For two thousand years, Jesus of Nazareth has been known as the founder of one of the world’s major religions. Many also see him as a provocative teacher and a good moral example.
But a careful review of history doesn’t give us the luxury of thinking that Jesus was only a great teacher or a good moral example. If he was not who he claimed to be, then the options are quite limited. Jesus must either be who he said he was, or he was an evil or deluded man. There are no other logical options.
Because Jesus is such a monumental historical figure, we are unwise to dismiss his claims without careful scrutiny. Did he perpetrate a colossal hoax on humanity? Or is there more to the story? What did Jesus really say about himself? A good place to start is by looking at the written accounts of those who knew him well and observed his ministry closely.
Jesus claimed to be divine. In John’s record of Jesus’s life, we find Christ confronted by the religious leaders of Israel. During the course of a heated debate, he claimed to know God in a way that they did not. John quotes Jesus as saying, “‘I tell you the truth, before Abraham was even born, I Am!’ At that point they picked up stones to throw at him” (John 8:58–59). The religious leaders perfectly understood Jesus’s implication. He claimed to be deity, and that claim enraged them.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke all report that Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I, the Son of Man, am?” (matthew 16:13 nkjv). Simon Peter replied, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (v. 16; see also mark 8:27–30 and luke 9:18–21). Jesus affirmed Peter’s bold assertion.
In Matthew and Mark we also read of the high priest interrogating Jesus after his arrest: “‘I demand in the name of the living God—tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.’ Jesus replied, ‘You have said it. And in the future, you will see the Son of Man seated in the place of power at God’s right hand and coming on the clouds of heaven.’ Then the high priest tore his clothing to show his horror and said, ‘Blasphemy! Why do we need other witnesses? You have all heard his blasphemy’” (matthew 26:63–65; see also mark 14:60–63).
Of all the founders of the world’s great religions, only one ever claimed to be God; that is, Jesus Christ. Is Jesus’s bold assertion about himself possible? If so, where is the proof? What is the evidence that this great spiritual leader really was God incarnate?
The writers of the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John provide us with varied perspectives of the life of Jesus. But they all share the conclusion that Jesus cannot be explained unless he was who he claimed to be. They say that he performed:
• Miracles of physical healing: He healed a man with a terrible skin disease (matthew 8:2–4), reversed paralysis (matthew 9:2–8; 12:10–13), and cured blindness and deafness (matthew 20:30–34; mark 7:31–37).
• Miracles of nature: He turned water into wine (john 2:1–11), stilled a storm on the Sea of Galilee (matthew 8:23–27), and walked on water (matthew 14:22–26).
• Miracles of resurrection: He raised the dead daughter of a religious leader (matthew 9:18–26), a widow’s dead son (luke 7:11–15), and a friend named Lazarus (john 11:1–44).
Obviously such miracles, if genuine, could take place only if Jesus were capable of performing truly supernatural acts. According to these accounts, Jesus must have been more than a mere man.
Critics, of course, will say that such miracles are an impossibility; the gospel accounts of miracles are extravagant claims added later. But if we are to keep an open mind, we must admit that the origin of life itself seems impossible without a causal agent—something/one must have planned it all. The possibility of a designer behind the design of the universe also leaves open the possibility that such a designer could choose to visit us in human form.
Jesus claimed to be the Savior. In each of the four written records of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, we hear Jesus repeatedly talking about his mission. As his popularity increased, the religious leaders of Israel started worrying about him and his bold claims. About the same time, he began to discuss going to Jerusalem to die (matthew 16:21; mark 9:30–32; john 10:17–18). His followers found such comments unthinkable. Yet after three short years in the public eye, Jesus did indeed go to Jerusalem, where he was rejected by national leaders and crucified for claiming to be the King and Messiah of the Jews.
Only after his execution did his followers see his willingness to die in the light of a comment made by his forerunner. Three years earlier they had heard a rugged wilderness prophet known as John the baptizer say about Jesus, “Look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (john 1:29).
For thousands of years the religious law of Israel had required the death of innocent animals on altars of sacrifice. All the while, mysterious statements of Jewish prophets referred to a Messiah who would bear the sin of fallen humanity. Yet the meaning of a suffering Savior (genesis 3:15; isaiah 53; daniel 9:26; zechariah 12:10) remained a mystery until after the death of Jesus.
Christ never contradicted John’s bold declaration about him—“the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” We may reasonably conclude that Jesus saw himself as the sacrificial lamb hinted at by the prophets.
According to hundreds of eyewitnesses, Jesus did die—and three days later he left the tomb alive. Consider the following:
In all of these amazing events, Jesus doesn’t make it easy for us. He said “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me” (john 14:6). That doesn’t leave us any options. He does not allow us to think that he was just “a good teacher” or “a moral model.”
C. S. Lewis, Cambridge University professor and a former atheist, observed with refreshing simplicity:
I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: “I am ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.” That is the one thing we must not say. 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 a lunatic—on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else He would be the devil of hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God—or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool; you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come up with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.3
Jesus’s life had a profound effect not only on contemporaries who were willing to die for him but also on the entire course of human history. How does such a life affect us two thousand years later?
What if Jesus really is the Creator of all that exists?
Every December much of the world celebrates the birth of God’s Son into the world. Yet most gift-givers don’t appreciate the significance of the event behind this holiday. Many of the celebrants might not even realize that, according to the original story, Jesus was born into our world as “the visible image of the invisible God” (colossians 1:15).
In Colossians 1:16–17, Paul wrote:
For through him God created everything in the heavenly realms and on earth. He made the things we can see and the things we can’t see—such as thrones, kingdoms, rulers, and authorities in the unseen world. Everything was created through him and for him. He existed before anything else, and he holds all creation together.
Who is this that created all things? He is the “visible image of the invisible God” (that is, Jesus is the God we can see). In verse 13 the writer is more specific. The Creator is “his dear Son.” According to the Bible, Jesus Christ is not only the Son of God, he is also the Creator of the universe! Let’s consider some other Scriptures:
The Bible claims that the Creator came to us in the person we know as Jesus.
3 C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, p. 41.