It can be tempting to think of Jesus Christ as just one of the many influential names in a sea of people who have made an impact in the world throughout history. Alexander the Great, Queen Elizabeth, Cleopatra, Rosa Parks, Catherine the Great, Ghengis Khan, Napoleon, Caesar, Buddha, Mohammad, Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King. And Jesus Christ. But there’s a case to be made that we must at least consider the historical person, a man from Nazareth named Jesus Christ, who is unlike any other man who’s ever lived. Is Jesus just a good man among many good men, or is he unique and therefore worthy of deeper consideration? What sets Jesus and his teachings apart from other historical figures who lived throughout history?
Almost all historians, not just Christians but also Jewish and Roman and atheist historians, will agree that Jesus was a real man who lived, not just a myth or a legend. The author H.G. Wells said “I am a historian, I am not a believer, but I must confess as a historian that this penniless preacher from Nazareth is irrevocably the very center of history. Jesus Christ is easily the most dominant figure in all history.”
When we read Homer’s Odyssey, or the writings of Aristotle, we don’t doubt these are accurate copies of ancient literature. There are significantly more ancient manuscripts and copies of the books of the Bible, in particular the gospels that recount the life of Jesus, than other works of ancient literature. This makes the gospels more reliable in their provenance than most other ancient works. We also see in the gospels what we would expect from eyewitness accounts. We see small discrepancies. This wasn’t a coordinated lie among christians. Jesus’ disciples struggled to understand and accept some of his teachings.
Meeting Jesus changed people. We hear from the Gospels that a man named Jesus did remarkable things no other man had done before. He calmed storms and raised people from the dead and turned water to wine and cast out demons. He changes the course of people’s lives.
We must also consider the words of Jesus himself. Jesus claimed he was God. No other historically notable man with this level of impact also claimed to be God and got away with it! Jesus’ teaching also differs from other religious figures who claim to have found the truth about “a” way to heaven or enlightenment. Jesus comes and makes the radical claim that HE is THE way, the truth, and the life. Jesus also said things like “the father and I are one” and forgave people’s sins, something only God could do.
We also have the witness of countless lives that have been changed by this man named Jesus. In 2000 years, in every century since Jesus, we see the heroic and extraordinary witness of saints and martyrs. All of Jesus’ disciples (except John) were martyred for their belief in the resurrection of Jesus. These men and women all have one thing in common: they all claim that the man Jesus, who is true God and true man, who is still alive today, changed them. These broken and imperfect people, fathers, mothers, poets, scientists, smart people and simple people, rich and poor, sons and daughters, they were healed and made whole and transformed through an encounter with Jesus Christ.
Since Jesus is truly a man and truly God, it should be obvious that God understands what it’s like to be human. Jesus understands me and my problems, hopes, and desires, and what it’s like to live in this world. But this also means that since Jesus is truly God, he can ask things of me no one else can. If Jesus is who he says he is then I am who he says I am.
One of the oldest images of Jesus is Christ Pantocrator from Saint Catherine’s Monastery in Egypt. This icon dates back to the 6th century AD. The right side of Jesus represents his human nature and mercy and blessing, while the left side represents his divinity and divine judgment. The two eyes are different sizes and his hair is down on one side and swept up on the other. If you duplicate each side, making a mirror image, you can see that the painter was trying to capture the mystery of these two natures of Jesus – both truly God and truly man – into one painting.
Jesus is a mystery. He will always be at least a mysterious and important historical figure worth contemplating and wrestling with. But we should confront the possibility that Jesus is more. Of all the names from throughout history, the name of Jesus stands above the rest. When we look at Jesus more closely, we’re not just considering the teachings of a good man, we’re considering what it means for God himself to become man.
C.S. Lewis, the Christian author, said of Jesus “I am trying here to prevent anyone from saying the really foolish thing that people often say…: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.’ That is the one thing we must not say.
A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things that 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. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a Great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”
And if Jesus Christ is true God and true man, he changes everything.