Who is Jesus?

This is a transcript of a talk given on at Southampton Institute Christian Union some years ago. Please therefore excuse the bad grammar, flow, use of capitals etc. They were to aid communication.

Facts not feelings

When little Johnny was born, his parents, who were particularly well off, out of a loving concern for his future welfare deposited £50,000 in a deposit account for his 21st birthday. This money couldn’t be touched by anyone else, and once deposited it couldn’t even be withdrawn by his parents who gave it.

Anyway, 20 years on, and little Johnny has now become Big John, a member of the Southampton institute rugby club. In not being a conscientious student, John has whittled away 3 student grants and an overdraft on wine women and song during his first term. He has realised the problem he has got himself into, and is now mortified depressed and broken. He sees no way out, his future feels black. What would you say to him?

Well, you would remind him of the money deposited in the bank that he will receive in a years time. You would show him the documents that confirm that that money is his. But unfortunately his response is still one of depression, he doubts that the money is there. What are his reasons for doubting? He doesn’t FEEL as if he is the holder of 50,000, he FEELS as if he has nothing.

Now when it comes to the area of belief, many today, whether Christian or not, make the wrong assumption that faith is primarily about feeling. Those who aren't Christians say, 'well what you are saying just doesn't feel right', or that if only they were to 'experience' God they might be able to believe. Christians too, especially on arriving at University, wallow around in doubt and uncertainty because their Christianity is basically the Christianity of their parents, and away from their home environment it no longer feels like God is there.

But if you think about it, owning a religious belief on the basis of whether it does or does not feel right is as ludicrous as Big John getting himself in a mess because it doesn't feel like he is the holder of 50,000. You see the great news is that actually, faith is more about FACTS than feelings. Either God exists, or he doesn't. Either he is loving and just, or he isn't. Either he can be related to, or he can't. The issue for us is not whether these statement FEEL right, but 1) whether they can be confirmed as factual, and 2) whether we are therefore prepared to entrust ourselves to them.

You see, faith is not blind. It is the act of entrusting ourselves to something on the basis of what can be known.

Reliable documentation

Now as you probably know, the focus of Christian faith is on the person of Jesus, as it is Jesus who claims to provide the answers to our fundamental questions about God. And rather like Big John being referred to his banking documents to confirm the reality of his situation, Christians refer to some 2000 year old documents to confirm theirs.

So in answering this evening's question of who exactly is Jesus, we can only start with the four biographies of his life known as the gospels, which can be found within the New Testament (NT) section of the bible.

But before doing that, it IS important to realise that we do have records from Roman and Jewish non-Christian historians (such as Tacitus, Pliny, and Josephus), of the special nature of Jesus' life. And you only need to watch any quality program on the millennium to see that his actual existence is beyond question. However it is the NT that records by far the greatest amount of history, and it is the NT alone that was written or recorded from those who lived side by side with Jesus for the three years of his public life, and who could therefore recount this history most accurately.

Now we don't have time to properly deal with the historical reliability of the NT, but you can consider it further by reading the paper 'Are the gospel's reliable?' here. If you do, then what you will see is not only that we have considerably more manuscripts from which accuracy can be ensured, than other ancient documents that are thought trustworthy. But perhaps most significantly, that the time interval between when the events happened and when they were recorded was such that any corruption of even the specific wording of what Jesus said is considered unlikely.

But as for now, I just want to make 3 quick points about the reliability of the gospels in ascertaining who Jesus really was?

1)The gospels read as reliable history

As you read them, it is very clear that was is written is generally intended to be read as accurate eyewitness history. They were written between 60 and 80 AD (only 30-50 years after the life of Christ), and they lack a sense of collusion or polish, not always presenting Jesus in what we might think is as a positive light. Even archaeologists have apparently used Luke's gospel to gain facts that throw an accurate light on their research.

2)The gospel writers had nothing to gain by distortion

Not only were the writers of the gospels those who claimed to follow a man of the utmost integrity and honesty, making them less than likely to deceive others for his sake. But when the gospels were first circulated other eyewitnesses were still alive who could have verified or challenged the accuracy of the records and so discredited them from the start. Not only that, but Christians were undergoing severe persecution at the time: The writers had nothing to gain by holding to their accounts except imprisonment, persecution, and even execution. Faced with such suffering, it is inconceivable that anyone would continue to hold to what they knew to be a lie or simply a good yarn.

3)The gospels and their writers are recognised by Christians to have been supernaturally inspired

I think that in themselves, these last two factors are convincing. But it is perhaps most important to also recognise that right from the start, Christians have also seen the accuracy of the original gospels to have been supernaturally overseen by God.

