What are we to make of this Jesus fellow?
It is a question with an ancient history that continues to have contemporary significance. What we believe about this individual whose life made an incalculable impact on the world, in a very real way defines us. And divides us.
Is he God, or was he just a man? Was he a misguided zealot with messianic ambitions, or a meek and mild itinerant preacher spreading a message of love and forgiveness? Did he set out to start a new religion, or did his disciples just get carried away? Is he still alive or is he still dead?
The question of divinity is, of course, the game-changer. If Jesus is God the Son, he matters to us, whether we realize it or not, whether we like it or not. If he was just a man, he has no real effect on our lives and we can safely choose to disregard him.
But if we believe him to have been a human being no more divine than any of us, we have to find a way to reconcile some incongruities. In particular, that he claimed to be God, making him a bit of a nut case if he wasn’t. Or a scheming liar, which would be quite paradoxical considering his consistent message of obedience to God’s commandments, and his claim to be the Truth. Such a one would not be a good teacher but an evil manipulator. But even unbelievers have clearly recognized and affirmed the high moral character of this 1st century preacher.
So when a Jew today says, “Many Jews, like me, even like and admire Jesus, that fiery Nazarene, for his radicalism, his truth telling, kindness and courage…(but I) don’t believe the man was God,” I have to question how much he really knows about him. Rob Eshman, publisher and editor-in-chief of the Jewish Journal, made these comments recently in an article objecting to former President George W. Bush speaking at the Messianic Jewish Bible Institute, a training facility with a mission to evangelize Jews with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Eshman maintains that all Jews agree that a Jew stops being a Jew the second he or she believes Jesus is the true Messiah. Hence, the MJBI and groups like Jews for Jesus are actually out to rid the world of Jews, so it’s anti-Semitic and inconsistent for a prominent supporter of Israel like Bush to associate with them.
I wonder how Eshman would account for this truth-telling, fiery Nazarene calling out the Jews of his day, who were seeking to kill him because he claimed to be God, when he said to them, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.” (John 5:39-40) And, “Do not think that I will accuse you to the Father. There is one who accuses you: Moses, on whom you have set your hope. For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. “ (John 5:45-46) In John 8, again speaking to the Jews, Jesus said, “I told you that you would die in your sins, for unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins.” (John 8:24)
And just to be clear about who he was claiming to be, he makes a statement no simple human could ever make: “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” (John 8:58) The Jews knew exactly what he meant because they quickly picked up rocks to stone him for blasphemy.
There were Jews in Jesus’ day who believed him to be their promised Messiah – all the apostles were and most of the earliest converts. That they maintained their Jewish identity is clear from the historical record of the Jews as an ethnic people, not just a religious group, and from multiple references in the New Testament of their continued privilege as the chosen nation of Israel, beloved and favored by God.
The fact that the Jewish people today are singularly known for their rejection of Jesus – as Eshman puts it, “It’s what makes Jews Jews” – is such an incredibly sad and tragic reality. And to insist that a Messianic Jew is an oxymoron, further impeding the Jew’s journey to saving faith, is a great sin of arrogance. But someday, when they look “on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn.” (Zechariah 12:10)
What are we to make of this Jesus fellow? It’s a question of the ages that begs an answer of every single one of us today. But answer it thoughtfully, honestly, and logically. Because for a Jew, or anyone, to dismiss Jesus as a great guy, just not deity, is to stake out a completely untenable position. As C.S. Lewis famously asserted, “I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: 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. 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 the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.” 1
1 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
This post was originally published in November 2013.