How can we know the real Jesus? That’s what I want to talk about this evening. In Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code there is a scene in which the principle characters, Robert Langdon and Sophie Neveu, need (not for the first time) to solve a puzzle. To do that, they find out that they need to get to know Sir Isaac Newton quickly. They begin by finding out something about him through what someone else has written about him. They then head off to Westminster Abbey. Why? Because that’s where he’s buried. They visit his grand tomb, get near to his bones, look closely trying to find what they’re searching for. They try to remember what they know about his writings – what he himself said.
How can you know someone who has died? You listen to what people say about him. You look at the evidence, including what he himself has said. You get as close to him as you can. And if you want to know the real Jesus, you do the same with him.
First, LISTEN TO WHAT PEOPLE SAY ABOUT HIM
Now the fact of the matter is that there have been many different views of Jesus – and not just since Dan Brown came on the scene. Take a look at the Bible reading we heard earlier, and you’ll see that there were diametrically opposed views of Jesus from the start. The passage is there on your service sheet, and it’s from Matthew 16.13-23. If you prefer to follow it in one of the Bibles in the pews and see it in its context, you’ll find it on p 983 there. It’s the section headed ‘Peter’s Confession of Christ’.
Let me read the start of that passage, from verse 13:
When Jesus came to the region of Caeserea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say the Son of Man is?’
Jesus used to refer to himself as ‘the Son of Man’, so he’s asking his followers the question, ‘Who do people say I am?’
This is a key moment in the three year period leading up to the death of Jesus. Jesus had spent thirty years living quietly. But then he began to teach and to do many healings and miracles that amazed the people who saw him.
He gathered a group of followers. They saw all that he did. They heard all that he taught. And now he wants them to make up their minds about who he really is. What do they answer? Listen to what they say. This is verse 14:
They replied, ‘Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’
So some thought that Jesus was John the Baptist. John the Baptist had been executed without trial for daring to criticise the King, Herod. Some people thought Jesus was John back from the dead. But John had known Jesus before he died. John had said that his purpose in life was to prepare the way for the coming of one far greater than him. And he said that Jesus was the one. Jesus could not have been John. Confidently stated opinions about who Jesus is that plainly have no basis in fact have been around since the 1st Century.
Others thought that Jesus was a prophet – but only a prophet, a messenger of God.
And in fact there were other ideas about who Jesus was, that perhaps understandably the disciples didn’t mention. Some people thought he was mad. Some thought he was evil.
So that’s what people were saying about Jesus then, 2000 years ago in the 1st Century. What about now, in the 21st Century? What do people say now? What have you heard people say?
Some people know nothing about him. They are simply ignorant of him. One student said, when asked about Jesus, ‘Yes, I’ve heard of Jesus. He’s an American isn’t he?’ No, he was a Jew from Bethlehem in Judea in the Middle East.
Some say that he was a good teacher and a wonderful man, but no more than that.
Mahatma Ghandi said, “The gentle figure of Christ, so patient, so kind, so loving, so full of forgiveness that he taught his followers not to retaliate when abused or struck but to turn the other cheek – it was a beautiful example, I thought, of the perfect man.”
Ghandi would not accept that Jesus was unique, nor that he was God become man as the Bible and Christians claim. But he thought that he was a great teacher.
The view of Jesus Dan Brown places on the lips of the main characters in The Da Vinci Code is essentially the same as that, with the added dimension of his royal blood and leadership qualities.
For instance, one of them says, I quote: "Jesus Christ was a historical figure of staggering influence, perhaps the most enigmatic and inspirational leader the world has ever seen."
To say that Jesus was a great teacher begs the question, of course, what it was that he taught. The view that Dan Brown gives his characters – and by clear implication the essence of the teaching of Jesus as they understood it – is that, I quote:
“The ability of the woman to produce life from her womb made her sacred. A god. Intercourse was the revered union of the two halves of the human spirit – male and female – through which the male could find spiritual wholeness and communion with God.”
That is to say, the pathway to God is sex – ‘man’s only bridge from earth to heaven’. The idea that pervades the book is that this pagan notion was shared by Jesus – hence his supposed marriage to Mary Magdalene. But, so the reconstruction goes, this teaching was suppressed by the church because it posed a threat to the church’s power. And the reason that there is no evidence for this at all in the pages of the Bible, so the book’s characters hold, is that the Biblical accounts were later accounts – centuries later – written to eliminate the truth from circulation.