Now here of course we move from what can be ascertained by historical analysis, to the area of faith. Yet again, this faith is not blind.

One of the great frustrations that my wife has in my cooking, is its presentation! Basically I have this tendency left over from student days, of throwing everything into a wok, and frying it all up together. Subsequently, the meal that results doesn't at first look appetising, but when it is tasted (if I don't say so myself), it can taste pretty good, affirming that actually the chef has more skill than at first assumed.

Well, the concept of inspiration works a bit like this. At first glance for many, the gospels don't look that appetising: They are written off as religious tracts or irrelevant myth, and often never even read. However in reality, as they are read, the meal they present hits home with an authority, clarity, and sense, that when properly considered seems to simply be beyond human explanation. And this hints not only at the accuracy of the books themselves, but at the one who is both behind the books and at the centre of them.

So before we move on, what is clear, is that we certainly have enough evidence to be able to read the gospels as 'generally' historically reliable. However, this last factor should also mean that we at least read them recognising the possibility that God has supernaturally ensured their accuracy. And of course if this is true, it would not only mean that they could well be TOTALLY trustworthy, but it would also mean that their contents are of the utmost importance and significance to both you and me.

Considering Christ

So let's have a closer look at Jesus, the man at the centre of Christianity.

As we consider him, we are going to try to answer two questions

1. What did he claim for himself?

2. Is his claim true?

1) What did Jesus claim for himself?

At its most simple, Jesus claimed to be the Son of God, and in order to understand that phrase, we must consider it through the ears of a Jew.

Now to the Jew, Jesus claim to be the Son of God was so outrageous that they eventually put him to death on a blasphemy charge. And that was because when he claimed to be the Son of God, Jesus was basically claiming equality with God. And he did this both directly and indirectly.

Indirectly, he claimed the same authority as God: To be the giver of life, to be the judge of the world, and perhaps most significantly to be able to forgive sins. A bizarre claim to make unless in being God, he was the ultimate party being wronged.

More directly, he claimed to have existed from before Abraham, a man who had lived 2500 years before Jesus was born. He claimed to speak the very words of God. He made statements like "I and the Father are one" (John 10v30), "I am in the Father and the Father is in me", or "Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father" (John 14v9-10). On being asked "are you the Christ the Son of the blessed one", he replied out right "I am…" (Mark 14v61-61). He repeatedly referred the most sacred name for God to himself, and he even accepted acknowledgement by his followers of his being God.

Now it is at this point that we come to consider Jesus' claim from John's gospel. John was one of Jesus' closest friends and was someone who was alongside Jesus for the entire three years of his public life. And if you turn with me to chapter 5v16, we can see the claim Jesus made and the impact it had for ourselves.

John 5v16-23:

'16…the Jews started persecuting Jesus, because he was doing such things on the sabbath. 17But Jesus answered them, "My Father is still working, and I also am working." 18For this reason the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because he was not only breaking the sabbath, but was also calling God his own Father, thereby making himself equal to God.

19 Jesus said to them, "Very truly, I tell you, the Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever the Fathere does, the Son does likewise. 20The Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing; and he will show him greater works than these, so that you will be astonished. 21Indeed, just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whomever he wishes. 22The Father judges no one but has given all judgment to the Son, 23so that all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father. Anyone who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him. 24Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life.
25 "Very truly, I tell you, the hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. 26For just as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself; 27and he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man. 28Do not be astonished at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice 29and will come out--those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.

30 "I can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge; and my judgment is just, because I seek to do not my own will but the will of him who sent me"'

Can you see? In short Jesus claimed that his words were God words, that his authority was God's authority, that he does what God does, and that accepting or rejecting him was synonymous to accepting or rejecting God.

Imagine Shakespeare concerned at the outcome of his play, wanting to communicate with Romeo and Juliet to let them know of his existence, and warn them of the end that they were going to face unless they change their ways. How might he do it? Well the best way, would be to write himself into the play in some way, make the bold claim that he was their author very clear, and then do something extraordinary, that only he had the power to do as author, to convince them of the fact.

And this is basically what God has done. In Jesus, God, the author of life itself, has written himself into human history to make clear his existence and warn us of our destiny if we fail to turn back to him. And it is to the extraordinary things that he did, and that he alone COULD do to convince us of this fact, that we now turn.

2) Is Jesus' claim true?

We have ascertained that Jesus claimed to be God walking the earth to speak to us. Now of course we need to consider whether his claim is true, and whether we therefore need to pay attention to what he said. And it is at this point, that we really start to see that faith is more about facts than feelings. Because as Jesus continues to talk to those who were challenging him at this time, he actually refers them to the facts or evidence that shows his claim to be true.

