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Intro to Jesus #1: WHO IS JESUS?

Updated: Feb 24



WELCOME!


Congratulations on giving your time to the most important topic ever! That is not an overstatement. The life and teachings of Jesus have the potential to change the world, one heart at a time. Understanding Jesus and applying what we learn can make us new people, create bonds with a new community, and fill our lives with a new experience of faith, hope, and love.


This four-part study series is for spiritually curious non-Christians and Christians alike. We can all benefit by learning and relearning the basics of what is most important in life. Learning about Jesus is our chance to develop a more stable and loving core to our growing spirituality. There is no better focal point than Jesus to become our life’s central theme, our mind’s internal operating system, and our heart’s guiding principle for the choices we make.


Even if you don’t want to become a believer in or follower of Jesus, learning about Jesus is still time well spent. No one single person in history has been as influential as Jesus. When we understand Jesus better we will better understand Western history, philosophy, psychology, religion, culture, and ultimately ourselves.


It is in Jesus' name that billions of desperate people pray, angry people curse, and grateful people worship. From hospitals to churches to funeral homes, in Jesus' name people are hatched, matched, patched, and dispatched. Love him or hate him, there is no one and nothing quite like Jesus.


No other person in history has been as influential as Jesus.


HOW TO GET THE MOST OUT OF THIS SERIES


Before we begin, try these suggestions:


  1. Connect with a friend or group of friends that will help you learn relationally. Jesus is all about creating, renewing, and restoring loving relationships, so it makes sense to learn about Jesus in the context of spiritually meaningful friendships. (See our Small Church page if you want help connecting.)

  2. Get a Bible. You can use online sources, like BibleGateway.com or the YouVersion app for your phone, or get your own hard copy Bible. Find a translation that is easy for you to read (minus the Shakespearian “thee” “thou” and “thine” language of the King James Version). The NIV (New International Version) is one of the best. You might also like the NRSV (New Revised Standard Version) or NAB (New American Bible) or NET (New English Translation). As you work through these “Intro to Jesus” 1820 studies, you’ll see Bible references in square brackets, like [Matthew 18:20]. Feel free to look up each Scripture reference as you go. Or, for an easier flow, read through all the material first, take your own notes, and then look up the Scripture passages later when working through the material for a second time.

  3. Balance question-asking and lesson-learning. There is always a balance between taking time to focus on questions that arise, and avoiding getting too stuck in the mud of specific questions and missing the overall lessons. If there is something you don’t understand while reading through on your own, try writing it down and bring it to your friendship group to talk about later. This can free you to move along for now and focus on what you do understand. (Also feel free to get in touch with me if I can help in any way.)

  4. Pace yourselves. Although this series is arranged into four topical studies, each study is subdivided into multiple sections. To get the most out of this series - which will included looking up and reading the listed Scriptures - take it one section (not one full study) at a time. To be clear, then, this "four part" series could easily take up 10-20 study sessions, depending on your pace and depth of study.

  5. Lastly, take time to pray before, during, after, and/or between studies. Ask God to meet with you while you read. You might not even know if you believe in God yet. But the first thing we do when we enter a house or any place where we don’t know if anyone is home is call out: “Hello? Anybody there?” Try that with God. Ask God to speak to your heart through these studies, and see what happens.



WHAT LIES AHEAD?


  • Study #1: WHO is Jesus?

  • Study #2: WHAT did Jesus teach?

  • Study #3: WHY did Jesus die?

  • Study #4: HOW can we follow Jesus?


The rest of this study responds to the first question: Who is Jesus?



* * * * *



SUMMARY: Read this and skip the rest (if you want)


  • Jesus claimed to be the Messiah, meaning Deliverer or Rescuer of humankind. Just as Moses led Israel out of slavery in Egypt, Jesus would lead us all out of slavery to our own selfishness, sin, and shame.

  • Jesus also performed many miracles, but unlike some of the more punishing miracles associated with Moses (like the ten plagues), the miracles of Jesus are creative and healing.

  • Jesus also self-identified as our "teacher", wanting to show us how to live lovingly in this life, not just how to get to heaven when we die.

