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What Difference Does Jesus Make?
By Judson Poling
ZondervanCopyright © 2003 Willow Creek Association
All right reserved.
Chapter OneDISCUSSION ONE
Who Was Jesus?
Does Anybody Know for Sure?
It's been decades since President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, but people are still fascinated with his life-and death. One gets the impression that the further we are from the actual events, the bigger his life and reputation gets. There's an almost mythical quality to his thousand-day reign in American politics. Even the revelation of serious character flaws hasn't diminished many people's nostalgic interest.
What about the theories concerning his death? Serious, knowledgeable people seem divided about the exact number of bullets shot and about whether or not Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. With so many eye-witnesses, how could the facts of such a famous assassination be so inconclusive?
People are just as divided in their opinions about Jesus. Maybe he was a great teacher who gathered a following centuries ago. But now, so many years later, how can we know who he really was? Over the years, perhaps the stories have grown. The "real" Jesus may be lost forever behind the curtain of historical obscurity.
On the other hand, what harm is there in thinking that Jesus is the Son of God-even if that idea is the product of religious leaders who exaggerated his influence long after he was gone? Does Jesus have to be God incarnate to be a good influence on humanity?
Why can't we just be grateful for the good done by his teachings, without worrying about who he was or what he said about himself?
And even if we did have an accurate understanding of Jesus, what difference would it make today? He's been gone for two thousand years! The important thing is that we use what he (or his followers) left behind. Let his wisdom and counsel stand alongside that of all the other great teachers, like Confucius or the Buddha-why must we be pressed into being dogmatic about something so hard to prove? Leave theologizing to the experts. Let the words of Jesus be enjoyed for what they can do for us, and let's not quibble about whether they're true in any absolute sense. Right?
In short, what's all the fuss about Jesus' identity?
OPEN FOR DISCUSSION
1. What are some of the common things you have heard people say about who Jesus was?
2. From the list of words and phrases below, check the top three that sum up your current understanding of Jesus:
Son of God
3. What is one word or phrase from the previous list that you believe is not true about Jesus?
4. During our lives we have all accumulated "facts" about Jesus-some of which may not be entirely accurate. Which of the following have strongly influenced your picture about who Jesus was?
a modern theologian
someone antagonistic toward Christianity
a pastor or minister
a really nice person
a person who sounds very intelligent
someone who claims to hear Jesus speak to them
my mother or father
someone who "channels" Jesus (or other spiritual entities)
an idea that came to me while I was deep in thought
a book I read
TV or movies
ancient documents written by people who actually knew Jesus or heard him speak
5. Choose one or two of the above sources of information. What are the strengths and weaknesses of relying on these sources?
What the Gospels Say About Jesus
The most reliable information about any historical figure comes from records of those who knew the person-preferably from multiple sources. Such material about Jesus is contained in the ancient documents written by those who knew him (or who interviewed eyewitnesses). These records are called the Gospels and are titled after their authors: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. They were written in the first century, within the lifetime of those who knew Jesus personally or heard him speak. From these detailed histories, we can gather statements regarding what Jesus claimed about himself.
It is not necessary to believe that these documents are God's Word in order to acknowledge that, as historical sources, they are the best pieces of evidence we have, and that they are closer to the original events than any other source (certainly closer than a later author or modern interpreter). Therefore, if we find a trend or theme concerning what Jesus says about himself, we can at the very least acknowledge it's his perspective about himself. (Of course, he could have been wrong, but at least we have reliable records of his claims.)
6. Write a concise statement of Jesus' belief, based on information gleaned from the following passages. (Remember, you do not need to agree with what was said; just sum up what Jesus was trying to tell his audience about his identity).
[Jesus said,] "Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before men, I will disown him before my Father in heaven. Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn 'a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law-a man's enemies will be the members of his own household.' Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it." -Matthew 10:32-39
Because Jesus was doing these things on the Sabbath, the Jews persecuted him. Jesus said to them, "My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working." For this reason the Jews tried all the harder to kill him; not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God. -John 5:16-18
[Jesus said,] "Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad." "You are not yet fifty years old," the Jews said to him, "and you have seen Abraham!" "I tell you the truth," Jesus answered, "before Abraham was born, I am!" At this, they picked up stones to stone him [for blasphemy], but Jesus hid himself, slipping away from the temple grounds. -John 8:56-59
Philip said, "Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us." Jesus answered: "Don't you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, 'Show us the Father'?" -John 14:8-9
"If you are the Christ," they said, "tell us." Jesus answered, "If I tell you, you will not believe me, and if I asked you, you would not answer. But from now on, the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the mighty God." They all asked, "Are you then the Son of God?" He replied, "You are right in saying I am." -Luke 22:67-70
7. What is the strongest reason you can give for modifying or even rejecting the statements Jesus made about himself? In other words, if you believe he was wrong, why was he wrong? What would be your more accurate description of Jesus' true identity?