That’s one view of who Jesus is, that’s being read by tens of millions around the world. It is a travesty of the truth, based on the belief that the New Testament documents are themselves a tissue of lies.
Suffice to say that way out ideas of one kind or another crop up pretty regularly. I remember, for instance, a book from a generation ago by a supposedly reputable scholar. It caused a bit a stir when it came out. The central claim of that one was that the Gospels were the consequence of drug-crazed hallucinations as a result of the disciples eating too much of the wrong kind of mushroom. I wonder if that’ll ever be made into a film.
Then there are many still today who think of Jesus as a prophet – a messenger of God, but no more.
One young man who thought that way was a Muslim. One day he read a leaflet that was posted to the company that he worked for in the Middle East. It was about the prophet Issa – or Jesus. It pointed out that Jesus was actually both God and man and the only way to happiness. He threw it away thinking, ‘How stupid can you get!’ But he began to read other such leaflets about how Jesus was the Messiah who had died for the sins of mankind, how he loved all men and offered them free salvation. He wasn’t convinced by what he read. It was diametrically opposed to his strongly held Muslim beliefs. Yes, Jesus was a great prophet, he thought, but he was a man like all the other prophets. God can have no Son, he thought, and it is a great sin to associate a man with him. Jesus didn’t die on the cross – God caused someone else to die in his place and took him to heaven. He knew all these traditional Muslim arguments against Christianity, and he used to throw the leaflets away in disgust. But he kept on reading. He wanted to know more. He sent off for a Bible, and he began to read that, though at first he didn’t really understand it. He got to know a few believers in Jesus, and talked to them about it. Some years later, he came to the conclusion that Jesus was God and man, Lord and Saviour, and he became a Christian.
‘Who do people say I am?’ That’s the question Jesus asked. People have different views today, just as they did 2000 years ago. I for one, along with many hundreds of millions around the world today, have become convinced that Jesus is both God and man, that he died and rose and again, that he is alive today, that ultimately he is the one who is the ruler of the world, and that he can be known – not only as the object of study and research, but personally.
But why am I and Christians around the world convinced of that? If you want to find out the truth about someone, and there are conflicting views then what do you do? Well:
Secondly, LOOK AT THE EVIDENCE
Where is such evidence to be found? First of all, it is found in the contemporary accounts of Jesus, what he said, what he did, and what happened to him. Where do we find such accounts?
Now, the claim of the Da Vinci Code is that there are indeed contemporary accounts of the life of Jesus – but they are not the ones found in the Bible (that is, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John). Rather, they are the so-called gnostic gospels. The Da Vinci Code claims that these gnostic gospels are early, that they depict Jesus as a feminist, that they indicate he was married to Mary Magdalene, and that they portray him as fully human and not divine at all.
The book claims that the Dead Sea Scrolls number among these – though there is no mention of Jesus in them at all. And in fact, the gnostic writings tend to emphasise the divinity of Jesus, in some cases to the exclusion of his humanity; they tend to demean women; and they are late rather than early – not contemporary accounts, but more like short historical novels. How can the scholars be so sure? I heard one expert saying that it was the equivalent of reading an account of Queen Victoria that described how much she enjoyed her CD collection. It doesn’t take a genius to realise that that is not a contemporary account of her life. So it is with the so-called gnostic gospels.
If you want to see the evidence for Jesus by looking at contemporary accounts, you don’t go there, you go to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, collected conveniently as they are in the Bible. You go to the New Testament Gospels. What can we say about them? Let me say three things.
First, they are early. All of the New Testament documents – including the Gospels – were written within a lifetime of Jesus. In fact what is astonishing given the conditions of the times is how early some of the actual copies of the New Testament documents are – far earlier than those of other ancient writings the authenticity of which are taken for granted.
In the John Rylands Library at Manchester University is the earliest known fragment of a New Testament document – a few verses from John’s Gospel. This fragment, is dated to the first half of the 2nd Century AD – just about a hundred years after Jesus’ death.
In the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin is a papyrus containing a large part of the four Gospels and Acts, dating to around 250 AD.
And when you’re next in London with some time to spare, go to the British Library (just a five minute walk along from Kings Cross station past St Pancras – I recommend it for a visit – the café is excellent). You can see on display there the earliest complete copy of all the New Testament documents collected into one book that exists anywhere in the world – the so-called Codex Sinaiticus, which just means Sinai Book. And that particular book is over 1600 years old – it dates to around 350AD.