  • Jesus is both the "Son of God" and "God" himself. As the Son of God, Jesus is sent from the Father to represent him. Jesus is so much a part of who God is, that to see Jesus is to see God himself.

  • The idea of the "Trinity" may seem beyond reason, but it is not against reason. It makes sense of the idea that God is love, which is a relational concept.

  • Jesus is the Word of God. The Bible is our Scripture which we read to get a clear view of Jesus, the Word of God.



INTRODUCTION


I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him. ~ JESUS (John 14:6-7)

When starting any spiritual quest or investigation, it makes good sense to begin by understanding the person of Jesus of Nazareth. No religious figure, philosopher, or spiritual guru has the universal relevance of Jesus.


  • A Rabbi and reformer to Jews

  • A prophet and Messiah to Muslims

  • An avatar to Hindus

  • An enlightened one to Buddhists

  • The Son of God to Christians

  • A wise teacher to secularists

  • The most interesting man in the world to historians

  • And “a friend of sinners” for the rest of us


Jesus is positioned like no one else to speak his message of light, life, and love into the hearts of people of every religion and no religion. So here we begin, letting Jesus tell us who he thought he was, and is.


We will take two perspectives – Jesus within history and Jesus beyond history.



WHO IS JESUS WITHIN HISTORY?


First it is good to know the historical backdrop and context that informs our understanding of the historical-biblical Jesus.


1. Jesus as Messiah

The Messiah was expected to lead a military victory against the Romans. Instead, Jesus taught his disciples how turn enemies into friends through the power of love.

Jesus of Nazareth was born in Israel about two thousand years ago (that’s about 1,500 years after Moses, 500 years after Buddha, and 600 years before Mohammed). At that time, the Jews were an oppressed people in their own country. The Romans had invaded, and Israel was a police state under Roman rule. Jewish people at that time had high hopes that one day God would send them a leader who would be their Liberator. They called this hoped-for Deliverer the “Messiah”, often translated as “Christ”, meaning the “Chosen One”. So "Christ" is not Jesus' last name, like Jesus Jones, but a title. "Jesus Christ" means Jesus (the) Messiah.


Just as God used Moses to work miracles and to lead the Jews out of bondage in Egypt, so the Messiah (or “Christ”) would work miracles and bring freedom once again to God’s people. This hope filled the air with electricity in first-century Israel. Jesus claimed to be that Messiah, and he backed up this claim with many miracles (see below). In fact, the name “Jesus” (Hebrew, Yeshua) is “Joshua” in English. And Joshua (Yeshua) was the name of Moses’s successor who led Israel into many battles to enter the Promised Land. Everything about Jesus pointed to him being the Messiah and people’s expectations grew high. Soon, thousands of people were following Jesus, probably hoping he would lead them into a military conflict against their Roman oppressors.


[Matthew 16:13-21; Luke 4:16-21; John 4:25-26]


The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.” Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he." ~ The apostle John (John 4:25-26)

Jesus claimed that, as the Messiah, he had come to set Israel free – but not the way they expected. The freedom Jesus proclaimed and provided was not political or national or geographical freedom, but spiritual freedom from our real oppressor: our own sin. Jesus claimed that everyone, oppressed and oppressor alike, Jews and Romans and everyone else, were actually in slavery to their own cycles of sin and selfishness and shame and separation. Sin keeps pulling us apart, personally and relationally. Jesus came to undo the power of sin and to help put us back together. Jesus also claimed that there was a real spiritual dark force, called Satan or the Devil, who was fueling our patterns of mutual self-destruction, and Jesus had come to defeat him too. So, just as Moses was the Deliverer who saved Israel out of slavery in Egypt, so Jesus is our Deliverer who saves all people out of our slavery to our own cycles of sin and shame.


[Matthew 1:20-21; Mark 10:45; John 1:29; 8:31-44; 12:31-33; Colossians 2:13-15; Hebrews 2:14; 1 John 3:8]


Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins. ~ The angel of the Lord (Matthew 1:20-21)


2. Jesus as Healer

Jesus miraculously restored the bodies, souls, and relationships of people in need.

