Who Is This Man?
Dr. Sean McDonough, Ph.D.
Who is Jesus?
Like many parishioners, this question (or its more non-committal cousin, “Who was Jesus?”) makes seasonal appearances at Christmas and Easter, usually on the covers of news magazines looking for a holiday angle. Most readers of these magazines are likely to have a ready answer: He is God’s Son, the Savior of the world, the everlasting King of creation. We may feel, in fact, that the question is no longer worth asking. As Bible-believing Christians, we already know who Jesus is.
But when we turn to read the Bible we believe, we find that it frequently poses the same question as Time magazine or ABC News even if it is much more ready with a definitive answer. It is found on the lips of disciples and skeptics alike. It is impossible to faithfully read the gospels without asking afresh: Who is Jesus? A few selections from the gospels will serve to illustrate the ongoing relevance of the question.
Who is This Boy?
The opening chapters of Luke’s gospel are among the most joy-filled in all the Bible. Like the cast of a musical, the characters are so inspired by the moving of God in their midst that they keep bursting into song. Jesus’ Mary is, in many respects, at center stage. But for all her joy at questions answered and promises kept, the final story of the sequence–the 12-year-old Jesus’ appearance in the temple–features Mary questioning the activity of her son: “Child, why are you treating us like this? Your father and I have been in anguish looking all over for you!” (Luke 2:48). Jesus answers her with a few questions of his own: “Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know that I had to be in my father’s house?” (v.49).
Christians today would tend to echo Jesus’ words, and add a few more for good measure: “Mary, don’t you remember this is God’s Son? Have you forgotten about the angels and shepherds and wise men?” But Mary’s concerns should rather remind us to meditate on the full humanity of Jesus. He was no flannel-graph icon with thin connections to his earthly family. He was so fully a part of everyday life that even Mary, it seems, could sometimes lose sight of the things she had treasured in her heart.
It is also worth pointing out that, for all his insight, he was no irritating 12-year old “know-it-all.” He asks the teachers questions, and gives answers, and the teachers are clearly delighted to have such a winsome and able student in their midst (2:46-7). Mary had to learn again just who her little boy really was. Might it be that the same holds true for us today?
Who is This Man?
As we move to consider the adult Jesus, we may focus on his stilling of the storm (Matt. 8:23-7, Mark 4:35-41), a story that has comforted countless Christians tossed by literal and metaphorical tempests. It is the disciples’ response to the miracle that most interests us now: “And they were greatly afraid, and they said to one another, `Who is this that the wind and the sea obey him?'” (Matt. 8:27, Mark 4:41). The alert reader is not meant to simply reply, “Yeah, he’s really something.” She is instead supposed to rack her biblically informed brain and realize that the answer is in fact there to be found in the Scriptures: “Lord God of hosts, who is like you! You are mighty, Lord, and your faithfulness surrounds you! You rule over the power of the sea–when its waves rise, you calm them” (Ps. 89:8-9).Who is this man? Who, indeed?
It is perhaps not surprising that the answer to the disciples’ question is not directly given in this passage. Biblical scholars have long spoken of the “messianic secret.” Especially in Mark’s gospel, Jesus repeatedly tells his disciples and others not to make known that he is the Messiah. Some under-faithed readers have imagined that this motif is just a cover-up invented by Mark to hide the fact that Jesus never really said he was the Messiah. But a much more persuasive answer lies close to hand: Jesus did indeed claim to be the Messiah. But he did not want people assuming that they already knew what the Messiah must be and what the Messiah must do. For Jesus, “Messiah” was a question in need of a response; and if you wanted to find the answer, you had to follow him and find out. The puzzle-posing, parable-speaking Jesus of the first three gospels turns out to be the ultimate parable himself.
St. John and the Cross
John may seem to offer a completely different way of looking at Jesus from Matthew, Mark and Luke–a Christology without questions. In a sense, this is true. In the very beginning of the gospel, we learn that the Word was with God at the very beginning of the world. In the ensuing narrative, Jesus repeatedly affirms his divine identity: “I am the resurrection and the life;” “I am the true vine;” “Before Abraham was, I am.” Only a fool could miss the point.
