Lecture 8: Who is Jesus?
Course: Life is a Journey
Lecture: Who is Jesus?
7. Learning More about Who Jesus Is
Who is Jesus?
This was the central question of both the early church and Paul. Paul tells the Corinthians, "I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified." The question of who is Jesus is the preoccupation of the first four books of the New Testament; they tell us about the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In fact, our very name as "Christians" shows that we are not primarily about doctrine, fellowship, or religion, but we are first and foremost preoccupied with Jesus Christ and who he is.
In fact, "Who is Jesus?" is the central question of all reality, and it is paramount that all Christians have a clear answer to this question. There are a lot of common answers to the question. If we were to go down and stand on the street corner and ask people, "Who do you think Jesus is?" we would get a wide range of answers. We would certainly hear someone say that he was a good man, he was a teacher, he was a prophet, or the founder of a religion. We may get someone who says Jesus was demon-possessed; that's what some people of Jesus' day thought. Perhaps we might run across someone who says, "Oh, he's a lesser god -- a created being and Satan's brother." If you asked Albert Schweitzer, he would say that Jesus Christ was a deluded, raving fanatic. If we were to ask others who Jesus is, we might hear something like, "Don't know; don't care."
There is a wide range of answers to the question of who Jesus is, and yet everything in life and in death hinges on the answer to this question. This is one of those questions where there is a right answer, and there are wrong answers. As we stand before the Judgment Seat of God, there will only be one right answer to the question of who is Jesus.
The book of Acts tells the story of the early church. In chapter 2, we read Peter's first sermon, which was delivered to answer the question of who is Jesus. God's Holy Spirit had just given an unusual gift to the disciples; he enabled them to speak in human languages they had never learned. As you could imagine, hearing a bunch of mostly uneducated fishermen from Galilee speaking all these languages received quite a bit of attention. The people said, "Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs -- we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” (2:7–11). Peter responds, "'Fellow Israelites, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God's deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him."
Peter then goes into a discussion of a prophecy about Jesus by King David, and then in verse 32 he says, "God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it." Then he adds that Jesus, being "exalted to the right hand of God ... has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear." The reason the disciples were able to speak in unlearned, human language, or "tongues," was because the Holy Spirit had gifted them with that ability so that they could declare God's glory to all people.
Peter continues in verse 36, "Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.' When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, 'Brothers, what shall we do?' Peter replied, 'Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.'" Peter continues to preach for a while, and three thousand people become Christians.
While Peter did explain the supernatural gift of speaking in other languages, his preaching centered on the question of "Who is Jesus?"
Now we get to the main point. In verse 38, when Peter calls them to repent, what is he asking them to repent of? Certainly part of their repentance is repenting from sin; but first and foremost, Peter is calling on them to repent of their misunderstanding of who Jesus is -- that's what the sermon is about: "Who is Jesus?" The repentance is a call to turn aside from what they had thought about Jesus, and turn to Peter's understanding of who Jesus is, that he is both Lord and Messiah.
Real Human Being
Who is Jesus? First of all, he was a real human being. Notice that Peter starts with the name, "Jesus of Nazareth." Part of the Gospel message is that Jesus was fully human. He was born to Mary and Joseph, peasants without rank, fame, or fortune. He grew up in a small town called Nazareth, an insignificant little village in an insignificant country -- as far as the world was concerned. When Jesus was 30, he gathered twelve men around himself as his followers, and for three and a half years he preached. He got tired; he ate; he slept. He never married, contrary to a popular lie today. He never owned a house. He never traveled far from home. Yet he was seen as a religious rebel; he was seen as a threat to the religious and political establishment. After three and a half years, he was deserted by his friends and killed by his own countrymen. Jesus of Nazareth was a very real human being who went through the same kinds of experiences that you and I do.
Jesus is Lord
However, Peter also makes it clear that Jesus is not just Jesus of Nazareth. As Peter preaches, we realize that this Jesus is much more than a mere human being. In verse 36, Peter makes the point that by means of the resurrection, God has made it clear that Jesus is also Lord.