Jesus didn’t ask people to blindly trust his revolutionary message. He offered many miracles as evidence of his identity and the trustworthiness of his teachings. But the miracles of Jesus were not like the miracles of Moses and other prophets of old. Jesus did not bring ten plagues of punishment, for instance, but compassionate and creative miracles of healing. Through Moses, God had turned water into blood; Jesus turned water into wine. Through Moses, God brought natural disasters as plagues to the Egyptians; Jesus calmed the storms and brought peace to people and nature alike. Something new and beautiful was happening through Jesus. The difference between Moses' and Jesus’ miracles communicated God's New Covenant emphasis on grace. By healing (and not destroying) human bodies, Jesus was providing evidence of the deeper healing he offered to human hearts through the power of forgiveness, cleansing, and restoration into relationship with God and others.


[Matthew 4:23; 8:1-4, 23-27; 9:1-8, 35; 15:32-39; Mark 4:35-41; 8:1-13; Luke 4:14-21; 7:1-17; 8:22-56; John 1:17; 2:1-12]


Ultimately, Jesus said his greatest miracle would come after he died. Jesus would rise from the dead as the ultimate validation from God that we should listen to Jesus.


[Matthew 12:40; 16:21; 27:63-66]




3. Jesus as Teacher

Jesus was known as "the Teacher" to his disciples.

Jesus’ teachings were, and continue to be, revolutionary. We will commit all of the next study to the teachings of Jesus, so for now we will just point out that Jesus and his disciples saw him as a teacher with a life-changing message. Jesus accepted his disciples calling him “Teacher” and “Rabbi” (which means teacher), and “Teacher” is also how Jesus sometimes self-identified. Jesus taught in long discourses like the Sermon on the Mount, in short stories called Parables, in conversations with friends and enemies, and through his actions. If we are ever unclear about something Jesus says, just keep reading, and what he does will embody and illustrate his message.


[Matthew 23:8; 26:18/Mark 14:14/Luke 22:11; John 1:38; 11:28; 13:13-14; 20:16]


“You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. ~ JESUS (John 13:13)

As an aside: the teachings of Jesus are the best evidence of his historical existence. The four biblical gospels that record his teaching (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) all date from the first century in Israel. Historians agree about this; there is no debate. And although each gospel author writes in his own style and from his own perspective, each one records the teaching of a unified single source – one man, one mind, one radical visionary. So we at least know that there was a single Jewish man in first-century Israel who has left his mark on history through his radical and revolutionary teachings. The logic is simple: the teachings exist by the end of the first century, so there must have been a first-century source for these teachings, a Teacher. This is who we call “Jesus”. You can call him “Mystery Person X” if you want, but “Jesus” is more likely, since Jesus (Hebrew, Yeshua; English, Joshua) was a common name at that time. Jesus the teacher had to have existed. This is historical fact. Now we can debate whether or not he walked on water and rose from the dead, but there should be no doubting the existence of the man himself. (For more on Jesus' teaching, see the next study in this series.)





WHO IS JESUS BEYOND HISTORY?


We have learned to stop assessing anyone from a merely human point of view. We used to think of Christ from a merely human perspective, but we know him so differently now! ~ The apostle Paul (2 Corinthians 5:16)

In the Bible, Jesus claims to be more than just another prophet or wise sage. His life didn’t begin when he was born two thousand years ago. Jesus says, “Before Abraham was born, I am!” That is bad grammar, but amazing insight. Jesus claims to come from outside time and space. Jesus entered human history from beyond history. The story of Jesus is infinitely ancient. The early Christ-followers affirmed this view of Jesus, saying that before his birth (called the incarnation, literally his enfleshment), Jesus was co-existent and co-equal with God. But Jesus chose to empty himself of his divine powers to enter our world on his mission of mercy.


[John 8:58; Philippians 2:5-11; Hebrews 1:1-4]



1. Jesus is the Son of God & Son of Man.


Jesus is the bridge between God and us.

