The Real Jesus
By The Rev. Dr. James D. Kegel
Albert Schweitzer was a theologian as well as a medical doctor and humanitarian. In 1906 he wrote a book which is translated as The Quest for the Historical Jesus which summed up a century of theological investigation. For a hundred years, writers had been seeking to find the historical Jesus but Schweitzer answered them that one could not separate the Jesus who lived and taught and suffered and died; the real, historical Jesus of Nazareth from the Christ of faith, the Savior who had been proclaimed and believed in the Christian Church through the ages.
Schweitzer seemed to have the last word and he did for many years, but then scholars again set off on what is called the second quest to find out who the real Jesus was. The Jesus Seminar has been rather famous for going through the five Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and the Egyptian Gospel of Thomas, and then trying to decide what actions Jesus really took, what words he really spoke. They cast little red balls, gray balls and black balls—oh, and pink balls too. I believe the red are for the things they are sure Jesus did and words he said; black definitely did not do or say; and pink and gray somewhere in between. What the consensus seems to have come up with is that Jesus was a party-goer who liked his drinks, liked his good food and was a sort of wandering sage.
Of course other scholars find different things—one wonders how a party-loving sage would find himself crucified is anybody’s guess. For most of these scholars, crucifixion was just the end of it all for poor Jesus. Yet Albert Schweitzer’s remark of the scholars of the nineteenth century could just as well be made of those of our own time, that what they found when looking for the real Jesus is themselves. If they wanted a wine-drinking, cheese and crackers eating, scholarly Jesus, that is what they found. Others have wanted to find him the political rebel or religious troublemaker—at least that would account for his being crucified. Mark Twain once remarked that if a person only had a hammer, everything would look like a nail. The comment might fit these scholars—they find would they are looking for, often a mirror copy of themselves, and call it Jesus of Nazareth, the real Jesus.
I find these books and articles and ideas fascinating. I am not so disturbed as some people for I know my faith is not dependent upon the latest scholarly argument or the newest best-seller about Jesus. I am confident that the faith handed down, the faith proclaimed in the Bible, is true. Jesus is who the Scriptures say he is. Christ is the one in whom so many have trusted through the years, the solid rock, the ground of our faith, the source of our life and being.
Dr Fredrik Schiotz was president of the Evangelical Lutheran Church and the American Lutheran Church. Once he was visiting New Guinea and noticed that when he said the word “Jesus,” the people’s faces would light up and they would smile. He asked them why they loved Jesus so and one man answered, “It is easy to answer your question. Before the missionaries came to us, we lived a life of fear. For us it seemed as though evil spirits were everywhere: in the woods, in the grass and the stones. If we built a new house and someone said that an evil spirit had moved into the house, we would not dare spend the night in it. Then the missionaries came to us. They taught about God and about Jesus. And when we opened our lives to him, our fears disappeared.” And then he beams, “That’s why we love Jesus!” Dr. Schiotz added, “I could see the whole congregation supported his witness. It was worth going to New Guinea to hear this Christian proclaim his love for Jesus whose presence displaces fear.”
We proclaim with confidence that the real Jesus has the power to change lives, give hope and courage. But we will never fully understand Jesus. As Gunther Bornkamm, one of the greatest New Testament scholars of the last century, put it, “The nature of the sources does not permit us to paint a biographical picture of the life of Jesus.” When we try to go behind the biblical picture, we discover that we cannot do it. We will never know what Jesus did in those years between his visit to the Jerusalem Temple at age twelve and the beginning of his ministry at the baptism in the Jordan River. Did he visit India? Tibet? Some people have found this a fascinating theory—maybe he studied with Buddhist monks in Tibetan monasteries or with Hindu sadhus along the banks of the Ganges or learned magic from Egyptian priests. Such fascinating fictions appear more interesting, perhaps, than just working alongside Joseph in a carpenter shop in Nazareth and going to the synagogue each Saturday. We cannot really know, nor should we.
As John concludes his Gospel, “There are also many other things which Jesus did, which if they would all be written, I suppose that even the world itself wouldn’t have room for the books that would be written” (John 21:25 WEB). And again, “Therefore Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written, that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30-31 WEB). Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. Believing in him we have new and eternal life. This is the real Jesus.
Today is the festival of the Transfiguration. Peter, James and John accompany Jesus to the top of a mountain and there he is met by Moses and Elijah come down from heaven. And Jesus is transformed, metamorphosed—transfigured. Jesus’ face becomes dazzling and his clothes glistening white. Jesus is surrounded by the heavenly presence and the voice of God is heard saying, “”This is my beloved Son. Listen to him!” (Luke 9:35 WEB). It is a revelation, an epiphany, of just who Jesus really is.
Yes he is the rabbi from Nazareth, the one who taught and preached, healed the sick, comforted the lost, accepted women and children, slaves and sinners. And yes, compared to John the Baptist who was a Nazirite, Jesus loved to eat and drink and celebrate.
This is the real Jesus but not all there is to Jesus. For at his transfiguration, the disciples discover that Jesus is the son of God, the chosen one of God, who will save the people from their sins by his death and be glorified in his resurrection. “Listen to him,” God says to us.
There is no separation of the Jesus of history from the Christ of faith. Jesus is “true God, Son of the Father from eternity, and true man, born of the Virgin Mary.” And as the Small Catechism of Luther says, “He is my Lord.” The real Jesus has “saved and redeemed me, a lost and condemned person. He has freed me from sin, death and the power of the devil, not with silver or gold, but with his most holy and precious blood and his innocent suffering and death. All this he has done that I may be his own.” And then Luther added, “This is most certainly true.” The real Jesus is both truly human and divine and my Savior, my Lord.
The real Jesus—Charles Dickens was so concerned that his children would know and love Jesus that he wrote a beautiful little book entitled The Life of Our Lord. He never intended this book for publication; the little book was for his family. It was only published in 1933 after the death of his youngest son. Dickens had written in between 1846 and 1849. “My dear children,” it begins,
“I am very anxious that you should know something
about this history of Jesus Christ.
For everybody ought to know about him.
No one ever lived who was so good, so gentle,
and so sorry for all the people who did wrong
or were in any way ill or miserable as he was.
And as he is now in heaven where we hope to go,
and all to meet each other after we are dead
and there be happy always together.
You never think what a good place heaven is,
without knowing who Jesus was and what he did.”
This is the real Jesus, not just what the red ball says, not what is controversial enough to sell books but the real Jesus who is Son of God and Son of Man and Our Lord who loves the little children and each one of us. He leads us through death—his death and our death—to the glory of heaven. This is the real Jesus. See him. Listen to him. Believe in him. Amen.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2014 James D. Kegel. Used by permission