Last Sunday I ended with a question: If we think of God as the author of a great play, and we think of this universe and its history as that play, then could not God write himself in as a character?I think the answer to that question is that it is eminently possible. And that is precisely what Christians claim God has done. Christians claim that God became a character in his own play, and the name of that character is Jesus.
What evidence is there to support this claim? Well, there is direct evidence and indirect. Let’s look at the direct evidence first.
Jesus constantly referred to God as his Father. This was something unheard of among the Jews. No other Jewish rabbi ever spoke of God as his Father. In the Gospel of John, we see a confrontation between Jesus and some Jews because Jesus healed a man on the Sabbath. In his defense, Jesus said, “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too, am working.” Then we read, “For this reason the Jews tried all the harder to kill him; not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.” (John 5:17-18)
And Jesus did not stop with calling God his Father. On at least one occasion Jesus said, “I and the Father are one.” (John 10:30) The reaction of Jesus own people, the Jews, was clear, immediate, and telling: “Again the Jews picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus said to them, ‘I have shown you many great miracles from the Father. For which of these do you stone me?’ ‘ We are not stoning you for any of these,’ replied the Jews, ‘but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God.’” (John 10:31-33)
Jesus made similar statements on other occasions. He said, “I am in the Father and the Father is in me.” (John 14:11) On another occasion he said, “All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” (Matthew 11:27)
Jesus said, “If you knew me, you would know my Father also.” (John 8:19)
“When a man believes in me, he does not believe in me only, but in the one who sent me. When he looks at me, he sees the one who sent me.” (John 12:44-45)
“He who hates me hates my Father as well.” (John 15:23)
“He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father, who sent him.”
Jesus even claimed to have existed before the patriarch Abraham: “I tell you the truth, before Abraham was born, I am!” (John 8:58) By using the present tense, I am, there is the suggestion that Jesus existed eternallybefore Abraham. But that is not all, “I am” was the divine name by which God had revealed himself to Moses in Exodus 3:13-14.
The Jewish people clearly understood what Jesus was suggesting. That is why we read in John 8:59, “At this, they picked up stones to stone him…”
When Jesus was eventually brought to trial before the Jewish ruling council, the high priest asked him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?”
“I am,” said Jesus. “And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.”
How did the high priest react to Jesus’ statement? We read, “The high priest tore his clothes. ‘Why do we need any more witnesses?’ he asked. ‘You have heard the blasphemy. What do you think?’”
“They all condemned him as worthy of death.” (Mark 14:61-64)
Robert Anderson has pointed out: “No confirmatory evidence is more convincing than that of hostile witnesses, and the fact that the Lord laid claim to Deity is incontestably established by the action of His enemies. We must remember that the Jews were not a tribe of ignorant savages, but a highly cultured and intensely religious people; and it was upon this very charge that, without a dissenting voice, His death was decreed by the Sanhedrin—their great national Council, composed of the most eminent of their religious leaders, including men of the type of Gamaliel and his great pupil, Saul of Tarsus.”
Now, there are some people today who are not startled by Jesus’ claim. After all, we live in a time when people like Shirley MacLaine claims that she and all of us, in fact, are God. C. S. Lewis shows us why Jesus’ statements are so startling and different than that of Shirley MacLaine. Lewis writes, “Now let us get this clear. Among Pantheists, like the Indians, anyone might say that he was a part of God, or one with God: there would be nothing very odd about it. But this man [Jesus], since He was a Jew, could not mean that kind of God. God, in their language, meant the Being outside the world Who had made it and was infinitely different from anything else. And when you have grasped that, you will see that what this man said was, quite simply, the most shocking thing that has ever been uttered by human lips.” (Mere Christianity, p. 55)
In addition to this direct evidence in the Gospels, we also have indirect evidence.
