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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 in history. He is the only one who ever made a credible claim to being more than just another human being and to this day almost a billion people revere him as the supreme revelation of God. The purpose of this article is to provide a summary of Jesus' life and his basic teachings, with each topic being introduced by a short account of the modern discussion that surrounds it. Introducing the whole is a brief discussion of the nature of the sources from which Jesus' life and teachings are derived and concluding it is a discussion of who Jesus understood himself to be.
The Nature of the Sources. The primary sources for the life of Jesus are and will probably always be the four Gospels of the New Testament. New discoveries are made periodically, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Gnostic Scriptures at Nag Hammadi, but immensely valuable as they are, they tell us nothing new about Jesus. They are either too late in time, too tangential, too geographically distant, or too obviously a distortion of more traditional Christian thought to be of much value. Some of this material has been available for a long time and has been made available in such works as R. McL. Wilson's New Testament Apochrypha (2 vols.), but no one was inclined to rewrite the story of Jesus on the basis of that. Other fragmentary material from Jewish and pagan sources is also well known and has a certain corroborative value that is quite helpful. We learn that Jesus lived during the reign of Tiberius Caesar (a.d. 14-37) somewhere in Palestine; that he was a religious leader who worked miracles and exorcised demons and was later regarded as a deity by his followers; that he was executed by crucifixion by the Jewish and Roman authorities during a Passover season; that reports circulated about his resurrection from the dead. All of this is very helpful, even if the Christian faith is sometimes described by these very sources as an unfounded superstition, because in its own way it reflects what 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 be said. First, there is no agreed definition of reliability. Everyone approaches sources from a point of view that either includes, excludes, or leaves open the possibility of what is recorded. Given Christian presuppositions, the story makes perfect sense; given non-Christian presuppositions, the rejection of the sources as unreliable is understandable. It is not really a question of the sources, but a question of the interpreter of the sources. Second, the Gospel writers and their subject matter argue in favor of their truthfulness. They were attempting to present a true account of the One who claimed to be the Truth, did so on the basis of careful research (Luke 1:1-4), and were willing to die for the results of their efforts. That does not necessarily make it true, but it does mean they were not inventing things they knew to be false. Third, the church from the beginning believed that God had a hand in the writing of the material and that guaranteed its trustworthiness. This does not make it so, but that belief did arise from contact with those who knew Jesus and contact with the risen Jesus who confirmed in their own experience what the sources said about him as incarnate. If they were right in this, it confirms the reliability of the sources. Fourth, the Gospels are all we have. If they are allowed to speak for themselves, they present a consistent picture that gave rise to the Christian faith and has been confirmed in the lives of believers from that day to this. The simple fact is, there is no other Jesus available than the one presented in the Gospels. Either that is accepted or one creates his or her own Jesus on the basis of what is thought to be possible or likely. It might be a Jesus acceptable to the modern or postmodern mind, but it will not be the Jesus of the Gospels.
The Gospels as sources are what they are, shot through with supernatural occurrences from beginning to end and they present a Jesus who is both powerful and puzzling to our modern mind. They ought to be examined with the utmost care, but allowed to speak for themselves 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 their recollection.
The Life of Jesus. The Search for the Real Jesus. From the time when Jesus lived until the eighteenth century it would never have occurred to anyone to search for a real Jesus. The Gospels were considered to be divinely inspired, accurate accounts of Jesus' life; hence, the real Jesus was found by reading them. A change occurred with the coming of the Enlightenment that no longer saw the truth of the Gospels as guaranteed by God. They were to be read as any other book; the supernatural elements were to be discounted entirely or taken as myths or symbols of some higher truth. This meant that the real Jesus, a Jesus fully explainable in human terms, had to be disentangled from the pious, but historically inaccurate elements that smothered him.
During the nineteenth century an enormous number of lives of Jesus were written that attempted to reconstruct who Jesus really was, some of them showing real insight but most straying so far from the Gospels as to make Jesus virtually unrecognizable. A few achieved immense popularity because of their radical originality, like D. F. Strauss's The Life of Jesus Critically Examined (1835) and E. Renan's Life of Jesus (1863), but most came and went and in fact are almost unknown today. In 1903 Albert Schweitzer surveyed over two hundred such lives and convincingly showed that none of them had found the real Jesus.
