(Editor's Note: This is part 2 of 4 in a series on the historical Jesus.)
One of my biggest concerns in doing a series like this is that I will be found guilty of fashioning my own Jesus. While I am not sure that is completely avoidable, the best starting place would seems to be the question, "What did Jesus say about himself?"
I am fully aware that, for many people, quoting Jesus doesn't bear the same authority that it once did. In fact, one of the main reasons that the historical Jesus has been called into question is because the credibility of the biblical record was called into question first. The 20th century brought about more biblical criticism than any other era, and we still bear the effects today. Since the history of the Bible is not the major issue at hand in this series, let it suffice to say that of every source in antiquity that mentions Jesus, none are found to have as much detail and as much agreement as the first four books of the New Testament.
The books titled Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were each written from different places, in different decades, and to different people. Matthew and Luke probably used the content of Mark to produce parts of their books, but nevertheless there is an amazing amount of unity between the four biblical accounts of Jesus life, work and words. As one author has said, "There are four gospels that present one Jesus."
So what did Jesus say about himself as recorded in the New Testament?
Buckle up, here comes a long sentence. Jesus claimed to have come from heaven (John 8:23), to have been sent from God (John 8:42), to be one with God the Father (John 10:30), to be the son of God (John 10:36), to have existed before Abraham (John 8:58), to have authority over heaven and earth (Matthew 28:18), to be the Jewish messiah (John 4:25-26), to have overcome the world (John 16:33), to have the authority to judge all humanity (John 5:22, 27), to be the way to God (John 14:6), to be able to raise the dead (John 11:25-26), and to give everlasting life (John 6:47-51). He even called himself by the same name given by Yahweh in Exodus 3:14: I AM (John 8:58).
As the Roman governor of Jerusalem, Pontius Pilate, was interrogating Jesus, the following conversation took place:
Jesus said, "My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place."
"You are a king, then!" said Pilate.
Jesus answered, "You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me." (John 18:36-37, TNIV)
If we are willing to treat our translated biblical records of Jesus as accurate accounts, which I do, then we can't get past the fact that Jesus made some very scandalous statements about himself. Even those who consider the New Testament to only be partially accurate can't deny this fact.
The idea that Jesus was nothing more than a good man or a good teacher has a major flaw, found in the most outrageous of Jesus' statements, because he claimed to be God.
Imagine if one of your co-workers left his job, gathered together a group of followers, and claimed to be God on Earth. Would you still call the guy a good person? You might say, "He used to be a good person." That opinion would certainly change after his apparent delusions of divinity.
The ever-quotable C.S. Lewis, in his book Mere Christianity, presents what has become known as "The Trilemma." Lewis argued that Jesus could not have been only a good man, he was either who he claimed to be or he was in some way deranged. If Jesus knew that he wasn't God and yet claimed to be then he was a liar. If Jesus erroneously thought himself to be God then he must have been a lunatic. The other option, according to Lewis, is that Jesus was in fact telling the truth with full clarity of mind, making him Lord. The Lewis "trilemma" -- Lord, liar or lunatic.
A very wise person I know reminded me that there is at least a fourth category: Jesus was a myth. Those who follow this train of thought would argue that Jesus, rather than being Lord, liar or lunatic, is in fact made up or inflated at best. I choose to see Jesus as a historical person; a historical person whose life and message have been documented and detailed more than any other who lived during the first century; a historical person about whom more has been written than anyone else to ever have lived.
If Jesus did in fact say these things, then becoming his follower is a bold step indeed.
Next up: Part 3 -- What was Jesus' main message and where did it all go wrong?
Eric Costanzo is Minister of Community Ministries and a teaching pastor at First Baptist Church in downtown Tulsa.
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