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Is Jesus the Son of God?

By Charles Rush

September 14, 1997

Matthew 8: 27-38

W h
o do you say that I am? It is an important and wide open question. You have probably read about the Jesus Seminar that meets a couple of times a year. The New Testament scholars there take different passages from the bible and vote. Red means ‘Jesus definitely said this’, White means ‘Jesus might have said this’, and blue means ‘Jesus assuredly did not say that’.

The essence of the Kerygma

       We can state the orthodox teaching of the church since the early Councils met at Ephesus and Nicea around 350 a.d.. These councils represented the culmination of a couple of centuries of debate on the very question we raise today, ‘Who was Jesus?’ The Apostle’s Creed, which many of us learned as children, will suffice to summarize this orthodoxy. It says:

       I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord.

       Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,

       Born of the Virgin Mary,

       Suffered under Pontius Pilate,

       Was crucified, died, and was buried;

       He descended to the dead.

       On the third day he rose again;

       He ascended into heaven,

       He is seated at the right hand of the Father,

       And he will come again to judge the quick and the dead.

       That confession fairly well sums up what remains the essential confession of the church such that when we meet ecumenically at the World Council of Churches, this brings together Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Greek Orthodox, Methodists, and even the UCC.

       The theology behind the confession is fairly straightforward as well. As a child in the South, I was quite sure why I needed Jesus as my Savior. Each week the preacher reminded us that without Jesus we were going to Hell. And it was all-important for us to come to a personal relationship with Jesus, to confess our sins that we might be forgiven, and so have eternal life. I’m not a particularly bright kid but I figured out at the age of 6 that I didn’t want to spend eternity in flames and boiling oil. And it was a fact that I had a short temper and used the speech of a Navy Sailor, already having my mouth washed out with soap. So I walked that aisle, committed my life to Jesus. Frankly, even from a considerable distance, I still think that was an important moment in my life.

       If you grew up Catholic, you probably had your ‘Original Sin’ washed off at birth. And instead of hearing evangelistic preaching each week, you partook of the mystery of the Mass and the Sacrament of the Eucharist, after you went to confession. The object was to lead a life holy enough that we mitigated time in Purgatory and would enter into the fullness of eternal life.

       This was the theological point from the very beginning. God had to send His Son into the world and take on all the infirmities and limitations of our human existence in order to save it from destruction. So there was no question about the Divinity of Jesus, the only serious question was about the nature of the humanity of Jesus. Indeed, some of the earliest Gnostic portraits of Jesus, like the Secret Book of James, Jesus is depicted as a completely supernatural figure who beams in and out of historical existence, and is principally about performing miracles, and communicating esoteric knowledge to an elite group of disciples which ordinary people cannot understand.

       The early church rejected a number of these books and we settled on Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John because of the balance that they present. Jesus is fully human and he is fully divine. They have miracle and teaching, resurrection but also trial and death, virgin birth and also suffering. Nevertheless, I think it is fair to say that in the popular imagination of ordinary believers, we do tend to think of Jesus as qualitatively different from us.

       So, how did we ever get from that kind of reverence to our scholars sitting round a table voting on the sayings of Jesus? Beginning with the work of D.F. Strauss in Germany about 150 years ago, scholars began to make several important observations.

       In the first place, they made a distinction between the ‘gospel about Jesus’ and the ‘gospel of Jesus’. There is a difference, even in the bible, between what Jesus teaches and what Paul and others teach about him. The Apostles Creed that I read earlier is a summary of Paul’s teaching about Jesus. It can be found in the letters that Paul wrote that we generally date from about 60 a.d. or some 30 years after the death of Jesus. That teaching is that the significance of the cross and resurrection is that Jesus died for our sins and in the resurrection a new way forward in eternal life was forged with God.

       But this teaching about Jesus is quite different from the teaching of Jesus himself. When Jesus was an itinerant preacher in Galilee, he didn’t teach about eternal life in Matthew, Mark, or John. He taught about the Kingdom of God. And he taught through parables principally. The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed that begins so small you cannot detect it and grows to be the greatest tree. It is like a treasure that some peasant finds in a field and he goes to purchase that field for a great price. It is like a wedding feast where there is great celebration. It is like a sheep that was lost and now is found.