This earliest attempt to find the real Jesus, which came to be known as "the Old Quest, " was set aside in the early twentieth century by a group of theologians led by Rudolph Bultmann, who felt that the "historical" Jesus was essentially irrelevant to Christian faith. Christians were to put their faith in the risen Christ, not a reconstructed historical Jesus. They also believed that none of the supernatural elements of the Gospels, such as the virgin birth, the miracles of Jesus, or his bodily resurrection was true, anyway, but only an ancient way of describing an existential experience 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's students, notably E. Kä 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 high points, but this quest also faded away, itself being too problematic and inconclusive to help much.
Following this, numerous renewed attempts to find the real Jesus were made, which are together called the "Third Quest." They include everything from depicting Jesus as a magician (M. Smith, Jesus the Magician, 1979), a Marxist (M. Machorec, A Marxist Looks at Jesus, 1976), to an outright fraud (B. Thiering, Jesus the Man, 1992). Others wrote 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 what could be known purely as history about Jesus, such as E. P. Sanders (The Historical Figure of Jesus, 1995) and J. P. Meier (A Marginal Jew, 2 vols., 1991, 1995). John Reumann has attempted to classify all of this (taking it back to 1900) into twenty different categories as "Types of Lives
Some Key Examples" (The New Testament and its 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 differs fundamentally from what is depicted there will not qualify, nor strengthen the church, nor stand the test of time. Jesus will always elude us if we look for him only in history and any attempt to depict him as simply another part of history will inevitably be unconvincing.
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 the beginning of his public ministry. Matthew's basic emphasis is on Jesus as descendant of David; hence he focuses on Joseph's line, Jesus being the legal heir of Joseph. Luke presents information gathered from Mary's side, either from Mary herself or from those who knew her. There is very little overlap between the accounts.
The events that precede Jesus' birth concern primarily two miraculous conceptions, that of John the Baptist and, of course, Jesus. John's father, the priest Zechariah, was told by the angel Gabriel that his aged wife Elizabeth would bear a son in her old age. Mary was 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 1:18,38).
A census decreed by Caesar Augustus sent Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem where, during the last years of Herod the Great, Jesus was born to the acclaim of angels and shepherds. The exact date of Jesus' birth is debated by any time from late 7 to 5 b.c. is possible. Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day (Luke 2:21) and on the fortieth day taken to the temple in Jerusalem, where he was presented to the Lord and his parents were ceremonially purified according to levitical custom (Luke 2:22-38; Lev 12:1-8). They returned 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 to Egypt. After Herod the Great's death in 4 b.c., the family decided to return to Nazareth after hearing that Archelaus was ruling over Judea (where Bethlehem was) in place of his father. 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), he showed his profound identification with the temple and the things of God.
These events are characterized by the miraculous and the extraordinary. Modern attempts to make them pious fiction or mythological are only required if one is unable to accept God's direct intervention in human affairs. They are wholly consistent with the rest of Jesus' extraordinary career and, indeed, make an appropriate introduction to it.
The Year of Obscurity. James Stalker described the three-year public ministry of Jesus 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 the wilderness near the Dead Sea preaching a message of baptism and repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Some scholars have connected John with the Qumran community. Although this is possible, the message of John is altogether different from theirs. He was an exceptional figure, recalling the days of Elijah. He spoke out against false trust in one's Jewishness, demanded conversion in the light of the coming judgment, required a changed life as evidence of conversion, and spoke of the coming Messiah, of whom he was the forerunner. John's denunciation of Herod Antipas's illegal marriage to his brother's wife provoked her ire, his imprisonment, and ultimately his death. Jesus spoke in the highest possible terms of John and his ministry, in spite of John's troubled questionings while in prison at Machaerus.
Jesus went from Nazareth to be baptized by John in order "to fulfill all righteousness" (Matt 3:15). Jesus showed his sense of mission by identifying with the sins of the world at the very beginning of his ministry. Divine confirmation came from heaven with the voice of God 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 Jesus returned to Jerusalem for the Passover of a.d. 27. His expulsion of the moneychangers from the temple was more than just a rejection of corrupt practices. He was rejecting the temple 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 a sign to return to Galilee to begin his own ministry. As long as John was preaching, he held back. Now that John was gone, the time of fulfillment had arrived. On the trip back to Galilee, Jesus rather openly declared to the woman at Jacob's well in Samaria some of his challenging, new ideas. The time has arrived when true worship of God will not concern where it takes place, whether in Samaria or Jerusalem, but how it takes place. God seeks the right attitude, spirituality, and truth, not the right location (John 4:21-24).
Jesus was warmly received upon his arrival in Galilee (John 4:45) and everyone praised him as he began to preach the gospel of the kingdom of God (Mark 1:15; Luke 4:14-15).
