The “Mind of Christ” in the Gospels

The Gospels were written to shape communities of faithful followers of Jesus, the living Lord. Crucial to their purpose is the conviction that Jesus—the one who walked the hills of Galilee, taught his people, called disciples, was crucified on a cross in Jerusalem, and now lives—still calls people to follow him today. How do disciples of the twenty-first century discern “the mind of Christ” in the Gospels and respond faithfully to his call to “Follow me!”?

Starting Points: Love God, Love Neighbor

A good starting point can be found in Jesus’ answer to the question, “What is the greatest commandment in the law?” Jesus responded that the greatest command was to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind.” He added a second commandment, no less important, but still second: love your neighbor as yourself (Matt 22:37; Mark 12:30; and compare Luke 10:27; John 13:34–35). These commandments come from the law given by God to Israel (Deut 6:5; Lev 19:18). Love of God and love of neighbor were the heart of the law: every other commandment was dependent on these two (Matt 22:40).

It is typical in discussion of Jesus’ double-love command to put the emphasis on the verb: love. But Jesus did not say that love ought to be supreme: he said that God ought to be. There are many contenders for human allegiance, all warring for the hearts and minds of the people of God. If God does not claim our loyalty, someone or something else will. Jesus himself demonstrated that single-minded commitment to God to which he called his followers when he rebuffed satanic temptation in the wilderness with the words, “Worship the Lord your God and serve only him” (Matt 4:10; Luke 4:8). Later he warned his followers, “No one can serve two masters. . . . You cannot serve God and mammon” (Matt 6:24; Luke 16:13). To have the mind of Christ, to live as Jesus lived, is to give oneself wholeheartedly to God.

The Gospels present Jesus as entrusting his life to God from the very beginning. The Spirit empowered him to announce good news of God’s deliverance, release, and healing (Luke 4:18–21). That same Spirit propelled him into encounter and struggle with the powers of evil and oppression in their various human and demonic forms (Mark 3:27; Matt 12:28; Luke 11:20). Jesus spoke of the compulsion upon him to finish the work he was given (Luke 12:50). Throughout the Gospel of John, Jesus reiterates that he came not to do his own will, his own works, or to give his own teaching, but to do the will of the Father, to accomplish his works, and to speak as he was instructed. To have the mind of Christ is to know that one belongs to God and that one is accountable to God.

It matters greatly, then, how one understands the character, mission, and will of this God. “God” is a generic word; but the God of Jesus is not a generic God. The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is the God made known in Scripture, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the holy one enthroned on the praises of Israel, who is generous in mercy and compassionate in forgiveness. Jesus’ own mission flows out from God’s mercy and God’s holiness.

Mercy, Holiness, and the Mission of Jesus

The point can be illustrated by the particularly compelling story of a sinful woman who weeps at Jesus’ feet while he is dining in the house of Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7:36–50). She washes Jesus’ feet with her tears, dries them with her hair; kisses them; and anoints them with ointment. The Pharisee is scandalized: doesn’t this teacher know who is touching him? Indeed he does. Jesus does not dispute the characterization of the woman as a sinner (7:47); in fact, he forgives her “many sins” (7:47–48). But he does challenge Simon’s implicit assumption about how she should be treated. Why do Jesus and Simon regard the woman so differently?

"Diptych" illustration of Lk 7:36-50, by D. KlitsieJesus went to a Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. A woman who was a sinner stood behind Jesus, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. When Jesus’ host saw this, he judged both Jesus and the woman. Jesus pointed out that the woman’s sins, which were many, had been forgiven—which explained why she showed such great love. Then he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” (Luke 7:36–50 NRSV)

Jesus’ response to the woman flows from his understanding of the mission of God in the world: God is holy and calls sinners to repentance, to reorient their lives around God. For the Pharisees, holiness restricts contact with a woman like this; for Jesus, the holiness of God compels one to such contact—and more. It compels one to love. Holiness is not a static condition: it is a power that cleanses holy space (the temple), that reorients the purposes of holy time (Sabbath and festivals), and that calls people to repentance and obedience to God, the holy one of Israel. With the Holy Spirit upon him, Jesus, the holy one of God (Mark 1:24; Luke 4:34; John 6:69), extends the boundaries of God’s holiness ever further in the world, expelling unclean spirits (Mark 1:27, 3:11, 5:13, 6:17; Luke 6:18),1 healing the unclean leper (Mark 1:40 parr.; Luke 7:22; 17:12) and (unclean) woman with the flow of blood (Mark 5:25–34 parr.), cleansing the temple so it can be a house of prayer and worship (Mark 11:27 parr.), and risking impurity by touching a corpse to give life (Mark 5:41 parr; Luke 7:14). Jesus does not confine the holiness of God, the holy power and Spirit of God, but extends it through his word, his touch, and his deeds. To have the mind of Christ is to live as expansively and freely as Jesus does in extending God’s holiness into his world, engaging the forces that demean and defile human life.

