When I was a young Christian in the early 70s sporting regulation Jesus-person bib overalls and hair down to my shoulders, I wore a hip necklace identifying me as a Christian. It was called an ichthus, the Greek word for “fish.”
The pendant consisted of two intersecting arcs with lines on one side extending past the junction point as tails, forming the simple silhouette of a fish. You can still see it on bumper stickers or in ads for businesses run by Christians.
The Greek word itself (ΙΧΘΥΣ) rested inside the body of the symbol, completing the icon. The ichthus formed an acrostic, with each letter representing Greek words identifying four vital pieces of the Christian message about the 1st century Jewish carpenter: Iesous (“Jesus”), Christos (“Christ”), Theou (“God’s”), uios (“Son”), and sōtēr (“Savior”).
The adornment was de rigueur—the current fashion—for hippies who got religion during the Jesus Movement. It was also a convenient novelty piece, sparking conversations with inquisitive strangers. The fish acronym summed up the Christian message: Jesus was the Messiah (“Christ”), God’s only Son, the Savior.
The acrostic also serves as a handy summary of the basic theology essential to the Christian understanding of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus was a true human being who came to Earth as God’s promised “anointed one,” the Christ. He was no mere mortal, though. He was God’s own Son (God in human flesh, that is), God come down, “Immanuel”—God with us—the chosen Savior of the world.
In this, our 25th anniversary year for Stand to Reason, we are revisiting the essentials, firming up the foundation for you as Christ’s ambassador. In the first two issues of Solid Ground this year, I focused on four reasons we’re convinced God is real. In these next two issues, I focus on God’s Rescuer—who He was and what He came to do—and answer the question, “Why Jesus?”
When I speak to others about Jesus, I almost always refer to Him as “Jesus of Nazareth,” not “Jesus Christ.” There’s a reason for this. The second is a theological title—and sounds that way.
Though the content of that title is critically important (more on that soon), I don’t want people to think of Jesus first in a doctrinal sense—a religious figure spouting theological dogma, an excuse (some think) for Christians to foment spiritual discord and division. Instead, I want them to begin their thinking about Jesus the way His original audience first encountered Him—as a man, a genuine human being.
This is an obvious point, of course, but one that is often missed. It’s tempting to think of Jesus as otherworldly since in a certain vital sense He is. But that must not eclipse something else equally important: He is one of us. As I have written elsewhere:
Though conceived by a miracle, Jesus still entered the world through labor and blood and pain, like all children. He grew as we all do—through joy and sadness, compassion and anger, rest and weariness, delight and suffering, friendship and betrayal. All that is true of our essential humanity, and all that we experience—all that we desire, all that we dream; all that discourages us, all that delights us, all that disappoints us; all our hungers and hopes and distresses—all are true of Jesus. He is like us.[i]
The true, complete, authentic humanity of Jesus was not a mere creative flourish by God, though. It could be no other way. For one, to die for us, Jesus needed to be alive like us. He needed to be like us to save us.
Since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives. (Heb. 2:14–15)
Second, in our own misery we are naturally drawn to others who have shared in misery. They’ve been there. They understand. They know. Better, they might be able to help, given the struggle they share in common with us.
And so Jesus, “since He Himself was tempted in that which He has suffered, He is able to come to the aid of those who are tempted” (Heb. 2:18). Better, “We do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15).
Jesus faced the same trials, the same temptations, the same testings we all do, yet never was defeated. He is a strong friend, a bigger brother, a capable champion always there by our side. “Come to Me,” He welcomed, “all who are weary and heavy laden, and…you will find rest for your souls” (Matt. 11:28–29).
“Jesus”—Man of History
The humanity of Jesus is not merely a stray point of religious doctrine. It is a quantifiable fact of history that’s central to the Christian Story. Take any other religious leader—Gautama of Buddhism, Muhammad of Islam, Nanak of Sikhism, et al.— remove them from history, and their essential religion remains since the teachings ground the faith, not the founder. If those founders are fictions, the teachings remain with full force.
Not so with Jesus. Take Jesus out of Christianity and Christianity disappears. Some suggest that nothing meaningful is surrendered if Jesus never existed since the marvelous story is still intact. The Apostle Paul disagreed. He readily acknowledged that if Jesus’ resurrection was a myth and the witnesses were trading in lies, then Christians were a pitiful lot. [ii] And fools, too, I might add, since it cost many of them their lives.
Everything essential to your convictions about Christ relies on Jesus being a genuine man of history. It is not surprising, then, that so much ink has been spilt to deny it. But these efforts fail. Nothing in the record suggests Christians have misplaced their confidence.
There is a reason the ancient historical accounts of the life of Jesus of Nazareth do not start with the phrase, “Once upon a time….” On the face of it, the authors did not appear to be writing fairy tales for future generations, but rather detailed accounts of the extraordinary events in the life of a particular Jewish carpenter who actually changed the course of human events.
The opening words of Luke’s account of Jesus’ life are especially clear on this point:
Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the exact truth about the things you have been taught.
