Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Who Is Jesus

(This is more or less the talk i gave at Alpha on wednesday, i ad libbed a bit but not very much)

Lots of important questions we ask in life:
will you go out with me?
will you marry me?
will you employ me?
what degree will i get?
Perhaps two important questions at the moment are;
will England win the world cup?
what will i wear to the summer ball?

But i want to suggest that the question of Who Is Jesus is one of the most important questions you will ever ask.

Before we look at this question maybe we should start with another question...the question of 'Was Jesus?', did He exist? A soviet dictionary once defined Jesus as 'a mythical charecter of no importance', i don't think any serious historian would hold that view today. Alongside tall the evidence for the existance of Jesus of Nazareth in the Bible there are also reports of Him from outside the Bible. The Roman historian Josephus, born 4 years after Jesus time spoke of Jesus as:
'a man, if it is lawful to call Him a man, a doer of wonderful works, who taught men who received the truth with pleasure. When He was condemned to the cross those that oved Him did not at first forsake Him for three days after He appeared to them alive, as the divine prophets foretold...and is there still not a tribe of His followers called 'Christians' to this day?'

So we have evidence from outside the Bible as well as from the Bible itself. But some argue that the New Testament can not be trusted as it was written a long time ago and its hard to believe that it's not been changed over time. The science of textual criticism answers this claim. Essentially the more copies we have, the less doubt we can have about their validity. Professor Bruce who was a Bible Professor at the University of Manchester shows the credibility of the New Testament by comparing it to other historical texts.

For Caesars Gallic Wars we have just nine copies, the earliest of which was written 900 years after Caesars day. For Livy's Roman History there are less than twenty copies surviving, again with the earliest being more than 900 years more recent than Livy. For Thucydides, who is known as 'the father of history' there are only eight copies of his work surviving, with a time gap of around 1300 years! For the Bible, however we have 25000 copies with the earliest just 300 years after the event. Now, no one doubts the validity of the other works, so why doubt the validity of the Bible? Bruce concludes that the gap between the originals and the copies are so small as the be negligible, and thus we can be sure that the Bible we have now is as it was originally, and the integrity and authenticity of the Bible is firmly established.

Some people think that Jesus was a wonderful man or good teacher, but they can't believe in Christianity. Christians claim that Jesus was the unique Son of God, the only way to have a relationship with God. So what evidence is there for this claim? What evidence is there for the claim that Jesus was more than just a good moral teacher? The answer is that there is a great deal of evidence, from what Jesus said about Himself, what he did, what His charecter was like, His fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy and lastly, the ressurection.

People say that Jesus never claimed to be God, but there are plenty of times when, directly and indirectly, He claimed just that. One of Jesus most famous claims was 'I am the way, the truth and the life'. Do these sounds like the words of a man who was just a good teacher or decent man? Lets look at it a bit. Imagine if i came up to you and said 'Hi i'm ed, i am the truth.' 'Hi, my names Ed, i am the life'. 'Hi, my names Ed, i am the only way to God'. Imagine it. You'd be appalled, and rightly so, because i am none of those things. You're first reaction would certainly not be...'oh yeh, there goes a good man'

This reflects the self centred nature of Jesus' teaching. Every prophet in the Bible points away from Himself towards God, Jesus points TO Himself AS God. Jesus says basically if you want satisfaction come to me, if you want fulfillment come to me, if you want a relationship with God come to me, if you want LIFE come to me. Again these are direct claims that no good teacher of prophet would make. Certainly claims that no one else in the Bible makes.

People live in darkness and despair and dissolusionment. This was as true in biblical times as it is now. Jesus said that He was the light of the world. He claimed to be able to open people's eyes to life and to God...yet another extraordinary claim. People are scared of death and dying. Jesus claimed that He was the ressurection and the life and that those who came to Him would never die. He said that to receive and welcome Him was to receive and welcome God.

Are these claims that a teacher or prophet would make?

Perhaps His best known claim was the ability to forgive sins. [here i used a famous Lewis quote from the Alpha book, my notes just say 'Lewis quote' so i'll try and paraphrase it as best i can!]
If i step on your foot, you forgive me, if i break your car you forgive me, but what are we to make of someone, un stepped on, and with car fully in tact that forgives the stepping and the breaking? What are we to make of someone who acts as if He was the main injured party as a result of every sin? As if every murder and theft was an affront just to Him? There would only be two conclusions we could raw. Either we would be facing a facetiousness and self centred delusion unmatched in human history, from a man who could be dismissed instantly, or, we are faced with the fact that Jesus really was the person who He claimed to me.

Jesus said that He would one day return to judge everyone. He basically said 'on judgement day you'll appear before me and i''ll decide where you'll spend eternity. My decision will be based on how you've treated me and what i've offered you'. Imagine if someone you respected as a man or a teacher said that. It would be utterly preposterous. This is yet another of His claims to be God.

So what about his direct claims? During His trial He was asked 'are you the Christ, the son of God?' He answered 'I am'. The priests started to tear at their clothes and demand an end to the trial. It was clear that in their view Jesus had claimed to be God. When Jesus asked why people were stoning Him their reply was 'becuase you, a mere man, claim to be God. It is clear what His enemies thought of Him and His claims. When one of His followers called Him 'my Lord and my God' Jesus didn't say, 'no no, thats not me', He said that Thomas has seen and believed. He even rebuked Him for not getting it sooner!

So how can we test people's claims? Jesus claimed to be the unique son of God, God made flesh. There are three logical possibilities that Jesus claims lead us to. If His claims were untrue either He didn't know they were untrue, so He was mad, a man who thought He was God but was deluded. Or He knew they were untrue and therefore was a conman, someone who knew what He was doing and was an evil imposter. The third possibility is that His claims were true.