First, there is Jesus’ authoritative teaching. People wondered where Jesus got all of his wisdom, since he was a simple carpenter. “‘Where did this man get these things?’ they asked. ‘What’s this wisdom that has been given him?’” (Mark 6:2) On another occasion, “The Jews were amazed and asked, ‘How did this man get such learning without having studied?”’ (John 7:15) Others said, “No one ever spoke the way this man does.” (John 7:46) In Capernaum, “They were amazed at his teaching, because his message had authority.” (Luke 4:32) After the Sermon on the Mount we read, “When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers.” (Matthew 7:28-29)
Then there is Jesus’ ability to heal. On one occasion, Jesus healed a man who had been blind from birth. Jesus said he could do this because he was the light of the world. (John 9:1-7) Some of the Jewish leaders tried to investigate this healing. They brought the man before them and said, “Give glory to God. We know this man [Jesus] is a sinner.” And the man replied, “Whether he is a sinner or not, I don’t know. One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!” (John 9:24-25)
The Jewish leaders hurled insults at the man saying, “We know that God spoke to Moses, but as for this fellow, we don’t even know where he comes from.” And the man responded, “Now that is remarkable! You don’t know where he comes from, yet he opened by eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners. He listens to the godly man who does his will. Nobody has ever heard of opening the eyes of a man born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” (John 9:29-30)
Then there is Jesus’ control of nature.In Matthew 8:23-27, we read, “Then he got into the boat and his disciples followed him. Without warning, a furious storm came up on the lake, so that the waves swept over the boat. But Jesus was sleeping. The disciples went and woke him, saying, ‘Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!’ He replied, ‘You of little faith, why are you so afraid?’ Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the waves, and it was completely calm. The men were amazed and asked, ‘What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him!’”
Many more implicit suggestions of Jesus’ divine nature could be mentioned from the Gospels. Allow me to point out one more. That is the fact that Jesus went around willy-nilly forgiving people of their sins.In Matthew 9:1-8 we read,
And after getting into a boat he crossed the sea and came to his own town.
2 And just then some people were carrying a paralyzed man lying on a bed. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.” 3 Then some of the scribes said to themselves, “This man is blaspheming.” 4 But Jesus, perceiving their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? 5 For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and walk’? 6 But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he then said to the paralytic—“Stand up, take your bed and go to your home.” 7 And he stood up and went to his home. 8 When the crowds saw it, they were filled with awe, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to human beings.
C. S. Lewis makes an important comment on this:
One part of the claim tends to slip past us unnoticed because we have heard it so often that we no longer see what it amounts to. I mean the claim to forgive sins: any sins. Now unless the speaker is God, this is really so preposterous as to be comic. We can all understand how a man forgives offences against himself. You tread on my toe and I forgive you, you steal my money and I forgive you. But what should we make of a man, himself unrobbed and untrodden on, who announced that he forgave you for treading on other men’s toes and stealing other men’s money? Asinine fatuity is the kindest description we should give of his conduct. Yet this is what Jesus did. He told people that their sins were forgiven, and never waited to consult all the other people whom their sins had undoubtedly injured. He unhesitatingly behaved as if He was the party chiefly concerned, the person chiefly offended in all offences. This makes sense only if He really was the God whose laws are broken and whose love is wounded in every sin. In the mouth of any speaker who is not God, these words would imply what I can only regard as a silliness and conceit unrivaled by any other character in history.
Having seen both the direct and indirect suggestions of Jesus’ deity in the Gospels, I believe we are left with four possible answers to the question, “Who is Jesus?” Now, I did not come up with these answers, these are answers that have been suggested down through history. And I think that basically all answers to the question, “Who is Jesus?” fall into one of these categories. Either Jesus was a liar, a lunatic, a legend, or he was and is Lord and God. Let’s look at these four possible answers in turn.
First, Jesus could have been a liar. Josh McDowell writes, “If, when Jesus made these claims He knew that He was not God, then He was lying. But if He was a liar, then He was also a hypocrite because He told others to be honest, whatever the cost, while Himself teaching and living a colossal lie. And more than that, He was a demon, because He told others to trust Him for their eternal destiny. If He could not back up His claims and knew it, then He was unspeakably evil. Lastly, He would also be a fool because it was His claims to being God that led to His crucifixion.” (Evidence that Demands a Verdict, p. 109)
But the idea of Jesus being a liar, a deceiver, is inconsistent with the generally recognized fat that Jesus was one of the great moral teachers who ever lived. How could Jesus be both a great moral teacher and a colossal liar?
William Lecky, one of Great Britain’s most noted historians and a dedicated opponent of organized Christianity once admitted, “It was reserved for Christianity to present to the world an ideal character which through all the changes of eighteen centuries has inspired the hearts of men with an impassioned love; has shown itself capable of acting on all ages, nations, temperaments and conditions; has been not only the highest pattern of virtue, but the strongest incentive to its practice…. The simple record of these three short years of active life [Jesus’ 3 years of ministry] has done more to regenerate and soften mankind than all the disquisitions of philosophers and all the exhortations of moralists.”
Historian Philip Schaff once asked, “How, in the name of logic, common sense, and experience, could an impostor—that is a deceitful, selfish, depraved man—have invented, and consistently maintained from the beginning to the end, the purest and noblest character known in history with the most perfect air of truth and reality? How could he have conceived and successfully carried out a plan of unparalleled beneficence, moral magnitude, and sublimity, and sacrificed his own life for it, in the face of the strongest prejudices of his people and age?”
