Who Was Jesus?

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Who Was Jesus?

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"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God" (John 1:1).

Except perhaps for the book of Hebrews, the Gospel of John gives the most complete explanation in the New Testament about the divinity of Jesus Christ. As previously noted, John 1:1-3 and John 1:14 clearly explain that the Word was God and dwelt with the Father until He later became the Messiah or Christ, meaning "Anointed One."

As British scholar F.F. Bruce commented regarding Jesus: "The New Testament indicates that he existed before he lived on earth as a historical character. We are thus encouraged to ask not only, 'What was the mode of this earlier existence of his?' ... but also, 'What is he said to have done in that earlier existence?'" (Jesus Past, Present and Future: The Work of Christ, 1979, pp. 11-12).

As The New Bible Commentary: Revised explains about the opening passage of John's Gospel: "In the prologue the pre-existence and deity of Christ are expressed explicitly. The Logos [the Greek term rendered 'Word' here] was not only with God in the beginning, but was God (1:1), and it was this Logos who became flesh and is identified with Christ" (p. 928).

Several other passages in John's Gospel reveal significant details that help us understand even more fully. Consider an account later in chapter 1: "The next day John [the Baptist] saw Jesus coming toward Him, and said, 'Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is He of whom I said, "After me comes a Man who is preferred before me, for He was before me"'" (Jon 1:29-30; compare John 1:15).

John the Baptist was born before Jesus (Luke 1:35-36, Luke 1:57-60) and began his ministry before Christ began His. Yet John still said of Jesus, "He was before me." Why? Considering the whole of John 1, the reason must be that Jesus was the preexistent Word prior to His human birth (John 1:14).

His existence before Abraham

In dealing with accusations from the Pharisees in John 8, Jesus said to them, "Even if I bear witness of Myself, My witness is true, for I know where I came from [beside the Father in heaven] and where I am going; but you do not know where I come from and where I am going" (John 8:14).

Later the apostle Paul commented on their lack of understanding: "The people of Jerusalem and their rulers did not recognize Jesus, or understand the words of the prophets which are read sabbath by sabbath; indeed, they fulfilled them by condemning him" (Acts 13:27, REB).

Just as in the first century, relatively few people today truly comprehend who Jesus was, where He came from, what He is doing and what He will yet do.

Later in John 8, the Jews gathered about Jesus asked Him, "Who do You make Yourself out to be?" (John 8:53). They simply had no idea of the real identity of the One with whom they were speaking. It is the same today. Few people really understand the true origins of Jesus Christ.

He patiently explained, "Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad" (John 8:56). But how was this possible? The patriarch Abraham lived around 2,000 years before Jesus' birth. So those who heard Him challenged, "You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?" (John 8:57). To this question Jesus gave a stunning response: "Most assuredly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM" (John 8:58).

We should pause for a moment to digest what Jesus said.

He was declaring that His existence preceded that of Abraham. Moreover, the phrase "I AM" was a well-known title of divinity to the Jews. This goes back to Moses' first encounter with God at the burning bush.

A crucial encounter with Moses

Moses was concerned about how the Israelites would receive him and the commission God gave him, so he asked God, "Indeed, when I come to the children of Israel and say to them, 'The God of your fathers has sent me to you,' and they say to me, 'What is His name? What shall I say to them?'" (Exodus 3:13).

Observe the Creator's reply: "And God said to Moses, 'I AM WHO I AM.' And He said, 'Thus you shall say to the children of Israel, 'I AM has sent me to you'" (Exodus 3:14).

Note also the next verse: "Moreover God said to Moses, 'Thus you shall say to the children of Israel: "The Lord God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you. This is My name forever, and this is My memorial to all generations" (Exodus 3:15).

As is common throughout most English translations of the Old Testament, the word "Lord" here with capital letters is substituted for the Hebrew consonants Y-H-W-H (commonly known as the Tetragrammaton, meaning four letters). No one today knows for certain how to pronounce this name, but the most common pronunciation now is Yahweh. (A common, though errant, earlier rendering was Jehovah.)

The name YHWH is similar in meaning to "I AM" (Hebrew EHYH or Eheyeh). Both imply eternal, self-inherent existence (compare John 5:26). No one created God. We should understand that He has many names in Scripture, each of which tells us something about His wonderful, divine nature and character.

Given this background, therefore, when Jesus said in John 8:58 that He preceded Abraham and referred to Himself with continuous existence using the term "I AM," there really should be no doubt as to just what He meant. The Jews well knew what He meant, which is why they immediately tried to stone Him to death (John 8:59). Jesus was saying that He was the very God of Israel.

Who was the God of the Old Testament?

The fact is, Jesus Christ is the "I AM"of the Bible. He was the guiding Rock who was with the children of Israel in the wilderness when they left Egypt (see Deuteronomy 32:4). Paul wrote: "Moreover, brethren, I do not want you to be unaware that all our fathers were under the cloud, all passed through the sea, all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed [accompanied] them, and that Rock was Christ" (1 Corinthians 10:1-4).

The "I AM"of the Old Testament is further described as abounding in "goodness and truth" (Exodus 34:6). Similarly, the New Testament tells us that Jesus was "full of grace and truth" (John 1:14). Jesus Christ is "the same yesterday, today, and forever" (Hebrews 13:8).

