Christian Essentials 101: Who is Jesus?

I. The Bible

Isaiah the Old Testament Prophet speaks of the coming of the Messiah, or anointed one and one of Isaiah’s key images for the Messiah is that of a baby or child who ushers-in the Kingdom of God (7:10-16) which led the first Christians to identify Jesus as the one of which Isaiah was speaking. 

In the New Testament, Jesus is referred to by two principle titles: Son of Man, and Son of God.

The Gospel of Mark, the first of the Gospels to be written takes up the theme of Messiah with Jesus’ arrival being foretold by John the Baptist, who represents the prophet Elijah. Mark comes to identify Jesus with another section of Isaiah known as the Servant Songs: 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13 – 53:12. The servant songs form the text for Handel’s Oratorio: The Messiah. The servant is the one who offers to suffer on behalf of others. Mark’s Jesus is the Suffering Servant who offers his life for the world. In Mark, Jesus refers to himself as the Son of Man. For me this title communicates a strong image of Jesus as the servant who becomes a man of suffering, accepting suffering on behalf of those God loves.

In the second Gospel to be written, Matthew writes for a very Jewish community. He portrays Jesus as the new Moses. Moses was the greatest of the Hebrew prophets to whom God gave the Law in the form of the Ten Commandments. Jesus, the new Moses brings the New Law, which replaces the Ten Commandments by summarizing them into two Great Commandments: love God and love your neighbor as yourself. Matthew likes Jesus to refer to himself as the Son of God, a more exalted title than Son of Man.

Luke, writing in the more mixed setting of Jews and Gentiles pictures Jesus as the Son of God who is a reconciler and healer, a welcomer of those outcast and on the social margins, e.g. women, children, tax collectors, and other various bands of sinners. 

John, the last of the Gospels to be written understands Jesus to be God the Son, which turns the title Son of God on its head. This is a much more extensive claim for Jesus because it identifies Jesus and God as so closely intertwined that we can say they are one in the same. Following John’s Christology, the Early Christians would come to see Jesus as the communicative aspect of the Divine Community of the Trinity. They referred to Jesus as the Word of God (logos in Greek). Jesus is the second person of the Trinity, God the Son and John offers us a great set of images for this in Chapter 1: In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. … The Word was made flesh and lived among us… Later Jesus in John’s Gospel Jesus talks in the language of: I, and the Father are one; to have seen me is to have seen the Father. 

II.  Identity through Adoption or Birth

Another way to approach this question is to look at how each of the Gospel’s narrates how Jesus comes to be, in one form or another, the Son of God.

Mark, writing some 30 years after Jesus introduces us to Jesus already as an adult coming to John for Baptism. During the baptism God’s voice is heard to proclaim Jesus’ identity – this is my Son in whom I am well pleased. Jesus becomes adopted into his special relationship with God. This idea of adoption is very strong in the earliest Christian writer, the Apostle Paul.

Matthew and Luke, each writing with a 10 – 20 year gap from Mark, approach Jesus’ identity from the perspective of his birth. Both construct similar yet different birth narratives to explain who Jesus is in relation to God. In Matthew there are shepherds, but no wise men and the Angel speaks to Joseph. In Luke there are wise men and the Angel speaks to Mary. Matthew’s emphasis is on Jesus born into the House of David, from which Isaiah prophesized that the Messiah would be born. Jesus is a descendant of King David through Joseph. So in Matthew the emphasis is on Joseph and Matthew is placing Jesus in the long line of lineage that identifies him as the Jewish Messiah. Remember that for Matthew Jesus is the new Moses. Tracing his lineage back into Israel’s history is crucial! Luke emphasizes the role of Mary and her conception, the hidden truth of which is explained to her by the message of an Angel. The wise men represent Luke’s concern with how the wider world comes to understand who Jesus is.

To summarize then, for Paul and Mark, Jesus is adopted into his identity as God’s Son through baptism. For Matthew and Luke, Jesus is born into the world as God’s Son. John makes no mention of either, pushing the origins of Jesus as God’s Son back into the life of the Trinity itself. Jesus is the Word come into the world. Jesus is the communicative element of God’s relational being.

III. The Incarnation

This is the doctrine that speaks in terms of God, creator of the universe entering into the experience of being part of the creation. God achieves this through being born as a human infant. The Incarnation speaks of Jesus as a person in which the human and the divine are present as two distinct and independent natures. They are not mixed-up in the sense of Jesus as a kind of divine human being – a god-man. Neither is Jesus simply an avatar, someone with an exceptionally developed God consciousness. The two natures are separate, existing simultaneously, linked through a mutual relationship (there’s that word again). In Jesus, the divine lives within the limitations of fully human life. In Jesus, human nature reclaims its original status at Creation (see back to Genesis 1), of being made in the image of God. In Jesus we come to see that to be fully human is to be most like God.

