“Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he
asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’”
– Matthew 16:13
Jesus is given many titles in the four gospels of the New Testament, but the title He preferred for himself was “Son of Man,” for that was not only a title given the Messiah in the Old Testament, but a title that expressed His full humanity. When He asked His disciples, “What are people saying about me?,” He knew some were saying He was not a real man because of “the signs” that were a witness to his divine power (John 3:2). There were those who truly believed He was the Son of God, because no mere man had such supernatural power, the power to do extraordinary things that could not be explained from God – forgiving sins, casting out demons, cleansing lepers, making blind eyes see, making deaf ears hear, making paralytics walk, curing all kinds of incurable diseases, calming storms, and even bringing life out of death.
Furthermore no mere man had ever spoken as Jesus did, talking about God in such intimate terms, speaking as if from the “inside,” claiming He and His Father in heaven were “one,” that those who had seen Him had seen the Father (John 14:8-12, 17:20-24), saying He had come down from heaven (John 6:51). No mere man had ever made the kind of claims He made. Of course, there was nothing “mere” about Jesus! Those who followed Him, who listened to His teachings, who heard Him say such incredible things about Himself, how He equated Himself with God, knew He was no ordinary teacher. He was so well acquainted with the law and the prophets, although He had never attended a rabbinical school. Other rabbis were astounded at His knowledge. How could they account for His intellectual superiority, His spiritual wisdom? Nicodemus, one of the most respected of the Pharisees knew He was surely “a man sent from God” (John 3:2). Could He be the Messiah, the One who had come to redeem His people, the Lord strong and mighty? But how could anyone have possibly known that He was both fully God and fully man? God had “appeared” to His covenant people before, in different ways during the Exodus: in the parting of the Red Sea, in a “cloud” that guided them by day, and as a “pillar of fire” that guided them by night; also speaking to Moses out of a burning bush in the wilderness of Sinai, a bush that was “burning but not consumed.” However, no one had ever seen God, for God had never taken human form before. The invisible God had never become visible, or appeared in the form of human flesh until Jesus appeared among them “full of grace and truth,” the Eternal Christ who was not only with God from “the beginning,” but was God, the agent of God in creation, the “Word of God,” who spoke all things into being, and in the fullness of time “became flesh and lived among us,” the Living Word (John 1:1-3, and 14).
The Apostle Paul would later proclaim Jesus to be equal with God, possessing all the attributes of deity, but had “emptied himself” when He took “human form” (Philippians 2:5-11), when the invisible God became visible, for “all the fullness of God” was pleased to “dwell in him” (i.e. Jesus of Nazareth, the Man of Galilee, a real man living in this real world (Colossians 1:15-20, Hebrews 1:1-3) – the Jesus we only know because we have the writings of the apostles, and others who came to know who Jesus IS and also wrote books that became part of the Bible (most notably Paul and Luke) who came to know Jesus as Lord, whose combined writings comprise the largest part of the New Testament. What knowledge do we have of Jesus that has not come to us through the writings of those first century Christians, and because of those saints through the ages in Christ’s Church who copied, preserved, and translated the scriptures?
Of course, the Old Testament prophets were expecting a different kind of Messiah, a mighty King from the line of David, who would restore Israel to her former glory. God’s prophet, Isaiah, was the only one who had foretold that the Messiah would suffer as we suffer, would experience all of the emotions all humans experience, that He would be “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief,” “despised and rejected” by His own people, that He would even be “wounded for our transgressions” and “led as a lamb to the slaughter,” dying a horrible death “for the transgressions” of his people. However, those prophetic words written seven hundred years before the time of Jesus had never really ever gripped the minds and hearts of God’s covenant people (Isaiah 53:3-9). For It was inconceivable to them that the Messiah would be a Suffering Servant rather than a mighty warrior, a victim rather than a victor (although Isaiah had also prophesied that the Son Man would be victorious over his enemies, verses 10-12), and even victorious over death. It was all so unbelievable, so incomprehensible. Nothing like that had ever been prophesied. IT WAS SO HARD FOR ANYONE AT THAT TIME TO BELIEVE THAT SUCH THINGS COULD HAPPEN TO THE MESSIAH?
