In Mathew 16 Jesus we have it recorded that once Jesus turned to his disciples and asked them directly, “Who do you say that I am?” It’s hard, when you read that, not to feel it leap off the page and directly address you, as if Jesus turned to you and asked it.
…which is where Thomas Oden is coming from, with this:
You. “Who do you say that I am?”
This is the startling question that Jesus’ life constantly asks. The nearer anyone comes to him, the more clearly he requires decision. It is the unavoidable issue that the observer of Jesus’ life must finally struggle with. For Jesus himself presses the question and awaits an answer.
To avoid the issue is to avoid him.
To avoid him is to avoid Christianity altogether. Transformations occur when we listen. The closer we make him the object of our study, the more we become aware that he is examining us.
The evangelists’ portraits of his life, offered by eyewitnesses, are poignant, simple, and stirring. He was born of a poor family, of a destiny-laden but powerless nation. The earliest traditions report that he was born in a squalid cave or stable among animals in an out-of-the-way village. He immediately became the refugee baby of a fleeing family seeking to escape a wave of killing. The town he grew up in had the reputation that “nothing good could ever come from there.” He spoke a language (Aramaic) that few spoke then, and now has been virtually forgotten.
He is never said to have written anything except with his finger in the sand. He worked with his hands as a common laborer. He owned nothing of value. To the poor he brought good news of the coming governance of God. His disciples were simple folk, involved in artisan trades. They included some reprobates whose lives were reshaped by their unforgettable meeting with him. Even in the face of cynical criticism, he did not cease to dine and converse with outcasts, to mix with the lowly and disinherited. He washed the feet of his followers. He intentionally took the role of a servant. He reached out to other cultures despised by his own people. Of all people who might have been able to grasp the fact that he was to be anointed to an incomparable mission, it turned out to be “woman who was a sinner.”
Remarkable things were reported of him. He touched lepers. He healed the blind. He raised persons from the dead. These events pointed unmistakably to the unparalleled divine breakthrough that was occurring in his people’s history – the decisive turnaround in the divine-human story of conflicted love.
He heralded a new age. He called all his hearers to decide for or against God’s coming reign. He himself was the sign of its coming. He called for complete accountability to God. His behavior was consistent with his teaching. He was born to an ethnic tradition widely despised and rejected; but he himself become even more despised and rejected by many of his own people.
His enemies plotted to trap him and finally came to take his life. His closest friends deserted him when his hour has come to die. He knew all along that he would be killed. Sweat poured from his face as he approached death. He was betrayed by one of his closest associates. He submitted to a scurrilous trial with false charges.
His end was terrible. His back felt the whip. He was spat upon. His head was crowned with thorns. His wrists were in chains. On his shoulders he bore a cross through the city. Spikes were driven through his hands and feet into wood. His whole body was stretched on a cross as he hung between two thieves. All the while he prayed for his tormentors, that they might be forgiven, for they knew not what they were doing.
He rose from the dead.
This is a sketch of the Gospel’s portrait of Jesus. It is this one whom the disciples experienced as alive on the third day after his death. This is the unique person whose extraordinary life we now try to understand.
How is it plausible that two thousand years ago there lived a man born in poverty in a remote corner of the world, whose life was abruptly cut short in his early thirties, who traveled only in a small area, who held no public office, yet whose impact upon us appears greater than all others? How is it that one who died the death of a criminal could be worshiped as Lord by billions?
This is the surprising paradox of his earthly life, but even this is not its deepest mystery. Why are people willing to renounce all to follow him and even die in his service? How is it possible that centuries later his life would be avidly studied, and worshipers would address their prayers to him? What accounts for this surprising relation he has with this community?
Classic Christian teaching answers without apology: what was said about him then is true now; he actually was:
Son of God,
the one Mediator between God and humanity,
truly human, who liberated humanity from the power of sin by his death on the cross,
who rose from the dead to confirm his identity as the promised one.
That answer better explains what his life is and means than any of its alternatives. It is theoretically possible for the study of Jesus to function without that basis, but in practice it is exceptionally difficult, for one is then forced to stretch and coerce the narratives to make any sense of them at all. The New Testament documents give determined resistance to any reader who discards that hypothesis (Jesus is Lord) because they imagine that they know a better explanation of his true identity. There is no other or better way to explain this amazing life.
According to Christian confession, Jesus is either Messiah or nothing at all.
(from Classic Christianity, p. 215-217)