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Answer a person who can see no more to Jesus than a good person or a great moral teacher.

I have faced a serious dilemma in answering this question as it tells us nothing about the person making this statement.  He/she could be:

1.      A ‘seeker’ on an Alpha course on the verge of asking Jesus into his/her life.

2.      A regular church-goer who from time to time struggles with the concept of Jesus as God.

3.      A student of theology.

4.      A person of another faith with a genuine wish to learn something about Christianity.

5.      A vehement atheist with a compelling passion to denounce Christianity.

The way in which I would answer the person would vary considerably depending on which of the above groups he/she belonged to.  In particular, if he/she belonged to one of the first two groups I most certainly would not start by talking about the issues we are told to consider, namely the significance of the incarnation, the cross, the resurrection, atonement and suffering as to do so could be counter productive.  In order to complete the assignment I have, therefore, made the assumption that the person is a student of theology so that I can speak freely about the Christian faith without the complication of the need for pastoral care.

Accepting Jesus as ‘a good person and/or a great moral teacher’ is a perfectly acceptable starting point on the journey to faith and is an equally acceptable ‘fall-back’ position for those whose faith occasionally wavers (and whose doesn’t!).

The question that arises when trying to move forward from this point is essentially that of Christology – who or what is or was Jesus of Nazareth?  There can be few questions that have had as many hours of thought devoted to them as this.  Every disciple, every saint, every theologian, every ordinary member of the congregation that has ever lived since Jesus walked on this earth has given thought to this question and, I suspect, the majority will have had some problems in answering it.

Such problems often stem from the inability of man to express in human terms that which is beyond human understanding.  We may have a faith as strong and firm as mountains but we cannot ever begin to understand the true nature of God and even less to explain it to others.  Whatever words we choose to use will be hopelessly inadequate and be no more likely to be correct than the gurgles of a baby are to be an exposition on the philosophical consequences of postmillennialism!  God cannot be constrained by the limits of our knowledge or imagination.

 

The development of Christology in the New Testament

In his book Christian Theology, Alister McGrath explains:

Christology sets out to locate Jesus of Nazareth on a conceptual map.  It attempts to place him along the co-ordinates of time and eternity, humanity and divinity, particularity and universality, and answer the question of how an event which took place at a specific time and place can be relevant for all people and all times.

A study of the New Testament suggests that there was no doubt in the mind of any of the writers that Jesus was a man.  However, the early Christians struggled with how to portray the fact that he was more than that.  Jesus had enabled his followers to see God in a way that they had never seen him before.  He seemed to have access to what a modern children’s hymn writer has dubbed the ‘Royal Telephone’ giving direct access to God.  How could this very special relationship between Jesus and God be expressed in words?  This question taxed the minds of the early Christians for at least four hundred years during which they explored a great many possible answers.  Those early explorations eventually led to the accepted orthodoxy that we have inherited today, though the debate, of course, continues unabated in academic circles.

A study of the words used in the New Testament to describe Jesus gives an insight into the issues that confronted the writers and the terminology that they developed:

 

Lord

The earliest known confession of faith in the Christian Church was to acknowledge Jesus as Lord:

Romans 10:9  If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

The word Lord appears throughout the bible.  It is a translation of the Aramaic word mar and the Greek word kyrios.  Alister McGrath explains:

The term Lord appears to have powerful theological associations, partly on account of its use to translate the Tetragrammaton – the four Hebrew characters used to represent the sacred name of God in the Hebrew version of the Old Testament, often represented in English as YHWH or Yahweh.

The use of the word Lord in that early confession of faith can be looked upon at two levels.  First, it acknowledged Jesus as a spiritual leader and guide that could offer a path to a better life and ultimate salvation.  Secondly, by association with the use of the word to represent YHWH, it implied what McGrath describes as “a high degree of identity between Jesus and God.

 

Saviour

The New Testament contains several descriptions of Jesus as Saviour.

Matthew 1:21  She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.

Luke 2:11  Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord.

Acts 4:12  There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.

Hebrews 2:10  It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings.

The development of the doctrine of salvation in Christian theology over the years has turned it into an extremely complex issue, not least in terms of when it occurs.  Are we saved at the moment when we proclaim Jesus as Lord or at some time thereafter?  McGrath explains it thus:

The Christian understanding of salvation presupposes that something has happened, that something is now happening and that something further will still happen to believers.

In its simplest interpretation, the doctrine of salvation tells us that, if we invite Jesus into our lives, he can save us from the consequences of sin here and now as we live our life on earth.  More complex interpretations introduce an eschatological dimension along with the question that so vexed Paul in his letter to the Galatians: does salvation depend upon good works or on sola fide - faith in Christ alone.

 

Son of God

The designation of Jesus as “Son of God” is seen by many as a central pillar of Christianity, but what does the phrase mean?  Does it mean ‘son’ in the biological sense or is its meaning metaphorical?

The phrase is used in the Old Testament where it can generally be translated as meaning “belonging to God.”  It was applied to the People of Israel in general in Exodus 4:22 and to David in 2 Samuel 7.  A similar term was used by Jesus himself:

Mark 3:17  James son of Zebedee and John the brother of James (to whom he gave the name Boanerges, that is, Sons of Thunder);

The term “son of ... ...” was used in the time of Jesus to mean “in the likeness of.”  Indeed, it still is in England today.  We might say “Bill is very much the son of his father” meaning that the two share many characteristics.

