‘The Real Jesus,’ at Christmas Time and All Times
Even the most radical of scholars acknowledge that the Jesus of the Gospels existed. Who is He really?
It’s that time of year. Christmas standards playing on the radio. Crowded shopping malls. Exclamations in ad flyers that “prices have never been lower!”
And magazines that promise to tell us about “The Real Jesus.”
That’s the title of National Geographic’s cover story for December.
I have not read the entire article. I’m sure it contains some interesting insights into recent biblical archaeological discoveries. Some of them might well buttress Scripture’s claims while others, the author will argue, cast at least some doubt on the Gospel accounts.
That’s why I haven’t read the whole thing yet. Its conclusions are pretty much foregone.
Every Easter and Christmas, the major popular magazines and news websites feature stories in which various scholars attack or defend the biblical record. Given the seriousness and delicacy of the topic, there might be a general tone of respect for Jesus’s followers (Christians, that is) if not reverence for Him.
Even the most radical of scholars acknowledge that the Jesus of the Gospels existed. They dispute just about everything else about Him, but they concede that He existed in time, space, and matter, just like us.
Are the New Testament Accounts of Jesus True?
With respect to historical investigation, that brings us to one basic question: Are the New Testament accounts of the historic person Jesus of Nazareth true? Did they take the sayings of an otherwise obscure rabbi and build onto them a gigantic Erector Set of bizarre claims, absurd miracles and messianic delusions? Are the Gospels little more than religious fantasy, full of wishful but plain silly stories?
There is a vast literature that addresses these questions. The reason for the huge back-and-forth about the historical record in the New Testament is that if the Gospels and Acts are true, something beyond comprehension began that first Christmas. Among its key elements:
- An eternal God in human form was born as an infant to a virgin.
- He never sinned. In desire, motive, word, action, or thought. To be around Him was to see morally flawless humanity, Adam before the fall, fellowship with God perfectly realized.
- Jesus was the Redeemer Who experienced the eternal punishment we deserve as He hung on a cross. A cross — an instrument of capital punishment considered so debasing that Jews and Gentiles alike were stunned by the claim a god, let alone One Who claimed to be the one true God, would be murdered while nailed to it.
- Jesus was and is Lord of all things, resurrected to new life, the conqueror of sin and its sordid offspring, death.
So, what about it? Can we trust the proclamations about Jesus written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John?
This leaves me a bit breathless. Considering the One I follow and seek to serve, I am awed and humbled.
The Man Christ Jesus
But there’s more. Does the Bible give us clues about “the man Christ Jesus” (I Timothy 2:5)? About what He did before He began His ministry or even His appearance?
First, the Gospels describe Jesus as a “tekton” (Matthew 13:35, Mark 6:3), a carpenter, stonemason, or metalworker. We almost always think of Jesus in a carpenter’s stall, cutting and shaping wood. That could be an accurate image.
But perhaps even more likely, He was a stonemason. Why do I think this?
For one thing, there wasn’t that much wood around Nazareth. But even more, throughout Jesus’s youth, the Roman resort city of Sephora was being built less than five miles from Nazareth. Built under the auspices of Herod Antipas, son of the Roman puppet who tried to have the infant Jesus killed, it would have offered Joseph and his adopted son Jesus work for many years.
Note, too, Jesus’s frequent allusions to construction: The building of a house upon a rock (Matthew 7:24-27), His characterization of Peter’s strong leadership as rock-like (“and upon this rock I will build my church,” Matthew 16:18), and His reference to Himself, drawn from Psalm 118:22, as “the stone the builders rejected” which became “the chief cornerstone.”
Regardless of His exact trade, it’s pretty safe to assume that Jesus was physically strong. He likely began working as a young teenager and apparently kept at it until His early thirties, when He started His public preaching and healing.
Anyone who did that kind of work for roughly two decades had to have been not only muscular (and perhaps round-shouldered?) but also robust. He walked everywhere, sometimes long distances in a short period. You can’t do that for years on end if you’re not in good shape.
Do You Know Him?
The Bible also suggests that Jesus was average-looking. In Isaiah’s great prophesy of the Messiah, we are told He “had no form or majesty that we should look at Him, and no beauty that we should desire Him” (53:2). And when Judas betrayed Jesus, he didn’t say to the guards with him, “Look for the guy who’s tall and handsome.” Jesus apparently was so non-descript that Judas had to single Him out with a kiss on the cheek.
The true King of the Jews was not, like Saul, an imposing, handsome man. He was ordinary. There’s even an argument to be made that Jesus was short. In Luke 19:3, the traditional translation states that the crowd impeded that “wee little man” Zacchaeus from seeing Jesus.
Yet in Greek, Luke writes, “And he (Zacchaeus) was seeking to see who Jesus is and was not able because of the crowd, because he was small in stature.” Could this mean that Jesus, a man short in height, could not be seen as He walked in a crowd of taller people, so to get a glimpse of Him, Zacchaeus had to climb a tree?
We’ll find out in heaven.
The larger issue is this: You can rely on the accuracy of the New Testament. If that’s true, then we know Who “the real Jesus” is. The loving friend of sinners. The Lord of lords, the King of kings. The Person through Whom God the Father made the universe (Hebrews 1:1-3).
This is Jesus. He is real. Do you know Him?