Who is Jesus? A study in the gospel of Luke
I. What authority does Jesus claim? (Luke 5:12-28)
A. Authority as God’s servant (Luke 4:17-21)
1. In the Old Testament, God promised to provide a Messiah to save Israel.
Numerous Old Testament prophesies speak about the Messiah, a great Savior who would come to rescue his people. The prophesies are too numerous to treat comprehensively, but here are two of the more explicit ones:
Micah 5:2. But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times"
Isaiah 9:1-7. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the Gentiles, by the way of the sea, along the Jordan- The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.... For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David's throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this.
2. In Jesus’ time, many Jews looked forward in hope to the coming of the Messiah
It is very clear from the accounts of the gospels that the Jewish people of Jesus’ time were awaiting a Messiah. Even today, the Orthodox and Conservative branches of Judaism are still awaiting a Messiah to rescue the Jewish people and bring peace to the earth.
John 10:24. The Jews gathered around him, saying, "How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly."
3. Jesus declared himself to be this promised Messiah
The passage that Jesus quotes at the beginning of his ministry is a Messianic prophesy from the book of Isaiah. Jesus states explicitly that this prophecy, which speaks of the coming of the Lord’s “anointed” one (or “Messiah”), is fulfilled in him. He is the Lord’s servant who has come to preach good news to the poor, recovery of sight for the blind, and freedom for the oppressed. Several other places in the gospels, Jesus explicitly declares himself to be the Jewish Messiah promised in the Old Testament.
Mark 15:2. Are you the king of the Jews?" asked Pilate. "Yes, it is as you say," Jesus replied.
Matt. 26:63-64. The high priest said to him, "I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God." "Yes, it is as you say," Jesus replied. "But I say to all of you: In the future you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.”
4. “Christ” is a title, not a last name. The Greek word Christos translates the Hebrew “Messiah” which means “God’s anointed”
When we refer to “Jesus Christ” we are actually stating that Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ, or Messiah in the same way that we might refer to “President Obama.”
B. The authority to heal (Luke 5:12-16)
1. Jesus’ healing of the sick are recorded in all four gospels
Modern people often assume that ancient people were credulous and gullible when it came to miracles. However, the accounts in the gospels always indicate that people were astonished by the miracles. Though people lacked the scientific worldview that we have today, they were well aware that the natural world followed certain regular patters and that a disruption of these regular patterns was an indication of supernatural agency. In fact, the scientific worldview of the modern Western world really has very little to say about the possibility of miracles. Science, in general, prescribes the linkage of cause and effect that accords with the laws of nature. But science in no way overrules the possibility that a supernatural cause might intervene in the natural order. Claiming that there cannot be supernatural intervention because science so accurately describes the operation of the natural world is a logical fallacy. The question we need to address first is: does a supernatural, omnipotent Creator God actually exist? If the answer is no, then by definition miracles cannot happen. But if the answer is yes (or even if it is maybe), then miracles must be left open as a possibility, provided that God has the desire to perform them. Furthermore, with the advent of quantum mechanics in the 20th century, our understanding of the nature of physical laws, the possibility of the miraculous, and the link between cause and effect has changed drastically (see my essay “Quantum mechanics and materialism” for more information).
2. Jesus’ healings were motivated by his compassion for the suffering
Jesus did not heal to attract crowds or as a bare display of his power. Rather, he healed because of his compassion and sympathy for the suffering. For instance, when Jesus heals the leper, Luke notes that he reached out and touched the man. In other places, Jesus heals with a word or at a distance, so why is this detail included? We need to recall that leprosy led to social and religious separation; it was illegal for lepers to come into any kind of contact with the healthy lest they spread the infection. They were also cut off from temple worship while their condition persisted. Thus, in touching the man, Jesus was not only healing him, but was giving him the one thing he most craved and needed – human contact.
Matt. 14:14 “When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick.”
Mark 1:40-43 “A man with leprosy came to him and begged him on his knees, "If you are willing, you can make me clean." Filled with compassion, Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. "I am willing," he said. "Be clean!" Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cured.”
3. Jesus pointed to his healings as a testimony to his identity
Jesus always pointed to his healing as evidence of his identity as the Messiah. Notice how he sends the leper in this passage to the priests “as a testimony to them”. Because the prophets foretold that the Messiah would come to heal the sick, Jesus sends people he has healed to the religious authorities as a declaration to them that he is indeed the Savior for whom they have been waiting.
C. The authority to teach (Luke 5:17)
1. Jesus taught in the synagogues as well as in towns and in the countryside
Jesus did not only teach the religious elite, but the common people, and he attracted crowds by the thousands who wanted to hear what he said.
2. His teaching frequently brought him into conflict with the religious authorities
One of the major conflicts between Jesus and the religious authorities was over the validity of the rabbinic oral tradition, which many religious leaders held to be equal in authority to Scripture. While Jesus everywhere affirmed the authority of the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament), he strongly criticized the rabbinic tradition as a distortion of God’s teaching.
