The New Testament’s Witness: The Jesus of History and the Christ of Faith

In my previous blog post, I emphasized that Christianity is more than a religion. Jesus Himself was not thinking of Christianity as a religion when He spoke of discipleship and the cost of following Him. He was describing a way of life that was unique, original in His teachings and different from all known religions of His own day. This included Judaism, the religion of His own people. Jesus was born a Jew, circumcised “when He was eight days old according to Jewish law,” nurtured in that faith by His Jewish parents, and educated in the little synagogue school in his hometown of Nazareth. However, as the Word of God (i.e. the Eternal Christ) made flesh in His incarnation (John 1:14), fully man and fully God, Jesus did not belong exclusively to any one race or religion. He was for “all people” and had come as “The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).

In the books of the New Testament, we find Christianity described in many ways. Never as a religion, but always as a relationship with the person of Jesus, an encounter with Him as the crucified and resurrected Christ, “…who is and who was and who is to come” (Rev. 1:4 and 8). The One who “…loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom of priests serving his God and Father” (Rev. 1:5-6). The One who “makes all things new” (Rev. 21:5). The One through whom and by whom we experience the power of becoming “children of God” (i.e. new creatures in Christ, “born anew” into the family of God — John 1:14, 3:4; Romans 8:1). The One in whom we also have a special relationship with one another as brothers and sisters in Christ, as members of the one Body of Christ (i.e. Christ’s universal Church), with not only a new nature but also and a new mission: to MAKE JESUS KNOWN AS “THE CHRIST, THE SON OF THE LIVING GOD” (Matthew 16:16).

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The Gospel story in the New Testament, which is the story of Jesus, His life and ministry, is our introduction to the historical Jesus (i.e. the Jesus of history, Jesus of Nazareth, the Man of Galilee). The four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) which begin the story give us the details of his birth, youth, family life, labor as a carpenter, the launching of his public ministry as a teacher and healer, his rejection by his own people, false condemnation and unjust crucifixion (although it was a part of His heavenly Father’s plan from the beginning), excruciating death on the cross, burial in a “borrowed tomb”, victorious resurrection and resurrection appearances. The Acts of the Apostles picks up where the four gospels end, beginning with the final appearance of the Risen Christ to his disciples, his visible ascension into heaven, the Pentecost event, the dispersion and preaching of the earliest followers of Jesus Christ in their missionary travels, “…in a time of severe persecution” (Acts 8:11-2), and the history of the Early Church.

The book of Acts is followed by the epistles (i.e. letters), written by some of the “eyewitnesses” and other converts to “The Way” (i.e.what the followers of Jesus Christ were first called, for He had called himself “The Way”). The Apostles Paul and Luke, who became followers of Jesus following Pentecost, were the two contributors whose writings when combined comprise most of the New Testament. In all of these writings, it is Jesus himself, his uniqueness and supremacy as “the Christ” that is proclaimed, with a singleness of purpose:  “…so that he might come to have first place in everything.” Not only in our hearts, worship, and lifestyle, but in “all things” (i.e. in the whole of creation, and in life and work of the Church — Colossians 1:11-18), with the hope that all who truly believe in Jesus Christ might remain steadfast and immovable in their faith, …without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel” (Colossians 1:23 — i.e. continuing “securely established” in the faith, without wavering or wandering from the hope of salvation and everlasting life, by trust in Jesus as the resurrected Christ, their Savior and Lord).

Hostile forces were arrayed against Christ and his Church. The “powers and principalities of darkness,” both religious and political, were waging war against all believers in Jesus Christ who refused to renounce their faith in Jesus as Lord (Ephesians 6:10-18). The apostles knew the threats and dangers, and were often writing to encourage and warn their brothers and sisters in Christ:

