The Greatest Man Who Ever Lived

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Matthew 16:13-18

Objection: Jesus Christ was just another religious teacher, right? So why single him out for worship?

In a culture that is most often described by adjectives like post-modern, pluralistic, multicultural, relativist, the claim that Jesus Christ is the unique Son of God and the only way of salvation is hard to make, and even harder to accept. Isn’t it enough to recognize him as a great man and an important teacher? Shouldn’t we classify him as a significant influence on Western religious life and social history and leave it at that, without attempting to impose him on people of other religions and cultures? Wouldn’t it be more sensitive, less ethnocentric, less spiritually arrogant, to lump him together with Moses and Mohammed and the Buddha and other members of the “Hall of Fame” of world religion, without trying to place him above everyone else? To assert Jesus’ superiority in such an absolute way seems neither right nor fair, particularly in a world where religious “fundamentalism” seems to have spawned so much hatred and conflict. Wouldn’t it be far better if every religion were tolerant of all others, and none claimed to be the exclusive truth?

The Main Point

This first objection takes us right to the central issue of Christianity, which is the identity of Jesus Christ himself. Here is the main point of debate. Who was he anyway? Who did he claim to be? Most important, who do I think he is? This question is central because Jesus Christ himself is at the very heart of the Christian faith. Christianity is not just another religion, in the sense of being a set of teachings about God and other ultimate issues. Christianity is essentially about a relationship, a living relationship with this man Jesus Christ. Eventually everyone on earth must decide one way or the other about him. Was he just another religious teacher? Was he a good man, or even perhaps the greatest man who ever lived? Or was he something more than that?

I still remember clearly a conversation I had one day in school nearly thirty years ago. I was talking with one of my classmates, a very bright young man named Marvin, and the subject turned to religion. He asked me what I believed, so I told him that I was a Christian and that I believed in Jesus Christ. I asked him what he thought about Jesus and he replied, “I don’t believe there ever was such a man. I think the whole story was invented by the first Christians.” Needless to say, I was somewhat taken aback by this view. My friend Marvin’s opinion may not have been very defensible on historical grounds, but at least it had the advantage of allowing him to dismiss the question of Jesus quite easily. If Jesus was a fictional character, then you no more need to worry about who he was, or what he said or did, than you do about Hamlet or Don Quixote or Mickey Mouse.

But the fact is, very few people in the world today – including even non-Christians – can deny the historical existence of Jesus Christ. In contrast to the mythical figures of ancient pagan literature, Jesus was a real man who lived in the real world. Referring to the events of his life, the apostle Paul, one of his early followers, said, “[This] was not done in a corner” (Acts 26:26). The fact is, the existence of Jesus Christ is better attested than that of any other figure from the ancient world.

Who Do People Say I Am?

So Jesus actually lived, but just who was he? That is a question people have been asking and trying to answer from the very beginning. In fact, there was one occasion during his public life when Jesus himself asked it:

When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”

They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”

Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

(Matthew 16:13-16)

“Who do people say the Son of Man is?” “Son of Man” was one of Jesus’ favorite self designations, so what he is asking about is popular opinion concerning his identity. His question brought a variety of responses: “Some people think you’re John the Baptist come back to life,” they answered. “Others are saying you’re Elijah or one of the other prophets of the Old Testament” – and the different answers still have not stopped coming.

Probably the most common opinion about Jesus among those who are not Christians is that he was a great prophet, a teacher who spoke about God and pointed people toward him. The Jewish historian Josephus, living in the generation immediately after Jesus, described him as a wise man who performed surprising works (quoted by F. F. Bruce, Jesus and Christian Origins Outside the New Testament). This opinion has continued down to our own day. Of course, there have been many variants. Different interpreters in different ages have seen Jesus as a radical revolutionary, a gentle liberal, a faith healer, a member of a communal cult, a socialistic peasant agitator, a misguided fanatic – the theories go on and on.

None of these views, however, reflects Jesus as he is actually described in the New Testament. In order to see him as a merely human figure of whatever type (and the type usually conforms to the viewer’s own religious, political, or social preferences), one must either ignore or explain away most of what the gospels tell us about him. If we turn to the pages of the New Testament and listen to the testimony of the eyewitnesses who knew him and lived with him, who heard his words and saw his actions, we come up with a very different answer to the question of who Jesus really is.

