copy of Robert Haldanes, An Exposition of Romans and was surprised to see that “there is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9) The liberal approach, a ‘newly acquired scholarly intellectualism of enlightenment’, applied to the Biblical texts was referred to as the Neological principle. These Neologians [as Haldane refers to them as] would strip away the true meaning of a passage leaving it bare, injecting ambiguity that would feed their intellectual appetites. I attended Philadelphia College of Bible in the mid 1970’s and Dr. Scofield was a board member. After reading his reference Bible study notes it’s easily seen that Neology continues to thrive to this day. Yes; I just used the word day metaphorically.

Bill P., United States, 31 January 2017

I was saved by the grace of God 36 yrs. ago. My only regret in my walk with my Lord and Savior is that for the first 30 yrs I did not set aside good quality time aside to read, study, and meditate on His Word like I have done these last 6 yrs. this is all my fault not My Lord's. Through His Holy Spirit The Lord has opened my eyes and heart as to how true His Word is, I find no lie in it at all. I beg those who claim that Christ Jesus is their Lord and Savior to PLEASE set aside time to read, study, and meditate on The Word Of God, to set their heart on the Things Of The True and Living God. He will give you understanding and open your eyes to the deception that has been spreading throughout this world concerning His True Nature, for He is God who came in the flesh, and Thanks Be To God is returning soon....

Phil K., United States, 31 January 2017

The response to Philippians 2:7 is best answered with an analogy from John 13:3-5. Jesus gathered his disciples and performed two things: 1) laid aside his garments which provided him warmth and modesty, leaving him naked--a humiliating act and 2) washed his disciples' feet--a humbling act. He never gave up being their Teacher and he never gave up being the Son of God.

This is exactly what Philippians 2:7 described when Jesus emptied himself to become a man. He humiliated and humbled himself, that is all. He never gave up his glory or his divinity and most certainly not his knowledge of creation.

To reinterpret Philippians 2:7 to mean that Jesus was just a man like us and didn't understand long ages is to forcefully impose an atheistic interpretation on a beautiful picture of the sacrifice that Jesus willingly made to die for our sins.

Eddie C., United States, 31 January 2017

Truth is the great battle of today, just as it was in Jesus's day. It's not just our origins, every facet of our society teaches what is contrary to the Word of God. Cosmology, Philosophy, Marriage, Sanctity of Life, the list goes on and on. We must always turn to the Word of God for Truth because anything wrapped as truth that society pushes is likely a lie to lead away from the truth. Satan was, after all, a liar from the beginning and the father of it. Jesus said that lies were his native language.

Consider the import of how Jesus answers for himself while on trial.

But Jesus stood before Pilot and Pilot asked him a few questions. "Are you the King of the Jews?"

...."Are you a King then? "

Jesus answered him and said, "You say rightly that I am a king. For this cause I was born, and for this cause I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice."

This answer prompted Pilot, even in his day to ask, "What is truth?" and to declare he had found no fault in Jesus. The rest of the story, Pilot having the authority of truth before him, gave in to the peoples demands to crucify Jesus.

John 18:33-38 is where you'll find this account.

Jesus's answer was so profound and deep, but Pilot's response is sobering. "What is truth." The battle has always been about truth and as long as we live that battle will continue. Christian, truth will win one day, but in the mean time, we had better do our diligence to look to God for the truth and let him, through us, reveal it to others.

Rocco P., Germany, 31 January 2017

As sad as this is, we shouldn't be shocked, as if God is losing control of His church. In fact he foretold such developments;; "Let no one deceive you ... for that day (return of Christ/day of judgment) will not come until the apostasy comes first..." (2 Thess. 2:3) and "the time will come, when they (professing believers) will not endure sound doctrine..." (2. Tim. 4:3) God foresaw this and has allotted more than enough grace for His own to come out victorious.

Living here in Germany, the homeland of historical, Bible-critical theology, we are confronted with such heresy continually. Once I had a debate with a Lutheran pastor, who went on to become a professor at a state-church seminary. When we spoke about the authorship of the Torah I quoted Jesus: "For if you believed Moses, you would believe Me; for HE WROTE of Me." (John 5:46) The reply of this theologian: "You must understand, Jesus was a child of His times -- He didn't know any better."

How can we fully trust a Person with our eternal destiny, whose knowledge is flawed and doesn't know any better?

Roger T., Australia, 31 January 2017

Thankyou Philip.

Yes it is astounding as to how far some "christians" will go to justify their views and the "evangelicals" are about to go one better when they join in the celebrations for Luther's 500th anniversary on 31st October this year when they will proclaim that the Reformation is over and all has been reconciled as long as we "love one another".

God bless your ministry,

Roger.

John P., Australia, 31 January 2017

Peter warns us about these wolves in sheep's clothing. By God's grace may they see the error of their ways and realise they are in error, repent and come back to the Lord. They won't be telling Him He's wrong when they meet Him Face to face.

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