I for one don’t know how. So let us consider the other possibilities… Was Jesus a lunatic?Josh McDowell once wrote, “If it is inconceivable for Jesus to be a liar, then could not He actually have thought Himself to be God, but been mistaken? After all it is possible to be both sincere and wrong. But we must remember that for someone to think that He is God, especially in a culture that is fiercely monotheistic, and then to tell others that their eternal destiny depends on believing in His claims is no slight flight of fantasy but the thoughts of a lunatic in the fullest sense. Was Jesus Christ such a person?” (Evidence that Demands a Verdict, p. 110)
C. S. Lewis answers the question this way: “The historical difficulty of giving for the life, sayings and influence of Jesus any explanation that is not harder than the Christian explanation, is very great. The discrepancy between the depth and sanity and (let me add) shrewdnessof His moral teaching and the rampant megalomania which must lie behind His theological teaching unless He is indeed God, has never been satisfactorily got over.” (Miracles, pp. 108-109)
Some people have suggested that Jesus was a legend. They claim that Jesus’ disciples made up his claims to deity after his death. If this is true, I wonder whether Christians have been worshipping the wrong guy. Perhaps we should be worshipping those who made up this story in all its amazing detail, a story that has led billions to love the chief character in the story.
Some people say that Jesus’ teachings were handed down through oral tradition over many generations and that over time the claims to deity were added to what Jesus originally said. One of the major problems with this theory is that all the accounts we have of Jesus in the New Testament were written within a generation after his death. This is not a sufficient length of time for legend to develop. And if the sources, authors and editors of the Gospels were making things up about Jesus, surely their fabrications would have been pointed out by those who knew better, and their attempts to build a new religion would have quickly been discredited.
William Albright, one of the foremost biblical archaeologists of the 20thcentury wrote, “We can already say emphatically that there is no longer any solid basis for dating any book of the New Testament after about AD 80.”
Bible commentator Simon Kistemaker has written, “Normally, the accumulation of folklore among people of primitive culture takes many generations; it is a gradual process spread over centuries of time.”
C. S. Lewis, who was once an atheist, examined the Gospels as a literary historian and came up with this conclusion: “Now, as a literary historian, I am perfectly convinced that whatever else the Gospels are they are not legends. I have read a great deal of legend and I am quite clear that they are not the same sort of thing. They are not artistic enough to be legends. From an imaginative point of view they are clumsy, they don’t work up to things properly. Most of the life of Jesus is totally unknown to us, as is the life of anyone else who lived at that time, and no people building up a legend would allow that to be so. Apart from bits of the Platonic dialogues, there are no conversations that I know of in ancient literature like the Fourth Gospel. There is nothing, even in modern literature, until about a hundred years ago when the realistic novel came into existence. In the story of the woman taken in adultery we are told Christ bent down and scribbled in the dust with His finger. Nothing comes of this. No one has ever based any doctrine on it. And the art of inventinglittle irrelevant details to make an imaginary scene more convincing is a purely modern art. Surely the only explanation of this passage is that it really happened? The author put it in simply because he had seenit.” (What are we to make of Jesus Christ?)
Furthermore, the New Testament has better manuscript authority than any other piece of literature from antiquity. We have over 5000 fragmented or complete Greek manuscripts, 10,000 Latin manuscripts, and over 9000 manuscripts in various other ancient languages. The earliest manuscript fragment we have is a portion of the Gospel of John dating to AD 125. That is why Sir Frederic Kenyon, one-time director and principal librarian of the British Museum, once said, “The interval then between the dates of original composition and the earliest extant evidence becomes so small as to be in fact negligible, and the last foundation for any doubt that the Scriptures have come down to us substantially as they were written has now been removed. Both the authenticity and the general integrity of the books of the New Testament bay be regarded as finally established.”
It is still possible that the sources, authors, and editors of the Gospels made up the claims to deity for Jesus. But one has to ask the question: “Why would anyone die for something they knew was a lie?” Many of the first Christians gave up their lives because of their belief in Jesus’ divinity. Now many people will give up their lives for something they think is true, but I know of no one who would give up their life for something they know is false.
So, as best I can make out, that leaves us with only one possibility. That is that Jesus was who the Gospels claim him to be—Lord and God.
“Who is Jesus?” is not an unimportant question. In fact, it is a question that Jesus posed to his first disciples and that he poses to each one of us: “Who do you say I am?” (Matthew 16)