Why Did Jesus Get Angry?

The Emotional Life of Our Lord[1]

According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), to be “human” is to be, “distinguished from animals by superior mental development, power of articulate speech, and upright posture.” According to Webster’s New World Dictionary (WNWD) to be “man” is to be, “a hominid (Homo sapiens) having an opposable thumb, the ability to make and use specialized tools, articulate speech, and a highly developed brain with the faculty of abstract thought: the only living hominid.” What is fascinating about these definitions is their neglect of man’s emotional capacity.[2] Man is more than matter animated by reason. Man is more than speech and opposable thumbs. A man without thumbs is a thumb-less man; a man without affections is no man at all. Dehumanization is not synonymous with thumb-removal.[3] Man is made in God’s image. Man, like God, is emotional. The Gospel accounts perfectly record and describe the only perfect life of the only sinless man to have ever lived. The Gospels present a fully divine and fully human Christ—and they do not do so by describing His thumbs. The Gospels depict a fully emotional, and yet always sinless Jesus and it is this emotional and sinless Jesus that B.B Warfield assesses in his article, “The Emotional Life of Our Lord.”

In an age in which “being cool” and detached are supreme virtues, it is curiously inconsistent that feelings instead of principle so often dictate behavior. Neither a withdrawn detachment nor tyrannical feelings characterize the life of Jesus. Warfield begins by identifying the two extremes positions which have plagued the church since its early days:

One, derived ultimately from the ethical ideal of the Stoa, which conceived moral perfection under the form of apatheia, naturally wished to attribute this ideal apatheia to Jesus, as the perfect man. The other, under the influence of the conviction that, in order to deliver men from their weaknesses, the Redeemer must assume and sanctify in his own person all human pathe, as naturally was eager to attribute to him in its fullness every human pathos. (93)

Jesus wasn’t a detached apathetic stoic; neither was he a feelings-obsessed existentialist. Jesus perfectly executed the will of His Father and His emotions were always in perfect harmony with that execution. Man is emotional in his performance of duty, and yet duty demands the intentional tempering of emotion. While there was never sinless excess, emotion accompanied our Lord’s actions.

It is this tension and harmony that we find in the Gospel’s sometimes more and sometimes less pronounced accounts of our Savior’s emotional life. Warfield demonstrates this by recounting the Gospel witness of Christ in Gethsemane:

If the distant prospect of his sufferings was a perpetual Gethsemane to him, the immediate imminence of them in the actual Gethsemane could not fail to bring with it that ‘awful and dreadful torture’ which Calvin does not scruple to call the ‘exordium’ of the pains of hell themselves. Matthew and Mark almost exhaust the resources of language to convey to us some conception of our Lord’s ‘agony’…in this dreadful experience. The anguish of reluctance which constituted this ‘agony’ is in part described by them both…by a term the primary idea of which is loathing, aversion, perhaps not unmixed with despondency. (129-30)

Warfield later remarks that in the garden of Gethsemane, “the horror of death and the ardor of obedience met,” (131, quoting Bengel).

Christ execution of the will of God the Father was accompanied by Christ’s perfect human emotion—always present, often extreme, and yet, always tempered:

The series of emotions attributed to our Lord in the Evangelical narrative, in their variety and their complex but harmonious interaction, illustrate, though, of course, they cannot of themselves demonstrate, this balanced comprehensiveness of his individuality. Various as they are, they do not inhibit one another; compassion and indignation rise together in his soul; joy and sorrow meet in his heart and kiss each other. Strong as they are — not mere joy but exhultation, not mere irritated annoyance but raging indignation, not mere passing pity but the deepest movements of compassion and love, not mere surface distress but an exceeding sorrow even unto death, — they never overmaster him. He remains ever in control. (141-42, emphasis added.)

And yet, the moral perfection of our Savior did not only temper his affections. His moral perfection evoked emotion:

The moral sense is not a mere faculty of discrimination between the qualities which we call right and wrong, which exhausts itself in their perception as different. The judgments it passes are not merely intellectual, but what we call moral judgments; that is to say, they involve approval and disapproval according to the qualities perceived. It would be impossible, therefore, for a moral being to stand in the presence of perceived wrong indifferent and unmoved. Precisely what we mean by a moral being is a being perceptive of the difference between right and wrong and reacting appropriately to right and wrong perceived as such. The emotions of indignation and anger belong therefore to the very self-expression of a moral being as such and cannot be lacking to him in the presence of wrong. (107, emphasis added.)

By this theological-philosophical approach, Warfield has done today’s minister a great service. It is hard to imagine sinless emotions. It is difficult to envision the anger of a sinless being. Perhaps partially due to the sin of selfishness, men are almost unable keep from projecting their own prejudices and proclivities onto others, and it is precisely this that today’s minister need to constantly overcome. The affections of Jesus were not neutered or truncated. Jesus’ perfection did not only come to expression in the tempering of his emotions, but also in the extensive accompaniment of his emotions to his actions. He did not just heal people; he was moved with pity to heal them. He did not just help people; he loved them.