While he called all other prophets God’s servants, Jesus claimed to be God’s unique Son. Jesus put himself in a different category to every messenger from God who had come before or would ever come after him. Jesus also called himself the “Son of Man”, which was a Jewish term pointing to his special role as Messiah and also identified him as fully human. So, Jesus – Son of God and Son of Man – in his very being is the bridge between God and humankind.


[Matthew 16:13-20; Mark 12:1-12; John 1:14; 1 Timothy 2:3-6]


The divine and human life of Jesus first came together through the virgin birth. The Holy Spirit generated Jesus inside Mary, so Jesus was born, grew up, and died as a real human, except without sin. In the life of Jesus we can see two things: a) who God is, and b) who we were made to be and one day will be. In Jesus we get our most perfect view of what God is like, and what perfect humanity can be like. Jesus is one-stop-shopping for everything we need to know about God and ourselves.


[Matthew 1:18-23; Luke 1:26-38; Hebrews 4:14-16]



2. Jesus is the Word of God.

Read the Word of God in print to meet the Word of God in Person.

"The Word of God is inspired, inerrant, and infallible. And when he was about eighteen year old, he grew a beard." ~ Bradley Jersak (A More Christlike Word)


Jesus claimed to be the “Alpha and the Omega”. Alpha and Omega are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. In other words, Jesus said he is the A to the Z of what God has to say to us. Jesus is God’s whole alphabet, the ultimate way God fashions his message to the world. God’s preeminent message to us was not written on tablets of stone, or through paper and ink, but through the flesh and blood and character and teaching of Jesus embedded in human history. Jesus is the Word of God. In fact, Jesus says that even if we know, study, and memorize the Bible, if we don’t let what we learn lead us to Jesus, we don’t really know God’s Word! Unlike any other prophet or spiritual guru, Jesus claimed not just to teach ultimate truth, but to be ultimate truth.


[John 1:1, 14, 18; 5:38-40; 14:6-7; 2 Corinthians 3; Hebrews 1:1-4; Revelation 22:13]


I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him. ~ JESUS (John 14:6-7)

The most profound statement about the identity of Jesus is found in the first chapter of the Gospel of John. Here it is. Read it slowly and let it sink in…


In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all humankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. … And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. … Out of his fullness we have all received grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known. ~ The apostle John (John 1:1-18)

[John 1:1-18]


That one passage is packed with identity information about Jesus. The apostle John says that Jesus is the Word of God, present with God from the beginning of all creation. That fits with the Genesis story, since we are told God created everything through his Word (e.g., And God said “Let there be light” and there was light; etc).


[Genesis 1; Colossians 1:15-20]


In fact, Jesus shows us what God is like so clearly, the apostle John says in that passage above that, until Jesus came, “no one has ever seen God” even though he knows that the Old Testament of the Bible has lots of stories about people seeing God. His point is that, until we see Jesus, we have never really seen a clear view of what God is actually like. Jesus brings our vision of God into clear focus. As the Word of God, Jesus communicates God’s love to us by what he says and by how he lives. Jesus is God’s “Show and Tell”.


[John 1:18]


Many Christians are used to calling the Bible "the Word of God". This is true in a secondary sense, but it would be more accurate to think of the Bible is God's witness to God's word, who is Jesus. In that sense, the Bible is more like John the Baptist than Jesus - pointing to Jesus and saying "Behold!" Yes, the Bible is inspired by God (2 Timothy 3:16), just as was John the Baptist, but it is Jesus who is the inerrant (sinless), authoritative Word of God to the world. Jesus said he had come to full up Scripture's true meaning and that all of the Bible was really all about him.


Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. ~ JESUS (Matthew 5:17)

And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself. (Luke 24:27)



From his letter to Mrs. Johnson on November 8, 1952




3. Jesus is God.

God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The followers of Jesus began to relate to him as their “Lord” and even worshipped him as though he was God. It is important to note that Jesus never corrects them or tells them to stop this blasphemy. Instead, Jesus receives their worship and accepts being called “My Lord and my God”.