The Year of Public Favor. Jesus' ministry in Galilee and the regions to the north 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 from official quarters in Jerusalem.
After an initial rebuff in his hometown of Nazareth, Jesus settled in at Capernaum by the Sea of Galilee, using it as a base of operations for his ministry in Galilee. Large crowds began to follow Jesus because of the miraculous events and healing that were taking place, but also because of the gracious words that he spoke. Rather than focusing on the minute regulations that had grown up along with biblical tradition, Jesus stressed the love and nearness of God to everyone personally. Rules were made for people, not people for the rules. The Good News of the kingdom is that the power of God is available for all who put their trust in God and are poor in spirit, pure in heart, loving, merciful, and followers of peace. Jesus saw himself as the embodiment and establisher of that kingdom and 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 their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people" (4:23).
Jesus made at least three major preaching tours through Galilee at this time, as well as two that took him into Gentile territory to the north and east. In one instance, he felt it necessary to send out his recently appointed leaders, the apostles, to engage in ministry 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 Gospels are the most important, because what we have are a selection of those deemed most important to begin with. However, four stand out as particularly instructive. First, Jesus chose 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 people of God. Second, when John the Baptist asked Jesus from prison if he was the Messiah, Jesus replied with a definition of messiahship that was one of service and suffering rather than of immediate triumph (Matt 11:2-19). Here, again, Jesus pointed out that the old age was drawing to a close and that the new age was dawning. Third, at the miraculous feeding of the five thousand and the subsequent sermon in Capernaum reflecting on that event, Jesus offers himself as the essence of the kingdom, 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 Philippi and at his transfiguration who he really was and what his ultimate task was to be (Mark 8:27-38; 9:2). He was the eternal 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, he was preparing to move south to continue his work in the regions of Perea and Judea. He knew that he was moving into dangerous territory. Even while he was in Galilee spies and representatives were being sent from Jerusalem to observe his actions and, perhaps, to find some grounds for legal action against him. In three areas they were dissatisfied with what he was doing: he was violating the Sabbath rules (Matt 12:1-8; Mark 3:1-6); his miraculous healings were attributed to demonic activity, rather than to divine intervention (Mark 3:22-30); and he set aside traditional rules regarding hand washing, and, adding insult 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 to Jerusalem 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, others denying it (John 7:11-13,40-43). Jesus proclaimed himself to be the water of life, the light of the world, the special representative of the Father, the dispenser of eternal life, and timeless in his existence (John 7:16, 37-38; 8:12, 16, 28, 51, 56-58). Further controversy arose after Jesus healed a man who had been born blind. This could not be denied by the rulers and only deepened their hostility toward him.
Jesus traveled throughout Judea and Perea, teaching, preaching, and healing, as he had done in Galilee. At one point he sent out a group of seventy-two disciples, by twos, to preach and heal in his name, knowing that his time was growing short. He spent some time in Bethany, where another notable miracle took place (the raising of Lazarus from the dead). After a short trip back north, taking him to the border of Galilee once more, Jesus returned by way of Jericho to Jerusalem for the last time.
During this time Jesus was preparing his disciples for what was coming, although they had a difficult time accepting the fact that he was going to Jerusalem to die and rise again. Their thoughts were full of coming glory and the power that Jesus so manifestly displayed. For Jesus triumph in Jerusalem meant death and resurrection; for the disciples it meant a special and obvious place in God's kingdom. Jesus tried to explain what the cost 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 before Passover (March-April) of a.d. 30, entering the city to the acclaim of the people and in triumphal glory. He repeated his actions of three years earlier, again demonstrating his authority over the temple. This created a great stir among the people and a murderous hatred in the hearts of the leaders.
During that week there was public and unresolved conflict with the authorities and they made plans to do away with Jesus, penetrating the group by way of Judas, one of the twelve apostles.
On Thursday night Jesus ate a Passover meal with his followers and established a communal 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 New Covenant 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 there to pray. He was taken to the high priest's compound where he was interviewed, first by Annas, then by Caiphas, then when it had fully gathered, by the whole Sanhedrin, the ruling body of the Jews. It was difficult to get the witnesses to agree, but a charge of blasphemy 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 he even knew Jesus.
The Jewish authorities took Jesus to Pontius Pilate, the Roman procurator, for him to ratify their sentence of death (they did not have the authority to execute it). The grounds 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 to Caesar, and claimed to be the Messiah, a king (Luke 23:2). They later added a fourth chargeJesus was a revolutionary, inciting people to riot (Luke 23:5). Pilate made 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 by crucifixion was their ultimate demand. With mingled contempt and fear, Pilate granted them their wish when they accused him of being unfaithful to Caesar, by allowing one who claimed to be a king to live.
