Surely, it's the most extraordinary story ever told. Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God, came to earth and sacrificed himself so that we mortals might have eternal life. Yes, an extraordinary story, but is it fact? or fiction? One compelling bit of evidence strongly suggests it is indeed a fact. Even so, you will never hear it mentioned in a church!
Say you were examining an old manuscript and wanted to determine whether the story was fact or fiction, what should you look for? Scholars focus on the hero. If he (or she) is cast in the most favorable light in all circumstances, then the work is probably a fiction. For that is the sort of thing legends do for their heroes.
Real stories about real people, on the other hand, tend to be more ambiguous. Their heroes are not so neat, clean, and tidy. In fact, they often present knotty little problems. With that in mind, let's take a good look at how the Gospels actually portray Jesus.
Family and Friends' Lack of Faith in Jesus
Those closest to Jesus seem to have the least faith in him. Thomas wasn't the only doubter among Jesus' hand picked apostles. They all expressed skepticism. They didn't believe Jesus when he said he would come back from the grave. And they didn't believe others when they said he had risen.
Jesus' own family showed no faith in him either. The Gospel according to John says, "Even his own brothers did not believe in him." (John 7:5) And on one occasion, Jesus' family went to Capernaum to take charge of Jesus saying: "He is out of his mind." (Mark 3:21) Why would the writers include such negative statements in their narratives abut Jesus? Surely, they reported these events, simply because that's what happened.
Racial or Ethnic Slur
Did Jesus really call the Canaanite woman a dog? Matthew relates the following story: A Canaanite woman asked Jesus to drive a demon out of her daughter. He answered, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel."
The woman knelt and begged, "Lord, help me!"
Jesus countered, "It is not right to take children's bread and toss it to their dogs."
She replied, "Even dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master's table."
Jesus granted her request, and her daughter was healed. (Matthew 15:21-28)
Anyway you look at it, Jesus appears to be comparing Canaanites to dogs. It's a racial or ethnic slur. To get the full impact of the statement, think of Pat Robertson making a similar remark about Blacks, Native Americans, or Hispanics. In this highly charged, politically correct environment, his name would be "Mud" by the time the six o'clock news rolled around.
Inclusive or Exclusive Mission?
There is something else here too. Is Jesus' mission to the Jews only, or is it to everyone? According to his first answer, Jesus makes it clear, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel." By the same token, when Jesus sent the twelve apostles out on their first trial run, he told them to go to the lost sheep of Israel. And specifically, he said, "Do not go among gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans." (Matthew 10:5-6)
Consistent with that policy, Jesus himself traveled almost exclusively in Jewish settlements. But we see the other side as well. Remember Simeon from Jerusalem? He held up the infant Jesus and said here is, "a light for revelation to the gentiles." (Luke 2:32)
Along that line, we find Jesus healing the Roman Centurion's servant without any reference to race. (Matthew 8:5-13) He also talked to the Samaritan women at the well and ended up teaching Samaritans from a nearby town for two days. (John 4:7-41) And of course, after the Canaanite woman begged, Jesus did go ahead and heal her daughter too. Finally, we see the resurrected Jesus telling his disciples to: "Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation." (Mark 16:15) "Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." (Matthew 28:19)
We are left wondering, did Jesus understand his mission to be inclusive: Jews, Samaritans, and gentiles - or exclusive: Jews only? Why the ambivalence? Possibly the mission changed at some point. The gospels don't say.
Puzzling Statements and Parable
Some of Jesus' statements are difficult to understand. For example, "Among those born of woman there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater that he." (Matthew 11:11) What does Jesus mean by that? We are not told.
Here is another passage: "The law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John. Since that time, the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached and everyone is forcing his way into it." (Luke 16:16) What did Jesus mean by, "everyone is forcing his way into it"? Again, he doesn't explain.
Then there is that odd statement to Peter. Peter had just made the great confession: "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." Jesus replies, "I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven; whatever is bound on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." It sounds like Peter has been made dictator of heaven and earth. But surely that is not what Jesus meant.
In addition to some inscrutable sayings, Jesus also offers an inscrutable parable - The Parable of the Shrewd Manager. Read the story for yourself. (Luke 16:1-9)
Here is the essence of the tale: There was a rich man who believed his manager was dishonest. So he calls the employee in and says, "Let's take a look at your books. If you have been cheating me, you are fired."
