This sermon is part of the sermon series "What Do Christians Think About God?". See series.
From the standpoint of world history, Jesus Christ looms as the most incredible and significant person who's ever lived. Yale historian Jaraslav Pelikan said in his book, Jesus Through the Centuries: "Jesus of Nazareth has been the most dominant figure in the history of western culture for almost 20 centuries. If it were possible, with some sort of super magnet, to pull out of that history every scrap of metal bearing at least a trace of his name, how much would be left?"
So far as we know, Jesus never wrote anything, yet some of the greatest works of literature were inspired by his life; he never painted a picture, yet some of the finest paintings from Michelangelo and de Vinci were inspired by him; he composed no music, yet Handel, Beethoven, and Bach reached their highest perfection in songs they wrote in praise of Jesus. Although Jesus taught for only three years, his influence looms larger than the combined influence of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, who taught for a combined 140 years. So significant is the figure of Jesus Christ that the entire western world divides history into BC and AD. BC simply means before Christ's birth. AD stands for the Latin phrase anno domini, which means "the year of our Lord." We date everyone and everything with reference to this one man.
Oxford theologian Alister McGrath points out that one of the ironies of history is that even the lives of those who were utterly opposed to Jesus and all he stood for are dated with reference to Jesus, thus we know that the Roman Emperor Nero died in AD 68 and the dictator Joseph Stalin died in AD 1953. It's difficult to overstate the impact Jesus Christ has had on this earth. He's been the inspiration of incredible social renewal and also the excuse for horrible evil. People have worshiped him and hated him; they've died for their devotion to him and killed others in his name. The name of Jesus is invoked in cursing more than any other person who's lived on this earth. But when it comes to defining who Jesus really was and is, it gets much more complicated. There are as many opinions of who Jesus is as there are people in our world.
Virtually every religion makes a special place for Jesus. The Muslim religion views Jesus as the greatest prophet before the coming of Mohammed, but rejects the idea that Jesus is God's son. Hinduism reveres Jesus as one of their thousands of different gods and goddesses. The Mormon religion claimed that Jesus is the spirit-brother of the Devil. Some people today accept Jesus as a good moral teacher—someone who wasn't divine in any unique sense of the word but who came to tell us how to love other people.
Who was Jesus really? We're in a series called "What Do Christians Think?" looking at the basic beliefs of the Christian faith in a way that both irreligious seekers and Christians can understand. Today we're talking about what Christians believe about Jesus. Although every Christian would agree that Jesus is a great teacher, it's not Jesus as a teacher that captures the heart of the Christian view of Jesus. It's not what Jesus taught but who Jesus is that lies at the heart of the Christian faith. This is why Jesus has spiritual authority as a moral teacher. One of Jesus' favorite questions was, "Who do you say I am?" He never asked, "What do people say I teach?" So today we're going to start with who Jesus is and then branch from that to what Jesus taught. We'll look at three key concepts about the identity of Jesus and then at some of his key teachings.
Jesus is fully human.
Some people have questioned whether Jesus ever really existed in the first place. There are four secular historical sources that mention Jesus—the Jewish historian Josephus in his Antiquities, the secular Roman historian Suetonius, the secular historian Tacitus, and finally a letter written by the secular Roman governor Pliny. These historical sources outside of the 27 books of the New Testament ought to be enough to convince even the most skeptical person that this man actually existed.
But let's look at what Jesus said about himself. In Matthew 20:28, Jesus says: "The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." I want to zero in on that phrase "the Son of Man." This title was Jesus' favorite description of himself, and in the four biographies of Jesus in the New Testament—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—Jesus uses this title more than 80 times. At its most basic level of meaning, "son of man" simply means human being. Some translations translate this phrase "mortal one" or "human one." This phrase was used in the Old Testament in Psalm 8:4: "What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?" This phrase also occurs in the Old Testament book of Daniel, which was written over 500 years before the birth of Jesus to describe the coming Jewish messiah. There have been entire books written on the meaning of the title "son of man," but at its very least, it describes Jesus as a genuine human being.
Now to say that Jesus is fully human doesn't just mean that Jesus had a physical body like we do. Human beings are more than bodies; we have minds and emotions. Jesus had a human mind, and he experienced human emotions like grief and joy, anger and frustration. Luke 2:52 says, "And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and men," which means that Jesus developed intellectually, physically, spiritually, and socially as he grew into adulthood. His body got tired, he perspired when he worked as a carpenter, he needed sleep; he had all of the essential components that make humans human.
This leads us to our first key concept: since Jesus is fully human, he truly understands us. Jesus laughed as we laughed, his heart was broken as our hearts are sometimes broken, he cried as we weep, he grew weary as we do, he got headaches, had trouble sleeping at night, and so forth. His humanity wasn't an illusion or an act; it wasn't a clever trick to make him look like one of us; it was a genuine and actual humanity.
The only qualification to this reality is the Bible's claim that Jesus' humanity wasn't polluted by sin as ours is. You see, the pollution of sin in our lives feels normal because it's all we know—but humanity was designed by God to be free from the devastating effects of sin. In this respect, Jesus is like the first man—Adam.
