He is the greatest man who ever lived. A carpenter's adopted son, with no wealth and little worldly education, He stands as the dominant figure of Western civilization and towers over all world history. Yet, many do not understand His message. Too few in our society have sufficient Biblically literacy to know the meaning behind His proclamation of the Kingdom of God.
And worse still, modern secular scholarship has abysmally distorted His words, His mission and His nature. According to university atheists, Jesus was one of many possible things; a failed eschatological prophet, a failed revolutionary; an itinerant miracle worker who "healed" nothing more than psychosomatic illnesses. But could such an ordinary, even pathetic figure, as presented by modern scholarship, have inspired his followers to such heights of devotion? And could such a one have changed the world forever? By no means.
So exactly, Who was Jesus and what did He teach?
Jesus came proclaiming the Kingdom of God. And this divine Kingdom was both a present and future reality. In the present, the Kingdom was a spiritual dispensation which would not mean the end of the world or the destruction of Israel's enemies. Instead, Jesus said, "The kingdom of God cometh not with observation: Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you." (Luke 17:20,21) The present Kingdom of God was a community consisting of Jesus and all those willing to partake of Him as the Bread of life. And that Kingdom, at its most profound level, was experienced in the heart and soul. But that was not the message the masses wanted to hear. And because Jesus offered His body and blood rather than the political deliverance which the Jews so desired, the populace turned against Him. (See John 6:15, 52-69)
Yet, as unpopular as the present Kingdom was with the Jews, the future Kingdom is no more popular with our world today. For it will be a cataclysmic event of world judgment. "For as the lightning, that lighteneth out of the one part under heaven, shineth unto the other part under heaven; so shall also the Son of man be in his day." (Luke 17:24) In its future event, Jesus will return as the heavenly "Son of Man" of Daniel 7:13-14, the Kingly Messiah, Who will bring an end to all human governments, and Who will judge all mankind. (see Luke 19:11-27)
The entire Bible is centered in Jesus Christ, Who is the promise of the Old Testament and the fulfillment of the New. For the Old Testament points to Jesus, Who is both the suffering Messiah of Isaiah 53 and the reigning Messiah of Isaiah 9:6-7. During His first coming, Jesus came to redeem us through His sufferings. At His second coming, Jesus will return to rule the world as its King. (See Revelation 19)
Jesus told many parables which illustrated both the present and future Kingdom of God. His parables were designed to bring illumination to His followers and confusion to those who followed Satan. John Mark wrote:
"And when he was alone, they that were about him with the twelve asked of him the parable. And he said unto them, Unto you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all these things are done in parables: That seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest at any time they should be converted, and [their] sins should be forgiven them." (Mark 4:10-12)
In regard to the present Kingdom, Jesus told this parable: "Then said he, Unto what is the kingdom of God like? and whereunto shall I resemble it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and cast into his garden; and it grew, and waxed a great tree; and the fowls of the air lodged in the branches of it." (Luke 13:18-19) Jesus planted the seed. And in the beginning, the movement was tiny, like a mustard seed. But in time, the Kingdom would spread and grow, as more and more adopted the teachings of Jesus and reoriented their lives away from the world to God. The present Kingdom of God was a this-worldly movement which would bring a measure of Heaven to earth through the lives and actions of those who lived in God.
Jesus came to a world in which the social climate was in tumult. The Romans ruled over the Jews. In fact, a Roman garrison was stationed in Jesus' hometown of Nazareth. Greeks and other pagans were moving into Palestine as Herod before, and now his son, Herod Antipas, and various Roman governors, tried to hellenize the land. Jewish culture was in danger of being overwhelmed. Only four miles from Nazareth was a Greek city named Sepphoris. The Roman tax was so burdensome that many Jews had quit paying the Temple tax to survive. The Temple leaders, the Sadduccees, had betrayed their people and compromised with the Romans to preserve their wealth and positions of honor. Large numbers of Jews were no longer practicing their faith, and many feared that the nation would be lost.