  • The Spirit expressly says that in later times some will renounce the faith by paying attention to deceitful spirits and false teachings (even more literally “demonic” teachings, that will lead believers astray), through the hypocrisy of lies” (I Timothy 4:1-2)
  • Fight the good fight of the faith (i.e. “the faith” entrusted to us), the true Gospel of Jesus Christ “…who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords…Avoid the profane chatter and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge, by professing it some have missed the mark as regards the faith” (I Timothy 6:12 and 20)
  • “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the cleverness of the clever I will thwart…Since the world “did not know God through wisdom, God decided through the foolishness of our preaching to save those who believe” (I Corinthians 1:21 — i.e. through the preaching of the authentic Gospel, Jesus Christ crucified and risen — see also vs. 26-32, 2:4-5,10-14; 4:9-13; 9:16-23; 15:1-8, 12-26, 55-57)

The Greeks exalted knowledge (i.e. human wisdom), but the Apostle Paul wanted all who claimed to be wise to understand that no one had ever entered the kingdom of God “head-first,” and no one ever would! I have personally profited from Paul’s warning to preachers about the desire to appear too wise and clever in proclaiming the Gospel. During my years as Pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Honolulu, we were blessed to have as one of our visiting preachers and teachers Dr. James I. Packer, a well-known and highly respected British theologian and popular Christian author and conference speaker (such as the one FPC scheduled for local pastors on the islands in Hawaii). In one of his lectures on the perils and privileges (as well as the power) of preaching, it was like a dagger to the heart to hear him say “Cleverness is the curse of Christian communication.” Those words struck me at such a deep level, I wrote them in the margin of my Bible beside I Corinthians 1:19: “The cleverness of the clever (and “the discernment of the wise”) I will thwart.” The desire to impress those to whom we are preaching (i.e. with our knowledge and wisdom, and the temptation to appear “clever”) can be an intoxicating curse rather than a blessing. For yielding to that temptation can draw attention to ourselves rather than to Jesus Christ as Lord. We preachers should always want the spotlight to be on Jesus Christ, not on ourselves! We must always be aware of the temptation to give in to pride, self-exaltation, trust in our theological training and homiletical skills (i.e. “the art of preaching”), the use of unfamiliar technical words and terms that may impress (but might also confuse), self-satisfaction and the desire for compliments. That can be the devil’s trap! If we are not careful, we preachers can cultivate a voracious appetite for applause and may too soon start believing that all of the nice things people are saying about us must be true! We must be honest enough to recognize this fault, and determine that through discipline and self-control, humility and repentance, we will orient our entire life’s purpose and passion to the exaltation of Jesus Christ, to not only draw attention to him but actually draw others to him. In essence, “…decreasing that he might increase” (John 3:30).

When we do so, we will find our professional achievements more satisfying, spiritual lives enriched, relationships with the people of God enhanced, and calling as “Ministers of the Word and Sacraments” far more exciting and fulfilling. On the other hand, when we do not do so, we will find our ministerial responsibilities not only more burdensome, frustrating and exhausting but also less enjoyable and with less real “fruit” to show for the many hours we have invested in our high calling (John 15:1-5).  Jesus himself said “The Son of Man (his favorite title for himself, which emphasized his humanity as the Word “made flesh,” a real man living in this real world for a time) must be lifted up, that whoever believes in him might have eternal life” (John 3:15). One of the first heresies the Early Church was forced to deal with was Gnosticism, which was the exaltation of knowledge (i.e. a “higher knowledge”, a deeper understanding of spiritual truth). The Gnostics had a Greek mentality, for they valued knowledge above all else. The city Goddess of Athens was Athena, the “God of wisdom.”  A huge statue of her stood at the center of the interior of the Parthenon, which was a temple to Athena. When the Apostle Paul arrived in Athens, he knew he was going to be faced with a formidable task: bringing a message that was centered in the person of one who had been crucified as a common criminal, but was now being proclaimed as the Risen Christ (i.e. the “Logos” or the eternal Word by whom all things had been created. This is the Greek word the Apostle John chose for use in the prologue to his gospel, proclaiming the pre-existence of Jesus as the Word…through whom all things came into existence” (John 1:3)). Athens was one of the three great intellectual centers of the ancient world; the other two were Alexandria and Tarsus, the seat of Stoicism, the city of Pauls’ birth and one of the two major sites of his own education, the other being Jerusalem. Paul himself was one of the great intellectuals of his day, but he did not believe in the superiority of human reason (which is one of the prevailing dogmas of our own time). Furthermore, we can pin no date on “Gnosticism,” which is by no means just a first-century Christian heresy.

