By anyone's account, Jesus of Nazareth is the most significant person who has ever lived.He has influenced more lives and had more written about him than any other person inhistory. He is the only one who ever made a credible claim to being more than just anotherhuman being and to this day almost a billion people revere him as the supreme revelationof God. The purpose of this article is to provide a summary of Jesus' life and his basicteachings, with each topic being introduced by a short account of the modern discussionthat surrounds it. Introducing the whole is a brief discussion of the nature of thesources from which Jesus' life and teachings are derived and concluding it is a discussionof who Jesus understood himself to be.
The Nature of the Sources. The primary sources for the life of Jesus are andwill probably always be the four Gospels of the New Testament. New discoveries are madeperiodically, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Gnostic Scriptures at Nag Hammadi, butimmensely valuable as they are, they tell us nothing new about Jesus. They are either toolate in time, too tangential, too geographically distant, or too obviously a distortion ofmore traditional Christian thought to be of much value. Some of this material has beenavailable for a long time and has been made available in such works as R. McL. Wilson's NewTestament Apochrypha (2 vols.), but no one was inclined to rewrite the story of Jesuson the basis of that. Other fragmentary material from Jewish and pagan sources is alsowell known and has a certain corroborative value that is quite helpful. We learn thatJesus lived during the reign of Tiberius Caesar (a.d. 14-37) somewhere in Palestine; thathe was a religious leader who worked miracles and exorcised demons and was later regardedas a deity by his followers; that he was executed by crucifixion by the Jewish and Romanauthorities during a Passover season; that reports circulated about his resurrection fromthe dead. All of this is very helpful, even if the Christian faith is sometimes describedby these very sources as an unfounded superstition, because in its own way it reflectswhat Christians believes. It does not add anything new to what we know about Jesus,however. For that, one must turn to the four Gospels.
Because the Gospels are basically the only sources we possess for the life of Jesus,the question inevitably arises concerning reliability. Regarding this, four things can besaid. First, there is no agreed definition of reliability. Everyone approaches sourcesfrom a point of view that either includes, excludes, or leaves open the possibility ofwhat is recorded. Given Christian presuppositions, the story makes perfect sense; givennon-Christian presuppositions, the rejection of the sources as unreliable isunderstandable. It is not really a question of the sources, but a question of theinterpreter of the sources. Second, the Gospel writers and their subject matter argue infavor of their truthfulness. They were attempting to present a true account of the One whoclaimed to be the Truth, did so on the basis of careful research ( Luke 1:1-4 ), andwere willing to die for the results of their efforts. That does not necessarily make ittrue, but it does mean they were not inventing things they knew to be false. Third, thechurch from the beginning believed that God had a hand in the writing of the material andthat guaranteed its trustworthiness. This does not make it so, but that belief did arisefrom contact with those who knew Jesus and contact with the risen Jesus who confirmed intheir own experience what the sources said about him as incarnate. If they were right inthis, it confirms the reliability of the sources. Fourth, the Gospels are all we have. Ifthey are allowed to speak for themselves, they present a consistent picture that gave riseto the Christian faith and has been confirmed in the lives of believers from that day tothis. The simple fact is, there is no other Jesus available than the one presented in theGospels. Either that is accepted or one creates his or her own Jesus on the basis of whatis thought to be possible or likely. It might be a Jesus acceptable to the modern orpostmodern mind, but it will not be the Jesus of the Gospels.
The Gospels as sources are what they are, shot through with supernatural occurrencesfrom beginning to end and they present a Jesus who is both powerful and puzzling to ourmodern mind. They ought to be examined with the utmost care, but allowed to speak forthemselves and appreciated for what they are, documents written from within the faith,honestly depicting what they believed Jesus said and did, to the best of theirrecollection.
The Life of Jesus. The Search for the Real Jesus. From the time whenJesus lived until the eighteenth century it would never have occurred to anyone to searchfor a real Jesus. The Gospels were considered to be divinely inspired, accurate accountsof Jesus' life; hence, the real Jesus was found by reading them. A change occurred withthe coming of the Enlightenment that no longer saw the truth of the Gospels as guaranteedby God. They were to be read as any other book; the supernatural elements were to bediscounted entirely or taken as myths or symbols of some higher truth. This meant that thereal Jesus, a Jesus fully explainable in human terms, had to be disentangled from thepious, but historically inaccurate elements that smothered him.
During the nineteenth century an enormous number of lives of Jesus were written thatattempted to reconstruct who Jesus really was, some of them showing real insight but moststraying so far from the Gospels as to make Jesus virtually unrecognizable. A few achievedimmense popularity because of their radical originality, like D. F. Strauss's The Lifeof Jesus Critically Examined (1835) and E. Renan's Life of Jesus (1863), butmost came and went and in fact are almost unknown today. In 1903 Albert Schweitzersurveyed over two hundred such lives and convincingly showed that none of them had foundthe real Jesus.
This earliest attempt to find the real Jesus, which came to be known as "the OldQuest, " was set aside in the early twentieth century by a group of theologians ledby Rudolph Bultmann, who felt that the "historical" Jesus was essentiallyirrelevant to Christian faith. Christians were to put their faith in the risen Christ, nota reconstructed historical Jesus. They also believed that none of the supernaturalelements of the Gospels, such as the virgin birth, the miracles of Jesus, or his bodilyresurrection was true, anyway, but only an ancient way of describing an existentialexperience of the present day.
The extreme skepticism of this movement brought about a strong reaction in the 1950s,called the "New Quest of the Historical Jesus, " led by some of Bultmann'sstudents, notably E. K emann and G. Bornkamm. Bornkamm's Jesus of Nazareth (1956)and J. M. Robinson's A New Quest of the Historical Jesus (1959) were the highpoints, but this quest also faded away, itself being too problematic and inconclusive tohelp much.