What does "Lord" mean? Peter would have been speaking in Greek, and the Greek word he uses is "Kyrios." Kyrios is a difficult word to translate into English because it has a wide range of meanings. Kyrios can mean "sir," a term of polite address. Kyrios can mean "master"; when a servant would talk to his master, the servant would most likely call him Kyrios.
But there's another use of Kyrios that is more significant. In the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Greek word Kyrios was used to translate the most holy name of God in the entire Old Testament, the name of "Yahweh," "Jehovah" -- two different ways of pronouncing the same name.
Kyrios is the name that Moses is given in the story of the burning bush in Exodus 3, a story in the Old Testament. Moses sees a bush that is on fire, but it wasn't burning up, so he walks over to investigate. God speaks out of the burning bush, and in the course of the discussion Moses asks, "What's your name?" God replies, "I AM who I AM"; it's that name "I AM" that comes into English as Yahweh or Jehovah; it's that name that was translated with Kyrios in the Greek Old Testament.
Jesus is the Son of God
What Peter is preaching in Acts 2 is that Jesus is God, Jesus is the great I AM, the God of the burning bush. This theme of Jesus being God runs all the way through the New Testament.
When you read the story of Jesus' birth in the gospel of Matthew, Matthew reminds us that about 700 years earlier, Isaiah made a prophecy that a virgin would conceive and have a child. 700 years later, the Virgin Mary did conceive and did have a child. When the angel came to tell Mary that she was going to have a baby, she was understandably confused.
In Luke 1, verse 35, the angel explains how this is going to happen: "The angel answered, 'The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High" -- another name for God -- will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.'" So even at the announcement of Jesus' birth, the phrase "Son of God" is being used to describe him.
The name "Son of God" is used elsewhere in the New Testament to describe Jesus. For example, when there apostle John tells us why he wrote the fourth Gospel, he says, "These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God."
The title of the second gospel, written by Mark, is, "The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God." Mark is writing to let us know that Jesus is not just a man, he is not just a human being, but he is, in fact, the Son of God. What is interesting, as we read through the Gospel of Mark, is that the title "Son of God" only occurs two other times. In chapter 5, the demons say, "You are the Son of God." In chapter 15, after Jesus dies, a centurion says, "Surely this man was the Son of God!"
While Mark does not use the phrase "Son of God" frequently, he does teach the divinity of Christ implicitly in the stories he tells. When we read his stories of what Jesus did and taught, we realize that Jesus must be the Son of God. We don't have to read very far into Mark to realize that Jesus has power over sickness, he has power over demons, and he has power over the natural world; he can even tell the wind to stop blowing and the waves to stop foaming. Jesus even has power over death; he can raise Jarius' daughter from the dead. Jesus has authority to forgive sin -- something that only God can do. While Mark's teaching is implicit, it is clear that Jesus is no mere human being, he must be much more than merely a person in order to do what he does -- he must be the Son of God.
I need to mention that when you and I hear the phrase "Son of God," it's easy to misunderstand what it means. The Bible can use the word "son" in the same way that Tyler and Hayden are my sons; but the Bible can also use the word "son" with a significantly different meaning, and it's easy to misunderstand. For example, the Mormons have misunderstood it. For a Mormon, Jesus is a created being who is less than God and is Satan's brother; that's not what the phrase "Son of God" means in the Bible. Judaism was a monotheistic culture -- that there is one and only one God -- so they are not going to think the phrase "Son of God" means God has progeny.
When Jesus starts using language such as "Son," or "Son of God" or "Father," when Jesus used that kind of familial language, the Jews of his day understood exactly what he was saying. They understood that he was claiming to be equal with God.
The best passage to see this is in John 5. All that Jesus said in verse 17 was, "My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working." Jesus had healed someone on the Sabbath, which was a big no-no in Jewish ritual. In verse 18 we read, "For this reason they tried all the more to kill him; not only was he breaking the Sabbath" -- he wasn't following their human rules -- "but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God." So in Jesus' original context, when he talks about himself being the Son and God being his Father, and when the Bible talks about Jesus being the Son of God, they're not talking about God's progeny, his physical son. Rather, Jesus is claiming to be God himself.
