WHO WAS JESUS?
Chapters 9-10 from “Jesus for Ever. Fact and Faith” by John Wijngaards, Catholic Truth Society, London 1987.
Who saw Jesus, saw God
Jesus’ divinity is by far the most difficult part of the gospel message. Thinking or talking about God is difficult enough in itself; our human thoughts and words are so inadequate to express his being accurately. Speaking about God becoming man is more difficult, if not almost impossible. It is here more than anywhere else that ‘the transcendent’ and ‘history’ seem to meet in a most unlikely conjunction.
Did Jesus actually claim he was God? It is a question worth asking because critics often assert that Jesus himself never made such a claim. It was the Christians of later generations who deified him, they say. Sometimes it is even stated that Jesus was only ‘made God’ at the Council of Nicaea in ad 325. The blame is put on the Emperor Constantine, a man who was ‘politically a superb manager people, but almost certainly theologically illiterate’.(66)
It is true that Jesus Christ never said in so many words: ‘I am God.’ It is also true that it was only at the Council Nicaea that the Church coined the phrases of our present creed: ‘Jesus Christ, God from God, light from light, only begotten Son, before all ages begotten from the Father, who for our salvation became man.’ It took many centuries before our present-day terminology of Jesus’ divinity had been worked out. But this was a question of words, of finding the best way of expressing the Church’s belief.
The New Testament writings make abundantly clear that the first century Christians already possessed a very strong and outspoken belief in the doctrine of the Incarnation. A few examples will serve to illustrate this:
Quoting an old Christian hymn, Paul could say: ‘Though Jesus Christ was in the form of God, he did not count equality with God as a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant’ (Phil 2:6-7).
The prologue of John’s gospel states:
In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God . . . And the Word became flesh and lived among us . . . No one has ever seen God; the only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known (Jn 1:1, 14, 18).
And Paul’s letter to Titus speaks of the ‘appearance of the glory of our great God and Saviour Christ Jesus’ (Tit 2:13).
Such texts, though using different terms, express the belief of Christians in the first century that Jesus was God living among us, that in him somehow God had taken a human form. The doctrine, the beliefs were there; the problem was how to express it properly.
To appreciate the problem, imagine declaring: ‘John Smith is God.’ People would burst out laughing. The incongruity is too obvious. It puts a person with a weak human body, a limited human mind and a brief human life on a par with the all powerful, immortal, infinite and eternal God.
This was the difficulty faced by the early Christians, Jesus is God’, so glibly trotted out by Christians today, is in reality an astonishing idea. It no longer shocks us only because we have heard it repeated so often, and it only makes sense to us because we have given it a specific interpretation. With ‘Jesus is God’ we mean that in the historical person Jesus Christ (who was a real human being like you and me) God himself (the one, infinite creator) lived among us.
To express this almost inexpressible doctrine theologians and Church councils added further terminology. Since the Creator and the creature must remain distinct, they stated that we should distinguish in Jesus two natures: a divine and a human one. To bring out, however, that the human Jesus himself represented God fully, they speak of their being only one person in Jesus, who is both human and divine.
While respecting such traditional terminology we should remember that the meaning of the term ‘person’ in this context is different from what we today mean by ‘a person’. What matters is our belief that Jesus Christ, who was truly human like us, and therefore a ‘human person’ like us in today’s language, was at the same time the reality of God’s presence among us.(67)
What did Jesus say about himself? It is clear from a study of the sources that Jesus did not apply to himself the titles he would soon be known by among his followers: such as Son of David, Messiah, Saviour, Redeemer, Son of God and Lord. At times he called himself ‘the Son of Man’, and it is interesting to observe that the early Christians were aware of the special status enjoyed by this title. Although it occurs fifty-one times in the gospels it is always reported in texts where Jesus speaks about himself. It is never used in statements about him by others; nor in prayers addressed to him; nor in formulations of the Creed. It occurs exclusively on the lips of Jesus himself.(68) What did he mean by it?
Volumes have been written on this. They show that in Jesus’ time people were speculating about the messianic figure prophesied in Daniel 7:13-14. These verses concern a mysterious Son of Man.
Behold there came someone like a Son of Man on the clouds of heaven. He came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingdom, so that all peoples, nations and languages should serve him. His dominion will an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away.