Following this, numerous renewed attempts to find the real Jesus were made, which aretogether called the "Third Quest." They include everything from depicting Jesusas a magician (M. Smith, Jesus the Magician, 1979), a Marxist (M. Machorec, A MarxistLooks at Jesus, 1976), to an outright fraud (B. Thiering, Jesus the Man, 1992). Otherswrote of Jesus along more traditional lines (D. Guthrie, Jesus the Messiah, 1972; B. F.Meyer, The Aims of Jesus, 1979) and yet others wrote scholarly attempts to understand whatcould be known purely as history about Jesus, such as E. P. Sanders (The Historical Figureof Jesus, 1995) and J. P. Meier (A Marginal Jew, 2 vols., 1991, 1995). John Reumann hasattempted to classify all of this (taking it back to 1900) into twenty differentcategories as "Types of Lives Some Key Examples" (The New Testament andits Modern Interpreters, eds. E. J. Epp and G. W. MacRae, pp. 520-24).
This confusing welter of lives raises the question whether there is a "real"Jesus. The answer to that, in the end, must go back to the only real sources that we have,namely, the four Gospels of the New Testament. Any reconstruction that differsfundamentally from what is depicted there will not qualify, nor strengthen the church, norstand the test of time. Jesus will always elude us if we look for him only in history andany attempt to depict him as simply another part of history will inevitably beunconvincing.
The Life of Jesus. Jesus' Birth and Youth. Two of our four canonical gospels(Matthew and Luke) contain material dealing with Jesus' earthly life prior to thebeginning of his public ministry. Matthew's basic emphasis is on Jesus as descendant ofDavid; hence he focuses on Joseph's line, Jesus being the legal heir of Joseph. Lukepresents information gathered from Mary's side, either from Mary herself or from those whoknew her. There is very little overlap between the accounts.
The events that precede Jesus' birth concern primarily two miraculous conceptions, thatof John the Baptist and, of course, Jesus. John's father, the priest Zechariah, was toldby the angel Gabriel that his aged wife Elizabeth would bear a son in her old age. Marywas told by the same angel, Gabriel, that she would bear a son, though a virgin.Zechariah's response was incredulity, where Mary's was respectful joy and acceptance ( Luke 1:18 Luke 1:38 ).
A census decreed by Caesar Augustus sent Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem where, during thelast years of Herod the Great, Jesus was born to the acclaim of angels and shepherds. Theexact date of Jesus' birth is debated by any time from late 7 to 5 b.c. is possible. Jesuswas circumcised on the eighth day ( Luke 2:21 ) and onthe fortieth day taken to the temple in Jerusalem, where he was presented to the Lord andhis parents were ceremonially purified according to levitical custom ( Luke 2:22-38 ; Lev 12:1-8 ). Theyreturned to Bethlehem were, apparently, they intended to stay. Magi came from the east,following a miraculous star. They found Jesus after making inquiries in Jerusalem,upsetting the rulers there. This visit could have been up to two years after Jesus' birth.Herod's desire to kill the child Jesus was thwarted by God and the family escaped toEgypt. After Herod the Great's death in 4 b.c., the family decided to return to Nazarethafter hearing that Archelaus was ruling over Judea (where Bethlehem was) in place of hisfather. Only one episode is recorded of Jesus' early years. When he was twelve years old,on the eve of adulthood according to Jewish custom ( Luke 2:41-50 ), heshowed his profound identification with the temple and the things of God.
These events are characterized by the miraculous and the extraordinary. Modern attemptsto make them pious fiction or mythological are only required if one is unable to acceptGod's direct intervention in human affairs. They are wholly consistent with the rest ofJesus' extraordinary career and, indeed, make an appropriate introduction to it.
The Year of Obscurity. James Stalker described the three-year public ministry ofJesus as the year of obscurity, the year of public favor, and the year of opposition.Although not wholly accurate, this does serve as a handy guide to those years.
The year of obscurity began sometime in a.d. 26. John the Baptist appeared in thewilderness near the Dead Sea preaching a message of baptism and repentance for theforgiveness of sins. Some scholars have connected John with the Qumran community. Althoughthis is possible, the message of John is altogether different from theirs. He was anexceptional figure, recalling the days of Elijah. He spoke out against false trust inone's Jewishness, demanded conversion in the light of the coming judgment, required achanged life as evidence of conversion, and spoke of the coming Messiah, of whom he wasthe forerunner. John's denunciation of Herod Antipas's illegal marriage to his brother'swife provoked her ire, his imprisonment, and ultimately his death. Jesus spoke in thehighest possible terms of John and his ministry, in spite of John's troubled questioningswhile in prison at Machaerus.
Jesus went from Nazareth to be baptized by John in order "to fulfill allrighteousness" ( Matt3:15 ). Jesus showed his sense of mission by identifying with the sins of the world atthe very beginning of his ministry. Divine confirmation came from heaven with the voice ofGod and the descent of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove ( Matt 3:16-17 ).This affirmation of the Trinity will later by repeated at the end of Matthew's Gospel ( 28:19 ).
A time of severe testing in the wilderness followed Jesus' baptism, in which Jesus'commitment to his task and understanding of his mission were resolved.
After a short trip to Cana in Galilee where the water was turned into wine Jesusreturned to Jerusalem for the Passover of a.d. 27. His expulsion of the moneychangers fromthe temple was more than just a rejection of corrupt practices. He was rejecting thetemple itself by offering himself as a new temple for a new people of God ( John 2:18-21 ).
Sometime in the fall of a.d. 27 John the Baptist was arrested. Jesus took this as asign to return to Galilee to begin his own ministry. As long as John was preaching, heheld back. Now that John was gone, the time of fulfillment had arrived. On the trip backto Galilee, Jesus rather openly declared to the woman at Jacob's well in Samaria some ofhis challenging, new ideas. The time has arrived when true worship of God will not concernwhere it takes place, whether in Samaria or Jerusalem, but how it takes place. God seeksthe right attitude, spirituality, and truth, not the right location ( John 4:21-24 ).
The Year of Public Favor. Jesus' ministry in Galilee and the regions to thenorth of it are described in some detail by the Gospel writers and, although, in general,it was a time of public acclaim by the people, the clouds of opposition were arising fromofficial quarters in Jerusalem.