In response, resistance movements arose. Various groups, lumped together under the name "Zealots", favored immediate armed rebellion. Whereas, the Essenes chose another path. They moved into the desert and waited for the Messiah and the end of the world. It was the Essenes who stored and preserved the Dead Sea Scrolls. At the end time, they would fight alongside the Messiah and destroy the enemies of Israel. The scribes and Pharisees, however, said that the Jews must not retreat into the desert. They must remain in their towns and villages, and practice a strict code of holiness. That code would hold the Jews together as a people. And no matter how burdensome, the Temple tax must be paid. But woe to the nonobservant who did not pay the tax, keep the Sabbath, resist the pollution of the Romans and Greeks, or behave with high moral decorum. These were the tax collectors and sinners. No good Jew was to break bread with sinners or be defiled by them in any way. They were the outcasts of Jewish society, and they were going straight to Hell.
But the Pharisees' insistence that all good Jews pay the Temple tax fell disproportionately hard on the poor. They could not afford to pay both Caesar and Temple. And because the Romans could and would kill those in noncompliance, the Roman tax had to be paid first. The question the poor had to answer was whether to pay the Temple tax. Pay it, but possibly lose their land and go hungry as a result? And without land, they would be outcasts. Refuse to pay the tax, and try to feed their families, but be condemned for sure by the Pharisees as outcasts? The poor were damned if they did, and damned if they didn't.
But then came Jesus. "... Blessed be ye poor: for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are ye that hunger now: for ye shall be filled. Blessed are ye that weep now: for ye shall laugh. But woe unto you that are rich! for ye have received your consolation. Woe unto you that are full! for ye shall hunger. Woe unto you that laugh now! for ye shall mourn and weep. Woe unto you, when all men shall speak well of you! for so did their fathers to the false prophets." (Luke 6:20, 21, 24-26).
Jesus challenged the whole culture of His day, and the culture of our day as well. For the religious of His time, and our time, were the ones who taught the broad way. They spoke of God's favor as a commodity which could be earned by following the rules. Live wisely, obey the law, and God will bless one with wealth and long days on this earth. Those who were rich and held honored places in society believed themselves to be the recipients of God's favor because they were good. But the poor and the outcast, they had done something wrong. The Pharisees had not learned the lessons of the book of Job. For like Job's three so-called "friends", the Pharisees believed falsely that those who suffered deserved their lot. As the foolish Eliphaz told Job, "Remember, I pray thee, who ever perished, being innocent? or where were the righteous cut off? Even as I have seen, they that plow iniquity, and sow wickedness, reap the same." (Job 4:7-8) Pitiless Eliphaz also said, "The wicked man travaileth with pain all his days..." (Job 15:20)
Jesus told a parable which illustrated a different point. "Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess. And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner. I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted." (Luke 18:10-14)
Jesus was known for His banquets, in which He would invite all the outcasts of the day for a great feast. The tax collectors, the prostitutes, the poor were all welcome, as Jesus would break bread with them. But the Pharisees who saw themselves as the bulwark of Jewish culture were incensed. "But their scribes and Pharisees murmured against his disciples, saying, Why do ye eat and drink with publicans and sinners? And Jesus answering said unto them, They that are whole need not a physician; but they that are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance." (Luke 5:31,32)
In contrast to the broad way taught by much of conventional religion, Jesus offered the narrow way, which is taken by only a few. Unlike the broad way, the narrow way does not rely on works or personal achievement. Instead, it relies totally on the grace of God found in the person of Jesus Christ.
The Lord made it clear that the Kingdom is totally centered in Himself, and that He is the only door. Listen to the "I Am" statements of the Gospel of John:
"I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst." (John 6:35)
"I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life." (John 8:12)
"I am the door: by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture." (John 10:9)
"I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep." (John 10:11)
"I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. Believest thou this?" (John 11:25-26)
"I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me." (John 14:6)
"I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing." (John 15:5)
And this offer of the Kingdom would be made possible only by His atoning death. Jesus said, "For even the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many." (Mark 10:45) And Jesus said this of Himself, "The hour is come, that the Son of man should be glorified. Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit." (John 12:23-24) Jesus was the Grain of wheat Who would die.
