Summary: Three key concepts about who Jesus is for people investigating the Christian faith.
It seems like the more popular a celebrity gets, the more other people want that celebrity’s special endorsement. Consider Michael Jordan, who makes more money each year in endorsements than he makes playing basketball for the Bulls. Everyone wants Michael’s seal of approval, and he makes $38 million each year by giving it. Los Angeles Laker Shacqiel O’Neal is a close second, making over $23 million each year. People are predicting that Tiger Woods will outdo both Michael and Shaq, as hundreds of companies fall over themselves to get in on Tiger-mania. He’s already signed a five year $40 million contract with Nike and a five year $20 million contract with Titelist, netting him $12 million per year. As Tiger’s popularity rises, we can only anticipate even more people willing to pay millions for his seal of approval.
Yet from the standpoint of world history, Jesus Christ looms as the most incredible and significant person who’s ever lived. Yale historian Jaraslav Pelikan: “Jesus of Nazareth has been the most dominant figure in the history of western culture for almost 20 centuries. If it were possible, with some sort of super magnet, to pull out of that history every scrap of metal bearing at least a trace of his name, how much would be left?” (Jesus Through the Centuries, p. 1). So far as we know, Jesus never wrote anything, yet some of the greatest works of literature were inspired by his life, he never painted a picture, yet some of the finest paintings from Michelangelo and de Vinci were inspired by him, he composed no music, yet Handel, Beethoven, and Bach reached their highest perfection in songs they wrote in praise of Jesus. Although Jesus taught for only 3 years, his influence looms larger than the combined influence of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, who taught for a combined 140 years. So significant is the figure of Jesus Christ that the entire western world divides history into B.C and A.D. B.C. simply means before Christ’s birth. A.D. stands for the Latin phrase anno domini, which means “the year of our Lord.” We date everyone and everything with reference to this one man.
Oxford theologian Alister McGrath, points out that one of the ironies of history is that even the lives of those who were utterly opposed to Jesus and all he stood for are dated with reference to Jesus, thus we know that the Roman Emperor Nero died in AD 68 and the dictator Joseph Stalin died in AD 1953 (McGrath, Explaining Your Faith 45). It’s difficult to overstate the impact Jesus Christ has had on this earth. He’s been the inspiration of incredible social renewal and also the excuse for horrible evil. People have worshipped him and hated him, they’ve died for their devotion to him and killed others in his name. The name of Jesus is invoked in cursing more than any other person who’s lived on this earth.
But when it comes to defining who Jesus really was it gets much more complicated. There are as many opinions of who Jesus is as there are people in our world. Four years ago LIFE magazine devoted it’s cover story to quotes from different people about who Jesus really was (LIFE 12/94, pp. 68-80). John Murray, president of the American Atheists says, “There was no such living person in the history of the world as Jesus Christ. There was no historical, living, breathing...human being by that name. Ever.” F. Forrester Church, a Unitarian minister: “Jesus [was] divine to the extent that we are divine. The difference being: Jesus recognized it, and most of the rest of us don’t.” Robert Funk, co-founder of the Jesus Seminar: Jesus was a subversive sage who went around telling clever jokes, like an ancient Lenny Bruce. Tyler Robers, lecturer of religion at Harvard: “I asked my class, ‘Who was Jesus?’ Most said he was a religious figure. Some said a philosopher, comparing him to Socrates. Then there was Jesus as a political leader, with one student comparing him to Mao and Stalin.” James Hind, a management author: “Jesus was the most effective executive in history” because “in only three years he defined a mission and formed strategies for carrying it out. With a staff of 12 unlikely men, he organized Christianity, which today has branches in all the world’s countries and a 32.4% share of the world’s population.”
Like companies clamoring for a celebrity’s endorsement, virtually every religion makes a special place for Jesus. The Muslim religion views Jesus as the greatest prophet before the coming of Mohammed, but rejects the idea that Jesus is God’s son. Hinduism reveres Jesus as one of their thousands of different gods and goddesses. The Mormon religion claimed that Jesus is the spirit-brother of the Devil. Some people today accept Jesus as a good moral teacher, someone who wasn’t divine in any unique sense of the word, but someone who came to tell us how to love other people. In the last four years, every major news magazine has run cover stories on rediscovering the identity of Jesus. Yet the reader is left suspicious as to why the new and improved Jesus we’re presented with by modern scholars looks a lot like the scholars themselves, kind of like a company looking for a celebrity endorsement who latched on to Jesus without any real concern for who he really is.