This ‘Son of Man’ was expected to reveal himself on the day of God’s judgement. He would overthrow evil kings and rulers. He would sit down on a throne of glory and hold judgement. He would prove to be a source of hope for all those who were troubled and a defender of the righteous and holy. All the world was to fall down before him. The righteous and the elect would share a happy life with him.(69)
Jesus applied this image of the Son of Man to himself, enlarging it and giving it at the same time a more specific meaning. Yes, he will come to hold judgement (Lk 21:36). His appearance will be as sudden as a flash of lightning across the sky (Mt 24:27). He will ride in on the clouds, manifesting great power and glory, and sending out his angels to gather God’s chosen people from the ends of the world (Mk13:26-27). He will sit down on the throne at God’s right hand (Lk 22:69). But he will only do this after having proved himself to be the ‘suffering servant’ announced in Isaiah. He came ‘not to be served, but to serve, namely to give his life as a ransom for many’ (Mk 10:45; Is 53:10-11). He was to ‘pour out his blood for many for the forgiveness of sins’ (Mt 26:28; Is 53 passim). Jesus would bring God’s definitive judgement, but only after offering the gift of redemption.(70)
Jesus’ contemporaries knew: Only God is the judge, only God can save. But Jesus consistently claimed a role in both functions. Jesus often speaks not just as a prophet, on behalf of God. He speaks with his own authority, as if he were God. Consider, for instance, the six antitheses which Matthew brought together in a dramatic sequence (Mt 5:21-48). Six times Jesus contrasts his own commandments with laws promulgated by God in the Old Testament:
You have heard how it was said to our fathers, ‘You may not kill.’ But I say to you ….
You have heard how it was said, ‘You may not commit adultery.’ But I say to you ….
It has also been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a writ of dismissal.’ But I say this to you ….
Jesus perfected and completed the Old Testament laws (Mt 5:17-19). He did so with an enormous sense of authority. He spoke with an emphatic ‘I tell you’ that was unique.(71) Jesus coined the phrase ‘Amen I say to you,’ which is without any parallel in the whole of Jewish literature and the rest of the New Testament.(72) It occurs fifty-nine times in the Gospels. Its usage is strictly confined to the words of Jesus himself. It expresses more than just conviction; it makes Jesus’ statements equivalent to divine oracles. (73) People realised this. ‘The crowds were astonished at his teaching for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes’ (Mt 7:28-29).
The Temple in Jerusalem was for the Jews the holiest object on earth. Any form of desecration or blasphemy was punishable with death. But Jesus claimed that he was greater than the Temple (Mt 12:5-6). Through his resurrection he would build a new temple of greater value (Mk 14:58). He would found a community of believers that would be indestructible (Mt 16:18). From now on people could worship the Father anywhere, as long as they would do so in spirit and in truth (Jn 4:20-24). The holiness of the Temple derived from God himself. How could anyone except God abolish its status?
Everyone knew that God alone could give life. ‘I alone am God. No other God exists. It is I who kill and I who give life, I cause disease and I can heal. No one can oppose what I do’ (Dt 32:39). But Jesus heals in his own name; with authority. To the leper he says: ‘I will it; be clean’ (Mk 1:41). He tells the paralytic: ‘I say to you, get up, take up your bed and go home’ (Mk 2:11). Taking the hand of a child who had died, he ordered her: ‘Little girl, I say to you, get up’ (Mk 5:41). Jesus cured an epileptic by driving out the demon that caused the disease:(74) ‘You dumb and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him and never enter this person again’ (Mk 9:25). John’s gospel in so many words: ‘As the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom he will’ (Jn 5:21).
When Jesus forgave a man’s sins, the bystanders were scandalized. ‘Who can forgive sins but God alone?’ Jesus performed a miracle ‘that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’ (Mk 2:6-10).
Again, the Jews knew that only almighty God had control over the sea. ‘Who kept the sea within closed doors . . . ? It was I who marked the bounds it is not to cross, who has set it bars and doors. I said, “So far you shall come, and no further! Here shall your proud ways be halted!” (Job 38:8-11).’ But Jesus walked on the water (Mt 14:25). And when there was a storm, he ordered the wind to die down and the sea to be still. Small wonder that those who witnessed it were overcome with awe. ‘Who can this be that even the wind and the sea obey him?’ (Mk 4:39-41).
Jesus and the Father
It will be difficult, from a historical point of view, to establish each and every one of these instances beyond doubt. Later generations may have exaggerated events in passing them on, or may have given new interpretations. The meaning of an event may have been highlighted by making Jesus say explicitly what was implied in the happening itself. This is particularly the case in St John’s gospel.75 But there can be no doubt about the fact that Jesus, both through his words and his deeds, made extraordinary and unprecedented claims.
