Continuing our series on apologetics (enabling Followers of Christ to explain their faith and helping those earnestly seeking answers to life’s big questions to understand how God has answered them), today I’m going to focus on Jesus himself. Since he’s the central figure of our faith, it’s important for us to understand who he is and who he is not.
As I mentioned in a post some time ago, Jesus was hanging out with his pals in Caeserea Philippi when he asked them who the people say he is. But it appears that this may have just been the warm-up question since he doesn’t comment on their response. Instead, he probes deeper:
“But what about you?”he asked. “Who do you say I am?”Jesus, in Matthew 16:15 (NIV)
Simon Peter, one of his best friends, answered quickly, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And apparently, he nailed it, based on Jesus’ reply:
“Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”Jesus, in Matthew 16:17-19 (NIV)
So, this is the key question for us today and every day: who do you say Jesus is?
Why is this important? Because there are a lot of people with different views on things saying things that are not true about Jesus, so it’s important for us to know what’s true and what’s not, both so you can stay rooted in the truth and so you can help guide others to that same promised land of truth, which unfortunately is so elusive for many people today.
To begin with, let me quote from one of my favorite sources on apologetics–C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity:
I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.’ That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (C.S. Lewis Signature Classics) (p. 52). HarperOne.
What I’d like to do is unpack the different possibilities that Lewis goes through for answers to the question, Who do you say Jesus is?
Jesus Was a Great Moral Teacher
To the extent that people in our secular society even acknowledge Jesus, this seems to be the most common viewpoint. I’ve heard people say things like, His teachings were great, and he seemed like a really good guy, but I just don’t see how he could be God. But, as Lewis pointed out, logic jumps off the tracks with this assessment. The most prominent assertion Jesus made was that he is part of the triune God. It was what got him tortured to death. How can anyone possibly set that aside and yet listen to anything else he said? Well, yes, that’s…inconvenient that he called himself God…but look at this cute little saying over here about turning the other cheek…”
Some new atheists have made it fashionable to say that Jesus never claimed to be a deity, that this was something added to the story by his followers after the fact, as his life took on mythic proportions he never intended. There are logical problems with this school of thought as well. First off, the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) are filled with things Jesus said where he either claimed to be one with God explicitly or where the Jews of his day would have clearly understood him to be equating himself with God. Here are some examples from John’s gospel:
- I and the father are one. John 10:30
- I am the light of the world. John 9:5
- I am the break of life. John 6:48
- I am the good shepher. John 10:11
- I am the way, the truth, and the life. John 14:6
- I am the resurrection and the life. John 11:25
Here’s the other thing that makes this argument problematic: these gospels were all written and distributed during a time when numerous people who had heard Jesus speak would have still been alive. If any of the authors were trying to embellish anything in their writing of the gospel, other people would have called them out on that, and their account of Jesus’s life and teachings never would have gotten any traction with anyone.
So if you want to stick with logic and reason, this argument also makes no sense.
Jesus Was Delusional
At face value, this second option from Lewis’s list seems to make sense. I mean, if I met someone who told me they were God, this would be my first thought–they’re delusional. Although I’m not a mental health professional, it still seems like a reasonable diagnosis. This was, in fact, the diagnosis made by some of the Jews who heard him speak, as recorded in John 10:19-20:
The Jews who heard these words were again divided. Many of them said, “He is demon-possessed and raving mad. Why listen to him?”John 10:19-20 (NIV)
However, other Jews had a more sober assessment, in light of the miracles Jesus had performed:
But others said, “These are not the sayings of a man possessed by a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?”John 10:21 (NIV)
Similarly, Richard Dawkins, one of the foremost new atheists, in his book The God Delusion, attacks Lewis’s statement that I quote above, claiming there should have been another option offered–that Jesus was just honestly mistaken. Oops, I just called myself God again…
I’m not sure how you could make this distinction, though–if you don’t believe someone’s claims to be one with God, wouldn’t you consider that person delusional whether it was an honest mistake or not? This seems to be a distinction without a difference. In other words, meaningless.
Jesus Was an Evil Deceiver
In today’s language, we might more commonly refer to the third option Lewis mentioned as a “con artist” or “scammer”. In other words, he was someone pretending to be someone he’s not. In fact, some people from Jesus’s hometown wondered this very thing, as recorded in John 6:42:
They said, “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I came down from heaven’?”Jesus’s obnoxious neighbors, in John 6:42
The best thing to say here is, I wonder how much pain a scammer would endure before he or she would come clean and admit they were scamming me. Or said another way, Can you imagine any con artist being tortured to death for their scam and not confessing the truth to save themselves? I mean, don’t you think that if Jesus were a con artist, at some point well before the crucifixion, or even way before the beating that preceded it, he would have come clean to save himself?
Jesus Was and Is Who He Said He Is
The final option we are left with from Lewis’s list is that Jesus really is God in the flesh. He is both fully God and fully man.
This may be hard for us to understand–how God would become flesh, and how God could still run the universe while he was a man, and how Jesus could still pray to God, and a thousand other questions–but that’s OK. God told us that his ways are hard for us to understand. But that doesn’t mean we should stop trying to make sense of them.
Even though this blog post and this series on apologetics are intended to help us make sense of our faith and to help those who are not yet Followers of Christ to make a logical, reasoned decision to accept Jesus as Lord and Saviour, it doesn’t necessarily mean that there won’t still be a leap of faith involved. Also, nobody should wait until it all makes sense before they make a decision, because it never will. The more you get to know God, the more questions you will have.
But wouldn’t you expect that from a love story that has no beginning and no end?