       Quite apart from the gospel of salvation that Paul preached about Jesus, the simple spiritual message that Jesus preached about the Kingdom of God was compelling to the religious imagination in its own right. Jesus spoke of a world where the basic needs of all would be simply met. He spoke of a time when we would have compassion, mercy, and respect for all people. He spoke of a way of living that transcended distinctions by status, power, nobility, or wealth. He looked to a world where we could connect in a human way with lepers, with beggars, with prostitutes, with the masses of the ignorant and ugly. He demonstrated a Spirit that refused to be bound by rules- religious or social etiquette or political. Rather, he lived within society but he transcended it morally and spiritually at the same time, showing us how to be in the world and not of the world. He taught us that the point of our lives is to be reconciled with God, our neighbors, and ourselves. He said that forgiveness is more important than righteousness (which is ‘being right’ literally). He showed us that, at root, we are to be about love. Love is God’s will for our lives. It is a very compelling message in and of itself.

       Secondly, we discovered that the Gospels were not just simple historical narratives that recorded the words and deeds of Jesus. They were, in fact, quite complex and advanced literary forms that told a story for a particular community of faith, addressing some specific needs of that community. The gospels, it turns out, are a unique literary genre. They are not quite like Plutarch’s ‘Lives’ of the Ceasars. They are unlike anything the Rabbi’s ever wrote about a famous Rabbi. And they are not early biographies, despite the fact that they are biographical.

       They are most like a short novella, if we had to compare them to modern literature. They have some facts in them but they are not primarily interested in being factually accurate or historically accurate in the sense that we are today. We have to remember that historical writing is a recent product of the last two hundred years.

       What do I mean? Let’s take a simple example, the Gospel of Mark, our very first gospel in the bible, probably written around 70 ad (and you may ask, ‘how do you know when it was written?’ Among other things, this is when people like Clement and Irenaeus start to refer to it in their writings). Like great literature, it tells a story woven together by a theme, with a leitmotif that runs through the narrative and pulls the disparate parts together. In Mark, the climax of the story comes right at the end. Mark begins with the baptism of Jesus, moves through Jesus teaching to the disciples, focuses on the trial and death of Jesus, and concludes with a sort of post script in the resurrection narrative. The last line says ‘The women went out from the tomb and told no one for they were afraid’.

       Now if you go home after church and look up this passage, some of you will have Bibles that have another 8 verses, telling about Jesus coming back to see the disciples, speaking about drinking poison and not being harmed, about handling snakes and not being hurt. We discovered that these 8 verses were added on by some well-meaning monk around 400 ad. All of our earliest targums of Mark do not have those verses. They all end ‘and the women told no one for they were afraid.’

       And this is the theme of Mark. The question that Mark poses to us is ‘What will you say about Jesus?’ ‘Who do you say that I am? ’Will you have the courage to share that with anyone?’ It was a timely question to ask in 70ad. Why? Well in 64 A.D. the emperor Nero burned down Rome. And he blamed it on the Christians and Jews (to a lesser extent), suggesting that their religion made them insurrectionists. Hence, they were widely persecuted and fearful of being dragged into the Coliseum to do unarmed battle with a Lion or hungry bear. Furthermore, the Temple had been burned down in Jerusalem in 70 A.D. and since Christians and Jews believed that the restoration of the Temple was part of God’s fulfillment of history, the despair and hopelessness over this event is difficult for us to even understand. People were afraid, afraid of their faith, afraid of the ‘signs of the times’ which looked ominous. They were in the midst of great trials and tribulations. People in the church were turning each other in to the Roman authorities in order to save themselves. Under torture, most of us crack and betray just about anyone.

       So in the gospel of Mark, you have a repeated theme that scholars call the ‘Messianic secret’. It is recorded in our passage today. Jesus tells them to tell no one for it is not time to reveal who he really is. No other gospel portrays Jesus in this way. Indeed, most of the time, Jesus is sending disciples to the ‘end of the earth’ with message. But this gospel is written to people in the midst of persecution.

