Recently, I saw a ‘man-in-the-streets’ type interview in which the ‘reporter’ asked people he met on the street: “Who is Jesus?”
I was stunned by the responses, most of which were non-responses. One example was a young lady who looked quite confident when she opened her mouth, but no words came out. Viewers watched her eyes roam, apparently searching for words to describe Jesus. There were other similar reactions to this question.
There is no doubt in my mind those people knew of Jesus. But either they did not know exactly why He is known or they could not put it into words.
Watching this led to me to think about how our country, the United States, has changed over my 70-year lifetime. It has grown more secular, meaning people increasingly pay more attention to worldly affairs than to spiritual affairs. And I wondered if those persons who were unable to answer the question were uncomfortable sharing their hearts with a world that had grown so secular. Perhaps they feared it would not be politically correct to declare Him, God.
Many today, who describe themselves as Jewish or Christian believers, choose to not attend temple or church and do not bring their children to Hebrew or Sunday school. It appears that this may have led to both believers and non-believers who do not know much of what they actually believe in, or do not believe in.
- How can one believe if one does not take the time to learn about the very thing they profess to believe?
- How can one not believe if one does not take the time to learn about the very thing they profess to not believe?
- How will the next generations know, if we do not teach?
So I, with no theology degree, and no special credentials on this topic, am choosing to try to answer the question posed by the reporter, in simple terms.
So then, “Who is Jesus?”
Jesus Was a Man: Jesus was a man who lived on earth approximately 2000 years ago. His influence on spiritual culture has been so great that the Gregorian calendar, the calendar most widely used in the world today, is based on His birth and His death. 1
Jesus is recognized by scholars as a historical figure. And historians agree that the Synoptic Gospels [the first three books of the New Testament] of Matthew, Mark and Luke are the best source of historical documentation of his life. I want to make this point, that Jesus is indeed a real man from history, clear, because there came a time in my life when I began to think of Jesus as a mythological figure, rather than a real person. And I imagine others have fallen into this trap as well. 2
To strengthen our understanding of Jesus as a historical figure, there are historical sources outside of the Bible that reference Him. For example, in A. D. 64, [64 years after His death] Roman historian Tacitus references the Christian movement and notes that it was named for Christus [which means the Christ]. Christus is also noted by Pliny the younger, Roman governor of Bithynia in Asia Minor, in a letter dated around A. D. 112. It is not my intent to make a complete case here but if you are interested, other historical references exist as well. 3
One thing is certain; In His lifetime Jesus amassed a large number of followers, people who believed Him to be the Son of God and who told His story which, along with their personal testimony of its truth, grew Christianity into the largest religion in the world.
There are many stories in the New Testament of the life of Jesus as recounted by His followers. Below are just a few that represent key points about His life that help us to understand who He is.
His Conception: Jesus was born in the city of Bethlehem to a young woman who was descended from King David of the Jews. She was of humble means, but a faithful Jew. The New Testament tells us that His mother, Mary, was a virgin and that Jesus was immaculately conceived of God, that He is the son of God. The story told in the Bible is that an angel came to Mary and told her she would bear a child, a son. Mary didn’t understand at first how this could be since she was engaged and yet a virgin. While this seems unusual today in our secular culture, it was the law of the time that the woman remain a virgin until marriage. And this law was punishable by death. 4
When Joseph, Mary’s betrothed [fiancé] learned that Mary was with child [pregnant], his first inclination was to send her away, although being a man of good heart he wanted to do this quietly and without requiring the lawful penalty. But then, Joseph too was visited by an angel. The angel of the Lord told him that Mary’s child was of the Holy Spirit, that He would be a boy, and to name Him Jesus, in Hebrew Yeshua. Yeshua translates as “rescue; deliver” and which is further understood as “Yeshua saves” or “is saving” etc. 5
Jesus was Jewish. In the Old Testament of the Bible, the books which guide Jewish followers have many prophecies about the Messiah or savior who would come one day. 6 & 7 For example, the idea that the Messiah will be born to a virgin is prophesied in Isaiah 7:14 which states: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” Immanuel is a Hebrew word meaning “God with us.” This is written long before Jesus was born.