Suffice it to say, this is still one of the many “isms” Christ’s Church contends with today. The Gnostics taught that only spiritual things are holy and that all material and physical things are unholy (i.e. in opposition to God’s nature, contrary to God’s design and desire for his human family, as seen in Genesis in the “Garden of Eden” story).  It was utterly inconceivable to the Gnostics that the divine could ever be joined to, or united with, the human, so they could not believe in the incarnation, that God actually visited this physical world in the form of a real human being. They could not believe that Jesus was both fully God and fully man. However, there were those in the Early Church who were being led astray by the Gnostics’ teachings. They had presented themselves as “deep thinkers,” appealing to those who had been educated in the Greek-speaking world. Therefore, the churches that had been established in Greece were indeed “wavering” in their faith, and Paul had to deal directly and firmly with those in Christ’s Church (especially in his Corinthian correspondence and in his Letter to the Colossians), sounding this warning: “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human reason and the elemental spiritual forces of the world rather than on Christ” (Colossians 2:8).

They do not call themselves “Gnostics” today, but orthodox Christianity is still being challenged and threatened by some who consider themselves “deep thinkers” and are sowing seeds of confusion in Christ’s Church. Perhaps the best-known example of such organized groups that do not believe the Jesus of history was (or “is”) the Living and Reigning Christ, is the so-called “Jesus Seminar.” They are still searching for “the real Jesus,” and some of them have said they hope to “re-invent Christianity.” Many other respected theologians do not consider these critical scholars “deep thinkers.” In fact, they forcefully question their scholarship (not their disdain for American fundamentalism), their fantasies that have been presented as facts and the suppositions they have offered as more sensible and suitable substitutes for historic Christian beliefs about Jesus Christ. They do not believe the “Jesus of the gospels” is the real Jesus, and they do not believe that Jesus of Nazareth was (or more properly, “is”) the Risen Christ. We can agree that we do not have the “whole truth” about Jesus in the gospels of the New Testament, for no number of books could possibly contain all the truth about him. Let it be said that the real Jesus is not less than the One we meet in the gospels, but much more than the gospels! However, in their search for the “real Jesus,” these contemporary critical thinkers recommend other non-canonical books such as the Gospel of Thomas, and writings that have been attributed to other disciples of Jesus like Judas (books that were rejected by the Church fathers when the canon of scripture was chosen and closed). Not many respected biblical scholars agree that the gospel attributed to Thomas is as old as the Jesus Seminar group suggests. Furthermore, these critical thinkers do not even accept the Gospel of John (not simply questioning the authorship of the fourth gospel). It is not hard to grasp the reason why they would omit the fourth gospel from the New Testament canon, for there is no other “real Jesus” than the one we are introduced to in this gospel as Christ. He was not one of many sons, but the one and only solitary Son of God, who was “with God” (personal, always, eternally) and “was God”  (the second Person of the Godhead, the Holy Trinity; divine, the same in substance, equal in power and glory with the Father and the Holy Spirit; one God in three persons) “from the beginning”  (John 1:1-2). He was the Logos, the Word, the Eternal Christ, the “only-begotten Son of God” (John 1:14 and 3:16) who became the “Son of Man” (born of woman, made flesh, seen in human form). He was “full of grace and truth” and the only “MESSIAH” (the meaning of the Greek “Christos,” or “the Christ).

The stated purpose of the author of the fourth gospel is given to us in his own words: “He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe. His testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth. These things occurred so that the scriptures might be fulfilled…These things are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (John 19:35-36 and 20:31). In other words, one receives life through believing that the crucified Jesus and the Risen Christ are one and the same, not two different beings. So, the Gospel of John refutes many of the preconceived ideas and self-formulated opinions of these contemporary self-appointed judges about the “real Jesus,” or the Jesus they are still searching for but who will not be found, for there is only one real Jesus: the One million upon millions of people have found through the centuries. Or rather, the Jesus who has found them, me and hopefully you. Not some fictional Jesus. Not a poor, pale, meager, human Jesus. Instead, the Christ Jesus “…in whom all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell….in bodily form” (Colossians 1:19 and 2:9). The Jesus “…whose fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” (John 1:16). “The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), the One who is “the Alpha and the Omega,” the One “…who was, who is, and who is to come, the Almighty” (Revelation 1:8). Jesus is “the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8) and is “the great shepherd of the sheep, who by the blood of the eternal covenant will make us complete (i.e. in the fullness of time), to whom be the glory forever and ever” (Hebrews 13:20-21).

