Have you ever met a man who is the center of attention wherever he goes? Some mysterious, indefinable characteristic sets him apart from all other men. Well, that’s the way it was two thousand years ago with Jesus Christ. But it wasn’t merely Jesus’ personality that captivated those who heard him. Those who witnessed his words and life tell us that something about Jesus of Nazareth was different from all other men.
Jesus’ only credentials were himself. He never wrote a book, commanded an army, held a political office, or owned property. He mostly traveled within a hundred miles of his village, attracting crowds who were amazed at his provocative words and stunning deeds.
Yet Jesus’ greatness was obvious to all those who saw and heard him. And while most great people eventually fade into history books, Jesus is still the focus of thousands of books and unparalleled media controversy. And much of that controversy revolves around the radical claims Jesus made about himself---claims that astounded both his followers and his adversaries.
It was primarily Jesus’ unique claims that caused him to be viewed as a threat by both the Roman authorities and the Jewish hierarchy. Although he was an outsider with no credentials or political powerbase, within three years, Jesus changed the world for the next 20 centuries. Other moral and religious leaders have left an impact---but nothing like that unknown carpenter’s son from Nazareth.
What was it about Jesus Christ that made the difference? Was he merely a great man, or something more?
These questions get to the heart of who Jesus really was. Some believe he was merely a great moral teacher; others believe he was simply the leader of the world’s greatest religion. But many believe something far more. Christians believe that God has actually visited us in human form. And they believe the evidence backs that up.
After carefully examining Jesus’ life and words, former Cambridge professor and skeptic, C. S. Lewis, came to a startling conclusion about him that altered the course of his life. So who is the real Jesus? Many will answer that Jesus was a great moral teacher. As we take a deeper look at the world’s most controversial person, we begin by asking: could Jesus have been merely a great moral teacher?
Even those from other religions acknowledge that Jesus was a great moral teacher. Indian leader, Mahatma Gandhi, spoke highly of Jesus’ righteous life and profound words.1 Likewise, Jewish scholar Joseph Klausner wrote, “It is universally admitted … that Christ taught the purest and sublimest ethics … which throws the moral precepts and maxims of the wisest men of antiquity far into the shade.”2
Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount has been called the most superlative teaching of human ethics ever uttered by an individual. In fact, much of what we know today as “equal rights” actually is the result of Jesus’ teaching. Historian Will Durant, a non-Christian, said of Jesus that “he lived and struggled unremittingly for ‘equal rights’; in modern times he would have been sent to Siberia. ‘He that is greatest among you, let him be your servant’—this is the inversion of all political wisdom, of all sanity.”3
Many, like Gandhi, have tried to separate Jesus’ teaching on ethics from his claims about himself, believing that he was simply a great man who taught lofty moral principles. This was the approach of one of America’s Founding Fathers, President Thomas Jefferson, who cut and pasted a copy of the New Testament, removing sections he thought referred to Jesus’ deity, while leaving in other passages regarding Jesus’ ethical and moral teaching4. Jefferson carried around his cut and pasted New Testament with him, revering Jesus as perhaps the greatest moral teacher of all time.
In fact, Jefferson’s memorable words in the Declaration of Independence were rooted in Jesus’ teaching that each person is of immense and equal importance to God, regardless of sex, race, or social status. The famous document sets forth, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights …”
But one thing Jefferson didn’t answer: If Jesus falsely claimed to be God he couldn’t have been a good moral teacher. But did Jesus really claim deity? Before we look at what Jesus claimed, we need to examine the possibility that he was simply a great religious leader?
Surprisingly, Jesus never claimed to be a religious leader. He never got into religious politics or pushed an ambitious agenda, and he ministered almost entirely outside the established religious framework.
When one compares Jesus with the other great religious leaders, a remarkable distinction emerges. Ravi Zacharias, who grew up in a Hindu culture, has studied world religions and observed a fundamental distinction between Jesus Christ and the founders of other major religions.
"In all of these, there emerges an instruction, a way of living. It is not Zoroaster to whom you turn; it is Zoroaster to whom you listen. It is not Buddha who delivers you; it is his Noble Truths that instruct you. It is not Mohammad who transforms you; it is the beauty of the Koran that woos you. By contrast, Jesus did not only teach or expound His message. He was identical with His message."5
The truth of Zacharias’ point is underscored by the number of times in the Gospels that Jesus’ teaching message was simply “Come to me” or “Follow me” or “Obey me.” Also, Jesus made it clear that his primary mission was to forgive sins, something only God could do.
In The World’s Great Religions, Huston Smith observed, “Only two people ever astounded their contemporaries so much that the question they evoked was not ‘Who is he?’ but ‘What is he?’ They were Jesus and Buddha. The answers these two gave were exactly the opposite. Buddha said unequivocally that he was a mere man, not a god—almost as if he foresaw later attempts to worship him. Jesus, on the other hand, claimed … to be divine.”6
And that leads us to the question of what Jesus really did claim for himself; specifically, did Jesus claim to be divine?
So what is it that convinces many scholars that Jesus claimed to be God? Author, John Piper explains that Jesus claimed power which uniquely belonged to God.
“…Jesus’ friends and enemies were staggered again and again by what he said and did. He would be walking down the road, seemingly like any other man, then turn and say something like, ‘Before Abraham was, I am.’ Or, ‘If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.’ Or, very calmly, after being accused of blasphemy, he would say, ‘The Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.’ To the dead he might simply say, ‘Come forth,’ or, ‘Rise up.’ And they would obey. To the storms on the sea he would say, ‘Be still.’ And to a loaf of bread he would say, ‘Become a thousand meals.’ And it was done immediately.”7
But what did Jesus really mean by such statements? Is it possible Jesus was merely a prophet like Moses or Elijah, or Daniel? Even a superficial reading of the Gospels reveals that Jesus claimed to be someone more than a prophet. No other prophet had made such claims about himself; in fact, no other prophet ever put himself in God’s place.
Some argue that Jesus never explicitly said, “I am God.” It is true that he never stated the exact words, “I am God.” However, Jesus also never explicitly said, “I am a man,” or “I am a prophet.” Yet Jesus was undoubtedly human, and his followers considered him a prophet like Moses and Elijah. So we cannot rule out Jesus being divine just because he didn’t say those exact words, anymore than we can say he wasn’t a prophet.
In fact, Jesus’ statements about himself contradict the notion that he was simply a great man or a prophet. On more than one occasion, Jesus referred to himself as God’s Son. When asked whether he thought it far-fetched for Jesus to be the Son of God, lead singer of U2, Bono, answered:
“No, it’s not far-fetched to me. Look, the secular response to the Christ story always goes like this: He was a great prophet, obviously a very interesting guy, had a lot to say along the lines of other great prophets, be they Elijah, Muhammad, Buddha, or Confucius. But actually Christ doesn’t allow you that. He doesn’t let you off the hook. Christ says, No. I’m not saying I’m a teacher, don’t call me a teacher. I’m not saying I’m a prophet….I’m saying I’m God incarnate.” And people say: No, no, please, just be a prophet. A prophet we can take.” 8
Before we examine Jesus’ claims, it is important to understand that he made them in the context of the Jewish belief in one God (monotheism). No faithful Jew would ever believe in more than one God. And Jesus believed in the one God, praying to his Father as, “the only true God.”9
But in that same prayer, Jesus spoke of having always existed with his Father. And when Philip asked Jesus to show them the Father, Jesus said, “Philip, have I been with you so long and you don’t know me? Whoever has seen me, has seen the Father.”