These Gospels are early. If you doubt that, do the research.
Secondly, they are reliable. And they are reliable in two senses.
First, the copies that we have are undoubtedly, as near as makes no difference, exactly what was originally written. In fact one thing that the Dead Sea Scrolls do show is how astonishingly accurate the copying of such documents was in an age before printing.
Secondly, they are reliable as accounts of what happened. For instance, they contain the different perspectives on the same events that you would expect from eye witnesses. And they also often show the disciples – the very people whose eye-witness testimony lies behind these accounts – in a very bad light. This incident here is a case in point. Jesus rebukes Peter here because he is acting as an agent of Satan in his rejection of what Jesus is telling him about his death. That’s there in verse 23:
Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.”
That strongly suggests ruthless honesty in the telling.
And these accounts of extraordinary events are extraordinarily sparse and unembellished. They have, as J.B.Phillips the Bible translator put it, ‘the ring of truth’.
So that’s the second thing I want to say about the Gospels: they are reliable. If you’d like to read further on the reliability of the Gospels then a great place to start is with this very helpful booklet by Ian Garrett called ‘Why Trust Them?’ You can find that at the back of church. And what’s more it’s free.
But thirdly, let me stress that you don’t have to take my word for this, or Ian’s come to that. Why? Because, of course, the New Testament documents are not only early and reliable. They are also available. They are freely available for you to investigate yourself. And that means that you can make your own mind up. The Da Vinci Code may have been a big seller, but it’s nothing to the Bible. The evidence for Jesus is out in the open, and totally and easily accessible. You can find a free copy of Mark’s Gospel at the back if you’d like that.
It is true that the claims that Christians make about who Jesus is and what he has done are mind-blowingly massive. It is true that if you come to the conclusion that they are right, then your whole world view and your whole life is turned upside down – or, I should say, put right way up. But this is not some dark mystery passed from person to person through some secret society. All the evidence has been made freely available so that you can decide for yourself.
The evidence of the New Testament Gospels is early, reliable and available for investigation. Don’t miss the opportunity.
So, then, when we do look at the evidence of the New Testament accounts, what do we see? What were the conclusions of those who knew him best?
Before we come to the conclusions of his disciples, it’s perhaps worth mentioning what his enemies thought of him. They were from the religious elite in Palestine at the time. The extraordinary impact of Jesus threatened them and their status. These were people who wanted him dead. And yet a number of remarkable facts are clear as you read about their encounters with Jesus. You can see these things for yourself as your read the accounts.
They couldn’t find any evidence by which to condemn him. They confirm by their words and actions that they understood he was claiming to be God. They hated him for it – but they saw clearly that that was what he was driving at. They conceded that his miracles were real – because they were so dramatic and so public that they simply could not be denied. They were concerned about the profound impact that his powerful teaching was having on the wider population. They confirm that they knew that he claimed before he died that he would rise from the dead. And after the event, they could not disprove his resurrection, try as they might, despite all their precautionary measures, and desperate as they were to do so. All that is pretty strong testimony in itself from those who hated his guts.
But what about those who lived with him for three years, saw him up close and personal, and became his followers? What of his disciples who knew him best and who, here in this incident in Matthew’s gospel, were being questioned by Jesus? Who did they think he was?
Well, we know the answer to that, because Jesus wouldn’t let those disciples get away with just talking about what other people thought of him. Look at verse 15:
‘But what about you?’ he asked. ‘Who do you say I am?’
That’s a question we all have to answer. And they can’t just hide behind other people’s views any longer. So what did they think? Verse 16:
Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’
What does that mean? The Christ is the prophesied Messiah – the King promised by God who would come with the power of God himself to overthrow God’s enemies, rescue God’s people once and for all and bring them into his everlasting kingdom.
Simon Peter had been watching everything that Jesus did and listening to everything he said for two years or more. There was still much he didn’t understand. That’s why Jesus goes on to tell him to keep quiet for now. But Simon Peter has come to the conclusion that Jesus was the Messiah. That’s what the disciples said.
And what about Jesus himself? What did Jesus claim? We could pile up the evidence if we did a thorough survey of the gospels but we don’t have time for that. So let’s just focus on what Jesus says about himself in the course of this incident.
Jesus tells Peter that he is right. And what is more, he says that Peter didn’t work it out for himself. God has shown him the truth. Verse 17:
Jesus replied, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven…’
So Jesus agrees that he is the Messiah. He speaks of God as his own Father. And Jesus tells them more. Look on to verse 21:
From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.