Although the Christology of some branches of the Christian church today interpret the phrase “Son of God” in a literal way it seems unlikely that this was ever believed by the early Christians who almost certainly used the term as a metaphor.

 

Son of Man

The term bar nasha in Aramaic, translated into English as Son of Man, is used to refer to Jesus in all four gospels and in both Acts and Revelation.  There has been fierce debate about whether Jesus used the term to describe himself or whether it is a later invention of the post-resurrection Church.  In the Old Testament it is a form of address used by God to the prophet Ezekiel and in Psalm 8 it is used to refer to mankind in general as pre-eminent in the created order.  Some interpretations of the term give it an important eschatological significance but others see it as no more than Jesus’ way of saying “I, being the man that I am.”

 

Messiah

At the time of Jesus there was a strong belief and an almost desperate hope for the coming of a new King in the Davidic tradition who would lead them out of the oppression they were suffering under the Romans.  Traditionally, Kings were anointed with oil as a public sign that their kingship had the approval of God.  The Hebrew word for “the one who has been anointed” is mashiah, better known in its anglicised form of Messiah.  The Greek translation of mashiah is Christos, which is the root of the title Christ that we now apply to Jesus.

There are several accounts in the New Testament where we learn from Jesus that he is the Messiah.  In Matthew, Mark and Luke Jesus affirms Peter’s statement that he is the Messiah and the Son of God, but he does not utter the words himself.

Mark 8: 27  Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ 28 And they answered him, ‘John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’ 29 He asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’ 30 And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

Later in the same three gospels, Jesus tells the High Priest that he is the Messiah, but only in response to a question.  However, in his conversation with the Samaritan woman he volunteered the information at a point when he could easily have remained silent:

John 4: 25  The woman said to him, ‘I know that Messiah is coming’ (who is called Christ). ‘When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.’ 26 Jesus said to her, ‘I am he, the one who is speaking to you.’

 

God

The Jewish faith was strictly monotheistic so the early writers would have been extremely hesitant in referring to Jesus directly as God for fear of denouncement as blasphemers.  Never-the-less, there are a number of passages in the New Testament that appear to do just this, the most significant of which is the opening of St John’s gospel:

John 1: 14-18  And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

The term ‘The Word’ is used throughout the Bible with a variety of shades of meaning.  In this context it refers to God, the same God by whose word heaven and earth were made as recorded in Genesis.  The Latin word for flesh is carne from which is derived the English word incarnation which is used to denote the description in John 1 of God taking on human form.

 

How the incarnation affects our understanding of God and His world

This concept of God taking on human form as Jesus caused deep divisions amongst the early Christians.  Was Jesus a man or was he God?  The debate was finally resolved, at least in doctrinal terms, at the Council of Chalcedon in 451.  The ‘Chalcedonian definition’ described Jesus using the ‘two natures’ formula: he is both truly divine and truly human.

The doctrine of the incarnation has a major impact on our view of both Jesus and God.  If Jesus is ‘God made flesh’ he is not ‘just a good person or a great moral teacher’ – he is God.  If God was prepared, in the words of the well know hymn, to ‘take frail flesh and die’ he is not the fierce, tyrannical God of the Old Testament inflicting punishment on sinners but a loving, caring God who wants to give his children a further chance to mend their sinful ways.  Through Jesus we have been given what McGrath describes as “a window into God’s being and a door into his presence.”

 

Atonement and the meaning of the Cross and the Resurrection

The doctrine of Atonement has its roots in early Judaism.  Sin destroys the relationship between man and God and atonement is the mechanism employed to bring about reconciliation between the two.  The earliest mechanism employed to bring about atonement was animal sacrifice carried out using the elaborate rituals described in the Pentateuch.  In these the blood or life of the animal was given to God to atone for the sins of man.

This principle of the suffering of one being (in the Pentateuch, an animal) atoning for the sins of another was taken a step further in the time of the Maccabees in the first and second century BC.  The Maccabean Martyrs (seven Jewish brothers and their mother) appealed to God to allow their suffering to atone for the sins of the whole nation.

2 Maccabees 7: 37  I, like my brothers, give up body and life for the laws of our ancestors, appealing to God to show mercy soon to our nation and by trials and plagues to make you confess that he alone is God, 38 and through me and my brothers to bring to an end the wrath of the Almighty that has justly fallen on our whole nation.’

 

This well-established practice of atonement was taken up by the writers of the New Testament and applied to Jesus, the verse below from Mark suggesting that Jesus understood his coming death in terms of atonement:

John 3:16  ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

Mark 10: 45  For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’

This belief that Jesus died to atone for our sins and so restore our right relationship with God has been a continuous theme of orthodox Christianity throughout its history. 

It is good, and indeed inevitable, that those with an enquiring mind should question the divinity of Jesus, but when the debate is ended it is what we feel with our heart or soul that is important, not what we can reason in our head.  If we feel the presence of Jesus in our soul and we have determined to follow Him then we can call ourselves a Christian no matter what conflicts may rage in our head.  Our inability to conceptualise Him or to understand the nature of His incarnation must never be allowed to become a barrier between Him and us.  He would not want it so.