Who Was Jesus of Nazareth?
“Jesus of Nazareth is easily the dominant figure in history…the historian disregarding the theological significance of his life, writes the name of Jesus of Nazareth at the top of the list of the world’s greatest characters.”
~ H. G. Wells
Few can say that they have never heard of Jesus Christ. In a 2010 TIME magazine article entitled, “Who’s Biggest? The 100 Most Significant Figures in History,” in which the authors attempted to rank “historical figures just as Google ranks web pages, by integrating a diverse set of measurements about their reputation into a single consensus value,” Jesus came out first. Loved or hated, the name of Jesus Christ is a “household name,” and has been for centuries. Everybody’s heard of Jesus.
But hearing about someone and knowing who that someone is are very different things.
So many people say so many different things about Jesus Christ. But what’s the real story? Who was Jesus of Nazareth, really? A good teacher? A moral visionary? A revolutionary, perhaps? Or was he something else altogether? What’s the truth? Well, the truth is out there, and in this case, we can get it straight from the source.
“I am the Son of God.”
It’s been asserted over the years that Jesus never claimed to be “the Son of God,” that it was others who claimed this for him. But Jesus tells us differently. On one occasion, after being informed of what the crowds were saying about him, he asked his disciples, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus’ response to this? “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 16:15-16). A ringing endorsement. On another occasion, when Jesus was speaking to a Jewish gathering in Jerusalem, he referred to God as “My Father.” At this, his unbelieving hearers prepared to stone him for what they supposed to be blasphemy (speaking words that denigrate or defame God). Jesus responded to them by asking, “[D]o you say of Him whom the Father sanctified and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’?” (John 10:36). He had said it; they just didn’t believe it. Yet again, the night before his crucifixion, Jesus stood before the Jewish high priest and was asked directly, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” His answer was unequivocal: “I am” (Mark 14:61-62).
So Jesus stated that he was the Son of God. But what did he mean by it? To understand that, we must first understand the beliefs of the first-century Jews, beliefs based on their reading of the Old Testament. There, they found this prophecy:“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel [literally, God with us]”(Isaiah 7:14). They also found this one:
“For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given; and the government will be upon His shoulder. And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6).
These prophecies shaped what the Jews understood “Son of God” to mean. For centuries, they had believed a “Son” would one day appear, a man who had been miraculously born of a virgin (hence, the son of a woman, but not of a man – God would be his father), and who would actually be God in human form (“God with us” “Mighty God”)! Any Jew who claimed to be “the Son of God” would have been claiming to be the fulfillment of these prophecies.
This is, indeed, what Jesus was claiming, and the Jews did not miss his meaning. As they were preparing to stone him in the aforementioned instance for his supposed blasphemy, they said to him, “For a good work we do not stone You, but for blasphemy, and because you, being a man, make Yourself God” (John 10:33). On another occasion, when Jesus had again called God “My Father,”we read:
“Therefore, the Jews sought all the more to kill Him, because He not only broke the Sabbath, but also said that God was His Father, making Himself equal with God” (John 5:18).
One must be a human to be equal with a human, and one must be God to be equal with God. Jesus was, in terms clear to his hearers, claiming to be Divine (“God” in the sense that he is part of “the Trinity” – three in one). Amazing, but true. And this claim was emphasized by other actions of his.
Jesus said and did several things that make sense only in the context of his being God. For example, he referred to himself as “I AM,”a designation of eternal, self-sufficient existence that God used of himself when speaking to Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3:14; John 8:58). Jesus also allowed people to worship him. Eight times, the gospel accounts record him accepting worship (Matthew 8:2, 9:18, 14:33, 15:25, 28:17; Mark 5:6; Luke 24:52; John 9:38). This is very significant, since both he and those worshipping him believed that worship is only for God. The Scriptures taught and he himself had said, “You shall worship the LORD your God and Him only you shall serve”(Matthew 4:10). Furthermore, Jesus forgave people of their sins – sins they committed against God. Only the offended can forgive the offender. Those who overheard him doing this understood the significance of his actions; they said to one another: “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mark 2:7). Finally, Jesus said that he pre-dated the world, a claim that only God (who made the world) can make: “And now, O Father, glorify Me together with Yourself, with the glory I had with You before the world was”(John 17:5).
Jesus’ words and works cried out who he was: “God…manifested in the flesh”(1 Timothy 3:16), the prophesied “Son of God.” And in revealing his identity, Jesus also revealed his authority. For Jesus, the Son of God, has the Divine right to tell us what God requires of us. And he did.
“No one comes to the Father, except through Me.”
This may be one of the most controversial statements Jesus ever made. Not because it’s hard to understand, but because it’s hard to swallow. Our culture teaches that there are many paths to God, that what’s “true” for one person doesn’t have to be “true” for another, that we can just choose the way we like best and access our preferred highway to heaven. But Jesus’ words teach us something very different: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6). To a world that is seeking to be ever more inclusive, Jesus tells us he is actually exclusive. He promises that anyone who is willing may come to God (“If anyone enters by Me, he will be saved,” John 10:9), but that he alone is the way. In another passage, he puts it this way:
“I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in Me, he is cast out as a branch and is withered; and they gather them into the fire, and they are burned” (John 15:5-6).
So not only is Jesus the Son of God, but he has told us that he is also the sole savior of the human race!
These two realities probably help explain why Jesus’ name is the best known in the world. God does not come to earth with the only blueprint for salvation and it go unnoticed.
The Divine Son of God and Savior of humanity came into the world 2,000 years ago, lived among his creation for about 30 years (Luke 3:23), died as an atoning sacrifice for our sins (John 19; 1:29), raised from the dead (John 20-21), and then returned to heaven to be with the Father (John 16:16; Luke 24:51). What an amazing reality! And the best news of all? He has left us a sure way to follow him there.