A well-known children’s prayer has these lines:

Gentle Jesus, meek and mild,

Look upon a little child,

Pity my simplicity,

Suffer me to come to thee.

The nineteenth-century English poet Algernon Swinburne once described Jesus as a “pale Galilean.” This conception of Jesus as a mild-mannered, inoffensive man has undoubtedly molded the popular image of him. But is the Jesus of the New Testament, and particularly of the Four Gospels, really “gentle, meek, and mild”? On any impartial reading of the evidence, the answer must be “yes and no, but mainly no.”

The gospel records make it clear that there was in Jesus a deep vein of gentleness and compassion, of sensitivity to human need and sympathy for human suffering. For example, in Luke 19:1–10 it is recorded that Jesus met the publican Zacchaeus and, recognizing his loneliness and alienation, invited himself to dinner at Zacchaeus’s home; through befriending this man, Jesus saved his soul and made a new person of him. In Matthew 26:7–13 we read the well-known incident of the woman who poured her precious box of alabaster ointment over Jesus as he sat at the table. When his disciples called the action wasteful, Jesus at once defended the woman, saying that she had done well and that her self-sacrificing devotion would be spoken of throughout the whole world.

Perhaps the most striking illustration of Jesus’ gentleness and sensitivity is found in the story of the woman taken in adultery, as recorded in John 8:1–11. Under Jewish law three offenses were punishable by death: murder, idolatry and adultery. This adulteress had been caught in the act, and her accusers brought her to Jesus, reminding him that death by stoning was the prescribed penalty. Then they asked him what he thought should be done with her. Jesus did not answer immediately. He bent down and wrote on the ground—doodling, it may be supposed, because he did not wish to shame the woman any further by looking straight at her. Then he stood up and said, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” At this, her hard-faced accusers slipped away one by one, until Jesus and the woman were left alone. He said to her, “Has no man condemned thee?” She replied, “No man, Lord.” Then Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.” Here he showed what has been called “the tender chivalry of a great gentleman.”

Jesus was indeed gentle, considerate, and compassionate. But if “meek and mild” is meant to suggest softness, timidity, spinelessness, indecisiveness, then it is emphatically wrong to describe him that way. For the gospel records make it clear that he was a real man, strong and virile.

Article continues below

What qualities go to make up real manhood? Strength of conviction is one, and Jesus certainly had that. In his day—and for centuries before—the Law as embodied in the Old Testament had been regarded as a unique revelation of God’s righteous character and sovereign will. Jesus agreed with this, saying that not one jot or tittle would pass away till all had been fulfilled. But the Law had become so over-interpreted that the Pharisees, the holiness party in Judaism, held there were 613 commandments to be obeyed—365 negative, 248 positive. Says James S. Stewart:

Orthodoxy declared that these commandments contained the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. If you had ventured to suggest to a Pharisee that the teachers who had given the law had been dead for years, whereas God was still alive, and that therefore there might conceivably by this time be something to add to it, or if you had hinted to him that a good many of his 613 commandments savoured of an obsolete and pedantic legalism and ought now to be decently buried, he would have held up his hands in horror and called it rank heresy. Jesus took that line, and therefore was branded as a heretic (Mark 2:18, 24) [The Life and Teaching of Jesus Christ].

In thus challenging the basic tenets of Jewish orthodoxy, Jesus showed himself a brave man.

Another quality of manhood is courage in action, and Jesus had this in overflowing measure during his days on earth. The first time he preached in the synagogue of Nazareth, in which he had grown up, his sermon was directed against racial and religious prejudice (Luke 4:16–30). And what happened? Those who heard it were filled with wrath and forced him to the edge of a cliff, threatening to push him over the side. Quite clearly, for Jesus to preach this kind of sermon in those circumstances showed courage of the highest sort. The same quality is seen in his cleansing of the Temple at Jerusalem, as described in Mark 11:15–18 and John 2:13–16. Seeing the desecration of the Temple by unashamed commercialization, he said, “My house should be called a house of prayer for all nations, but you have made it a den of thieves.” And with a scourge of small cords he drove them all out of the Temple—the sheep and oxen and the changers with their money. Whether Jesus used physical coercion to do this, as the narratives seem to indicate, or merely moral suasion, his courage in this incident is indisputable.

Article continues below

A third quality of high manhood is willingness to sacrifice, even to resign life itself, for the sake of conviction; and Jesus showed this quality too in outstanding degree. He knew that if he persisted in his protests against entrenched interests in the Palestine of his day—commercial, political, and religious—he would be killed. Those whom he offended would stop at nothing to get rid of him. Though deserted by his disciples and friends, Jesus faced this issue squarely in the Garden of Gethsemane. He did not want to die any more than any other healthy man in his early thirties wants to die; yet he was willing to sacrifice his life for the sake of his convictions. And this he did on Calvary in a horribly painful and humiliating fashion.

Any unprejudiced reading of the gospel narratives makes it luminously clear that Jesus was a man in every worthy sense of the word—in strength of conviction, in indefatigable courage, in willingness to endure martyrdom for the sake of his beliefs. He was not so much the “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” of the prayer or Swinburne’s “pale Galilean” as the “strong Son of God, immortal love,” of Tennyson’s poem, “In Memoriam.”

So it is not at all surprising that those whom he has attracted, those who have sought to follow him loyally, have shown the same manly qualities. His disciples Peter and John, for example, defied the Jewish Sanhedrin in Jerusalem after Pentecost, and the rulers and elders, “when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, … recognized that they had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13). Stephen, the first Christian martyr, was likewise a man of great physical and moral courage, as the record in Acts 7 shows. Paul, after his conversion, embarked upon a Christian pilgrimage that was an incredible saga of endurance and courage, even unto death. No wonder he said, when writing to Timothy: “Endure hardness as a good soldier of Jesus Christ.” He had done so himself.

The same has been true throughout the rest of the Christian centuries. Martin Luther, in the name of Christian conviction, defied the political as well as the religious overlords of Europe. David Livingstone, one of the greatest missionaries of modern times, not only explored wild parts of Africa where white men had never been before but preached the Gospel to the natives despite all kinds of opposition.

To follow Jesus Christ means, of course, to share his spirit of compassion for human suffering. One of the gratifying features of contemporary Christianity is that the Christian churches are more and more waking up to this fact, and spending themselves and their resources in sacrificial service to relieve human need at all levels, physical and mental as well as spiritual.

Article continues below

To enlist in the cause of Jesus Christ, however, is at the same time to follow a peerless leader who calls, not to softness or ease, but rather to endurance and strength and courage. For the world’s standards of belief and conduct will always be sharply opposed to those of Jesus Christ—and never has this opposition been more apparent than today. To witness effectively for Jesus Christ means to embrace and practice his way of life unswervingly, at whatever cost. It has been well said that “faith is not belief in spite of evidence, but courage in scorn of consequence.” Today as always the challenging words of Jesus ring out: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.