John 5v31-40:

'31 "If I testify about myself, my testimony is not true. 32There is another who testifies on my behalf, and I know that his testimony to me is true. 33You sent messengers to John, and he testified to the truth. 34Not that I accept such human testimony, but I say these things so that you may be saved. 35He was a burning and shining lamp, and you were willing to rejoice for a while in his light. 36But I have a testimony greater than John's. The works that the Father has given me to complete, the very works that I am doing, testify on my behalf that the Father has sent me. 37And the Father who sent me has himself testified on my behalf. You have never heard his voice or seen his form, 38and you do not have his word abiding in you, because you do not believe him whom he has sent.
39 "You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. 40Yet you refuse to come to me to have life.'

Now in the first few verses, Jesus refers the Jews to John the Baptist, a religious teacher who many of them admired, and who himself had recognised who Jesus was. But then he goes on to mention two areas of evidence that we can look to, to consider his claim.

1. Jesus' work - the things that Jesus said and did during his ministry v36

2. God's word - the Old Testament (OT) scriptures and particularly the prophecies within them v37-40

1) God's word

We have already introduced the idea of supernatural inspiration of the bible, and v37-38 make it very clear that this is exactly how Jesus saw the OT. He talks of it being God's testimony, of it being the place where his voice his heard, and from which his word can actually live within us, and he talks of this verbal testimony from God being about HIM.

Now, of course when we start talking of what seems impossible to our modern scientific minds, eyebrows will inevitably raise and foreheads will inevitably frown. But all I want to put to you as a once cynical atheist myself, is the straightforward logic that IF a personal God does exist, and IF he has created this universe, then isn't it logical not only that he might WANT to communicate with us, but also that he alone is the one who COULD do so, as he alone is the one who controls the laws of time and space?

I have to say that the evidence for prophecy being bizarrely fulfilled in Jesus' life is compelling. Modern museums contain OT manuscripts that pre-date Jesus' life, recording prophecies given up to 1000 years before he was born, but that are more than coincidentally accurate. In fact over 300 prophecies referring to every stage of Jesus' life, apparently find their fulfilment in him:

1. That someone would come as a herald, before God himself comes to his people. Just as John the Baptist did before Jesus (Malachi 3v1).

2. That God's messiah (or special deliverer) would be born in Bethlehem. Just of course as Jesus was (Micah 5v2).

3. That he would be anointed by God's Spirit, as visibly occurred at the beginning of Jesus' ministry (Isaiah 61v1).

4. That he would perform miracles (Isaiah 35v3-6).

5. That he would preach a message of forgiveness and of turning back to God (Isaiah 55v5-7).

6. That this forgiveness would be achieved through his death (Isaiah 53v4-12).

7. That this death would cause his feet and hands to be pierced (Psalm 22v16).

8. And that this death would not be the end, but he would be raised to life (Psalm 16v10).

You see, even if you have only the most basic knowledge of Jesus' life it becomes very apparent that all these things DO point to and affirm him. Could it be that they do only because the one who is outside space/time history and who alone would be able to do such a thing, wants us to look to the point where he actually entered that history to reach out to us?

2) Jesus' work

Here we have both the miraculous to consider, and what some might see as the more straightforward.

Jesus' character and teaching

It was CS Lewis who famously pioneered the three possibilities to explain Jesus' claim: Either he was a liar, which would lead us to expect the evidence of deception and down right wickedness within his entire character when you consider the kind of claims he made. Or he was a lunatic, which would lead us to expect the evidence of inconsistency and instability within both what he said and did. Or he was and is Lord, just as he claimed to be. And when you read the gospels and consider his character and teaching that has been acknowledged by so many down the ages as the most profound, and that has inspired humility in such great and good figures as Ghandi, the first two options DO become uncomfortably UNLIKELY.

You see, Jesus never left the option many site as being 'just a good teacher' open to us. He never intended to. He was either wicked, insane, or pure and true in what he did and taught, and therefore pure and true in the claim he made.

Jesus' miracles & resurrection

Of course in considering Jesus' character and teaching alone, we may well want to wriggle around its implications by tenuously holding to a view that he was either the only stable madman who ever lived, or the only morally pure deceiver who ever lived. But he actually gave far more to back up his claim: With a word he calmed storms, healed the sick and blind, and even raised the dead.

Now, we've already seen the reliability of the NT in recording these events, as well as the logic that suggests that such bizzarities are actually quite LIKELY (and certainly possible), if the creator of the universe did want to make himself known. And the most powerful evidence put forward by the NT in this area, is the resurrection of Jesus himself: The claim made by Jesus' first disciples, and those that have followed them, that after being executed Jesus actually came back to life.

