Did Jesus Deny Deity and Moral Perfection in Mark 10:18?
The New Testament writers repeatedly testified to the fact that, though Jesus “was in all points tempted as we are,” He was “without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). Paul claimed that Jesus “knew no sin” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Peter said that Christ “committed no sin, nor was deceit found in His mouth”—that He was the perfect sacrificial Lamb, “without blemish and without spot” (1 Peter 2:22; 1:19). Likewise, John wrote that in Christ “there is no sin” (1 John 3:5). Jesus was supremely “pure,” “righteous,” and “good” (1 John 3:3; 2:1; John 10:11,14).
Additionally, the New Testament has much to say about the divine nature of Christ. Jesus claimed to be the Messiah (Mark 14:62; John 4:25-26), Whom Isaiah prophesied would be “Mighty God” and “Jehovah” (Isaiah 9:6; 40:3). Jesus accepted worship while in the form of a man (John 9:38)—implying that He, too, was Deity (Matthew 4:10; cf. Acts 12:21-23; 14:14-15). Jesus forgave sins, which only God can do (Mark 2:5-10). The apostle John said that Jesus “was God” (John 1:1). Jesus claimed to be “one” with God (John 10:30), leading His hearers to believe that He made Himself “God” (10:33). And, after the apostle Thomas called Jesus “Lord” and “God” (John 20:28), Jesus immediately acknowledged Thomas’ faith, rather than deny the deity that Thomas had just professed. In his letter to the Philippians Paul wrote that Christ Jesus “being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God” (Philippians 2:6). In fact, “in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form” (Colossians 2:9).
In light of the fact that the Bible claims repeatedly that Jesus was both “good” and “God,” some contend that in Mark 10:18 (and Matthew 19:17) Jesus said just the opposite. In an article titled “New Testament Contradictions,” Paul Carlson stated that Mark 10:18 (among other passages) is “an embarrassment to the church,” as it indicates “Jesus did not consider himself sinless” (1995). By saying, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God” (Mark 10:18), allegedly “Jesus made a clear distinction between himself and God,” and, according to Muslims, Matthew and Mark “believed that Jesus was not God” (“The Bible Denies…,” 2014, emp. added). According to skeptic Dennis McKinsey, in Mark 10:18, “Jesus is not only admitting that he is not perfectly moral but that he is not God” (McKinsey, 2000, p. 247).
Does Jesus actually admit not being “good” and “God” in Mark 10:18? How did Jesus respond to the wealthy young ruler who asked Him, “Good Teacher, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?” Did He deny being perfectly moral and Divine? The simple fact is, Jesus never denied being good or God.
So what did Jesus mean? Before answering this question, one must keep in mind that Jesus often responded to questions in unexpected, masterful ways. He offered thought-provoking, soul-searching answers (often in the form of questions) that, unfortunately, many people have misinterpreted. [Consider, for example, when the Pharisees asked Jesus about why His disciples allegedly broke the law of Moses and plucked heads of grain as they walked through the fields on the Sabbath. Rather than explicitly deny that the apostles were disregarding the Law of Moses, Jesus asked His accusers two very appropriate (and very perceptive) questions:
Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and ate the showbread which was not lawful for him to eat, nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? Or have you not read in the law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath, and are blameless? (Matthew 12:3-5).
Although many have misinterpreted Jesus’ response on this occasion to justify situation ethics, Jesus did nothing of the sort. The only “law” that Jesus’ disciples broke while going through the grain fields (Matthew 12:1-8) was the Pharisaical interpretation of the Law (see Lyons, 2003 for more information; see also Miller, 2004).]
The rich young ruler was confident in his keeping of various commandments (Mark 10:20), but he surely never thought that Jesus would instruct him to sell whatever he had and give it to the poor—to leave everything and follow Him (10:21). Similarly, when the young ruler initially came to Jesus, saying, “Good Teacher, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?” he never expected Jesus to say, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God” (10:17-18).
The young man seems to have regarded himself as “good” (since he professed to have kept all of the commandments that Jesus mentioned—Mark 10:20). Perhaps the gentleman simply wanted to know—from one good man to another good man (a “good teacher”)—what do I need to do to inherit eternal life. Rather than immediately answer the young man’s question, however, it seems Jesus first wanted (1) to humble him, by highlighting that he was not as “good” as he considered himself to be, and (2) for him to realize Who exactly he was questioning. He wasn’t merely petitioning a “good” (Greek agathos) man.
The Bible records various (mere) human beings who were called “good” (agathos). Luke recorded that “Barnabas was a good man” (Acts 11:24). Paul indicated that Christians are to “do good to all” (Galatians 6:10). (Are Christians who do good, “good” Christians?) Even Jesus stated previous to His encounter with the rich young ruler that “a good man out of the good treasure of his heart, brings forth good things” (Matthew 12:35). Thus, clearly when Jesus spoke to the wealthy ruler He was not using “good” in the sense of a man being “good.” Rather, He was using it in the sense of God being absolutely, supremely good. The kind of goodness to which He referred belonged only to God. The only way man can objectively call someone “good” is if there is an ultimate standard for goodness—the supreme, unblemished, good God.
Jesus never said what skeptics, Muslims, and others allege He said—that He was not good, or that He was not God. Instead, Jesus attempted to get the rich young ruler to see the implications of calling Him “good teacher.” Do good (merely) human teachers claim to be the Messiah? Do good men accept worship and honor due only to God (John 5:23)? Do good men claim to have the power to forgive sins? Absolutely not! But Jesus had the power to forgive sins. He actually claimed to be the Messiah and accepted worship. So what was Jesus implying when He asked the young ruler, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God”? As Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe observed:
Jesus was saying to him, “Do you realize what you are saying when you call Me Good? Are you saying I am God?”… Jesus was forcing him to a very uncomfortable dilemma. Either Jesus was good and God, or else He was bad and man. A good God or a bad man, but not merely a good man. Those are the real alternatives with regard to Christ. For no good man would claim to be God when he was not. The liberal Christ, who was only a good moral teacher but not God, is a figment of human imagination (1992, p. 350).
To contend that Mark 10:18 proves that Jesus thought Himself to be neither morally perfect nor God is (1) to disregard the overall context of the Bible, (2) to twist the Scriptures like untaught and unstable people do—“to their own destruction” (2 Peter 3:16), and (3) to take a superficial reading of the text. Far from denying the deity of Christ, Mark 10:17-22 actually affirms it. The young ruler “called Christ a ‘good teacher,’ with no indication that he understood Jesus to be the Messiah. Jesus seized on the word ‘good,’ pointed out that if the man thought He was good, then He must be God” (Roper, 2:203), because only God is innately and supremely good.
“The Bible Denies the Divinity of Jesus” (2014), A Brief Illustrated Guide to Understanding Islam, http://www.islam-guide.com/ch3-10-1.htm.
Carlson, Paul (1995), “New Testament Contradictions,” The Secular Web, http://infidels.org/library/modern/paul_carlson/nt_contradictions.html.
Geisler, Norman L. and Thomas A. Howe (1992), When Critics Ask (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books).
Lyons, Eric (2003), “Did Jesus Condone Law-Breaking?” Apologetics Press, http://www.apologeticspress.org/AllegedDiscrepancies.aspx?article=1276.
McKinsey, Dennis (2000), Biblical Errancy (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books).
Miller, Dave (2004), “Situation Ethics,” Apologetics Press, https://www.apologeticspress.org/APContent.aspx?category=11&article=1064.
Roper, David (2003), The Life of Christ (Searcy, AR: Resource Publications).