After an initial rebuff in his hometown of Nazareth, Jesus settled in at Capernaum bythe Sea of Galilee, using it as a base of operations for his ministry in Galilee. Largecrowds began to follow Jesus because of the miraculous events and healing that were takingplace, but also because of the gracious words that he spoke. Rather than focusing on theminute regulations that had grown up along with biblical tradition, Jesus stressed thelove and nearness of God to everyone personally. Rules were made for people, not peoplefor the rules. The Good News of the kingdom is that the power of God is available for allwho put their trust in God and are poor in spirit, pure in heart, loving, merciful, andfollowers of peace. Jesus saw himself as the embodiment and establisher of that kingdomand offered himself to the people as the one who was bringing that kingdom to pass ( Matt 11:25-30 ).Matthew summarizes this by saying "Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in theirsynagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sicknessamong the people" ( 4:23 ).
Jesus made at least three major preaching tours through Galilee at this time, as wellas two that took him into Gentile territory to the north and east. In one instance, hefelt it necessary to send out his recently appointed leaders, the apostles, to engage inministry in his name, because the task was too large to be done single-handedly ( Mark 9:1-2 ).
It would be hard to say which of the many episodes that are recounted in the Gospelsare the most important, because what we have are a selection of those deemed mostimportant to begin with. However, four stand out as particularly instructive. First, Jesuschose twelve of his followers to become a nucleus of leadership ( Mark 3:13-19 ).This was to establish a new Israel that would in time replace the old Israel as the peopleof God. Second, when John the Baptist asked Jesus from prison if he was the Messiah, Jesusreplied with a definition of messiahship that was one of service and suffering rather thanof immediate triumph ( Matt 11:2-19 ).Here, again, Jesus pointed out that the old age was drawing to a close and that the newage was dawning. Third, at the miraculous feeding of the five thousand and the subsequentsermon in Capernaum reflecting on that event, Jesus offers himself as the essence of thekingdom, as the bread come down from heaven and a new manna in a new wilderness ( Matt 14:13-21 ; John 6:1-69 ).Fourth, during Jesus' second trip outside of Galilee, he disclosed at Caesarea Philippiand at his transfiguration who he really was and what his ultimate task was to be ( Mark 8:27-38 ; 9:2 ). He was theeternal Son of God who had come to die for the sins of the world.
The Year of Opposition. As Jesus' ministry in Galilee was drawing to a close, hewas preparing to move south to continue his work in the regions of Perea and Judea. Heknew that he was moving into dangerous territory. Even while he was in Galilee spies andrepresentatives were being sent from Jerusalem to observe his actions and, perhaps, tofind some grounds for legal action against him. In three areas they were dissatisfied withwhat he was doing: he was violating the Sabbath rules ( Matt 12:1-8 ; Mark 3:1-6 ); hismiraculous healings were attributed to demonic activity, rather than to divineintervention ( Mark3:22-30 ); and he set aside traditional rules regarding hand washing, and, addinginsult to injury, accused the leadership of being hypocritical ( Mark 7:1-13 ).While he was in Galilee, he was more or less out of their jurisdiction, but traveling toJerusalem would provoke open conflict.
Jesus arrived in time for the feast of Tabernacles (September-October) in a.d. 29.Conflict immediately broke out, some saying he was the Messiah or a Prophet, othersdenying it ( John 7:11-13 John 7:40-43 ). Jesus proclaimed himself to be the water of life, the light of theworld, the special representative of the Father, the dispenser of eternal life, andtimeless in his existence ( John 7:16 John 7:37-38 ; John 8:12 John 8:16 John 8:28 John 8:51 John 8:56-58 ). Further controversy arose after Jesus healed a man who had beenborn blind. This could not be denied by the rulers and only deepened their hostilitytoward him.
Jesus traveled throughout Judea and Perea, teaching, preaching, and healing, as he haddone in Galilee. At one point he sent out a group of seventy-two disciples, by twos, topreach and heal in his name, knowing that his time was growing short. He spent some timein Bethany, where another notable miracle took place (the raising of Lazarus from thedead). After a short trip back north, taking him to the border of Galilee once more, Jesusreturned by way of Jericho to Jerusalem for the last time.
During this time Jesus was preparing his disciples for what was coming, although theyhad a difficult time accepting the fact that he was going to Jerusalem to die and riseagain. Their thoughts were full of coming glory and the power that Jesus so manifestlydisplayed. For Jesus triumph in Jerusalem meant death and resurrection; for the disciplesit meant a special and obvious place in God's kingdom. Jesus tried to explain what thecost of discipleship would be, but his disciples seemed incapable of hearing it ( Luke 14:25-35 ).
The Trial and Death of Jesus. Jesus arrived in Jerusalem on the Sunday beforePassover (March-April) of a.d. 30, entering the city to the acclaim of the people and intriumphal glory. He repeated his actions of three years earlier, again demonstrating hisauthority over the temple. This created a great stir among the people and a murderoushatred in the hearts of the leaders.
During that week there was public and unresolved conflict with the authorities and theymade plans to do away with Jesus, penetrating the group by way of Judas, one of the twelveapostles.
On Thursday night Jesus ate a Passover meal with his followers and established acommunal ceremony for them that consisted of a participation in his coming death,concretized in the partaking of bread and wine. This was the establishment of the NewCovenant that had been prophesied by Jeremiah ( Luke 22:17-20 ;see Jer 31:31-34 ).
Jesus' agony began in the garden of Gethsemane where he was arrested after going thereto pray. He was taken to the high priest's compound where he was interviewed, first byAnnas, then by Caiphas, then when it had fully gathered, by the whole Sanhedrin, theruling body of the Jews. It was difficult to get the witnesses to agree, but a charge ofblasphemy was settled on, because Jesus had claimed to be equal to God ( Matt 26:63-68 ).By now it was near morning and Peter had disgraced himself by denying publicly that heeven knew Jesus.
The Jewish authorities took Jesus to Pontius Pilate, the Roman procurator, for him toratify their sentence of death (they did not have the authority to execute it). Thegrounds of their condemnation of Jesus had expanded considerably on their way to Pilate.They charged that Jesus had actively misled the people, opposed payment of taxes toCaesar, and claimed to be the Messiah, a king ( Luke 23:2 ). Theylater added a fourth chargeJesus was a revolutionary, inciting people to riot ( Luke 23:5 ). Pilatemade a series of attempts to release Jesus, including the offer to release a prisoner(they chose Barabbas instead) and the flogging of Jesus as punishment, but death bycrucifixion was their ultimate demand. With mingled contempt and fear, Pilate granted themtheir wish when they accused him of being unfaithful to Caesar, by allowing one whoclaimed to be a king to live.
