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JesusThe Greatest Life of All
By Charles R. Swindoll
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2008 Charles R. Swindoll, Inc.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Identity of Deity
He was an immensely popular teacher despite His unassuming nature and ordinary looks. The places He taught could scarcely hold the tightly packed multitudes that mobbed Him everywhere He went. On this particular day, the building bulged with virtually every Jewish teacher and cleric in Israel. Even the foremost religious authorities of Jerusalem, Israel's political and religious elite, came to hear the teaching of an untrained carpenter from the insignificant town of Nazareth. Every person present had the same question on his or her mind.
WHO IS THIS MAN?
As He taught from the beloved books of the Jewish Bible—the law of Moses, the oracles of the prophets, and the wisdom writings—a small band of men strategized on behalf of their paralyzed comrade. They had heard that Jesus (Yeshua in the Hebrew tongue) had the ability to heal the sick, so they traveled to where He would be teaching. But upon arrival, they were disappointed to find Him seated near the center of a large house and surrounded by a crowd of Pharisees and religious teachers, none of whom would yield for a disabled person, someone bearing a disease they considered divine judgment for sin.
The band of men would have to do some creative thinking. They had carried their disabled friend a long way, and they were not about to give up. So they climbed the outside staircase, located the ceiling directly above Jesus' head, and started pulling tiles. As the rabbi taught, sand and dust trickled down onto His tunic, and within a few moments, a stretcher descended.
Ever since the paralytic had heard of the miraculous man from Nazareth, he dreamed of hearing the words, "Arise, take up your pallet and walk." But Jesus said something different. Surprising words. Outrageous words. "Friend, your sins are forgiven" (Luke 5:20).
The teachers and religious officials immediately understood the immense implications of Jesus' declaration.
"Who is this man who speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins, but God alone?"
C. S. Lewis explains why the religious leaders had good reason to be upset:
Now unless the speaker is God, [forgiving sins] is really so preposterous as to be comic. We can all understand how a man forgives offences against himself. You tread on my toe and I forgive you, you steal my money and I forgive you. But what should we make of a man, himself unrobbed and untrodden on, who announced that he forgave you for treading on another man's toes and stealing other men's money? Asinine fatuity is the kindest description we should give of his conduct. Yet this is what Jesus did. He told people that their sins were forgiven, and never waited to consult all the other people whom their sins had undoubtedly injured. He unhesitatingly behaved as if He was the party chiefly concerned, the person chiefly offended in all offences. This makes sense only if He really was God whose laws are broken and whose love is wounded in every sin. In the mouth of any speaker who is not God, these words would imply what I can only regard as a silliness and conceit unrivalled by any other character in history.
Note the unanimous response of the religious leaders: "Who is this man?"
Fast-forward a few weeks, perhaps months. Another house packed with religious leaders; another opportunity to teach. Jesus, like the other dinner guests, reclined at a low table, propped on one elbow with His feet angled away from the food. As was the custom, uninvited guests were permitted to sit against the walls and listen to the dinner conversation. However, they were never to intrude ... and, in that culture, certainly not a woman!
But as Jesus taught, a woman crept toward the table, fell at His feet, and drenched them with her tears. Then, in an extravagant gesture of worship, she anointed His feet with expensive perfume, pouring out the entire container. In response, the Teacher turned, lifted her face to meet His gaze, and said to her, "Your sins have been forgiven" (Luke 7:48).
Again, take note of how the religious authorities responded:
Those who were reclining at the table with Him began to say to themselves, "Who is this man who even forgives sins?"
As Jesus continued His ministry of teaching, healing, and forgiving sins, He attracted a multitude of disciples, whom He empowered to spread the good news of God's grace and to heal in His name. Before long, Herod Antipas, Rome's puppet ruler over the region of Galilee, heard that a great teacher had captured the imagination of his subjects.
Now Herod [Antipas] the tetrarch heard of all that was happening; and he was greatly perplexed, because it was said by some that John had risen from the dead, and by some that Elijah had appeared, and by others that one of the prophets of old had risen again. Herod said, "I myself had John beheaded; but who is this man about whom I hear such things?" And he kept trying to see Him.
Earlier, John the Baptizer had publicly confronted Herod for having an extramarital affair with the wife of Philip, the ruler's blood brother. To silence John and to appease John's enemies in the royal court, Herod had ordered his execution. When reports of Jesus reached the most powerful ears in the land, Herod repeated the question that had been sweeping the country: "Who is this man?"
