Sinlessness: how do we define it
Defining concepts is never an easy task, and having tried to put at the heart of the concept of ‘sin’ the view that it is essentially not to live up to being truly human(1) it enables us also seek to focus on what it means for Jesus to be sinless.
To suggest that at the heart of sin is this failing to be truly human, to fall short of the glory of God, does not imply that all other meanings are removed, but it does push us considerably beyond transgressing laws. That singular approach becomes somewhat difficult when Paul argues that for him to re-establish law would actually be an act of transgression!(2) Law does not ultimately define sin, Jesus does. He is the benchmark, the truly human one.
Sinlessness then has to link to this concept of true humanness. Traditionally sin has been viewed as falling short of a set of standards, and the sinlessness (of Jesus) as being some form of perfection. If that view is badly skewed Jesus becomes the superhuman (non-human, in truth). However, when we raise questions such as ‘did baby Jesus cry?‘, or ‘did he push back against his parents?’ we enter into the world of normal human behaviour and development. It is very hard not to attribute this level of normalcy to Jesus, otherwise in what sense was he fully human (NB the two possible adjectives, fully and truly). So why not also posit other areas of development? There is every reason indeed to do just that, and the Scriptures themselves gives us this perspective. He lived life as a first-Century Jew, his culture undoubtedly influencing him. He did not arrive ‘here’ from somewhere else untouched by ‘here’. That ‘here’ being the culture (religious and fallen). Jesus was a baby that grows, physically, emotionally and ‘in wisdom before God and people’ (Lk. 2:52).
Jesus in the Temple
As a young 12 year old he manifested wisdom beyond his years (and beyond his culture) in the Temple. He did not simply teach the teachers of the law, but asked questions (Lk. 2:46, 47). His questions though must have been very probing and full of push-backs as he showed a level of understanding that amazed those present. In this back-and-forth we are not presented with a 12 year old who only speaks heavenly wisdom, but neither are we presented with someone who is locked within the traditions of his culture, and the outcome of this encounter is Luke’s statement that Jesus was ‘growing’.(3)
Jesus continued to mature throughout his life and grew in his truly humanness as he was confronted by situations. He learned obedience…
Although he was a son he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for who obey him (Heb. 5: 8,9).
These verses are tied contextually specifically to the struggle in Gethsemane (verse 7), but I think we are not pushing it too far to posit that what was applied to his struggle in Gethsemane, was typical of his journey throughout his life. Gethsemane was intense, but the inner struggles were not limited to that event.
He is on a journey toward ‘truly’ human (NB here I am not using the term ‘fully’)
Once he is made ‘perfect’ / ‘becomes perfect’ (the verb from the word group telos, to reach the goal). Although I question the literalness of Adam and Eve, the narrative does present us with a concept that they were created ‘perfect’; rather they have the possibility of moving toward perfection or away from it (and ‘perfection’ in the sense of maturity). They could have manifested glory, or shame; to display the image of God, or to distort it. The verdict is ultimately for the whole human race, whether we are from within the people of the Law or not, all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.(4)
In the same sense that Adam and Eve were not created perfect neither is Jesus manifested ‘perfect’. Like them before him he can move toward ‘perfection’ (reach the goal of being truly human) or fail to do so. That entails the willingness to enter into a journey, to learn in every situation and make the response that is appropriate. Once maturity was reached (and only when reached) he becomes the source of eternal salvation.
Jesus, women and Gentiles
So we ask such questions as, ‘Did Jesus know the right response before the various events, or does he make the right responses when required?’ He challenges Simon the Pharisee concerning his sight of the prostitute, with the words ‘do you see this woman?’ Jesus saw the woman, but when did he see the woman? Did he approach the situation ‘perfect’ and ready, or was it a challenge to him and then he came through yet this one more hurdle on the path to being truly human.
He became perfect (a process), though was never with sin at any point.
Another example might be that of the Syro-Phoenician woman (Matt. 15:21-28; Mk. 7:24-30), asking for healing for her daughter. Jesus replies (is it a defensive response?) saying he had been sent to the house of Israel; she replies with ‘but even the dogs eat the crumbs’. (The language of ‘dogs’ that is even recorded on Jesus’ lips was a derogatory term that could be applied to Gentiles.) The strong provocation from the woman prompts Jesus to comment about her faith, faith by someone from outside the community of Israel’s faith… and furthermore a woman. Does she help Jesus to jump another barrier, another prejudice? It is very natural to read it that way. Jesus entered the situation sinless but with certain perspectives. He leaves it sinless but has matured yet again.
We could suggest something similar with the centurion whose servant is healed when Jesus simply spoke the word. Jesus said that he had not found such faith anywhere else in Israel (Lk. 7:9). Are these encounters with non-Jews (and women) essential to help Jesus on the path of true-humanness? And on the latter story the connection to Cornelius, the centurion might make an interesting link (also in a book written by Luke).
John puts the first miracle in the context of a conversation (conflict?) between Jesus and his own mother. If we give any weight to inter-familiar relationships it does not stretch the narrative too far to suggest that Mary knew exactly how to ‘encourage’ Jesus to move in the right direction.
Although a disputed text the record of his interaction with teachers of the law over the ‘woman caught in adultery’ is another revealing story. Maybe the act of writing in the ground when confronted with the need to make the right response could be
a) Jesus needing time to find the right response, and
b) putting his finger in dust, the very substance that humanity was created from being essential to finding the right response.
It is almost certainly for both reasons. To mature, and in this situation to move beyond the ‘holy book’ would take time; to know how to respond to a situation that clearly re-enforced humanity’s fall ‘from the glory of God’ (not to mention patriarchal bias, after all was only the woman the guilty one?!!) not only would take time but there would need to be a touching of the dust of flesh. He had to touch something deeper than culture, than convention, than law; He had to touch the very substance / ingredients of humanity. All have sinned - so no-one can cast the stone. Go and sin no more - called to a higher level, the level of maturing toward true humanness.
In all this I suspect that Jesus was the GREAT TEACHER because he was the GREAT LEARNER.
(1) Walter Wink used a similar approach when he suggested that the tragedy of sin is that it denotes never having discovered the reason for which one was born.
(2) If I rebuild what I destroyed, then I really would be a lawbreaker (Gal. 2:18).
(2) We should be deeply impacted by the realisation that to grow up in the Middle Eastern culture of the day would have been to grow up in a highly biased context, biased against seeing women as equals (seeing them as human?) and biased against Gentiles. Add to that Jesus’ ‘holy book’ and the challenging representations of God within its pages and it becomes even more remarkable how far Jesus developed beyond his setting. From our standpoint a ‘young Jesus’ might have shocked us with some of his perspectives, but the Jesus that began to speak and teach would have astounded us by his perspectives. He would have been radical in his day, and remains radical for all cultures and eras. (We add that in his three years of public ministry there still was a maturing that took place.)
(4) Rom. 3:23. ‘All have sinned’, the context makes clear that Paul is referring to ‘both’: Jew and Gentile alike have sinned. Again ‘law’ takes us so far, it is ‘falling short of the glory of God’ that is at the heart of sin.