The New Testament tells stories of the life of Jesus which appear to reflect the prophecies of the Old Testament.
Jesus Is Protected: Shortly after He was born, Jesus was recognized by some scholars to be a great ‘King.’ Although in time He would himself explain that His Kingdom is heaven, not on earth, even an infant who is called a King was viewed as a threat by the Roman King of the time, Herod. This infant Jesus was seen as so threatening, a plot to kill the child was created by Herod. Not knowing who the child was, but knowing of his birth location and approximate timing of His birth, Herod ordered his army to slay all the male children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the borders of Bethlehem, ages 2 years and under. – Matthew 2:16
But Herod’s plans were thwarted when again an angel came to Joseph and told him to take his family and flee into Egypt, because Herod sought the death of the child. Joseph took his family and fled. After Herod’s death, the angel told Joseph it was time to return to Israel and the family returned to Israel to live in the town of Nazareth.
A Brilliant Jewish Scholar: Little is known about the childhood of Jesus. The New Testament does have a story that explains how at age 12, he had already become a great scholar of the Jewish history and law. He came to Jerusalem in that year with his family, to celebrate Passover at the temple. When time came to leave and go home, Jesus could not be found. After three days of searching, Mary and Joseph finally found him in the temple discussing religious issues and law with the great rabbis and lawyers of the temple. According to the gospel of Luke 2:47
47 And all that heard him were astonished at his understanding and answers.
Imagine a 12 year old boy who could hold his own in discussions with great scholars!
Jesus Announced by God: Jesus began His ministry at around age 30. Before doing so, Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist who also was foretold in the Old Testament. The gospel of Luke tells that during his baptism, the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus in the form of a dove and a voice from heaven spoke: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” – Luke 3:20-22. The gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell of this event.
Jesus’s Message: The Jewish Law consists of many rules guiding the way one is to live including even small details of what to eat, how to clean and so forth. 8 Jesus found fault with the temple leaders [known as Pharisees and Sadducees] and chastised them as hypocrites. When challenged by scribes and Pharisees on why His followers failed to follow the tradition of washing hands before eating bread, Jesus told them that they hold people accountable to man’s traditions and do not themselves obey the commandments of God. He referenced prophecy from the Old Testament, [Isaiah 29:13 and Ezekial 33:31] saying:
“This people honoreth me with their lips; But their heart is far from me. 9But in vain do they worship me, Teaching [as their] doctrines the precepts of men.” [Matthew 15:1-9]
Jesus’s ministry was creating a revolution of religious understanding that challenged the temple leaders. He was therefore himself often challenged by the Pharisees and Sadducees as they attempted to show him to be in error and therefore not the great teacher His followers thought Him to be, but rather a heretic. But they were never able to trap Him into saying anything they could use to diminish Him. His knowledge and brilliance were greater than theirs at every challenge.
Matthew 22: 34-40 tells a story of a time Jesus was addressed by a Pharisee who was a lawyer:
36 Master, which is the great commandment in the law?
37 Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.
38 This is the first and great commandment.
39 And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.
So Jesus brings us a message of Love. First Love God. And then love your neighbors as yourself. And He has simplified our understanding of all the laws as they fit into this responsibility of spreading love.
Over His short ministry of about 3 years, Jesus amassed a huge number of followers. He championed those on the fringes of society, the poor and downtrodden and that, no doubt, drew many. But over time, His ministry grew into the largest religion in the world which seems surprising considering He only ministered for a short time. It is likely that this overwhelming response to Him is due to the miracles He performed and the eyewitness testimony of His miracles by followers. His miracles set him apart from other men.
His Miracles: There are numerous accounts in the New Testament of miracles He performed which were witnessed by many.
He walked on the waters of the Sea of Galilee in front of all of His disciples and even engaged one disciple in walking on water for a few moments. When the disciple began to sink after taking a few steps on the water, Jesus told Him to have faith. He taught that it is through faith in God that miracles take place.