But in Jesus’ teaching and actions, the mercy of God figured prominently as well. Jewish teaching spoke of the “two measures” by which God worked in the world: his justice and his mercy (cf. James 2:13). That God is just means that he vindicates the righteous and punishes the sinner. That God is merciful means that while he will vindicate the righteous, he may also have mercy on the sinner. That teaching is hard for the righteous—the older brothers among us, those laborers hired at the beginning of the long day of work. When God’s mercy is extended not to us but to them, we cry foul. We are happy to receive mercy; but they should get justice (read: punishment). Simon the Pharisee may have believed that God was a merciful God, but he found it hard to put into practice when he had to consider what that meant for his own treatment of a sinner weeping at Jesus’ feet.

Jesus taught his disciples to be merciful as their heavenly father is (Luke 6:26). Quoting from Hosea, Jesus reminded his hearers that God is a God who desires mercy and not sacrifice (Hos 6:6; Matt 9:13, 12:7). He healed those who called on him to have mercy (e.g., Matt 9:27; 15:22; 17:15; 20:3–31). He told parables showing that mercy received was to result in mercy extended (Matt 18:21–34). Another parable suggested that a toll collector who cast himself on the mercy of God understood more about God than the Pharisee who sought God’s vindication for his scrupulous obedience (Luke 18:10–14). A priest and Levite, who were forbidden by the law to touch a corpse, do not help a man in need; a Samaritan is willing to show the injured man mercy. Jesus told his disciples to go and do likewise (Luke 10:30–37). Mercy, said Jesus, belongs among the “weightier matters of the law” (Matt 23:23). People were not to begrudge God’s generosity to others (Matt 20:15). Expressing God’s mercy, Jesus’ mission was to seek out the lost sheep of the house of Israel, welcome the prodigal to the family table, and reconcile disgruntled family members to each other. To have the mind of Christ is to be merciful, generous, forgiving, open-handed, and open-hearted.

The Story of Another Simon

Luke tells the story of another would-be disciple kneeling at Jesus’ feet, another Simon—Simon Peter, the fisherman. Having toiled all night and caught nothing, Simon is caught off guard when Jesus instructs him to let out his nets for a catch. Reluctantly, Simon does so—and ends up kneeling in a boat full of flopping fish and imploring Jesus, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinner!” (Luke 5:8). But Jesus doesn’t go. In fact, the holy one of God calls this sinner to follow him, promising him a share in his work of “catching people” (Luke 5:10). The holy God has always been calling and sending sinners (see Isaiah 6:3–8); there is no one else to call, or to send.

In these two Lukan accounts an unnamed woman and the chief of Jesus’ disciples, Simon Peter, recognize themselves as sinners before Jesus. Jesus does not try to talk them out of their own assessments. If anything, he confirms their judgment. But neither does his understanding of their predicament, of who they are, repel him. Instead, Jesus is drawn to, driven toward, reaches out for, those who are sinners. After all, as he said elsewhere, he did not come to call the righteous, but sinners unto repentance (Luke 5:32). And, amazingly, these sinners seek Jesus out. They want to be with him. And they seem to want to be with him not in spite of his holiness, but because of it. The woman weeps because she has been forgiven much. Simon follows a man in whose presence he senses his own unworthiness. These people do not shy away from the holy one of God: they are attracted to him. They seemed to know that although they may be unworthy before Jesus, they were never worthless in his sight. To have the mind of Christ is to communicate to others their worth in God’s eyes.

We struggle to be like Jesus, to have the mind of Christ that is characterized by an expansive holiness and a generous mercy and that communicates to others their worth in God’s eyes. The church struggles to take seriously the holiness of God, fearing that anything that smacks of “holiness” can lead too easily to a self-righteous “holier than thou” attitude, to judgmentalism, or perhaps thinking that God’s holiness is an outdated idea that went out with purity laws. But Isaiah, with his vision of the thrice-holy God, took holiness seriously; and Simon Peter, kneeling at Jesus’ feet, took holiness seriously. Jesus took it seriously, teaching his disciples to pray, “hallowed be thy name,” asking God to act so as to demonstrate his holiness, through bringing his kingly rule and ensuring that his will be done. The church struggles to be holy as Jesus is and not as Simon the Pharisee is: seeing God’s holiness as dynamic, welcoming, cleansing, restorative. To have the mind of Christ is to engage the world with this understanding of God’s holiness, to love others because we love a God who is generous in mercy and who seeks to extend his holy presence in the world through his people.

It is not difficult to see, then, how the first commandment leads ineluctably and naturally to the second commandment, to love our neighbor. That command isn’t arbitrarily chosen, but expresses the very character and mission of the God who shapes the lives and allegiances of Jesus and his disciples. God is merciful and generous and calls those who are his daughters and sons to be as well, to engage the world on behalf of and with the power of God’s Holy Spirit that reclaims all of life for his purposes.

But perhaps we need to learn not only to be like Jesus, but to be like the sinful woman, and like Simon Peter. After all, we are among those sinners called to repentance. To have the mind of Christ is to hear what Jesus says about us and to us, to hear in his words to the woman his words to us: your sins are many; your sins are forgiven; go in peace. We are the recipients of God’s generous mercy and God’s expansive holiness in Jesus Christ: we are the beneficiaries of “the mind of Christ.”

1. TNIV translates “unclean” as evil.

This article was published in Theology, News & Notes, Fall 2013, “Have This Mind Among You: Philippians 2:1–11.”