These questions look at the contentious issues which surround the identity of Jesus: who was (or is) he?
Getting a straight answer from Jesus doesn’t seem to have been too easy. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus asks his closest disciples what their answer to the question is.
“You are the Messiah,” says Peter.
“Don’t tell anyone about me,” is his only response. This kind of elusiveness seems to have been typical.
The same goes for “Son of God”. “Whenever the people who had evil spirits in them saw him they would fall down and scream, ‘You are the Son of God’. Jesus sternly ordered the evil spirits not to tell anyone who he was” (Mark 3:11-12).
The only time Jesus is explicit is at his trial. The High Priest asks, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed God?”
“I am.” And for this he is sentenced to death. (Mark 14:62-64)
So, according to Mark, Jesus kept his cards close to his chest. In John’s Gospel, the picture is very different. There Jesus speaks openly and at great length about who he is: the unique Son of God, the way to the Father, the Saviour of the world. “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” is one of his most striking claims. (John 14:9)
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As far as we know, Jesus never, in so many words, said: “I am God”. This is why some groups, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who believe in every word of the Bible, don’t believe that he was.
So where did the mainstream church get the idea from in the first place?
They were trying to make sense of the extraordinary things Jesus said and did. He said that he forgave people’s sins – something which Jews believed could only be done by God. He claimed the right to rework God’s law. He explained his mission by telling stories about God visiting Israel.
There are implications here – which were bewildering to his followers and blasphemous to his opponents – that Jesus believed God to be present in him in a unique way.
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In a sense the church has never really answered the “how” question, because it never really tried to.
The Christian question has always been “What does it mean to talk about Jesus as God?” And the official answer is that he had two “natures”: divinity and humanity. He was fully divine and completely human at the same time.
As for the technicalities of how this works, the church has always considered this (correctly, I’m sure) beyond its competence to answer. Some things are just too big and mysterious for us to fully understand.
Before we decide how Jesus can be God, do we even have much of a clue what it means to say that God is “God”?
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Well, probably more important than the Archbishop of Canterbury! It all really comes down to who you think Jesus was. Here are two possible ways of looking at Jesus’ relationship to other world religious leaders:
He was a great teacher – he and other religious teachers such as Buddha and Muhammad pointed out a spiritual path, and millions have followed these paths, finding spiritual growth and a relationship with God through doing so. The differences in their teaching just make the different paths suitable for different people.
He was the only Son of God – this is the traditional Christian understanding, and it puts the life and teaching of Jesus into a completely different category to the life and teaching of other religious leaders. This has often been expressed by Christians by saying, “the teaching of Buddha and Muhammad contain important truths, but Jesus is the truth.”
If Jesus is the Son of God in a unique sense, then it means that knowing Jesus is the only God-given way to know God. As Jesus says in the Gospel of John: “I am the way, the truth and the life; no one goes to the Father except by me.”
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Probably the best way to answer this is to have a look at the first few centuries of Christianity, when the church grew from an obscure Jewish sect to dominate the Roman empire.
One main reason for this must be that his followers stuck with their faith throughout many periods of intense persecution, often going to their deaths rather than abandon it. Their heroism and devotion had a tremendous influence on people’s opinions (and similar stories of faith under fire had the same effect later in history).
Why were Jesus’s followers so unrelenting? One reason must be that Jesus promised eternal life to his followers, so that martyrdom was the road to glory as well as a terrible ordeal. Another is that they were passionately devoted to Jesus himself, because of the difference his teachings had made to their lives, and because of their experience of his risen presence and personality.
And not least, there was the example of Jesus’s own suffering and death: he had already made the self-sacrifice that the faith demanded of them. This is how Christianity first won the hearts and minds of the Roman world, which covered three continents.
Another crucial point is that even in Jesus’ own lifetime he sent his followers out to spread his message, so from the very start Christianity was a missionary faith. His commands to spread the word, recorded in the Bible, have been taken up over and again throughout the centuries, as missionaries have taken the teachings of Jesus back into Asia and Africa, and to the Americas.
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Well… I suppose people who believe a first-century carpenter was the Son of God haven’t got any right to snigger.
All sorts of ideas have been offered to explain the events of Jesus’ birth and life, and since the 1950s alien activity has become an intriguing option. The conventional idea that God came and lived on earth as a human being is fairly remarkable, but some prefer an explanation that is perhaps even more remarkable. Christians reckon Jesus was exceptional and extraordinary, but not extraterrestrial.
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Even among those who are sceptical about the biblical stories and beliefs about Jesus, many accept that he seems to have been a successful healer and exorcist.
Whether you attribute this to his being God in human form, to – in Jesus’ own words – the finger of God, or simply to some kind of power beyond our knowledge and understanding, you’ve got to admit that his healing and miraculous powers are impressive.
People who think that Jesus was only a magician have to ask themselves: why has he had such a big impact on the world? There were plenty of “wonder-workers” in the ancient world, so what made Jesus so different?
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Is there reliable evidence that Jesus ever lived? Was he a great religious teacher… or an alien? Read our Jesus FAQs pages here. If you have a question about the life or teaching of Jesus, check here first to see what’s been posted about it.
Written by Steve Tomkins
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