Jesus was crucified at 9 a.m. on Friday morning, the actual day of Passover, and died at 3 p.m. that afternoon. He prayed forgiveness for his tormentors, went through a sense of abandonment by God, and expired with "It is finished; Father, into your hands, I commit my spirit." Jesus had finished the work he had come to do to die for the sins of the world.
Jesus' body was hastily placed in a tomb by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, because the day ended at 6 p.m. according to Jewish reckoning and everything must be finished before the Sabbath. A seal was set on the tomb and the women were waiting for the Sabbath to end so they could prepare the body properly for permanent burial.
Jesus' Resurrection and Ascension. Early on Sunday morning, when the women went to visit the tomb, they were startled to see that the tomb was empty and an angel announced the good news: "He has risen! He is not here" (Mark 16:6). There followed 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 are especially noteworthy. First, Jesus appeared to two disciples as they were on their way out 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). Jesus fellowshiped together with them and their eyes were opened to see the truth. Second, a special 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 the eleven (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 a body 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 in Galilee. There were appearances to individuals, groups of individuals, and in one case to over five hundred people at one time (1 Cor 15:6). They occurred in various places and at various times of day. All of this was to remove any doubt whatsoever about the reality of what had taken place. Jesus had risen and the once fearful flock was now emboldened and empowered to preach the message of the risen Christ as the salvation of the world. In the end neither rejection, nor persecution, nor death could 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 forty days Jesus had confirmed the fact of his resurrection, instructed his disciples about his new 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) and the inauguration of his reign that would be consummated on this earth with his second coming (Acts 1:9-11). Thus began a new phase of Jesus' dealings with his followers. His physical presence was replaced by a spiritual presence (Matt 28:20) as they set 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 search for the real words of Jesus arose at the same time that the search for the real Jesus began, with the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century. With the collapse of confidence in the Gospels as infallible sources of information about Jesus came skepticism about what Jesus said as well. However, that did not come to the same degree or at the same time as skepticism about his life, the reason being it was easier to reinterpret what Jesus said in modern terms than many of the things he was recorded to have done. His walking on water or raising the dead could only be understood as ancient superstitions or myth. His statements about the kingdom of God or messiahship could rather easily be turned into modern ethical statements and made consistent with other religious teachings.
The teaching of Jesus as understood by the "Old Quest" concerned individual piety, personal relations, and the social betterment of the world. The kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed was understood to be the gradual improvement of society by permeating it with the lofty moral ideals of Jesus. This conception reached its classic statement in Adolf 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 infinite value of the human soul.
It was Johannes Weiss (Jesus' Teaching on the Kingdom of God, 1892) and Albert Schweitzer (The Quest of the Historical Jesus, 1903) who helped bring an end to this understanding of Jesus' words by pointing out that just as Jesus as a person did not fit into modern categories, neither did his message. Jesus was not a Kantian ethicist, but rather an ancient apocalyptic prophet, proclaiming the end of the age with the coming of an enigmatic figure called the "Son of Man."
The existentialist underpinnings of both the Bultmannian rejection of the Old Quest and the subsequent New Quest of the Historical Jesus made the search for Jesus' real words theologically secondary. The primary importance of Jesus' wordswhat we may know of themis to challenge us to new life or a new self-understanding. Taken in their historical context Jesus' words were nothing more than what historical research could show them to be, whether rabbinic, apocalyptic, esoteric, or basically indeterminate. But as used by God, they become an existential challenge to our smug self-satisfaction and a call to encounter the living God.
The need to know what Jesus really said did not go away, however, and many in the New Quest 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 developed Gospel studies, how to sift the material so that later additions and changes made by the church communities, the redactors, the legend-making propensities of the time, the oral transmitters of the tradition and the final "author" of the finished gospel can be set aside, leaving us only what Jesus really said. So the search for criteria to distinguish the authentic from the inauthentic began. To date, no fewer than twenty-five such criteria have been suggested, some of them mutually exclusive, such as multiple source attestation, dissimilarity, consensus of scholars, multiple forms of a statement, and Palestinian environment. Interestingly, rather than create more confidence in the gospel materials, in general, this has brought about a greater skepticism.