And yet…people throughout the gospel cannot seem to grasp what seems so startlingly obvious to us as readers. We might understand this when it comes to Jesus’ opponents. Even when they eventually catch on to what Jesus is saying, their response is to try to kill him. But Jesus’ best friends seem equally obtuse at times.
What does John expect us as readers to make of all this misunderstanding? One natural human reaction is to have a bit of a laugh at the expense of the characters in the gospel: we know something you don’t know! But do we really possess so much more native spiritual insight than Peter or James or John? Ought we so quickly to jump into the role of Jesus and lament the blindness of those in the past (and present) who fail to see who he really is?
If we are at all honest, we will realize that the disciples’ sandals fit us a lot better than Jesus’…and if the sandals fit, as the saying goes, wear them–and walk in them. As with our reading of the synoptic gospels, the first step is to remind ourselves of the full humanity of Jesus. He is the Word that became flesh, a man who eats and sleeps and weeps just as we do. We must not imagine we can jump over Jesus’ humanity to get to the “real” divine Christ. If we are to find his divinity (as we surely must), we need to find it in the revelation he offers in his humanity.
The point is worth stressing. It is all too easy for Christians to imagine that Jesus could do miracles because he was God, and not like one of us. This admittedly involves an act of faith. But the earth shattering reality is even greater, and consequently involves an even greater level of spiritual understanding. Jesus is like one of us, and he equally is who God is. Those who spoke with him and ate with him and touched him needed no convincing he was a human being. The problem was what to do once Jesus dismantled their assumption that he was only another human being.
But there is yet another twist in John’s telling of Jesus’ story. The problem was not simply that Jesus dismantled people’s assumption about what he was capable of doing. The more troubling issue was that he himself was dismantled on the cross. Did this not lay waste to his claim to be the chosen one of God?
It is precisely here that John reveals Jesus’ identity in the most dramatic fashion. He could have relayed the words and stories of Jesus to demonstrate that Jesus reveals his divine identity even though he was crucified. Instead, he does something still more remarkable: He shows us that Jesus reveals his divine identity precisely in and through his crucifixion. It is in his moment of greatest human weakness that he most clearly shows the extent of his divine power.
The paradox is captured most beautifully in John 12:32: “And I, when I am lifted up, will draw all men to myself.” This must mean victory! Jesus will be exalted like a champion athlete lifted up by the cheering crowd, exalted like God himself on his celestial throne. But John is quick to disabuse us of this notion. The very next verse explains what is really in view: “He said this to signify what death he was going to die.”
So is this mere irony? No, because his humiliating death on the cross really is a victory, for it is here that Jesus finally breaks Satan’s stranglehold on the world. By dying for our sins, he liberates us to serve God in newness of life as we follow in the footsteps of the Son.
But we may suggest something further. The cross is not only the place where Jesus defeats Satan; it is also the place where his divine identity is most fully revealed. God, as John tells us elsewhere, is love (1 John 4:8). And where is God’s matchless love more evident than on the cross?
John is pressing us to respond to the crucified Jesus. Is he a defeated, no-account rebel, or the paradoxically enthroned king of glory? And if the latter, what sort of people ought we then to be?
Who is Jesus?
The question will not go away. Who is Jesus? It is a blessing to know the answer, and to receive through the Spirit the assurance that he is indeed Lord and Savior, fully God and fully man. But it is equally a blessing to keep asking the question, because as we reflect upon it day by day, we move deeper into the mystery of who God is, and who we are meant to be.
Dr. Sean McDonough is a Professor of New Testament at Gordon-Conwell and received his Ph.D. from the University of St. Andrews. His research interests include creation/cosmology in the Bible and the Ancient Near East, Hellenistic Judaism, Greek philosophy and religion and the Book of Revelation. He is author of several books, including Creation and New Creation: Understanding God’s Creation Project and A Time for Sorrow: Recovering the Practice of Lament in the Life of the Church.