Jesus was crucified at 9 a.m. on Friday morning, the actual day of Passover, and diedat 3 p.m. that afternoon. He prayed forgiveness for his tormentors, went through a senseof abandonment by God, and expired with "It is finished; Father, into your hands, Icommit my spirit." Jesus had finished the work he had come to do to die forthe sins of the world.
Jesus' body was hastily placed in a tomb by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, becausethe day ended at 6 p.m. according to Jewish reckoning and everything must be finishedbefore the Sabbath. A seal was set on the tomb and the women were waiting for the Sabbathto end so they could prepare the body properly for permanent burial.
Jesus' Resurrection and Ascension. Early on Sunday morning, when the women wentto visit the tomb, they were startled to see that the tomb was empty and an angelannounced the good news: "He has risen! He is not here" ( Mark 16:6 ). Therefollowed that day a confusing set of actions that included other visits to the tomb,visits to the apostles, and appearances of Jesus. Three of these appearances areespecially noteworthy. First, Jesus appeared to two disciples as they were on their wayout of town in utter dejection and nearing Emmaus. Jesus explained the Scriptures to them,especially the necessity of his suffering, in order to enter his glory ( Luke 24:35 ). Jesusfellowshiped together with them and their eyes were opened to see the truth. Second, aspecial appearance was granted to the apostle Peter ( Luke 24:34 ; cf. John 21:15-23 )in order to strengthen him after his ignominious failure. Third, Jesus appeared to theeleven (minus Judas) in Jerusalem to show that the reports were true; he had, indeed,risen and was the same Jesus, now glorified. He was not a ghost or spirit, but risen in abody capable of being seen, touched, and participating in events related to this life ( Luke 24:36-43 ).
Other appearances followed over a period of forty days, both in Jerusalem and inGalilee. There were appearances to individuals, groups of individuals, and in one case toover five hundred people at one time ( 1 Cor 15:6 ). Theyoccurred in various places and at various times of day. All of this was to remove anydoubt whatsoever about the reality of what had taken place. Jesus had risen and the oncefearful flock was now emboldened and empowered to preach the message of the risen Christas the salvation of the world. In the end neither rejection, nor persecution, nor deathcould shake their conviction that Jesus had conquered death. He had risen, indeed.
After forty days Jesus left this earth as miraculously as he had come. During the fortydays Jesus had confirmed the fact of his resurrection, instructed his disciples about hisnew relationship to them, and promised them a new work by the Holy Spirit in their lives.His ascension was the return to his Father that he had spoken about ( John 20:17 ) andthe inauguration of his reign that would be consummated on this earth with his secondcoming ( Acts 1:9-11 ).Thus began a new phase of Jesus' dealings with his followers. His physical presence wasreplaced by a spiritual presence ( Matt 28:20 ) as theyset out to fulfill his last commission to them, to be witnesses unto the ends of the earth( Acts 1:8 ).
The Teaching of Jesus. The Search for the Real Words of Jesus. The searchfor the real words of Jesus arose at the same time that the search for the real Jesusbegan, with the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century. With the collapse of confidencein the Gospels as infallible sources of information about Jesus came skepticism about whatJesus said as well. However, that did not come to the same degree or at the same time asskepticism about his life, the reason being it was easier to reinterpret what Jesus saidin modern terms than many of the things he was recorded to have done. His walking on wateror raising the dead could only be understood as ancient superstitions or myth. Hisstatements about the kingdom of God or messiahship could rather easily be turned intomodern ethical statements and made consistent with other religious teachings.
The teaching of Jesus as understood by the "Old Quest" concerned individualpiety, personal relations, and the social betterment of the world. The kingdom of God thatJesus proclaimed was understood to be the gradual improvement of society by permeating itwith the lofty moral ideals of Jesus. This conception reached its classic statement inAdolf von Harnack's What Is Christianity? (1901) with his epitomizing Jesus'teachings as the Fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of all human beings, and the infinitevalue of the human soul.
It was Johannes Weiss (Jesus' Teaching on the Kingdom of God, 1892) and AlbertSchweitzer (The Quest of the Historical Jesus, 1903) who helped bring an end tothis understanding of Jesus' words by pointing out that just as Jesus as a person did notfit into modern categories, neither did his message. Jesus was not a Kantian ethicist, butrather an ancient apocalyptic prophet, proclaiming the end of the age with the coming ofan enigmatic figure called the "Son of Man."
The existentialist underpinnings of both the Bultmannian rejection of the Old Quest andthe subsequent New Quest of the Historical Jesus made the search for Jesus' real wordstheologically secondary. The primary importance of Jesus' wordswhat we may know ofthemis to challenge us to new life or a new self-understanding. Taken in theirhistorical context Jesus' words were nothing more than what historical research could showthem to be, whether rabbinic, apocalyptic, esoteric, or basically indeterminate. But asused by God, they become an existential challenge to our smug self-satisfaction and a callto encounter the living God.
The need to know what Jesus really said did not go away, however, and many in the NewQuest and the subsequent "Third Quest" went back to the task of seeking Jesus'real words. There was a problem, however. The problem was now, in the light of developedGospel studies, how to sift the material so that later additions and changes made by thechurch communities, the redactors, the legend-making propensities of the time, the oraltransmitters of the tradition and the final "author" of the finished gospel canbe set aside, leaving us only what Jesus really said. So the search for criteria todistinguish the authentic from the inauthentic began. To date, no fewer than twenty-fivesuch criteria have been suggested, some of them mutually exclusive, such as multiplesource attestation, dissimilarity, consensus of scholars, multiple forms of a statement,and Palestinian environment. Interestingly, rather than create more confidence in thegospel materials, in general, this has brought about a greater skepticism.
The recent "Jesus Seminar" has also taken a skeptical line on this. Afterworking six years trying to answer the question "What did Jesus really say?"these seventy scholars published their results in The Five Gospels: The Search for theAuthentic Words of Jesus (1993)the fifth gospel being the apocryphal"Gospel of Thomas." They concluded "Eighty-two percent of the wordsascribed to Jesus in the gospels were not actually spoken by him" (The FiveGospels, p. 5).
