Who is Jesus? This was a recurrent question in the context in which He lived and ministered in the first century AD. But after more than 20 centuries, it still remains the most debated question.
That’s hardly astonishing because “the character of Jesus”, wrote W. E. H. Lecky, “has not only been the highest pattern of virtue, but the strongest incentive to its practice, and has exerted so deep an influence, that it may be truly said that the simple record of three years of active life has done more to regenerate and to soften mankind than all the disquisitions of philosophers and all the exhortations of moralists.”
Lecky was a 19th century historian, a non-Christian, whose historical enquiry impelled him to acknowledge that Jesus is not only a historical figure, but also our eternal contemporary — someone who continues to have a far-reaching influence on the world.
Jesus is not only a historical figure, but also our eternal contemporary — someone who continues to have a far-reaching influence on the world
Today, a significant segment of the world continues to divide history into BC and AD with respect to His birth, and roughly 31 per cent of the world’s population claims to follow Him in one sense or the other. This kind of widespread influence means that everyone has an opinion about Him. Some of these are supported by serious historical arguments and others are purely figments of people’s imaginations. One thing is for sure — not all of these ideas can be right.
Any honest enquirer seeking to understand who Jesus is must look at the New Testament as his primary source. It is true that there are some early non-Christian writings that mention Him, but they are few and inconsequential and need not be considered here. The New Testament documents produced within the first century AD present a historically accurate portrait of Jesus’ person, His claims and work. It’s important then to turn to the pages of the Gospels to understand Jesus and the claims He made within the setting of first century Judaism. Accordingly, the rest of the space will be devoted to examining several vignettes of Jesus’ ministry from the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) to learn about His self-understanding.
Jesus called attention to who He was by showing who He was and analysing what His actions meant. His actions not only divulged who He thought Himself to be, but also resulted in His rejection by the Jewish leadership. Jesus’ actions forced people in the first century world to decide who He was. They have the same effect today!
One of the weighty objections the Jewish leaders had about Jesus’ ministry was His audacious claim to be able to forgive people’s sins. The story recorded in Mark 2:1-12 details one such incident (see Matthew 9:1-8 and Luke 5:17–26 as well).
Jesus was back in Capernaum and preaching the word to people, most likely in Simon’s house. A large crowd gathered in the home and there was no place for anyone even near the door. Four men came to see Him with hopes of healing for the paralytic they were carrying. Blocked by the crowds, they decided to take some drastic steps, by climbing onto the roof of the home and dismantling a portion of it. The people below would have been showered in a downpour of mud and rubble, likely interrupting Jesus in the middle of His teaching. The men then proceeded to gradually lower the paralytic on his bed down into the room where Jesus was.
Jesus’ actions forced people in the first century world to decide who He was. They have the same effect today
Jesus was moved by the faith of the four men and the paralytic to go to such lengths, and said, “Son, your sins are forgiven” (Mark 2:5). The religious leaders understood the import of those words and raised their complaint, “Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mark 2:7). Their criticism demonstrates a clear grasp of the issue Jesus is raising. No one has the authority to forgive sins but God. How then can Jesus forgive sins?
Those who raised the question have only two options before them — either to call Jesus a blasphemer for assuming a prerogative that only belongs to God, or raise a question about His identity because He forgives sins. It’s worth noting that in the Old Testament, Nathan the prophet in his message to David only said, “The Lord has taken away your sin” (2 Samuel 12:13). Although the prophet is the one declaring the forgiveness, the attribution is explicitly given to God. Jesus, in contrast, is making a more direct claim, implying His own authority!
Promptly, Jesus went on to say, “Which is easier: to say to this paralyzed man, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up, take your mat and walk’? But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins. So He said to the man, ‘I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home’” (Mark 2:9-11).
His logic is impeccable. It is easier to say “Your sins are forgiven” than to say “Rise, take up your bed, and walk.” Why? Because the latter pronouncement necessitates an immediate healing or else the speaker’s inability to heal is immediately established. On the other hand, anyone can say “Your sins are forgiven”, because it is not empirically verifiable. But the healing that followed demonstrated Jesus’ authority to forgive sins. He did something visible to prove the invisible. The proof of the healing and Jesus’ ability to forgive sins is shown by the paralytic rising, taking up his bed, and walking away.
If Jesus has the authority to forgive sins, a privilege that belongs to God alone, it raises the important topic of how one should view Him.
The Synoptic tradition also presents Jesus’ actions on the Sabbath that produce controversy, and introduce once again the question of Jesus’ identity. In Matthew 12:1-8 (Mark 2:23-28, Luke 6:1-5), we have the story of Jesus walking through the grainfields with His disciples on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and so began to pick the heads of grain and eat. Seeing this, the religious leaders remarked, “Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:2).
If Jesus has the authority to forgive sins, a privilege that belongs to God alone, it raises the important topic of how one should view Him
Jesus, in His response, begins with two Old Testament examples about David (Matthew 12:3-4) and the priests (Matthew 12:5-6). He then cites Hosea 6:6 to prove that the religious leaders’ harsh approach to the Sabbath goes against God’s compassionate purposes for His people.
The argument that Jesus presented so far could have been made by any Jewish Rabbi. It was all a matter of Old Testament interpretation and understanding. But no Jewish Rabbi would have ever dared to say what Jesus said next: “For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:8). This is no ordinary claim! This is a claim to have divine authority to adjudicate over the commandments of the Torah.
YHWH, the Lord God of Israel, instituted the Sabbath and is the Lord of the day (Exodus 20:8-11). Sabbath also was a distinctive feature of Judaism and its observance revealed covenant faithfulness. Jesus, in claiming to be “Lord of the Sabbath”, is identifying himself with the God of Israel who has the authority over holy time and divine calendar.
The Synoptics tell us that the night before He was crucified, Jesus ate the Passover meal with His disciples (Matthew 26:17-30, Mark 14:12-26, Luke 22:7–23). The Passover was celebrated each year as the Jewish people remembered how God had spared them and delivered them from their bondage in Egypt. It was one of the most sacred ceremonies of Israel, one that was connected to the nation’s origin. The Jewish people had been celebrating it for about 1,400 years.
Jesus redefined the celebration with reference to His impending death. “He took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is My body given for you; do this in remembrance of Me.’ In the same way, after the supper, He took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in My blood, which is poured out for you’” (Luke 22:19-20).
What does this redefining in terms of sacrifice and covenant show us about Jesus’ self-understanding? He is presenting Himself as the sacrifice who opens up the way to the new covenant relationship with God. In other words, Jesus made Himself the central figure of a new era, who makes provision for a fresh way of connecting with God. If He could take the sacred Exodus imagery and recast it in relation to Himself, what does that tell us about what He thought of Himself?
No Jewish Rabbi would have ever dared to say what Jesus said next: “For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath”
The Gospels contain a plethora of sayings that call attention to Jesus’ unique authority at the focal point of divine activity. Jesus has the authority to judge and acknowledge others before His Father (Matthew 10:32-33; Mark 8:34-38), and blessing comes to the one who does not take offence at Him (Matthew 11:6). He is greater than Abraham (John 8:58), than Solomon and Jonah (Matthew 12:38-42; Luke 11:29-32), than Jacob (John 4:12-14).
He is also greater than the Temple (Matthew 12:6). He said He came down from heaven (Matthew 5:17; 10:34-35, 40; 15:24; Mark 9:37; Luke 4:18, 43; 5:32; 9:48; 10:16; 12:49; 19:10; John 5:23-24; 6:29; 7:29; 8:16). The parable He gave about the wicked tenants indicates that Jesus is the sent Son (Matthew 21:33-46; Mark 12:1-12; Luke 20:9-19).
The scope and ultimate unity of these deeds of Jesus direct attention to who He is. The prophets of old have certainly done some of these miraculous feats. However, no human ever undertook or accomplished the combination of acts that Jesus performed. The breadth of these acts with their theological significance confirms His uniqueness.
Whether you talk about the Sabbath, the law overall, the temple cleansing, exorcisms, raising people from the dead, exercising power over creation, redefining the Passover, or forgiving sin — Jesus is doing things that only God can do. Establishing all of this are His sayings that emphasise His unique authority.
In short, the New Testament’s portrayal of Jesus is all too clear — He is God in human flesh.
In John 6:63, Jesus said, “The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” What John narrates after a few verses is fascinating: “After this, many of His disciples turned back and no longer walked with Him. So Jesus said to the twelve, ‘Do you want to go away as well?’ Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God’” (John 6:66-69).
In verse 63, Jesus said, “The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” and in verse 68, Peter said, “You have the words of eternal life.” It’s vital to understand how these two statements relate to Jesus.
Jesus, God in human flesh, offers you life right now. His incarnation, His substitutionary death, His words, and the Spirit of God all work together for your salvation, your forgiveness of sins, and your eternal life. His invitation is still open today: “Come to Me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).
A weekly brief of new resources and Scripture-based insights from our editorial team.