In the days of Herod, king of Judea…. (Luke 1:1–5)
Each of the ancient biographies of Jesus we know as the Gospels proceeds in the same fashion. The authors clearly intend to relate a remarkable story about a remarkable man who did remarkable things. They were convinced the events in their accounts really happened.
These were not recycled pagan myths of dying and rising saviors—sacred stories of ethereal supernatural heroes and netherworld gods—but reports of actual historical events involving flesh and blood people with their feet firmly planted on terra firma. [iii]
The Gospel writers report history, not mythology. Their accounts include the vivid detail of an observer who witnessed the events personally or a chronicler who obtained the information from people who were actually there. Yet they are not merely reports, but arguments meant to persuade, citing evidence to prove their astonishing claims.
These facts on their own don’t make the accounts true, of course. But they do place these writings in a class of ancient literature that doesn’t allow them to be dismissed for frivolous reasons.
Some wonder why so little was written of such an amazing person if Jesus did, in fact, exist. But they see the situation entirely the wrong way around. What ought to be amazing is how much is recorded about an otherwise obscure man at an obscure time in an obscure place during a period when virtually nothing was written about any individual anywhere.
Though extensive detail of the life of Jesus is found only in the primary source documents we know as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John,[iv] there are at least 17 additional primary historical references to Jesus outside of the New Testament giving corroborating evidence for Christ.[v] These sources testify to, among other things…
- His existence as Jesus—a wise, virtuous sage from Judea
- His supernatural powers (the Talmud accuses Him of sorcery)
- His brother named James
- His crucifixion under Pontius Pilate during the reign of Tiberius
- His resurrection reported by his disciples, who claimed He was alive three days after His crucifixion
- His substantial following, called Christians, who believed in holy living and immortality and worshipped Christ as a god
There is no good reason to doubt that a man named Jesus of Nazareth had a significant impact on the ancient Near Eastern world in the first century, and every reason to believe He did. Anyone who denies that Jesus existed is simply not playing fairly with the facts. Jesus was a man of history, which is why historians write so much about Him.
Pulitzer Prize winner Will Durant in The Story of Civilization—the most successful work of history in history—concludes:
No one reading these scenes can doubt the reality of the figure behind them. That a few simple men should in one generation have invented so powerful and appealing a personality, so lofty an ethic, and so inspiring a vision of human brotherhood, would be a miracle far more incredible than any recorded in the Gospels. After two centuries of higher criticism, the outlines of the life, character and teachings of Christ remain reasonably clear and constitute the most fascinating feature in the history of Western man.[vi]
The New Testament writers were not following “cleverly devised tales when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty.”[vii] As John notes:
What we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of Life…what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also.[viii]
The historical record for Jesus goes back two thousand years, but the record regarding Christ goes back thousands of years before that, back to the very beginning. Before going there, though, a confusion needs correcting.
The word “Christ” is the Anglicized version of the Greek word “Christos,” meaning “anointed one” or “messiah.” Strictly speaking, the messiah in the New Testament is a uniquely Jewish notion. Unfortunately, the word “Christ” has undergone a transformation—and corruption—in meaning over time.
Nowadays, depending on which New Age source you cite, “Christ” could mean a cosmic spirit, or an impersonal mind principle, or a state (“Christhood”) attained by various “Ascended Masters,” or the “I AM Presence,” or the mystical spiritual spark of divinity in all of humanity, etc., etc. [ix] The biblical record, of course, knows nothing of this nonsense.
In the biblical Story, the Christ is one born of woman who suffers injury while striking a fatal blow to the snake—the devil of old—undoing the destruction caused by the serpent and liberating those he’s enslaved: “He [the woman’s ‘seed’] shall bruise you [the snake] on the head, and you shall bruise him on the heel” (Gen. 3:15). This prophecy is a ray of hope, a veiled reference to the Messiah who was to come.
The Rescue Plan
Precisely how would Messiah rescue the world? God had a plan. Called the Abrahamic Covenant, it’s found in the opening lines of Genesis 12. Here is what God promises:
Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go forth from your country, and from your relatives, and from your father’s house, to the land which I will show you. And I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, and so you shall be a blessing. And I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.” (Gen. 12:1–3)[x]
First, God sovereignly sets apart and commissions one man: Abram. Next, He promises to bring a nation forth from that man. Finally, God promises that this man, through the nation he gives life to, will be a blessing to all the nations—the goyim, the gentiles—of the entire world.
Everything that follows in the Bible flows from this magnificent promise—the very backbone of salvation history. As their own story unfolds, Abraham’s people—God’s chosen race selected by Him to rescue the world—produce the only One who can accomplish that task—Mashiach, the Messiah:
[M]y kinsmen…Israelites, to whom belongs the adoption as sons, and the glory and the covenants and the giving of the Law and the temple service and the promises…and from whom is the Christ.... (Rom. 9:3–5)
For this Christ, Israel anxiously waited, an expectation displayed clearly in Jesus’ birth narratives, with each player recalling the promise to Abraham.