The recent "Jesus Seminar" has also taken a skeptical line on this. After working 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 the Authentic Words of Jesus (1993)the fifth gospel being the apocryphal "Gospel of Thomas." They concluded "Eighty-two percent of the words ascribed to Jesus in the gospels were not actually spoken by him" (The Five Gospels, p. 5).
Responses to this excessive skepticism are now arising in such works as C. Blomberg's The Historical 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 a master communicator. He employed methods that were sufficiently familiar to his hearers to make them comfortable but sufficiently different to arrest their attention. What struck them most forcefully of all, however, was the person himselfJesus taught them as one having authority. It is hard to define, even inhuman terms, what authority really is, but in Jesus' case it is even more difficult, because his authority made claims that went beyond the merely human, causing those who heard him to exclaim "Who is this man?" At least three things combined to make Jesus' very presence an unsettling challenge, a call to decision. First and foremost, he embodied what he taught, and what he taught seemed clearly beyond human capacities. Yet he embodied those principles to the highest degree without any embarrassment or arrogance. Was he more than merely human?that was the implied question on everyone's mind. Second, his teaching was derived solely from the Old Testament, which was, of course, God's Word, and it was mediated directly through himself; he identified directly with it. The rabbis found it necessary to bolster their interpretations by extensive references to one another. Jesus never quoted another rabbi. "You have heard it said, but I say unto you" is how Jesus taught. God's word and his own words merged into one. Third, Jesus' words were backed up by demonstrations of power. Anyone can claim anything, but only one with more than human authority can say to the waves "Be still" and have those waves obey him.
Jesus' very presence caused the crowds to gather, but what he said caused them to gather as well. His teaching method was very much like the parables that he taught. It was designed to reveal enough of the truth to draw people it, but to conceal enough to cause people 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 for the first time. To accomplish this Jesus would sometimes bury his meaning somewhere below the surface, so that people would have to dig for it. On other occasions, Jesus would use highly graphic language to make a point. It certainly caught their attention when he told them to take the plank out of their eye in order to see the speck in another's (Matt 7:3-5) and called 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" Mark 10:31) and at times even shocking ("Cut off your hand cut off your foot" Mark 9:42-48). In all of this, Jesus' creative use of language was designed to force his hearers to a decision. He knew that giving them information was not enough. They must be challenged to embody and act on that information in order for it to change them. When attempting to do that they would be forced to confront their own inabilities and cast themselves on God, which was Jesus' ultimate intention. So Jesus and his message and his method of delivery all blended together to challenge 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 his conviction 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 of God busy about his Father's affairs (Luke 2:46-49). Jesus lived in unbroken and immediate fellowship with God, virtually a life of prayer. He spent long periods of time in intimate communion with God and at critical junctures during his public career, such as his baptism, his transfiguration, his agony in the garden, and his death, God's presence was a vivid reality, more real than even the seemingly substantial reality around him. It was out of this profound personal experience that what Jesus had to say about God arose. He never doubted that God existed nor did it occur to him to attempt to prove that there was a God. All of Jesus' reassuring began with the fact of God and moved downward toward human affairs. He never started with an undefined human situation and argued his way to the conclusion that somehow God must be there. For him that God existed was a given.
For Jesus, that God could be known personally, directly, and intimately was also a given. This meant that religious ritual and complicated ceremonial activity should not be inserted between a person and God. Too often these things become primary and the vision of God is obscured. The term that Jesus used most frequently to define what kind of person God is was heavenly Father. This term is found in the Old Testament, as, indeed, virtually everything Jesus says about God's nature and actions is, but it had become so vague by Jesus' time as to be almost meaningless. Consequently, Jesus emphasized this in order to make it alive for us once more. Jesus' chief concern was to renew in the people of his day a sense of the divine realitythe presence of a personal, loving God, who is our heavenly Father. It is for this reason that Jesus never mentioned what might be called the harder aspects of God's being, calling God King or Judge. He knew very well that God was both 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's self-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 as abstract theological truth or fact (e.g., "All things are possible with God" Mark 10:27) but most often they are related to concrete human situations. God, in the totality of his being, is vitally concerned with human beings in every aspect of their lives, from the number of hairs on their head, to the need for daily bread, to their eternal salvation.
It was Jesus' supreme desire that people know God as he really is once more. He set out to accomplish this by offering himself as the unique embodiment of that reality and introducing them to the one true God, their heavenly Father.