Hebrews 4:15 tells us that Jesus is able to sympathize with us because he was tested in life just like we are, yet he was found without sin. So we start with someone who's like us, who speaks our same language, who knows the peaks and valleys of human life. We start with Jesus as the son of man, a true human.
Jesus is divine.
Although Jesus is fully human, he's not merely human. Over 38 times the Bible also calls Jesus the Son of God. For us living 2,000 years later, it's hard to fully appreciate the significance of the term "Son of God." We tend to make that phrase generic, after all, aren't we all children of God? So what's the big deal for Jesus to call himself the Son of God? What's important isn't what we think about that phrase, but what Jesus means by it.
John 5:17-18 reads: "Jesus said to them, 'My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working.' For this reason the Jews tried all the harder to kill him; not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God."
To the Jewish people of Jesus' generation, the claim to be God's own Son was to claim equality with God, and that's what ultimately got Jesus crucified. Jesus constantly claimed that his relationship with God as his father was unique. Perhaps this is seen most clearly in his use of the phrase "the only begotten son of God." C. S. Lewis pointed out that the word "begotten" demands that Jesus be God, because we only beget in kind with what we are: humans beget humans, and God begets God. Men and women are said to become God's children through adoption, but Jesus is never spoken of as becoming God's son, only that he's always been God's son. Just as Son of Man means that Jesus is fully human, the phrase Son of God means that Jesus is fully God.
The rest of the New Testament makes this eminently clear. Colossians 2:9 reads: "For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form." John 20:28 says: "Thomas said to him, 'My Lord and my God!'" Hebrews 1:3 reads: "The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven."
Here's the second key concept: since Jesus is fully God, he reveals God to us. Jesus has the entire universe in his hands; he's God revealed in human flesh—what Christians call the Incarnation, literally, the in-flesh-ment of God. When one of Jesus' followers asked Jesus to show him God the Father, Jesus said, "Don't you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, 'Show us the Father'?" (John 14:9).
There are those, of course, who deny this fact about Jesus. Some, like the Jehovah's Witnesses, claim that he's an angel. Others claim that he's only divine in the sense that we're all divine; he just knew it and we don't. But the clear teaching of the Bible and the consensus of church history is that Jesus is fully God, and that fact qualifies him to reveal to us what God is truly like.
Jesus is unique.
Now how do we put these two ideas together, that Jesus is both fully human and fully God? Some have suggested that this is a logical contradiction, that it's logically impossible for Jesus to be both. Maybe he's 100 percent human, or he's 100 percent God, or he's some sort of hybrid—perhaps 50 percent divine and 50 percent human—but he can't be fully both. Yet this isn't a contradiction any more than it's a contradiction to say that according to physics, light consists of both waves and particles. The real question is: why God would take on humanity in the first place?
First Timothy 2:5 says: "For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus." This passage tells us that the incarnation—God taking on human flesh in the person of Jesus—was so that God the son could become our mediator. You see, for a mediator to settle a dispute, that mediator must fully represent both sides yet be distinguishable from both sides as well. Jesus had to be both God and human for salvation to become a possibility for us. If Jesus wasn't truly God, he couldn't truly save. If Jesus wasn't truly human, he couldn't save humans like us.
This brings us to our third key concept: since Jesus is both fully God and fully human, he is uniquely qualified to bring us into a relationship with God. The union of two natures in one person is seen the most clearly on the Cross, where Jesus died the death we deserved to die in order to pay the price for us to know God.
Now, as we mentioned, Christians seek to obey the teachings of Jesus because of who Jesus is. So with this idea in mind—that Christians believe that Jesus is fully God and fully human—let's look briefly at a few of the teachings of Jesus.
Jesus is the bread of life.
John 6:35 reads: "Then Jesus declared, 'I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.'" In the context of John chapter 6, Jesus has just miraculously fed 5,000 people with just a few loaves of bread and a few fish. Because the people's stomachs were now full, they clamored around Jesus, so here we find Jesus putting his miracle with the food into perspective. Although the bread they'd just eaten had been miraculously produced, the next day they'll be hungry again. But beyond our physical hunger for food there's a deeper hunger within every human heart. This is the same God-shaped vacuum the French mathematician Blaise Pascal talked about. We try to satisfy this hunger with relationships with other people—our spouse, our children, our lovers—with sex, with social action, with money and possessions, even with religion and church, but we always find ourselves hungry once again. This hunger, this void, is fundamentally a spiritual emptiness that nothing in all of creation can fill.
Who is Jesus according to this statement in John? He is the one who satisfies our deepest hunger. Jesus says that he's the bread of life—the life-giving sustenance that can fill this emptiness. This is followed by a condition that must be met and then a promise for the person who meets the condition. The condition is coming to Jesus. This describes the person who—convinced that Jesus is who he says he is—draws near to Jesus by faith, placing his or her trust in him. This person will find this inner emptiness, this gnawing hunger, filled by Christ, the bread of life. Only someone who's fully God and fully human can bring that kind of satisfaction.
