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Jesus of Nazareth and the Christ of Faith:
Retracing the Journey

Discovering Jesus: Part 1

Jirair Tashjian

We Have Met Jesus Before

What if we could meet Jesus again for the first time? We have all met him before. I met him first at age nine. Many of us no doubt have met him and known him since childhood. We as a community of Faith, a church, have met him and have known him for a long time. For example, one of the Articles of Faith in the Manual of the Church of the Nazarene reads:

We believe in Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Triune Godhead; that He was eternally one with the Father; that He became incarnate by the Holy Spirit and was born of the Virgin Mary, so that two whole and perfect natures, that is to say the Godhead and manhood, are thus united in one Person very God and very man, the God-man.

We believe that Jesus Christ died for our sins, and that He truly arose from the dead and took again His body, together with all things appertaining to the perfection of man's nature, wherewith He ascended into heaven and is there engaged in intercession for us.

The Church of the Nazarene was not stating anything new in this Article of Faith. Many, many centuries ago, in AD 325 to be exact, the Roman Emperor Constantine convened bishops from all over the Roman Empire in Nicea in Asia Minor (modern Turkey). Constantine had just embraced Christianity and made it the official religion of the Roman Empire. He thought that Christianity could bring unity to the Empire. So, he wanted the bishops to adopt an agreed statement of faith and thus make it the official position of the church as well as the empire. The bishops adopted a statement that became known as the Nicene Creed. The first paragraph of the creed begins, "We believe in one God, the Father."  The second paragraph reads as follows:

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Word of God, God of God, Light of Light, Life of Life, Son only-begotten, Firstborn of all creation, begotten of the Father before all the ages, through whom all things were made; who was made flesh for our salvation and lived among men, and suffered, and rose again on the third day, and ascended to the Father, and shall come again in glory to judge the living and dead.

This is the Jesus we have known as a church and as individual Christians - the exalted, glorified, risen Savior who sits on the right hand of God in majesty and honor. We sing in the words of Jack Hayford:

Majesty, worship his majesty, Unto Jesus be all glory, honor and praise.
Majesty, kingdom authority Flow from His throne unto His own; His anthem raise.
So exalt, life up on high the name of Jesus. Magnify, come glorify Christ Jesus, the King.
Majesty, worship His majesty--Jesus who died, now glorified, King of all kings.

Another chorus exalts Jesus in these words:

All hail King Jesus, All hail Emmanuel, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Bright morning Star.
And thro'out eternity, I'll sing His praises, And I'll reign with Him thro'out eternity.

Then we have the well-known 18th century hymn:

All hail the pow'r of Jesus' name! Let angels prostrate fall.
Bring forth the royal diadem, And crown Him Lord of all.

The Jesus we know is the triumphant, resurrected, exalted Son of God, very God of very God, worthy of glory and honor and praise. He is a divine Savior. He is like God. He is God. And we all say a wholehearted, "Amen!" to that affirmation of faith.

But There Is a Problem

Now, let’s imagine that we could take ourselves, our theology, our hymns and choruses and plop ourselves down in Galilee when Jesus was alive and begin to sing these hymns and choruses to Jesus and about Jesus. I have a feeling Jesus would be saying, "Are these people talking to me and about me?"

I don’t want anyone to misunderstand at this point. I am not suggesting that we should throw out our hymns and choruses. Our worship of Christ the Lord is our response to the great act of God in raising Jesus from the dead and exalting him to highest heaven. It is God who invites us to honor Christ in this way, and it is the New Testament writings that give us the basis to see Jesus the Christ in this way.

Yet, the same biblical witness tells is this is not how Jesus of Nazareth would have thought of himself.  There is another side to Jesus that we must not forget. Both the Nicene Creed and the Nazarene Manual remind us that this Jesus is also very man, very much human. That side of Jesus is not quite as emphatically stated as his divine majesty, but it's still there both in the biblical witness and in the creeds and Faith confessions of the historic Christian Church. It's this very human Jesus that we meet in the four gospels, especially the first three gospels that we call the Synoptic Gospels. It's this Jesus who, in the words of the Apostle Paul, was a scandal to Jews and foolishness to Greeks (1 Cor 1). It's this Jesus who was condemned and crucified by Roman authorities. It's this Jesus who did not make sense to a lot of people in his own time (Mk. 3:21). It’s this Jesus who said that he came not to be served but to be a servant to all (Matt 20:28, Mk 10:45). This is the Jesus we meet in the Synoptic Gospels.

