Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Who is Jesus: A Good Man, Prophet, Teacher or God?

This talk is taken from session 1 of the Alpha Course (http://www.uk.alpha.org/) entitled 'Who is Jesus?' 

Martin Scorsese said on television that he made the film The Last Temptation of Christ in order to show that Jesus was a real human being. Yet that is not the issue at the moment. Few people today would doubt that Jesus was fully human. He had a human body; he was sometimes tired and hungry. He had human emotions; he was angry, he loved, and he was sad. He had human experiences; he was tempted, he learned, he worked and he obeyed his parents.

What many say today is that Jesus was only a human being – albeit a great religious teacher. The comedian Billy Connolly spoke for many when he said, ‘I can’t believe in Christianity, but I think Jesus was a wonderful man.’

What evidence is there to suggest that Jesus was more than just a wonderful man or a great moral teacher? The answer, as we shall see, is that there is a great deal of evidence. This evidence supports the Christian contention that Jesus was and is the unique Son of God.


Some people say, ‘Jesus never claimed to be God.’ Indeed, it is true that Jesus did not go round saying the words, ‘I am God.’ Yet when one looks at all he taught and claimed, there is little doubt that he was conscious of being a person whose identity was God.

Teaching centred on himself

One of the fascinating things about Jesus is that so much of his teaching was centred on himself. He said to people, in effect, ‘If you want to have a relationship with God you need to come to me’ (see John 14:6). It is through a relationship with him that we encounter God.

There is a hunger deep within the human heart. The leading psychologists of the twentieth century have all recognised this. Freud said, ‘People are hungry for love.’ Jung said, ‘People are hungry for security.’ Adler said, ‘People are hungry for significance.’ Jesus said, ‘I am the bread of life’ (John 6:35). In other words, ‘If you want your hunger satisfied, come to me.’

Many people are walking in darkness, depression, disillusionment and despair. They are looking for direction. Jesus said, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life’ (John 8:12).

Many are fearful of death. Jesus said, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die’ (John 11:25-26).

So many are burdened by worries, anxieties, fears and guilt. Jesus said, ‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest’ (Matthew 11:28). They are not sure how to run their lives or who they should follow. Jesus said, ‘Follow me’ (Mark 1:17).

He said to receive him was to receive God (Matthew 10:40), to welcome him was to welcome God (Mark 9:37) and to have seen him was to have seen God (John 14:9).

A child once drew a picture and her mother asked what she was doing. The child said, ‘I am drawing a picture of God.’ The mother said, ‘Don’t be silly. You can’t draw a picture of God. No one knows what God looks like.’ The child replied, ‘Well, they will do by the time I have finished!’

Jesus said in effect, ‘If you want to know what God looks like, look at me.’

Indirect claims

Jesus said a number of things which, although not direct claims to be God, show that he regarded himself as being in the same position as God, as we will see in the examples which follow.

Jesus’ claimed to be able to forgive sins. For example, on one occasion he said to a man who was paralysed, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven’ (Mark 2:5). The reaction of the religious leaders was, ‘Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?’ Jesus went on to prove that he did have the authority to forgive sins by healing the paralysed man. This claim to be able to forgive sins is an astonishing claim.

Another extraordinary claim that Jesus made was that one day he would judge the world (Matthew 25:31-32).

Jesus said he would decide what happens to every one of us at the end of time. Not only would he be the Judge, he would also be the criterion of judgment. What happens to us on the Day of Judgment depends on how we respond to Jesus in this life (Matthew 25:40, 45). Suppose the vicar of your local church were to get up in the pulpit and say, ‘On the Day of Judgment you will all appear before me and I will decide your eternal destiny. What happens to you will depend on how you’ve treated me and my followers.’ For a mere human being to make such a claim would be preposterous. Here we have another indirect claim to have the identity of Almighty God.

Direct claims

Jesus said “I and the Father are one.” When he said this we are told that the Jews picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus said to them, “I have shown you many great miracles from the Father. For which of these do you stone me?” “We are not stoning you for any of these,” replied the Jews, “but for blasphemy, because you, a mere human being, claim to be God.” His enemies clearly thought that this was exactly what he was declaring.

When Thomas, one of his disciples, knelt down before Jesus and said, ‘My Lord and my God’ (John 20:28), Jesus didn’t turn to him and say, ‘No, no, don’t say that; I am not God.’ He said, ‘Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed’ (John 20:29). He rebuked Thomas for being so slow to get the point.