Responses to this excessive skepticism are now arising in such works as C. Blomberg's TheHistorical Reliability of the Gospels (1987), Jesus Under Fire (1995), eds. M.J. Wilkins and J. P. Moreland, and Is the New Testament Reliable? by Paul Barnett.No doubt, the pendulum will swing back toward a more sensible position in the future.
The Teaching of Jesus. Jesus' Teaching Method. Jesus was in every respect amaster communicator. He employed methods that were sufficiently familiar to his hearers tomake them comfortable but sufficiently different to arrest their attention. What struckthem most forcefully of all, however, was the person himselfJesus taught them as onehaving authority. It is hard to define, even inhuman terms, what authority really is, butin Jesus' case it is even more difficult, because his authority made claims that wentbeyond the merely human, causing those who heard him to exclaim "Who is thisman?" At least three things combined to make Jesus' very presence an unsettlingchallenge, a call to decision. First and foremost, he embodied what he taught, and what hetaught seemed clearly beyond human capacities. Yet he embodied those principles to thehighest degree without any embarrassment or arrogance. Was he more than merelyhuman?that was the implied question on everyone's mind. Second, his teaching wasderived solely from the Old Testament, which was, of course, God's Word, and it wasmediated directly through himself; he identified directly with it. The rabbis found itnecessary to bolster their interpretations by extensive references to one another. Jesusnever quoted another rabbi. "You have heard it said, but I say unto you" is howJesus taught. God's word and his own words merged into one. Third, Jesus' words werebacked up by demonstrations of power. Anyone can claim anything, but only one with morethan human authority can say to the waves "Be still" and have those waves obeyhim.
Jesus' very presence caused the crowds to gather, but what he said caused them togather as well. His teaching method was very much like the parables that he taught. It wasdesigned to reveal enough of the truth to draw people it, but to conceal enough to causepeople to stop and reflect. These people had heard biblical truth on many occasions;Jesus' task was to cause them to hear it afresh, perhaps even to hear it as a reality forthe first time. To accomplish this Jesus would sometimes bury his meaning somewhere belowthe surface, so that people would have to dig for it. On other occasions, Jesus would usehighly graphic language to make a point. It certainly caught their attention when he toldthem to take the plank out of their eye in order to see the speck in another's ( Matt 7:3-5 ) andcalled their religious leaders snakes ( Matt 23:33 ).Sometimes Jesus' words were seemingly self-contradictory ("The first will be last,and the last will be first" Mark10:31 Mark10:31 ) and at times even shocking ("Cut off your hand cut off your foot" Mark 9:42-48 Mark 9:42-48 ). In all of this, Jesus' creative use oflanguage was designed to force his hearers to a decision. He knew that giving theminformation was not enough. They must be challenged to embody and act on that informationin order for it to change them. When attempting to do that they would be forced toconfront their own inabilities and cast themselves on God, which was Jesus' ultimateintention. So Jesus and his message and his method of delivery all blended together tochallenge the people. They either believed or they were offended and left.
Jesus' View of God. The foundation of everything that Jesus said and did was hisconviction that God existed, knew what he was doing, and was involved in human affairs.From the very earliest time of Jesus' life of which we have record, he was in the house ofGod busy about his Father's affairs ( Luke 2:46-49 ).Jesus lived in unbroken and immediate fellowship with God, virtually a life of prayer. Hespent long periods of time in intimate communion with God and at critical junctures duringhis public career, such as his baptism, his transfiguration, his agony in the garden, andhis death, God's presence was a vivid reality, more real than even the seeminglysubstantial reality around him. It was out of this profound personal experience that whatJesus had to say about God arose. He never doubted that God existed nor did it occur tohim to attempt to prove that there was a God. All of Jesus' reassuring began with the factof God and moved downward toward human affairs. He never started with an undefined humansituation and argued his way to the conclusion that somehow God must be there. For himthat God existed was a given.
For Jesus, that God could be known personally, directly, and intimately was also agiven. This meant that religious ritual and complicated ceremonial activity should not beinserted between a person and God. Too often these things become primary and the vision ofGod is obscured. The term that Jesus used most frequently to define what kind of personGod is was heavenly Father. This term is found in the Old Testament, as, indeed, virtuallyeverything Jesus says about God's nature and actions is, but it had become so vague byJesus' time as to be almost meaningless. Consequently, Jesus emphasized this in order tomake it alive for us once more. Jesus' chief concern was to renew in the people of his daya sense of the divine realitythe presence of a personal, loving God, who is ourheavenly Father. It is for this reason that Jesus never mentioned what might be called theharder aspects of God's being, calling God King or Judge. He knew very well that God wasboth King and Judge, but he wanted people to know that a heavenly Father ruled and judged.
The attributes, or qualities, that God possesses are all derived from God'sself-revelation in the Old Testament and can be verified anew in the life of the believer.God is good, glorious, true, loving, giving, righteous, perfect, all-powerful,all-knowing, wise, and sovereign, to mention just a few. Sometimes these are stated asabstract theological truth or fact (e.g., "All things are possible with God" Mark 10:27 Mark 10:27 ) but most often they are related to concretehuman situations. God, in the totality of his being, is vitally concerned with humanbeings in every aspect of their lives, from the number of hairs on their head, to the needfor daily bread, to their eternal salvation.
It was Jesus' supreme desire that people know God as he really is once more. He set outto accomplish this by offering himself as the unique embodiment of that reality andintroducing them to the one true God, their heavenly Father.
The Kingdom of God. That God existed was the essence of Jesus' teaching; thatGod ruled over the world he had created was the way in which what might have been simplyan abstract idea (God is) was concretely related to everyday human life. The term Jesuschose to express this understanding was the "kingdom of God." This was no newidea, but drawn directly from the Old Testament ( 1 Chron 16:31 ; Psalm 9:7-8 ; 97:1 ). What Jesuswanted the people to see was that the reign of God had been brought down from heaven toearth in the work that he was doing and in the gospel of salvation that he was preaching.