Yet within 300 years after Jesus, Constantine wanted to make him the God of the Roman Empire. I wonder if Constantine really understood what Jesus was all about. Maybe Constantine wanted this glorified King of Kings to be the symbol of the Roman Empire. The bishops in Nicea affirmed that. Jesus is very God, Life of life, Light of light. But the bishops also said that Christ became flesh and lived among men and women, and he suffered and died. I doubt that Constantine was very excited about that side of Jesus. But the church spoke, and Constantine had to live with that. And the church, on the other hand, was more than happy that Christianity was now officially recognized as the religion of the Roman Empire. Christians had finally come of age. It had become a respectable faith. 

Finally, the church was no longer a persecuted sect. In fact, the church became so powerful that it eventually began persecuting those who did not believe in Jesus. So, in the name of Jesus the church in the Middle Ages began persecuting non-Christians. In the 12th century the church in Europe mobilized an army and sent it to the Holy Land to fight the Muslims and to rescue the Holy Land from their hands, all in the name of Jesus the King. To this day even after more than eight centuries Islam has a deep-seated distrust and ill feelings toward the so-called Christian West. Continuing persecutions even into modern times, such as the atrocities committed by Christian Serbs against Muslims in Bosnia and Croatia, have not helped alleviate that suspicion and hostility. Then there was the Inquisition against the Jews in much of Europe in the Middle Ages. And even Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformer of the 16th century, had some unkind things to say about Jews, that they needed to be rounded up and put in ghettos and not allowed to propagate their ideas.

So, yes, we have met Jesus as individuals and as the church. Sadly a lot of things have been done in the name of Jesus that have nothing to do with Jesus. But fortunately, there have been individuals and groups in the church who have reminded the church at large that this divine, exalted, triumphant king is not the only Jesus there is. There is another Jesus that we need to know. It's this other Jesus that we find in the four gospels. It's this other Jesus that Paul preached about.

This is the Jesus who lived in Nazareth and Capernaum. This is the Jesus who had meals with certain undesirable people and was criticized for it. This is the Jesus who was tempted in the wilderness. This is the Jesus who agonized and struggled in Gethsemane. This is the Jesus who said, "If possible let this cup pass from me" (Matt 26:39) This is the Jesus who said, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Matt 27:46, Mk 15:34). This is the Jesus who said, "Unless you deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me you cannot be my disciple" (Matt 16:24, parallels).

It is this human Jesus, subject to temptation, agony and turmoil, that we will try to meet anew in this series of studies. And it is in this Jesus that we truly come to know what God is like. It is not enough to say that Jesus is like God. We have to take the next step as well and see that God is like Jesus. In Jesus of Nazareth we have the revelation of God in our own human history, in the midst of our humanity.

We will look at Jesus before the Easter event, before the resurrection, before the Nicene Creed, before the church recognized and proclaimed him King of kings and Lord of lords. I want us to look at Jesus the way John the Baptist saw him, the way Andrew and Peter, James and John, the crowds, the Pharisees, Caiaphas, and Pilate saw him. What does this Jesus look like?

But you might say, "Why do we need to do this? These people in the lifetime of Jesus did not fully understand him. But we understand him. We know who he is. Why do we need to know how Jesus was perceived by these people in his own lifetime?"

The reason is very simple. We need to do this because the gospels do it. Apparently the gospel writers felt that there would be generations of people later on who would be just like the Pharisees, or Caiaphas, or Pilate. The problem is that when we read the gospels we read them with our own lenses. When we read about Jesus in the gospels, we are thinking in terms of the Nicene Creed, or the Nazarene statement of faith. We read them as Christians who love Jesus, and so find it hard to actually see the picture of Jesus that the Gospels writers are drawing for us.  I'd like for us to read the gospels in these series of four studies as if we are the Pharisees, or Caiaphas, or Pilate, or someone in the crowd. But, you say, "I'm not like the Pharisees, I'm not like Pilate, I'm not like Caiaphas." That may very well be true. But if we are honest, there are times when we act and think like a Pharisee, like Caiaphas, or like Pilate. So when we read the gospels, we need to hear what Jesus has to say to Pharisee-types, to Caiaphas-types, and to Pilate-types. Let's not be so quick to side with Jesus and shake our heads and say, "What's the matter with these dumb Pharisees, or Caiaphas, or Pilate?"