Think carefully about the meaning of these words: ‘Whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me’ (Mk 9:37). ‘Every person who acknowledges me before people, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven’ (Mt 10:32). ‘He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me’ (Mt 10:37). At the last judgement people will be rewarded or punished according to the love they showed him. ‘As you did to one of the least of my brethren, you did it to me’ (Mt 25:40-45). Matthew sums it all up at the end of his gospel: ‘All authority in heaven and on earth’, says Jesus, ‘has been given to me’ (Mt 28:18).
Notice how Jesus says that his authority had been given to him. He never denies complete dependence on God, whom he called his Father. On account of that dependence he could say: ‘The Father is greater than I’ (Jn 14:28). But he claimed at the same time an exclusive relationship to the Father, a relationship going much beyond that existing between God and a prophet. ‘All things have been handed over to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him’ (Mt 11:27). We can be reasonably certain Jesus really spoke these words.76 They express the essence of his own personality as revealing God. The same is expressed in John’s Gospel by the words: ‘Whoever sees me, sees the Father (John 14:9).77
This then is what Jesus claimed and what Christians believe: that in Jesus God himself appeared among us. In what Jesus did, people could see God act. In Jesus’ words they could hear the Father speak. Like the resurrection which we discussed earlier, the whole of Jesus’ life has the double quality of being rooted in history and transcending history at the same time. It could be observed with human eyes yet it required faith to respond to its divine dimension. Historians can do no more than record the extraordinary claims Jesus made; believers will see these claims confirmed by the awareness of God they offer.
Whatever the measure of our response, it is worth recalling Chesterton’s reflections at this point. Great religious leaders, he reminds us, have no pretensions.
“Normally speaking, the greater a man is, the less likely he is to make the very greatest claim.” Only a madman will put himself on a par with God.
“But this is exactly”, Chesterton continues, “where the argument becomes intensely interesting; because the argument proves too much. For nobody supposes that Jesus of Nazareth was that sort of person. No modern critic in his five wits thinks that the preacher of the sermon on the mount was a horrible half-witted imbecile that might be scrawling stars on the walls of a cell. No atheist or blasphemer believes that the author of the parable of the prodigal son was a monster with one mad idea like a cyclops with one eye. Upon any possible historical criticism, he must be put higher in the scale of human beings than that. Yet by all analogy we have really to put him there or else in the highest place of all.”78
There have been, indeed, people who claimed to be God, in one way or other. No one however has done so in the way Jesus did, with his disarming integrity, nor with such lasting success.
“I will be with you till the end of time”
More than twenty years ago I spent two months walking the length and breadth of Palestine. It was an exciting time. I remember a discussion I had in Capernaum, among the ruins of the ancient synagogue. It was the very place where John stages Jesus’ eucharistic sermon. ‘Who eats my flesh and drinks my blood will never die’ (Jn 6:54-58). I had joined a Hungarian student for the day. He scowled at my belief.
‘Suppose you were Almighty God,’ he said to me. And suppose that in the goodness of your heart you had decided to make yourself known to humankind. What good it would it do to come down on earth at a particular time in one specific country? You would meet only a small group of people. You would still be as far as ever from those born elsewhere or centuries later. What good is Jesus Christ to me, even if he was God incarnate? For me he is just a figure from the past. If God wants to speak to me he should do so here and now.’
My friend had a point. And without realising it, he had put his finger on the historians’ blind spot. Whoever studies Jesus Christ solely from the limited angle of secular history is bound to end up with nothing but bits and pieces belonging to a figure of the past. Christians believe that the historical evidence makes sense only if we see it as part of a comprehensive, present reality. The Jesus who revealed God in his historical life remains with us now as a tangible presence. Jesus promised Nathanael: ‘You will see a ladder between heaven and earth with angels climbing up and down’ (Jn 1:51). What use is such a ladder to us if we cannot see it? What use are Jesus’ miracles in Galilee if he performs no signs for us in London?
“But (when so sad thou canst not sadder),
Cry—and upon thy so sore loss
Shall shine the traffic of Jacob’s ladder
Pitched between Heaven and Charing Cross.
Yea, in the night, my Soul, my daughter,
Cry—clinging heaven by the hems;
And lo, Christ walking on the water,
Not of Gennesareth, but Thames!”
Francis Thompson In No Strange Land 79
When we discussed the resurrection we saw that it means Jesus’ continuing presence as an active, spiritual force. He is alive and stays with us, completing on a spiritual plane what he had begun in his historical life. Jesus’ farewell discourse in John’s gospel announces this presence clearly and emphatically.
