The day arrived for filming the crucifixion. The actor, Bruce Marchiano, daring to play the role of Jesus, staggered toward the vacant cross lying on the ground. But he stumbled in exhaustion and landed facedown in the stones a few feet shy of his mark. That wasn’t planned. No longer on script, he looked over to the wood just out of reach and had a curious impulse. He lunged for it. And having achieved his goal, the cross, he tightly squeezed his eye closed and gripped it. Like a prize.
There’s no reason to think that moment actually happened at Christ’s crucifixion. Yet the spirit of it is true. Have you read the account of Jesus’ final trek to Jerusalem? They were on the road as usual, he and his followers, but something was different. He wasn’t holding back for stragglers. He was out in front. No child was held in his arms. He wasn’t gently painting pictures of the kingdom of God for his followers. He was scaring them. “They were on their way up to Jerusalem, with Jesus leading the way, and the disciples were astonished, while those who followed were afraid.” Look a little deeper, and see that the entire life of Christ was just this, a striding for Jerusalem, a fast-walk toward a crucifixion. This is the God of the Scriptures running to my rescue. “I set my face like flint.” What is the greatness of Jesus? This is first: He had compassion on me. My need reached him and was felt like a kick in the stomach. So he saved me.
Jesus Predicts his Death a Third Time
32 They were on their way up to Jerusalem, with Jesus leading the way, and the disciples were astonished, while those who followed were afraid. Again he took the Twelve aside and told them what was going to happen to him. 33 “We are going up to Jerusalem,” he said, “and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, 34 who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise.” –Mark 10: 32-34
What are we to make of Jesus Christ? C. S. Lewis pointed out that the real question is, what is he to make of us? A fly deciding what to make of an elephant is not without its comic elements. On a more serious note, Lewis made the observation that “if Jesus is false, he is of no importance. If he’s true, he is of infinite importance. The one thing he can never be is moderately important.” The truth is, it is Christ himself that is asking from the pages of the gospels: “What about you? Who do you say I am?” To reply that he is just one of many great men does not deal intelligently with the uniqueness of Christ jutting up from the whole vast landscape of human history. If you’ll allow one more nod to the Oxford don C. S. Lewis, here is his take on Jesus: “You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at 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 option open to us. He did not intend to.” What does he mean by that? Once you say Jesus is not everything Christianity makes him out to be, you are obligated to provide an alternative explanation to the phenomenon that he is. It’s not so easy. Once you say he is not Lord, you are compelled to support one of the following premises: he was both a great moral teacher and a disgusting liar for claiming to be God; he was both a great moral teacher and a raving lunatic for thinking he was God; he was a great moral teacher even though we really know almost nothing about him that isn’t legendary . . . or I suppose you can feebly say he wasn’t a great moral teacher at all. But how else shall I say this? None of these work.
For starters, Jesus Christ has been, on the strength of his teaching, the central figure in Western civilization for the past 20 centuries. During this time, the arts, education, medicine, science, justice, charity, and civil rights have all grown best out of Christian soil. These facts and the very depth and sanity of Jesus’ words argue that he is the great moral teacher. And here’s the rub: his scandalous claim of Deity is the inextricable, gravitational center of all his good teaching and of his very life. They asked him under oath, “Tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.” He answered in the affirmative, with “Yes, it is as you say.” The greatest teacher made the greatest claim. What will you do with it? Was he lying when he claimed to be God? Is he a great moral teacher who asked obedient millions to lay down their lives for what he knew to be false? It is an unjustifiable contradiction that the man of such moral discernment, which has eclipsed that of every other human being, should be the author of such an utterly despicable fraud. And does a religious huckster of that magnitude change the world with the beauty of his character and ethic? Not only that, does a shyster take his lie all the way to a tortured death? Consider that those who know God best are the ones most profoundly aware of personal guilt. Yet the wise and gentle Jesus, who lived closer to God than any other person, lived free of any sense of any personal sin whatsoever. Then was he deluded in claiming to be God? Neither megalomaniacs nor psychotics are marked by humility, grace, and brilliance of thought; nor do they achieve the beautiful cohesiveness in life that millions wish to emulate; nor do others bloom and thrive in relationship with such people; nor do these people convince those that actually know them of their godlike qualities, especially not the likes of Saul of Tarsus. Saul was not only a positively brilliant man but also a man who did not want to be convinced. All this explains why it is virtually unheard of for even the most voracious critics of Christianity to actually take on Christ himself. No one dares make the case that he was either a shady or an unstable character.
Perhaps the man himself is the stuff of legend. Do you realize that if we didn’t have the New Testament, we could still learn all the basic biographical information about Jesus from unimpeachable, unbiased first century voices, such as a Jewish historian named Josephus and Roman historians named Pliny and Tacitus to name just a few? In fact, 39 ancient sources corroborate over one hundred facts about Jesus Christ. (As reported separately by Phlegon and Thallus, there is fascinating circumstantial evidence as well, such as the earthquake and an impossibly broad eclipse that coincides with the death of Christ.) Besides, is it silly, superstitious legend that, in the words of historian Philip Schaff, “This Jesus . . . without money or arms conquered more millions than Alexander, Caesar, Muhammad and Napoleon”? It seems absurd to suggest that such a wake in the ocean of world history was left behind by nothing!