What was this kingdom that Jesus was proclaiming? Primarily, it was a spiritual realmor reality where God's will was being accomplished and people were invited to enter it. Itwas not restricted to one small nation or geographical place, but included everything. Godexercised his sovereignty everywhere. But Jesus was proclaiming more than just thegeneralized providence of God. Jesus was preaching the kingdom as the realm where God'ssaving will was being done. In this sense the kingdom of God was nothing less than eternalsalvation. To be in the kingdom was to be saved; to refuse entrance into the kingdom wasto be lost.
Another important aspect of the kingdom as Jesus proclaimed it was that it is both apresent and a future reality. In Jewish theology the kingdom was commonly understood to bearriving at the end of this sinful age. When this world ends, the kingdom of God willbegin. For Jesus the kingdom is both present and future. We may enter into God's eternalsalvation now and begin to experience its benefits at this present time, while stillliving in this fallen age. From now until the end of this age we will be in the world butnot of it. But the kingdom is also future, in that, when this age ends only the kingdomwill remain. So we look forward to that day when God will be all in all and pray"Your kingdom come."
Many things are said by Jesus about entering into the kingdom. The simplest way to sayit was repent and believe the gospel ( Mark 1:14-15 ). Inanother instance Jesus said we must be converted and become like little children ( Matt 18:3 ). ToNicodemus he says "you must be born again" ( John 3:3 ). Jesuslikens this to entering through a narrow gate ( Matt 7:13-14 ) andbuilding a house upon a rock ( Matt 7:24-27 ). Itis of such immense value that we should be willing to sacrifice anything for it ( Matt 18:8-9 ), hardas that might be, as it was for the rich young man ( Matt 19:23-24 ).When Jesus' disciples asked how then anyone could be saved, his answer was, "With manthis is impossible, but with God all things are possible" ( Matt 19:26 ), whichis the whole point. To enter the kingdom by our own effort is impossible; it takes therenewing power of God to make us new people and establish us in God's kingdom.
Salvation as New Life in God's Kingdom. When, by the renewing grace of God, oneenters the kingdom, that person is converted, born again, made new, and a whole new lifebegins. The newness of life is not an option, but a fact. Being in the kingdom means beingnew. If there is no newness of life, regardless of what one sayseven, "Lord,Lord" ( Matt 7:21 )thatperson is not truly known by God. Jesus likens this to a bush or a tree. Good treesproduce good fruit, bad trees produce bad fruit ( Matt 7:16-20 ).
Jesus' mission was that we might have life at its fullest ( John 10:10 ) andthat is to be found in the kingdom. Life outside the kingdom is not really life at all.Throughout his teaching Jesus contrasted true life in the kingdom and false life on theoutside. Those outside the kingdom imagine that the true purpose of life is to amasspossessions, or gain status, or appear pious, or see the fruits of our human endeavors, orachieve some inner self-realization. None of these things embody the essence of true life.Life does not consist of the abundance of our possessions ( Luke 12:15-21 )and we are not to store up for ourselves treasures on earth ( Matt 6:19-20 ).Nor does life consist of our privileged position or status no matter how exalted thatmight be ( Matt 21:43 ; Luke 11:27-28 ).Even outward piety and religious correctness are of no value in defining what life is ( Matt 6:16 ). As forhuman endeavor, what profit would there be if we gained the whole world and lost our soulin the process ( Mark8:36-37 )? And the one who seeks to fulfill life by saving it, will in fact lose it ( Mark 8:35 ). All ofthe values that are operative in the world are to be left behind when one enters thekingdom. There is an entirely different set of values operating that in fact reverse thevalues of the world.
The new life that Jesus offers when we enter the kingdom is like an inexhaustible wellof water within us that refreshes us in this life and springs up into life eternal ( John 4:13-14 ; 7:37-38 ). Themost characteristic feature of the new being that we have become is love. We are to loveGod with all of our being as or highest priority ( Mark 12:30 ). Thesecond requirement of living in the kingdom is to love our neighbor as well ( Mark 12:31 ). Thetransformed heart is able to do what humanly cannot be done. We are enabled to dethroneourselves and our own ambitions and give God his proper place in our lives and see himreflected in those around us ( Matt 25:44-45 ).A new set of positive spiritual qualities replaces the destructive, self-defeatingcharacteristics of the old life. Jesus summarizes these in the Beatitudes as poverty ofspirit, meekness, desire for righteousness, mercy, purity of heart, the ability to bringpeace, and the ability to love and forgive those who revile us ( Matt 5:1-12 ). Allof these spiritual qualities will express themselves in concrete action toward thosearound us, even our enemies, and in doing this we will be showing that we are truechildren of our heavenly Father, who also loves in this way ( Matt 5:43-48 ).
Humanity and Sin. In Jesus' teaching there is no finely developed doctrine ofthe human person and of sin. He was too busy dealing with the practical consequences ofhumanity's weaknesses and sinfulness to spend much time speculating about it. He hadcompassion on the crowds, seeing them as sheep without a shepherd ( Mark 6:34 ). It ispossible, however, to draw together what Jesus did say and get a rather clear picture ofwhat he taught.
The most fundamental thing to be said about human beings is that they are created byGod. When this is understood, everything else falls into its proper place. As creatures ofGod, we are not answerable to ourselves or to anyone else, but to God. We do not ownourselves, or define ourselves, or live for ourselves, but rather for God. By the sametoken, we cannot own someone else or define them either. We are all alike in ourcreaturely status, made in God's image and responsible for one another to God. Being madeby God, we must find out what God intended us to be, if we are to fulfill our truedestiny. It is only when we live up to what he intended that we find out who we reallyare. For Jesus, the finding of our true selves will take place only in the kingdom of God,which is our true home.
Jesus taught that all human beings are valuable ( Matt 10:31 ; 12:11-12 ), weare not to be anxious about our lives and the necessities of life. We have a heavenlyFather who knows our needs and has made provision for them ( Matt 6:25-33 ).Even the hairs of our head are numbered ( Matt 10:30 ). Goddoes not discriminate, but sends his blessings, rain and sun, upon the just and the unjustalike ( Matt 5:45 ).Because we are valued by God, we can value ourselves and others, and relax in theknowledge that God cares infinitely for us and has our best interest at heart.
