Now we worship you Jesus, God, and we marvel together with human beings across centuries and continents. We just marvel at this unusual man. We love this unusual man.Read More
A lot of you know the CNN talk show host Larry King who has interviewed maybe more people than anyone in history.
Larry King once said his favorite question is, “Will you marry me?” …because he’s been married eight times.
He said if he could interview just one person in history that one person would be Jesus Christ.
And the one question he would ask him is, “Were you born of a virgin?”
Because that’s what history boils down to.
It’s funny how the identity of this Man, Jesus — that question — never goes away.
That’s actually what I want to talk about in this message.
There’s a question a lot of people have about Jesus inside the church and outside the church… and I’ll put it like this.
A lot of people wonder:
Why did people decide Jesus was divine and what difference does it make?
He was probably a good person
and he probably taught about love
and the Golden Rule
and being a good Samaritan
and turning the other cheek
and all that good stuff…
But the idea that he was divine, the Son of God, the second Person of the Trinity just sounds kind of weird.
It makes Christianity exclude people who can’t believe that stuff about Jesus.
Isn’t it true all that stuff about Jesus being the Son of God actually got made up centuries after his death?
Isn’t it true when people wrote the Gospels they would take passages from the Old Testament and kind of twist them around to make it sound like they were predicting Jesus?
These are really important questions.
What’s fascinating is if you read through the Gospels, you see the question of Jesus’ identity puzzled people in that day just like it does in our day.
For example, one time John the Baptist was in prison. John had baptized Jesus, expected great things from him, but Jesus didn’t do what John thought he would.
So John from prison sends followers to ask Jesus a poignant question.
Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else? — Luke 7:19
Jesus replies in a very unusual way. He says to them:
Go back and report to John what you see and hear. — Luke 7:22
This is odd.
He deliberately doesn’t say yes or no. It’s kind of like he’s saying, “You’re going to have to think more deeply about this question.”
There’s a similar conversation in the gospel of John…
Then came the Festival of Dedication at Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was in the temple courts walking in Solomon’s Colonnade. — John 10:22-23
These details are loaded.
The Festival of Dedication is what we call Hanukkah. It’s when Israel would celebrate many years earlier that they had won their independence from Syria. So it’s kind of like the Fourth of July.
Here’s Jesus, who everyone is wondering, “Who is this unusual man? Is he the Messiah? Is he going to lead us to freedom?”
He’s not just in Jerusalem, not just in the temple, which is Ground Zero for their hopes for independence. He’s walking around in what’s called Solomon’s Colonnade.
Some of you will remember Solomon was the son of David.
Israel is waiting for a son of David who will free them.
Jesus is sending really loud signals.
That’s why those who were there gathered around Jesus, were saying:
How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly. — John 10:24
But Jesus doesn’t tell them plainly.
His response is:
I did tell you, but you do not believe. The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me. — John 10:25
This is starting to sound like a presidential candidate when he’s asked, “Are you going to balance the budget?”
It’s almost like Jesus is saying, “Because you all have the wrong idea about who the Messiah is going to be, you’re waiting for the wrong thing. A plain yes or a plain no would mislead you, so I’m going to have to change your concept of Messiah.”
Here’s another strange statement Jesus made.
Another group of people were wrestling with his identity because he didn’t seem to obey what Moses said about the Sabbath.
Jesus said to them:
If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. – John 5:46
“If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he” – Moses – “wrote about me.”
Now that’s weird. Why does Jesus say that?
Because if you read the books of Moses — Genesis, Exodus, and so — Jesus doesn’t show up there.
Why does he say, “Moses wrote about me”?
A great book by a guy named Richard Hays is called Reading Backwards.
Hays describes how the disciples, how Jesus’ followers, had to kind of piece together his identity in order to answer the question, “Who is this unusual man?”
Because of the extraordinary things Jesus did and said, his followers were driven back to the Old Testament Scriptures to read those Scriptures again.
They looked at Jesus in light of those Scriptures, and they looked at those Scriptures again in light of Jesus.
And they were slowly and incredibly driven to one conclusion about who this unusual man is who changed the world and changes it still.
There has never been anyone like him!
This message today is such an important message for so many people who struggle with who is Jesus, and why does it matter, and how did people come to believe these strange things about him?
I want to walk through that today.
I want to do this so you will know why Jesus’ followers became astounded at his identity, and then I want to tell you why it matters.
The place I want to start is at the very beginning of the Bible.
God creates human beings.
There’s the fall.
The human race is all messed up.
God comes to the Serpent — the tempter in the story.
I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel. — Genesis 3:15
In other words, God says immediately after the fall to the Serpent, to the embodiment of evil and darkness:
“Your days are numbered. Sin and death are going to reign in my world for a while, but one day a Man is going to come along, a Son of Man, an offspring of Eve and Adam, real flesh, real blood, kind of a second Adam, kind of like a new Adam.
“There will be enmity. That is, he will do battle with you, and he will crush your head. He’s going to win. The reign of death and sin is going to end. Healing will come to my creation through him, but you will strike his heel. He will somehow be vulnerable.
“He will be a Healer, but he will be a wounded Healer.”
Even before the echoes of the first sin have faded away, God has promised the human race a Redeemer is on his way.
And one day a wounded Healer came, and Jesus’ followers were driven by the unusual things he said and did to look again at this verse.
Very early on after Jesus, his followers had a fancy name for this verse — Genesis 3:15 — they called it the protoevangelium.
Proto from first, like prototype.
Evangelium from evangel, gospel.
The first telling of the gospel as soon as sin happened.
Here’s another piece of the puzzle.
In the Old Testament the prophet Isaiah said:
How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, “Your God reigns!” – Isaiah 52:7
In other words, someday everything is going to be the way God wants it to be. That’s God reigning.
Someday there’s going to be shalom —
no more violence
no more oppressing the poor
no more racial divisions
no more betrayal
no more greed
no more deceit
They called that the kingdom of God, the reign of God. Up there is coming down here some day.
That was Isaiah.
Now to Jesus, centuries later, the New Testament writers, writing within a generation of Jesus’ life, give a very consistent summary of his basic message… and his basic message was not, “Now everyone be nicer.”
After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” – Mark 1:14-15
“After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news…” — That’s language from Isaiah. — “…the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ [Jesus] said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near.'” Our God reigns. “Repent and believe the good news!'”
Jesus is claiming what Isaiah predicted, the reign of God, what all the prophets said was coming someday, is now being fulfilled before your very eyes.
Of course, everyone would wonder, “Why does he say that? Rome is still in charge. Everything is a mess. What has changed?”
Only one thing: Jesus is here.
He’s claiming to be the bringer of the kingdom of God.
He walked around and claimed the kingdom of God — this sphere in which God’s will for love and justice and goodness and kindness will triumph, will reign — has now arrived on earth through this little baby born in a manger, through his life and his words.
I want to pause here for a moment.
Thomas Jefferson had great regard for Jesus as a teacher. He said his moral teachings were the most noble the human race has ever heard.
But Jefferson thought any claims that Jesus was divine were just superstitious and not worthy of him.
Jefferson actually created his own Bible. You can read about this.
He literally got out a razor, took a New Testament, and cut out all the healings and all the miracles and the resurrection and all the prophecies and just kept the ethical teachings.
“Just be kind, be nice, be good to the poor,” and so on.
Here’s the problem.
In Thomas Jefferson’s Bible Jesus’ teaching begins with this statement.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” — the place where God reigns.
Jefferson left that in.
But you’ll notice Jesus didn’t say, “Now everyone be nice to the poor in spirit.”
Jesus wasn’t giving instructions for people to be nicer here. He’s not giving instructions at all.
He’s making a claim about the way things are… that the poor in spirit — those everyone in our world thinks are just the losers, the rejects, the forgotten, the marginalized — are actually now blessed.
Why are they blessed? Because now the kingdom of God is available to them.
Why is it available to them? Because Jesus is here.
Who is this unusual Man? Who would say this stuff?
Pieces of the puzzle are coming together.
Another piece of the puzzle — In the gospel of Mark after Jesus performed a healing, he asked his disciples, because they would see him do these extraordinary things and his identity is at the core of human reality,
Jesus asked, “Who do you say I am?”
Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.”
Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him. – Mark 8:29-30
That’s kind of unusual, isn’t it?
Peter gets so many things wrong; he finally gets one answer right, and Jesus says, “Don’t tell anyone you got it right.”
Why? Jesus believes he’s the Messiah.
Again, this is kind of staggering.
Just think about it historically — Jesus also believes every single human being in Israel but him has the wrong idea of who the Messiah is.
That’s a little presumptuous, isn’t it?
He decides he needs to change their concept of Messiah.
He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law,
and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. — Mark 8:31-32
“He then began to teach them the Son of Man — Jesus, the Messiah — must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the Law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.
“Jesus, what are you doing? Nobody is going to join a movement with a Messiah who has to suffer and die.”
The reason Peter rebukes him is no one expected a crucified Messiah. By definition, if you got crucified, you weren’t the Messiah. The Messiah was going to be the One who overthrew Israel’s enemies.
Rome was quite deliberate about this. Being crucified was Rome’s little message to you, “Hey, you’re not the Messiah.”
Jesus is buying time while he gives the idea of Messiah a makeover so a little group of people might understand and be able to carry on while he’s gone.
Another piece of the puzzle —
A prophet named Zechariah, way back in the Old Testament days, had said when the Messiah comes he will bring peace, and Zechariah used a striking image.
Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey… He will proclaim peace to the nations. — Zachariah 9:9
The idea being expressed here is Israel’s King is going to come. The Messiah is going to come. He will defeat their enemies. He will be victorious, and then he will bring peace.
When that happens, there will be a big parade, and the Messiah will come riding into town on a donkey.
The reason for the donkey thing is if you’re riding a donkey you’re not going to fight anyone.
In that day if you went into battle, you didn’t go on a donkey; you went on a horse of war. You went on a charger.
It’s kind of like in our day the difference between a tank and a smart car. No one goes into battle in a smart car. Maybe a Hummer, preferably a tank, not a smart car.
In the New Testament, Jesus is going into Jerusalem. It’s Passover. Israel is waiting for a Messiah who will free them from Rome. They’re waiting for a hero who will free them from Caesar like the hero Moses freed them from Pharaoh.
They’re waiting expectantly, anticipating the Messiah… and Jesus knows it.
Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her.” — Matthew 21:2
They brought the donkey and the colt and placed their cloaks on them for Jesus to sit on. — Matthew 21:7
Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey.
The crowd goes crazy… but here’s what’s strange, and no one thinks about this until after.
He’s riding into town on a donkey.
He hasn’t won yet.
He hasn’t fought yet.
He hasn’t beaten Rome yet.
He’s going to war in a smart car.
He must be really confident.
No one would go into battle without a sword and riding a donkey.
That would be a good way to get yourself killed.
Who is this unusual Man? Who does this?
When Matthew says this act fulfills what was spoken through the prophet, he’s not saying Zechariah predicted this moment like someone predicts a football score and it magically validates the Bible.
There’s an awful lot of teaching about biblical, prophetic statements. Unfortunately, they have not been really helpful or accurate.
Zechariah is not saying, “See, this magically fulfills a prediction.”
He’s saying Jesus understood.
Jesus alone knew that God’s plan from the beginning was to bring his kingdom into this world to right all wrongs, to overcome sin, not through power, not through violence, not through coercion, but through suffering love as a wounded healer.
After Jesus’ death and resurrection, his followers remember all these unusual things, like riding into town on a donkey before the battle.
They remember many centuries ago the prophet Isaiah spoke about God’s servant having to suffer.
Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. — Isaiah 53:4-5
After he has suffered, he will see the light of life and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities. — Isaiah 53:11
They understand this passage now in light of this unusual Man, Jesus, and they understand Jesus differently now in light of this passage.
They’re putting the puzzle together.
Another piece of the puzzle —
Old Testament Scriptures would talk about God’s power over nature. The psalmist talks about this for people caught on the sea in a great storm.
Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble, and he brought them out of their distress. He stilled the storm to a whisper; the waves of the sea were hushed. — Psalm 107:28-29
Back to Jesus — the gospel of Mark says one day the disciples are in the boat. They’re with Jesus.
A storm comes. They’re terrified. They cried out to Jesus. Jesus got up, rebuked the wind, and said to the waves, “Quiet. Be still.” And the wind died down. It was completely calm. They were terrified.
Do you think they were afraid a moment before when the storm was going.
They were more scared when the storm was done and asked each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him. He’s a storm calmer.”
If you’re not asking yourself, “Who is this unusual Man?” by now, you’re not paying attention.
Another piece of the puzzle —
The God of Israel revealed himself to Moses on Mount Sinai, way back at the beginning, as the One who alone forgives sin.
Part of the great gift of Israel to the world is what’s sometimes called ethical monotheism, that there is one God, not a tribe of gods, not a pantheon. There is one great God and Creator, and he is good.
So the Transcendent is also the Moral. That idea changed the world.
“Therefore, this God forgives sin, the God of Israel, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.”
Now to Jesus.
In the seventh chapter of the gospel of Luke, Jesus is having dinner at a Pharisee’s house. There’s a woman there publically known for her bad character. She comes, and she weeps at Jesus’ feet, wipes his feet with her hair.
There’s a religious leader there, and he says, “If Jesus was a prophet…” Everybody is wrestling. “Who is this unusual man? If Jesus was really a prophet, he would know this woman touching him was a sinner and he would run the other way because that’s what godly people do.”
Jesus said to the woman, “‘Your sins are forgiven.’
‘Who is this,’ the other guests began to say among themselves, “who even forgives sins?'”
He’s the sin forgiver, and if you are not asking yourself, “Who is this unusual man?” by now, you’re not paying attention to the story.
Another puzzle piece —
When the God of Israel forgave sins, where did he do it?
He did it through the temple. That’s a huge part of the Old Testament.
Three times a year Solomon sacrificed burnt offerings and fellowship offerings on the altar he had built for the Lord, burning incense before the Lord along with them, and so fulfilled the temple obligations. — 1 Kings 9:25
The temple in the Hebrew Scriptures was to embody God’s presence on earth.
That was God’s great message to say, “I want to be with you on earth. That was my plan from the beginning. Sin is blocking it, but that blockage is going to be stopped. In the meantime, here’s the temple to show I want to be with you on earth.”
Where the temple is, God is.
The temple is also the place where atonement was made and sin was forgiven.
Where the temple is, forgiveness is.
Israel was unique in this sense. There were other religions that did the sacrifice thing.
Israel had one God; that meant it had one temple. Other religions had a lot of them.
There was one place where sin was atoned for. At the same time, the prophets were always warning judgment is going to come to the temple because Israel corrupted its religion.
All religion always gets corrupted, and people in Israel would think, “Well, because we have the real temple and the real God, we can oppress the poor and be selfish and be sinful, but as long as we offer sacrifices we’re okay.”
The prophets would say, “Do not say, ‘The temple of the Lord,’ and think you’re safe. Judgment is coming to the temple.”
One day Jesus brings a whip into the temple. Some of you know this story. Everyone immediately understood. This is not just because there were money changers there and he didn’t like that practice.
Jesus is saying symbolically the judgment warned about so long ago because of the sin going on in Israel, just like in you and me. That judgment has now arrived at the temple.
When people challenged him…
Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” They replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” But the temple he had spoken of was his body.
After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken. — John 2:19-22
Not some isolated prediction. The whole thing, the whole Old Testament, was about God wanting to be with the people he loves, and now he is through Jesus.
This is another puzzle piece. Jesus is the new temple.
What the temple was, Jesus is.
What the temple did, Jesus does.
Up there has come down here, God with us, Immanuel.
One puzzle piece after another.
In John 6, people asked Jesus for a sign like Moses gave Israel the sign of manna. That’s a great sign.
Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven.
For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
That’s what bread does. It nourishes. It nurtures. It keeps alive.
“Sir,” they said, “always give us this bread.” Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. — John 6:32-35
Who is this unusual man? Who says stuff like this?
The biggest puzzle piece… Jesus dies, and with him all the hopes of his followers die.
On the third day he’s resurrected, but if you look carefully at the Gospels, his followers’ immediate response to his resurrection on the day it happened might surprise you.
This is the gospel of Mark, generally understood to be the first gospel written.
The women go to the tomb on the third day. A young man tells them:
“You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples.” — Mark 16:6-7
I’m about to read for you the last verse in the entire gospel of Mark.
Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid. — Mark 16:8
That’s how the book ends.
What kind of ending is that?
Where is like that happy Easter, they-all-lived-happily-ever-after stuff?
This is so unusual.
Check this out in your Bible sometime later today — many decades later some scribes wrote additional material to tack onto it to make it a happier ending.
There’ll be verses in italics and a little footnote that says these verses are not in the oldest, earliest manuscripts.
What’s going on?
When Jesus rose on that day, no one knew what it meant yet.
There were some people in Israel who expected there to be a resurrection, but anyone who expected a resurrection expected when it came it would come for everyone.
It will come all at once. It will be very dramatic. It will coincide with when Israel defeats its enemies and the temple is cleaned up and everything is set right.
No one expected a crucified Messiah.
No one expected a resurrected Messiah.
They would have to figure it out.
We actually see this happening in Luke.
After the resurrection two disciples are walking to Emmaus, and they’re trying to figure out what the reports on the empty tomb mean.
They’ve heard about it. They know the tomb is empty, but they don’t know what it means.
So they’re actually still despondent. They’re not happy.
He asked them, “What are you discussing together as you walk along?” They stood still, their faces downcast.
One of them, named Cleopas, asked him, “Are you the only one visiting Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?” — Luke 24:17-18
They tell Jesus what happened, but they still don’t know what it means.
Jesus said to them:
“How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?”
And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself. — Luke 24:26-27
Wouldn’t you love to have been there for that little Bible study? Can you imagine those words?
“Here’s what the whole thing means. The whole thing was talking about what I have come to bring to earth.”
Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” — Luke 24:31-32
Jesus opens their eyes to the Scriptures; the Scriptures open their eyes to Jesus; and they suddenly see he’s the death defeater. He’s the One.
His followers are driven to a realization that can hardly be put into words, and yet it continues to rock the world and change lives even today.
That’s why in Jesus God has come to earth. Immanuel — God with us!
He is the kingdom bringer.
He is the Bread of Life.
He is the sin forgiver.
He is the storm calmer.
He is the Son of God.
He is the Son of Man.
He is the wounded Healer.
He is the once and future King.
He’s the One we’ve all been waiting for —
every lonely widow
every greedy tax collector
every disappointed dreamer
every rejected teenager
every betrayed lover
every forgotten child
So we sing the words:
Glory, to the light of the world.
all the promises
all the dreams
all the shipwrecks
all the heartbreaks
all the wounds and aches of the human race have been pointing to something that’s going to happen… have been pointing to Someone who’s going to come, and it’s him.
The reason this matters is not because God is going to give everyone a theology test on Jesus’ identity and if you get the answer right something good happens to you.
The reason this matters is not so people can say, “Well, I’m a Christian, and I believe the right stuff. I’m right, and you are wrong.”
Jesus said more clearly than anyone — someone can affirm the right religion and become the wrong person.
The reason this matters is so we can know it is true and it is real.
He is true, he is real, and he can be trusted!
It’s true that it is more blessed to give than to receive.
It’s true you must lose your life if you’re going to find it.
It’s true the last are going to be first.
It’s true whatever you do for the least of these you do for him.
It’s true you don’t have to worry about tomorrow because Jesus holds it.
It’s true you don’t have to be afraid of death because Jesus defeated it.
It’s true you don’t have to hide your sin because Jesus died for it.
Its’ true eternity is now in session, and you can just walk right on in.
It’s true love embraces you.
It’s true joy upholds you.
It’s true servanthood ennobles you.
It’s true shalom is coming.
It’s true justice is coming.
It’s true hope is coming.
He is coming… and these are not Hallmark card sayings.
They are not soft hopes.
They are not faith traditions.
They are not personal values.
These things are true…
And you can count on them.
And you can live by them.
And you can die for them.
Now we worship you, God, and we marvel together with human beings across centuries and continents. We just marvel at this unusual man. We love this unusual man.