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Suppose you took a walk around your neighborhood just after supper on a summer evening. People are out walking their dogs, riding their bikes, playing catch with their kids, and otherwise enjoying the end of a beautiful day. Now suppose that instead of greeting people with the usual "Hi! How are you?" you said, "Hi! What do you think about Jesus? Who was he?" My guess is that most of your neighbors would have three responses in this order: First, they would look surprised-and maybe a little embarrassed-as if you had asked them whether they still believe in Santa Claus. Second, if they didn't excuse themselves and run back to the safety of their homes, they would say, "Well, ..." and start to formulate an answer. Almost none of them would say, "Jesus who?" And if you live in the Western Hemisphere, very few people would say, "Jesus is a myth; no such man ever existed." Third, the vast majority would stumble through an answer something like this: "Jesus was a great man, a moral and religious teacher who lived a long time ago."
The few who answered differently would take one of three positions. One might say, "Jesus was a political revolutionary who tried to overthrow theoppressive rule of Rome." Another might say, "Jesus is a mythic character intended to inspire us to goodness and peace." And still another would say, "Jesus was the incarnation of God, the divine Son of God." And in the course of your brief walk you would have encountered the four classic historical answers to the question "Who was Jesus?"
THE GREAT MORAL AND RELIGIOUS TEACHER
That Jesus was a great teacher is beyond dispute. From his insights into human nature to his teaching on issues ranging from money to sex to politics to relationships to prayer to leadership, Jesus remains one of the most respected and quoted teachers of all time.
Jesus observed attitudes and behavior and then cut to the heart of human nature:
It is the thought-life that defiles you. For from within, out of a person's heart, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, wickedness, deceit, eagerness for lustful pleasure, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness. All these vile things come from within; they are what defile you and make you unacceptable to God. (Mark 7:20-23) A good tree can't produce bad fruit, and a bad tree can't produce good fruit. A tree is identified by the kind of fruit it produces. Figs never grow on thorn-bushes or grapes on bramble bushes. A good person produces good deeds from a good heart, and an evil person produces evil deeds from an evil heart. Whatever is in your heart determines what you say. (Luke 6:43-45)
Surprisingly, Jesus had more to say about money and material wealth than just about any other subject:
Don't store up treasures here on earth, where they can be eaten by moths and get rusty, and where thieves break in and steal. Store your treasures in heaven, where they will never become moth-eaten or rusty and where they will be safe from thieves. Wherever your treasure is, there your heart and thoughts will also be.... No one can serve two masters. For you will hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money. (Matthew 6:19-21, 24)
Many newcomers to the teachings of Jesus are also surprised to discover that he did not shy away from the loaded topic of human sexuality. In articulating the dangers of promiscuity and the safety of the marriage covenant, Jesus was teaching two thousand years ago what our society is just learning today.
You have heard that the law of Moses says, "Do not commit adultery." But I say, anyone who even looks at a woman with lust in his eye has already committed adultery with her in his heart." (Matthew 5:27-28)
God's plan was seen from the beginning of creation, for "He made them male and female." "This explains why a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one." Since they are no longer two but one, let no one separate them, for God has joined them together. (Mark 10:6-9)
Recognizing politics as a necessary part of human society, Jesus refused to become enmeshed in political issues or to use political power to accomplish his purpose. He steadfastly pointed toward a greater loyalty, a greater power: "Give to Caesar what belongs to him. But everything that belongs to God must be given to God" (Matthew 22:21).
When Jesus taught about a more typical spiritual issue such as prayer, he was not speaking about formal religion but about an intimate and personal relationship with God: "When you pray, don't be like the hypocrites who love to pray publicly on street corners and in the synagogues where everyone can see them.... But when you pray, go away by yourself, shut the door behind you, and pray to your Father secretly" (Matthew 6:5-6).
Those who study leadership models today would do well to consider the surprising insights of Jesus on this thoroughly modern subject:
You know that in this world kings are tyrants, and officials lord it over the people beneath them. But among you it should be quite different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must become your slave. For even I, the Son of Man, came here not to be served but to serve others, and to give my life as a ransom for many. (Matthew 20:25-28)
Jesus addressed an astonishing array of topics with stunning clarity, authority, and creativity. His teaching style was both confrontational and playful. He used object lessons (good trees and bad trees, farmers sowing seeds, good soil and rocky soil) as fluently as he told stories. Who in our culture would not recognize the main characters of the story of the Prodigal Son or the Good Samaritan? Whatever else we may believe about him, Jesus was an extraordinary teacher, arguably the greatest and most influential teacher who ever lived.
So far, so good. If someone made that statement at a major state university, it would draw thoughtful nods of approval. A guest on The Oprah Show could say it and be affirmed by polite applause. But-and this is critical-to see Jesus merely as a great moral and religious teacher creates an enormous problem. Jesus claimed to be far more than a teacher of moral or spiritual truth. He claimed to be the Son of God, that is, God in human flesh. By his own testimony, he believed that the words he spoke were the words of God and carried the authority of God. He claimed the authority to forgive sin, to interrupt weather patterns, to turn water into wine with a word, to heal the sick, to raise the dead, and to lay down his life and take it up again as he willed. If we take the New Testament at face value (we'll talk more about that later), Jesus clearly claimed to be God. And that is precisely where many people begin to get very nervous about Jesus.
In his classic work Mere Christianity, Christian writer and philosopher C. S. Lewis says:
I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him [Jesus]: "I'm ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don't accept His claim to be God." That is the one thing we must not say. A man who is merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would be either 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 can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit on Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to."
