What would Jesus do?

2020 Apr 14

There has been a popular bumper sticker question, “What would Jesus do?”. I found this question to be frustrating.

I have never met Jesus physically, and so how could I get to know him well enough to predict what he would do? I had no way to know what jokes he would laugh at. I couldn’t know him well enough to know what foods he liked. From this perspective the question isn’t even answerable.


I think this question is meant to be thought-provoking toward living a life that would please God. The problem with the question is that it has answers in multiple categories, and the category is very important. I think the intended class of answers were to be at an intersection of behavior and morality. However, a behavior-oriented answer is in the often-unanswerable category (like jokes and food), and without the right perspective the moral aspects can be hard to determine or apply. For instance, the Ten Commandments are a commonly promoted base system of moral behavior. However, most of what Jesus did did not seem to be driven by them.

What Jesus did exceeded these commandments by far. Even a perfect set of laws cannot make a person’s behavior be like Jesus. As Paul has also said, the purpose of law is not to make good behavior (Romans 5:20, 7:7,8); at best law can only mitigate bad behavior. Thinking that law brings godliness is a serious mistake. It is simply incapable of such a thing. Also, thinking that following law gains God’s approval of us shows great misunderstanding. note

God gave law to the Jews in part because they needed law as a nation of humans. In addition they were to be God’s righteous people. Unfortunately they so badly failed to follow the law that God had to keep his part of the contract (covenant) and separate the people from the land.

The problem was that law is not capable to bring righteousness, therefore from the beginning God had planned a replacement that would work. He told the Jews about it through the prophets (Jer 31:31-34) and then revealed the fullness of his plan to replace the law when he sent Jesus. The thesis of the book of Hebrews is that Jesus is better than anything set up before, so how could anyone reasonably consider retaining the old covenant (of law) instead of just following Jesus?

Thinking in terms of rules is a category error. A much better category is values.

Value System

From a value system perspective, the answer for “What would Jesus do?” is that he would sacrificially love other people, for their benefit.

We can know this because of the two significant things that Jesus accomplished. Jesus lived a life in community that perfectly fulfilled the law (God’s commands). And even though he had personally not broken the law, he took the consequences of the law (death) on himself as a substitute for others. (This is what theology calls his active and his passive works.) Saying it in a more practical and narrative way: Jesus lived a truly good life toward all and died to save and help his friends. note

Of course Jesus did not remain in death. God restored him to life to convincingly prove that Jesus was right about everything he had claimed about himself, and everything he had taught. The resurrection demonstrated that Jesus had God’s full approval.

We are not told what jokes Jesus liked or about his favorite foods because these aren’t the important things to know about him. We are however told about the things Jesus would live and die for. And these things only come from a personal value system.

Why does it matter to know these things? They are important because Jesus is the best communication from God to us (Hebrews 1:1-3); Jesus greatly pleases God (Matthew 3:17); and we are to be like Jesus (1 John 3:1-3,16). Referring back to the first of the commandments: we are to love God. Jesus fulfilled this one too.

By Example

Jesus loved God deeply, but what was his example to us for how to love God?

  • He didn’t spend all his time studying theology.
    • Jesus’ wisdom about God astounded both lay and expert listeners. However, the Bible doesn’t teach anywhere that God was pleased with Jesus because of his theological expertise.
  • We don’t have records of him reading the Bible very much.
    • He certainly did know his Bible very well, so he had to have read it enough. There is only one story of him reading the Bible publicly. His reading isn’t given as a reason for why God was pleased with him.
  • He was OK to be at a party (like a wedding). He made wine. He drank alcoholic beverages at meals.
    • It wasn’t things that he abstained from that pleased God.
  • He was OK to hang out with people that weren’t living good lives.
    • He spent time with acknowledged sinners of the day because he loved them too.
  • He didn’t perform religious rituals and traditions as discipline.
    • The religious leaders criticized him for failing to follow some rituals. Regarding the rituals he did or did not do, they did not influence God‘s approval of him.
  • He didn’t follow the law as was expected.
    • He had conflicts with the experts of the day over the rules to be obeyed; they considered that he failed to live correctly. But again, we are taught that he lived a perfect life, and that God was pleased with him about this.
  • Jesus prayed.
    • But he did it quietly, not for show. He usually prayed just before a difficult task of serving and loving other people. The pattern seemed to be that of talking with God for encouragement for the task. But interestingly, we are not taught that God was pleased with Jesus because he prayed.
  • Jesus loved other people by doing things for them, helping them, teaching them how to be like him and spending time with them. There is so very much of this in the stories of Jesus that it must be deeply connected to why God was pleased with Jesus.

In fact, Jesus showed that he loved God by how he loved people. More specifically, Jesus loved God by loving people (John 13:31-32,34-35). But then also, God the Father showed his love by sending Jesus to come love people (John 3:16). And also God the Holy Spirit shows his love by working intimately with people to help them to be like Jesus (John 14:23-26). note So the primary way that God shows love is by loving people.

Although God is one, God has multiple persons in that one. We understand that the relationships of the persons of God is based on love. However, the only evidence we have of this love in these internal relationships is that God demonstrates love to people. So, God shows that even the love in his internal relationships results in love toward us.

What Should We Do?

God wants us to imitate him. So then, the primary way that God wants us to show our love for him is by loving people. Trying to love God by any other way is unlike Jesus, so why should we pursue it? Any other way would be an invention by a human because God has not taught it to us. note Any other way would be making a profound mistake. The right way to show our love of God is by loving people. note

Why was God pleased with Jesus?

Because God holds his essential values in common with Jesus. This is the basis of their deep loving relationship. This is why God was pleased.

The personal values of Jesus were the cause of his actions and behaviors. As a result, the things that Jesus did was what God wanted to accomplish. This is why God was pleased.

When we share the underlying motivating value of God with him, then we will have the basis for a relationship with God. Then we also will do the kinds of things that God wants to accomplish. This enables us to have relationship with God, and it enables us to do things that please God. This summary value is sacrificial love for the benefit of others.

The most common alternate suggestion for showing our love for God is to obey the Jewish law. The first of the Ten Commandments is to love God. If obedience of the commandments would have shown God that you loved him, then the first one was redundant (and God wasn’t so smart for adding it). The point obviously is that compliance to the other laws was always insufficient to show God that you loved him. So then from the beginning of the law, God never taught that obeying law showed your love for Him.

Jesus explained this more when asked about the greatest commandment (Matt 22:35-40). He said that loving God was the greatest of them all, and loving your neighbor was a closely associated commandment like it; these two were the basis for all desired behaviors and living. Therefore, the law depends on our love of God as expressed through love toward people.

Defective teaching suggests that obedience to law demonstrates love, but this is mistakenly backwards. Jesus said that love of God expressed as love towards people fulfills law.

So, what would Jesus do? Jesus would sacrificially love other people, for their benefit. So should we.


The value system perspective used here is based on ideas from the work of Darren Twa.