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Try this quick quiz.
Who is this man?
His mother, Mary, gave birth to him one day, a day much like any other day. He was born into a nondescript family, lived an ordinary life, went to the local school, and everybody thought he was an average guy. No one took much notice of him as a boy, but when he was a bit older, he came up with some ideas that would change the face of the world forever. It was the dawning of a new era, of a new way of looking at things.
News about this spread like wildfire, and today, years later, people in every corner of the globe know of him and his ideas. An enormous institution - one of the world's most powerful, influential and wealthy - has grown up around him and spread into nearly every city and country of the globe. It has expanded and diversified to incorporate community projects, health and education. His book has been translated into multiple languages and has been published in more than sixty countries. Many parts of modern life - from aspects of our home life to the way we conduct business - are directly influenced by his ideas. He is divisive: some people consider him a saviour while others turn their backs and curse his name.
Who is this man?
Well ... odds are on you said Jesus. That would be perfectly reasonable considering you are, after all, holding a book about Jesus.
But (insert "I'm sorry, you're wrong" hooter-type ding-dong FX here) ... it's not Jesus.
The person described is ... Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft.
Now, we have nothing against Mr Gates. He is one of the most powerful, wealthy, philanthropic and influential men in history. However, despite the amazing way he has changed modern life, his impact is chicken feed when compared with the person this book is about.
That's right (cue curtain, segue drumroll and anthemic stirring entrance FX) ... Jesus.
Jesus is the most significant and influential person ever to walk the earth.
Nobody has had more of an impact on people's lives and on shaping human history. If history had a fulcrum, Jesus is it.
It's easy to read the previous sentences and shrug them off as meaningless religious babble. We've become numb to the hyperbole often used when discussing Jesus. But let's just pause for a moment and think about this. Fast-forward to the twenty-first century, and the ripples and shadows of his life are still emanating through our daily existence.
Jesus is arguably the most talked about figure in history. There are more books written about him than about any other person who has ever lived. The Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., is widely regarded as the largest library in the world. It has around 530 miles of shelves containing more than 29 million catalogued books in over 400 languages. But out of all those books there are more books on Jesus than on any other person. And add to that: he is the main character of the most widely printed, translated and read book in the history of publishing - the Bible.
In the arts, Jesus is unparalleled. From Handel to U2, he appears as the inspiration or within the lyrics of thousands of songs in just about every genre. There have been more movies about Jesus than about James Bond and Luke Skywalker put together. In fact the most watched film in cinematic history is the 1979 movie simply titled Jesus. And walk into just about any national art gallery in the world and you'll find paintings of him there.
He has the biggest birthday party of anyone who has ever lived: the commemoration of his birth still remains the biggest annual celebration around the globe. Even our Western calendars - our very concept of time in terms of years - hinge on his birth.
One third of the world's population today - that's about two billion people in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Europe and the Americas - declare themselves to be his followers and to base their lives on his teachings. As such, he is the cornerstone of the world's biggest religion.
His influence is behind the building of countless schools, cathedrals and orphanages. His followers have lead the way on a global and historical scale in shaping our planet: in providing literacy and education for the masses, hospitals, aged care, the abolition of slavery, women's rights, exploration, science, charities, lobby groups and welfare organizations. His teachings have influenced our history and our laws. So entrenched is he in our culture that his name has - unfortunately - become a curse word used by people who hit their thumb with a hammer.
And ultimately, his teachings directly influence the thoughts and actions - the very way of life - of billions of people around the world every day. He inspires those who follow him to live in sync with the way God wants ... to serve others and to live right, to live the way we are supposed to. Jesus clears away the muck that clogs up our lives and restores us into a right relationship with God.
Yep, from Julius Caesar to George Washington, from Albert Einstein to Bill Gates, from Mozart to Bono, from Joan of Arc to Mother Teresa, no one else comes close to Jesus of Nazareth.
Not bad for a guy who didn't go to Uni, never held an official office and didn't even venture more than a few hundred kilometres from the place of his birth.
Jesus was born to young parents in a backwater outpost of the Roman Empire two thousand years ago. He probably spent his first thirty years pursuing the trade of his "earthly" father in building cabinets and hanging doors. We don't know much about his early life. We know the story surrounding his birth and one event from his childhood (which we'll get to later), but that's about it. All the stories about his teachings and travels in the Bible come from just one action-packed three-year period after he turned thirty. It was then that he started wandering around speaking incredible words and doing amazing things. He changed people's lives and upset the establishment. He said things, did things and claimed things about himself that were controversial, shocking ... supposedly blasphemous.
Jesus - the carpenter's son, the boy next door - was not a trained theologian or a high priest in the temple. Yet he astounded everyone with his words, knowledge, wisdom and authority. Everywhere he went, people gathered to hear the amazing thoughts, innovative ideas and life-changing teachings that came out of his mouth. People flocked to see him. These were no polite visits of a small and well-mannered delegation. The scenes surrounding Jesus were more reminiscent of what we see today when a victorious sporting team or an international rock star comes to town. Jesus obviously had something special - charisma, power, authority, appeal. He gave people hope, assurance, dignity, peace, direction and contentment, but more than that, he offered one thing that is unique in human history. Jesus claimed something very special about himself. He claimed that he was no ordinary human being but was in fact the Son of God who lived among us so that people could be in relationship with God. He claimed that because of him, people could get right with God and that he was the doorway to life after death.