‘I will reveal myself to you‘ (see Jn 14:21). The context makes clear that Jesus is speaking to every one of his disciples, including those of later generations. The only condition he makes is that to see him you must put into practice Jesus’ commandments of love.
‘My Father and I shall come and make our home in you‘ (see Jn 14:23).
‘The world will not see me but you will see me‘ (Jn 14:19).
‘I shall be in you and you shall be in me‘ (Jn 14:20).
These words of Jesus express as clearly as it can be said that he left a promise to remain with every one of his disciples in a tangible form. He did not say he would appear to them as a ghost with a phantom body. On the other hand, his presence would not be a mere invisible shadow. As I have explained in Experiencing Jesus,(80) Jesus’ teaching can have no other meaning than a promise of his visible presence. The disciple will be aware of what Jesus does for him or her. The disciple will see him, hear him, feel Jesus’ support and enjoy his encouragement. What is more: Jesus’ own Spirit will operate in us. He will teach us, console us, strengthen us and give Jesus’ vision fresh, dynamic applications in our life.81
It is in this way that Jesus Christ both entered history and transcended history. It is the historical and yet transcendent Jesus who, we believe, meets each person today and who offers salvation. Jesus’ word invites us to accept the love of his Father. Jesus washes us clean in baptism so that we are born anew as God’s adopted children. Jesus offers sacrifice on our behalf whenever we ‘break the bread and drink the wine’ in his memory. He comes to us as the spiritual bread that makes us live forever. Jesus forgives our sins when the priest, in his name, speaks the words of absolution. It is the sacramental presence of Jesus that gives life to his people, the Church.
Then there is the social dimension of Christ. Jesus had said he would be visible in his followers, ‘Who receives you, receives me’ (Mt 10:40). ‘Who hears you, hears me’ (Lk 10:16). Wherever Jesus’ followers are involved in his work, filled by his Spirit of love and continuing his life-giving service Jesus will be seen in them. The fourth century Augustine of Hippo could have been speaking of Father Damian among the lepers, Maximilian Kolbe in Auschwitz or Mother Teresa in Calcutta when he said:
“Pay attention to the Church, I tell you. Pay attention to whom you can see . . . The inhabitants of Palestine who were open to faith could learn from Mary about his birth, his passion, resurrection and ascension. The words and deeds of Jesus were accessible to them. They could observe those divine actions from nearby. But you have not seen those things and therefore, you say, you don’t believe. Look then at the Church. Fix your eyes and mind on what you can see today, on what is not reported to you as the past nor foretold as the future; on what is presented as topical now.”82
Christians often fail to live up to their ideals. But in those who do, Christ’s lasting presence can be seen with unmistakable clarity. No single person in the history of mankind has inspired so much dedication and heroism in so many millions of followers as Christ has. Every Christian has recognised this manifestation of Christ: in the faith of family and friends, in the zeal of spiritual leaders, in the worship of the parish community, in the love of those who are truly ‘Christian’.
Christ is powerfully present today, but we may not be aware of his action because it is not the kind of thing published in the news. Modern society, in fact, treats religious experience as a taboo. The media avoid touching on it; and if they do, they will cushion their report with sarcasm or scepticism. Individuals do not easily admit to religious experiences. They are afraid others will consider them crazy, as research has proved.83 The result is a narrowing of our range of observation. To see Christ at work we must either believe and sense his closeness in our own life or learn from friends who share their experiences with us.
Occasionally Christ’s presence breaks through in publications and films. In The Cross and the Switchblade we can read the true story of how a New York preacher took Jesus’ saving power right into the heart of that city’s hell-holes. It describes how young people in the clutches of unemployment, crime, prostitution and drug addiction found a new life in Christ. In one dramatic scene the minister narrates how he spoke to a gang and invited their leaders to step forward. ‘I want you to kneel down right here on the street and ask the Holy Spirit to come into your lives so that you will become new people. “New creatures in Christ” is what the Bible says: this can happen to you too.’ After some hesitation the miracle took place.
