The Historical Jesus – Part 2 of 3
Who did Jesus claim to be?
All of us are guilty of fashioning our own Jesus to a certain degree. I am convinced this is completely unavoidable. At the same time, one of our goals as we mature in Christ ought to be that we know Him truly, and not only superficially. Knowing the true Jesus of history is part of this process, and the best starting place would seem to be the question, “What did Jesus say about Himself?”
The best place to find this answer is in the Bible itself. But I am fully aware that, for many people, quoting Jesus from the Scriptures does not bear the same authority it once did. In fact, one of the main reasons the historical Jesus has been called into question is because the credibility of the biblical record was called into question first. The 20th century brought about more biblical criticism than any other era, and we still bear the effects today. Since the history of the Bible is not the major issue at hand in this series, let it suffice to say that I believe the Bible to be the only true authority regarding who Jesus was and is. I would argue that anyone who intentionally presents a Jesus contradictory to the Scriptures is guilty of intentionally fashioning his or her own Jesus.
As I mentioned in part 1, there are several sources from antiquity, other than the Bible, where Jesus is mentioned. We call those “extrabiblical” sources. My “friar friend” James Patrick Hall added several more to my list, which can be seen here. These sources are helpful, but they are far from sufficient when compared to the Bible itself. Because no other ancient source that mentions Jesus has anything close to the detail and agreement found in the first four books of the New Testament.
Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were each written from different places, in different decades, and to different people. Matthew and Luke probably used the content of Mark to produce parts of their books, which likely came from the disciple Peter. Thus, Matthew, Mark, and Luke are often called the “Synoptic Gospels,” because they each perceive and tell the same story together. John’s gospel is somewhat of an outlier from this standpoint, but that is because he included unique content for a unique purpose. Even with their differences, there is an amazing unity between the four biblical accounts of Jesus’ life, work, and words. As one author has said, “There are four gospels that present one Jesus.”
So, what did Jesus say about Himself as recorded in the Scriptures?
A quick survey of just one of the gospels, John, reveals some very bold and dangerous claims made by Jesus when He walked on the earth nearly 2,000 years ago.
Buckle up, here comes a long sentence. Jesus claimed to have come from heaven (John 8:23), to have been sent from God (John 8:42), to be one with God the Father (John 10:30), to be the son of God (John 10:36), to have existed before Abraham (John 8:58), to be the Jewish Messiah (John 4:25-26), to have overcome the world (John 16:33), to have the authority to judge all humanity (John 5:22, 27), to be the way to God (John 14:6), to be able to raise the dead (John 11:25-26), and to give everlasting life (John 6:47-51). He even called Himself by the same name given to Yahweh in Exodus 3:14: I AM (John 8:58).
As the Roman governor of Jerusalem, Pontius Pilate, was interrogating Jesus, the following conversation took place:
Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to present my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom of from another place.”
“You are a king, then!” said Pilate.
Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” (John 18:36-37)
We simply cannot get past the fact that Jesus made some very scandalous statements about Himself. Pilate did not understand. The religious leaders refused to believe. Even Jesus’ own disciples could not fully grasp the deepest truth of His statements and claims.
Jesus claimed to be God.
For those who argue that Jesus was simply a good man and a good teacher, this claim shatters such illusions.
Imagine if one of your co-workers left his job, gathered together a group of followers, and claimed to be God on Earth. Would you still call the guy a good person? You might say, “He used to be a good person.” That opinion would certainly change after his apparent delusions of divinity.
The ever-quotable C.S. Lewis, in his book Mere Christianity, presents what has become known as “The Trilemma.” Lewis argued that Jesus could not have been only a good man. He was either who He claimed to be or He was in some way deranged. If Jesus knew that He was not God and yet clamed to be then He was a liar. If Jesus erroneously thought Himself to be God then He must have been a lunatic. The other option, according to Lewis, is that Jesus was in fact telling the truth with full clarity of mind, making Him Lord. The Lewis “trilemma” – Lord, liar, or lunatic.
Some would argue for a fourth category – that Jesus was mythologized. This one might seem disturbing, but I can see how a person who does not believe Jesus’ claims or trust the biblical record might arrive at this conclusion. Those who follow this train of thought might argue that Jesus, rather than being Lord, liar, or lunatic, has been inflated to a supernatural status He never had, which also means parts of the biblical record were also fabricated. For this to be true, lots of people for two millennia would have to have conspired together to perpetuate on this grand delusion.
Perhaps the Bible and its words about Jesus can be trusted. I choose to see Jesus as a historical person, yes, but so much more. Jesus is a historical person whose life and message have been documented and detailed more than any other who has ever lived. He is a historical person about whom more has been written than anyone else who has ever lived.
But I believe in more than just the personal Jesus of history. I believe in the personal Jesus of yesterday, today, and forever.
Jesus cannot just be a good person. He has to be more than a good teacher. He is either who He claimed to be, or He is not. He is either God who “became flesh and made His dwelling among us” (John 1:14), or He is just another famous figure from the past who died, and remained dead. If He is not truly our resurrected Lord, then He lied or He was crazy. Perhaps the problem is that too many people only consider who Jesus was, and not who He is and continues to be. In my next two articles, we will break Jesus free of history.
Next up: Part 3 – How should Jesus affect us today?