       And Jesus tells the disciples 3 different times that he must suffer and die. This is not a story of triumph and butt kicking. This is a story of enduring great tragedy and tribulation with integrity and hope that God is with you despite the fact that the world is so bleak. Three times the disciples do not understand the teaching of suffering. They want to know about their status, their perks. They are already reading the fine print on the bonus section of their contract. Jesus keeps telling them ‘Brothers and Sisters, I can fairly well guarantee that if you follow me, your family will reject you, your friends will revile you and the authorities will hunt you down. Are you prepared for that? And they are not, just as we are not.

       The message and the challenge of Mark are timeless because we constantly come back to periods of persecution for our faith.

       But, you can see that the portrait of Jesus is focused to meet a particular set of needs in a particular community. The theme is relevant for many eras but it had its genesis in one. What scholars came to realize is that the gospels intend to paint different portraits of Jesus to meet the needs of their local communities. Once a consensus developed that the gospels were not simple historical documents but different renderings colored by the authors and the communities to which they wrote, then a whole new branch of biblical scholarship developed. The Search for the Historical Jesus by Albert Schweitzer detailed the first attempt at this.

       Who was Jesus, really? Can you peer behind or around the texts as we have them and try to get a realistic picture of what the real Jesus might have looked like? Can we try to find out what the historical Jesus really looked like?

       This is where the voting on the authentic sayings of Jesus come in. You may wonder about the criteria for this voting. It is complex and ambiguous with the most debatable passages but there are a few things that are also pretty obvious. Such as? Well, in Seminary we have to become very familiar with The Gospel Parallels. This book takes the Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke and it puts them side by side. If a story (or a parable or a healing miracle) is told in Matthew and Luke, this book puts the exact phrasing in columns next to each other, so you can do some easy comparison. Occasionally, you get some interesting contrasts. The parable of the Lost Sheep in Matthew and Luke has different morals. The same story is told but to different audiences with different meanings.

       Here you also begin to see more clearly the editorial hand of Matthew, Luke, and Mark. For instance, both Matthew and Luke tell the parable that the Kingdom of God is like a wedding feast. In Luke the man sends out his servant to invite all the guests to come. In Matthew, the man sends out two sets of servants to invite them- more effort is made on the part of God. In both versions, the guests beg off with the same excuses (‘I can’t come because I just got married’, ‘I can’t come because I just bought a farm’, oxen). Luke, it is said is the gospel of the poor and this parable makes that clear. Luke has Jesus say ‘fine, you original guests don’t want to come God out quickly to the streets and the lanes of the city, and bring in the poor and maimed and lame.’ Matthew, on the other hand, depicts us humans as more evil than indifferent and God as more retributive than graciously expansive. In his story the invited guests not only do not come, they seize the servants who invited them, treat them shamefully and kill them. (Obviously, this is a reference to the way that the Jews treated the prophets shamefully and later killed Jesus). And when the Master hears of this, he doesn’t first invite the poor. First, (22:7) the passage says, "The king was angry, and he sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city." This pronounced judgment of God is characteristic of Matthew. Matthew is fond of that phrase ‘and they were cast into the outer darkness where there was weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

       When you see over and over that Matthew adds this note of severe judgment on the part of God, where Luke and Mark do not, it raises the question of whether the historical Jesus really understood God as a God of judgment or whether it was simply Matthew who understood God in this way. Jesus’ parables, more often than not, move in a different direction. They speak of the profound joy of being accepted, of being reconciled like the prodigal Son or the lost sheep. The Jesus of history appears to lure us towards the grace of God far more than scare us with God the angry judge. This becomes more apparent when you begin to realize that the vast majority of these depictions of God the angry judge in the afterlife, come from the editorial hand of Matthew.

       There is a pretty wide consensus among New Testament scholars that these additions by Matthew are just that-not the words of Jesus but the theology of Matthew. On the other side of the balance, there is a fairly wide consensus that the Jesus actually taught in parables. All of the parables that are non-allegorical, those parables that begin the Kingdom of God is like, these are all generally agreed to be pretty close to the actual words of Jesus. And the Sermon on the Mount is widely recognized as the moral and spiritual teaching of Jesus reduced to its essence. There is a consensus opinion that Jesus was a healer, though there are also a few healing stories that are so stylized that most scholars agree that these miracle stories did not literally happen as they are recorded. There is nearly unanimous consensus that Jesus was really tried, that the events around his trial, crucifixion and death happened more or less as they are recorded, except where there is an obvious overlay of apocalyptic imagery- like the rending of the Temple curtain, the darkness covering Jerusalem at noon, the earth quaking, etc..