The Kingdom of God. That God existed was the essence of Jesus' teaching; that God ruled over the world he had created was the way in which what might have been simply an abstract idea (God is) was concretely related to everyday human life. The term Jesus chose to express this understanding was the "kingdom of God." This was no new idea, but drawn directly from the Old Testament (1 Chron 16:31; Psalm 9:7-8; 97:1). What Jesus wanted the people to see was that the reign of God had been brought down from heaven to earth 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 realm or reality where God's will was being accomplished and people were invited to enter it. It was not restricted to one small nation or geographical place, but included everything. God exercised his sovereignty everywhere. But Jesus was proclaiming more than just the generalized providence of God. Jesus was preaching the kingdom as the realm where God's saving will was being done. In this sense the kingdom of God was nothing less than eternal salvation. To be in the kingdom was to be saved; to refuse entrance into the kingdom was to be lost.
Another important aspect of the kingdom as Jesus proclaimed it was that it is both a present and a future reality. In Jewish theology the kingdom was commonly understood to be arriving at the end of this sinful age. When this world ends, the kingdom of God will begin. For Jesus the kingdom is both present and future. We may enter into God's eternal salvation now and begin to experience its benefits at this present time, while still living in this fallen age. From now until the end of this age we will be in the world but not of it. But the kingdom is also future, in that, when this age ends only the kingdom will 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 say it was repent and believe the gospel (Mark 1:14-15). In another instance Jesus said we must be converted and become like little children (Matt 18:3). To Nicodemus he says "you must be born again" (John 3:3). Jesus likens this to entering through a narrow gate (Matt 7:13-14) and building a house upon a rock (Matt 7:24-27). It is of such immense value that we should be willing to sacrifice anything for it (Matt 18:8-9), hard as 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 man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible" (Matt 19:26), which is the whole point. To enter the kingdom by our own effort is impossible; it takes the renewing 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, one enters the kingdom, that person is converted, born again, made new, and a whole new life begins. The newness of life is not an option, but a fact. Being in the kingdom means being new. If there is no newness of life, regardless of what one sayseven, "Lord, Lord" (Matt 7:21)that person is not truly known by God. Jesus likens this to a bush or a tree. Good trees produce 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) and that 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 the outside. Those outside the kingdom imagine that the true purpose of life is to amass possessions, or gain status, or appear pious, or see the fruits of our human endeavors, or achieve 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 that might 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 for human endeavor, what profit would there be if we gained the whole world and lost our soul in the process (Mark 8:36-37)? And the one who seeks to fulfill life by saving it, will in fact lose it (Mark 8:35). All of the values that are operative in the world are to be left behind when one enters the kingdom. There is an entirely different set of values operating that in fact reverse the values of the world.
The new life that Jesus offers when we enter the kingdom is like an inexhaustible well of water within us that refreshes us in this life and springs up into life eternal (John 4:13-14; 7:37-38). The most characteristic feature of the new being that we have become is love. We are to love God with all of our being as or highest priority (Mark 12:30). The second requirement of living in the kingdom is to love our neighbor as well (Mark 12:31). The transformed heart is able to do what humanly cannot be done. We are enabled to dethrone ourselves and our own ambitions and give God his proper place in our lives and see him reflected in those around us (Matt 25:44-45). A new set of positive spiritual qualities replaces the destructive, self-defeating characteristics of the old life. Jesus summarizes these in the Beatitudes as poverty of spirit, meekness, desire for righteousness, mercy, purity of heart, the ability to bring peace, and the ability to love and forgive those who revile us (Matt 5:1-12). All of these spiritual qualities will express themselves in concrete action toward those around us, even our enemies, and in doing this we will be showing that we are true children 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 of the human person and of sin. He was too busy dealing with the practical consequences of humanity's weaknesses and sinfulness to spend much time speculating about it. He had compassion on the crowds, seeing them as sheep without a shepherd (Mark 6:34). It is possible, however, to draw together what Jesus did say and get a rather clear picture of what he taught.
The most fundamental thing to be said about human beings is that they are created by God. When this is understood, everything else falls into its proper place. As creatures of God, we are not answerable to ourselves or to anyone else, but to God. We do not own ourselves, or define ourselves, or live for ourselves, but rather for God. By the same token, we cannot own someone else or define them either. We are all alike in our creaturely status, made in God's image and responsible for one another to God. Being made by God, we must find out what God intended us to be, if we are to fulfill our true destiny. It is only when we live up to what he intended that we find out who we really are. 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), we are not to be anxious about our lives and the necessities of life. We have a heavenly Father 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). God does not discriminate, but sends his blessings, rain and sun, upon the just and the unjust alike (Matt 5:45). Because we are valued by God, we can value ourselves and others, and relax in the knowledge 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 emphasizing this. It was simply taken for granted (Matt 7:11). What is extraordinary about Jesus' attitude is that he did not see this as an ultimate barrier between us and God but as a platform from which to rise. Indeed, we must start with the frank recognition of our helplessness if we are to make any progress at all. "I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance, " is how Jesus put it (Luke 5:32). Jesus saw the tragic consequences of sin everywhere, rebuked the self-righteous who would not acknowledge their own sinfulness, and severely criticized those who caused other people to sin (Luke 17:1-2). But Jesus looked beyond sin to the ultimate intention of God for us. Our sinfulness is not the essence of what we are but rather a distortion of that essence. Salvation in God's kingdom restores us to what God intended us to be.
