If you wanted to learn more about me, where would you start? What if I wasn’t around to ask and all you had was access to my family? You would ask the people closest to me to find out more about me. If you asked my kids, they would probably say that I am a fun dad, I do the dishes, and I’m a pretty terrible basketball player. If you ask my wife, she will probably say that I’m mostly useful to reach things on high shelves. That’s a fair summary.
Over the last few articles, we have been examining the reasons why many people believe in God. I have argued the best and most pressing reason is because of the person of Jesus Christ. The life of Jesus is well-documented in history, in fact, our world sets out calendars based on His birth. To our knowledge, Jesus never formally wrote anything down Himself. However, many of His closest friends did. If you want to know about who Jesus was, ask His closest associates. Thankfully, these writings are well-documented. It is to these documents we turn now since we are interested in what the first followers of Jesus believed and taught about Him.
The place to turn is, of course, the New Testament, which is made up of basically two types of literature: biographies and letters. The four Gospel accounts (and the book of Acts) are all written as history and are valuable in our endeavor to learn about Jesus, however, it is the letters (or epistles) that may prove even more valuable. Many of the letters found in the New Testament were originally written before the Gospel accounts. Thus, they provide the earliest glimpse into understanding who Jesus was.
Though there are some disagreements about the exact dates of these letters, it is enough to know that they were written by men who knew Jesus and thus were written within their lifetimes, between about the years 50-70 A.D. The one exception is the writings of the disciple John, which are usually dated between 80-100 A.D. Chief among these writings are the letters of the Apostle Paul and his earliest letters: the books of Galatians, 1-2 Thessalonians, and 1-2 Corinthians. These letters all have well-attested manuscripts, which means that we can be certain that the translations we have today are accurate renderings of what was originally written. They were not haphazardly recorded and copied, but rather were carefully duplicated and preserved. While it is true that Paul was not one of the original disciples, it is true that he had an encounter with Jesus after the resurrection and he also had several interactions with the disciples themselves, eventually being commissioned by them to go preach the message of Jesus and start churches. The letters we have of Paul were all written to those very churches he started. They address current issues that were at play in their lives. They are not evangelistic tracts trying to gain adherents, but rather are addressed to already existing bodies of believers.
If we start with looking at the Thessalonian letters, we see several places where Paul mentions in passing things they would have already known about Jesus. In 1 Thessalonians Chapter 1 we find out that this church had the Gospel (the message of Jesus) come to them by word and by the power of the Holy Spirit because this message had changed their lives. They no longer served foreign idols, but served the One and only God, namely, Jesus Christ, who was raised from the dead (1:9-10). In Chapter 2, Paul mentions how it was the Jews who killed Jesus (2:14-15). The language used to talk of Jesus is wholeheartedly language that would be used to speak of God. For example, he says in Jesus they hope (1:3), it is Jesus who directs their path (3:11), He gives instructions (4:2), and it is Jesus who will return in the clouds one day (4:16). In 2 Thessalonians, Jesus is said to be the One who will bring final judgment on sinners (1:7-8), Jesus is who they want to be glorified (1:12), and the One who both gives commands and offers grace (3:6, 18).
Moving to the Corinthians letters, we see Paul has much more to say about Jesus. He offers grace and peace (1:3), He was crucified (2:2), He is the foundation for this new faith (3:11), and He was betrayed on the night of His death (11:23). The most significant section on what the early church taught about Jesus would be found in 1 Corinthians 15. Here is where the Gospel message is clearly laid out. What is most important? It is that Jesus died for our sins, that He was buried, raised, and appeared to His disciples after His resurrection, as well as to over 500 other people. This is all part and parcel of the message that they originally received. Paul goes on to say that if this is not true, then the entire faith is a sham (verse 14). This is not the type of language you would expect from a group trying to hide or be deceptive. The Book of 2 Corinthians continues this line of thought: Jesus is the Son of God (1:19), the image of God (4:4), He is raised from the dead (4:14), He died for the sins of all (5:14), He was rich, yet became poor (8:9), and He was crucified in weakness (13:4).
Much more could be pointed out from other letters of Paul including how Jesus was a descendant of David (Romans 1:3), was the fulfillment of the promise given to Abraham (Galatians 3:16), had a prior existence before His birth (Philippians 2:6-7), and was taken up to Heaven (1 Timothy 3:16). Paul doesn’t feel the need to elaborate on the details about Jesus because it would have been information they already knew and believed. It is sufficient for us to take Paul’s words as historical information about Him.
One of the ways modern skeptics view Jesus is through a lens working backwards through history. They call Him an apocalyptic prophet, devout Jew, social reformer, gnomic, teacher, philosopher, whatever. In contrast, starting with the earliest sources, we see a different picture of Jesus. He is proclaimed as the Lord of all, God in the flesh, whose life, death, and resurrection has implications for all people for all time.
The things the early church believed about Jesus are still the same things the church holds firm today. If these things are true, they matter to you. If Jesus is truly coming back one day to judge sin and unrighteousness, then ought we not to think about our part? What was so remarkable about this message that spread so rapidly in the first century and has continued to grow with each passing century? Maybe this Jesus guy is worth more investigation. Next month, we will consider more about what the early church wrote about Jesus. Until then, I encourage you to explore the New Testament for yourself. See what all the commotion is about. I’ve got to go grab some dishes from the top shelf.