Christian Essentials Who is Jesus?

Jesus in the Old Testament

The Prophets in the Old Testament look forward to the fulfilment of God’s promise to raise up a Messiah – an anointed one – whose coming will usher in a new age of fulfilment for Israel.

The book of Isaiah offers two significant images for the Messiah: that of a child and the other of a suffering servant. In First Isaiah chapter 7 we read:

Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel.

In Chapter 9 we also read:

For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; And the government will rest on His shoulders; And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace, On the throne of David and over his kingdom, To establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness From then on and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will accomplish this.

In Chapters 42,49,50, 52-53 we find the four Servant Songs – made so familiar to our modern ears as the texts used by Mr Handel to set to music in his The Messiah. The one promised who will redeem Israel comes with strength and in hope.

How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, “your God reigns”. 52:7

The mood darkens however, as the Servant is also a figure who through suffering will redeem Israel.

For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by others; “a man of suffering and acquainted with grief; as one from whom others hide their faces” he was despised, and we held him of no account. Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; … But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. 53:2-5

Whoever, the prophets had in mind when they proclaimed their vision for the final fulfilment of Israel, the first Christians understood Jesus to be the embodied fulfilment of both kinds of Messiah, the babe who will usher in a reign of justice and the servant whose suffering will redeem not simply the community of Israel, but the whole world.

Jesus in the New Testament

In the New Testament we have five accounts identifying Jesus. They all agree that Jesus is the Messiah – the anointed promised one. But they vary widely in the details.

Mark is the first gospel to be written. Writing for a community undergoing persecution he links Jesus identity to that of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant. The Son of Man, the title Mark uses for Jesus, physically takes on the suffering and sin of the world and in doing so enables God to bring about a new beginning. Mark establishes Jesus continuity with the prophetic and the messianic strands of the O.T. Jesus first appears in Mark as an adult man coming for baptism by John. John the Baptist, because Mark roots Jesus in the OT prophecies is the embodiment of Elijah, the forerunner who will announce the arrival of the Messiah.

Matthew, writing for a beleaguered Jewish Christian community recently expelled from the synagogues present Jesus as the new Moses, the bringer of the new law. Matthew offers the first birth narrative in which his opening words are:

An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David and son of Abraham.

We need explore no further to understand Matthew’s image for Jesus as the new Moses, the bringer of the new law, in effect condensing Moses’ Ten Commandments into two Great Commandments: Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. Matthew has an exalted sense of Jesus and so prefers the title Son of God, a title which also has deep Jewish roots.

Luke is the internationalist of the New Testament. Luke’s audience is not primarily a Christian community, but the wider Roman and Greek world. He also provides a birth narrative more closely tied to Isaiah 7. Where the focus of Matthew is on Joseph as the conduit for transmitting Jesus’ Davidic heritage, Luke’s attention is on Mary, and his message is of Jesus as the healing reconciler of divisions and the herald of a vision of divine inclusion.

If Matthew’s image of Jesus is a rebuke to newly forming Rabbinic Judaism after the fall of the temple in 70 AD, Luke’s image of Jesus is that of healer and reconciler, champion of the downtrodden. His image is tailored to a wider Roman and Greek readership with the intent of presenting Jesus and Christianity as not threat.

Both Matthew and Luke use the title Son of God in its historical Jewish sense – meaning one chosen by God. We have to wait for John to give its characteristically Christian meaning of God the Son.

John’s Jesus harkens back to the Genesis stories of creation we looked at last week. Jesus is God the Son, the logos, or the Word, the communicative element of the divine community, present with God since before the creation of the world.

In the beginning was the Word, and Word was with God and the Word was God. … The Word was made flesh and lived among us. John’s image of Jesus is as the embodiment of love.

Incarnation, or adoption, or preexistence, and Christ of Faith?

If Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all agree on who Jesus is, they differ on how Jesus comes to be who he is. For Matthew and Luke, Jesus’ unique relationship with God is through birth. For Mark it’s through adoption and baptism. For John, it’s through preexistence as the second person of the divine community, the embodied bringer of God’s love into the world.

Paul, the most influential of early Christian writers communicates a mystical vision of Jesus the Christ of faith. While on route to Damascus to arrest the Christians there, the Pharisee of Pharisees Saul encounters Jesus in a blinding experience. For Saul-Paul this is- a vision of God appearing with the face and voice of Jesus. Paul does not explore the biography of Jesus of Nazareth. However, steeped in the study of the Torah and the Prophets, Paul’s Jesus the Messiah, the promised one, the Lord, in whom the hopes and dreams of Israel have been fulfilled by God. Where as the main picture the gospel writers draw is that of Jesus of Nazareth, the pre Easter Jesus, although with the exception of Mark the other three end their gospels with the post resurrection Jesus.

For Paul who had no personal connection with the pre-resurrection Jesus of Nazareth, the emphasis is on the early Christians experience of the Christ of Faith who comes alive or continues to live on in the lives of the Christian Community. His emphasis is not on who Jesus was and what he did in his earthly ministry, but who the living Christ is and what he is doing now in the world manifested in the lives of the early Christian communities to whom he writes and visits.

Who Jesus is and how he comes to be who he is hangs on two baffling and confusing questions.

The Conundrum of the Incarnation

So, is Jesus God’s Son in the Ancient Jewish sense of one anointed by God as Messiah? Or, is he God the Son, the divine nature in human form? And if so, is he more divine or more human? Is he really a divinity masquerading as a human being? Or is he a human being who enjoys a special level of conscious awareness of connection with God? Or is he a mixture of both divine and human in a uniquely new way?

The Church struggled with these question for the first five centuries of its life. Much blood was spilled in the process. Although ‘officially’ settled, the tension in these questions still bedevils us today. Eventually, the official or orthodox position emerged which in the words of the Nicene Creed holds that Jesus is both human and divine, that in him both natures sit alongside each other; neither taking precedence over the other. We might say that in Jesus the divine and human sit in a mutual relationship of equals.

This belief is crucial to Christian faith. But it is not an attempt to actually describe the nature of Jesus as it is to protect the two truths we do know:

  • That Jesus is in a unique sense connected with God,
  • That in Jesus God proclaims that to be most fully human is to be most like the divine. Discuss

The Conundrum of the Resurrection

How are we to understand Jesus being raised by God three days after his attested physical death? There are two possibilities: Resurrection could mean life after death? Or it could mean life, after life, after death? Resurrection is commonly misconceived of as a two-step process as in life after death. But it’s a three-step process. First comes life, then comes death, then comes life after physical death. Discuss!!

In a personal reflection on this session, 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 Jesus because he was subject to the same limitations and struggles I experience, and this makes him human like me.

c. Resurrection is a spiritual experience that the disciples had of a mystical presence of Jesus still with them after his death.

d. Resurrection is Jesus’ return to physical life after death as the beginning of a process that will finally end with the physical making new the whole creation.

e. My Christian goal in life is to see resurrection as my eventual get out of jail card so that at the end I too my go to heaven to be with Jesus and God.

f.My Christian goal is to live the life of the resurrection in the here and now – working with God in real time in the timeless work of the healing of the world.

h. To believe the right things in the right way is what is important to me.

i. To live in the right way with right relationship with others is more important to me than believing the right things.

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