Chapter OneDISCUSSION ONE
Who Was Jesus?
Does Anybody Know for Sure?
It's been decades since President John F. Kennedy was
assassinated, but people are still fascinated with his
life-and death. One gets the impression that the further
we are from the actual events, the bigger his life
and reputation gets. There's an almost mythical quality
to his thousand-day reign in American politics.
Even the revelation of serious character flaws hasn't
diminished many people's nostalgic interest.
What about the theories concerning his death? Serious,
knowledgeable people seem divided about the
exact number of bullets shot and about whether or not
Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. With so many eye-witnesses,
how could the facts of such a famous assassination
be so inconclusive?
People are just as divided in their opinions about
Jesus. Maybe he was a great teacher who gathered a
following centuries ago. But now, so many years
later, how can we know who he really was? Over the
years, perhaps the stories have grown. The "real"
Jesus may be lost forever behind the curtain of historical
On the other hand, what harm is there in thinking
that Jesus is the Son of God-even if that idea is the
product of religious leaders who exaggerated his influence
long after he was gone? Does Jesus have to be
God incarnate to be a good influence on humanity?
Why can't we just be grateful for the good done by his
teachings, without worrying about who he was or
what he said about himself?
And even if we did have an accurate understanding
of Jesus, what difference would it make today?
He's been gone for two thousand years! The important
thing is that we use what he (or his followers) left
behind. Let his wisdom and counsel stand alongside
that of all the other great teachers, like Confucius or
the Buddha-why must we be pressed into being dogmatic
about something so hard to prove? Leave theologizing
to the experts. Let the words of Jesus be
enjoyed for what they can do for us, and let's not
quibble about whether they're true in any absolute
In short, what's all the fuss about Jesus' identity?
OPEN FOR DISCUSSION
1. What are some of the common things you
have heard people say about who Jesus was?
2. From the list of words and phrases below, check the top three that sum up your current
understanding of Jesus:
myth leader overrated
man guru rebel
nobody special Son of God misunderstood
teacher prophet King
idea Lord other: _______
3. What is one word or phrase from the previous
list that you believe is not true about Jesus?
4. During our lives we have all accumulated
"facts" about Jesus-some of which may not
be entirely accurate. Which of the following
have strongly influenced your picture about
who Jesus was?
a modern theologian
someone antagonistic toward Christianity
a pastor or minister
a really nice person
a person who sounds very intelligent
someone who claims to hear Jesus speak to
my mother or father
someone who "channels" Jesus (or other
an idea that came to me while I was deep in
a book I read
TV or movies
ancient documents written by people who
actually knew Jesus or heard him speak
5. Choose one or two of the above sources of
information. What are the strengths and
weaknesses of relying on these sources?
What the Gospels Say About Jesus
The most reliable information about any historical figure comes
from records of those who knew the person-preferably from
multiple sources. Such material about Jesus is contained in the
ancient documents written by those who knew him (or who
interviewed eyewitnesses). These records are called the
Gospels and are titled after their authors: Matthew, Mark, Luke,
and John. They were written in the first century, within the lifetime
of those who knew Jesus personally or heard him speak.
>From these detailed histories, we can gather statements
regarding what Jesus claimed about himself.
It is not necessary to believe that these documents are
God's Word in order to acknowledge that, as historical sources,
they are the best pieces of evidence we have, and that they are
closer to the original events than any other source (certainly
closer than a later author or modern interpreter). Therefore, if
we find a trend or theme concerning what Jesus says about
himself, we can at the very least acknowledge it's his perspective
about himself. (Of course, he could have been wrong, but
at least we have reliable records of his claims.)
6. Write a concise statement of Jesus' belief, based on information gleaned from the
following passages. (Remember, you do not
need to agree with what was said; just sum up
what Jesus was trying to tell his audience
about his identity).
[Jesus said,] "Whoever acknowledges me before
men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father
in heaven. But whoever disowns me before men, I
will disown him before my Father in heaven. Do not
suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth.
I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I
have come to turn 'a man against his father, a daughter
against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her
mother-in-law-a man's enemies will be the members
of his own household.' Anyone who loves his
father or mother more than me is not worthy of me;
anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me
is not worthy of me; and anyone who does not take
his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever
finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his
life for my sake will find it."
Because Jesus was doing these things on the Sabbath,
the Jews persecuted him. Jesus said to them,
"My Father is always at his work to this very day,
and I, too, am working." For this reason the Jews
tried all the harder to kill him; not only was he
breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God
his own Father, making himself equal with God.
[Jesus said,] "Your father Abraham rejoiced at the
thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad."
"You are not yet fifty years old," the Jews said to
him, "and you have seen Abraham!" "I tell you the
truth," Jesus answered, "before Abraham was born,
I am!" At this, they picked up stones to stone him
[for blasphemy], but Jesus hid himself, slipping away
from the temple grounds.