Titles Applied to Jesus in the Bible
Christ (Messiah). The promised deliverer-king who would rule over Israel and usher in a new age of peace. The word means "Anointed One," referring to the act of pouring oil on the head of one set apart for leadership.
Son of God. "Son of" is a phrase often used to show close identification with something. For example, Judas, the betrayer of Jesus, is called the "son of perdition" (John 17:12 in the Greek). Calling Jesus "Son of God" shows his identification with God. Jesus is also the Son of God because of the Virgin Birth (Luke 1:34-35). And he is on a par with God, unlike any other human being, because he called God his own Father, meaning that he believed he and God shared the same nature (John 5:18).
Son of Man. This was the most common title Jesus used when referring to himself. Though the term shows Jesus' close identification with humanity, its most dramatic use was when Jesus invoked it to reveal his belief that he was the "Son of Man" described in Daniel's apocalyptic vision: that "Son of Man" rules over the universe forever (Daniel 7:13-14; see also John 5:26-27). Jesus used the title this way at his trial (Matthew 26:63-65) and was condemned for blasphemy.
Son of David. King David was one of the most famous and powerful kings in ancient Israel. God promised him a descendant whose reign would never end, and this eternal King would reunite Israel and bring back its former glory.
Rabbi. Hebrew for "teacher." A term of respect, like our word professor.
Prophet. Anyone who speaks words directly from God. This does not necessarily involve predicting the future; a prophet need not "foretell" but will always "forth tell." Jesus did both.
I am. A title God used in reference to himself when speaking to Moses at the famous burning bush (Exodus 3:14) and also when speaking through the prophets: "I am he" (Isaiah 43:10, 13, 25). In Hebrew, God's name, "Yahweh," sounds like "I am." Jesus used this most sacred name for himself (John 8:58).
Lord. A range of meanings, from the simple, respectful "Sir" to a way to address God himself. People meant many things in calling Jesus Lord, but Jesus made it clear he was in every way "Lord"-as much as God himself (Luke 2:9-11; Matthew 7:22-23; 12:8; John 13:13; 5:22-23; 20:28-29).
Savior. Jesus' name in Hebrew can be translated "God who saves." God was called a Savior in the Old Testament after a personal, military, or other type of victory. Jesus is our rescuer primarily through saving us from the penalty of sin (Matthew 1:21; John 1:29).
8. People sometimes allege that Jesus' followers put the words recorded in the Gospels into his mouth-that he never said the things attributed to him. What do you think of this allegation in light of what you've learned in this session?
HEART OF THE MATTER
9. What are some of the implications for all humanity if Jesus really was the unique Son of God?
10. What are some implications for your life if Jesus was God come to earth in human form? What is your emotional reaction to that idea?
11. According to John 8:24 ("I told you that you would die in your sins; if you do not believe that I am the one I claim to be, you will indeed die in your sins"), what priority did Jesus place on accepting his true identity?
12. What do you think is behind people's emotional reactions in thinking Jesus' claims are offensive? What is the hardest thing for you to accept about his claims?
CHARTING YOUR JOURNEY
With this session you're beginning a journey. Keep in mind that you do not need to feel pressured to "say the right thing" at any point during these discussions. You're taking the time to do this work because you want answers and because you're willing to be honest about your doubts and uncertainties. You may also have others in your life who would benefit from hearing about what you'll be learning. So use these sessions profitably-ask the tough questions, think "outside the box," learn from what others in your group have to say. But keep being authentic about where you are in your process.
To help you see yourself more clearly, throughout this guide you will have an opportunity to indicate where you are in your spiritual journey. As you gain more information, you may find yourself reconsidering your opinions from week to week. The important thing is for you to be completely truthful about what you believe-or don't believe-right now.
13. On a scale from one to ten, place an X near the spot and phrase that best describes you. What reasons do you have for placing your X where you did?
Excerpted from What Difference Does Jesus Make? by Judson Poling Copyright © 2003 by Willow Creek Association. Excerpted by permission.
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