[Matthew 2:11; 8:2; 14:33; 28:9, 17; John 9:38; 20:28]


“My Lord and my God!” ~ The apostle Thomas (John 20:28)

Jesus himself said, “The one who looks at me is seeing the one who sent me” and “If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him…. Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” When we get to know Jesus, we are getting to know God.


[John 12:45; 14:6-9]


Whoever believes in me believes not only in me but also in the one who sent me, and whoever sees me sees the one who sent me. ~ JESUS (John 12:44-45)

In the first chapter of John’s gospel (quoted above), the author not only says Jesus is the Word of God and Son of God, but that Jesus is God. Somehow, Jesus was WITH God and Jesus WAS God – with and was; alongside and equal to; distinct yet same. Jesus is not the Father, but both are somehow God (and later we are told the same about the Holy Spirit – see our last study in this series for more on the Holy Spirit). This biblical teaching led later Church leaders to use the term “Trinity” to talk about God. The idea of the "Trinity" may seem beyond reason, but it is not against reason.


[John 1:1]


Jesus helps us see that God is not only personal, but also relational within God’s own being. After spending years with Jesus, the apostle John was the first in history to write these three beautiful words: God is love. Now, love exists within the matrix of relationship. Notice, the apostle John doesn’t just say that “God is loving”, but “God is love” – not an adjective describing one aspect of God, but a noun identifying God’s very essence. God’s internal experience is ongoing loving relationship. God is somehow community-in-unity, and we were made by Love for love, by Relationship for relationship. When we get to know Jesus, we are getting to know the God who is love.


[Genesis 1:26-27; 1 John 4:8, 16]


When we read about Jesus being born into a poor family, we learn that God loves us enough to become one of us and be vulnerable with us. When we read that Jesus forgives sinners, we learn that God is merciful. When we read that Jesus cares for the outcasts, we learn that God has a soft spot for people who don't fit in. When we read about Jesus befriending women and children, we learn that God is not impressed with human power structures. When we read about Jesus healing on the Sabbath or turning the tables in the temple, we learn that God opposes legalistic and judgemental religion. When we read about Jesus washing his disciples' feet, including those he knew would later deny and betray him, we learn that God never gives up on us. And when we read about Jesus dying on the cross with forgiveness on his lips, we learn that God would prefer to die for his enemies rather than kill them.




CONCLUSION


Does God exist? And if so, does he even care? When we study the horrors of history, or even just watch today’s news, we can wonder if there really is a God, and if so, we can still wonder if that God is good and loving. Does God care about all the hurt and heartache in the world? Even if we turn to the Bible for answers, depending on what page we land on, we still won’t know if God is violent and punishing, or gentle and forgiving.


Thankfully, Jesus bursts through all misunderstandings of history and misinterpretations of Scripture to show us a clear and compelling vision of God. Jesus says, stamped-it-no-erasies: God is love. And he loves you to death.


* * * * *


Some say he was an outlaw, that he roamed across the land

With a band of unschooled ruffians and a few old fishermen

No one knew just where he came from or exactly what he'd done

But they said it must be something bad that kept him on the run


Some say he was a poet, that he'd stand upon the hill

That his voice could calm an angry crowd or make the waves stand still

That he spoke in many parables that few could understand

But the people sat for hours just to listen to this man


Some say he was a sorcerer, a man of mystery

He could walk upon the water, he could make a blind man see

That he conjured wine at weddings and did tricks with fish and bread

That he talked of being born again and raised people from the dead


Some say a politician who spoke of being free

He was followed by the masses on the shores of Galilee

He spoke out against corruption, and he bowed to no decree

And they feared his strength and power, so they nailed him to a tree


Some say he was the Son of God, a man above all men

That he came to be a servant and to set us free from sin

And that's who I believe he was, 'cause that's who I believe

And I think we should get ready, 'cause it's time for us to leave


~ Larry Norman (The Outlaw)






QUESTIONS FOR CONVERSATION


  1. What are you most (or least) looking forward to in these four studies?

  2. What is something new Jesus is helping you learn about God?

  3. What is something new Jesus is helping you learn about yourself?

  4. What questions about Jesus are you still asking?

  5. How do you feel toward Jesus? How do you think Jesus feels toward you?




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