For the arrogant Pharisee who trusted in his own works and spiritual competence to please God, the narrow way of total, abject trust in Christ was upsetting.
Matthew 20 records a parable Jesus told about a householder who hired laborers for his vineyard. Some he hired early in the morning, agreeing to pay them a denarius for a full day's wages. Some he hired at midday, and some late in the day. "So when even was come, the lord of the vineyard saith unto his steward, Call the labourers, and give them their hire, beginning from the last unto the first. And when they came that were hired about the eleventh hour, they received every man a penny. But when the first came, they supposed that they should have received more; and they likewise received every man a penny. And when they had received it, they murmured against the goodman of the house, Saying, These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day. But he answered one of them, and said, Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny? Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee. Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good? So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen."
The Pharisees, who in their minds believed they were God's champions, were convinced they had earned the gratitude of God. The lazy poor, the sinners and the tax collectors - these abominable creatures who were now following Jesus - well, they deserved nothing. But Jesus proclaimed that the Pharisees had no monopoly on God and no claims on the Almighty. And, in fact, the arrogant among the Pharisees would receive no reward, and no part in the Kingdom of God. (See John 8:31-47)
That is why Jesus also described the narrow way as the easy way. He said, "Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light." (Matthew 11:28-30)
The teachings of Jesus cause many to cringe. For He requires that we give up all pretense of a works-based salvation and throw ourselves at His feet. "But many that are first shall be last; and the last first." (Mark 10:31) The poor and the outcast are closer to the Kingdom of God than the rich, the famous, and all those who have won high acclaim for their religiosity. "For it is easier for a camel to go through a needle's eye, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God." (Luke 18:25) In effect, Jesus said that all our efforts to win God's favor are misguided. And this is so because God already loves us unconditionally. We don't need to win His love. Our attempts to do so only cause us to become more centered in self and less centered in God. And the more centered we become in self, and the more we believe that we have earned God's blessings, the further we drive ourselves away from the Kingdom of Heaven and into the depths of hell.
But then did Jesus believe in being good and obeying the commandments? And the answer is, "Yes, He did." He told us, "Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil." (Matthew 5:17). And time and time again, He told the people to "Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." (Matthew 4:17). He demands that we turn away from sin.
Jesus' attitude towards sin and sinners is perfectly illustrated by the story of the Pharisees who brought to Him the woman caught in adultery. "And early in the morning he came again into the temple, and all the people came unto him; and he sat down, and taught them. And the scribes and Pharisees brought unto him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst, They say unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou? This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him. But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not. So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her. And again he stooped down, and wrote on the ground. And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst. When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee? She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more." (John 8:2-11)
Notice that Jesus reaffirmed the law against adultery. He referred to the woman's action as sin, and never excused her behavior. But although He disapproved of her behavior, He saw in her a human being, and a potential child of God, in need of compassion. He gave her the opportunity to change her life and offered her a message of hope.
For if nothing else, Jesus taught the compassion of God, and taught us to follow His divine example. "for he is kind unto the unthankful and to the evil. Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful." (Luke 6:35b,36) The word translated "compassionate" is derived from a word which means "wombish". God's compassion is nourishing and life giving as is the womb to an unborn child.
With unfaltering wisdom, Jesus always treated God's compassion and God's justice with true balance. He made it clear that we must repent of sin or face judgment. "I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish." (Luke 13:3). And, again, He spoke of the final judgment, in which He as the Son of Man will judge the righteous and the wicked. "Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels:" (Matthew 25:41) The Apostle Paul elaborated on this theme when he said, "Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God." (I Cor. 6:9-10).