3. Jesus never introduced his teaching with the formula “Thus says the Lord…”, as had earlier prophets. He referred either to Scripture or to his own authority.
In the Old Testament, prophets would relate what God had directed them to say by prefacing their statements with “Thus says the Lord…” Contemporary rabbis of Jesus would often cite other famous rabbis or teachers to support their case. However, the crowds and Jesus’ opponents were amazed (and offended) that he taught “as one who had authority”. In other words, Jesus acted as though he were an infallible source of authority both to interpret the Hebrews Scriptures and to declare God’s will to all people.
Matt. 5:18. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth
disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any
means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.
D. The authority to forgive sin (Luke 5:18-25)
1. Many times during his ministry, Jesus forgave sin.
Luke 7:47-49 Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little." Then Jesus said to her, "Your sins are forgiven." The other guests began to say among themselves, "Who is this who even forgives sins?”
2. This claim was always shocking and blasphemous to his contemporaries
To modern ears, the forgiveness of sin might seem like a small matter, but Jesus’ contemporaries never felt that way. They recognized that God alone could forgive sin and for a human to claim such authority was blasphemous. Even today, we can see the shock of the claim if we think carefully about it. Imagine that I punch Nick in the face and steal his wallet. Then that Rob tells me “Take heart, your sins are forgiven.” All of us recognize that Rob has clearly overstepped his bounds. It’s Nick’s forgiveness I need, not Rob’s. And yet, Jesus has the audacity to treat sin as if he is the primary party offended by it. Again, we should recognize the legitimacy of the rabbis’ complaint: either Jesus is God himself, or this is blasphemy!
E. The authority to command allegiance (Luke 9:23-25)
1. Jesus demanded that his followers put him first in their lives, before the demands of family, friends, work, or even personal safety
2. Yet Jesus promised that the way of surrender to him is also the way of ultimate joy and glory
Jesus taught repeatedly that he must come first in his followers’ lives; nothing can be more important than our relationship with him: not our parents, not our jobs, not our family responsibilities, not our children, not our country. He demands that we love him supremely, above anything or anyone else. He demands control over every area of our lives. Again, there is only one Person who can make such demands legitimately and it is God. For a human being to make such demands is pure evil. Only God Himself can demand such allegiance and not only command it, but actually deserve it.
In conclusion, we are left with a choice about Jesus. On the one hand, Jesus lived a life of love, gentleness, and compassion that everyone recognizes. His teaching has resonated with humanity down through the ages as statements of the greatest truth and goodness that we have ever known. And yet at the same time, he makes the kind of outrageous claims that we would normally attribute to a cult leader or a madman. It is this dilemma that we need to wrestle with if we are going to grapple with the historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth, and it is this dilemma –or really Trilemma- that we must solve. Jesus is either a Liar, a Lunatic, or Lord. Either he was a liar who knew that he was not God and deceived his followers. Or he was a lunatic who truly believed he was God and deceived himself and others. Or he was telling the truth, and he is the God who created the universe come to save us. To quote C.S. Lewis who phrased this Trilemma most succinctly:
“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.” – C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
II. Whom did Jesus come to call? (Luke 5:27-32)
A. The tax collectors were social and religious outcasts
1. The Roman Empire had conquered Israel and was viewed with contempt and hatred by many 1st century Jews
The Roman Empire was an occupying force akin to the Nazi army in occupied France during World War II. Obviously, they were detested by the Jews and viewed as the enemy. Not only were they a foreign power, but they were pagans, worshipping a whole pantheon of foreign deities rather than the God of Israel.
2. The tax collectors were Jews who were employed by the Romans to collect taxes
The tax collectors were similar to those French people who collaborated with the Nazi government. They were viewed as traitors to their people and to their religion.
3. They were know for their greed and were expelled from the synagogue
As a group, the tax collectors themselves were known to be greedy and vicious. Clearly the kind of people who would turn on their own countrymen were not the most noble or virtuous of society.
B. Jesus frequently ate with tax collectors and prostitutes
1. Eating was considered a sign of fellowship and friendship in the ancient world
Consider the significance of Jesus’ statement in Revelation: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If any man opens, I will come and eat with him and he with me.” (Rev. 3:20).
2. Jesus’ actions scandalized the religious authorities
The fact that notoriously wicked and sinful outcasts constantly flocked to Jesus was a source of scandal to the religious establishment. They viewed it as a sign that Jesus condoned sin and did not take a serious enough view of holiness.
C. Jesus declared that his actions are consistent with his mission
1. Jesus does not ignore or redefine sin – he recognizes that these people are sinners
Jesus did recognize that the actions of these people were sinful. Jesus never redefined or excused sin. He affirmed that prostitution, extortion, greed, and evil of all kinds were indeed evil.
2. Jesus affirms the need for repentance
Jesus also affirmed the need for repentance. The call of Jesus and of his earliest followers was always “Repent and believe the good news.” Man needs to turn from sin to God and prove his repentance by his deeds. A true turning to Jesus is always accompanied by a new internal struggle against sin and a visible change in a person’s life.
