Who Was Jesus? Beliefs about Christ

Jesus Christ is one the most fascinating figures in human history. Despite his humble origins as the son of a poor carpenter from the Judean countryside in the Roman Empire, his short life of about 33 years, his short public ministry of about three years, and his death on a cross by means of crucifixion, Jesus is the centerpiece of the largest religion the world has ever known, Christianity. He preached a message of salvation, love, and care for the poor and those in need, and today he is adored by people of different races, cultures, and social classes. The unique of Jesus is captured in this quotation from the French military commander, Napolean Bonaparte,

orthodox icon of Christ

"Between [Christ] and every other person in the world there is no possible term of comparison. Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne, and I have founded empires. But on what did we rest the creation of our genius? Upon force. Jesus Christ founded His empire upon love; and at this hour millions of men would die for Him."

"Who was Jesus?" is a question that has been asked by people throughout the centuries. Christians believe that Jesus is God, the second person of the holy Trinity, who took on human flesh approximately 2,000 years ago. Most Christians believe Jesus was born to a virgin, his mother Mary, and, although he was tempted, lived a sinless life. Jesus' moral perfection resulted in a perfect sacrifice on the cross, which atoned for people's sins. Most Christians believe his death paid the price for sin and that he died in place of sinners. (Learn more about the Trinity here.)

The article below answers important questions about Christ given by orthodox Christianity: Was Jesus a real human being? Was he the Messiah? Was he the Son of Man? Was he the Son of God? Was Jesus God?

Jesus was a real human being

The New Testament teaches that Jesus was a real, historical person, who was born in Bethlehem (cf. Matt. 2:1). Scholars suggest that his birth took place somewhere between 7 and 4 BC. [1] The New Testament also affirms that Jesus was "born of a woman" (cf. Gal. 4:4), which demonstrates his humanity. He also exhibited other characteristics of humanity such as being tired (e.g. John 4:6), hungry (e.g. Matt. 4:2), and thirsty (e.g. John 19:28). Jesus also died a physical death (e.g. Mark 15:37). (Learn more about the book of Mark here.)

Today, the humanity of Jesus is one of the least controversial areas of Christology (i.e. "the study of Christ"), but this was not always so. In the early centuries after Christ, some taught that Jesus' body, Jesus' suffering, and Jesus' death were merely appeared to be physical in nature. Scholars call this view "docetism," from the Greek word meaning "to seem." Docetism arose from the Gnostic worldview that all matter is evil, and concluded that God could not have been associated with physicality. (Learn more about Mary, the mother of Jesus here.)

Jesus is the Messiah

The Hebrew word translated into English as "Messiah," means "anointed one." According to the Hebrew prophets, the Messiah is a king-like figure from the line of David who would, among other things, rescue Israel from her oppressors, return Jerusalem to the Jewish people, and usher in an age of peace. While Jews believe Jesus didn't fulfill prophecies such as these, Christians believe that he did. (Learn more about Jewish beliefs here.)

The New Testament equivalent of the term Messiah is "Christ" ("Christ," therefore, is not a surname or a "last name). So the New Testament title "Christ" signifies that Jesus' followers believe he is the Messiah. Additionally, affirmations of Jesus as the Messiah are found in abundance in the four Gospel narratives and the Acts of the Apostles. The Pauline and other epistles, many of which predate the Gospels, also attempt to show that Jesus is Messiah, yet they refer to him almost exclusively as "Christ." In the Gospels, various people identify Jesus as the Messiah, and Jesus himself reinforces this perception:

  • After meeting Jesus, Andrew runs to tell Peter that he has found the Messiah (John 1:41)
  • In a conversation with Jesus, a Samaritan woman says she knows the Messiah is coming. Jesus replies, "I who speak to you am he." (John 4:25-26)
  • When Jesus asks his disciples who they think he is, Peter answers, "You are the Christ." (Matt. 16:16; Mark 8:29; Luke 9:20)
  • During the Triumphal Entry, the crowds shout, "Hosanna to the Son of David!" and the Gospel author explains that this fulfilled the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9. (Matt. 21:4-9)
  • When Jesus stands trial before the Sanhedrin (the Jewish high court), the high priest asks him if he is " the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?" and Jesus replies, "I am." (Mark 14:61-62)

In Acts, one of the primary messages of the apostles is that Jesus is the Messiah:

  • "Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they [the apostles] never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Christ." (Acts 5:52)
  • "As his custom was, Paul went into the synagogue, and one three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead. 'This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Christ,' he said." (Acts 17:2-3)
  • Before King Herod Agrippa II, Paul insists, "I am saying nothing beyond what the prophets and Moses said would happen - that the Christ would suffer and, as the first to rise from the dead, would proclaim light to his own people and to the Gentiles." (Acts 26:22-23)

Jesus was the Son of Man

The "Son of Man" is used 81 times in the Gospels, and always by Jesus. No other person in the Gospel narratives nor any other New Testament writer uses the term. [4] Various explanations have been offered as to why Jesus employed the term and others did not. It may have been a term Jesus could use it early in his ministry without inciting much hostility because of its various meanings, but that would later encompass his messianic claims.

To determine what Jesus meant by the phrase, biblical scholars turn to its use in the Old Testament. There the term "Son of Man" is used in three main contexts: (1) an address to the prophet Ezekiel (e.g. Ezekiel 2:1), (2) to refer to humanity in general, especially its lowliness when compared to God and the angels (Numbers 23:19; Psalm 8:14), (3) to refer to an eschatological figure whose coming signals the end of history (Daniel 7:13-14). (Learn more about the Old Testament here.)

Jesus appears to use the phrase as used in the book of Daniel. He uses the phrase "Son of Man" when speaking of his roles of saving and judging (e.g. Mark 10:45; Matt. 25:31) and of the future coming of an exalted, heavenly figure (e.g. Matt. 13:41, 24:30; Mark 14:62; Luke 18:8). (Learn more the book of Luke here.)

Jesus was the Son of God

Another title used to refer to Jesus in the New Testament is "Son of God." In the Old Testament, this phrase had a general meaning of "belonging to God." It was applied to the people of Israel in general and especially its rulers (e.g. Exodus 4:22; 2 Samuel 7:14). Jesus does not refer to himself as the Son of God in the Gospels, but the term is used in the writings of Paul (e.g. Romans 1:4, 8:31) and in the epistle to the Hebrews (4:14). The Gospel of John refers to Jesus simply as "the Son," which may have a similar meaning. Paul uses the term for both Christ and Christians, but distinguishes between the two. Christians become sons of God by adoption, but Jesus is the rightful Son of God by nature. [7] (Learn more about the book of Romans here and the book of Hebrews here.)

Jesus is God

Christians often build the case for their answer on New Testament verses, such as the following:

  • In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.... The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. (John 1:1,14)
  • Thomas said to him [i.e. the resurrected Jesus], "My Lord and my God!" (John 20:28)
  • But about the Son he [God] says, "Your throne, O God, will last for ever and ever." (Hebrews 1:8)

In addition, some important titles and functions applied to Christ in the New Testament indicate early belief in his divinity. The statement "Jesus Christ is Lord (Greek kyrios, Hebrew adonai)" is found throughout the New Testament and was one of the earliest Christian confessions of faith. Due to the substitution of the word "Lord" in place of YHWH (the holy name of God that may not be pronounced) in Torah readings, "Lord" had come to be almost synonymous with God in Jewish thinking by the time of Jesus. This associated can be seen in the Jews' refusal to address the Roman emperor as "lord," even under penalty of death. [8]

Finally, as noted by Alister McGrath, the New Testament writers apply the following functions to Jesus that are associated only with God:

  • Jesus is the savior of humanity (Matt. 1:21, Acts 4:12, Luke 2:11)
  • It is appropriate to call on the name of Jesus in prayer (1 Cor. 1:2) and to worship him (Matt. 28:9)
  • Jesus reveals God directly: "Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father." (John 14:9)

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1. Jesus was born "Before Christ" due to a calculation error by the monk Dionysius Exiguus, who established the Christian calendar in 525 AD.

2. See, for example, 2 Samuel 7:12-13; Isaiah 11; Jeremiah 23:5-8; 30-31; Hosea 3:5.

3. Mt 16:20; Mk 8:30, 9:9; Lk 8:56, 9:21.

4. "Son of Man," Catholic Encyclopedia (1912).

5. Ibid.

6. McGrath, Christian Theology, 327.

7. Ibid., 326.

8. Ibid., 328, citing the Jewish historian Josephus.

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