Who is Jesus Christ?
If you wanted to give good reasons to show that God exists, where should you start? Would you point to the stars in the sky, or to newborn babies? Could you point to that one time when you found that miracle parking spot right near the front of the store? Hallelujah!
While there are several good reasons to believe in God, (as well as some not good reasons) there is one reason that may be the most compelling—that is the man, Jesus Christ. Any serious consideration into the things of God, must take seriously this Nazarene, whose impact on our world can hardly be overstated. Any defense of the Christian faith must first begin with a look at Jesus Himself. What can we know about this guy? Who were His family members? Did He eat donuts? Some things will remain a mystery.
While there certainly are things we may never know about Jesus, surely, we can get a good idea of some of His most important teachings to figure out what the hubbub is all about. How does this rural preacher from ancient Palestine elicit so much love and so much disgust? What makes Him any different than Bigfoot or Iron Man? Some have claimed that there is no way to know the real Jesus because He has been altered throughout church history and the stories about Him are abundant and diverse and, therefore, they are about as reliable as a Facebook newsfeed.
If we’re going to look at history, it is important to think rightly about history. To study history is to investigate the things that happened, and subsequently, their effects on the present. A look at the history of the first century, it becomes clear that shortly after Jesus’ death, there was a new group that entered the scene. This early sect, which some have labeled “the Nazarenes,” suddenly emerge out of Palestine in the first century. That is an event which calls for an explanation.
There were indeed many different groups that have emerged over the course of history claiming to be followers of this person or that person. This is not unusual, however, there is something significant about these early Christians. We could compare, for example, John the Baptist with Jesus. John—it could be argued—had more reasons to claim the title, “Messiah.” Both men had disciples and attracted large followings, and John came before Jesus. The ancient historian, Josephus, devotes more of his writings to John than to Jesus. Jesus Himself stated that there was no prophet greater than John (Matt. 11:11). Many of that time wondered if indeed John might be the Messiah (Luke 3:15). John was also killed by an evil Jew, whereas Jesus was killed by being hanged on a tree, something that was considered cursed by Jews (Deut. 21:23). Yet it is clear from the reading of history, that what followed was the preaching of one Messiah, not two. Jesus was God, not John. This is striking especially considering that some considered that John had even risen from the dead. What is the difference? The most logical reason is because John and Jesus both clearly distinguished their roles. In other words, John never claimed to be the Messiah, but Jesus did. The early Christians understood Jesus’ own claims about Himself. While Jesus’ resurrection certainly clinched the matter in the lives of His followers, the resurrection alone cannot be the only factor because, as mentioned, some believed even John had been resurrected. In other words, Jesus must have firmly established who He was to His followers throughout His time with them because this is what they proclaimed from the beginning. This movement arose within the Roman Empire against astonishing odds, and the best explanation for their existence, momentum, and direction are explained if they had a powerful teacher who had a close relationship with many of them beforehand.
Historians would do well to include all the available documents at their disposal to find out what early Christians believed. These documents could be classified according to the proximity to the events in question. If you want to know about who President George Washington was, would you rather ask people who have never met him or the people who actually lived with him and were alive at the same time as him? Since these people are all dead, you would look to their writings. The closer the original writing is to the events in question, the more reliable they are. Sources that are distant from the events in question are regarded with an appropriate amount of skepticism. For example, The Gospel of Thomas is problematic. It claims to tell stories of Jesus’ life, but the document was written in second century Egypt far removed from our context. The Gospel of Judas, likewise, is dated only back to the second century, not the first century. There are several scholars that point to these works (among others) as a means of discrediting the traditional orthodox views of Jesus. However, these stand in contrast to the four Gospels included in the Bible, which are all dated back to the first century. These Gospels also claim to be written either by Jesus’ disciples (Matthew and John) or men who were close associates with Jesus’ disciples (Mark and Luke).
As this expanding group of Christians began to form churches in the first century, they would have begun to pass around the teachings of Jesus. During His ministry, it is likely that Jesus taught many of His teachings over and over again in typical rabbinic fashion. If the disciples had heard many of His teachings several times, this would enable them to remember the things Jesus taught rather easily. So, what were the things that this early group of Christians believed about Jesus? Well, we would go to the earliest sources, namely, the New Testament. The New Testament includes not only Gospel accounts of Jesus life, but several letters written to various churches and they are not written with the purpose of inventing new information about Jesus, but are reminders of the things Jesus had already taught. Incidentally, these letters are highly valuable for our understanding of Him. Many of them were written even before the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life were written. Thus, they provide us with the earliest knowledge to find out who Jesus was.
What did these early letters have to say about Jesus? Well, that will have to wait for my next article, but if you’re really curious—go ahead and find a Bible and read them for yourself. You could start with Galatians or any of the letters to the Thessalonians or Corinthians for a start. As LaVar Burton used to say, “You don’t have to take my word for it.”