So what did Jesus look like to these people? How did he come across? What did he look like to John the Baptist? What did he look like to the disciples? We know what Peter said about Jesus. He said the same thing we say: "'You are the Messiah.' But Jesus very urgently said to him, 'Don't tell this to anybody.'" (Mark 8:29-30). Was there something wrong about Peter's confession? Is there something wrong about our confession? What do we need to hear from Jesus, and about Jesus?

I hope that in this series we can meet Jesus again for the first time. Our focus will be on Jesus, the man of Nazareth. Perhaps we have been a little too eager to celebrate the triumph, the glory, the majesty and the power of Christ. I hope for a brief time at least we can see the humanness and the vulnerability of Jesus as he lived out his life in the realities of the world of his time.

Jesus in the World of His Own Time

What were the realities of the world in which Jesus lived? The first thing we need to remind ourselves is that Jesus was a Jewish man who lived a Jewish life. That's how we meet him in the gospels. He was born in a Jewish culture. He grew up in a Jewish home. We don’t know much about his childhood and adolescent years because the gospel writers were not interested in writing a biography of Jesus as such. Their purpose was to write a Gospel, which means "good news," not a biography. But we do have a few stories about his birth and childhood in two of the gospels, Matthew and Luke. Even though these two gospels tell of his miraculous conception, the common Jewish elements in the birth of Jesus are never obscured. Matthew, as a Jewish Christian, is very careful to give us the genealogy of Jesus, tracing it back to Abraham, the father of the people of Israel. Luke also gives us the human ancestors of Jesus, but as a gentile Christian he traces the genealogy back to Adam, the father of all humankind. Interestingly, both Matthew and Luke trace the genealogy of Jesus through Joseph, even though they tell us of the virginal conception of Jesus.

The gospels tell us nothing about the early childhood and adolescent years of Jesus. In Luke 2:41-52 there is a single story about Jesus at age twelve. There is nothing particularly miraculous or divine about him in this story. He is a normal Jewish boy at the age of Bar Mitzvah who happens to be at the temple in Jerusalem with his parents for the Passover. Luke tells us that it was their custom to be in Jerusalem every year for this festival. This is a devout Jewish family. The notion that Jesus was at the temple teaching the rabbis has no basis whatsoever in this account. Luke tells us that Jesus was listening to the teachers and asking them questions. That’s what a Jewish boy is supposed to do. Even the statement that "all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers" need not be taken to mean that his amazing answers were due to his divine nature.

When his mother gently chided him for causing them so much anxiety, Jesus responded, "Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?" Granted, this comes as a puzzle to his parents. But even this statement need not be taken as something unusual for a Jewish person. The idea of God as Father is not foreign to the Old Testament. Finally, Luke’s closing comment in this little episode is another indication of the normal Jewish life in which Jesus grew up: "Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor." (Lk 2:52).

After Jesus began his public ministry, we find him regularly in the synagogue on the Sabbath. He prayed and worshipped as a Jewish person. The Lord’s Prayer that we pray is a thoroughly Jewish prayer. Jesus knew the Hebrew Scriptures. He identified with the ancient prophets. The way he preached and taught, his use of parables and short pithy aphorisms, are all understandable as the teachings of a Jewish rabbi or teacher. The theme of his preaching, the kingdom of God, made sense to his Jewish hearers, even though some of the things he said about the kingdom of God were shocking. In fact, they continue to be shocking. But the idea of God as king was nothing new for Jewish people. This Jesus that we see in the gospels is not quite the same as the Christian Jesus that we know from the creeds of Christianity. It is important that we remember the Jewishness of Jesus. Let’s not forget that we as Christians have a Jewish heritage. The apostle Paul reminds us in Romans 9-11 that we Christians must not forget that we have been grafted into Jewish roots.