Jesus is God
The Bible also explicitly calls Jesus God. In John 1, verse 1, he uses the philosophical concept of "the Word" to describe Jesus. John writes, "In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God."
By the way, when the Jehovah Witnesses say this verse in the original Greek does not say Jesus "was God" but rather "was a god" (with a lowercase "g"), just ask them to repeat the Greek alphabet — they probably don't know Greek. The Bible does not say Jesus was "a god"; it says Jesus "was God," capital "G" in English.
After all, just eighteen verses later John says, "No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known." Jesus is "the one and only Son," he "is himself God."
Jesus also claimed to be God. In John 8 he is is arguing with the Jews and says, "before Abraham was born, I am!" If you are reading in English and if you're not familiar with the Old Testament, you would ask, "I am ... what?" However, the Jews understood exactly what Jesus was saying, because they tried to kill him for it; that was the penalty for blasphemy. When Jesus said, "Before Abraham was 'I am,'" he was claiming to be the "great I AM." He's saying, "I am Yahweh. I am Jehovah. I am the Kyrios of the burning bush. I am God."
Later on Jesus says, "I and the Father are one" (John 10:30).
Thomas was one of Jesus' disciples, a Jew, who would have been intensely monotheistic. Yet when Thomas sees the risen Lord, his response was "My Lord and my God" (John 20:28).
Paul, talking to his friend Titus, refers to "our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ" (Titus 2:13).
Peter talks about the righteousness of our "God and Savior, Jesus Christ" (2 Peter 1:1).
There are many more verses and many more arguments that I could bring, but it is clear that the Bible claims that Jesus claimed, that his apostles claimed, that Jesus is, in fact, God.
Allowing for the Trinity
One of the interesting things in this discussion is that the biblical writers are having to allow for the Trinity. Do you remember our earlier discussion on this topic? We are monotheists: "Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one" (Deuteronomy 6:4). We believe in one God, and yet we believe in the Trinity. There is a Godhead: God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit. All three are fully God and yet all three together are God. It's a mystery; we can't expect to understand fully the essence of God. But we can see the New Testament writers writing in such a way that they can talk about the divinity of Christ and also allow for the Trinity.
For example, Jesus doesn't say, "I and the Father are exactly the same thing." They are not. Jesus is fully God, and yet there is more to God than Jesus -- there is God the Father and God the Hoy Spirit. The language has to deal with the reality of the Trinity, and yet the Bible still clearly claims that Jesus is God.
With this as background, we can come back to the use of the word "Lord," "Kyrios," in Acts 2. Peter is preaching that by means of Jesus' resurrection, God has made it explicitly clear that Jesus is Lord, that he is Kyrios, he is Yahweh, he is the great I AM, he is the Son of God, he is God.
What we're dealing with here is the doctrine of the "Incarnation" of Jesus. The doctrine of the incarnation is that God became incarnate; that God became flesh. Stated another way: the incarnation is the doctrine that Jesus was fully God and fully human.
Both sides to that equation are important because on one hand, Jesus did not just appear to be a human being -- he was fully human. In John 1:14, he says, "The Word" -- Jesus -- "became flesh and made his dwelling among us." John uses the most basic word that he can in Greek to describe this stuff that is hanging off our bones; Jesus became flesh. There's no concept in the Bible that says Jesus was human on the outside and God on the inside. Jesus was every bit as human as you and I are human.
Yet Scripture does point out that while he was fully human, he nevertheless lived without sin. In the book of Hebrews, chapter 4, the author is talking about Jesus being our high priest. Jesus stands between God the Father and us, interceding for us. Starting in verse 15, it says, "For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are -- yet he did not sin."