There are, it should be noted, places in the Old Testament where YHWH clearly refers to God the Father. For instance, in Psalm 110:1, which we've noted earlier, King David stated, "The Lord [YHWH] said to My Lord . . ." YHWH here is the Father speaking to David's Lord, the One who became Jesus Christ. Often, however, the name YHWH refers to the One who became Christ—and sometimes it refers to both the Father and Christ together, just as the name God often does.

Consider that except for Jesus, no human being has ever seen the Father (John 1:18; John 5:37; John 6:46; 1 John 4:12). Yet Abraham, Jacob, Moses and others all saw God (Genesis 18; Genesis 32:30; Exodus 24:9-11; Exodus 33:17-23). So the YHWH, the "I AM," the Word, who later became Jesus Christ, was the One they saw. It was He who dealt directly with human beings as God in Old Testament times. Christ later died for our sins and became the ultimate mediator between God and man (1 Timothy 2:5), a role He had already partially fulfilled as the preexistent Word before His human birth.

So the Word was indeed the God of the Old Testament—and yet the Father fulfilled this role in a very real sense as well. For Jesus dealt with mankind on the Father's behalf as His Spokesman (compare John 8:28; John 12:49-50). Moreover, in many passages in the Old Testament it can be difficult to separate these two great personages, whereas the New Testament is usually clear in this respect.

Of course, since Jesus came to reveal the Father (Matthew 11:27), the logical conclusion is that the Father was not generally known by those in Old Testament times except for a few of the Hebrew patriarchs and prophets. King David, for example, is one who understood.

Partially quoted earlier, Hebrews 1:1-2 states: "God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds."

In this opening passage of the book of Hebrews the clear implication is that the Father is the moving force behind the whole Old Testament. In context, verse 2 interprets verse 1. Though God the Father is the prime mover behind the Hebrew Bible, it is through Jesus Christ that He created the entire universe.

Also, the vital principle of the Bible interpreting the Bible helps us to understand the intent of Hebrews 1:1 in the light of other scriptures. Since God made the worlds through Christ and created all things by Him (Ephesians 3:9; Colossians 1:16; John 1:3), He dealt with man through the agency of the preexistent Word, Christ.

Jesus—both God and man

Jesus Christ today is the mediator between God the Father and man. But to perfectly fulfill that crucial role He had to have been both God and man. He was truly a man in every sense of that word or we have no salvation from our sins. The apostle Paul calls Him "the Man Christ Jesus" (1 Timothy 2:5), as does the apostle Peter (Acts 2:22).

Paul tells us, in a verse quoted earlier from a different translation, that we should have the same humble, serving attitude of Jesus Christ, "who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped [i.e., held onto], but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross" (Philippians 2:6-8, New American Standard Bible).

Jesus' manhood was full and complete in the sense that He lived a life as a physical human being that ended in death. He became hungry and ate, grew tired and rested, and walked and talked just like any other human being. There was nothing in His physical appearance to distinguish Him from other Jewish men
of His time (Isaiah 53:2).

The essential difference was in the realm of the spiritual. Jesus continually received needed spiritual power from the Father (compare John 5:30; 14:10). In fact, He possessed God's Spirit from conception, actually being begotten in Mary's womb through the Holy Spirit. Although tempted like every one of us, Jesus never transgressed God's law. He never once sinned (Hebrews 4:15; 1 Peter 2:22).

One of the most insidious heresies in the 2,000-year history of Christendom is that Jesus Christ was not really a man—that He was not really tempted to sin. The apostle John condemned this teaching in the strongest terms (1 John 4:3; 2 John 7).

This heresy began in the first century and it persists even today, continuing to lead people away from the truth of God. We need to recognize that if Jesus had not really been human, then His sacrifice for our sins would be null and void.

The Son of Man and the Son of God

Jesus Christ is called "the Son of Man" more than 80 times in the New Testament. It was the term He most commonly used in referring to Himself.

Christ repeatedly referred to Himself as the Son of Man in connection with His sufferings and sacrificial death for the sins of mankind (Matthew 17:22; Matthew 26:45; Mark 9:31; Mark 14:41). Although of divine origin, He deliberately identified with our human plight—the sorrows and sufferings of the human race. The prophet Isaiah foresaw Him as "a Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief" (Isaiah 53:3).

Sympathizing with our human frailties and difficulties, Jesus tells us: "Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light" (Matthew 11:28-30).

He also called Himself the Son of Man when referring to His role as the coming Ruler of humanity in the Kingdom of God (Matthew 19:28). He even used it when He described Himself as "the Lord of the Sabbath," explaining how the seventh-day Sabbath should be observed with mercy and compassion (Mark 2:27-28; Matthew 12:8; Luke 6:5).

Then, when He came into the region of Caesarea Philippi, Jesus asked His disciples, "Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?" (Matthew 16:13). They replied by recounting several commonly held but erroneous beliefs about Jesus' identity. Simon Peter responded by saying, "You are the Christ [the Messiah], the Son of the living God" (Matthew 16:16). Jesus observed that the Father Himself had revealed this wonderful truth to Peter (Matthew 16:17). And all of His apostles came to recognize the same truth, which is reiterated elsewhere in the New Testament (Matthew 14:33; John 20:31; Romans 1:3-4).

Indeed, while Jesus was human in the fullest sense, He was also more than simply human—for He was, in fact, the divine Son of God with all that name implies. Indeed, as we have seen, He was the Creator God made flesh. And when His human life was over, He returned to the divine glory He shared with the Father from eternity past.