Before Jesus began his public ministry, one of the first things that he did was to look up John the Baptist and to be baptized by him. We need to know something about John because he and Jesus had much in common. John was a fiery prophet. He preached in the desert and people went out to him to be baptized by him. He was the son of a priest, Zechariah. Yet John did not become a priest. He was a prophet like Elijah. And Jesus looked him up and wanted to be baptized by him.

There were at least four major religious movements in Palestine in the time of Jesus, besides John the Baptist. But Jesus did not join any of these movements. Instead he sought to be baptized by John. Jesus had other options. There were the Pharisees who were very concerned about living a holy life by keeping the Law. They were very careful to avoid contact with certain types of people in order to keep themselves pure. On numerous occasions Jesus was invited to have dinner with the Pharisees. And Jesus did not turn down the invitation. But he did not become a Pharisee. Paul did become a Pharisee, but not Jesus. That ought to tell us something about where Jesus stood in the religious world of his day. Although he was with Pharisees on numerous occasions and felt a certain affinity with them, yet he did not join their ranks.

Then there were the Essenes, a group of devout Jews who withdrew from society and lived in a commune because they thought Jewish society had become too corrupt. They believed that they were the true Israel, the true people of God. They expected the Messiah to come and establish his kingdom among them. They thought the temple in Jerusalem and the priests were corrupt. But when the Messiah would come, they believed there would be a great war, the Messiah would win, and they would be the ones in the kingdom of God. Jesus could have joined the Essenes, but he did not.

Then there were the Sadducees. They were the priests and the chief priests in Jerusalem. They also cooperated with the Roman authorities and so they had a lot of political power. They controlled the temple and all that went on there. But Jesus obviously was not a Sadducee.

Then there were some people who called themselves Zealots. A couple of the disciples of Jesus may have belonged to this group. At least we know one of his disciples was Simon the Zealot. Judas Iscariot may have been another. These people were militant guerrilla fighters who advocated armed resistance to the Roman occupation of their land. They lived like bandits in the hills and hid in caves and caused insurrections from time to time. Jesus did not become a Zealot even though some of the things he said may have been quite appealing to Zealots.

Yet, Jesus did not join any of these groups. Instead he went to John to be baptized by him. Jesus' association with John helps us to begin seeing the more human side of Jesus.

Jesus and John the Baptist

Jesus identified himself with John, the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth whom we know as The Baptist. John was a bold prophet who preached unafraid even against Herod Antipas, the king appointed by Caesar to rule over Palestine (see Palestine Under the Herods). Of course, it cost him his life. Jesus saw in John a genuine man of God. John had disciples, a following.  The intriguing statements in John 3:25-4:3 seem to indicate that for a while Jesus joined John's movement and became John’s disciple. The disciples of John reported to him what Jesus has been doing: "Rabbi, the one who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you testified, here he is baptizing, and all are going to him" (Jn 3:26). Not only was Jesus in the company of John, but the disciples of Jesus themselves practiced baptism, so much so that the Pharisees heard that Jesus himself was also baptizing (Jn 4:1). When Jesus heard this, he left that area and went to Galilee. Apparently, the Pharisees, who were hostile to John, intended to turn on Jesus. After Jesus began his ministry of miracles and John had been executed, Herod Antipas, the tetrarch of Galilee, had uneasy feelings about Jesus and said, "John, whom I beheaded, has been raised" (Mark 6:16). In Herod’s mind Jesus and John were closely identified.

Jesus identified himself with the baptism of John, which was a baptism of repentance. Jesus as a true Israelite was accepting the message of John and identifying himself with all that John stood for, because Jesus saw in John an authentic prophet of God.

Mark 1:9 and 14 imply that Jesus stayed with John for a while. According to this passage, it’s only after John's arrest that Jesus went to Galilee to begin his ministry. His ministry, however, would not be the same as John's. His preaching would be different from John's. But Jesus never doubted that John was a true prophet of God. On one occasion Jesus spoke about John in these highly complimentary terms:

What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet (Matt 11:7-9).

John was anything but a reed shaking in the wind, unstable and fickle. He was anything but a man of royalty, dressed in luxurious finery. He was a prophet, and indeed more than a prophet. Nevertheless, Jesus would preach a different message than John. More on that later.