That we are sinful was also taught by Jesus. He made no special point of emphasizingthis. It was simply taken for granted ( Matt 7:11 ). What isextraordinary about Jesus' attitude is that he did not see this as an ultimate barrierbetween us and God but as a platform from which to rise. Indeed, we must start with thefrank recognition of our helplessness if we are to make any progress at all. "I havenot come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance, " is how Jesus put it ( Luke 5:32 ). Jesussaw the tragic consequences of sin everywhere, rebuked the self-righteous who would notacknowledge their own sinfulness, and severely criticized those who caused other people tosin ( Luke 17:1-2 ).But Jesus looked beyond sin to the ultimate intention of God for us. Our sinfulness is notthe essence of what we are but rather a distortion of that essence. Salvation in God'skingdom restores us to what God intended us to be.
Eschatology. Eschatology is the doctrine of the last things and deals with theultimate fate of both the individual and the universe. Jesus had much to say on bothaspects of this subject, but never as an attempt to satisfy mere curiosity. He alwaysspoke in terms of the subject's profound significance and of the effect it should have onour life as we live it now. What awaits the individual is death, the intermediate state,the resurrection of the body, the last judgment, and the eternal state in heaven or hell.What awaits the universe, in particular the world in which we live, is the events leadingup to the end of the age, the second coming of the Messiah, the millennial age, therenovation of this world order, and the final state of the cosmos. Personal and cosmiceschatology intersect at the point of the messiah's second coming when the resurrection ofthe just and the last judgment occur. There will be one generation of people, the verylast, who experience both personal and cosmic eschatology at the same time. Manytheologians, from the earliest days of the church until now, do not believe Jesus taught amillennial age for this earth, so they would telescope the return of Christ, theresurrection of the just and the unjust, the last judgment, the renovation of theuniverse, and entrance into the eternal state into one momentous event.
Individuals, whether redeemed or unredeemed, will live out their lives in this age andpass through death to the intermediate state, there to await the end of the age, either inblessedness or in self-chosen separation from God ( Luke 16:19-31 ).We will take with us into the afterlife what we are, either our redemption or ourcondemnation. Jesus speaks of no second chance after death or of any reincarnation toprovide an opportunity for salvation in a second or third lifetime. Jesus speaks of thebeliever's death as in fact not being death at all, but a shift from a more limitedinteraction with God to a fulfillment of that, hence "whoever lives and believes inme will never die" ( John 11:25-26 ).To the thief on the cross he says, "Today you will be with me in paradise" ( Luke 23:43 ). Theunbelievers, however, will die in their sins and cannot go where Jesus is (heaven) becausethey have refused the salvation of God ( John 3:18 John 3:36 ; 8:21-24 ).
This age continues on until it is brought to a close with the second coming of Christ.Jesus was asked by his disciples to explain all of this and much of what he said is foundin the so-called Olivet Discourse (Matt. 24-25). There he outlines the conditions thatwill prevail until this age ends and some of the events that must take place before thatoccurs, such as apostasy ( Matt 24:10 ), falsechrists ( Matthew 24:11 Matthew 24:24 ), increase of evil ( Matt 24:12 ), warsand rumors of wars ( Matt24:8 ) and the worldwide proclamation of the gospel ( Matt 24:14 ). Theexact time of Jesus' second coming is unknown to us ( Matt 24:42 ; 25:13 ); it will besudden ( Mark13:33-36 ) and unexpected ( Matt 24:44 ), like athief in the night ( Matt 24:42-44 ).
When Jesus returns at the end of the age, it will be from heaven in great glory,accompanied by angels, to gather his saints together for the new age that is arriving ( Matt 24:29-31 ).It is at this point that the resurrection takes place ( Mark 12:26-27 ; Luke 20:37-38 ; John 5:21-29 ; 6:39-40 ). Sometheologians make this a general resurrection, in which both the saved and the lost areraised. At this point also the last judgment takes place that Jesus frequently spoke of ingeneral terms to emphasize the contrast between the saved and the lost, such as theparables of the net ( Matt 13:47-50 ),the sheep and the goats ( Matt 25:31-46 ),and the wheat and the weeds ( Matt 13:24-43 ).The judgment will be based upon the use of our opportunities on earth ( Matt 11:20-24 ; 16:27 ; Luke 12:42-48 ).
After the millennial reign on earth ( Matt 5:5 ; 19:27-28 ; 25:34 ; Luke 22:29-30 ),the redeemed inherit eternal life in heaven ( Matt 6:19-21 ; Luke 10:20 ). Jesuscalls this his father's house ( John 14:2 ) and theplace where he is ( John12:26 ; 14:4 ; 17:24 ). Thosewho have rejected the salvation that God offered to them will enter into a place ofcondemnation ( John5:29 ), anguish ( Matt 25:29-30 ),and destruction ( Matt7:13 ). Jesus likens it to a burning furnace ( Matt 13:42 ) ofeternal fire ( Matt25:41 ), and calls it hell, where both body and soul are destroyed ( Matt 10:28 ).
The heavens and earth all pass away in accordance with Jesus' word ( Matt 5:18 ; 24:35 ) and thefinal state begins. The Gospels do not record exactly what Jesus said about the newheavens and the new earth that is to come but no doubt his two apostles, Peter ( 2 Peter 3:10-13 )and John ( Rev21:1-22:6 ), reflect this when they speak of the glories to come.
Jesus' Understanding of Himself. The Jesus who is presented to us by the fourGospels is a figure who defies purely human characterization. The only conclusion the restof the New Testament can draw with respect to him is that he was in fact Immanuel, Godwith us ( Matt 1:23 ; John 1:1 John 1:18 ; 20:28 ; Rom 9:5 ; Col 1:19 ; Titus 2:13 ; Rev 19:16 ). Jesuswas a human being, fully human in every way, but was vastly more than that, and that"moreness" could only be understood as essential deity. Jesus was nothing lessthan an incarnation of the eternal God himself. But the question arises, What did Jesusclaim about this? Did he see himself as in some way an incarnation of God? If the Gospelsare taken at face value, the answer must be yes. Modern critical scholarship denies thisby asserting that the early church, convinced by its "Easter faith" that Jesuswas something exceptional, altered his historical utterances and made up yet othersreflecting this and then read them back into the life of this historical Jesus, a Jesuswho never made such claims. This theory is based on the presupposition that Jesus couldnot be more than human and that God could not have become incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth.If, however, one does not categorically reject that possibility, then Jesus' claims, theteaching of the Gospels, and the rest of the New Testament paint a consistent picture thatchallenges the confronted person to the utmost. Is Jesus or is Jesus not the ultimaterevelation and embodiment of the eternal God? The challenge was no different two thousandyears ago than it is today.