3. Jesus says that he came to heal and rescue sinners
However, Jesus says that it is not for the “righteous” that he has come, but for sinners. The accusation that Jesus does not take sin seriously enough is terribly ironic. In fact, it is the religious leaders who do not take sin seriously enough. They define sin as outward acts of bad behavior that separate the world into “the righteous” (i.e. the religious) and “the sinners” (i.e. the irreligious). In fact, Jesus taught that God’s law condemns all of us, religious and irreligious alike. None of us keep God’s law to love him supremely and to love our neighbor as ourselves. All of us are sinners in God’s eyes. Therefore, Jesus gives us a wholly different perspective on sin and salvation. Jesus declares that all of us -the Pharisees, the religious authorities, the prostitutes, and the tax collectors- need a Savior. Jesus does not come looking for the very righteous, the very committed, the very good, the very noble, the very faithful. He comes looking for the unrighteous, the sinful, the rebellious, the broken, and the wicked. The good news of the gospel is that Jesus came to seek and save that which was lost. If we know that we are lost and sinful, then we can rejoice because Jesus came to seek and to save us.
Suggested discussion questions:
1. Why did Jesus usually refer to himself as the “Son of Man” rather than the “Messiah”?
Although there are several places where Jesus unequivocally declares himself to be the “Messiah”, he tended to refer to himself instead as the “Son of Man”. The reason is clear if we consider the connotations the concept of “Messiah” had in 1st century Palestine. At the time, although most Jews expected the coming of the Messiah, they expected the Messiah to be primarily a political savior who would rescue them from the oppression of the Romans by leading them to military victory. Furthermore, it is not clear that the Jews considered the Messiah to be anything more than a great human leader when in fact the Scriptures pointed to a divine Messiah. In fact, there were many charismatic individuals in the centuries before and after Jesus who claimed to be the Messiah and gathered an army to drive out the Roman invaders. In contrast, the Bible predicted that the Messiah would not only be a great king but a suffering servant, one who would rescue the people not from political oppression but from bondage to sin and death. By referring to himself as “the Son of Man” Jesus not only avoided the political overtones of the word “Messiah”, but also reminded the Israelites of the prophesy of Daniel which recognized that the Messiah would not be just a mere human, but God himself.
Daniel 7:13-14 In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.
Matt. 26:64 "Yes, it is as you say," Jesus replied. "But I say to all of you: In the future you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven."
2. Isn’t it possible that Jesus was just a very good moral teacher or a prophet?
Although this is a popular view of Jesus, it cannot be reconciled with the Jesus of Scripture. As we discussed in Week 1, we have massive amounts of evidence that the New Testament is historically accurate. If so, then it gives us an accurate picture of the historical Jesus. But then, we are faced with Lewis’ Trilemma. Almost every saying of Jesus that we have is charged with a claim to divinity and absolute authority. The only way to conclude that Jesus was a great human teacher is to completely reject his teaching about himself.
The idea that the divinity of Jesus was created and propagated by the Christian church is a historical fallacy. The earliest documents that we have are Paul’s epistles from 50-60 A.D., and in them he refers to Jesus repeatedly as divine (see Phil. 2:5-11 especially). Another alternative is to claim that Jesus’ earliest followers radically changed Jesus’ message. However, aside from the implausibility of suggesting that those who loved and revered Jesus the most would have utterly distorted his message, is the added implausibility that devout Jews would advocate the worship of a human being as God without some radical justification to do so. While the elevation of humans to divine status was fairly common among the Greek pagans, the idea was utterly repugnant to Jews. Yet all of Jesus’ earliest followers were Jews and were therefore the least likely people in the entire world to draw such a conclusion; unless, of course, Jesus himself had claimed divinity and had demonstrated it through his miracles, his death, and his Resurrection.
3. If Jesus was divine, why did he ever refer back to the Jewish Scriptures?
The Jews of Jesus’ day (and Christians today) regarded the Scriptures as the inspired words of God (although, of course, they were written by and through human authors). Consequently, God himself frequently refers his people back to the Scriptures even in the Old Testament. Because God’s word is sufficient to reveal his character, his commands, and his saving purposes to each generation, he consistently point back to it whenever they require correction, rebuke or encouragement. In the same way, Jesus did not come to overturn God’s revelation but to fulfill it. Thus, he always grounds his teaching in Scripture. In fact, as a young Christian, I was amazed to discover that much of Jesus’ teaching that is considered so radical is simply a recapitulation of the teaching of the Jewish Scriptures themselves. As fully God, Jesus’ teaching has the same divine authority as God’s word. Yet as fully man, Jesus lives a life of complete love and submission to God’s word. Actually, Jesus’ reverence for the Scriptures is the main reason that I accept them as God’s word!
Isaiah 8:20 To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, they have no light of dawn.
Matt. 4:4 Jesus answered, "It is written: 'Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.' "