The manager thought, what am I going to do? Here my boss is about to fire me. I'm not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. Okay, here's what I can do to make a few friends quickly. The one who owes my employer eight hundred gallons of olive oil, I'll offer to clear the books for him if he will pay four hundred gallons. And the man who owes one thousand bushels of wheat, I'll settle the debt if he will pay eight hundred bushels.
The rich employer found out what his dishonest manager was up to, and he congratulated him for acting shrewdly. "For people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are people of the light." Luke 16:8) Jesus concludes this parable saying, "I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourself, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings." (Luke 16:9)
Does any of this make sense? Here we have a crooked manager who has been caught. He attempts to make friends and influence people by ripping off his employer (even more than he has already done) passing large discounts on to his debtors. That, he believes will get him in the good graces of those people.
Well, his boss hears of the con game, and tells his crooked manager, "Well done! How clever of you." Next, follows a statement to the effect, "Greedy, dishonest, materialistic people know how to weasel and cheat their way through life dealing with other greedy, dishonest, materialistic people; whereas folks who try to follow Christ's teachings (such as: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.) are likely to lose their shirt."
No doubt, it's true. But what's the moral here? You don't really think Christ is recommending that we join " the people of the world" grabbing and cheating our way along, do you?
Well, if that isn't confusing enough, now comes the coupe de grace. Jesus tells us to use our money to buy friends and when our money runs out, (presumably, when we have bought all the friends we can afford) somehow we are welcomed into heaven.
Think about it. If you were one of those debtors who just saw this crook defraud his employer out of a good portion of what was due him, would you be eager to hire that thief to run your own affairs? And can you really buy friends? What sort of friendship would that be?
It is certainly an odd parable. It makes you wonder, what Jesus was thinking. Of course you won't find many sermons on it. Preachers have as much difficulty with it as anyone else. But here is my point: This baffling story is one of those realistic bumps which we keep running into in the Gospels. We wouldn't expect to find things like this if Luke had fabricated the tale. Surely, the only reason the writer included this enigmatic parable was because one or more of his sources told him Jesus said it.
Jesus made a number of prophecies and got them right. He predicted that he would be betrayed by an apostle. He was. He indicated which apostle would do the deed. The one indicated did it. He predicted his disciples would desert him. They did. He predicted Peter would deny him three times. Peter did that very thing.
He predicted the chief priest and teachers of the law would condemn him to death. And they did. He predicted the Jews would turn him over to the gentiles. That's what they did. He predicted the gentiles would mock, flog and crucify him. Roman soldiers did all three. He predicted that he would rise on the third day. He did. He predicted the complete destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. Romans destroyed it in A.D. 70.
Jesus also said, in so many words, Peter would be crucified. Eusebius, a church historian and scholar of the third century, tells us that Peter was indeed crucified.
Jesus was right so often and about so many things, we don't even question him when he says he is the Son of God. And when he tells us he is coming back to judge the world, we accept it because he has an uncanny way of knowing what he is talking about. He says something will happen; it happens. It is simple as that. But is that always the case?
Matthew relates another of Jesus' prophecies: "The Son of Man is going to come in his Father's glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done. I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom." (Matthew 16:27-28)
What do you make of that? Does it sound like Jesus is saying some of those people standing there listening to his voice would still be alive when he returns to judge the world? If you think this may be taken out of context, read it for yourself. Mark and Luke also carry this quote. (Mark 8:38-9:1) (Luke 9:26-27)
In another prophecy, Jesus tells us that when he returns, everyone will know it. It won't be a secret. It will be as obvious as a lightning bolt across the sky. Jesus goes on to say, the Son of man will come on the clouds of the sky with power and glory. He will send his angles with a loud trumpet call and they will gather his elect from one end of heavens to the other.
"I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened." (Matthew 24:27-34)
This is important. Check it out in your own Bible. Does it sound like Jesus is saying that some of the people living in the early part of the first century will still be living when he returns to gather his elect? That appears to be a straightforward reading of this passage. Luke also includes this quotation. (Luke 21:25-36)
Little wonder that the early Christians thought Jesus would return in their own lifetime. They had the word directly from the Son of God himself.
