Since I came to Brazil with the idea of teaching in the areas of apologetics and culture, I was surprised when the seminary asked me to teach Systematic Theology. Recently the surprises continued when Prof. Jonas, the head of the master degree program, asked me to teach a course in Christology (the study of the life and work of Jesus Christ). As I thought about it, though, it became clear that this is perhaps one of the best courses I could present now. It seems that everyone wants to quote and promote Jesus these days. Even in academic circles there is a race to discover the "real" Jesus of history.
Recognizing the greatness of His life and teaching, sincere spiritual seekers often look to Jesus for guidance. Unfortunately, His teachings are often obscured by a common misconception that prevents folks from hearing His true message. This misconception is the notion that the Bible does not preserve for us an accurate account of Jesus' life and teaching. It appears in two common forms.
First, there is the popular idea that, at some point during the history of the early church, the gospel accounts were deliberately changed in order to purge such teachings as reincarnation. This is usually accompanied by the idea that between the ages of 12 and 30 Jesus studied in India and Tibet, and that he taught the essence of Eastern religions during His own ministry. Bible scholars reject both of these claims because there is no historical evidence to support them. On the contrary, there is a good deal of evidence to show that they are false.
First, the idea that the Bible was changed cannot be sustained. The supposed changes took place during the reign of Roman emperor Justinian in the 500s A.D. However, as Phillip W. Comfort points out in The Origin of the Bible (pp. 179-207), there are extant manuscripts of the complete New Testament, including the gospels, that pre-date this time period by two hundred years. Many partial copies are much older. The fact is, there are literally thousands of ancient New Testament manuscripts, such that the New Testament is by far the best attested of all ancient documents.
Among all of these thousands of manuscripts the most striking feature is their uniformity of teaching. None of them shows any sign of ever having included any teaching from Hindu or Buddhist sources. Jesus never, not even once, taught or implied the notion of reincarnation. He, in fact, explicitly contradicted it. In Luke 16 and in Matthew 24 He taught that after death each of us will face the judgment and will either spend eternity in heaven or in hell.
As for the notion that Jesus went to India and Tibet, the only historical evidence to support this was the word of a 19th century Russian journalist, Nicolas Notovich, who claimed to have discovered a scroll detailing the life of Issa, or Jesus, during his stay in the East. Reactions to this story prompted scholarly investigations by Max Muller of Oxford University, Edgar J. Goodspeed of the University of Chicago and J. Archibald Douglas of the Government College at Agra, India. They could find no evidence that such a document ever existed. The story appears to be a fabrication. There is no evidence that Jesus ever left Palestine after returning from Egypt as a small child. (for more information see the CRI Journal, summer and fall, 1989).
The second attack on the reliability of the gospel records comes from liberal scholars, such as those in the well publicized Jesus Seminar. These researchers reject the supernatural claims of Jesus for philosophical reasons and hence feel obligated to explain away the stories of Jesus' miracles and claims to divinity as being inventions of the early church. They assume that the real, or historical, Jesus is not the same as the Jesus of the gospels.
In response to the Jesus Seminar, it should be noted that many scholars criticize its conclusions as being arbitrary and unfounded. The ancient documents do not support the notion that Jesus was merely a wandering preacher who never claimed to be God. Indeed, the methodology of the Jesus Seminar is to begin with a preconceived idea of what Jesus could or could not have said and done, and then use this to eliminate from the gospels that which does not fit those preconceptions. (for more on the Jesus Seminar see Jesus Under Fire, Michael J. Wilkins and J. P. Moreland, eds.).
The attempt to divide the Jesus of history from the Jesus of the Bible fails because the only detailed documentary evidence that exists concerning the life of Jesus is found in the gospel texts. To say that the early Christians attributed to Jesus numerous teachings and actions that He never performed is to accuse them of an exceptional degree of deceitfulness. To then say that they fabricated the Jesus of the gospels and that they then claimed that one's salvation depended on believing this deception is beyond credulity. Such religious depravity may be familiar to us among modern cults (Jim Jones, David Koresh), but it is entirely inconsistent with what we know of the history of the ancient Christians.
Why have I dwelt on this issue here? This is, after all, a newsletter, not a theology text. In this case, I wanted to go a bit beyond simply the newsy updates that we normally send and give you a taste of what is involved in my work here. It is my desire to share with you some of what I will be teaching, as well as to remind us all of how important the good news of the love of Christ is as we approach the celebration of His birth.
The message of Jesus Christ is one of astounding love, grace and compassion. It is a beacon of light in our darkest hours, a source of incredible joy and fulfillment. It is the answer to our deepest longings and the healing of our innermost wounds. It is the news of how we come into a deep and intimate relationship with our God. However, many people who want to claim Jesus as a friend do not actually face the implications of what He really taught. This creates a problem, for one day we will each stand before Him and He will not be interested in our response to human conceptions of spirituality. He will want to know how we have responded to the most basic question about Himself. What is that most basic question about Jesus? We find it in His words as accurately recorded in the gospels. In John 8:24 Jesus said, "unless you believe that I am, you will die in your sins." This statement summarizes the heart of Jesus' teaching and mission in three basic points.