I will have more to say about this in a future blog post on the Bible and the authority of scripture for us as followers of Jesus. At this point, just let it be said that the whole biblical story points to Jesus, for all this written record of the mighty acts of God in history is the story of salvation (i.e. “salvation history”), culminating in the story of Jesus Christ, the only Savior. This story includes the beginning of the Christian missionary movement, establishment of local churches, ordination of leaders, Elders and Deacons and the phenomenal growth of the Church in the apostolic age. Everything written in both the Old and New Testament is one continuous story, the unfolding of God’s eternal plan of salvation for the “fullness of time.” The “crossroad” of salvation history was the coming of Christ into the world when God actually visited this planet in the form of a baby born in a stable. As someone said so well, “The hinge of history was on the Bethlehem stable.” The whole of the New Testament answers for us the age-old question, “Who is this Jesus?” We have the testimony of those who knew him best and loved him most, his first disciples, and the witness of other converts who added their own writings that were destined to become a part of the Bible (which would come as a great surprise to all of them). Who could ever have imagined that sixty-six books, written by such a diverse group of people at different times over a period of thousands of years, could ever have been put together to form one continuous story? Certainly not the writers of the Old Testament books. Not even the prophets who prophesied accurately and completely the coming of Christ into the world at least 700 years beforehand, naming the place of his birth, describing the details, foretelling his rejection, crucifixion, and resurrection. Not even the disciples of Jesus and others who wrote gospels and letters that would become part of the New Testament, to be read by millions upon millions of people for more than two thousand years in a book called The Bible (which means “the book”), which would become the world’s best selling book.

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Let this be the final word: most followers of Jesus, following his crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension, as well as after the Pentecost event, believed the Jesus they had encountered was the One who was “fully man” but also “fully God,” the Eternal Christ in human form, the God-Man. The New Testament gives us a remarkable record of the incredible spread of the Christian faith beyond the boundaries of Israel, Judea, Samaria, and even beyond the Greek-speaking world to Europe. All of it is the continuing history of the “Jesus Christ” movement, the missionary enterprise that took the Gospel to Rome until even Emperor Constantine was converted. It was not only the “gates of hell” that were not able to prevail against the Church Christ was building (Matthew 16:16), but the legions of Rome were destined to march beneath the banner of the cross. No one in that age would have believed it, but that is because very few knew who the historical Jesus is, except those who had become true believers and were proclaiming with unshakeable conviction that Jesus was more than just another prophet of God or a mere man. Jesus was the voice of God calling out to all people, the hand of God reaching out to all people, the heart of God throbbing out to all people, the very person of God clothed in the garment of human flesh that the people who saw and heard him might have the opportunity to see with their own eyes what God is like, for Jesus said: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). Furthermore, Jesus came proclaiming the kingdom of God, and he spoke as one who was as familiar with eternity as one is with his own home. He did not only speak the truth, he claimed to be “the truth.” He did not simply point people to the way (i.e. the way to the kingdom of heaven, or his “Father’s house” as described in John 14:1), he claimed to be “the way.”  He did not just offer people life (i.e. life abundant and everlasting), he claimed to be “the life” (i.e. the Source and Giver of life). Is it any wonder that he raised more than questions? He also raised eyebrows, he raised tempers, he raised the level of anger in the crowd that demanded his crucifixion; not because of his cures, compassion or choices (i.e. his choice of friends and dinner companions, which is the reason his enemies called him “a friend of sinners”), but BECAUSE OF HIS CLAIMS! Claims which were validated by his resurrection and verified by the witness of those who became the first missionaries of the church and those who wrote the books of the New Testament.

Still, things have not really changed that much since the first-century when it comes to Jesus Christ. It is still his claims that create confusion, controversy, and conflict in religious circles today, even in Christ’s Church.