Jesus is Lord

rabbulapentecost Christ the Pantocrator, from the Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna.

An Audacious Claim

One of the great temptations in the modern world is to imagine Jesus Christ as great rabbi, moral teacher, or philosopher, but not God.  In 1952 C. S. Lewis spoke to this matter in his classic defense of the faith, Mere Christianity:

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.

The Gospels record Jesus admitting at his trial to be the Messiah, the Son of God, and the King/Judge of the World who would reign from heaven with God (Mt 26:63-66, Mk 14:61-64, Lk 22:67-70, Jn 18:33-37). These claims were what led to his condemnation as a blasphemer and death on the cross. He also describes himself on rare occasions as "I AM" (e.g., Mk 6:50 in the original Greek, John 8:58), which is the meaning of the Hebrew name for God, Yahweh or Jehovah. What he claimed by his words he backed up with actions, since he accepted worship (Mt 14:33, 28:9, Jn 20:28) without rebuking the worshippers. 

Thus we are left with two possibilities regarding his claims to divinity.  They are either honestly portrayed or they are not.

Weighing the Evidence

Let us examine the matter of honest portrayal first.  If Jesus' claims are accurately recorded in the Gospels, there are four possible explanations.

His claim is untrue, but he did not know it; he was a sincere but incredibly deluded man; a lunatic.
His claim is untrue and he knew it; he was an evil, deceiving fraud;  liar and a con-artist.
His claim is true but was misunderstood by his first followers in that we are all gods; he was a guru.
His claim is true and was correctly understood by his disciples; he is the Lord.

 Let us deal with each of these possibilities in turn.

To suggest that he was a lunatic, one must ignore clear evidence of his sanity, wisdom, and humour.  One must try and sqare the man in the Gospels with the well-established psychological profile of the person with a "divinity complex" - dullness, predictability, and inability to love and understand others as they really are.  This form of mental illness is the exact opposite of what one sees in the Jesus of the Gospels.

To suggest that Jesus was a liar, one must ignore clear evidence of his sincerity and beauty of character (generally acknowledged even by unbelievers) and call him a virtual devil in the flesh. Then one must presume that an insincere conman was willing to be slowly tortured and killed for the sake of a personal claim he didn't even believe himself.

To suggest that Jesus was a guru, one must ignore clear evidence of his Jewish background and suggest that he failed to get his most intimate associates to understand his point. One must believe that twentieth-century Westerners with a partial interest in Eastern religion understand first-century Judaism better than first-century Jews themselves.

To suggest that Jesus was Lord may seem far fetched, but it is the only option that squares with both the written records and what we know of human nature.

The Reliability of Sources

But what if the written records are not reliable?  What if the disciples are the ones who cannot be trusted?  This is, of course, possible, but given the circumstances, once again highly unlikely.

The earliest recorded claims of Jesus' divinity come from the generation after his death; from people who knew him or his disciples.  In this respect, the Gospels are no different from other sources upon which we base our knowledge of the ancient world.  They are made up of firsthand testimony from people whose claims could be disputed and checked.  If we can believe that Socrates taught the pursuit of wisdom to the youth of Athens, we should be able to believe that Jesus Christ said certain things to his disciples in Galilee.  There is as much evidence for one of these claims as there is the other.

Furthermore, the disciples were monotheists, and had been taught all their lives that worshipping anything other than God was a terrible sin.  There would be powerful internal constaints against proclaiming a man to be divine, wonders and miracles notwithstanding.  And the external deterrants would have been even more compelling.  Advancing claims about Jesus' divinity often led to marginalization within the community, and in some cases to torture and death.  The disciples had no motive to lie or exaggerate or lie about Jesus that could possibly compare with the benefits of keeping silent.

The Son of the Living God

In examining the evidence it becomes apparent that there are good and valid reasons to believe the Gospel record to be true.  If this is the case, one must confront the possibility that Jesus is who He says He is, and that God has inserted Himself into human history in a miraculous fashion.  And then it is up to us to decide whether the the possibility is not just a possibility, but is actually true. 

We in the Anglican Catholic Church believe that it is.  And so we echo St. Peter in saying, "thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God."