Eschatology. Eschatology is the doctrine of the last things and deals with the ultimate fate of both the individual and the universe. Jesus had much to say on both aspects of this subject, but never as an attempt to satisfy mere curiosity. He always spoke in terms of the subject's profound significance and of the effect it should have on our 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 leading up to the end of the age, the second coming of the Messiah, the millennial age, the renovation of this world order, and the final state of the cosmos. Personal and cosmic eschatology intersect at the point of the messiah's second coming when the resurrection of the just and the last judgment occur. There will be one generation of people, the very last, who experience both personal and cosmic eschatology at the same time. Many theologians, from the earliest days of the church until now, do not believe Jesus taught a millennial age for this earth, so they would telescope the return of Christ, the resurrection of the just and the unjust, the last judgment, the renovation of the universe, and entrance into the eternal state into one momentous event.
Individuals, whether redeemed or unredeemed, will live out their lives in this age and pass through death to the intermediate state, there to await the end of the age, either in blessedness 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 our condemnation. Jesus speaks of no second chance after death or of any reincarnation to provide an opportunity for salvation in a second or third lifetime. Jesus speaks of the believer's death as in fact not being death at all, but a shift from a more limited interaction with God to a fulfillment of that, hence "whoever lives and believes in me 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). The unbelievers, however, will die in their sins and cannot go where Jesus is (heaven) because they have refused the salvation of God (John 3:18, 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 found in the so-called Olivet Discourse (Matt. 24-25). There he outlines the conditions that will prevail until this age ends and some of the events that must take place before that occurs, such as apostasy (Matt 24:10), false christs (Matt 24:11,24), increase of evil (Matt 24:12), wars and rumors of wars (Matt 24:8) and the worldwide proclamation of the gospel (Matt 24:14). The exact time of Jesus' second coming is unknown to us (Matt 24:42; 25:13); it will be sudden (Mark 13:33-36) and unexpected (Matt 24:44), like a thief 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). Some theologians make this a general resurrection, in which both the saved and the lost are raised. At this point also the last judgment takes place that Jesus frequently spoke of in general terms to emphasize the contrast between the saved and the lost, such as the parables 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). Jesus calls this his father's house (John 14:2) and the place where he is (John 12:26; 14:4; 17:24). Those who have rejected the salvation that God offered to them will enter into a place of condemnation (John 5:29), anguish (Matt 25:29-30), and destruction (Matt 7:13). Jesus likens it to a burning furnace (Matt 13:42) of eternal fire (Matt 25:41), 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 the final state begins. The Gospels do not record exactly what Jesus said about the new heavens and the new earth that is to come but no doubt his two apostles, Peter (2 Peter 3:10-13) and John (Rev 21:1-22:6), reflect this when they speak of the glories to come.
Jesus' Understanding of Himself. The Jesus who is presented to us by the four Gospels is a figure who defies purely human characterization. The only conclusion the rest of the New Testament can draw with respect to him is that he was in fact Immanuel, God with us (Matt 1:23; John 1:1, 18; 20:28; Rom 9:5; Col 1:19; Titus 2:13; Rev 19:16). Jesus was 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 less than an incarnation of the eternal God himself. But the question arises, What did Jesus claim about this? Did he see himself as in some way an incarnation of God? If the Gospels are taken at face value, the answer must be yes. Modern critical scholarship denies this by asserting that the early church, convinced by its "Easter faith" that Jesus was something exceptional, altered his historical utterances and made up yet others reflecting this and then read them back into the life of this historical Jesus, a Jesus who never made such claims. This theory is based on the presupposition that Jesus could not 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, the teaching of the Gospels, and the rest of the New Testament paint a consistent picture that challenges the confronted person to the utmost. Is Jesus or is Jesus not the ultimate revelation and embodiment of the eternal God? The challenge was no different two thousand years ago than it is today.
