Mystic, Prophet, Holy Man, Healer — who is Jesus? Did he really claim to be the Son of God? Or was this a story made up by his disciples? What about his resurrection? Is there any evidence to prove the extraordinary things claimed about him?
Jesus is undoubtedly the most influential figure in human history. The world counts time from the year of his birth.* Empires and nations have submitted to the religion started in his name. On the positive side, his teachings have brought about helpful reforms and humanitarian efforts of every variety. But cruel persecutions and destructive wars have also been launched with the claim of his approval.
* Our current era, often identified by the abbreviation A.D. (Anno Domini; "In the year of our Lord"), counts years since the traditional birth of Jesus. Years before Jesus' birth are indicated by B.C. (Before Christ). Today, some prefer to use B.C.E. (Before the Common Era) and C.E. (the Common Era). But this system, too, divides time by Jesus' birth.
Today, a third of the earth's population identify themselves as Jesus' followers — the largest religious movement in history, with adherents in every nation on earth. Yet few understand him as he actually was: a Jew, a rabbi, respected for his insight into the laws of the Jewish religion, yet not afraid to stand alone against those who abused that religion.
The most popular aspect of Jesus' ministry was its many healing miracles, which even his opponents never sought to deny. But by far the most controversial aspect of his ministry, until today, is the claim that he is in some mysterious way the Creator God of the universe in human form.
Of all the religions on earth, the Jewish religion was the least likely to invent the idea that a particular human being was also God. The strict monotheism of the Jews prevented them from admitting any other than the one God who created all things: "Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is one God" (Deut. 6:4). Yet at the beginning of the common era, there was a strong thread of prophetic revelation and Messianic speculation in Judaism that this one God had revealed himself in human form, and would do so again (see the article The Baptism of Jesus). This manifestation of God, known as the Messenger (or Angel) of the Lord had first appeared as far back as the time of Abraham (see the articles Sodom and Gomorrah and The Binding of Isaac). He was identified with the kingly Messiah of Jewish expectation at least as early as the 3rd cent. BC.*
* Isa. 9:6 in the Old Greek translation of the Old Testament (the LXX or Septuagint; 3rd cent. BC) calls the Messiah the "Messenger (or Angel) of Great Counsel" where the standard Hebrew (the MT or Masoretic Text) has "Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God" (Isa. 9:6).
This speculation sought to address the problem that though God himself was Spirit, invisible to man and present throughout the universe, yet he had appeared in specific times and places in history. Moses had seen him on the mountain (see the article The Prophet Like Moses), Joshua near Jericho, the prophets saw him in visions and dreams (see the articles The Man with the Inkwell and The Chariot). One thread of speculation identified this Messenger with the Logos (the Word or Mind) of God, through whom God had created all things. When Jesus appeared, claiming a unique relationship with God, whom he called his "Father," Jesus himself eventually became the focus of these speculations among his followers.*
* In John 1, for example, the "Word" that existed from eternity with the Father is called the Logos in the original Greek (John 1:1ff). This Logos is later identified as Jesus himself (John 1:14ff).
Attaching these ideas to a particular human being did not come easily. It was much less controversial to see in Jesus an earthly Messiah that would drive away the occupying armies of Rome. But though the people tried to crown him king (John 6:15), Jesus rejected their offer and their understanding of Messiah. Instead, he spoke of himself as being sent from heaven (John 6:38), claiming a level of intimacy with God that most Jews found hard to swallow (see the articles Did Jesus Claim to Be God? and The Messianic Judge). After one such message in Capernaum, most of his disciples left him (John 6:66). After another in Jerusalem, he was nearly stoned to death (John 10:31). Even his core group of disciples only gradually accepted these claims, as a result of extraordinary experiences that convinced them he was not an ordinary man.
The final proof came most unexpectedly, after Jesus was arrested at a Passover celebration in Jerusalem. His trial, conviction, and execution on trumped up charges dashed the hopes of even the most devoted of his followers. While they hid from fear of the authorities, Roman soldiers led Jesus out of the city, where he suffered a cruel death on a cross (Mark 15:24). Some of his own countrymen laughed at and mocked his agony, having rejected both his claims and his message (Mark 15:29-30). A wild-eyed religious fanatic, as some think he was, might have cursed the crowd or the God that seemed to have abandoned him. But instead, Jesus spoke a few words to those attending him, quoted a verse from the Biblical book of Psalms (Matt. 27:46), and died in peace, committing his spirit to the one he called Father with the words, "It is finished" (John 19:30). This extraordinary behavior in the midst of cruel torment was so unique, one of the soldiers assigned to his crucifixion was moved to say, "Truly this man was the Son of God!" (Mark 15:39).