THE POLITICAL REVOLUTIONARY
The world into which Jesus was born was charged with political tension. The Romans ruled the Mediterranean world and beyond by virtue of their military and economic strength. The nation of Israel, with its long and glorious history of independence, was now just another ethnic people group swallowed whole by the great beast of Rome. While the Pax Romana promised relative peace, security, and justice (albeit Roman-style justice) to its citizens, and while many conquered peoples cooperated with Rome, that was not the case in Palestine. The Jews resented the Romans and considered them pagans who were unclean before God. They rejected the Roman practice of worshiping multiple deities and instead held steadfastly to their faith in one God, who had revealed himself to them, his chosen people.
William Barclay, one of the most respected Bible scholars of the past century, writes: "It is the simple historical fact that in the thirty years from 67 to 37 B.C., before the emergence of Herod the Great, no fewer than one hundred and fifty thousand men perished in Palestine in revolutionary uprisings. There was no more explosive and inflammable country in the world than Palestine."
The Hebrew prophets had long taught that someday God would install his kingdom on earth, reestablishing the throne of King David and restoring Israel to her proper place in the world. Someday the "Son of David" would come, and God would prove in person that he had not abandoned them. So by the time of Jesus' birth, the Jewish people were being ruled by Herod the Great, who was essentially a puppet king in the pocket of Rome. There was an uneasy peace, beneath which burned an incendiary resentment and abiding hatred for the oppressive Roman occupation.
According to the New Testament, Jesus was raised in Galilee (which even the Jews considered a backwater province) in the home of a tradesman, a carpenter (Mark 6:3). There is evidence of at least some level of poverty in Jesus' early life, which is often true of political revolutionaries. Luke 2:24 reports that on the occasion of Jesus' circumcision his family could afford only the sacrifice typically offered by the poor-"a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons." We also know, because of the inclusion of a man called Simon the Zealot as one of the twelve disciples (Matthew 10:4), that Jesus would very likely have been exposed to the radical Zealot party, which carried on a guerrilla war of resistance against the Romans throughout the first century.
So when Jesus burst on the public scene preaching, "The Kingdom of Heaven is near" (Matthew 4:17); when he recruited a group of disciples that included Simon the Zealot (Luke 6:15); and when the reason the Jewish leaders gave for their insistence that Jesus be executed was treason against Rome ("Anyone who declares himself a king is a rebel against Caesar," John 19:12), many concluded that Jesus' primary mission was political revolution.
Indeed, if we view a collection of Jesus' more confrontational teachings, removed from the context of the New Testament, it is tempting to conjure up a picture of Jesus as a freedom fighter:
These magnificent buildings will be so completely demolished that not one stone will be left on top of another. (Mark 13:2) Brother will betray brother to death, fathers will betray their own children, and children will rise against their parents and cause them to be killed. And everyone will hate you because of your allegiance to me. But those who endure to the end will be saved. (Mark 13:12-13) I have come to bring fire to the earth. ... Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I have come to bring strife and division! (Luke 12:49-51)
But this view fails to consider the decidedly apolitical and antirevolutionary elements of Jesus' teaching. The same Jesus who said, "Don't imagine that I came to bring peace to the earth! No, I came to bring a sword," said, "Love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you!" (Matthew 10:34; 5:44). The same Jesus who was condemned to death for allowing himself to be called King of the Jews said, "My Kingdom is not of this world" (John 18:36). If Jesus' main goal was the overthrow of Roman rule, wouldn't he have focused more of his attention on the abuses of the Roman political system? Instead, much of his focus was on the abuses of spiritual leadership found among his own people. Jesus directed far more criticism at the self-righteous Pharisees (the elite religious class of the Jews) than at the pagan Romans.
Taken as a whole, the New Testament does present Jesus as a revolutionary. But his revolution was not political; it was spiritual. Jesus came to announce a new kind of kingdom, a new kind of power, a new kind of love, a new kind of freedom, and a new way to relate to God. And when we view Jesus' revolution from the perspective of history, it is that revolution -not Marx's or Lenin's or Castro's-that has had the greatest impact on the world.
THE MYTHOLOGICAL IDEAL
In the 1967 film Cool Hand Luke the title character, played by Paul Newman, responds to the death of his mother by picking up his guitar and singing a curious little song:
I don't care if it rains or freezes, Long as I got my plastic Jesus Sittin' on the dashboard of my car. Comes in colors pink and pleasant, Glows in the dark 'cause it's iridescent, Take it with you when you travel far.
Luke thought of Jesus not as the Jesus of the Bible who died and rose again but rather as a kind of rabbit's foot to bring him good luck. His Jesus was born not necessarily in history but rather out of Luke's need to believe in something -even a plastic figurine with magical protective powers. To Luke, it didn't matter whether or not Jesus really lived, taught, performed miracles, or rose from the dead. What mattered was that Jesus filled the void of faith and hope in his life, that Jesus could be molded into whatever shape Luke needed at the time. This is Jesus as the mythological ideal, our third option for answering the question "Who was Jesus?"
In a cover story for Time magazine, David Van Biema quotes the Jesus Seminar as proclaiming that their Jesus "is an imaginative theological construct, into which have been woven traces of that enigmatic sage from Nazareth-traces that cry out for recognition and liberation from the grip of those whose faith overpowered their memories."
Excerpted from Quick and Easy Guide by Brian Coffey Copyright © 2002 by Brian Coffey
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.