Were the words of Christ that lay claim to equality with God and the miracle of Jesus stepping alive out of his own death later legendary revisions? So then the disciples were utterly changed from cowering cynics to loud, smiling martyrs by nothing? Or was “that social earthquake” whereby, in the space of those few short years in question, thousands of Jewish people altered their most fundamental traditions and beliefs caused by nothing? Thousands of Jewish people abandoned their Sabbath Day restrictions, mandatory circumcision, and animal sacrifice, their separation from Gentiles, and their fond political hopes for a Messiah. These beliefs and traditions had made their lives meaningful and had identified their people for centuries. However, they now found clear justification for each of these dizzying changes in their own ancient Scriptures.
It won’t weaken my case to admit that there are a few precedents for legendary material attaching to historic figures, for example, the Buddha. But the comparison to Christ is weak. Whereas legend, by the very nature of things, only develops after centuries (and all contemporary witnesses) have passed, the historical attestation of Jesus’ words and deeds by countless credible witnesses dates back to his own generation. (By the way, Buddha lived in the sixth century B.C, and his life was recorded in the first century A.D.)
When the apostle Paul writes, “What I received I passed on to you as of first importance,” he refers to his meeting with the other apostles shortly after the saving events in Jerusalem. He then records the creedal statements he received there—see them for yourself in 1 Corinthians chapter 15. (See also Philippians chapter 2 and 1 Timothy chapter 3 to name a couple similar places). Thus we have the testimony of the church’s convictions about Jesus that were fully formed within two to five years of the earth-shattering events themselves. It’s all there. He died for our sins. He was buried. He was raised.
Church historian Jaroslav Pelikan demonstrates that the oldest Christian sermons, the oldest accounts of a Christian martyr, the oldest pagan reports of the church, and the oldest liturgical prayers all refer to Jesus as Lord and God. Scholar Gary Habermas identifies seven secular sources and several early creeds that establish the deity of Christ as “definitely present in the earliest church.” There is nothing comparable in all recorded history for a legend developing so loudly, so uniformly, so publicly, so free of the flavor of mythical embellishment, and above all, so very, very close to the events themselves. Ready for a bottom line? Unless the disciples of Jesus, though willing to die for him, completely forgot who Jesus actually was or had no hand in the forming of the church’s beliefs, the idea that Jesus was a legend makes no sense, not to those who care about history.
Philip Schaff concluded: “A character so original, so complete, so uniformly consistent, so perfect, so human and yet so high above all human greatness, can be neither a fraud nor a fiction. . . . It would take more than a Jesus to invent a Jesus.” That is to say, there’s no one like the Lord Christ. He is unparalleled, unduplicatable, unconcoctable. Who do you say he is? The option left to you, of course, is that our uninventable Jesus is everything he claimed to be, everything true Christians believe. If you’re still not convinced, consider a fascinating, backdoor approach to the question of Christ: the Great Proposition from Josh McDowell. If God chose to become a man, what would he be like? Ever think of that? It’s a very good question. I mean, how could God with skin on let us know it was really him?
Well, he could prophesy his coming centuries in advance and in fingerprint-like detail so that his arrival would be unmistakable. If God became a man, he would be certain to have an utterly unique birth as his entrance into human history. You could expect an outbreak of miracles like signposts pointing to him and to what you could expect would be a life lived more beautifully, more perfectly than any other human life. His words would be the greatest ever spoken—with lasting, universal influence—and he, the mightiest factor in world history, would make sure those words would reach to the ends of earth and of time. And not only would Immanuel—“God with us”—satisfy the spiritual hunger in humanity but he would somehow overcome humanity’s most pervasive and feared enemy. He would come to do something about death. Does any of this sound familiar? This is Jesus Christ and only Jesus Christ.
But enough of reasoned, historical arguments. I promise I’ll stop piling them up if you promise to stop fending them off. The reason I bother with them at all is to discredit the unreasoned, unhistorical potshots at Christ—and this is my heart—wishing only that you might stand face-to-face with the thing itself, with God loving you, a sinner, in Christ; that I might leave you with him and his mercy; that you might ponder alone for a moment the legitimate scandal that remains, the cross itself—“that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ.”
If anything is going to persuade you that this is true, it’s the words themselves. It is the Word of God, by the power of his Spirit, that works more than intellectual assent. It crushes your heart on the matter of all your sin. Four or five of his words—“Your sins are forgiven” or “Yes, I am coming soon”—can do more for you than any human attempt to justify them. By God’s power alone, the last two words of “Jesus died for me” jump the gap between head and heart. The great Lord Christ issues his mighty commands.
“Repent . . . that times of refreshing may come.”
“Trust in God; trust also in me.”
“Do not be afraid.”
These are the grace imperatives—these words hold within them the power to accomplish in you the very things they command. It’s not unlike the time Jesus told the little dead girl to get up and live. So she did. We were sitting down to eat in a family restaurant. My little redhead, Hannah, flashed the world’s most contagious smile to a woman sitting in the next booth. The woman did a most amazing thing. She didn’t smile back. I didn’t know such a thing was even possible.
The sudden, unexpected, undeserved way in which God smiled at this world in Christ—the light of the knowledge of the glory of God all in one beaming human face— ought to fill the vast, unthinkable spaces in the universe with shouts of “Glory! Halleluiah!” God has given us his Son. Are you going to go on saying he didn’t? Or will you smile back? This is the issue. Who is Jesus? What do you say?