“Jesus called himself the Son of God and the Son of Man, but he laid little stress on who he was or what he was, and much more upon the teachings of the Kingdom. In declaring that he was more than a man and divine, Paul and his [Jesus’] other followers, whether they were right or wrong, opened up a vast field of argument. Was Jesus God? Or had God created him? Was he identical with God or separate from God? It is not the function of the historian to answer such questions, but he is bound to note them, and to note how unavoidable they were, because of the immense influence they have had upon the whole subsequent life of western mankind. By the fourth century of the Christian Era we find all the Christian communities so agitated and exasperated by tortuous and elusive arguments about the nature of God as to be largely negligent of the simple teachings of charity, service, and brotherhood that Jesus had inculcated.”H.G. Wells, The Outline of History, Volume One. (Doubleday and Company, 1971), pp. 456-7
Not all readers of this blog or all Christians will agree with H.G. Wells in every detail of this citation from his magnum opus The Outline of History. I would agree with his view that it is not the historian’s function to pass judgment on questions such as Jesus’ ultimate identity. He is fair in recognizing that Jesus did accept the titles of “Son of Man” and “Son of God” as proper to himself. He is right in saying that Paul (and the other Apostles and first disciples) opened up “a vast field of argument”. These arguments came in later generations, but, while they had disagreements among themselves, the Apostles did not disagree about Jesus’ identity. As Wells says, perhaps the later arguments were “unavoidable” and have been historically significant “because of the immense influence they have had” on all the generations since.
I would not agree with Wells that Jesus “laid little stress on who or what he was, and much more upon the teachings of the [coming of the ] Kingdom [of God].” If one considers only the three “Synoptic” Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, one could reach that conclusion on a superficial reading. But the major emphasis in John’s Gospel is the central issue of Jesus’ identity. It focuses on his proclamation that the Kingdom of God had arrived in the form of his person. The heart of the message was really that the coming of the Kingdom was not just coincident and correlative to his own coming among humanity with a new teaching at a specific time and in a specific place, but that it was intrinsic to his being present. It was and is bound up in his person, and entering that Kingdom was and is through him, through commitment of one’s life to God through him. When we look carefully at the Synoptics[i], we will still find Jesus declaring this.
The difference is one of “optics”—focus and perspective. The focus of Matthew, Mark, and Luke (synoptic means seeing the same, taking the same perspective) is Jesus’ public ministry and persona as seen by the witnesses involved as he travelled through Israel and met his death, and then rose from the grave. By comparison, the perspective of John is an intimate look at how Jesus related to those closest to him and with those who opposed him and eventually engineered his crucifixion.
Wells is effectively doing what so many have done when trying to sort out “the historical Jesus” from “the Jesus of faith”; he is reducing him to a message, a set of teachings and admonitions to be applied, comparable to what the typical mystical prophets, philosophers, and sages have done for millennia. But, as we said in our previous episode, we cannot reduce Jesus to that; he does not fit the mould or stay in our neat categorical boxes. His message was really himself, and in that he is really and truly unique among all the great religious figures of history.
Buddha, Muhammad, Lao-tse, Confucius, Zoroaster, etc. did not say things like “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father/Creator except by/through me.” We could give many more examples of Jesus making such statements. Here are a few to reinforce the point: “I am the door; I am the bread of life; I am the Good Shepherd; … I am the resurrection and the life,” etc. Any of these others “greats” saying such things would have rightfully been declared a megalomaniac. As C.S. Lewis so cogently puts it, “He does not leave us that option.” He is so sane, so manifestly not a Lunatic! So manifestly not a Liar!
Jesus also openly claimed to be sinless and publicly challenged his critics to produce one instance in which he had sinned. He had lived a very public life for at least a couple of years by this point, and had been shadowed at every turn by hostile critics who should have been able to produce at least one tale of his having acted badly. There were no takers.
Jesus did indeed teach extensively, often in parable form. He challenged hypocrites wherever he found them. He discredited stereotypes, stood up for the poor and downtrodden, and commented critically on many issues such as the way the powerful control, oppress, laying heavy burdens on people and inflicting suffering. He criticized the wealthy and their lack of compassion.
He said that his followers needed to be different from all this—to be like him! Everything he brought to the table as a new way, a Third Way, was bound up in knowing him and following him. It was not about a new set of rules or a new philosophical insight, or even a different way of performing religious rituals and routines—or not performing them, for that matter. He elucidated and illuminated what they already knew, declaring that the scriptures spoke about him. As we have said before, it will not do to confine him to being a sort of nice, peacenik guru saying “All you need us love, so stop being selfish and nasty.”