       Of course, the great caveat is the resurrection itself. The resurrection is not accessible to historical investigation. In the first place, if we take the scriptures as seriously as the portray themselves, it is a unique event in human history. Jesus did not merely come back to life from the dead; he was transformed into a new existence. Since the study of history is predicated on analogy, authentically novel events are beyond the horizon of our study. As some would say, the resurrection event is not verifiable. At this point, New Testament scholars divide into two large camps. One group tries to depict the compelling figure of Jesus as an ordinary man, a sage or prophet of the Kingdom of God. The other group, presumes that something really did happen in resurrection, that the gospel accounts are reliable guides about the uniqueness of Jesus, even if they are not verifiable. Now, as two thousand years ago, it is a juncture of faith.

       I must say that though these portraits are quite different, Jesus is a compelling figure in both depictions. To give you one example, John Dominic Crossan, has written several books that try to deal with Jesus as an ordinary human prophet. He pictures Jesus as a ‘revolutionary peasant who resisted economic and social tyranny in Roman-occupied Palestine. He as a (kind of) Jewish cynic who wandered from town to town, teaching unconventional wisdom and subverting oppressive social customs. He was a preacher who proclaimed ‘God’s radical justice’ and lived the idea so powerfully that it inspired a movement that changed the course of history. And if the clarity of his life and message, no long obscured, could be fully grasped today, the same could happen again Says Crossan ‘There has never been a more empowering figure than Jesus. If you are empowered by Jesus’ life, in my judgment that makes you a Christian.’ (US News and World Report, April 8, 1995, p. 52). Crossan’ depiction of Jesus as the ‘liberator of the poor’ has found wide currency in Central America and other Third World countries and he has done a helpful job of lifting up the centrality of Jesus’ empowerment of the poor.

       Of the resurrection and the Lord’s Supper, Crossan says they are largely elaborations, freely invented by the early church. In his words, the earliest disciples wanted to express their ‘continued experience’ of the presence of Jesus after the Crucifixion. Crossan doesn’t need these elements for his faith in Jesus. Jesus the liberator of the poor is inspiring enough.

       Luke Johnson, at Emory University, on the other hand, has pointed out that the problem with portraits like Crossan’s is that they are reductionistic. It is true that Jesus was concerned about the poor, but it is not necessarily true that this was all that Jesus was about or even principally about. Professor Johnson reminds us that in every age the Jesus we worship remarkably reflects the values of the generation that produces it. Our generation values inclusion of all people, particularly those groups that have been historically oppressed or marginalized. Little wonder that we would produce a picture of Jesus that would reflect this as Crossan has done.

       One principal point that Johnson makes is that the resurrection of Jesus is vital to understanding who Jesus is and what Jesus was about. He doesn’t believe that it is enough to say that the post-resurrection events are creations of the early disciples out of their desire to want to continue to be with Jesus. What an Enlightenment thing to say! It is true that the resurrection may not be directly accessible, but something happened to these disciples that totally changed their lives. And it changed all of their lives. We have no record of anyone later defecting. Furthermore, they were motivated to do some incredibly risky things. Indeed, most of them died fearlessly, in great agony. To the end, they were utterly confident of their faith in Jesus. People just don’t do that because they simply want to be with Jesus.

       A more likely explanation is that something surprising, something utterly transforming happened to them, and to their own amazement, they were never the same people again. In other words, it is more likely that the gospel traditions are trustworthy in the direction towards which they point. The historical Jesus might have been simply a wandering preacher about the Kingdome of God but then something happened in the resurrection and it was only then that it dawned on the disciples that maybe Jesus was different from other teachers and prophets, even different from the typical expectations of the Messiah. And that is why they called him ‘the Son of God.’

       Who do you say that I am?’ says Jesus. ‘What is it that you see when you look at Jesus? What is it that you need out of him? What is it that you cannot abide and won’t live with? Jesus is compelling enough a figure that you can profitably wrestle with this for many years and you can even change your mind a few times. A prophet? A sage? A Savior? Who do you say that I am?

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