Philip said, "Lord, show us the Father and that
will be enough for us." Jesus answered: "Don't you
know me, Philip, even after I have been among you
such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen
the Father. How can you say, 'Show us the Father'?"
"If you are the Christ," they said, "tell us." Jesus
answered, "If I tell you, you will not believe me, and
if I asked you, you would not answer. But from now
on, the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand
of the mighty God." They all asked, "Are you then
the Son of God?" He replied, "You are right in saying
7. What is the strongest reason you can give for
modifying or even rejecting the statements
Jesus made about himself? In other words, if
you believe he was wrong, why was he wrong? What would be your more accurate description
of Jesus' true identity?
Titles Applied to Jesus in the Bible
Christ (Messiah). The promised deliverer-king who would rule
over Israel and usher in a new age of peace. The word means
"Anointed One," referring to the act of pouring oil on the head
of one set apart for leadership.
Son of God. "Son of" is a phrase often used to show close
identification with something. For example, Judas, the betrayer
of Jesus, is called the "son of perdition" (John 17:12 in the
Greek). Calling Jesus "Son of God" shows his identification
with God. Jesus is also the Son of God because of the Virgin
Birth (Luke 1:34-35). And he is on a par with God, unlike any
other human being, because he called God his own Father,
meaning that he believed he and God shared the same nature
Son of Man. This was the most common title Jesus used
when referring to himself. Though the term shows Jesus' close
identification with humanity, its most dramatic use was when
Jesus invoked it to reveal his belief that he was the "Son of
Man" described in Daniel's apocalyptic vision: that "Son of
Man" rules over the universe forever (Daniel 7:13-14; see also
John 5:26-27). Jesus used the title this way at his trial (Matthew
26:63-65) and was condemned for blasphemy.
Son of David. King David was one of the most famous and
powerful kings in ancient Israel. God promised him a descendant
whose reign would never end, and this eternal King would
reunite Israel and bring back its former glory.
Rabbi. Hebrew for "teacher." A term of respect, like our
Prophet. Anyone who speaks words directly from God. This
does not necessarily involve predicting the future; a prophet
need not "foretell" but will always "forth tell." Jesus did both.
I am. A title God used in reference to himself when speaking
to Moses at the famous burning bush (Exodus 3:14) and also
when speaking through the prophets: "I am he" (Isaiah 43:10,
13, 25). In Hebrew, God's name, "Yahweh," sounds like "I am."
Jesus used this most sacred name for himself (John 8:58).
Lord. A range of meanings, from the simple, respectful "Sir"
to a way to address God himself. People meant many things
in calling Jesus Lord, but Jesus made it clear he was in every
way "Lord"-as much as God himself (Luke 2:9-11; Matthew
7:22-23; 12:8; John 13:13; 5:22-23; 20:28-29).
Savior. Jesus' name in Hebrew can be translated "God who
saves." God was called a Savior in the Old Testament after a
personal, military, or other type of victory. Jesus is our rescuer
primarily through saving us from the penalty of sin (Matthew
1:21; John 1:29).
8. People sometimes allege that Jesus' followers
put the words recorded in the Gospels into his
mouth-that he never said the things
attributed to him. What do you think of this
allegation in light of what you've learned in
HEART OF THE MATTER
9. What are some of the implications for all
humanity if Jesus really was the unique Son of
10. What are some implications for your life if
Jesus was God come to earth in human form? What is your emotional reaction to that idea?
11. According to John 8:24 ("I told you that you
would die in your sins; if you do not believe
that I am the one I claim to be, you will indeed
die in your sins"), what priority did Jesus place
on accepting his true identity?
12. What do you think is behind people's
emotional reactions in thinking Jesus' claims
are offensive? What is the hardest thing for
you to accept about his claims?
CHARTING YOUR JOURNEY
With this session you're beginning a journey. Keep in
mind that you do not need to feel pressured to "say
the right thing" at any point during these discussions.
You're taking the time to do this work because you
want answers and because you're willing to be honest
about your doubts and uncertainties. You may also
have others in your life who would benefit from hearing
about what you'll be learning. So use these sessions
profitably-ask the tough questions, think "outside
the box," learn from what others in your group have
to say. But keep being authentic about where you are
in your process.
To help you see yourself more clearly, throughout
this guide you will have an opportunity to indicate
where you are in your spiritual journey. As you gain
more information, you may find yourself reconsidering
your opinions from week to week. The important
thing is for you to be completely truthful about what
you believe-or don't believe-right now.
13. On a scale from one to ten, place an X near
the spot and phrase that best describes you.
What reasons do you have for placing your X where you did?