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On the Identity of the Historical Jesus
It is a matter of record that Jesus of Nazareth claimed to be God. At the approximate age of thirty years, this son of a carpenter began making some absolutely shocking statements about Himself. Eventually, He was routinely going about “making Himself equal with God”. He was accepting without challenge such titles as “Messiah”, “Master”, or “Lord”. He was forgiving men of their sin.
Jesus’ insistence that He was fully God constituted such a totally arrogant outrage in the mind of the Jewish leadership of the day that, in the end, it proved to be the decisive factor in His own crucifixion. But who was Jesus, really?
Now there is basically this four-way choice before you:
a) Jesus of Nazareth was a legend.
Maybe He was a legend, larger in death than in life, with an image pumped way out of proportion by wildly exaggerated tales. Yet, as we have seen, the contention that Jesus Christ was Divine really began during His lifetime. Modern archaeology has conclusively demonstrated that the four Gospels, further supporting this line, were written no later than 70 A.D. Thirty-odd years (Jesus died in 33 A.D.) is hardly long enough for a totally groundless tale to gain such widespread credibility.
Maybe He was a lunatic, living in a fantasy world of His own making, deceived by visions of His own grandeur. But there is no other evidence of mental imbalance in His life. And somehow the terms “schizophrenic”, “deluded”, and “deranged” seem not to fit very well with what the world has come to know of the historical Jesus.
Maybe He was a liar, a cunning shyster on a “power” trip, deliberately deceiving all unsuspecting souls who would fall for His line. But again, the idea of Jesus of Nazareth in the role of a deliberate impostor does not easily coincide with the qualities (“pure”, “moral”, “gentle”, “good”, “selfless”) that are traditionally associated with this historical figure. Besides, how could a respected teacher of morality and honesty intentionally mislead so many for so long on the most significant point in all of His teaching, i.e. His own identity?
In his classic work, MERE CHRISTIANITY, C.S. Lewis suggests that the most foolish position of all is for a man to say, “I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.” “That is the one thing we must not say,” Lewis writes. “A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic –on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg– or else he would be the Devil of Hell. [If He is not Lord], let us not come up with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us.”
The very interesting thing here is that, when it comes to the matter of drawing a conclusion about the true identity of Jesus Christ, there are really only four viable options that are left open to us. You really will not come up with another view that doesn’t somehow fit into one (or more) of these four.
So …maybe He was Lord. Maybe, after all, Jesus was actually just who He claimed to be: God in human form! But if He was Lord yesterday, then He is of necessity Lord today. And if He is Lord today, then there are of necessity some awesome implications for us –for today and for tomorrow. We’d best carefully regard the probing words of an old hymn: “What will you do with Jesus? Neutral you cannot be. Someday your heart will be asking, “What will He do with me?”