The Temptations of Jesus

Even more than the baptism of Jesus, his temptation in the wilderness (Mk 1:12-13; Matt 4:1-11; Lk 4:1-13; see the Lectionary Commentary on Lk  4:1-13) demonstrates to us the humanity of Jesus. Jesus was tempted, which means that these temptations must have had some appeal to him. If the temptations were real, the implication is that they had an enticing power for him. The possibility of disobedience to the will of the Father cannot be ruled out. He was not somehow immune to temptation. The possibility of yielding to temptation must have been present. Otherwise, the temptations would be mere sham and charade. In that regard Jesus was no different than you and I.

However, in a supremely significant way he faced those temptations differently than many of us do. Jesus did not yield to temptation. He was always obedient to the will of God. You say, "Of course he could do it because he was the Son of God. He had more power at his disposal than you and I have." No, the only power available to him was the power of the Holy Spirit, and that same power is available to us. We can live a life of victory over sin as Jesus did, because that same Holy Spirit that was in Jesus can be in us also. That is why it is so important that we see Jesus as truly human in every respect, yet without sin. And that same possibility of living in the Spirit a life of total yieldedness to God is available to us

Jesus was in the wilderness forty days and forty nights. The gospel writers probably intend for us to make the connection between Jesus' temptation and the experience of the people of Israel for forty years in the wilderness .  But we are also expected to draw the contrast that while Israel disobeyed God in the wilderness, Jesus remained faithful. Or, perhaps we are to think of Adam and Eve succumbing to temptation in the garden. Here they were in paradise, surrounded with all kinds of fruit trees, in the most beautiful garden in the world. But they disobeyed God. And here was Jesus, in the desert, no food to eat, with wild animals, yet he remained faithful.

The three temptations that Jesus faced further point to his humanity.

a. Turn stones to bread. After forty days of fasting surely there was nothing wrong with eating. Why was there a problem with providing food for himself? The tempter was suggesting that Jesus rely on his own power to feed himself. "Take care of yourself. You deserve it." Jesus says, "No. We don't live by bread alone, but by the word of God."

Also, perhaps there was a suggestion here to use miracles to meet the physical needs of people in order to gain followers. There is nothing wrong with meeting physical needs. But Jesus knew what might happen. People might seek him for the wrong reason. In fact, in John 6 we find that after Jesus had fed the five thousand and realized that the crowd wanted to take him by force and make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself (John 6:15). These temptations in the wilderness were issues with which Jesus struggled throughout his ministry.

b. Throw yourself off the pinnacle of the temple. "God will take care of you. Put God to the test. After all, God promised in Scripture that he would command his angels to bear you up, so that you would not dash your foot against a stone." Here the devil quotes Psalm 91:11-12. "Why not gain a following through sensational miracles. You could really impress people with your miraculous powers." Jesus says, "No. Don't test God."

c. All the kingdoms of the world can be yours. "Bow down to me. I'll give you all this political power. Compromise with evil. What could it hurt to wink a little, cut a few corners. You don't have to be so honest every time. If you want followers, you better compromise with evil. You don't have to speak out against religious hypocrisy so eloquently. If you do, you're not going to get anywhere in this world. If you want to succeed, make friends with the devil and adopt his ways." His answer: "Get behind me Satan."

In these temptations Jesus was contemplating his life's work. How would he go about fulfilling God's call and purpose for his life? Will he do it God's way, or would he play it safe and compromise with evil? These temptations did not end once and for all. Luke tells us that the devil departed for a while (NRSV: "until an opportune time," Lk 4:13), meaning that there would be many other occasions when there will be more battles. The greatest battle of course was in Gethsemane and Calvary.

Throughout his life Jesus was learning the meaning of radical obedience to the will of God. As Hebrews puts it, he learned obedience by the things he suffered (Heb 5:8). He was human in every sense of the word. He struggled intensely with what it meant for him to be a faithful Son to God. This is the Jesus of Nazareth that the gospels present to us, a real human being, living a normal human life, and fighting battles with which all of us are familiar.

Go to Part 2

-Jirair Tashjian, Copyright © 2013, Jirair Tashjian
and The Christian Resource Institute, All Rights Reserved
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