This aspect of his emotional life is perhaps hardest to grasp. Why would Jesus love those who had nothing to offer him? This love is not so much a child’s love for his parent as it is the parent’s love for his child. In considering Mark 10:21, Warfield offers this helpful distinction in considering the love of Jesus, “Here we are told that Jesus, looking upon the rich young ruler, ‘loved’ him, and said to him, ‘One thing thou lackest.’ It is not the ‘love of complacency’ which is intended, but the ‘love of benevolence’; that is to say, it is the love, not so much that finds good, as that intends good,” (101). A child’s love for his parents ought to develop and grow with every good thing his parents give him. The parents, on the other hand, grow in love for the child as they dedicate and invest themselves in the child.

The broad diversity and intense physicality of Christ’s emotional life is often underscored by the authors of the Gospels. Every time the emotions of Christ are related, the exegete must ask, why did the Holy Spirit communicate this particular affection of Jesus? What is its significance? Such questions often lead to a fuller and more realistic interpretation of the text. In a breath-taking paragraph, Warfield lists expression after expression of Christ’s emotional life. Jesus hungered, thirsted, was weary, knew physical pain and pleasure. He bodily expressed the emotions that stirred his soul when he wept, wailed, sighed, groaned, angrily glared, when he spoke chidingly and with asperity. He broke out in a rage-filled ebullition when he saw Mary mourning Lazarus. He reveled in joy over the God-given understanding of his disciples. In anguish, He cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”[4] Warfield concludes, “Nothing is lacking to make the impression strong that we have before us in Jesus a human being like ourselves,” (138-39).[5]

In addition to these insights, the essay is packed with linguistic and exegetical insight. In the middle of his piece, Warfield’s gives and extended treatment of Jesus Christ prior to Lazarus’ resurrection. The reading is a must for any who seek to understand what John is conveying in the passage. As a snippet preview, feast on this exposition:

[John] even traces for us the movements of his inward struggle: ‘Jesus, therefore, when he saw her wailing, and the Jews that had come with her wailing, was enraged in spirit and troubled himself’ . . . and wept. His inwardly restrained fury produced a profound agitation of his whole being, one of the manifestations of which was tears….The spectacle of the distress of Mary and her companions enraged Jesus because it brought poignantly home to his consciousness the evil of death, its unnaturalness, its ‘violent tyranny’ as Calvin…phrases it. In Mary’s grief, he ‘contemplates’ — still to adopt Calvin’s words…’the general misery of the whole human race’ and burns with rage against the oppressor of men. Inextinguishable fury seizes upon him; his whole being is discomposed and perturbed; and his heart, if not his lips, cries out, ‘For the innumerable dead Is my soul disquieted.’ It is death that is the object of his wrath, and behind death him who has the power of death, and whom he has come into the world to destroy. Tears of sympathy may fill his eyes, but this is incidental. His soul is held by rage: and he advances to the tomb, in Calvin’s words again, ‘as a champion who prepares for conflict.’

See how considering Christ’s emotional life can lead to a more accurate and gripping sermon? Never view Christ’s perfection as if it somehow came at the expense of his emotion. Never neuter the meaning and potency of the Evangelists’ words in order to make them seem more appropriate for Jesus Christ. When the Gospel accounts record that Jesus was indignant, irate, enraged, or furious, resist the urge to tone down the word’s meaning and potency. Doing so is taking away from Scripture. Instead, review Warfield’s masterful essay, and prayerfully dive into the glory of the incarnation. Discover the awe and beauty of sanctified human emotion. Crave them, labor towards them, and encourage the members of your flock to resist cool apathy and emotion-tyranny. Encourage them to be students and imitators of the emotional life of our Lord.


[1] Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield, “The Emotional Life of Our Lord” in The Person and Work of Christ, (Phillipsburg, NJ: The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1950) 93-145, a reprint of the essay which was first published in 1912. The essay is available on line at: http://www.the-highway.com/emotion-Christ_Warfield.html.

[2] One wonders why the definition for “humane” touches upon what is altogether missing from the definitions for “human” and “man.” According to the OED, to be “humane” is to be “Characterized by such behaviour or disposition towards others as befits a man…Gentle or kindly in demeanour or action; civil, courteous, friendly, obliging…Marked by sympathy with and consideration for the needs and distresses of others; feeling or showing compassion and tenderness towards human beings and the lower animals; kind, benevolent.”[2]

[3]According to the WNWD to “dehumanize” is “to deprive of human qualities, as pity, kindness, individuality, or creativity; make inhuman or machinelike.” Emphasis added.

[4] Cf. Mt 4:2, Jn 19:20, 4:6 11:35, Lk 19:41, Mk 7:34, 8:12, 3:5, 10:14 3:12, Jn 11:33, 35, 38; Lk 10:21, Mt. 27:46.

[5] A century ago, Warfield offered the best critique of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code which cavalierly claims, “the early Church needed to convince the world that the mortal prophet Jesus was a divine being. Therefore, any gospels that described earthly aspects of Jesus’ life had to be omitted from the Bible.” Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code (New York: Doubleday, 2003), 244.

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