The Incarnation, although flowing from the Gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus, does not rest on the plausibility nor fall on the implausibility of the birth narratives as a description of biology, i.e. how it happened. The Incarnation is not a pre-scientific explanation of human procreative biology.  The Incarnation is a doctrine that functions to protect the mystery of God’s action. The Incarnation is the reconciliation of the human and the divine, paving the way for the events of the cross and resurrection.

IV. The Cross and Resurrection

The final element in the question: who is Jesus, is that Jesus is the Christ. We understand this to mean that Jesus accepts his identity within the Hebrew tradition of Messiah (promised or anointed one), but he gives the Hebrew expectation (earthly warrior king coming to restore the fortunes of Israel) a new meaning. Jesus, as the Christ comes not as an earthly king, but as the sign of the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God, which arrives through his death and Resurrection.

In Evangelical and American popular expressions of Christianity the cross is often spoken about as God’s requirement for a sacrifice to overcome the legacy of human sinfulness. Jesus is seen in this view as God’s willing victim and Jesus dies on the cross as a payment for our sins. The idea of Jesus being sacrificed for the sin of the world comes from the analogy that some parts of the N.T.(Letter to the Hebrews) make with the Jewish Temple where animals were sacrificed as an offering for human sin. In historic Christianity this is known as Atonement Theology (see Eucharistic Prayer A). In the Bible we also find another theological tradition known as Covenant Theology (See Eucharistic Prayer B), which understands the relationship between God and humanity as one of invitation and response. In Jesus we see God’s ultimate expression of invitation into a relationship of love. God, in Jesus offers his own life for the life of the world in the spirit of there is no greater love than that we lay down our life for those we love. The cross is an expression and offering of love as the ultimate act of invitation into relationship. This act of God is a dividing point in history. For Christians, the death of Jesus opens the way for God to do a new thing. This new thing is resurrection.

Resurrection –Jesus did not rise from the dead, God raised him from the dead as a sign of a new order. The new order we call the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom is an idea that plays havoc with our sense of time. The Kingdom has come in Jesus, and yet, its fulfillment is still awaiting full completion. Because we live in the promise of its ultimate fulfillment, we live in the time between the inauguration and completion of the Kingdom.

Our role in this process is to live according to the expectations of the Kingdom in the here-and-now. When we do so we forward its unfolding. This is the New Covenant, that through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, God has invited us into participation.  Human beings can, and still do refuse (free will) that invitation, hence the broken state of the world as we see it all around us. However, the full emergence of the Kingdom is assured, and we are those who live-out the values of the Kingdom right now.

The expectations or values of the Kingdom can be summed up in one word: Love – expressed interpersonally as compassion and communally as justice. At the personal level love includes self-acceptance, mutual-acceptance, toleration, forgiveness, selfgiving service. Communally expression of love means championing the cause of justice, fighting inequity, embracing inclusion, practicing tolerance, and mercy. 

Spiritual Reflections 

Over the coming week try, to spend some time each day reflecting on the following questions. The way to do this is to find somewhere to sit quietly at home or elsewhere and bring your attention to the rising and falling of your breath. Imagine the breath as deep within your belly rather than in your chest and simply observe yourself breathing. Through observing our breath we come easily into the presence of God who is the breath that brings life. We also become aware of something we do all the yet, usually are not ware of doing it. Breathing offers an image of the presence of God, here all the time usually not noticed by us. 

After a few minutes of settling begin to contemplate the questions. You don’t have to do all of them at one time. Let the question percolate in your thoughts and notice images or connections that seem to arise naturally for you. At the end of your time, end with an expression of gratitude for your life, your loves, and for your desire to come to know God more deeply. 

The following statements are in tension. Notice the one that speaks more to you and reflect on why this might be. What does this tell you about yourself and who Jesus is for you? 

a. I can relate to Jesus because he was God’s Son and this makes him special, divine, more than human.

b. I can relate to Jesus because he was subject to the same limitations and struggles I experience, and this makes him human like me.

c. Being Christian is to believe without doubt that Jesus died on the cross to save me/the world from sin.

d. Being Christian is to accept God’s invitation into a new covenant where what is important is the way I live according to the values of the Kingdom (see above).

e. Correct belief is more important to me.

f. Right relationship is more important to me.

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