God is a God of love, and Jesus saw God as kind to all human beings, whether they deserved it or not. He said of God, "for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust." (Matthew 5:45) The God of Jesus constantly wishes, desires and longs to forgive. This forgiveness can be received in an instant if one will only reach out and accept it. For it was Jesus Who said, "For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins." (Matthew 26:28) And it was Jesus Who cried out from the Cross, "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do." (Luke 23:34) Remember this, if Jesus would be so quick to forgive those who crucified Him, He will be quick to forgive you. But know also that His love is not indiscriminate, and His offer of forgiveness will not last forever. Eventually, there will come a time when it is too late. Jesus said, "I must work the works of him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work." (John 9:4)
Knowing that we have forgiveness through the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ, and that the favor of God does not have to be earned, what then does God expect of us? In other words, how are we to live as members of the Kingdom?
First of all, Jesus said to love. "And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment." (Mark 12:30) And He also said, "And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these." (Mark 12:31) Love is the hallmark of the godly life. Secondly, He said to have a clean heart. "Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God." (Matthew 5:8) He added, "A good man out of the good treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is evil: for of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaketh." (Luke 6:45)
But how do you change your heart? First, you must accept that you cannot do it on your own. The Gospel of Mark tells us that the disciples asked Jesus, "Who then can be saved? And Jesus looking upon them saith, With men it is impossible, but not with God: for with God all things are possible." (Mark 10:26-27)
Second, the Lord described salvation as a type of death. "Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it. For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?" (Matthew 16:24-26)
The way of death is a metaphor for a transformation deep inside, in which we turn away from that which separates us from God. In the passage from Matthew 16 above, Jesus spoke of both the self and the world as the two great spiritual obstacles. He said that we must deny self and take up our cross; an instrument of execution. By taking up our cross, we are acknowledging that our old self must die. And Jesus told us that there is no profit in gaining the world, but losing our own soul. Therefore, we must die to the self and the world. For the self-absorbed self and the self-sufficient self is filled with narcissism, and greed and fear, jealousy and cruelty. Such a self cannot accept its need for salvation. Such a soul is destined for hell.
And the self centered in the world; it shares the values of the world. "Money, power and prestige are the ultimate goals. And those who attain them are to be revered." Paul said that this world's god is Satan and the soul wedded to this world is blinded by the devil. (2 Corinthians 4:3-4) The soul which accepts the world's values, will not acknowledge its helplessness before God and its need of salvation. Jesus' half-brother James wrote, "Ye adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God." (James 4:4)
But how does one die to self and the world? You must first recognize the superiority of God. He is superior to you and He is superior to the world. You admit that He has the answers and not you and certainly not the world. You admit that you can find no meaning in yourself or in the world. Meaning is only found in God. He is the source of all that is good and true. Unless you are connected to the source, you are pitifully lost. You cannot become truly human without a relationship with the Creator of humans.
Once you are willing to admit the truth, that you are nothing without God, you must pray to God to do a work in you. This is the work of rebirth; a spiritual rebirth accomplished by the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus said to Nicodemus, "Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." (John 3:3) And as Jesus explained further to Nicodemus, the divine power behind this rebirth is beyond our understanding. "The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit." (John 3:8)
It is only by the Spirit's power that we are born again. As with God's forgiveness, we simply must accept it, and not rely on ourselves. For we do not earn God's forgiveness, it is a free gift. And, likewise, we do not rebirth ourselves. God does it for us. Our responsibility is only to ask and then let God act in our hearts and lives.
The Apostle Paul also spoke of rebirth, but he compared it to baptism. For by the power of the Holy Spirit we are baptized into the death of Christ, whereby we die to sin. And we are baptized into His Resurrection, whereby we find new life; in other words, born again. (See Romans 6 and Colossians 2:12.) Thus, to be born again is to receive the Baptism of the Holy Spirit. This rebirth is the means by which we become Christians.
If you are not a Christian, simply say to Jesus, "Lord, I am a sinner. You died for me and You rose again. Please save me and be the Lord of my life." If you say this with sincerity, Jesus Christ will save you instantly, and you will be born again.