This is a pretty big claim, and in some respects, words are cheap. But Jesus went on to prove himself. After being tried for blasphemy and convicted, he was executed by crucifixion by soldiers of the Roman Empire. He displayed his power and authority in doing something that no one had ever done before or has done since. He came back from death, not as a spooky, Star Warsy, flickering, ghostly image but in real flesh and blood.
News of this man exploded throughout the world like a bushfire, across borders, beyond governments and ultimately through the centuries. People began changing their lives according to his teachings. They began to read the reports about him and to meet together. Buildings were erected where his followers could meet. These church buildings are now to be found in pretty well every corner of the planet.
Before we go much farther, however, we need to set a couple of things straight.
First, Jesus was a Jew. You probably already know this deep down, but it's easy sometimes to forget this simple fact, kind of like how we sometimes forget that the Bible wasn't written originally in English. Because Jesus is the central and iconic figure of the Christian faith, it's easy to slip into the trap of thinking that he was somehow "badged", that he was an Anglican or a Catholic or a Pentecostal (or indeed that he was even white!), or that he was "born again", or that he was widely familiar with the doctrines and liturgies of the faith - Christianity - that have grown up around and after him. Not so. Jesus never set foot in a Christian church or sang "Amazing Grace." The cross symbol that has come to represent the Christian faith was in his days a terrifying tool of execution.
Jesus' earthly father - Joseph - came from a long line of Jewish ancestors (whom you can read about in Matthew chapter 1), and as such, Jesus was raised as a devout Jewish man in a Jewish community. When he was eight days old, Jesus was circumcised in accordance with Jewish custom. His parents took him to Jerusalem, where they sacrificed two birds by way of dedicating him to the God of the Israelites. They returned annually to the temple in Jerusalem, where they celebrated the Feast of the Passover. He would have attended the synagogue school for a few years and there learned to read the sacred writings of the Law and the Prophets. In fact, not only did he learn to read, but it is likely he would have memorised much of the Law (the first five books of the Old Testament) and studied how to interpret and apply it. His clothing and manner and rituals were all in accordance with the religion and way of life of the Jews of the time. In the synagogue, he would have read the scrolls in their original language - Hebrew - but when he ventured out into the streets and talked with builders and farmers and fishermen, his everyday language was the local dialect, Aramaic.
Which segues nicely into our second point.
During the Australia-Croatia game of the 2006 World Cup, as one of the Australian players took to the field, the TV commentator announced, "And here's Josh Kennedy, who many people say looks like Jesus." Which sums up pretty well the way many of us see Jesus. He (and Kennedy) is a tall, ruggedly handsome, athletic, white Anglo-Saxon Protestant with a long face, piercing eyes, rock star - style hair and a close-cropped beard. This image is reinforced by handsome actors (such as Jim Caviezel or the ridiculously Nordic Max von Sydow) playing him in movies and by Warner Sallman's 1941 painting Head of Christ, which has been reproduced over 500 million times.
The fact is that none of the original reports describe what Jesus looked like, so any artistic, cinematic or stained-glass depiction of him is pure fantasy. It is reasonable to assume that he probably had a beard and moustache in the style of young men of the time. Archaeological evidence suggests that the average man then was a bantamweight of just over five feet tall. It is also fair to assume that given the harsh Mediterranean climate and his outdoor lifestyle, together with his years of work in the building trade in an era before power tools, he would not have been a pasty ashen Bohemian as he is often portrayed in pictures. In fact, he would probably have been a rather muscular, sinewy nugget of a bloke, dark skinned and tough as old boots.
It is important to remember this humanness of Jesus. Despite the extraordinary claims made about him later (we'll get to those soon), he was in all respects an ordinary human being. He went to school, ate and drank, laughed, slept, worked hard, had friends and probably swam in the river. While the Bible records his important words of teaching and wisdom, it is important to remember that he also would have engaged in everyday banter relating to food, the weather and the building trade. He didn't walk around glowing, and he didn't float centimetres off the road. To most of the people who met him during his first thirty years, he was just plain-old Jesus, the bloke from Nazareth. And even after he started doing amazing things, there were still a lot of people (including members of his own family) who regarded him as such and rejected his claims.
But to many people who met him later - and to people who have learned about him over the past two thousand years - he was and is a lot more than plain-old Jesus. He was the infinitely more majestic Jesus Christ, the saviour of the world.
This name actually tells us a lot about Jesus - who he was and what he was about. But that's a big topic in itself, so we'll leave it for the next chapter.
Excerpted from Everything You Want to Know about Jesus by Peter Downey Ben Shaw Copyright © 2007 by Ozdad, a division of Sons of Thunder Press. Excerpted by permission.
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