This one of the beauties of the doctrine of the incarnation. When we pray to God, we understand that our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, is always before the Father's throne interceding for us. We know that Jesus can sympathize with everything that is happening to us, because he was fully human and went through the same kinds of trials that you and I do, and yet he did so without sin. Later on in Hebrews, chapter 7, the author is talking again about Jesus' being a high priest, and he talks about Jesus being "holy" and "innocent" and "unstained" and "separated" from sinners. Jesus didn't just appear to be human, he was fully human, and yet he was fully human without sin.
The other side of the incarnation equation is just as true, which is while Jesus was fully human, he also was fully God. How many times have you heard someone say, "I believe Jesus was a good man"? I am sure we have heard this more times than we care to count? But the fact of the matter is that good people don't say the things that Jesus said. If Jesus were only human and nothing else, we can't call him a good person. Good people don't go around saying things like, "I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing" (John 15:5). Good people don't go around saying things like "I and the Father are one."
It's sad how many of our mental care institutions are full of people who think they are Jesus, who think they are God. Good people who are in control of their mental facilities don't say the kinds of things that Jesus said. Anyone who says "I believe that Jesus was a good man" simply hasn't read the Bible; you can't read the Bible and come away thinking that.
As has often been said, either Jesus is a liar of pathological proportions, or he's a lunatic, mentally unstable, or he is exactly who he said he is -- God; there is no fourth option of being a good person.
Importance of the Incarnation
Jesus is fully God and fully human; that's the doctrine of the incarnation. The question is: Is it important to understand and believe this? The answer, obviously, is "yes." The incarnation, if nothing else, is the greatest miracle that ever happened; it's the miracle of God becoming human. But there are at least two good reasons why we need to believe and understand the incarnation.
1. Important to our salvation
The first reason has to do with our salvation. The only way that salvation could be a possibility for you and for me is for Jesus to have been the God-man, which is a term theologians like to use. If Jesus were not the God-man, if he were not fully God and fully human, he could not have provided salvation for us, and you and I would still be dead in our sin.
On the one hand, the Bible says that he had to be fully human if he was going to be the sacrifice for human sin; there is something in the justice of God that requires a human death for human sin. The book of Hebrews expounds this in chapter 2, verse 17, where it says that Jesus, "had to be made like them" -- human beings -- "fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people." If Jesus were not human, he couldn't be our high priest, he couldn't "make atonement" to forgive our sins. Jesus had to be like you and me if he was going to be the sacrifice for our sin. I don't know why that's the case, but Hebrews says that Jesus "had to be made like them." Jesus had to be fully human so that human beings would not die in their sin.
But in order for salvation to be a reality, Jesus also had to be fully God. Why? Probably for several reasons.
Jesus had to be fully God because no human being could live a perfect life. If Jesus had not lived a perfect life, there would be no perfect death that could be given sacrificially for you and me.
No human being could have carried the weight of all the world's sin (past, present, and future) for those hours he hung on the cross; none of us are capable of bearing that kind of weight.
No human being's death could be applied to our sin. If somehow I was able to live a perfect life, why would you think that my death could pay the penalty for your sin, much less the sins of the entire world?
Jesus had to be fully God in order for these things to happen because ultimately, salvation belongs to our God. The refrain "salvation belongs to our God" comes from Psalm 3, verse 8, and it's elaborated on in Revelation 7, verse 10. "Salvation belongs to our God"; it is not something that we can do.
Our salvation is absolutely dependent upon the incarnation, the full humanity of Christ, so that his death would be a human death, and the full divinity of Christ, so that his death could be applied to you and to me. Without the incarnation, we're all dead and live outside of a relationship with God.
There are some important ramifications that come out of this truth. Let me just mention two.
1. Christianity is exclusive
If you and I can come to grips with the meaning of the incarnation, then we will understand why Christianity is so exclusive, why we claim that Jesus is the only path to salvation. Throughout history, Christians have been accused of being prideful and arrogant because they think that they are the only way to God, that they're better than the Hindus, that they're better than the Muslims.
But it was Jesus who said, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:7). The reason this is true is because there has never been another God-man. There has never been a God-man who is the single mediator between God and humanity (I Timothy 2:5). There was no other time in which God became a human sacrifice for the sin of all people. Yes, we are incredibly exclusive; all roads do not lead to God; all but one road leads straight to hell. It's not because we're prideful and arrogant; it's because there's only one God-man, Jesus Christ, and there is no one else who has done something about sin.