If somebody makes claims like these they need to be tested. There are all sorts of people who make all kinds of claims. The mere fact that somebody claims to be someone does not mean that they are right. There are many people, some in psychiatric hospitals, who are deluded. They think they are Napoleon or the Pope, but they are not.

So how can we test people’s claims? Jesus claimed to be the unique Son of God – God made flesh. There are three logical possibilities. If the claims were untrue, either he knew they were untrue – in which case he was an imposter, and an evil one at that. That is the first possibility. Or he did not know – in which case he was deluded; indeed, he was insane. That is the second possibility. The third possibility is that the claims were true.

C. S. Lewis pointed out that: ‘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 insane or else he would be ‘the Devil of Hell’. ‘You must make your choice,’ he writes. Either Jesus was, and is, the Son of God or else he was insane or evil but, C. S. Lewis goes on, ‘let us not come up with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.’


In order to assess which of these three possibilities is right we need to examine the evidence we have about his life.

His teaching

The teaching of Jesus is widely acknowledged to be the greatest teaching that has ever fallen from human lips.

Bernard Ramm, an American professor of theology, said this about the teachings of Jesus:
'They are read more, quoted more, loved more, believed more, and translated more because they are the greatest words ever spoken . . . No other man’s words have the appeal of Jesus’ words. They are the kind of words we would expect God to give.'

His teaching is the foundation of our entire civilisation in the West. Many of the laws in this country were originally based on the teachings of Jesus. We are making progress in virtually every field of science and technology. We travel faster and know more, and yet in nearly 2,000 years no one has improved on the moral teaching of Jesus Christ. Could that teaching really have come from someone evil or insane?

His works

Jesus said that the miracles he performed were in themselves evi¬dence that ‘the Father is in me, and I in the Father’ (John 10:38).

Jesus must have been the most extraordinary person to have around. Sometimes people say that Christianity is boring. Well, it was not boring being with Jesus.

When he went to a party, he turned water into wine (John 2:1-11). He received one man’s picnic and multiplied it so that it could feed thousands (Mark 6:30-44). He had control over the elements and could speak to the wind and the waves and thereby stop a storm (Mark 4:35-41). He carried out the most remarkable healings: opening blind eyes, causing the deaf and dumb to hear and speak and enabling the paralysed to walk again. He set people free from evil forces which had dominated their lives. On occasions, he even brought those who had died back to life (John 11:38-44).

Yet it was not just his miracles that made his work so impressive. It was his love, especially for the loveless, which seemed to motivate all that he did. The supreme demonstration of his love for us was shown on the cross. When they tortured him and nailed him to the cross he said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing’ (Luke 22:34). Surely these are not the activities of an evil or deluded man?

His character

The character of Jesus has impressed millions who would not call themselves Christians.

Jesus was someone who exemplified supreme unselfishness but never self-pity; humility but not weakness; joy but never at another’s expense; kindness but not indulgence. He was a person in whom even his enemies could find no fault and where friends who knew him well said he was without sin. Surely no one could suggest that a man with a character like that was evil or unbalanced?

His fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy

Jesus fulfilled over 300 prophecies (spoken by different voices over 500 years), including twenty-nine major prophecies fulfilled in a single day – the day he died.

I suppose it could be suggested that Jesus was a clever con man who deliberately set out to fulfil these prophecies in order to show that he was the Messiah foretold in the Old Testament.

The problem with that suggestion is, first, the sheer number of them would have made it extremely difficult. Secondly, humanly speaking he had no control over many of the events. For example, the exact manner of his death was foretold in the Old Testament (Isaiah 53), the place of his burial and even the place of his birth (Micah 5:2). Suppose Jesus had been a con man wanting to fulfil all these prophecies. It would have been a bit late by the time he discovered the place in which he was supposed to have been born!

His resurrection

The physical resurrection from the dead of Jesus Christ is the cornerstone of Christianity. But what is the evidence that it really happened? I want to summarise the evidence under four main headings.

1. His absence from the tomb. Many theories have been put forward to explain the fact that Jesus’ body was absent from the tomb on the first Easter Day, but none of them is very convincing.

First, it has been suggested that Jesus did not die on the cross. It has been claimed that Jesus was still alive when he was taken from the cross and that he later recovered.

