At the heart of Christianity is a central question, "Just who is Jesus Christ?" It may be astounding to some that such a question is still relevant after nearly two millennia of Christian activity, but as strange as it may seem, even Christians do not agree about the nature of the founder of their religion. This fact says a great deal about those who profess to be "Christian," which at its most basic means "follower of Christ." If Christians display such profound disagreement about Jesus Christ Himself, can they all really be following the same Person?
This subject becomes all the more important since, in its most common form, Christianity is proclaimed as a message about Jesus. What a person believes about Jesus, then, informs his understanding of the religion itself. We can see the result of this process in the thousands of Christian denominations in all parts of the world. While they all proclaim to be Christian, the individual sects emphasize different aspects of Jesus in their teaching. For instance:
- Baptists name themselves after Jesus' practice of baptizing converts, and they traditionally stress conformity to certain behavioral rules: no drinking, no card playing, no dancing. Jesus, to them, is a great moral Teacher.
- Pentecostals, on the other hand, call themselves after Jesus' promise of the gift of the Holy Spirit, which was fulfilled on the Feast of Pentecost after Jesus' death and resurrection. They are known for their great desire to express the gifts of the Spirit, particularly being able to speak in tongues. In other words, their Jesus is a Miracle Worker.
- Seventh-day Adventists take their name from the seventh-day Sabbath, which Jesus is plainly shown to have kept, as well as from His promise to come again. They promote Jesus as the bringer of the soon-coming rest of God.
- Methodists are so called because John Wesley emphasized a structured, methodical approach to Bible study and Christian living, teaching that believers must exercise their free will to come to Christ (as opposed to being absolutely predestined to salvation). Thus, they highlight Jesus' many commands for the individual to be actively involved in his own salvation and Christian growth.
- The Reformed Churches, descendants of the teaching of John Calvin, underscore the necessity of grace through faith in Christ, a reaction to abuses of the medieval Catholic Church's doctrine of works. In this way, they see Jesus as a gracious Redeemer.
Most denominations can be characterized—some would say caricatured—by identifying their concepts of Jesus Himself. He is Christianity's central figure, so how one views Christ determines what one believes and the religion he follows.
This confusion about Him actually began during His own life—even among those who had known Him all His life:
When He had come to His own country, He taught them in their synagogue, so that they were astonished and said, "Where did this Man get this wisdom and these mighty works? Is this 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?" So they were offended at Him. (Matthew 13:54-57)
It seems that there was general disagreement in Judea over just who He was:
- 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?" So they said, "Some say John the Baptist, some Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets." (Matthew 16:13-14)
- And when He had come into Jerusalem, all the city was moved, saying, "Who is this?" So the multitudes said, "This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth of Galilee." (Matthew 21:10-11)
- Now some of them from Jerusalem said, "Is this not He whom they seek to kill? But look! He speaks boldly, and they say nothing to Him. Do the rulers know indeed that this is truly the Christ? However, we know where this Man is from; but when the Christ comes, no one knows where He is from." (John 7:25-27)
Of course, His enemies had questions about Him to
- And the scribes and the Pharisees began to reason, saying, "Who is this who speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?" (Luke 5:21)
- And those who sat at the table with Him began to say to themselves, "Who is this who even forgives sins?" (Luke 7:49)
- Therefore some of the Pharisees said, "This Man is not from God, because He does not keep the Sabbath." Others said, "How can a man who is a sinner do such signs?" And there was a division among them. (John 9:16)
However, Matthew 16:15-17 provides us with the best starting point, confirmed by Christ Himself, in answering the question, "Who is Jesus?"
He said to [His disciples], "But who do you say that I am?" Simon Peter answered and said, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." Jesus answered and said to him, "Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven."
The God-revealed answer is that Jesus is the promised Messiah, the literal Son of the Supreme Being of all the universe. Of course, He is a great deal more than this, but these two facts are the most foundational to our spiritual understanding of this wonderful Being. They give us the basis of His relationship to us and our future, as well as His relationship to Deity, fixing Him as the bridge between man and God. From this foundation, we can begin a deeper consideration of the biblical Jesus.