The evidence for the uniqueness of Jesus as presented in the Gospels falls into two categories: those things that Jesus did not say and do and those things that he did in fact 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 same category as other human beings. What he was with respect to God was something he was alone; he never invited anyone to share his relationship with God. Consequently, Jesus never said to his disciples, Let us worship God together; Let us put our faith in God; Let us pray together; Let us trust or hope in God. Jesus never asked forgiveness from God, nor showed any awareness of sin in his life. He never called God his savior, as though he needed saving. Jesus never even called God Father or God and included his followers. It is always "your heavenly Father; your God" and "my Father; my God." He never used an expression that includes them, such as our Father, our God, our faith, our trust. The one time he did use an expression like that was to accentuate the difference that existed between him and his followers. When asked by his disciples to teach them to pray, he said to them, "This is how you should pray, our Father
" (Matt 6:9-13), but he himself never prayed that with them. When he did pray, it was as one wholly apart, as at 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 "I am from above
I am not of this world
I came from God and now am here
You are from below
You are of this world" (John 8:21-23,42); "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) and those 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" who antedated 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 of the world (8:12), the gate for the sheep (10:7), the good shepherd (10:11), the resurrection and the life (11:25), the true vine (15:1), and the way, the truth, and the life (14:6). All of these claims are deeply rooted in God's revelation of himself in the Old Testament and are claims by Jesus to represent deity.
In other instances Jesus exercised God's authority in forgiving sins (Mark 2:1-12; Luke 7:44-49) and accepted honors that are due to God alone, such as prayer, praise, and worship (Matt 14:33; 15:25; 21:15-16; 28:9, 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 he was 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 the Jewish mind, yet Jesus claimed to be greater than the temple (Matt 12:6), in his own 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: "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away" (Matt 24:35). Those who keep Jesus' words will live forever (John 8:51; 11:26) and those who reject his words will personally be rejected by him (Mark 8:38). Over seventy times Jesus uses a special formula to introduce his words"Amen, I say unto you." Ordinarily "Amen" follows a statement or prayer, affirming its truth. In Jesus' case it comes first, asserting that whatever he said was true, simply because 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) and that our eternal destiny depends on him (Matt 7:21-23; Mark 8:34-38). He claims to have power over space (Matt 18:20) and time (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) and demons (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 said Christianity 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 be Christianity 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 in the world. Such attempts have invariably failed. Although it is true that the religious ideas of some of the other major religions can be separated from their founders to be pulled together into a collective "religion, " the same cannot be said of Christianity. It stands or falls with its founder. He is inextricably a part of what he preached; his message is essentially who he was and what he did; his actions presuppose what he said about himself and his mission; the ultimate validation of the salvation (if that be called "religion") that he offered is found in his present ministry as crucified and risen again.
Walter A. Elwell
See also Ascension of Jesus Christ; Beatitudes; Christ, Christology; Cross, Crucifixion; Death of Christ; God; Immanuel; Jesus Christ; Kingdom of God; Lamb, Lamb of God; Lord's Prayer, the; Messiah; Resurrection; Second Coming of Christ; Sermon on the Mount; Virgin Birth
Bibliography. C. Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels; G. A. Boyd, Cynic Sage or Son of God?; F. F. Bruce, The Hard Sayings of Jesus; B. Chilton and C. A. Evans, eds., Studying the Historical Jesus: Evaluations of the State of Current Research; W. L. Craig, The Son Arises; idem, The Historical Argument for the Resurrection of Jesus; C. A. Evans, Life of Jesus Research: An Annotated Bibliography; idem, Noncanonical Writings and New Testament Interpretation; L. Goppelt, Theology of the New Testament: The Ministry of Jesus in Its Theological Significance; J. B. Green, S. McKnight, and I. H. Marshall, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels; M. Green, The Empty Cross of Jesus; A. E. Harvey, Jesus and the Constraints of History; J. Jeremias, New Testament Theology: The Proclamation of Jesus; T. W. Manson, The Teaching of Jesus; J. P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus; B. F. Meyer, The Aims of Jesus; L. Morris, New Testament Theology; J. Pelikan, Jesus Through the Centuries; R. H. Stein, The Method and Message of Jesus' Teaching; D. Wenham, ed., Gospel Perspectives V: The Jesus Tradition Outside the Gospels; J. Wenham, Easter Enigma; M. J. Wilkins and J. P. Moreland, Jesus under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents the Historical Jesus; B. Witherington III, The Christology of Jesus; N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God; idem, Who Was Jesus?