By Nick Brzozowski
Jesus. The most influential figure in all of history. Also, possibly the most controversial figure as well.
No matter what your feelings are about Jesus, it would be helpful to understand what Christians believe about him. Someone who turned the world upside is worth getting to know.
Here are four questions to ask in order to better get to know Jesus:
What Can We All Agree On?
We have both Christian and non-Christian evidence that Jesus was not some group of people or myth. He was a real person — a Jew living in the the first century, who worked as a carpenter, became a Rabi and was known for miracles and at least supposedly rising from the dead. For a list of the sources, check out my other post.
Besides actually existing, we can all agree that Jesus’ influence is unsurpassed by anyone else in the history of the world. Think about it this way. Jesus has 2.3 billion followers on the planet today. Many have devoted their lives to knowing Jesus and following his teachings. That is just astonishing, when you remember that he lived on the earth 2,000 years ago! Cristiano Ronaldo, the most famous person (based on Instagram followers) only has a measly 364 million followers!
Not only does he have many followers, but consider other ways in which the world has changed because of Jesus. Our calendar years are based on an approximation of his birth. Think about all the church buildings alone. On top of that, there are statues, monuments, hospitals, and crosses everywhere that are named after saints or are Christian in some sense.
Of course, when you journey through history to explore the influence of Christianity, you will find some ugly relics: discovery theology, Spanish Inquisition, Crusades, West Burrow Baptists, homophobic hate speech, slavery being defended using the Bible, etc.
But, John Dickerson, in his book, Jesus Skeptic, has researched several ways in which Christianity has helped advance life. The Scientific Revolution, was predominantly pioneered by Christians, motivated by their faith. Although preserved by Christians, slavery was vigorously fought against by Christians in America and by ministers in particular. Originally, the inspiration behind our current education system and teaching kids to read was so they could read the Bible. And the reason why we have hospitals today is because Christians thought that the rich should not be the only ones who have access to health care. I preached a sermon in 2021 where I get into more details about these.
Was Jesus Merely a Good Moral Teacher?
Most people don’t have a problem with Jesus’ existence or his influence. A wedge is made, however, when we make Jesus out to be more than just a good moral teacher. It’s easy to get confused. Why can’t we all get along with just saying that Jesus was a great religious leader, someone worth following?
On the one hand, it makes sense that we would just take the lowest common denominator of Jesus. Whether you think he is God or an angel or a prophet, we can all agree that he said some helpful things like “do to others as you would have them do to you” and he represented kindness and compassion.
But, let’s say that Jesus was just a good moral teacher and not truly divine. What do you do with all the things that he said that make him divine?
Let's look at the gospel of John alone:
“I am the bread of life” (John 6:9).
“I am the light of the world” (John 8:12)
“You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world” (John 8:23).
“I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture” (John 10:9).
“I and the Father are one.” (John 10:30). “
I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11).
“Why then do you accuse me of blasphemy because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’?” (John 10:36).
“I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die” (John 11:25).
“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6).
“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).
After Jesus said, “before Abraham was born, I am!” (John 8:58), the people picked up stones to kill him for his blasphemy. He also loved to call himself the son of man (John 8:28), which alluded to a passage in Daniel 7 that was about someone being exalted to a place of God.
You got to ask yourself: “Do good people really call themselves God, when they aren't?”
And this is where we meet the famous C.S. Lewis quote:
I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. - C.S. Lewis
Is Jesus the Only Way to Salvation?
The simple answer is absolutely, yes, 100%. Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through him (John 14:6). Salvation is found in no other name (Acts 4:12). Whoever has the Son has life (1 John 5:12). Anyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved (Romans 10:13).
At the same time that I totally affirm what is called the exclusivity of Jesus (that he alone is the true source of life), I realize that there are questions I cannot answer so quickly. If all people who do not put their trust in Jesus go to hell, does that include people before Jesus was born or people who never heard the gospel or infants who died before getting the opportunity? In what way is it just or loving for God to send people to hell forever who may have done all kinds of good in this life?
These questions are not easy by any means. And although I do believe there is a heaven and a hell, I think there is room for Christians to discuss different views on the nature of heaven and hell. No matter, God is loving, that his judgment is perfect, and that Jesus is the only way to salvation.
How Do We Make Sense of His Nature?
Jesus is fully God and fully human. Jesus was always the second person of the Trinity, fully God. But, when he was born, he put on flesh and became a human being (John 1; Philippians 2).
Put another way — there is one God who exists in three persons (Father, Son, Spirit). Jesus is one person who exists in two natures (God, human).
Just like the Trinity, our understanding of Jesus’ natures has its limitations. It is not in any way a contradiction to say that Jesus is one person in two natures, but it does outpace what we can understand.
It might be helpful to know how people have gotten the nature of Jesus wrong throughout history.
Here are seven mistakes from Mike Woodruff:
Human, not God. The people who put Jesus to death did so because he claimed to be God.
God, not human. The Docetists made this second mistake and believed that Jesus only looked like he had a human body. John responded to them when he wrote, That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. (1 John 1:1).
Born human, adopted into the Godhead.
God, but not distinct from the Father (called Modalism or Sabellianism).
God-like, but not fully God (called Arianism).
Only one nature (hybrid between God and man).
I know. I know. All this stuff seems so abstract and particular. But, trust me, it all matters. These seven are mistakes because either they do not accurately present the same Jesus who is described in the New Testament or because they do not faithfully demonstrate how Jesus can both forgive sins as God and also stand in our place as man.
If you want to go even further with this, read the Creed of Chalcedon slowly, looking for how Christians in the fifth century carefully parsed out their understanding of Jesus’ nature, in which Christians still hold as true today!
We, then, following the holy fathers, all with one consent teach men to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a rational soul and body; coessential with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the manhood; in all things like unto us, without sin; begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the mother of God, according to the manhood; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one person and one subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ; as the prophets from the beginning have declared concerning Him, and the Lord Jesus Christ Himself has taught us, and the creed of the holy fathers has handed down to us.
Bonus Question: Was Jesus White?
Some of our artwork may give the impression that Jesus was Caucasian, but he was most definitely from the Middle East. It’s important to challenge some of our assumptions, especially those assumptions that may lead to ethnocentricity.