When we look at the life of Jesus, and the testimony He gave of Himself, we see one Who spoke with the power of His personality and deeds. His compassion lifted His followers out of their despair. His insight was incomparable and His actions could be seen by all who would open their eyes. There had never been such a one in all human history. And there has never been anyone such as Him since. His Messiahship was evident in His life and actions; and the mystical power which emanated from Him, gave witness that He was no mere mortal. In Luke chapter 7, we are told that the imprisoned John the Baptist sent two of his disciples to ask Jesus, "Are you the one we have been looking for?" And Jesus responded, "Go your way, and tell John what things ye have seen and heard; how that the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, to the poor the gospel is preached." (Luke 7:22)
And what about the greatest deed of all; His Resurrection? Did Jesus truly rise from the dead on the third day after His crucifixion? The nonbeliever will deny it as myth.
However, if the disciples had stolen Jesus' body as the Romans and Jewish leaders claimed, why then did the establishment never produce any evidence of body stealing? And if the disciples did steal His body, why were they so willing to boldly proclaim His resurrection, and even die in Jesus' name? And, also, there is the problem of the Shroud of Turin. All attempts to explain the Shroud as a medieval forgery have failed. The Shroud was in fact, the burial cloth of a bearded Jewish man, who had been crucified, and who bore the wounds described in the Gospels. (Click for a photo of the Shroud and more information.) And there is no scientific or "logical" way to explain how the image of the man was imprinted into the cloth. Only one explanation makes any sense. The Shroud was in fact the burial cloth of Jesus. He rose from the dead. And when He rose, His body was transformed into a spiritual body, and the transformation somehow left the image on the cloth.
And, most importantly, is Jesus truly God? Did the Lord, Who uses our earthly lives to teach us wise from unwise, and good from evil, also share in the experience of human life? Did He, too, come to earth, to be born of a virgin, to work with His hands, to suffer rejection, to be crucified on a cross, and on the third day to rise again?
The Apostle John declared, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." (John 1:1) The prophet Isaiah said of Jesus, "For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace." (Isaiah 9:6) And God the Father, Himself, said to Jesus, "Thy throne, O God, is for ever and ever: a sceptre of righteousness is the sceptre of thy kingdom." (Hebrews 1:8)
The Biblical testimony is clear. The evidence is clear. You must decide if you will believe for yourself that Jesus is Lord and accept Him as the Ruler of your life. The Apostle Paul said, "But what saith it? The word is nigh thee, even in thy mouth, and in thy heart: that is, the word of faith, which we preach; That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved." (Romans 10:8-9)
One Final Note: Why was it necessary for Jesus to die on the Cross? The crucifixion was the great cosmic event that brought man and God together. Jesus, "Who knew no sin", bore the burden of every evil deed ever committed.
The crucifixion demonstrated the seriousness of sin. God is a holy God and sin cannot go unpunished. God could not simply say, "You are forgiven. Enter into My Kingdom," without resolving the sin problem. God's justice had to be preserved. So Jesus, the sinless One, bore the penalty of sin in our stead. (See Romans 3:25)
The crucifixion gave Jesus the right to forgive. He can say to the victim who refuses to grant mercy, "I too experienced the pain which you suffered. The evil done by the perpetrator was cast upon Me. It is My right to forgive the evil doer." Jesus has earned the authority to grant to us the gift of righteousness. (Romans 5:17) And He can do so without requiring anything from us or imposing any punishment upon us. He can simply forgive, and declare us to be clean.
In the words of Isaiah, "Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed." (Isaiah 53:4-5)
And, also, the God Who allows evil and misfortune to befall the innocent; the God Who sends tornadoes and earthquakes, the God Who sends droughts and starvation; the God Who creates disease and death; the God Who is the Infinite, the One and only Creator Who is ultimately responsible for all that is - this God did not remain untouched. In some way we cannot fathom, this God took upon Himself the suffering experienced by every human being who has ever lived. He endured the pain of a hell, impossible for us to imagine. Through the Cross, He eternally travels the human journey with each and every one of us. We are not alone.