Who is Jesus to you?
By John-Paul Harper
In the heated debate over the Rhodes statue, author Rod Mackenzie recently argued, “If Rhodes goes, Jesus Christ must go.”[i] For him, Jesus Christ represents a colonial past, and this is based partly on his reconstruction of a Jesus who favoured slavery. In many such ways Jesus Christ continues, twenty centuries later, to be used (and misused) to justify various agendas. As Albert Schweitzer showed long ago, so many reconstructions of Jesus, whether it be an apocalyptic prophet or political revolutionary, seem to merely confirm the most cherished convictions of their advocates. One is left asking: is it even possible to know who this extraordinary person was or what he stood for?
Firstly, we must realize that the modern world is not the first to ask these questions. Jesus was already a puzzle to the people of his own day. On one particular occasion Jesus himself questioned his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”[ii] Having answered him in the familiar categories of the day, Jesus asked them, “But what about you? Who do you say I am?” It was here that Peter famously confessed, “You are the Messiah.” In many such ways Jesus Christ continues, twenty centuries later, to be used (and misused) to justify various agendas.It is no accident that the author tells us that this took place near Caesarea Philippi – the city named after the great Roman emperor, Caesar Augustus. New Testament scholarship is increasingly recognising that the early Christians regarded Jesus of Nazareth as the true king of the world, of whom Caesar was a mere parody. They self-consciously took language, often applied to Caesar and his achievements, like that of Lord, Son of God, peace, justice, and salvation, and applied it to Jesus and his achievements[iii]. This is all the more surprising when we acknowledge that it was precisely this Roman power that had put him to death.
It is even more surprising that the earliest Jewish believers in Jesus came to regard him not only as a great king, but as somehow the very embodiment of Israel’s God. They consistently used titles (like Lord), attributes (like sovereignty) and dispositions (like worship), which for Jews were due to God alone, and applied them to Jesus[iv]. If we believe that Jesus really made these claims for himself, we are left with C.S. Lewis’ famous “trilemma”: Jesus was either a liar (deliberately deceptive), a lunatic (with false delusions of grandeur)—both of which do not neatly fit—or else he was and is indeed the Lord.
It has been more common since the Enlightenment, however, to drive a wedge between “the Jesus of history” and “the Christ of faith”. Aside from the presumption that we are now better placed, twenty centuries later, to adjudicate the facts of history, this kind of radical dichotomy should be seriously challenged for several reasons[v]. For one, virtually all scholars agree that the Gospel accounts and Paul’s letters were written well within the lifespan of the original witnesses of Jesus’ life. Secondly, the form of the Gospels precludes them being mere legendary embellishments. As a professional literary critic, C.S. Lewis could write, “I have been reading poems, romances, vision-literature, legends, and myths all my life. I know what they are like. I know that not one of them is like this.”[vi] Thirdly, their content was too counter-productive to be legends. Jesus crying out on the cross that God had abandoned him, or the fact the woman were the first eye-witnesses to his resurrection, did not help Christianity in the eyes of first century readers.
Christians do not claim to know Jesus Christ merely by historic evidence, however, but by an experience of him as a risen Lord and Saviour. Mackenzie’s critique regards Jesus mainly as a teacher, but Christians have always placed primary emphasis on his life, death and resurrection. Jesus’ death exposes our own evil and pretensions to power, but it was also a deliberate act of self-humbling and suffering for us in order to redeem us[vii]. This pattern of self-giving love radically transforms how we view slavery, our colonial history, and everything else. It says that humble service of the other lies within the very heart of God. This is the Jesus the Gospel gives us and it won’t allow some supposedly neutral portrait of Him. His words remain a challenge to every person today: “Who do you say that I am?” Rhodes has gone. Jesus Christ never will.
[ii] Mark 8:27
[iii] See for example N.T. Wright Paul and the faithfulness of God, Fortress Press, 2013, p. 1271ff.
[iv] See for example Philippians 2:6-11 or scholarly works like L. Hurtado Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity, Eerdmans, 2005 or R. Bauckham Jesus and the God of Israel, Eerdmans, 2008.
[v] See for example C. Blomberg The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, IVP, 2007
[vi] See his essay Fern-seed and Elephants accessed at http://orthodox-web.tripod.com/papers/fern_seed.html
[vii] See Philippians 2:6-11