A lawyer, Frank Morrison, was one of a number of people that have challenged the resurrection with cynicism, but found their study instead lead them to conviction. He ended up writing a book named 'Who moved the stone' outlining the convincing evidence he found.

Now we don't have time to consider the resurrection in full, but I do want to give you few points to consider. If you want to think it through in more depth, do look at the paper 'Did Jesus really rise from the dead?' here.

As we start, the one thing that is certain is that Jesus actually died. This was not a tin-pot execution, but a professional one. Not only was crucifixion a safe bet for killing someone, but Jesus had been previously flogged and beaten, making survival impossible. Not only that, but the Romans checked that the bodies were dead and even drove a spear into Jesus' side to ensure it. The idea that Jesus revived, rolled the massive stone from the entrance to his tomb, sneaked past the crack Roman guards who were guarding it, walked into Jerusalem on nail pierced ankles, and then convincingly presented himself to his followers as good as knew, is simply daft.

So why was the tomb empty?

1. What if the disciples had just gone to the wrong tomb and found it empty, or the Roman or Jewish authorities had stolen the body?

Then why were the disciples prepared to die for their assertion that they had actually seen, spoken to, and eaten with Jesus, and that they therefore knew that death wasn't the end? Not only that, but why didn't these authorities just produce the body and quell the Christian sect that they were opposed to before it even got up and running?

2. What if the disciples were deluded, or were hallucinating that Jesus had risen, and his body was therefore still in the tomb?

Then again, why didn't the authorities just produce it?

3. What if, the disciples had stolen the body?

Then how did they get past the Roman guards, and why were they again, prepared to die for what they knew to be a lie.

4. What if grave robbers had stolen the body?

Then how did they get to it, and why were the disciples still prepared to die on the conviction that they had spent time with the risen Jesus?

I remember examining the gospels and reading Morrison's book myself when a hardened sceptic myself, and finding this evidence compelling.

So having considered the evidence of God's word and Jesus' work, the resurrection brings us on to a concluding piece of evidence that reaches from the time of the NT to the modern day.

Alive and kicking

Now if you are like me, when a travelling salesman comes to your door your immediate reaction is one of cynicism. But what would it take to convince you of their reliability? What would you require to be prepared to trust them?

Well - I know of two particular things that would convince me

1. Evidence of reliable credentials

2. Past customer satisfaction

Well, we have seen Jesus' reliable credentials mapped out before us. But there is also the satisfaction and conviction of those who have known him, and who continue to know him today. Apparently 500 million or so at the moment, and probably as many over the last 2000 years.

You see, having appeared to his disciples, Jesus didn't just grow old and die. That would have shown the whole thing to have been pointless. The point of the resurrection was that it proved that death had been beaten, and that eternal life can therefore be ours. And so, after five weeks or so, Jesus left his disciples and was seen to ascend into heaven - or enter God's spiritual realm - however you might want to describe it. And of course, the significance of that is that he is alive today, relating to, transforming, and supporting those who are Christians, and reaching out through them to those who aren't.

You may have already started to become aware of his supernaturally drawing you to himself in one way or another. My own testimony is certainly one of experiencing him convicting me of his reality through my reading of the NT, attending Christian events, and asking of loads of difficult questions when trying to think the whole thing through. Since then, I can certainly testify to knowing God's presence become increasingly clear as I have seen him answer prayer, teach me through the bible, and most significantly change my character and lifestyle from what it was to what it is today.

Looking in the right place

To find God we need to look to where he has shown himself. And as we have seen, this means that we need to primarily look to facts rather than to feelings, to the certainties of history, rather than to the ups and downs of our own personal preference and opinion.

In answer to our question, who is Jesus, we've seen, haven't we, that the NT is a reliable historical document from which we can consider him. We've seen from it, that Jesus claimed to be God writing himself into human history to communicate with, and reach out to us. And we've seen that surprising as it may be, this claim is true: The fulfilment of OT prophecy, the profundity of Jesus' character and teaching, and the reality of his miracles and resurrection, can simply find explanation no other way.

I hope that you have heard enough to at least find out more. Do work through the other papers on this web-site, and do - please - email me with any further questions or maybe for a chance to meet up and talk personally. Most importantly, do read through a gospel: I would start with John's gospel, then read through the three others and the rest of the NT, asking God to show himself to you as you do so.

But be prepared. Because as you may already have realised, to examine this amazing man is rather like looking into a microscope to see two big eyes staring right back at you, forcing your initial question to change from WHAT DO I MAKE OF JESUS, to WHAT DOES JESUS MAKE OF ME?