Understanding Jesus Christ is the foundation for understanding true Christianity, which is believing and living by His teachings and striving to imitate His perfect life.
If you already have a good understanding of Christ's life and teachings, this study should be an inspiring review and overview of that most precious understanding. It may also help prepare you to know how to explain to others our purpose in life and what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ.
For modern-day disciples of Christ who love Him above all else, it's always a joy to read and meditate on His wonderful life and teachings. To be a true disciple of Christ means not only to be an admirer and follower, not only to obey and imitate Him, but to try to become like Him in every way. We hope this study will help you toward that goal.
We weren't there, yet we must believe
The following account from John 20:19-29 about "doubting Thomas" has a great lesson for all of us:
"Then, the same day [the day after Jesus rose from the dead] at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in the midst, and said to them, 'Peace be with you.' When He had said this, He showed them His hands and His side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. So Jesus said to them again, 'Peace to you! As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.' . . .
"Now Thomas, called the Twin, one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. The other disciples therefore said to him, 'We have seen the Lord.' So he said to them, 'Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.'
"And after eight days His disciples were again inside, and Thomas with them. Jesus came, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, 'Peace to you!'
"Then He said to Thomas, 'Reach your finger here, and look at My hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into My side. Do not be unbelieving, but believing.'
"And Thomas answered and said to Him, 'My Lord and my God!'
"Jesus said to him, 'Thomas, because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed'" (emphasis added throughout). This is talking about us and our responsibility to trust the biblical message!
The sources of information about Him
The primary sources of information about the life and teachings of Jesus Christ are the first four books of the New Testament, which are called the Gospels. Other sources are the many prophecies in the Hebrew Scriptures—commonly called the Old Testament—which foretold the future Messiah, and the New Testament books in which the apostles explain many things about Christ and His teachings.
Why are there four Gospels instead of just one? First, the Gospels are not purely biographies. Each of the four authors write from different perspectives and for different audiences, and are meant to provide multiple witnesses to the life of Christ. Of course, each author was inspired by God through His Holy Spirit.
There are no real contradictions among the four accounts. The four different perspectives complement each other and help to fill out the whole picture of Jesus' life and teachings. There is, in fact, harmony, continuity and unity among the four accounts. It's profitable to combine the perspectives into an overall view, but it's also interesting and profitable to focus on one perspective at a time.
Summarizing the particular focus of each author can be challenging, but here is one simplified approach: Matthew announces Jesus as King, Mark presents Him as Servant, Luke focuses on Him as Man, and John highlights Him as God. Jesus is our perfect model in each of these roles.
A scriptural overview of Jesus' life
Let's look, then, at what the Bible reveals about the life and ministry of our Savior.
What are the meanings of Jesus' primary names and titles?
""And she [Mary] will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins" (Matthew 1:21).
"'Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,' which is translated, 'God with us'" (Matthew 1:23).
"He [Andrew] first found his own brother Simon, and said to him, 'We have found the Messiah' (which is translated, the Christ)" (John 1:41).
"But why do you call Me 'Lord, Lord,' and not do the things which I say?" (Luke 6:46).
"When Jesus came into the region of Caesarea Philippi, He asked His disciples, saying, 'Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?'" (Matthew 16:13).
We can understand a lot about Jesus and His mission by understanding His names and titles. Jesus is actually the Anglicized Latin form of His name. The Greek text has Iesous, but the actual Hebrew form of His name by which He was called was Yeshua, from which we derive the English name Joshua. The name Yeshua means "Yah (God) saves" or "God's salvation."
Jesus truly was and is Immanuel or "God with us." He was and is the Son of God and therefore God. He was God in the flesh (Luke 1:35; John 20:28).
Messiah (from Hebrew mashiach) means "anointed" or "anointed one," a term for consecrated servants of high position—particularly used to signify the future King of the line of David who would rule the world. Many prophecies promised this Ruler to be sent by God as a deliverer and liberator. Jesus came to the earth the first time to die for our sins and will come the second time to ultimately deliver us from mortality to immortality—then leading the world to the same salvation. The Greek word for Messiah is Christos, from which derives Christ.
Lord means master and ruler. Sadly, however, most who have called Him "Master" would not obey Him as their master.
Did Jesus exist before His human conception?
"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God . . . And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth" (John 1:1, John 1:14).
To learn more about Jesus' preexistence, see the Mini-Study in the November-December 2013 Good News titled "An Amazing Truth: Jesus Christ and the Old Testament."
How was Jesus conceived as a human child?
"Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: After His mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Spirit" (Matthew 1:18).
God the Father used the Holy Spirit to bring about the conception of Jesus in the womb of the Jewish virgin named Mary. For further description, see Matthew 1:19-23 and Luke 1:26-35. And for a description of the Word voluntarily giving up His divine power and glory to temporarily become a human being, see Philippians 2:6-8.
What were the circumstances of Jesus' birth?
"And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered [for a census] . . . Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child. So it was, that while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger" (Luke 2:1, Luke 2:4-7).
The events that followed Jesus' birth are described in the remainder of Luke 2 and in Matthew 2. The exact date of Jesus' birth is unknown, but it was certainly not in midwinter, as the Christmas tradition maintains. For thorough proof that most of the traditions involved in Christmas celebrations are not from the Bible, see our free study guide Holidays or Holy Days: Does It Matter Which Days We Observe?