What about us? More than two-thousand years have passed. We not only live on the other side of the cross and the empty tomb, we have the written testimony of His disciples; all of them, except John, died a martyr’s death. People do not willingly, gratefully, and joyfully lay down their lives for a lie! Furthermore, we have the New Testament, the preaching and teaching of the Early Church. We also have the witness of the Church Fathers; so many of them were also martyred because they too refused to deny Jesus. In fact, “the blood of the martyrs became the seed of the Church.” We know that followers of Jesus in every century have been willing to die for Him, because they knew who Jesus is, and He was their”first love.” Through the ages there have been thousands of Christian martyrs, including in our own lifetimes (in the twenty and twenty-first centuries), for all of them have known that “Jesus Christ IS Lord,” and they had the courage to die for Him.
That was the first Confession of Faith in Christ’s Church, “JESUS CHRIST IS LORD,” and that belief is still “the Church’s one foundation” (the faith we sing). Those who have refused to believe Jesus Christ IS Lord have always persecuted those who do believe, and they always will, not only because of who His followers believe Him to be, but because of who Jesus Himself claimed to be! It is His own absolute claims that have always made Him so controversial. No other religious leader or founder of any other religion, has ever dared to make the kind of claims Jesus made when speaking of Himself. It is always very appropriate during the season of LENT, which began with “Ash Wednesday” on February 14th, to focus once again on those claims and to ask ourselves, “Do we really believe Jesus IS who he claimed to be? Do we take all of his claims seriously? If we do, what practical difference is our belief making in our lives?”
If we do not take all the claims of Jesus recorded in the gospels of the New Testament seriously, why not? What do we do with those claims? Do we take the position of those who simply say they do not believe the “real Jesus” made such claims? In other words, do we reject the authenticity of the New Testament gospels, and perhaps even take a “cafeteria approach” to the whole biblical story, selecting only those passages of scripture that appeal to our own taste and spiritual appetite? Have we decided to not choose those verses in the four gospels that we find distasteful, or to “delete” those stories we cannot accept because we believe in the superiority of human reason and cannot reconcile the account of miraculous events with what we know about natural law? Have we perhaps decided that science and religion (at least belief in the supernatural, and the supra-natural) are irreconcilable? If that is the case, we are still faced with the question, “Then, what do we really believe about Jesus? Do we believe the historical Jesus was a good man?” If we do, then surely He was an honest man, a truthful man? He could not have been a false prophet. He could not have been a deceiver, unless he was self-deceived. Many skeptics who have chosen to reject the claims of Jesus even say they believe he was perhaps the best person who ever lived. If so, then they are faced with the question, “How can they call a man who had such an exalted opinion of himself the best man who ever lived?” In fact, Jesus himself said “Those who exalt themselves will be humbled,” but in His claims he certainly exalted Himself!