“Before my astonished eyes, these two leaders of one of the most feared fighting gangs in all of New York slowly dropped to their knees. Their War Lords followed their lead. They took their hats off and held them respectfully in front of them. Two of the boys had been smoking. Each took his cigarette out of his mouth and flipped it away, where it lay smoldering in the gutter while I said a very short prayer.”84
Father Walter Ciszek, an American Jesuit, was captured by the Russian army during World War II and was convicted of being a ‘Vatican spy’. He spent twenty-three agonizing years in Soviet prisons and the labour camps of Siberia. In his book, He Leadeth Me, he tells of the endless interrogations, tortures and, especially, inner despair he endured for years on end; till he was suddenly transformed by a new awareness of Christ that gave him the strength to carry on. He remembered Jesus’ agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. He understood how Jesus’ plea for help and Jesus’ surrender to his Father’s will underpinned his own desperate prayer.
“What a wonderful treasure and source of strength and consolation our Lord’s agony in the garden became for me from that moment on. I saw clearly exactly what I must do. I can only call it a conversion experience, and I can only tell you frankly that my life was changed from that moment on. If my days of despair had been days of total blackness, then this was an experience of blinding light. I knew immediately what I must do, what I would do, and somehow I knew that I could . I knew that I must abandon myself entirely to the will of the Father. And I did it.”85
I cite these examples because they illustrate so vividly that Christ is alive today, as much as he was alive 2000 years ago. He is present in the home and the workshop, in the church and the swimming pool, in hospitals and market places; in fact, wherever people carry him in their hearts and make him present. He is as much at home in igloo of the Eskimo as the mud hut of a Kenyan Masai. He inspires people in ministerial offices in Rio de Janeiro no less than in the concentration camps of Vietnam. He can be present in this way because by his life-giving resurrecttion he transcends history.
This makes the Incarnation eminently believable. The objection of my Hungarian friend at Capernaum is decisively answered by it. ‘Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood lives in me, and I live in him’ (Jn 6:56). God’s revelation in Jesus Christ was not a short-lived venture in an isolated spot centuries ago. Like any real happening in our world it needed such a precise historical insertion in time and place. But from this historical landing-point ripples of his presence and waves of his power have widened in ever wider circles to span the totality of human space.
John, in exile on the island of Patmos, encountered his Master in a vision of light. Christ’s words to him are addressed to each one of us:
“Don’t be afraid!
I was dead, but now I live for ever and ever.
I have authority over death and the world of the dead.
I am the one who has life.
I am the first and the last.”
Online sections of Jesus for Ever:
66. J. WILSON, Jesus. The Evidence, London 1984, pp.140-142.
67. K. RAHNER, ‘God’s Oneness and Trinity’, Schriften zur Theologie, vol XIII,pp.129-147.
68. Jn 12:34 is not a real exception. The crowd uses the expression but only because they quote Jesus’ own words.
69. Similitudes of Ethiopian Enoch; Sibylline Oracles; IV Esra Justin, in Dialogues, rabbinic literature. H. L. STRACK- P. BILLERBECK, Kommentar zum Neuen Testament aus Talmud und Midrasch, Vol I, Munich 1922, pp.486,956-958.
70. J. JEREMIAS, New Testament Theology, London 1971, pp.257-299.
71. J. JEREMIAS, ibid, pp. 251-253.
72. J. JEREMIAS, Abba. Studien zur neutestamentlichen Theologie und Zeitgeschichte, Goettingen 1966, pp.148- 151.
73. T. W. MANSON, The Teaching ofJesus, Cambridge 1931, p.207.
74. In Jesus’ day it was commonly held that certain diseases were caused by demons whom God allowed to aMict a human person. In many cases the exorcisms are parallel to healings.
75. I give many examples in my commentary on John. See: J. WIJNGAARDS, The Gospel of John and his Letters, Michael Glazier, Wilmington 1986.
76. J. JEREMIAS, Abba, etc. op.cit., pp.47-54.
77. J. WIJNGAARDS, The Gospel of John, op.cit., pp.131-144.
78. G. K. CHESTERTON, The Everlasting Man, New York 1925, p.201.
79. F. THOMPSON, ‘In No Strange Land’; from The Divine Office, vol.III, Collins, London 1974, p.803.
80. J. WIJNGAARDS, Experiencing Jesus, op.cit., pp.3-18.
81. J. WIJNGAARDS, The Gospel of John, op.cit., pp.184-194.
82. AUGUSTINE, ‘De fide rerum quae non videntur’, IV,7; in Migne Latinum vol.XL, p.76.
83. See D. HAY, Exploring Inner Space, Penguin 1982.
84. D. WILKERSON, The Gross and the Switchblade, Lakeland Paperback 1967, p.59.
85. W.J. CISZEK, He Leadeth Me, Doubleday 1975, p.87.