By Eric Dorris
In Matthew 16:15, Jesus asked His disciples, “Who do you say that I am?”. That wasn’t the last time that question was asked. It has been asked ever since that moment for nearly 2,000 years. Some have answered it much like most of the disciples answered it. They say He was a prophet, a teacher, or a moralist. Some say He is the most famous man to ever live and some say He didn’t live at all. Answers to this question vary from person to person and they fall on every point of the continuum. It is the most important question any individual could ask themselves. So how do we know who Jesus really is and who did He claim to be? Did He actually say He is God incarnate or is that something “The Church” forced upon Him as time separated itself from the actual events?
In the last article, we covered the subject of Truth and how we can discern whether something is true or not. There are three tests to prove that something is true. In review, the three steps are Empirical Validity (real-world verification or looking at the evidence), Logical Consistency (does it make sense), and Experiential Relevance (how does it affect reality). We have to analyze the historical evidence, determine if what is claimed fits with what we know, and we have to examine the effects on reality as we know it.
Jesus in the New Testament
Most of what is written about Jesus is in the Bible, specifically the New Testament. That is where we must start. It’s here that Jesus’ teaching is documented along with His own statements about who He is. Since we are going to find 99.9% of the things Jesus said, taught and did in the New Testament we must know if we can find it reliable or not. If you can trust the source, you can trust what the source proposes. Historical reliability is evaluated on a scale to determine the degree of trustworthiness. Once evaluated it is determined to be either; extremely, very, somewhat, rarely, or not very trustworthy. The source must meet only one of the following criteria to be considered extremely trustworthy: “Origin” (The creator of the source is someone who can be trusted. For example, an eyewitness or an academic expert on the subject, and the type of source is particularly valuable, such as a personal letter.); “Perspective” (The writer has a specific perspective on the topic, for example, the writer is of a particular nationality and may be hostile toward what is being declared.); “Context of the source” (When the source was written, the closer to the event the better.); “Audience” (Did the intended audience know specific details about the content of the source?); and “Motive” (The purpose of the writing was to record specific information about an event.). Based on the criteria above, we will be able to determine that the New Testament is a reliable source.
Putting Paul to the Test
Can we trust the authors of the New Testament? For brevity, I am going to scrutinize one author who wrote a third of the New Testament, Paul of Tarsus. If he passes this test, we know everything else that he wrote in the New Testament is reliable.
- Origin. Was Paul an eyewitness? Was he an academic expert? Yes and Yes! Paul studied under Gamaliel the greatest Septuagint (Old Testament) Professor of that time (Acts 22:3). He was also an eyewitness who saw Jesus resurrected. He tells us this in 1 Corinthians 15, which was a personal letter written to a group of people in Corinth.
- Perspective. What was Paul’s perspective? He began as a champion against the spread of Christianity until he was changed by the appearance of Jesus. He has no reason to lie. If he were going to lie, he would not have made himself out to be a murderer and an adversary of the faith he now proselytizes. His perspective makes him even more reliable.
- Context. How close to the event was the source written? Once again, to be brief we will stick with one book and from there we can walk it back. According to secular experts, the book of Corinthians was written in 55 A.D. That is only 25 years after the cross. Most of us could write about something that occurred 25 years ago, but we don’t have to stop there. In verse 3, he says he “passed on the Gospel he has received”. Who did he receive it from? Paul’s conversion has been dated to be 3 years after the cross. He tells us in Acts 20, that he didn’t go directly to Jerusalem and that it was 3 years before he chose to go there. That is 6 years after the cross, but Paul stayed in Jerusalem for 14 days talking to and learning from James and Peter. Both James and Peter were Apostles who had witnessed the story of the Gospel first hand. They were there to see Jesus’ ministry from beginning to Ascension.
- Audience. Paul tells us that Jesus appeared to 500 at one time, most of which were still alive at the time he wrote the letter. He is basically telling the reader to go and ask them to verify what he documented about the resurrection of Jesus.
You can clearly see that the book of 1 Corinthians alone meets every criterion set forth to determine the historical reliability of an ancient historical source. As such it is designated as “extremely accurate” even by the most hardened skeptics in academia. The skeptics won’t go so far as to say the events actually occurred, but they will say the authors believed without a doubt in what they were writing. It’s up to us to continue researching to determine that.
The second test for truth is logical consistency. Is the proposition logically consistent? What did Jesus preach and who did He say that He was? What was His overall message? Jesus said many things that were recorded in the 3 years of His ministry on earth. The overall theme is John 3;16-17, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Jesus talked about this very notion over and over until the disciples finally understood it. He began declaring it the moment He met them when he said, “you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man”. Seeing the Heavens open up and angels flying around would be a great thing to behold, but Jesus was pointing to something even better. It was a point that no Jewish person would have missed at that time. Jesus was referring to Genesis 28:16, where Jacob had a dream of the Heavens opening up and angels ascending and descending to earth. Jacob then proclaims, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.”