The situation is not exactly clear-cut, however. Jesus quickly adds: "No one knows about the day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father." (Matthew 24:36) Luke adds, ". . . but the end will not come right away." (Luke 21:9)
Putting all the pieces together, here is what we find: Jesus is returning to judge the earth and reward each of us for whatever we have done. His angels are going to gather up all those who have been faithful to him. This won't happen right away, and nobody but the Father knows exactly when it will happen. But some of those living at the time Jesus spoke will still be alive when he returns. Are other explanations possible? See my article: "Was Jesus Mistaken?"
Those two prophecies did not come true. Matthew and Luke recorded both; Mark only mentions the first. The Gospel writers did not try to cover-up, change, or "update" those statements. And notice too, early Christian editors didn't tamper with those passages either, not even after the death of all the original disciples and the entire generation had passed away.
That tells us a couple of things about Matthew, Mark, and Luke. First, it's rather apparent, these accounts were written before "the entire generation had passed away." It's inconceivable that a later generation of writers would have intentionally undermined Jesus' authority with erroneous predictions.
What's more, Matthew, Mark, and Luke are credible writers. Surely, the only reason they recorded these potentially damaging prophecies is simple because that's what Jesus said. As for those early Christian editors, they never existed. Had they been there, we would never have seen those predictions coming from Jesus.
Jesus Dreaded His Ordeal
How do the Gospels portray Jesus? He's not a macho man; he's not a stoic; he's a real man who knows what is in store for him. And he doesn't like it anymore than you or I would. Matthew tells us Jesus was "sorrowful and troubled" in the garden of gethsemane. (Matthew 26:37) Jesus said to Peter, James, and John, "My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch." (Matthew 26:38)
Jesus wanted very much to avoid the pain and suffering that he knew was coming his way. He prayed, "My Father if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will." He prayed a second time. Luke says, "Being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground." And he prayed a third time, saying the same thing. (Matthew 26:39-44)
Again, we find realism. From history and archeology we know something of the horror that went on in crucifixion. While on the cross at 3 pm Jesus cried out: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Matthew 27:46) Yes, we know he was fulfilling prophecy. Even so, it is still curious.
Did God really forsake his only begotten Son in his hour of greatest need? It is a chilling thought. Whatever else may be said about this pathetic cry for help, we know it's not inspiring; it's not a confidence builder; and it doesn't help sell Christianity. So why did Matthew and Mark repeat this quotation? Surely the reason is simply because that is what Jesus said.
Realism of the Gospels
In my earlier article "Apostles: Legendary Heroes or Real Men?" we took a look at the way the Gospels depicted the apostles. They turned out to be real, flesh and blood men with all the flaws real people have. When we investigate Matthew, Mark, Luke and John's portrayal of Jesus, we discover an extraordinary preacher, one who teaches with authority and who performs signs, wonders, and miracles. He preaches the highest form of morality, lives a sinless life, and dies a horrible death, sacrificing himself for our sins. And we are told he is our one and only hope for salvation.
Those, of course, are the essential claims of Christianity. But when we check out the details in the Gospels, we find the writers include a number of quirks about this God-Man. Jesus' family and friends never completely trusted him during his lifetime. He did at least on one occasion, equate Canaanites with dogs.
He seemed to vacillate on whether gentiles and Samaritans should be included in his mission. Sometimes his message is unclear, and occasionally it is even confusing. Evidently, a couple of his prophecies just didn't come true. And as we near the end of the story, we find Jesus fearing pain and death like anyone else. Finally, we hear his pitiful cry for help on the cross.
All of these curiosities are difficult to fit in with our idea of what a perfect savior ought to be. But Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are not interested in pandering to our taste. They are telling a most unusual story, and they are telling it straight. They do not embellish; they do not cover-up. They are not trying to build up a character -- not even the Son of God. These Gospel writers are just reporting what they know or what other eyewitnesses told them.
Jesus was a real man and the Gospel story, the most extraordinary story ever told, is firmly supported by the literary integrity of its writers. And that is good news for all of us.
Note: All Scripture References are taken from the New International Version.Jesus - Legendary Hero or Real Guy?Timbaland - Hands In The Air ft. Ne-Yo Video Clips. Duration : 4.13 Mins.
Music video by Timbaland performing Hands In The Air. (C) 2012 Interscope Records
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