Jesus had undergone a Roman flogging, under which many died. He had been nailed to a cross for six hours. Could a man in this condition push away a stone weighing probably a ton and a half? The soldiers were clearly convinced that he was dead or they would not have taken his body down. If they had allowed a prisoner to escape, they would have been liable to the death penalty.

Furthermore, when the soldiers discovered that Jesus was already dead, ‘one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water’ (John 19:34). This appears to be the separation of clot and serum which we know today is strong medical evidence that Jesus was dead. John did not write it for that reason; he would not have possessed that knowledge, which makes it even more powerful evidence that Jesus was indeed dead.

Secondly, it has been argued that the disciples stole the body. Some have suggested that the disciples stole the body and began a rumour that Jesus had risen from the dead. Leaving aside the fact that the tomb was guarded, this theory is psychologically improbable. The disciples were depressed and disillusioned at the time of Jesus’ death. It would have needed something extraordinary to transform the apostle Peter into the man who preached at Pentecost when 3,000 people were converted.

In addition, when one considers how much they had to suffer for what they believed (floggings, torture, and for some even death), it seems inconceivable that they would be prepared to endure all that for something they knew to be untrue.

Thirdly, some have said that the authorities stole the body. This seems the least probable theory of all. If the authorities had stolen the body, why did they not produce it when they were trying to quash the rumour that Jesus had risen from the dead?

2. His appearances to the disciples. Were these hallucinations? The Concise Oxford Dictionary describes a hallucination as an ‘apparent perception of an external object not actually present’. Hallucinations normally occur in highly strung, highly imaginative and very nervous people, or in people who are sick or on drugs. The disciples do not fit into any of these categories. Burly fishermen, tax collectors and sceptics like Thomas are unlikely to hallucinate. People who hallucinate would be unlikely suddenly to stop doing so. Jesus appeared to his disciples on eleven different occasions over a period of six weeks. The number of occasions and the sudden cessation make the hallucination theory highly improbable.

Furthermore, over 500 people saw the risen Jesus. It is possible for one person to hallucinate. Maybe it is possible for two or three people to share the same hallucination. But is it likely that 500 people would all share the same hallucination?

Finally, hallucinations are subjective. There is no objective reality – it is like seeing a ghost. Jesus could be touched, he ate a piece of broiled fish (Luke 24:42-43) and on one occasion he cooked breakfast for the disciples (John 21:1-14). Peter says, ‘[They] ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead’ (Acts 10:41). He held long conversations with them, teaching them many things about the kingdom of God (Acts 1:3).

3. The immediate effect. The fact of Jesus rising from the dead, as one would expect, had a dramatic impact on the world. The church was born and grew at a tremendous rate. As Michael Green, writer of many popular and scholarly works, puts it:

[The] church . . .grew… because Christians were able to say to inquirers: ‘Jesus did not only die for you. He is alive! You can meet him and discover for yourself the reality we are talking about!’ They did, and joined the church and the church, born from that Easter grave, spread everywhere.

4. Christian experience. Countless millions of people down the ages have experienced the risen Jesus Christ. They consist of people of every colour, race, tribe, continent and nationality. They come from different economic, social and intellectual backgrounds. Yet they all unite in a common experience of the risen Jesus Christ.

Millions of Christians all over the world today are experiencing a relationship with the risen Jesus Christ. I too have found in my experience that Jesus Christ is alive today. I have experienced his love, his power and the reality of a relationship which convinces me that he really is alive.

The evidence that Jesus rose from the dead is very extensive. A former Chief Justice of England, Lord Darling, said, ‘In its favour as living truth there exists such overwhelming evidence, positive and negative, factual and circumstantial, that no intelligent jury in the world could fail to bring in a verdict that the resurrection story is true.’

Earlier I said that when we look at what Jesus said about himself there were only three realistic possibilities – either he was and is the Son of God, or else deluded or something more sinister. When one looks at the evidence it does not make sense to say that he was insane or evil. The whole weight of his teaching, his works, his character, his fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy and his conquest of death make those suggestions absurd, illogical and unbelievable. On the other hand, they lend the strongest possible support to Jesus’ own consciousness of being a man whose identity was God.

In conclusion, as C. S. Lewis pointed out: ‘We are faced then with a frightening alternative.’ Either Jesus was (and is) exactly what he said, or else he was insane or something worse. To C. S. Lewis it seemed clear that he could have been neither insane nor evil and thus he concludes, ‘However strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that he was and is God.’

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