He calmed the winds and seas during a storm. He healed the sick, the lame, and the blind. He commanded demons to come out of those who appeared to be in the grip of possession [today we might consider these people to be mentally ill] and healed their lives. He raised a few people from the dead. The miracles He performed are exciting to read about! For a list and links to details of the miracles of Jesus: http://www.jesus.org/life-of-jesus/miracles/what-miracles-did-jesus-perform.html
These miracles, gave credence to His words, His teachings. His ministry became not only a threat to political leaders of the time, but to the spiritual leaders of the Jews, the temple leaders, Pharisees and Sadducees as well. The comfortable lives that they had built on the political systems of the times were threatened by His message.
Jesus did not claim credit for the miracles He performed. He told us that God was performing those miracles through Him, that He was calling upon God through faith.
The Miracle of The Cross: The great miracle of the Cross is the element which binds Christians together and separates Christian beliefs from Jews, Muslims and all other religions. It is a matter of whether one believes this man died on the cross and was resurrected three days later to live again, or not. Although He lived as a man on earth, is He also “God with us?”
Jews believe He died on the cross but they do not believe He was resurrected. They view Him as a great prophet. Muslims believe He did not die on the cross. They too view Jesus as a great prophet and sometimes call Him a friend of God.
But Christians are “believers”.
We believe that Jesus was born to a virgin; we believe He performed all of the miracles documented in the New Testament; and we believe that He was put to death by the Romans at the urging of the Jewish temple leaders.
We believe His death was a sacrifice to atone for all the sins of man, past, present and future. He is called the sacrificial Lamb. We believe that on the third day He arose again, defeating death and that He promised everlasting life to those who believe in Him.
We believe after His resurrection He spent time with his followers and proved that He lived again, even allowing the disciple Thomas to put after his own hand into the hole in Jesus’s side, a hole created while He was on the cross, by the spear of a Roman soldier.
We believe Jesus prepared His disciples for the mission of growing His church by spreading His story, which was called “The Good News.”
We believe that He spent 40 days after His resurrection preparing His disciples and giving them instructions. And finally He told them He would be leaving them and that He would go to prepare a place for them in Heaven and He would be seated at the right hand of God. And He told them that once He was gone, they should wait together in Jerusalem, that there would soon be a day when the Holy Spirit would descend upon them. And then they were to go out to share His story, His message, and that with their faith, God would also perform miracles through them.
We believe that once He had commissioned His disciples, He was taken up, into the sky, and received by a cloud, taken out of their sight. This is called the ascension.
And in the years after He left, His disciples were graced by the Holy Spirit as He had promised and went out to spread the Good News. It is amazing that in a time when there were no telephones, no media, no communication other than word of mouth, His story spread and was accepted to grow into the largest religion. And if you have doubts of the impact of His life, it may help to know that He was crucified at about age 33. His ministry was only three years of His life.
His Church: Jesus did not describe His church as buildings, or committees, or the hierarchy of administration. His church is people; believers who try to follow His teachings, who come together in community and fellowship and in doing so seek to minister to our neighbors, treating them with love, grace, respect and honor. And in the process of following His teachings, followers also seek to share His story with others and share their own testimony of how He has changed their lives, once they came to faith. Of course His followers are human and flawed. We try to live as He has asked us to, but we often fall short. When we recognize our failings, we seek forgiveness.
So Who is Jesus? Christians believe He is God. He is the only God. He is God who loves us. He is God who chose to live among us as a human being, a man, and teach us why He created us and how He wants us to live. He is God who is represented in three bodies: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
The greatest of His commandments is:
“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.”
And the second is:
“Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.”
It may be difficult to come to believe in God when you cannot see Him. Nevertheless, you will come to know Him, if you seek Him.
My own personal testimony is that in seeking Him, I found faith and it has changed my life! You may enjoy this little video which makes an analogy that might help you to consider growing in faith.
I hope this article has given you some food for thought. I hope you are curious to learn more about Jesus, God and the Holy Spirit. I hope you will seek out more information and that you will raise discussion about Him with your friends. Most of all, I hope you choose to seek Him. I hope you have the courage to do so in spite of the words of those who do not believe.