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Who Is Jesus?

The Rev. Canon Frank Logue gave the following sermon at St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church
in Pooler, Georgia on November 21, 2010

Who is Jesus?
Luke 23:35-43

Today is Christ the King Sunday. We also hear in this day’s Gospel, of Jesus’ death on the cross. The claim the church makes on Christ the King Sunday was that Jesus was and is the King of Kings, a monarch whose kingdom is not confined in either space or time. Calling Jesus King is a way to acknowledge that he is your lord.

But I don’t want to jump too quickly from the scene of Jesus’ death to proclaiming him as King of eternity. This morning I want to suggest that there are real reasons to believe. I want to present the case that the historical person Jesus of Nazareth really was and is not just a King of the Jews, but the Son of God. Then I want you as a jury to make a decision based on the evidence. I believe you will see there is clear and compelling evidence Jesus lived and died. Beyond that, the evidence for who Jesus was is so clearly beyond a reasonable doubt, that I want to ask you the jury to reach a verdict about who you think Jesus is. I only ask that until the time for a verdict you keep an open mind and weigh the evidence carefully.

Historians of various religious backgrounds and perspectives all agree on some basic information on the life of Jesus. There is a good deal of evidence that records Jesus’ life and death and the movement that followed him. Besides the Bible, we have records of Jesus from other sources, especially from people who were not Christians. Both the Roman historians Tacitus and Suetonius wrote about Jesus, as did the Jewish historian Josephus.

First, we have evidence that Jesus lived and died as a real historical person. There are in fact, a total of 39 sources which talk about him, 17 of which were written by non-Christians. All of the sources readily agree that the Romans killed a Jew named Jesus around the year 29. Whatever else we may think of him, historic evidence means that coming to terms with the Jesus of history means coming to terms with these facts:

  • Jesus was a real man, a Palestinian Jew who was born, lived and died in Israel
  • The Romans executed him as a threat to security
  • Jesus’ followers continued following him after his death

We know from the historians of the day there was a man named Jesus who lived and died on the cross. From all accounts he was an ordinary sort of fellow. He may have been much more, but no one has ever seriously doubted that he was a lot like the rest of us in many ways. The Bible, which we can all expect wants to portray Jesus in the best possible light, does not leave us in doubt here. The Bible stories tell us how Jesus knew what it was like to grow tired or to be hungry. It shows Jesus being angry and frustrated, disappointed, feeling love for others. We hear how Jesus was tempted as we are, how he worked and was obedient to his parents, and even how he was a bit of a problem for his parents. So Jesus was if nothing else a normal human who lived and died.

To dive in further, I want to turn to the Bible. However, if this is to in any way to resemble a real court case, I have to establish the authenticity of the Bible itself. So how can anyone know how reliable the Bible is? Is the Bible just hearsay? Are we supposed to take the Bible on pure faith without evidence to support its claim of being true? Well, you certainly don’t have to. Here’s evidence for the truth of the Bible.

With any ancient texts, there are ways to see how faithful the writings are to what the author first wrote. When we look back at ancient writings such as Caesar’s book on the Gallic Wars or the writings of the ancient Greeks and Romans we look for specific ways to make sure they are real. For instance, scholars have found nine or ten copies of Caesar’s work, so we can compare them and make sure no mistakes were made in copying the texts or that no additions were made to later copies. Of these 9 or 10 copies, the earliest copy dates to about 900 AD, or roughly 950 years after Caesar actually wrote his book. Yet the scholars are quite sure of the original text. There are eight copies of the historical writings of Herodotus dating to about 900 AD as well, still about 1300 years after they were first written.

Now what about the Bible? Our earliest documents date to about 130 AD or roughly 30 to 100 years after the events they portray. And we don’t have just 8 or 20 or even 200 copies of these texts, but over 5000 copies in Greek, 10,000 copies in Latin and 9,300 other copies. And they all point us to the same version of events and the same words being spoken in 99.9% of the New Testament. In addition, there are over 36,000 places where the New Testament is quoted in the writings of other people during those first few hundred years of the church. Compared to every other piece of ancient literature, the Bible stands alone in the sheer weight of evidence that we know the text we have is extremely close to what was originally written. There is much more to say about the Bible. I’ll save that for other days. For now, suffice to say that the Bible is a faithful record of the writings of Jesus’ disciples and the first generation of Christians.

