Why doesn’t our knowledge of Jesus today produce the same level of radical discipleship than with the early Christians? Is it simply that our age is a superficial age where faith has been privatised and everything is just a matter of opinion?
To me, one reason stands out – we have lost the understanding of who Jesus really is.
The first disciples initially perceived Jesus only as a man. Later on he revealed his divinity to them. Most Christians today approach Jesus from the opposite direction than the first disciples. For two thousand years we have argued from the divinity of Jesus. Consequently, we have not spent much time reflecting on him as a man.
Yet, over the years, we have witnessed many popular reinterpretations of Jesus as a man; unfortunately, these reinterpretations have been created from the position of doubt. So, the world has rebranded Jesus as an astronaut, the Sacred Mushroom, a guru, a Jewish revolutionary, sorcerer, hippy, moral teacher and prophet. Through these reinterpretations the world has reduced Jesus to a mere man that bears no resemblance to what we can know about him historically.
The real Jesus of history and revelation
After more than two thousand years of confessional Christianity we tend to approach Jesus only through the lens of our confessions. We accept him as the Christ, the Son of God and the second person of the Trinity. We believe that he died for our sins, that he rose from the dead and that he is coming back. But somehow, the reality of all these confessions does not seem to strike home. They don’t seem systematically to produce radical discipleship in us.
Often, we have a rather theoretical concept of Jesus; it neither grips our hearts nor changes our lives.
This calls for a re-examination of our faith. Socrates said that an unexamined life is not worth living. We could also say that an unexamined faith is not worth having.
Rediscovering the real Jesus of history doesn’t mean accepting all historical criticism of the Bible. This discipline often reduces Jesus to a mere man. But we should remember that he was also a man.
Jesus is very real to us. We can experience him every day. That is why we are believers. And people from different eras, nations, cultures and social backgrounds – they all have met the same Jesus.
You can go anywhere in the world and meet any Christian speaking any language with any background and social standing, and instantly recognise that he or she loves the same Jesus as you do. You can read through the history books and witness the same faith span across all the ages. The consistency and longevity of our faith in Jesus is a powerful testimony to us believers.
But all that won’t necessarily be convincing to many unbelievers, as other religions and philosophies can also point to same consistency in those who hold to their beliefs.
How can we be sure that the Jesus who is real to me is real universally – and therefore relevant to all? We must be able to do more than point to our private and personal experiences.
Often our personal views of Jesus don’t even correspond with the real Jesus of the Bible! Many excuse sin and forget that Jesus is also the judge of the nations; they want Jesus who is there primarily to bring them happiness. We tend to make an exception of ourselves when it comes to sin and to select just the bits we like from the Bible. In fact, even some pastors seem to preach a Jesus who has never ever existed!
Yet, the faith by which we experience Jesus rests on revelation and is rooted in history.
Revelation rooted in history
There are many reasons to be confident that we are on solid ground when we accept the Gospels as accurate descriptions of Jesus’ life on earth.
The historical claims made in the Bible are open to investigation. For example, Paul wasn’t among the original twelve apostles. Instead, he received his calling directly from the risen, ascended Lord. But he went to the apostles to confirm the revelation.
Paul’s letters show that he referred back to the apostles in Jerusalem, and they all agreed with what he had received in the vision. And Paul’s revelation of Jesus took place only 3-5 years from the Resurrection. Within months of being convinced that all was lost the apostles had developed a new theology of crucifixion and resurrection. And this is the same gospel that we preach today.
No one can doubt that the early believers were convinced that what they preached was true. Jesus had been whipped so badly that some of his internal organs would have been visible. And yet the apostles believed that Jesus had been resurrected, to the point of being willing to die for their message. This speaks strongly for the apostles having actually met the resurrected Christ.
Jesus was crucified, as he was accused of being a revolutionary leader revolting against Rome. Most Jews expected a national liberator. They looked for an earthly, political kingdom.
In contrast, the campaign of the apostles was for a heavenly kingdom from the start. Clearly they did not expect an entirely spiritualised kingdom, but one that would affect every aspect of this world. And this is the same gospel that we still preach today.
It should be clear to anyone that the unhistorical Gnostic Gospels of the 2nd century can legitimately be rejected as inauthentic – Jesus always stood in the historical tradition of the Old Testament prophets, unlike the Gnostic writers that borrowed freely from Greek and Roman myths.
It is remarkable how the many New Testament manuscripts are all consistent with each other. The Bible has been able to withstand much more thorough scrutiny than any other ancient text, and we can be confident that we have the original text.
Take Plato’s writings, for example. There is over 1,200 years between the death of Plato and the oldest manuscripts of his writings that have been preserved. And there are only seven copies left from the Middle Ages. Yet no one questions their accuracy.
But there are over 24,000 early manuscripts of the New Testament, and the differences between them are minimal. In fact, there are exponentially more early manuscripts of the Bible preserved than any other ancient text.
We could conclude that the New Testament has been criticised so extensively not because it’s perceived as inaccurate but because its message is so challenging.