Certainly, we need to stop being selfish and nasty, but the problem is that, in and of ourselves, we just can’t do it very well, at least most of us can’t, no matter how hard we try. There area few who somehow manage it much better than most, like Buddha, for example. But even most of the prophets, gurus, and sages come out pretty splotchy when we dig a little deeper. Most of us are like the Prophet Daniel’s dream of a giant statue of a King-God made of massive, shiny, metallic sections of gold, silver, and bronze. We (try to) look shiny, powerful, and impressive, but we’re standing on clay feet which cannot support us at all when the waves crash in.
At the end of our citation Wells says, “By the fourth century of the Christian Era we find all the Christian communities so agitated and exasperated by tortuous and elusive arguments about the nature of God as to be largely negligent of the simple teachings of charity, service, and brotherhood that Jesus had inculcated.” Unfortunately, this part of his assessment is all too true.
At the end of The Third Way 56, we noted the tremendous positive and progressive impact of the legacy of Jesus and the best of the work of his disciples over the last two millennia. As Wells puts it—the “charity, service, and brotherhood that Jesus had inculcated.” Too often though, we have seen large segments of those followers turning inward on one another, “agitated and exasperated by tortuous and elusive arguments” with one another about God’s nature, Jesus’ nature, the Holy Spirit’s nature and work, questions of Church order and government, questions of right ritual and observance, and on and on. And when the workers turn in upon one another, the anathemas proliferate and the love evaporates, evening climaxing in war sometimes. This does not even include the completely twisted notion of crusading to convert or crush “the infidel” or “heathen” of another religion.
When the Church, which is really just the community of his followers which Jesus commissioned to be “the light of the world and the salt of earth” loses its way and does those things, it has gone over to the “Dark Side” and lost its salt. It breaks faith with its Founder and shames and dishonours itself. So do all who take Christ’s name in vain by using it to say and perpetrate things and actions which in the end he will denounce and declare dreadful distortions of everything he is and calls those who follow him to be.
Nevertheless, Jesus has always had followers “muddling through” to act and be as he calls them to be and do. There is still and has always been a remnant of communities and individuals who are “doers of the word, not mere hearers” and fancy talkers and theologians. Now, at this time in history, and especially in the history of the West, faithful hearers and doers are more needed than ever, for much of the earth is in spiritual famine and dying in its vapid materialism and self-absorption, without hope or vision. “Without a hope, without a vision for the future, people perish,” says a verse in the Book of Proverbs.
The core of the Christian proclamation is about hope—Good News—which is what the word “Gospel” really means. That Good News is the coming of God’s Kingdom into our midst. And it has come and continues to abide in a living Saviour who promises to “be with you always, even to the end of the age.” He said, and says, “In this life, in this world, in this age, you will have trouble. But take heart, for I have overcome the world.”
The “First Way” is the way of Religion—seeking peace and safety through appeasement of the universe and its dominant forces by the right kind of actions and staying out of the way of what can destroy us. The “Second Way” is the way of Power, the way of control and manipulation and domination, to (re)make the world in our own image, even if it is just our own corner of it. The ultimate form of this kind of counterfeit safety is world mastery—political, economic, and social domination and forcible conformity.
Both of these “Ways” of trying to make sense of reality are alive and well. None of us is entirely free of them, either within ourselves or in our dealings with others, or even with nature.
The “Third Way” is what Jesus offered and offers—to cease from the first two and become truly free, as only he can make us free: “For if the Son (Son of God and Son of Man) shall make you free, you shall be free indeed.”
[i] “Synoptics” = Matthew, Mark, and Luke. These three take a similar, more or less biographical perspective to Jesus’ public career. They see Jesus through the eyes of witnesses who were there, although takes a somewhat different witness perspective. Matthew’s perspective is very Jewish – Jesus as the fulfilment of Torah and its reinterpreter for the New Age, the renewed or new Covenant. Tradition says that Mark’s perspective is based on Peter’s stories about the Messiah Yeshua. For much of the account, Jesus seems to be keeping a low profile, but is finally revealed to be the Son of God and the Messiah. He is then arrested and crucified. The end is wonder and amazement, and there is scholarly controversy about the last part of the final chapter being a later addition.
Luke takes a more scholarly approach, systematically accumulating evidence and eye-witness testimony. Tradition says Luke was a well-educated, articulate, very literate physician, perhaps even a Gentile convert of Paul’s. His story focuses on the humanity of Jesus while including details of healings and relationships which a doctor would note.
With this understanding, John’s approach becomes more illuminating as a bridge from the very public record of Jesus to his more intimate, personal dimension and the things he said about himself both with his closest followers and those who challenged and opposed him.