First, there is the question of the identity of Jesus. Jesus literally refers to Himself as "I am." He repeats this expression in verse 58 with the astonishing claim that, "before Abraham was born, I am." Those familiar with the Old Testament will immediately recognize that the "I am" used by Jesus is a direct reference to the name of God that was revealed to Moses in Exodus 3:14. Jesus is making the bold claim that He personally is the God of the Old Testament. That this God is the infinite personal Creator, utterly distinct from the creation, is taught throughout the Old Testament, which Jesus accepted as God's word. Those who claim that Jesus studied in the East and that He taught reincarnation, try to make His idea of God compatible with Hindu, New Age or other pantheistic notions. This is, however, a clear distortion of what Jesus taught.
We should note the contrast in John 8:58 between Jesus and Abraham. The "I am" does not apply to Abraham. In keeping with the statement of the Old Testament that "Before Me there was no God formed, and there will be none after me" (Is. 43:10), Jesus' claim to be God is unique. Abraham is not God, and neither are you and I. There is no "Christ" spirit or principle that exists in all people or embodies itself in any human being besides the Jesus of the gospels. Jesus of Nazareth is the only human incarnation of God who ever existed or ever will exist. The words of Jesus make this quite clear.
The uniqueness of Jesus is underscored by a further Old Testament
teaching. In Isaiah 43:11 we find the following: "I, even I, am the
LORD; and there is no Saviour besides me." In the apostle John's
eyewitness account we find these words of Jesus: "I am the way, and the
truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through me" (John 14:6).
Jesus apparently did not accept the idea that all paths lead to God.
He said that He is the only path to God.
The second point of importance in John 8:24 is the mention of sin. Jesus said that those who do not believe He is God will die in their sins. Jesus believed in the sinfulness and corruption of all human beings. Jesus said "He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because He has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God" (John 3:18). Jesus taught that all people are guilty of sin and under the judgment of God. Jesus summarized the penalty of sin in the following words, "Depart from Me you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels" (Matt. 25:41). The wages of sin is death. Thus, if they are to avoid eternal death, people need someone to save them from their sins.
It was precisely to accomplish the salvation of condemned sinners that brought Jesus into this world. He said, "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives his life for the sheep... And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish" (John 10:11, 28). Jesus died as a substitute, paying the just penalty of sin in the place of the condemned, in order to give them eternal life. The price that was paid to save sinful people reveals the awesome depths of the love of God. With all of this talk of sin, we must remember that the message of Jesus is not primarily a message of condemnation. Jesus said, "For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved" (John 3:17). Yet we must each realistically face the fact the we are sinners, worthy of an eternity separated from God in hell.
It is an interesting aspect of human psychology that when confronted with an unpleasant fact about oneself, the first reaction is to enter into denial. Denial is well documented in the case of alcoholics and drug addicts, who often continue drinking and drugging while ignoring the chaos that is obvious to everyone around them. What is often not recognized is that the refusal to recognize one's sinfulness and one's need of being saved from condemnation is just another form of denial. We might not think we are so bad on the surface, but Jesus evaluated people by their thoughts and motives. For example, he said, "You have heard that it was said, You shall not commit adultery; but I say to you, that everyone who looks on a woman to lust for her has committed adultery with her already in his heart" (Matt. 5:27-28). Indeed, if we compare ourselves with the ethical standard that Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7) we see that we fall pitifully short. That this is true is verified by Jesus' statement in Matt. 7:11, when he called His human listeners "evil."
When we realize that we need salvation, the message that Jesus came to save sinners is good news indeed. Just how that salvation is received is the subject of the third point from John 8:24. Salvation is received by those who believe. Jesus said, "unless you believe." He said that those who do not believe are already condemned. In order to escape condemnation one must: 1) believe that Jesus is God, 2) that He died as a substitute to the pay the penalty of one's sins, 3) that God raised Him from the dead and 4) that one must depend on the work of Christ plus nothing else for salvation. This means recognizing that no amount of good works or being "good" can save one. In believing that Jesus is God, this means believing that He is the Creator, Jehovah of the Old Testament, the Second Person of the Trinity, distinct from the creation. Eastern notions of divinity, the idea that we are all God or that God is everything, contradict the teaching of Jesus. Such ideas nullify the possibility of salvation, according to Jesus' own teaching in John 8:24.
On the other hand, the most liberating discovery one can make is the depths of the love of this Jesus, our God and our friend, who gave His life for sinners, and who promises to give healing, refuge, and peace to all who come to Him. Those who know Him understand. To those who do not, He extends an open invitation.
For further reading:
Jesus in an Age of Controversy. Doug Groothuis, Harvest House.
The Historical Reliability of the Gospels. Craig Blomberg, IVP.