So what evidence is there?
His teaching is some of the greatest teaching ever. People say that they live by His teaching, and by the Sermon on the Mount in particular. Now, this may not be possible, and may miss the point, but they say it nonetheless. His teaching is loved more, quoted more, translated more and believed more than any other simply because they are the greatest words ever spoken. They lucidly and clearly deal with the greatest problems that ever face man. They are the sort of answers one would expect a God to give. His teaching is the centrepiece for our civilisation. may of our laws are based on His teaching and surely that demonstrates that in nearly 200 years no one has has come along who has improved on His teaching. Could these words have come from someone who was mad, or deluded? Jesus said that when He did a miracle He did it in, by and through God the Father. The Bible tells us that Jesus turned water into wine, that He fed 5000 people with a boy's lunch, that He stopped storms with just His words, that He cured people from illness and that He bought people back to life from the dead. But one thing shines above everything else in Jesus' teaching...His love for people. He ate and lived with tax collectors and sinners, its hard for us to find a level of comparison today for this level of society today, these people were totcal outcasts. It was on the cross that Jesus ultimately and completly demonstrated His love for people, as we'll see later. But love for people was clearly behind His works. Could they really have been done by someone who was deluded about his own identity?

His character has impressed both Christians and non Christians.
He was unselfish but not self pitying.
Humble but not weak.
He had joy but never at anyone's expense.
He was kind but not indulgent.
His enemies couldn't find any fault in His and those who knew Him said He was without sin.
Bernard Levin said of Jesus that His charecter would pierce the soul of anyone who had a sould to be pierced. He is loved all over the world, His message clear, His pity infinite, His consolation effective, His words full of love, glory and wisdom. Surely no one with these characteristics could be described as mad or evil.

Old Testament prophecy. Jesus fulfilled over 300 different prophecies written over 500 years. Many would say that this simply proves He was an effective conman, but the sheer weight of prophecy makes that impossible. He also fulfilled prophecies that He had no control over about His birth and death. It would have been a bit late at the age of thurty when He started teaching to go back and find out where He was supposed to be born!

Finally the resurrection. This is the centrepiece of the Chrisitian faith. The Bible itself says that if the resurrection didn't happen then Chrisitians are to be pitied above all people. But what evidence is there for the resurrection? It can be broken down into four main elements.

First of all the absence from the tomb... many other theories have been forward as to why Jesus' body was not in the tomb on the first easter sunday, but none of them are very convincing.
Some have suggested that Jesus wasn;t dead when He was taken from the cross and put in the tomb, and that He later recovered. Jesus had undergone a Roman flogging and been nailed to a cross for six hours. Bearing in mind crucifixion was eventually stopped for being too brutal even for the Romans, could a man who had undergone such physical punishment really have been able to roll away a stone and escape from a tomb?

Also, when the soldiers allowed Jesus to be taken down off the cross, they pierced Him with a spear, and the Bible reports that a mixture of blood and water flowed out from the wound. This was a seperation of serum and a blood clot, which is medical evidence for someones death. John didn't know this when He wrote that, he was just recording eyewitness accounts of the event. This is powerful medical evidence that Jesus was indeed dead when they took Him down from the cross. The second objection is that the disciples stole His body and then made up a rumour that Jesus was alive again. Apart from the fact the tomb was heavily guarded this seems psychologically unlikely. The disciples were depressed and disillusioned after the crucifixion of the man they thought was the Messaih. It would have taken something remarkable for Peter to go from this to a man who preached so powerfully a few days later that 3000 people were saved. Also given the torture and continual threats of death the disciples suffered it seems unlikely that they would all die for something they knew not to be true. The last objection is that the disciples stole the body. This seems to be the least likely of all. If they had stolen the body why didn't they present it when the disciples were claiming that Jesus was alive again?
In some ways the term 'empty tomb' is a misnomer. What Peter and John saw when they went to the tomb were the grave clothes folded and empty. They were like a chrysalis after a butterfly had passed though. No wonder John 'saw and believed'.

What about His appearances to the disciples? Some people say that these were simply hallucinations, but hallucinations happen to emotional, highly strung people, not burley weather beaten fishermen, tax collectors and sceptics. Also people who hallucinate don't suddenly stop doing so. Jesus appeared to His desciples eleven times in six weeks and then stopped. The number and the sudden ceasaeation make it unlikely. Jesus also appeared to over five hundred people at one time...is it likely that all these people shared the same hallucination. Also hallucinations are not real, they're subjective. When Jesus appeared to the disciples he ate and drank with them, cooked for them. He told Thomas to put his hands in His wounds.

The immediate effect of the ressurection was amazing. In just three hundred years the church spread from a small group of fisherman in the middle east across the world. It was a peaceful revolution the world has not seen before or since. It grew because people were able to say 'Jesus is not dead, come and meet Him and see what we're talking about. The church, from that first Easter sunday spread everywhere.

There is also the question of personal experience. People from every tribe, caste, race, country and tongue can say today that they have experienced a relationship with Jesus. People from all over the world unite in the their experience of the risen Jesus. I can talk about the relationship i have with the risen Jesus. There is no way this man is dead...he is alive!

As i said earlier what Jesus said about Himself leaves us to three possible conclusions. Either He was and is the Son of God or He was evil or simply deluded. The weight of His teaching, His works, charecter, fulifillment of prophecy and conquest of death make the latter two suggestions seem illogical and unbeliveable. On the other hand they lend the strongest possibility to the claim that Jesus was and is a man who's conscience identity was God. We are left then with the alternative that either Jesus was and is exactly what He said He was, or else He was insane or something worse. To CS Lewis is seems clear that He was neither evil or insane. He concludes that however strange or terrifying is may seem the logical view is that Jesus was, and is, God.

No comments: