15 December 2017

Who is Jesus? – part 1

In this, the first of five articles, Dr Desi Alexander invites us to take a fresh look at how the Four Gospels give an extraordinary portrait of Jesus Christ.

Jesus Christ from four perspectives: part 1

As a child I loathed vegetables. For years I avoided them, with one exception – potatoes, but even they had to be either packaged as crisps or deep-fried as chips. As time passed and new social settings arose, I found myself being presented with plates containing peas, carrots and the like. Eventually, personal embarrassment forced me to eat them. And to my surprise they were nothing like what I had imagined them to be. A new world of tastes opened up to me. Soon I was eating greens and everything else.

You cannot compare Jesus to vegetables. Yet, some people imagine Him to be something that He is not. So here’s an invitation to take a fresh look. Over several issues of ‘Rejoice Always’, we’re going to explore briefly the four earliest surviving accounts of His life. We know these short biography-like records as the Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

The Four Gospels do not present rival views of Jesus Christ. The fact that all four were read by the earliest Christian communities indicates that they were not seen as being in competition with one another. On the contrary, taken together they give a fuller and deeper understanding of Jesus.

By describing Jesus from four different perspectives, the Gospels provide us with a rich picture of this most amazing and unique person. While they are in complete harmony, each Gospel has its own particular emphasis. This allows us to see Jesus from four different perspectives. So how do they portray Jesus?

Motivated by a desire to persuade Jews of the importance of Jesus, Matthew gives emphasis in his Gospel to the theme of Jesus as the son of David who establishes the kingdom of heaven. Conscious of a longestablished tradition involving the royal house of David, Matthew emphasises Jesus’ regal status. From his opening genealogy to Jesus’ last words to his disciples, Matthew underlines the reality and significance of the royalty of Jesus.

Throughout Matthew’s Gospel Jesus’ royal nature is demonstrated by the authority that He shows through His actions and words. Special attention is given to His teaching on the kingdom of heaven. According to Matthew, Jesus comes to create an entirely new type of kingdom over which He reigns. His coming marks the start of a kingdom that will one day bring universal peace to the earth.

The good news story that Matthew tells is an invitation for everyone to embrace Jesus as king. This choice involves adopting a radically different life-style, governed by attitudes and values that reflect the perfection of God’s own holy nature.

While membership of the kingdom of heaven is demanding, citizenship is worth everything, as Matthew reminds us through Jesus’ parable about a man who finds hidden treasure in a field and sells everything he possesses in order to buy the field.

Unfortunately, some people will discover that their claim to kingdom membership is invalid, for only those who truly submit to Jesus’ authority and obey Him will be acknowledged by Him on His return in regal glory and splendour.

If Matthew emphasises the royal nature of Jesus, Mark portrays him as the Son of God who suffers to ransom others. In his dynamic portrait of Jesus’ adult life, Mark reveals Jesus’ unique status as the Son of God. Initially, Jesus’ divine nature is displayed through both his remarkable power to perform miracles and the hostility of Satan and his allies, both demonic and human.

Surprisingly, Mark reveals that the Son of God’s triumph over the powers of evil will be achieved through suffering and death. Reversing normal expectations, Jesus gives up His life that people may be freed from both bondage to Satan and their own sinful human nature.

Apart from inflicting the cruelest of deaths, crucifixion is an exceptionally humiliating form of execution. There is no glamour or dignity in being nailed to a cross. Yet, for Mark, Christ’s crucifixion marks the climax of the Gospel; the cross stands at the very heart of all that Jesus does.

Importantly, in Mark’s Gospel the cross also defines the nature of Christian discipleship. As Jesus’ teaching reveals, His followers are expected to take up the cross daily. Like Jesus, they are to walk the path of humility; they are to give their lives in serving others. The Christian life involves putting other people first rather than asserting our own importance.

Matthew and Mark give emphasis to Jesus as the ‘Son of David’ and ‘Son of God’ respectively, Luke presents Jesus as the saviour of the world who seeks the lost. Luke is deeply impressed by the compassion that Jesus shows for those who have been rejected by others. Although Zacchaeus, who collected taxes for the Romans, was despised and shunned by his neighbours, Jesus sought him out. He knew that this lost son of Abraham needed to be rescued. Jesus’ short visit to his home achieved

remarkable results. As this episode reveals, an encounter with Jesus can be a life-transforming experience. In a society where clear distinctions were drawn between those who were religious and those who were not, Jesus’ willingness to embrace the irreligious was highly exceptional and controversial. Overturning the conventions of His day, Jesus is frequently found going against the tide. His message that God’s love extends to the lost was revolutionary.

Unfortunately, not everyone welcomes the good news of God’s unmerited, pardoning grace. As the parable of the prodigal son graphically reveals, the father’s joy at the return of his remorseful younger son is not shared by his older brother.

While the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke share much in common, John’s Gospel is quite distinctive. With its emphasis upon certain miraculous signs done by Jesus and his pilgrimages to Jerusalem for various feasts, John’s account has a very different feel to it. John deliberately selects different incidents from the life of Jesus in order to show his readers that Jesus is the Lamb of God who brings eternal life through a new exodus.

John’s presentation of Jesus is influenced by his understanding of the divine rescue of the Israelites from Egypt, recorded in the Old Testament book of Exodus. John views Jesus as achieving an even greater deliverance.

As the blood of the Passover sacrifice saved the first-born male Israelites from death, so John sees the sacrifice of Jesus as life giving. Remarkably, Jesus gives eternal life to those who believe in Him.

Not surprisingly, the early Christians valued greatly the Four Gospels with their complementary literary portraits of Jesus. In a very important way, they prevent Jesus from becoming a mere fact. As we read them we encounter a real person, someone with whom we can identify, even though He is so utterly different to how we are.

If we read the Gospels with an open mind, we soon discover that we cannot account for Jesus Christ in terms of Him being an ordinary, or even extraordinary, human being. His exceptional nature requires that we take seriously the claim that he is divine. C.S. Lewis draws out the significance of this: “A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He 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. 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 patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.” (Mere Christianity, pp. 52-53).

As Lewis perceptively acknowledges, Jesus cannot be easily categorised as merely a man. There is too much about Him that defies purely human explanations. All of the Gospels affirm unambiguously Jesus’ divine nature. The Gospels are more than ‘good news’; they are ‘great news’. Everyone ought to be amazed by Jesus Christ. If we are to obey his invitation to follow Him and take up the cross each day, we need to be convinced of His uniqueness and overwhelmed by what He has done for us.

Nothing matches the experience of discovering personally the unmerited, sacrificial love of Jesus. Hopefully, this short introduction to the four Gospels will provide a fresh impetus to reexamine them and discover anew the most unique and incredible ‘man’ who has ever lived and who continues to live.

Dr Alexander has recently written a short introduction to the Four Gospels, entitled ‘Discovering Jesus: Four Gospels, One Person.’ (IVP, 2010).

Desi Alexander