Jesus is the light of the world.
John 8:12 reads: "When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, 'I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.'" In the context of John chapter 8, Jesus is in Jerusalem during the Jewish feast of tabernacles, where on a certain day the Jewish priests would light hundreds of candles. As the priests lit the candles, Jesus says that he's the genuine light of the world. This of course assumes that the world's in darkness.
We don't need much convincing that there's terrible darkness within the world, and in our more honest moments, that there's a terrible darkness within our own hearts. We stumble around in life like the blind leading the blind, falling into ditches, bumping into each other, going in circles. Jesus claims to be the solution to this spiritual and moral darkness—that those who follow him will find themselves walking in a life-giving kind of light that guides their way. Jesus is presented as our sure guide in life. In the very next chapter of John, Jesus will demonstrate this powerfully by physically healing a blind man, giving him literal light, but he promises to all who follow him as devoted disciples devoted that we will walk in the light of life.
Therefore, Jesus said again, "I tell you the truth, I am the gate for the sheep. All who ever came before me were thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.
Back in Jesus' day, domesticated sheep couldn't be left safely in the fields overnight because of the threat of wild animals and thieves, so many were herded into enclosures. Jesus is saying that you can tell a person's intention by their means of entering the enclosure—if they're climbing the wall, their intentions are suspect, but if they enter through the gate, their intentions are good. Jesus himself is that gate for human life, and those who enter through that gate find themselves dwelling in safety and security, able to come in and go out, to find pasture, to enjoy life to its fullest possibilities. This teaching of Jesus is telling us that Jesus is our source of true security.
Just as Jesus welcomed the little children into his arms and they found security beyond any human security they could find, so Jesus welcomes us into his arms to find security. In the midst of thieves who would seek our destruction, in the midst of terrible evil and threats of insecurity, Jesus is the gate to the good life, the life that philosophers of every generation have dreamt about, the life of fullness and joy, the life of security and safety within his arms.
Jesus is the good shepherd.
John 10:11 reads: "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep … I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me." The background to this statement is the common Old Testament statement that the Lord is our shepherd. Shepherds in the ancient world were considered social misfits because their chosen career required total and complete devotion. In order to be a shepherd you had to literally live with the sheep, devoting every waking moment to their safety and care. You couldn't be a part-time shepherd. The word shepherd is the exact same word translated "pastor" in the Bible, and the image is that the shepherd is the sheep's pastor, the one who leads them to food, guides them, and protects them. Jesus is here presenting himself as our caring pastor.
Jesus is the shepherd who searches out that one lost sheep, gathers it into his arms, and brings it safely home. Jesus is the one who can guide us through the valley of the shadow of death, the one who can lead us beside the still waters. The best a merely human pastor can do is be a dim and imperfect reflection of the pastoral care Jesus offers as a good shepherd.
Jesus is the resurrection and the life.
John 11:25 reads: "Jesus said to her, 'I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies.'" The context of this statement is the death of Jesus' friend Lazarus, as Jesus tries to comfort Lazarus' sisters Mary and Martha in their grief. Jesus is about to raise Lazarus from the grave, but before he does that, he identifies himself as the resurrection and the life, which is an incredible claim. This presents Jesus as our confidence in the face of death. Jesus holds the keys to eternal life; he's the one who has conquered death and brings life.
Jesus is the vine.
John 15:5 reads: "I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing." This is part of an extended picture Jesus draws of the spiritual life, where he is the vine, and each individual follower of Jesus is a branch connected to that vine. Just as a branch has no life in itself, so we are unable to do anything of spiritual significance from our own resource, but we rely on the vine for our nourishment, for our very life. So it makes sense for a branch to remain in the vine, to not try to set up our own vineyard or plant our own vine, but to stay connected, like an electrical appliance that stays plugged in. If we do this, Jesus says we will live fruitful, productive lives. This presents Jesus as our source of true vitality.
There are so many other things we abide in to find vitality—our education, our friends, our careers, our church. We pour money and energy into things that frustrate us and create unfruitful, shriveled up lives. We miss our source of true vitality, our source of deep meaning and purpose in life, when we sever our connection with Jesus, the source of all life.
These are some pretty incredible claims. Only someone who is truly human, truly God, and therefore our go-between, could truthfully make these kinds of statements. Only someone who's genuinely the Son of Man, Son of God, and our Mediator could deliver on these incredible promises. Jesus must be dealt with on his own terms.
It's not enough to claim Jesus was just a good moral teacher or a good example, because someone who made these kinds of claims doesn't leave that option open. We're left with the choice of concluding that Jesus was a deeply disturbed mentally ill person with delusions of grandeur, in which case he deserves our pity; or that he's purposefully lying about who he is, in which case Jesus deserves our condemnation; or that he's really who he claims to be, in which case he deserves our very lives.
Timothy J. Peck is director of the chapel and a lecturer in the school of theology at Azusa Pacific University, Azusa, California. He preaches regularly at Christ our King Church in Azusa.