So during this Season of Lent I will be sharing my own reaction to those serious historians who do not deny the existence of the historical Jesus, who even call themselves Christians, but do not believe the Jesus of the gospels, or the Jesus portrayed in the rest of the New Testament for that matter, is the “real Jesus.” They do not believe that Jesus of Nazareth, the Man of Galilee, is the risen, ascended, and reigning Lord proclaimed in the New Testament, or that He actually claimed to be “the resurrection and the life” and actually told His disciples He would be raised from the dead. They do not believe that the historical is the same Eternal Christ who now sits on heaven’s throne as the object of heaven’s worship, the Lord of heaven and earth, who is coming again in the fullness of time to “judge the living and the dead” (the One we confess in “The Apostles Creed”). Why? Because they do not believe that the Jesus of the gospels and the resurrected Christ of the Easter story are one and the same person! That, my friends, is the most important theological and doctrinal issue we are faced with during this Season of Lent! Some critical thinkers do not question that the Jesus of the gospels was fully man, but they reject the accounts of His wonder working power, the miracles recorded there. This is because they do not accept the authenticity of the supernatural acts attributed to Jesus of Nazareth in the gospels. Their stated purpose is to discover the “real Jesus” through their scholarly (and I might add “selective”) research. It seems they question, or consider false, any biblical statements about Jesus that they cannot reconcile with their own preconceived views and concepts of Jesus. Their iconoclastic methods of inquiry allow them to reject that which cannot be reconciled with the image of Jesus that is most acceptable to them, and that is a merely human Jesus. They are simply continuing their consideration of other ancient non-canonical writings, and additional research data, that are more compatible with the Jesus they believe in, with the hope that they will eventually be able to introduce us to the “real Jesus,” rather than the One still confessed by almost all Christians in the worldwide Body of Christ.
These contemporary authors who have published their views, the results of their research, have already concluded that only “one sentence” in Mark’s entire gospel is authentic (most biblical scholars agree that the second of the four gospels was probably the first to be written, and Matthew and Luke used Mark’s gospel as a resource). They have decided that just a few phrases in the so-called “Sermon on the Mount” are actual words of Jesus, although Matthew was an “eyewitness,” and Jesus told his disciples the Holy Spirit would call his actual words to remembrance, and lead them into all truth (John 14:25-27, 15:26-27, 16:7-14). Perhaps this is one major reason these “biblical” scholars suggest that we should disregard completely the Gospel of John (another of the “eyewitnesses” who heard the words of Jesus, including the purpose of the Holy Spirit who would be given to them – read also I John 1:1-4).
No wonder these critical scholars do not accept the bodily resurrection of Jesus. They “spiritualize” the Easter story as recorded in the gospels, especially the Gospel of John. Believers around the world will soon be celebrating the victory of Jesus over sin, suffering, and death, at the end of this Lenten Season; hearing once again John’s account, in which he tells us that he and Peter were the first disciples to visit and enter the empty tomb on the Day of Resurrection, and when they saw the undisturbed grave clothes in which the body of Jesus had been wrapped, still on the stone slab where his body had been placed before the tomb was sealed, and the body was gone, that is when they believed (John 20:4-8). For his body, in its resurrected and glorified state had obviously dematerialized, leaving the grave-clothes collapsed in the place where the body of Jesus had been, as well as the napkin that had been around his head still there as well.
According to the gospels, in His transformed body the resurrected Jesus was able to appear to his disciples, and also able to vanish out of their sight at will. He was able to appear in the upper room when the doors were locked. He was able to be present in Jerusalem and also in Emmaus the same evening, in two of His early resurrection appearances. When He wanted his disciples to recognize Him, their eyes were opened to behold Him as the same Jesus they had known and loved. At first, Thomas thought he had seen a ghost, but He told Thomas to handle His nail pierced hands and feet, to put his hand in His riven side, and to be not faithless but believing. Thomas bowed a His feet saying, “My Lord and my God!” His followers were always able to see Him, to talk with Him, and even to eat with Him, for He was not some disembodied spirit (Luke 24:1-35, John 20:19-31 and 21:1-14).
I have not seen, but I do believe. I believe Jesus IS who He claimed to be, including “the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25-26). I believe the testimony of the “eyewitnesses,” and I believe the witness of the apostles in the whole of the New Testament. You must have noticed that I have capitalized “IS” throughout this blog, for that is the way we should always speak of Jesus. We should never say “was,” as if he is just a figure of the ancient past, a prophet of God who lived and died more than two thousand years ago, rather than One who is alive today, and at work in this world where no earthly power can stop His truth – the One who “IS the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8) – the One who is at work in the lives of all who truly believe, for He has made their hearts His home. AMEN.