2. Evangelism must be radically Christ-centered
The other ramification is that the doctrine of the incarnation impacts our understanding of evangelism. It means, among other things, as Peter preaches, that "salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12). If people do not hear the good news of Jesus Christ, they will die in their sin and spend an eternity away from God; there is no other way to come into the presence of the Father. We must take that fact seriously, all the way from our offerings and our church budget to what we say to our neighbors and how we talk to our friends. There is no other way to get to heaven other than through Jesus Christ, the one God-man.
It also means that our evangelism must be radically God-centered, must be radically Christ-centered. People love to pull us off track when we are sharing the Gospel, don't they.
We ask: "What do you think of Jesus?" They respond, "I don't know if I can believe in a religion where God sends people to hell."
Our response must be to pull the focus back on Jesus. "That's an interesting question, but what about Jesus." They try to divert our question. "I'm not sure I can believe in a God who, supposedly, is all good and all powerful but let's evil exist."
Again, we pull the discussion back to Jesus. "That's a good questions, but what about Jesus." "Oh," they say, "I can't believe in your God because the Bible is full of mistakes." Again, our response is to say, "That's an interesting question, and I will deal with that issue later, but what about Jesus?"
Our evangelism, our talking with neighbors and friends and co-workers, has to be centered on the person of Jesus Christ because that's the question that matters. It's their answer to that question that will get people to heaven, or will send them to hell. "Who is Jesus?" He is the incarnate God. He is God; he is human. Because he is the only God-man, he's the only path to a relationship with God.
The doctrine of the incarnation is anything but academic. It must pervade our thinking and control our very lives, our own salvation, and the offer of salvation to other people.
2. You must believe in the incarnation to be a Christian
The second reason why the doctrine of incarnation is important is because if you don't believe it, you're not a Christian.
One of my concerns, for years, has been how much to share in a gospel presentation. If you share too much, it makes it overly complicated and difficult. If you share too little and the person responds, have they actually become a Christian?
So for years I have been asking people, "What is the minimum it takes to get into heaven?" They often say, "I don't like that question." My response? "You're at the bus stop, and the bus will be there in two minutes. There's a person at the bus stop asking you about Jesus, and what it means to be a Christian. Put yourself in that situation and ask yourself what you would say. This did happen to me, and unfortunately I did not have a good answer; and while I fumbled for words, the bus came.
The answer is that we must share that Jesus is not only God but also a human being; this is why his death on the cross is able to give us access to a relationship with God." In 1 John, chapter 4, John is talking about the false teaching that denied the humanity of Christ. In verses 2 and 3 John writes, "This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit" -- or person -- "that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist." So John says that one of the minimal required beliefs in order to be a Christian is to believe that Jesus is fully human.
If we are Christians, we must also believe in the full divinity of Christ, so we're back to the word "Lord." Paul writes to the church in Rome, "If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord” -- Kyrios -- "and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved" (Romans 10: 9). Here we have a helpful mixing of both halves of the incarnation: we have to believe that God raised him from the dead, that's a physical resurrection of a real human being; we must also confess that Jesus is Kyrios, that he is Yahweh. So the doctrine of the incarnation is extremely important.
Central Question of Life
The central question of life is, "Who is Jesus?" It should pervade everything we do. If our understanding of who Jesus is, is different from Peter's, if our understanding of who Jesus is, is different from what I've explained, then in the words of Peter, we are called to repent. We are called to repent of our false understanding of who Jesus is. Once we do that, then repentance from sin and all the other things will follow.
If we do believe in the incarnation, then the challenge of the incarnation is to allow it's truth to pervade everything that we do. Because there's only one God-man, there's only one way to God, and there's only one means to salvation -- all the other roads of religion, sincerity, and religious activity lead to the gates of hell. Only the road through the God-man goes to heaven.
May we truly believe in the doctrine of the incarnation.