Who is Jesus? Alpha Session 2
Welcome to our second session of New College’s Alpha Course. Hope you have all had good weekend, and are making good progress with any essays you have had. Last week, we looked at the topic ‘is this it?’ discussing what differences there are if there is no God and what it means if YHWH does exist. This week, we want to move on to the topic ‘who is Jesus?’ a question central to Christianity. When approaching this issue we have to be very careful because it easy to make Jesus into whom we want him to be. There is a very real danger that the Jesus we believe in is a product of our fantasy, reflecting our ideals, desires and ambitions. For example, some thinkers, such as Kant, have made Jesus a paragon of morality, not particularly interested in spirituality but rather sought to live the good life, challenging the immorality of the age and being a political revolutionary. Likewise, others have gone in the opposite direction and conceived of Christ as God in flesh whom only descended to die for our sins so we could get into heaven. If you accept all accounts he was a communist, capitalist, anarchist, political revolutionary who was a Jew, atheist, Muslim, Hindu deity, gnostic mediator who was a liar, legend, lunatic or Lord. To avoid believing in a Jesus of our imagination, it is important that when answering who Jesus is to ground it in what he said and did historically, starting from what he said about himself and his actions. This is what I intend to do in the next few minutes.
It is striking that through his public career, Jesus was so concerned with the impending arrival of ‘the Kingdom of God’. Indeed, in the Gospel according to Mark, after being baptised and spending 40 days in the wilderness, he returns to begin his ministry proclaiming: ‘"The time has come," he said. "The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!"’ (Mark 1:15). To put this in context, the Jewish people had been in exile, conquered by the Babilonians and now the Romans. This was their punishment for rebelling against God, the rightful sovereign of all nations. We can see this in the prophets, such as Isaiah or Zechariah. This period had been one of great injustice and suffering, with all manner of wickedness being inflicted with the absence of God. However, YHWH had promised to return as King of Israel. He would be exalted amongst the nations, completeing our joy by being the subject of our praise and gratitude. In turn, this worship of the Lord would bring a rule which is just: all evil will be overthrown. Moreover, this kingdom will transform the world with healing love. The people of the kingdom will no longer suffer, and they will be satisfied in the Lord. All life and joy will be theirs, flowing from the heavenly throne of God, king of the world. Those who were weak, marginalised and ill-treated would have a place in the Lord’s kingdom, where all are welcome and loved unconditionally. The idols of the world, sex power wealth and honour, would be overthrown, and the true God confessed by every tongue.
This is what Jesus’ mission was about. He thought he was the agent who God was using to bring in the kingdom. We can see this in all he did: he constantly taught people what the kingdom of God is like through parables; he healed the sick (blind, deaf, paralysed, demons and leprosy), a sign of God’s healing love; he accepted and embraced the rejects and marginalised, a sign of the unconditional love of God for all and His desire to include us in His kingdom; He forgave sins, the guilt which would prevent us from entering His dominion; He was constantly feasting and celebrating, as the Kingdom will be like a great meal where none will go hungry and all will be satisfied; he performed great miracles as signs of the bountifulness and power of God. This is incredibly exciting: Jesus was bringing a transforming rule of love to the world, the person through whom God was making himself king, with all the joy that brings.
But how precisely was God doing this through Jesus? This leads to Jesus’ self-designation of himself as ‘the Son of Man’, a title which his Jewish audience understood as identifying him within the unique identity of God. He applied it to himself more than 80 times in the New Testamet, as the rest of the New Testament does not refer to him by this title, we can be sure it is his idea. The title alludes to a divine figure in the book of Daniel: in a vision Daniel sees God defeat the evil powers of the world, and in doing so is rightfully lifted up and exalted, worshipped and praised as the true God of the cosmos. Daniel then observes the following:
13“I kept looking in the night visions,
And behold, with the clouds of heaven
One like a Son of Man was coming,
And He came up to the Ancient of Days
And was presented before Him.
14“And to Him was given dominion,
Glory and a kingdom,
That all the peoples, nations and men of every language
Might serve Him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
Which will not pass away;
And His kingdom is one
Which will not be destroyed.
It is through the Son of Man that the Ancient of Days, YHWH, achieves His victory, and so in turn the Son of Man is exalted to sovereign over all the nations. This is important, because in 2nd temple Judaism God was uniquely the creator and sovereign of all things: only He was ruler of all things, worthy of worship and servitude. By giving over to the Son of Man dominion everlasting, glory and a kingdom, the Son of Man is recognised as a part of the unique divine identity of YHWH, sharing in the name above all others and worthy of praise (Phillipians 2:6-11). This is who Jesus claims to be, the one through whom the victory of God will be made complete, and hence why he can heal the sick, forgive sins, welcome the lost, teach with authority and overthrow the powers of darkness. And as the book of Isaiah alludes to, God’s exaltation will be achieved through the humiliation of the suffering servant – Christ (Deutero-Isaiah). So to conquer evil, Jesus accept his humiliation. We see this in the cross, Christ becomes a curse on a tree for us. His death satisfies the wrath of God for our wrongs, whose punishment is death. This allows us to enter the Kingdom on His account, not our own – he died for our wrongs. He himself explains in the Gospels explains that the Son of Man, himself, will die for the sins of the world, and in doing so will be lifted up. It is this which conquers the power of sin, freeing humanity from its grasp by his human suffering.
But it is in the resurrection we see the final victory won. Death is the ultimate power of evil, a kingdom of its own, ensnaring all life and separating it from the joy of God. Jesus death and resurrection not only freed humanity from sin, but also overthrew the grip of death, and in so doing God’s victory over the world’s powers was complete. It is this, the resurrection, which gives Christians hope, as we can be assured that a) God is victorious and His kingdom will come b) Jesus is who he says he is. If he did not rise from the dead, then Jesus was either a liar or a lunatic, a man clearly deranged, thinking himself to be in the unique identity of God. Indeed, the Pharisees and chief priests thought he was blaspheming, offending God with nonsense. By rising from the dead, Jesus is shown to be the Son of Man, the first and the last, the great I am, the Lord himself come among us to bring His kingdom to the world. The Lord’s Prayer is answered in this great saga, and Jesus is the bringer of it. Jesus challenges the sin and death of the world, the tyrants and evil powers with the rule of God, which has overthrown all evil and is here amongst us now. We wait for His return, to bring about the end times and the consummation of the inaugurated Kingdom. And we can enter this by placing our trust in Him: that his death does satisfy our sin and His resurrection frees us to worship YHWH freely. That is the invitation which faces us all in the person of Jesus.
Do you agree? Is Jesus really the bringer of the kingdom of God, a key part of the identity of God? Do you think Jesus, the God-man, supplies the victory of YHWH over the evils of the world and frees us from sin and death?