Even Jesus' disciples remained perplexed for much of His ministry. They had witnessed a number of miraculous healings and heard scores of lessons. They knew Him to be special. They had even come to recognize Him as the long-awaited Jewish Messiah, but they failed to comprehend who He really was.
After one long day of teaching, they saw something they would never forget.
On that day, when evening came, He said to them, "Let us go over to the other side." Leaving the crowd, they took Him along with them in the boat, just as He was; and other boats were with Him. And there arose a fierce gale of wind, and the waves were breaking over the boat so much that the boat was already filling up. Jesus Himself was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke Him and said to Him, "Teacher, do You not care that we are perishing?" And He got up and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, "Hush, be still." And the wind died down and it became perfectly calm. And He said to them, "Why are you afraid? How is it that you have no faith?" They became very much afraid and said to one another, "Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey Him?"
I grew up in Houston, Texas, and have been fishing in and around the Gulf of Mexico numerous times. I've seen all sorts of conditions on the water, including waves so choppy that we could barely make it back to shore with an outboard motor. I can only imagine the terror of having only sails and oars to work with. I've also seen what fishermen call a "slick" on the water. That's when the surface is so calm, it's like glass ... not even a ripple.
Imagine straining against the oars in an effort to reach the safety of shore as turbulent waves toss around your ship like a toy. Then someone stands up and scolds the elements like He would a child—"Stop it! Calm down, right now!"—and the chop immediately turns slick. I don't know about you, but I suspect my reaction might be like those twelve bewildered men in the boat with Jesus. They trembled with fear and asked, "Who is this man?"
Mark 6:1–3 records yet another surprising reaction, this time among the people of Jesus' own hometown. While Jesus was born in Bethlehem, He grew up in a northern village in Galilee called Nazareth.
Jesus ... came into His hometown; and His disciples followed Him. When the Sabbath came, He began to teach in the synagogue; and the many listeners were astonished, saying, "Where did this man get these things, and what is this wisdom given to Him, and such miracles as these performed by His hands? Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? Are not His sisters here with us?" And they took offense at Him. Mark 6:1–3
Nazareth, being a small town, was filled with people who knew Jesus well. He was known as Yeshua, the son of Mary and Joseph, the carpenter from whom the boy had learned His trade. Jesus had at least four brothers and an undetermined number of sisters. The people of Nazareth saw Him learn in the synagogue and participate in the customary rites of passage. We are told in another part of the Gospel narrative that Yeshua grew to gain the respect of the community (Luke 2:52) and had extraordinary ability handling Scripture and understanding theology (Luke 2:47). Many of the Nazarenes had played with little Yeshua as a child and made the difficult transition to adulthood as His peers.
Then, one day, Jesus returned to Nazareth after a long absence. While His reputation had become larger than life, the townspeople probably snickered at the absurd rumors. After all, they knew Him "back when." But when they discovered the rumors to be true and His power to be genuine, they couldn't believe their eyes. Even the people who knew Jesus best were heard to ask, "Who is this man?"
It's a sad but undeniable truth that no one expects to find greatness among the people he or she knows well. Jesus pointed to this fact when He commented, "A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and among his own relatives and in his own household" (Mark 6:4).
NO ORDINARY MAN
As I read the accounts of Jesus in the Bible, I find that time has done little to change how people respond to an encounter with Jesus. Like today, many wrote off reports of His miracles as myth. Like today, others who accepted His miracles as genuine attributed them to the work of evil or something else. Like today, some saw His works and accepted them as blessings from God but rejected the One who brought them.
I also find that a relative few—perhaps numbering in the hundreds—saw the miraculous deeds of Jesus as proof that they had met someone very, very special. And their response was to stop what they were doing and consider the possibility that something remarkable was happening, something that deserved closer examination.
One such man was Nicodemus, a member of what might be considered the Jewish Supreme Court in ancient days. He was a Pharisee, which means he belonged to a philosophical and political party that advocated strict adherence to the OldTestament Law. Consequently, he knew his Bible and lived by every command and every prohibition in it—plus many more. Nicodemus was a conservative scholar, a civic leader, a religious expert, and according to the understanding of his culture, he was as good as a man could get. And in their thinking, his great wealth and power indicated that God thought so too. Yet something about Jesus intrigued the old teacher, perhaps because, deep down, something was missing, despite his impressive religious involvement.
