Paul Derengowski, ThM
It is not uncommon to come across Muslims who cite Luke 18:19 (cf. Mk. 10:18) as evidence that Jesus denied he was deity. He was not God, in other words, because he said to a certain rich young ruler who asked him about the qualifications for inheriting eternal life, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.” Muslims interpret his statement as an absolute denial that Jesus was God. But, upon closer inspection of the verse it must be asked, was Jesus denying that he was God or was he subtly implying it through the question of his goodness?
Did Jesus Ever Claim to be Good?
In the Lukan passage the rich young ruler calls Jesus “Good Teacher.” Nowhere did Jesus deny that he was good. He simply asked him a question: “Why do you call me good?” There is no record that the young man responded to his question.
The concept of goodness as seen in the Greek word that Jesus used (agathos) carries with it the ideas of upright moral character, virtue, and ethics, particularly as it relates to God who is perfect. 1 Since Jesus led a sinless life (Heb. 4:15; 7:26) and repeatedly did beneficent, if not divinely miraculous, deeds toward the blind, the lame, and the diseased, as well as resurrected the dead and granted eternal life to those who believed in him (Jn. 4:14; 6:27; 10:28; 17:2), one is left wanting to find something in him that would disqualify that he was good (agathos) himself. Even the Muslim would have to acknowledge as much, since he believes that Jesus served God as His messenger, was of a long line of messengers which included Abraham, Moses, and even Muhammad, which meant that he ranked right alongside those whom the Koran considered righteous (6:85).
Elsewhere Jesus declared himself to be the “good shepherd” or the one who “lays down His life for the sheep” (Jn. 10:11). Although the Greek word translated “good” (kalos) in this verse is different from the one Jesus queried the rich young ruler about in Luke’s passage, it is nonetheless a synonym for agathos. 2 According to Grundmann, “The word has nothing to do with the Romantic conception of the Good Shepherd. It expresses the absolute claim of Jesus to uniqueness.” 3 Jesus was willing to lay down his life for the sheep and was not a hireling who ran when he saw the wolf (i.e. false teachers) coming. Because of his fellowship with the Father he is able to bring the sheep into fellowship with Him as well, which included those who at the time were not of the Jewish flock, namely the Gentiles (vv. 14-15).
When we return to his question and statement in Luke, therefore, he was not denying that he was good. Jesus was good. Obviously even the rich young ruler thought he was good simply because he sought Jesus’ input over the question of eternal life, which is a good thing in itself. It is Jesus’ subsequent statement that clearly shows what Jesus wanted the young ruler to understand.
Did Jesus Ever Claim to be God?
Since “No one is good except God alone,” and Jesus IS good, then there is only one conclusion that he could have been alluding to that he wanted the rich young ruler to understand. Jesus is God also! To assume otherwise is to argue that Jesus is not good and hence was like any other man in need of redemption himself. It would be tantamount to what the apostle argued in Romans 3 when he wrote concerning the natural man, “There is none righteous, not even one; there is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God; all have turned aside, together that have become useless; 4 there is none who does good, 5 there is not even one” (Rom. 3:10-12). He would finish his scathing denunciation of the natural man with “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
Was Jesus morally depraved or corrupt? Did Jesus lack in moral integrity or gracious kindness? Did Jesus not fear or have reverential respect for his Father? Hardly. It was because of his moral rectitude, compassion, and reverence that he remains the model human being for all to emulate and the only mediator between God and man who satisfied the Father’s demand of absolute holiness if anyone dared to stand in His presence cleansed, forgiven, and justified (1 Tim. 2:5). These are parts of the reason why he would tell the rich young ruler, after he claimed to have done all the things mentioned in the Law to inherit eternal life, “sell all that you have, and distribute it to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me” (v.22 cf. Lk. 5:27; 9:23, 59). The command to follow Jesus superseded the Old Testament command if one wished to attain heaven. It is a command that the rich young ruler failed to understand in his day and something that the contemporary Muslim fails to understand today, mainly because neither understood nor understand that the goodness of Jesus points to his Godliness.
Luke 18:19 is a favorite among Muslims who wish to demean the person of Jesus as being God, very God. They twist the verse to mean the complete opposite of which Jesus intended, not only in the immediate context, but in reference to his overall deity either expressed or implied elsewhere. Yet, it does not take the earning of a Ph.D. in theology to unravel the twisted interpretation of the Muslim who chooses to use Luke 18:19 as a reference which says that Jesus denied his divinity. All it takes is a focus upon the context of what Jesus was saying and then ask a simply question: Was Jesus good or not?
If Jesus was good, then he was God as well. That is what the immediate context demands for an interpretation. Some might contend by asking, “Well, there are all kinds of people who are good; does that make them God as well?” Such a question defies what Jesus had to say about fallen humanity. Prior to Jesus’ encounter with the rich young ruler he stated just the opposite in a parable illustrating how to pray when he said, “If you then, being evil…” (Lk. 11:13). Men may work “good” deeds, but that does not mean that they are “good” themselves, much less are they divine. In fact, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23), the standard of which is Jesus himself. So, “No one is good except God alone,” and since Jesus was no mere “evil” human being in need of eternal life, but was the exception, then not only was he good, but was God as well.
- New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, 2:98. ↩
- Ibid. See Matt. 7:17-18; 12:33-35; Lk. 6:43, 45; 8:15; Rom. 7:16, 18-19; Gal. 6:9-10; 1 Tim. 5:10; 6:18; and Tit. 2:3, 5, where agathos and kalos are used alongside each other as interchangeable terms. ↩
- Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 3:548. ↩
- The Greek word translated “useless” is achreoō, which means morally depraved or corrupted. ↩
- The Greek words translated “good” is chrestotes, which carries the idea of moral integrity or a gracious attitude of kindness. ↩