“You Are the Christ, The Son of God”

This different answer is the one first given by his disciple Peter and echoed since by all Christians everywhere. “But what about you?” Jesus asked his disciples. “Who do you say I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

Peter realized that Jesus was the Christ. This Greek word translates the Hebrew term “Messiah,” or “Anointed One.” The Messiah was the hero who would be chosen and designated by God to bring history to its appointed climax. The Messiah was God’s champion, the savior of the people of God. But Peter recognized Jesus as something else in addition to this. The Messiah may have been the greatest man who ever lived, but Jesus was greater still. He was also “the Son of the living God.” In Peter’s view, Jesus was more than just a man, more even than the greatest man. He was God himself come in human flesh.

What was it that made Peter say that? This was an amazing confession for a man of his background and upbringing. Remember that Peter was a devout Jew. For fifteen hundred years the Jews had confessed as the center of their faith that there was only one God – the Lord, the God of Israel, the Creator of heaven and earth. The wonderful truth of monotheism was first taught to the Hebrew people when God revealed his name and nature to them.

Who foretold this long ago, who declared it from the distant past? Was it not I, the Lord? And there is no God apart from me, . . . there is none but me. Turn to me and be saved, all you ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other.

(Isaiah 45:21-22)

Peter was not expecting the one and only God to have a Son who would take human flesh.

Furthermore, remember Peter’s circumstances. He had been living with Jesus as one of his most intimate companions for more than a year. All told, he would spend three years in the closest fellowship with Jesus. As you and I well know, living with another person soon reveals to us their foibles and shortcomings. It would be rare indeed for a wife to think of her husband as perfect, or for a brother to ascribe deity to his sister. Close, day-to-day contact within a family is the quickest way for us to see through any claims to human perfection. But when Peter looked at Jesus, that is exactly what he saw. In fact, he saw even more. When he looked at Jesus Christ, Peter realized he was seeing God.

A Great Confession

So the question is: What made him realize this? Peter witnessed two things in Jesus that revealed him to be something infinitely more than just a human being. The first was Jesus’ words. Despite the widespread opinion that Jesus was a great moral teacher, he said many things that, when you listen carefully to them, sound very odd. It is true that some of the sayings of Jesus have entered our ethical vocabulary, such as “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” or “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

But many things Jesus said are not ethical at all; in fact, they sound like either lies or delusions – if the one who spoke them was only a man. For example, he claimed that he had the authority to forgive peoples’ sins; not just their sins against him personally, but all sins. He claimed to be equal with God, to share God’s status, even God’s very being. He said, “I and the Father are one,” (John 10:30) and “before Abraham was born, I am!” (John 8:58b), applying to himself the personal form of God’s very name. He claimed to possess all authority in the universe and to be the one who would judge every human being, both living and dead, at the end of time. When he was on trial for his life and was asked whether he was in fact the Messiah and the Son of God, he replied, “Yes, it is as you say . . . In the future you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Matt. 26:64).

These are not the claims of a great religious teacher. They are not even the claims of a good man. As the Christian writer C.S. Lewis put it fifty years ago:

A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would either be 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 must make your choice. Either this man was and is the Son of God or else a madman or something worse . . . but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He did not leave that option open to us. He did not intend to.

(C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity)

The other thing that set Jesus apart from everyone else was his actions. It is easy enough to claim to be God. Others have done as much from time to time, and they have usually turned out to be mentally ill. The difference in Jesus’ case is that he lived up to his claim. He healed the sick. He cast out demons. He calmed storms and multiplied bread and fish to feed multitudes. He loved his enemies and blessed those who cursed him, and when they finally put him to death, he rose again in triumph to a life that cannot die. His life was exactly the sort of life we would expect – a life of awesome power mixed with astonishing love – if God in fact did become a man. Jesus’ life was a perfection of love in action. No one who ever met him thought that he was unbalanced or deceitful. When confronted with his grace, some loved him and some hated him, but none could deny his goodness.

So here is the question: Who is Jesus Christ? Scholars still struggle for the answer, and so do ordinary people every day, people like you and me. Was he only a prophet? Or was he infinitely more?

When Peter uttered his great confession that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God, Jesus himself added an interesting comment. He blessed Peter and then said that flesh and blood had not revealed this truth to him but rather that God had. Peter heard Jesus’ claims and witnessed his actions, but in the end, Jesus’ identity was revealed to Peter when God opened his eyes to the truth.

Do you want to know the truth about Jesus Christ? Are you an honest seeker after God? If you honestly consider the claims of Jesus and open your mind to the truth, God will make him known to you, and you too will say, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”