Jesus – The Indispensable Person

February 22, 2019 1:39 pm

Somebody as intelligent as Jesus would’ve been
an atheist if he had known what we know today.
—Richard Dawkins, interview with The Guardian

At the name of Jesus every knee should bow.
—Paul the Apostle

Everybody has an opinion on Jesus. He’s unavoidable. He’s so wise and good that even those who don’t confess the faith that he taught want him on their team. What do you make of Jesus?

Jesus of Nazareth burst onto the scene around AD 30 in Roman Judea, a small nation dominated by a foreign power and its puppet king. The Jews of Judea were a remnant who lived mostly in and around Jerusalem but were also scattered in considerable numbers across the first-century Mediterranean world. Despite many divisions within their community, they held a shared hope: that one day a deliverer would arise to rescue them from their enemies and reunite them in God’s kingdom. They called that person Messiah—Christ, in Greek.

How did Jesus come to be regarded as that promised Messiah by a great many of the Jews, and later by millions more people who were convinced by that very Jewish message about him? How did this man who marshaled no army, was executed as a criminal, and wrote nothing but a few unrecorded words in the dirt come to be regarded as the Savior of mankind?

Many men had sought to claim to be the Messiah, but no one had fulfilled the ancient hope in the eyes of the multitudes. No one, that is, until Jesus came to preach in their cities and towns. The people encountered him as one of their own—a neighbor, an extraordinary and mystifying figure who created peace and tension, who brought profound threat as well as profound relief. They didn’t see him at first as God or even as the Messiah. They didn’t see him through the eyes of the church or through the eyes of history. They did see him as a teacher with unspeakable wisdom. They saw him as a visionary who spoke of “seeing” the kingdom of God and of what it meant to live in that kingdom.

But they also saw something more. Jesus had the power to perform miracles, and that took things to a different level. They knew that through their long-expected Messiah, as he had with Moses and Elijah long beforehand, God would return with signs and wonders to save his people. So, when the people heard Jesus and saw the miracles that he performed,
they started asking one supreme, astonished, and sometimes
indignant question: “Who is this?”

“Who is this, who forgives sins?” (Luke 7:49 ESV)

“Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!”
(Mark 4:41 NIV)

The whole city was stirred and asked, “Who is this?” (Matt.
21:10 NIV)

Who indeed!

“Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asked (Matt. 16:15).

How we answer determines our destiny, just as it determined the destinies of those who first heard the question so long ago.


We must start with Jesus because without him there is no Christianity. The truth of Christianity rests on the reality of his identity. If Jesus is who the Scriptures claim, then your decision whether to follow or ignore him carries the greatest possible consequences for life—now and forever. In the same way, if the claims that he made about himself and that others made about him are false, then Christianity is of no more consequence than a religion that worships doorknobs. Doorknobs can at least open doors—whereas dead men whose words are lies, no matter how lovely they are, are not much good for anything at all.

Huston Smith, one of the greatest scholars of comparative religion in our time, wrote that only two religious figures in human history were so utterly different from everyone else, so completely set apart, that people asked them, “What are you?” Those two are the Buddha and Jesus. Buddha answered, “I am awake” and continued to direct his disciples to look away from him. Jesus answered, “I am the Way,” instructed his disciples to fix their eyes on him, and received their worship. No mere man would do such a thing, especially a Jewish man within the cultural context of Jewish monotheism that reverenced God and his worship in emphatic, even violent terms.

Jesus is nothing like others who claimed to be a Messiah— and there were many. He appears on the scene as an entirely different kind of person. In the category of religious leaders in history, Jesus is utterly unique. The uniqueness of Jesus is vital to grasp from the start. There has never been anyone else like him. “The great Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev said that a wind of freedom blows through [Jesus’s] teachings that frightens the world and makes us want to deflect them by postponement— not yet, not yet! H. G. Wells was evidently right: Either there was something mad about this man, or our hearts are still too small for his message.”

It would be a mistake to dismiss Jesus with faint praise, calling him a great teacher or reducing him to a messenger who is no more divine than any other religious leader. Those whose hearts have been captured by Jesus would sacrifice everything in order to pursue what Paul called “the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Phil. 3:8 NIV). Even if you choose to reject Jesus, it’s important that you recognize the truth about him and reject that, rather than rejecting a mythical Jesus who bears no resemblance to reality.

Singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen wrote, “Any guy who says ‘Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the meek’ has got to be a figure of unparalleled generosity and insight and madness . . . a generosity that would overthrow the world if it was embraced because nothing would weather that compassion.” And, in fact, ultimately the world of the first century didn’t weather Jesus’s compassion. It rejected Jesus’s message of mercy, nailed him to a cross, and killed him.

We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that Jesus was put to death because he was a political threat to the powers of his time. Whoever Jesus was, he was not a “nice” person spouting lofty platitudes about peace; no, Jesus was a threat, despite his goodness—or, rather, precisely because of his goodness. Jesus was good but was considered as good as dead by his opponents, both religious and secular, because he was everything they weren’t and the people knew it. For those leaders, it was “Jesus or me,” not “Jesus for me”! To the religious leaders of his day, Jesus was a dangerous radical, upsetting the temple establishment and creating the kind of social upheaval that would invite the ruling Romans to send in soldiers to slaughter the crowds, close the temple, and possibly destroy Jerusalem. For them, it was better that Jesus be killed rather than countless others; it was better that Jesus be stripped of his public adulation before they lost their positions and authority. And it would be unwise for us to ignore their concerns. As Jesus’s contemporaries and those who were responsible in some ways for the good order of large numbers of people, these religious leaders have to be
taken seriously if we want a robust view of Jesus.

There can be little doubt that Jesus was radical, and deeply so—a person who subverted the accepted order of his time. The question then is whether the religious leaders’ concerns about him were valid. In certain ways, they were. Jesus’s rising popularity would have caught the attention of the Roman occupying forces, and they may well have seen in him the risk of a popular revolt. They were not likely to permit that situation to develop.

Jesus’s followers wrote that false accusations were made about him, sometimes out of jealousy. Given his sudden popularity and the size of the crowds that he drew, that is completely believable. The significant factor
that undermines fears about him, however, is that Jesus never sought to lead a political movement or incite a violent uprising. Far from it. The idea that Jesus was a dangerous radical falls on the grounds that his enemies underestimated how radical he really was. They feared a military leader; Jesus said, “Put your sword away.”

From Indispensable – The Basics of Christian Belief, by David Cassidy; copyright Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing (2019)

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