Because of the approaching Sabbath, Jesus' lifeless body was placed in a cold stone tomb, leaving other grave preparations to be completed after the Sabbath (Luke 23:56). But when some of the women returned to finish the job, they found the tomb empty and Jesus' body gone. One of them, lingering in the garden, asked what she assumed was the caretaker where they had moved his body (John 20:15). But on looking more closely, she recognized Jesus standing before her, alive (John 20:16)! Though her testimony was at first disbelieved by the disciples, they soon had their own experiences in which they saw Jesus. But unlike a ghostly apparition, he ate food (Luke 24:42-43). He could be touched (Luke 24:39). The wounds were still visible and could be felt in his hands and feet. He spoke to them and explained the meaning of these incredible events from predictions scattered throughout the Bible (Luke 24:44-45). And after 40 days, they saw him ascend physically into the sky and disappear into a cloud (Luke 24:50-51, Acts 1:9).
Are these accounts believable? From a legal point of view, they fit all the criteria of admissible evidence: a large number of eyewitnesses of excellent character; genuinely different accounts that nonetheless confirm the same events. But perhaps most important of all are the radically changed lives of his followers, who within a few days' time went from being cowards behind locked doors to fearlessly proclaiming their faith. As a result, Jesus' disciples, too, eventually died for their faith. And as someone once noted, who would be willing to die for a story they had merely invented?
The writings that tell of Jesus' life and ministry are the best attested documents of ancient times. Thousands of ancient copies of the New Testament compare with a mere handful for most other ancient writings. The earliest fragments discovered so far were written just a few years after the originals were composed, within a single lifetime of the events themselves. Eyewitnesses were still alive that could easily have contradicted false reports. But none ever came forward. The strength of the evidence has reversed the disbelief of many skeptics over the centuries.
Had the truth of this message relied on the testimony of the disciples alone, it would have long since been forgotten. But for two thousand years, those who have accepted their testimony and followed their instructions have also experienced life-changing encounters with the risen Jesus, encounters that have changed their lives forever. Drug addicts have been reformed, alcoholism conquered, immorality abandoned, sicknesses healed, lives made whole with new purpose and meaningall in the name of the Jewish rabbi from Galilee, whose claims are tested and proven every day.
The most incredible of Jesus' claims is that he has a unique relationship with God, a relationship that no other major religious leader has ever claimed. Instead of merely pointing the way to God, as most claim to do, Jesus said that he is God: that he came from heaven, being sent by the Father, and that he is one with the Father ("I and the Father are one," John 10:30).
In his suffering and death on the cross, he and his disciples saw the fulfillment of the ancient sacrificial system of Israel, in which the death of innocent animals restored the broken fellowship with God that comes from sin. But this wasn’t just a man dying. It was the Son* of the Creator God himself, receiving in the flesh he had taken upon himself the painful consequences of man's wickedness and rejection of God. Through his death, willingly offered for all, he made a way out of the grip of sin and death, a way back to a right relationship with God.
* "Son" in the Hebraic sense of likeness, origin from, similarity to, but not in the sense of an offspring that is a separate being. The Son of God is understood by historical Christianity to be an eternal personal manifestation of the one true God; not a separate existence, but a separate personal identity that is part of who God is. He is an extension of the God that is beyond space and time into time and space to communicate with us. This extension of God's self clothed himself in humanity to become "God with us," the God-man Jesus.
This way back to God is not just a legal transaction, but results in an inner spiritual awakening described as a "new birth" or being "born from above" (or "born again," the Greek word has both meanings, John 3:3). This is a personal, spiritual transformation in which inner emptiness and death is replaced by new life, and "all things have become new" (2 Cor. 5:17) The key to accepting this new life is accepting Jesus himself, accepting his resurrection and his claims to be God, and then submitting yourself to his absolute authority as God over your life. This does not require an elaborate ceremony: you need only repent of your sins, and confess your belief to another believer (or believers), making your decision public (Romans 10:9). Then, as Jesus said, there will be joy in heaven, as there is over every sinner who repents (Luke 15:7,10). Next you must be baptised in water and begin to study and obey the teachings of Jesus (Acts 2:38, Psa. 111:2). This is best done in a community of like-minded believers, in a church where the Word of God is taken seriously, and is not merely a dead letter.
Coming to faith brings you into a whole new relationship with the world around you (2 Cor. 5:17). Jesus and the disciples taught that this world is a spiritual battleground, with eternal decisions being made every day: decisions that will lead some to eternity with God and others to eternity without him. To be strong and persevere in this battle is the calling of every believer, and the only thing that gives life eternal meaning (Matt. 24:13).
May you make your decision for Jesus (Rom. 10:13)! And may he richly bless you as you seek the things of God!
If you have any questions, please feel free to e-mail us at Jeff@totheends.com
See this Seminar about this topic:
Jesus of Nazareth
For more articles and Q&A, see the Index category Jesus.