The evidence for the uniqueness of Jesus as presented in the Gospels falls into twocategories: those things that Jesus did not say and do and those things that he did infact say and do. Both sets point to Jesus as unique among us.
What Jesus did not say and do. Simply put, Jesus never put himself in the samecategory as other human beings. What he was with respect to God was something he wasalone; he never invited anyone to share his relationship with God. Consequently, Jesusnever said to his disciples, Let us worship God together; Let us put our faith in God; Letus pray together; Let us trust or hope in God. Jesus never asked forgiveness from God, norshowed any awareness of sin in his life. He never called God his savior, as though heneeded saving. Jesus never even called God Father or God and included his followers. It isalways "your heavenly Father; your God" and "my Father; my God." Henever used an expression that includes them, such as our Father, our God, our faith, ourtrust. The one time he did use an expression like that was to accentuate the differencethat existed between him and his followers. When asked by his disciples to teach them topray, he said to them, "This is how you should pray, our Father " ( Matt 6:9-13 ), buthe himself never prayed that with them. When he did pray, it was as one wholly apart, asat the transfiguration ( Luke 9:28-36 ).Jesus knew that he was not simply one of us and never invited us to become what he was,nor did he put himself in the same category that he put us.
What Jesus claimed for himself. When asked about his origin, Jesus said "Iam from above I am not of this world I came from God and now am here Youare from below You are of this world" ( John 8:21-23 John 8:42 );"I have come down from heaven I am the bread that came down from heaven" ( John 6:32-42 ).He who has come down from heaven is the only one who has ever known God ( John 6:46 ) andthose who have seen him, have seen the Father ( John 14:8-11 )because he and the Father are one ( John 10:30-33 ).At another point Jesus startles his hearers by claiming to be the "I Am" whoantedated Abraham and spoke to Moses in the desert ( John 8:54-59 ).The Gospel of John also provides a series of supernatural claims by Jesus based on the"I Am" formulaI am the bread of life ( 6:35 ), the light ofthe world ( 8:12 ),the gate for the sheep ( 10:7 ), thegood shepherd ( 10:11 ),the resurrection and the life ( 11:25 ), the truevine ( 15:1 ), andthe way, the truth, and the life ( 14:6 ). All of theseclaims are deeply rooted in God's revelation of himself in the Old Testament and areclaims by Jesus to represent deity.
In other instances Jesus exercised God's authority in forgiving sins ( Mark 2:1-12 ; Luke 7:44-49 ) andaccepted honors that are due to God alone, such as prayer, praise, and worship ( Matt 14:33 ; 15:25 ; 21:15-16 ; Matthew 28:9 Matthew 28:17 ).
The Scriptures were understood by Jesus and the Jews of his day to be the Word of God.Jesus claimed that the Scriptures spoke directly about him ( John 5:39 ) and hewas the fulfillment of its prophecies ( Luke 4:16-21 ),indeed of the whole of Scripture ( Matt 5:17 ).
The temple and the Sabbath represented the highest expressions of God's presence to theJewish mind, yet Jesus claimed to be greater than the temple ( Matt 12:6 ), in hisown person being a new temple ( Matt 26:59-61 ; John 2:19-21 ),and also the Lord of the Sabbath ( Matt 12:8 ).
Jesus believed that his words had special, indeed, eternal significance: "Heavenand earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away" ( Matt 24:35 ). Thosewho keep Jesus' words will live forever ( John 8:51 ; 11:26 ) and thosewho reject his words will personally be rejected by him ( Mark 8:38 ). Overseventy times Jesus uses a special formula to introduce his words"Amen, I sayunto you." Ordinarily "Amen" follows a statement or prayer, affirming itstruth. In Jesus' case it comes first, asserting that whatever he said was true, simplybecause he said it. No one else spoke that way in his time.
Jesus claimed to be the answer to humanity's deepest needs ( Matt 10:28-30 ; John 10:10 ) andthat our eternal destiny depends on him ( Matt 7:21-23 ; Mark 8:34-38 ). Heclaims to have power over space ( Matt 18:20 ) andtime ( Matt 28:20 )and to possess cosmic significance; bringing about the end of the age ( Matt 24:30-31 ).He had power over the supernatural forces, both angels ( Matt 26:53 ) anddemons ( Mark 5:6-8 ),and he sent his disciples out with his authority to cast out demons and to heal ( Luke 9:1-2 ).
Jesus offered himself to his generation as the Messiah, God's special representative ( Matt 11:2-6 ; 26:62-68 ; Luke 19:37-40 ; John 4:25-26 ).The Book of Daniel (7:13-14) had prophesied a coming supernatural "Son of Man, "whose kingdom would never end and who would be worshiped by all the nations of the world,and Jesus claimed to be that Son of Man ( Matt 16:13-16 ).
Conclusion. Christianity centers around Jesus Christ; indeed, some have saidChristianity is Christ. To attempt to abstract from Jesus a "religion"that can operate independently of who he is, what he did, and what he taught would not beChristianity at all. Some attempts have been made to formulate a "uNIVersal"religion, that is, one that seeks a commonality in the major religious points of view inthe world. Such attempts have invariably failed. Although it is true that the religiousideas of some of the other major religions can be separated from their founders to bepulled together into a collective "religion, " the same cannot be said ofChristianity. It stands or falls with its founder. He is inextricably a part of what hepreached; his message is essentially who he was and what he did; his actions presupposewhat he said about himself and his mission; the ultimate validation of the salvation (ifthat be called "religion") that he offered is found in his present ministry ascrucified and risen again.
Walter A. Elwell
See also Ascensionof Jesus Christ; Beatitudes;Christ,Christology; Cross,Crufixion; Deathof Christ; God;Immanuel;JesusChrist; Kingdomof God; Lamb,Lamb of God; Lord'sPrayer, the; Messiah;Resurrection;SecondComing of Christ; Sermonof the Mount; VirginBirth
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