Well, Ok. But who does the Bible say Jesus was? Who did Jesus think he was anyway? You may hear some people tell you that Jesus was a good teacher and that he never claimed to be God. Have you heard that before? There are a couple of problems with this idea. First, Jesus may have been a good teacher, but that’s not all. He taught quite clearly that he was indeed God’s one true Son. He even went on to say that he and God were one. Jesus’ dearest friend John wrote that Jesus said the following about who he is:

  • I am the way, the truth, and the life
  • I am the bread of life
  • I am the light of the world
  • I am the resurrection and the life

Just the fact that the statements all begin “I Am” is very significant. You see God told Moses he is I Am. Therefore, no first century Palestinian Jew would ever say I Am anything. It just wasn’t done. That was blasphemy. And people often reacted very strongly when Jesus made one of his I Am statements, showing that they were appalled that Jesus would dare to say such a thing. Could Jesus have been just a good teacher when one of his central teachings was that he was actually God in the flesh? You kind of have to either buy the whole thing or forget it all. There’s a quote by a famous writer named CS Lewis. It reads this way:

“A man who was merely a man and said the sorts of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic, on a 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 . . . but let us not come up with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”

Let us ask one further question. Is there any evidence he was actually God? I believe there is conclusive evidence. It comes in three ways. First Jesus showed us who he was by acting like we would expect God to act. Jesus showed us the power of God by working miracles. Second, there is fingerprint evidence that is certain enough to convict him for sure. Finally, Jesus proved who he was by the effect he had on people after his resurrection. Let’s take a quick look at each of these:

First, if Jesus were God we would expect him to do many godly things, powerful things. That’s where miracles come in. Oh, but we modern people have such a hard time with the miracles, don’t we? We’re skeptical. Sure, Jesus could pull something over on the people of his day, but we can’t be fooled. And yet, we have eyewitness accounts of some amazing things happening. One man was healed, and then put on trial by the local authorities because they didn’t believe in miracles. Yet they couldn’t argue with the testimony of the man’s parents that yes, he had in fact been born blind, but now could see.

The big miracle of course, is how Jesus rose from the dead. I ask you to reach a verdict about this one first and foremost. We know for a fact that a man named Jesus died on a cross. Now answer me this. Do you think he lived again after that? I do. But don’t take my word for it. Some will tell you that the disciples faked his death. But on the day he was crucified he had been beaten 39 times with a leather whip, and forced to carry a heavy weight so long that finally other people had to help him carry it. He had been further beaten, had gone without food and water for a full day, and had long nails driven through his wrists and ankles. Jesus then hung on the cross in the hot sun for hours, in what was considered one of the cruelest forms of capital punishment.

None of the ancient accounts dispute that he was put in the grave, or that on Sunday morning that grave was empty. And if the disciples had stolen his body, they would have known the whole thing was a fake and would hardly have given their lives to protect a lie. Jesus’ disciples admit that they abandoned him at the time of his death. His closest followers looked on at a distance or ran away all together. And yet, later these same people went out into the streets to proclaim that he was and is God’s son. First, they hid fearing for their lives, then they risked death to tell others about Jesus. The difference was the resurrection. After seeing Jesus resurrected, the disciples boldly proclaimed Jesus as Lord even though it would cost them their lives.

Next, we have fingerprint evidence that Jesus was God. In Jesus’ case we find God’s fingerprints all over the story. I mean that time and again Jesus fulfilled the prophecies, which had been written hundreds of years before in the Old Testament. There are between 50 and 60 different prophecies about where the Messiah would be born, how he would live, what he would be called, and how he would die. But could Jesus rig it to look like he fulfilled prophecies? Not really. Many of the prophecies about the Messiah dealt with where he would be born and to whom, how he would die, and what would happen to him after he was dead—things over which Jesus had little or no control. As a fingerprint truly identifies a person, so these prophecies identify Jesus as the only person in history who fulfilled God’s plan as the prophets predicted.

But, the final evidence you may have, the true test, comes from your own experience. You can test Jesus story out in your own life. What if you lived as if the whole story were true? What difference would that make? You will have your own experiences as proof. Then you will not have to listen to me rattle off more evidence or wait for further proof. By trusting in God and trying him out honestly, you will find God always ready to offer you a sense that he is near you and at work in your life. Open your heart up to really trying out God’s promises for yourself. Then you will be able to taste and see that God is good.

Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury. The time has come for your verdict. At least I hope it has. I understand that even with all this evidence some of you may want more time. That’s fine. Take time to decide. Then decide well. For the question, “Who do I say that Jesus is?” is an important one for each of us to answer. Because the question is no longer really about him. The real question is now what do you think about Jesus and what are you going to do about it.

Amen.

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