Jesus was declaring that He had come directly from God. He is the blessing God had promised for all nations, that He Himself is the Gate to Heaven, and the gates to the Kingdom of God are now open for anyone who would accept the Key. He preached over and over again that the Kingdom of God is at hand. See Matt. 9:35 & 24:14, Mark 1:14-15, and Luke 4:43, 8:1, 24:14. Jesus continually preached that He was sent by God and that He would lay down His life for our sins. Is this logically consistent? Actually it is. God has always required that blood be shed for the forgiveness of sin. It started with Adam and Eve. After they sinned against God they realized they were naked. The consequence of their sin was covered up with animal skin (Genesis 3:21). Something had to die to cover sin. Leviticus 17:11 tells us that “the life of a creature is in the blood”. That is why blood must be shed to cover sin. In Genesis 22, God tells Abraham that He will provide the sacrifice. In John 1:29, as Jesus’ ministry is beginning, John the Baptist sees Him and says “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” During the Last Supper recorded in Matthew 26:28, Jesus is about to be betrayed and sent to the cross. His last moments with the disciples before the cross, He tells them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins”. The entire Bible written over 1500 years has pointed towards God’s plan of redemption for us. I can’t think of anything being more logically consistent as a book written by 40 different authors over 1500 years all with the same message.
The third and final test for Truth is experiential relevance or does it match real-life experience. Is Jesus relevant to our lives? First, Jesus describes the condition of the human heart more accurately than any other religion. Jesus says in Mark 7:21, “For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within”. Everyone reading this knows this to be true. We see this nightly on the news and in history. All one has to do is pick up a book about Auschwitz to see how evil the human heart actually is and what we can become. Ravi Zacharius tells a story that Malcolm Muggeridge told him about a time he was in India. Muggeridge was a journalist in India for a story, away from his wife for months at a time. Muggeridge to his own admission fought with the sin of lust. One evening at dusk he sees a woman out for her bath. He began to have lustful thoughts and decided to give it a shot. He began swimming toward her and while he did he said he heard a voice telling him “no, don’t do this”. He decided to ignore the voice and just swam harder. He began to imagine what the night may hold and when thoughts of his wife popped into his head he would suppress them. He finally swam to within three feet of the woman, came out of the water, and while he wiped the water from his face he was shocked to see that she was a leper. Her face had been ravaged by the disease, yet she still attempted a toothless smile. He said he immediately thought, “What a vile and leperous creature!”. Again, he heard the voice of God say, “No, what a vile and leperous heart!”. That is every one of us. “We all have sinned and come short of the glory of God!” (Romans 3:23).
One of the best letters to an editor ever written was by G.K. Chesterton. He sent a letter to the London Times that said, “Dear Editor, in response to your question “What is wrong with the world?” He responded, “I am!”. Jesus knew this better than anyone, yet he still came down to provide us a way out.
Jesus’ Influence on the World
This brings us to the second way Jesus is relative to life’s experience. Jesus has done more to change the world than any other figure in human history. According to an article published by Huffpost, a secular website, Jesus changed the world at the very least in the following six ways: 1.) He changed how the world viewed the life of children. In ancient times children were sold into slavery or left outside to freeze to death if they were of the wrong gender. 2.) He changed views of education. He told us to love God with all of our minds. The love of learning led to monasteries, that became Universities such as Cambridge, Oxford, and Harvard. 3.) He infused compassion upon the world. His compassion for lepers, handicap, sick and the poor led to charities, hospitals, orphanages, and hospices. 4.) He showed us that in Humility there was strength before that only courage and wisdom were honored. 5.) He offered us forgiveness and told us to forgive. The ancient world’s “virtue” was to reward your friends and punish your enemies. Jesus changed that to “love your enemies”. 6.) He also instilled inclusion and human reform. All we have to do is read Galatians 3:28 when Paul says, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”, to see where the idea of equality arose. This is just to name a few things. Basically, everything we determine to be “good” in western culture comes directly from the teachings of Jesus.
He and He alone provides us a solution to our condition. He offers us grace, forgiveness, and redemption. There is no other religion in the world that offers what Jesus offers. Most believe that we must pay for what we have done. Either through Karma or by good works that outweigh the bad. Jesus offers us a new heart and a new life. A life where our sins are no longer considered. They are wiped away forever and we are adopted as sons and daughters of God and will live with Him eternally. That is what He offers and all we have to do is accept the gift. What does that gift actually accomplish? When you have time, look up the Angola prison in Louisiana. It used to be the most violent prison in the country. More people died inside Angola than any other prison. Until Burl Cain was named Warden. He came in and placed a Bible in every cell, played Christian radio all day and night, persuaded a local seminary to come in and teach classes for the inmates. After a couple of years attacks between inmates dropped 44% and attacks on staff dropped 70%. Inmates often proclaimed that they had their hope restored. Only Christ can do that.
I know that every weekend I stand in a room full of liars, cheaters, murderers, adulterers, sexual deviants, addicts to drugs, gambling and pornography, slanderers and those full of pride, including myself. I stand along with them singing songs with lyrics like:
And when I think of God, His Son not sparing
Sent Him to die, I scarce can take it in
That on the Cross, my burden gladly bearing
He bled and died to take away my sin
When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation
And lead me home, what joy shall fill my heart
Then I shall bow with humble adoration
And then proclaim, my God, how great Thou art
And as I stand there looking around I have no doubt in my heart that all of those liars, cheaters, adulterers, and murderers will be standing there with the Lord Jesus, thanking Him for the grace He has provided both in this life and the one to come.
How do we know Jesus was who he said He was? We know because the source is empirically verifiable, His message is logically consistent, and what He offers is experientially relevant. As Norman Geisler once wrote, “If Christ is not God, why has a lie made people better than any truth has ever made them? How could it be that the two things most important: Goodness and Truth, so contradict each other? Simply stated, they cannot.” Jesus is exactly who He claimed to be. The more you know Him the more that becomes apparent. If you are still unsure, please ask a member of staff, Elders or a member of this Apologetics team to help you know Him. Any of us would be more than happy to sit with you to help prepare you to answer when Jesus asks you, “Who do you say that I am?”.