This is not the kind of Messiah that Peter, for one, was expecting. How is Jesus the Messiah going to bring in his Kingdom? By dying at the hands of his enemies. Why?
The death of Jesus was not going to be a useless death. Jesus said later that he would die ‘to give his life as a ransom for many’. In other words, his death would be the price that had to be paid so that we could escape eternal death and hell and find forgiveness and eternal life.
But you can see here that, before he died, Jesus said that he wouldn’t stay dead. He would be raised from death to live for ever. He would defeat death itself. And that would be God’s proof that Jesus really is the Saviour and Lord of the world.
That’s who Jesus said that he was. And that’s what happened. And that illustrates another crucial strand of the evidence about Jesus: the coherence of what he said and did. He claimed to be the Son of God, and he acted like God. He claimed that he would rise from the dead, and he did rise from the dead. There is no gap whatsoever between his talk and his walk.
And in the light of that, let me rather boldly and perhaps a little rashly mention one further strand of evidence to the rope. And that is the evidence of the lives of those who claim to know him – the lives of believers. Now let me say immediately and emphatically that the lives of Christian believers do not at all reflect the perfect sinlessness of Jesus. Far from it. But then we make no claim to that. But I would like to suggest, however tentatively, that four characteristics are evident in the lives of those who honestly submit their lives to Jesus and seek to follow him as their Lord and Saviour. You will of course make your own mind up as to whether you agree.
First, followers of Jesus acknowledge failure. They admit their profound sinfulness, they’re sorry for it, and they want to change.
Secondly, believers are aware of forgiveness. For them, that’s the wonder of the death of Jesus on the cross. Because there, Jesus paid the penalty for their sin once and for all, and set them free.
Thirdly, believers aim to love. Loving God and loving other people becomes the central purpose of their lives. They fail and they know it, as I’ve already said. But love is their aim.
Then fourthly, they always have hope. The believer is under no illusions that life can be and often is very tough indeed. How can they think otherwise when they follow a Lord who was crucified and who warned them that they too need to take up their cross and follow him? But however hard things are, they never lose hope. Why? Because of the resurrection. Because Jesus is alive. And because Jesus has promised one day to return. And Jesus, as he has shown so clearly, keeps his promises.
So I submit that the impact of Jesus on the lives of those who believe in him is another strand of evidence that points to the truth of the Bible’s claims about him. They acknowledge failure. They’re aware of forgiveness. They aim to love. And they always have hope.
Well then, we’ve heard what people said 2000 years ago about who Jesus is. We’ve thought about what people say today. We’ve seen what those who knew Jesus best decided. We’ve heard what Jesus himself said. And we’ve considered his impact. If you want to know the real Jesus, that is the evidence to look at.
But, finally, if the claims of the Bible, and of Jesus himself, and of Christians are true, then there is one further thing that you can do if you want to know the real Jesus. So:
Thirdly, MEET JESUS FOR YOURSELF
Our knowledge of Jesus is based on the evidence about him. But though Jesus died, unlike Isaac Newton, he did not stay dead. None of us can see him with our physical eyes, though he has promised that he is with us through the living presence of his Spirit among his people, and that one day everyone will see him. But we can reach out to him by faith. We can admit our failure, ask for forgiveness, rely on the cross, commit ourselves to obedience – and by faith begin a living and real relationship with Jesus.
You can find some straightforward guidance on how to do that in the this little booklet called ‘Why Jesus?’ You can find that at the back of church. If you want to know how to meet Jesus for yourself, do take one. They’re free.
You can also come along to our next Christianity Explored group. That starts in a few days time. That gives you an opportunity to work through Mark’s Gospel with some other people. There are no expectations about what you do or don’t believe – you just need a desire to look at the evidence. You can sit and listen or you can ask questions and discuss. You can pick up this blue leaflet about that. There’s a form there you can use to sign up.
But meeting Jesus is not a solitary experience. It is not just a one-to-one relationship between you and him. It is a family affair. To become a believer is to be adopted into God’s family. So get involved in the family of the church. And together, we get to know the real Jesus better and better.
Heavenly Father, none of us can really know you or your Son Jesus unless you reveal yourself to us. We are blind to the truth unless you open our eyes. Place in all our hearts, Lord, a deep desire to know the truth about who Jesus is – and to know him for ourselves. And enable us to see that truth, and to meet Jesus.