Who do you say is Jesus?

April 5, 2020 by Rev. Jacques Nel

Billions of words have been written about Jesus. No person has ever provoked more discussion about himself than Jesus.

For a Jewish peasant whose father was a carpenter that is a bit surprising. Within three short years after he began to deliver his message in rural Galilee, the religious elite in Jerusalem, had him nailed to a cross. Thinking it’s game over, his followers scattered. Three days later, a shocking series of sightings began, that soon had his followers convinced that he had risen from the grave. Over a period spanning sixty years after those first sightings, most of the documents that are collected together as the New Testament were written.

What we have is likely only a fraction of what was written and said about Jesus even during that early period. The Gnostic texts discovered at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1947 did cause quite a stir. It was now obvious that the Orthodox understanding of Jesus was not the only perspective among his earliest followers. The Gnostics, among other things, saw Jesus as the secret inner door to truth and life.

What we believe

As for myself, I am Orthodox. This means I hold to the Creed, as formulated by the early Church which went on to became the dominant Church after Constantine, and continues on in our modern time. The Creed was formulated in an atmosphere permeated by the Greek emphasis on precise definition. Jesus is God from God, Light from Light. He is truly human, truly divine. He is one in substance with the Father.

Some scholars think that Jesus’ view of himself was more nuanced. Jesus was a Hebrew, and molded in the Jewish theological mindset, that one must never too easily penetrate the mystery of God. When Jesus says, "he who sees me also sees the Father," we also hear him say "no one is good but the Father." Initially, he forbids his disciples from telling anyone, that he is the Messiah. Only later on, in his ministry, there is growth in the boldness of his mission, and he says: "as the Father sent me, so I send you." He then openly declares his oneness with the Father. So certainly the Creed is not wrong in saying what it does, but when we demand precise definitions we must also be aware we are dealing with the greatest of all mysteries.

So then who is Jesus? The debate rages on into our own time. What is often not realized is that Jesus himself, had no qualms about initiating and promoting this debate. In Matthew 16:13 he asks his disciples "who do the people say the Son of Man is? When the disciples then answer, "some say John the Baptist or Elijah. Others they say Jeremiah or one of the prophets", Jesus is not satisfied with their answer. Their answer is secondhand. It is hearsay. He wants to know "but who do you say I am?" He is not even interested in what they heard the other people say of him. He wants to hear their homegrown opinion of him.

Revelation from God

Jesus then asks the disciples a second time, "but who do you say I am?" Simon answers: "you are the Messiah the Son of the living God." To this, Jesus responds: "Blessed are you Simon Son of Jonah because flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in Heaven."

Any correct appreciation of who Jesus is can only come from a revelation by God Himself. Only the human mind that has been enlightened by the Holy Spirit can even begin to fathom something of the true identity of Jesus. Karl Barth said this is like a bolt of lightning from above. God can only be made known by an act of grace that He himself initiates. All opinions or speculations about the person of Jesus that do not flow from a direct encounter with God are essentially useless. It will certainly profit us to keep this in mind, when we are bombarded by so many opinions about who Jesus was and is.

Some modern academics say that Jesus was just an ordinary man, being magnified by the myths that his followers constructed, around his person. The true understanding of Jesus starts with an actual encounter with God and not years of study or research. I greatly value insights of academia when it comes to the study of the faith, but it was not in a university library where I first encountered God in Jesus Christ. It was in a very different setting that I finally understood who this man really is.

My personal path

It is then my own encounter with God in Jesus that certainly formed my understanding of the Christian faith. This encounter I now realize was both unique and of a miraculous nature. Not by any stretch of the imagination would I have arrived at what I now believe about Jesus of Nazareth. However you want to phrase it, the carpenter’s son is also the Son of God. He is the very image of the living God. He is our final and decisive encounter with God, the one who was expected and for told by the prophets.

In the terminology of those days, Simon correctly stated that Jesus is the Messiah. But he could only do this, because as Jesus said to him, "flesh and blood has not revealed this to you but my Father in Heaven." So for sure we must recite the Creed. One can always benefit with a little help from your friends.

It is fascinating that there was a wide variety of opinions about Jesus, even among his earliest followers. Now, who do you say is Jesus? Don’t quote me the Creed. Don’t tell me about Nag Hammadi. This is not an academic discussion or an exercise in slogan making. Don’t tell me what others say. No, who do you say is Jesus? Did you encounter God in this man Jesus?

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