One of Jesus' disciples, John, wrote an account of Jesus' life and ministry, and in the second chapter of this work, he recorded that Jesus took authority over the Jewish temple by shutting down the crooked business dealings taking place within its walls. The temple authorities challenged Him, asking, "What sign do you show us as your authority for doing these things?" (John 2:18). He answered them directly and then went on to conduct a very public ministry involving miraculous healings. As a result, "many believed in His name, observing His signs which He was doing" (John 2:23).
Nicodemus was, undoubtedly, one of the many observers. As a temple leader and a prominent Jewish citizen, he watched this young, thirty-something miracle worker take the Hebrew religious capital by storm. He heard the blind say, "I can see!" He had seen the disabled leap for joy, and lepers peel off their bandages to reveal fresh, babylike skin. Yet these were no mere faith-healer tricks. These were undisputed, publicly verified, dramatic physical transformations. Had there been any fraud, Jesus' enemies in the religious establishment would have made a fool of Him immediately. But the signs were genuine, so scores of people began to call Jesus "Messiah," the long-promised king who would lead Israel to greatness. The longer Nicodemus watched, the more he became convinced that Jesus was no charlatan. This young Teacher had a connection with God that the old leader didn't. That piqued his curiosity.
John also called Nicodemus "a member of the Jewish ruling council" (John 3:1niv). In those days, the Jews were ruled by a religious assembly of seventy men called the Sanhedrin. This body governed much like a congress or parliament and a supreme court combined. They made laws, held trials, upheld justice, and governed the country.
Bill Counts, in his book Once a Carpenter, writes, "So far as we know, Jesus never encountered a more prestigious, knowledgeable, refined representative of Judaism than Nicodemus." Nicodemus was very well known, so we shouldn't be surprised that he came to see Jesus under the cover of night. Wherever famous people go, a band of gossipers will surely follow. He obviously didn't want the general public—and especially the other sixty-nine members of the Sanhedrin—to know that he'd been visiting Jesus, the miracle worker.
Later in the chapter, in verse 10, Jesus called Nicodemus "the teacher of Israel," not "a teacher of Israel." This suggests that Nicodemus was not only one of the seventy rulers, but he was probably the best known or perhaps the most respected. In other words, this was not a narrow-minded, religious bully. He was very astute, very articulate, and very committed to what he believed to be truth, yet he had lost touch with the truth about God and what He desires.
I admire Nicodemus. While he displayed all the signs of a man who knew what he believed to be true and would not easily change his view, he nevertheless allowed for the possibility that Jesus represented something worth investigating. He was understandably skeptical. Let's face it, most intelligent people are. But the young Teacher had been displaying signs that no reasonable person could ignore.
Perhaps "skeptical" describes you. Maybe you aren't quite sure what to do with Jesus. Maybe you, like the people in Jesus' day, have heard His name and the rumors but had little time or interest in knowing more until now. Maybe you recently encountered one of Jesus' followers and the experience has piqued your interest. Or, just as likely, you've been turned off by a number of overzealous Christians and so you've decided to learn more about Him on your own. Whatever your motivation, I invite you to read on. You may be reluctant to accept His miracles as genuine or admit that He was anything more than a man. If so, you are not that different from the people who encountered Him in the houses, synagogues, dinner parties, and byways of Palestine. Nevertheless, those who wanted to be intellectually honest had to admit that Jesus was no ordinary man—and someone that remarkable deserved a closer look.
Whether viewed face-to-face or through the lens of history, the question remains the same: who is this man? Historians who doubt the existence of the supernatural might object to a biography that accepts the miracles of Jesus at face value. Regardless, I intend to present Him in this book the same as He presented himself to eyewitnesses more than two millennia ago: as a perplexing, confrontational, natural, and supernatural man. I will then leave the question of what to do with Jesus up to you. But let me warn you before you begin: your encounter with Jesus will not allow you any middle ground, any more than it did the people who met Him in person. He not only did extraordinary things, but He also made an extraordinary claim.
WHO DO YOU SAY THAT I AM?
As Jesus neared the end of His earthly ministry, questions about His identity reached a climax.
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, He was asking His disciples, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" And they said, "Some say John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; but still others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets."
Everyone agreed that Jesus was someone special, and everyone had his own theory as to how or why. John the Baptizer back from the dead? An ancient prophet returning to announce the revival of Israel? As theories abounded, only a very few thought of Jesus as the Hebrew Messiah. Eventually, when Jesus thought the time was right and that His disciples had enough evidence, He put them on the spot. His companions would have to make a decision. He asked them, "But who do you say that I am?" (Matthew 16:15).
Excerpted from Jesus by Charles R. Swindoll Copyright © 2008 by Charles R. Swindoll, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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