What was Jesus' childhood like?
"So when they [Joseph and Mary] had performed all things according to the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own city, Nazareth. And the Child grew and became strong in spirit, filled with wisdom; and the grace of God was upon Him" (Luke 2:39-40).
"Is this [Jesus] not the carpenter's son? Is not His mother called Mary? And His brothers James, Joses, Simon, and Judas? And His sisters, are they not all with us? Where then did this Man get all these things [His wisdom and miracle-working abilities]?" (Matthew 13:55-56).
Jesus grew up with His mother, stepfather and several younger siblings, the natural children of Mary and Joseph. Jesus certainly was precocious, being able at 12 years old to discuss Scripture with scholars at the temple (Luke 2:41-52). And in order to later be the perfect sacrifice and Savior, He never sinned (Hebrews 4:15).
When, where and how did Jesus begin His ministry?
"Now Jesus Himself began His ministry at about thirty years of age" (Luke 3:23).
"Then Jesus came from Galilee to John [the Baptist] at the Jordan [River] to be baptized by him" (Matthew 3:13).
"Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil" (Matthew 4:1).
"Now when Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, He departed to Galilee" (Matthew 4:12).
After His baptism and His 40-day fast and temptation by Satan, Jesus returned to Galilee to begin His ministry. Galilee is the area around the Sea of Galilee in the northern part of the land of Israel.
What was the message that Jesus preached?
"Now after John was put in prison, Jesus came to Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, 'The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel'" (Mark 1:14-15).
The word gospel means "good news." Jesus' message was about God's plan to establish His Kingdom and to offer to all humanity the opportunity for salvation, eternal life, in that Kingdom!
What else was remarkable and astonishing about Jesus' ministry?
"And Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all kinds of sickness and all kinds of disease among the people" (Matthew 4:23).
Jesus healed people everywhere He went, which reveals several important things. His miracles proved He was sent by God (Acts 2:22). They showed that He cares for our physical needs as well as our spiritual needs. He loved and respected all people, regardless of gender, race, age or status, demonstrating a degree of love the world had never seen and which serves as a role model for all His future followers (John 13:34-35). He also used miracles to prove that He had the authority to forgive sins and to heal us of our spiritual problems (Matthew 9:6).
Is Jesus the foundation and Head of His Church?
"Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone" (Ephesians 2:19-20 ; see also 1 Corinthians 3:11).
"And He [Christ] is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the preeminence" (Colossians 1:18).
Did Jesus die and rise from the dead exactly as He foretold?
"For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth" (Matthew 12:40).
At the close of Jesus' 3 1/2-year ministry, Jesus willingly allowed Himself to be arrested, tortured, crucified and killed. Jesus' last and most important sign was His prophecy that He would rise from the dead in three days and would be in the tomb exactly three days and three nights (Matthew 12:38-40). That was precisely fulfilled!
Careful study of all the accounts shows He was crucified on a Wednesday afternoon and was put in the tomb before sundown. He rose from the dead and then left the tomb exactly three full days later, late in the afternoon of the weekly Sabbath (Saturday). (To see this spelled out in detail, download or request our free study guide Jesus Christ: The Real Story.)
After His resurrection, Jesus ascended to heaven and returned to appear to His followers several times. Then 40 days after His resurrection, He again ascended to heaven to be at the right hand of God the Father (Acts 1:1-11). As Jesus repeatedly promised, He will one day return to the earth (Acts 1:11). And this next time, it will be "with great power and glory" (Mark 13:26).
What was the main reason for Jesus' earthly life and death?
"For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life" (John 3:16).
"And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name" (John 20:30-31).
Jesus Christ lived His earthly life to set us an example and to build His Church. He died for each and every one of us to pay the penalty of our sins so we can be forgiven of those sins. And He lives again to serve as our Savior, High Priest and Master (Hebrews 4:14-15).
So what shall we do?
"'Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.' Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, 'Men and brethren, what shall we do?' Then Peter said to them, 'Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission [forgiveness] of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit'" (Acts 2:36-38).
When Christ's disciples received the Holy Spirit on this Day of Pentecost following Jesus' ascension to heaven, the apostle Peter preached a sermon about Jesus being the prophesied Messiah and how He had been raised from the dead and "exalted to the right hand of God" (Acts 2:33). He stunned the assembled people in telling them, "You crucified [Him]" (Acts 2:36).
Of course, most of that crowd had no direct part in getting Jesus condemned to death. But we all are guilty indirectly because "all have sinned" and "Christ died for our sins" (Romans 3:23; 1 Corinthians 15:3).
When the people were convinced that Jesus was "both Lord and Christ" (Acts 2:36) and that the guilt for His death lay on everyone, many of them asked, "What shall we do?" They knew they needed to take action. Peter then told them what each person must do to be forgiven of his or her sins and to receive the awesome gift of God's Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38). Peter's instruction to repent and be baptized is just as valid and vital today as it was at that time. This is explained in more detail in our study guide Transforming Your Life: The Process of Conversion.
Simply knowing about our Lord and Savior isn't enough. We must, like those who heard Peter's sermon on the Day of Pentecost, ask, "What shall we do?"
Read through the answers in Transforming Your Life: The Process of Conversion and write down a plan of personal action in response to the perfect life and sacrifice of our Savior. Also, to learn much more about Him, download or request your free copy of our eye-opening study guide Jesus Christ: The Real Story.