Zacharias, at the birth of his son, John the Baptist, blesses God, who “…has raised up a horn of salvation for us…to remember His holy covenant, the oath which He swore to Abraham, our father” (Lk. 1:69, 72–73).
At the annunciation, Mary, in her “Magnificat,” exalts the Lord, who “has given help to Israel His servant, in remembrance of His mercy, as He spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and his offspring forever” (Lk. 1:54–55). [xi]
At Jesus’ dedication in Jerusalem soon after His birth, Simeon beholds Him in the temple and prays, “Now Lord, You are letting Your bondservant depart in peace…for my eyes have seen Your salvation, which You have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light of revelation to the gentiles” (Lk. 2:29–38).
As predicted, that “anointed” king is a descendant of David: “I will raise up your descendant after you, who will come forth from you, and I will establish his kingdom.... Your house and your kingdom shall endure before Me forever; your throne shall be established forever” (2 Sam. 7:12–16).[xii]
He is born in Bethlehem, the city of David: “But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah…from you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel…He will be great to the ends of the earth” (Micah 5:2, 4).[xiii]
David himself, in Psalm 22, portends Messiah’s brutal death. The entire psalm reads like a detailed, first-person account of Jesus’ crucifixion hundreds of years before such executions were a form of capital punishment:[xiv]
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?...
All who see me sneer at me;
They separate with the lip, they wag the head, saying,
“Commit yourself to the Lord; let Him deliver him”…
I am poured out like water,
And all my bones are out of joint;
My heart is like wax;
It is melted within me….
My tongue cleaves to my jaws….
A band of evildoers has encompassed me.
They pierced my hands and my feet.
I can count all my bones.
They look, they stare at me;
They divide my garments among them,
And for my clothing they cast lots.
The Promised One
Jesus, the Messiah, was a man of destiny. The Story predicted the place of His birth, His family lineage, how He would die, and the stunning impact He would have in life and in death. It’s no wonder, then, that belief in Jesus as the one and only Christ is crucial to the Christian message.
Jesus was called Messiah 543 times in the New Testament.
Jesus said that eternal life is knowing Him as Messiah: “And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Messiah whom You have sent” (Jn. 17:3).
A key issue of Jesus’ trial was His claim to be Messiah: “And the high priest said to Him, ‘Tell us whether You are the Messiah, the Son of God.’ Jesus said to him, ‘You have said it yourself’” (Matt. 26:63–64).
John said that the reason he wrote his Gospel was to use the evidence of Jesus’ miracles to persuade the reader that Jesus is Messiah: “These have been written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name” (Jn. 20:31).[xv]
Peter’s first sermon to the Jews on Pentecost was to preach that God had made Jesus “both Lord and Messiah,” His resurrection bearing witness, and regarding this they were told to repent (Acts 2:36–38).
We are sons of God through faith in Messiah, Jesus (Gal. 3:26).
Those who deny that Jesus is the Messiah who came in the flesh are deceivers, liars, and antichrists:
For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not acknowledge Jesus Messiah has come in the flesh. This is the deceiver and the antichrist. (2 Jn. 1:7)
Who is the liar but the one who denies that Jesus is the Messiah? This is the antichrist. (1 Jn. 2:22)
For certain persons have crept in unnoticed...marked out for this condemnation, ungodly persons who...deny our only master and Lord, Jesus Messiah. (Jude 4)
Who is the liar but the one who denies that Jesus is the Messiah?... Whoever denies the Son does not have the Father. (1 Jn. 2:22–23)
So, Jesus of Nazareth is a true man of history, but His history started long before He was born. He is a true man, but He is no ordinary man. He is the Son of David, the future King, the promised Rescuer, the Messiah, the only Christ, the anointed deliverer, the seed of the woman with His heel on the head of the snake.
But He is still more…
[i] Gregory Koukl, The Story of Reality (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017), 107–8.
[ii] 1 Cor. 15:17–19.
[iii] For more detail on this issue see the article, “Jesus, Recycled Redeemer?” at str.org.
[iv] “Primary source documents” are the original source documents—the first-hand records from the actual time in history under study—that provide the basic raw material historians use to accurately reconstruct the past.
[v] Gary Habermas, The Verdict of History (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1988), 108.
[vi] Will Durant, Caesar and Christ, vol. 3 of The Story of Civilization (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972), 557.
[vii] 2 Pet. 1:16.
[viii] 1 Jn. 1:1–3.
[x] See also Gen. 22:18.
[xi] This is why Jesus told the Jewish leaders, “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad” (Jn. 8:56).
[xii] God reaffirms this promise during Judah’s captivity in Babylon through the prophet, Jeremiah (33:20–21).
[xiii] The Jewish scholars at the time of Christ understood this passage to be messianic because the scribes cited this prophecy to Herod when the Magi visited him (Matt. 2:5–6).
[xiv] Crucifixion was not a method of capital punishment for Jews and was only practiced under Roman jurisprudence (The Encyclopedia Americana, 1960, vol. 8, 253).
[xv] John’s statement is a clear testimony of the significance of the use of evidence—apologetics—by the New Testament authors.