Who Is Jesus?
Jesus was a carpenter from Nazareth, Israel
The central question of Christian faith is precisely the question, “Who is Jesus?” Over the centuries almost all Christians have believed a perfectly astounding thing, namely that the carpenter from Nazareth, the one who went about loving poor, marginalized people; healing the needy; and demonstrating an incredible love for neighbors—this person is God in the flesh.
Jesus made a huge claim
Jesus said he was God in the flesh, an astounding claim. If it’s wrong, we [as Christians] are very, very wrong. The one central truth of Judaism, which is the religious tradition Jesus grew up in, was that God was one. It taught that there aren’t a bunch of gods running around. In ancient times, as today, there were lots of gods, goddesses and religions. The Greeks and the Romans believed their gods could come down and do crazy, immoral things with people from time to time. But the Jews were clear that there’s only one God.
He was more than just another prophet
Lots of people over the centuries have said Jesus is one of the greatest prophets of all time, perhaps the greatest prophet of human history. Christians say a lot more that that. Christians believe that Jesus is actually the creator of the universe, the one who put the galaxies in space, who created this incredible world. They say that Jesus, in person, actually stepped into our history. And whether or not you believe that is a central part of Christian faith.
The historic Jesus
The evidence for a real person, Jesus
Another approach is to look honestly at “Is Jesus who he claimed to be?” We can do this in an empirical, open kind of fashion. We should ask, what sort of evidence is there? For instance, I will not believe in somebody’s claim that a miracle happened unless they show me some credible evidence.
As a historian, I first of all ask, “What documents do we have?” We’ve got fairly reliable, historical documents. That’s not to say that they are perfect at every point or without error, but if you simply approach them as a good historian approaches them, it turns out that the New Testament documents were written within 20, 40, 50 years of the events they talked about. In some cases eyewitnesses wrote the materials. So we’ve got pretty early evidence and writing that leads to reliable documents. We’ve been able to test them with modern archeology, and it turns out they’re surprisingly accurate.
Snapshot of Jesus
In the historical documents we get an incredible picture of this Jesus of Nazareth. He cared for the neighbor, loved the poor, did many things that people across the centuries have loved him for (and been powerfully attracted to him). He challenged the authorities; he got angry, he cried.
His claim to be the Messiah, Son of God
In addition, Jesus says he is the Messiah. He claimed to have divine authority to forgive sins. He claimed to have authority over the traditions and rules of Judaism, and the earlier scriptures. For instance, the Sabbath was one of the most sacred parts of Jewish life in the 1st century. He claimed to have authority to set aside the Sabbath, and that he was more important than Moses. Finally, at his trial his opponents asked him directly, “Are you the Son of God?” He said, “Yes.” And not surprisingly they counter, “That’s blasphemy!” So, either he was the Son of God, or he was committing probably the worst conceivable sin for a Jewish person in the 1st century.
As a man, Jesus was saying that he is in fact divine. And that was just an outrage. Is it true? The whole question of the resurrection is central to that issue, which we’ll consider next.
Key events in Jesus’ life
Here in list form are some of the key events in Jesus’ life. For a better introduction, read the Gospel of Matthew in the Bible. Or, check these key passages using the links to Bible Gateway.
- Jesus was born in Bethlehem, as predicted by prophets (Matt. 1:18-25).
- Jesus visits the temple in Jerusalem at age 12, which illustrates his Jewish traditional upbringing (Luke 2:41-52).
- Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist, as preparation for his ministry on earth, with God’s blessing (Matt. 3:1-17).
- Jesus was tempted in the wilderness, illustrating that he was tempted as a human being (but did not sin) (Matt. 4:1-11).
- Jesus calls the first of his 12 disciples or special followers (Matt. 4:18-22).
- Jesus performs many healings and other acts of compassion, usually interpreted as miracles (Matt. 4:23).
- Jesus gives what is frequently called, “The Sermon on the Mount,”probably a collection of his teachings over the years (Matt. 5-7).
- Jesus teaches in parables—short stories with a special meaning (Matt. 13:1-52).
- Jesus is questioned/challenged repeatedly by authorities (Matt. 12:22-37; 16:1-12; 21:23-27).
- Jesus shares a “last supper” with his disciples, which is actually the Passover meal, as practiced by Jews (Matt. 26:20-30).
- Jesus is betrayed by his very own disciples (Matt. 26:47-56; 26:69-75).
- Jesus is put on trial by religious and political leaders (Matt 26:57-68;27:1; 27:2-30).
- Jesus dies on the cross, a most gruesome and excruciatingly long and painful death (Matt. 27:31-60).
- Jesus comes back to life in the resurrection, ultimately conquering death (Matt. 28:1-15).
By Ron Sider – Adapted from an interview for Turning Toward Jesus video curriculum. Sider is a professor of theology from Philadelphia, Pa.