Who is Jesus? – Part 1

Introduction: Jesus of Nazareth is the key figure in the Bible. He is, in fact, the central figure of all human history. Because of his historical status, Jesus has been co-opted by almost everyone who wants to advance or confirm some agenda or some relevant issue. Last summer ABC devoted a special on the life of Christ with Peter Jennings reporting: The Search for Jesus. The program acknowledged that today, as in his own time, Jesus remains one of history’s most intriguing and enigmatic figures, who is as elusive and mysterious as ever.[1]

Not to be outdone CBS gave us the miniseries Jesus in May 2000. This Jesus turns out to be a New Age sensitive guy who would fit nicely in most of the TV sit-coms.[2] This touches the problem we face today—everybody wants to claim Jesus. James Sire makes this point, “To Eastern-oriented religious groups, Jesus is an avatar—one of the many incarnations of God; to Christian Scientists, he is the Great Liberator; to Spiritualists, he is a first-rate medium; to one new consciousness philosopher, he is the prototype of Carlos Casteneda’s don Juan, a sorcerer who can restructure events in the world by mental exercise. Everyone, it seems, wants Jesus for themselves.”[3] Let’s not forget the Jesus of TBN’s so-called “Faith” teachers who proclaim a rich Jesus who wore designer clothes and promised financial prosperity to all of his followers.[4]

Edmund Clowney provides us with this important warning, “There is danger that you will begin to worship an imaginary Christ, not the Christ who says the things that are written, but a Christ of your own imagination, a harsh Christ who has not the meekness of Jesus, or a permissive Christ who is not the Holy One of God. It is so easy for us to invent another Christ and fail to be in subjection to the true Lord.”[5] The late John Gerstner persuasively argued that unless you come to a biblical understanding of Jesus (specifically that He is fully God and fully man) you are not a Christian—period.[6]

But who is (or was) Jesus? There is the traditional view, of course, but hardly anyone (even among professing Christians) seems interested in the Christ who has come down to us in terms of orthodox theology.[7] Others have come up with much wilder speculations. In 1970 the philologist, and expert on the Dead Sea Scrolls, John Allegro suggested that far from being a historical figure Jesus was no more that the code-word for an ancient sex-cult inspired by a hallucinogenic mushroom. This did not enhance his academic reputation, and in the words of one critic “gave mushrooms a bad name”! Mr. Allegro died in 1988; his hypothesis did not survive him.

In 1984 London Weekend Television screened a three-part program called Jesus-The Evidence (in which they had invested two years and over a half million dollars, and came up with a rag-bag of theories including those suggesting that Jesus was a hypnotist, an occultist, a magician and a sexual deviant. In their book The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, M. Baigent, R. Leigh and H. Lincoln put forward the novel notions that Jesus was an intergalactic freedom fighter who came to earth and married, and that his descendants are secretly plotting to take over Europe![8] Most of these ideas are far-fetched and others downright ridiculous. But even if you dismiss them all the obvious question still needs to be answered: Who is Jesus?

I.        Supernatural Recognition (Luke 4:34)

I know who you are. The demon recognized Jesus as “the Holy One of God,” recalling Luke 1:35 (cf. Acts 3:14; John 6:69). That Luke took this to be essentially a synonym for Christ, Lord, Son, and Son of Man is evident from Luke 4:41, where the demons were able to say this because they knew that Jesus was the Christ. In 1:35 it is a synonym for “Son of God.” We are not told how the demon knew Jesus’ identity, but the assumption is that they possessed supernatural knowledge and thus recognized him. Thus they provided a reliable witness to Jesus’ identity as Luke pointed out in 4:41.[9] We learn from James 2:19 that demons do have a knowledge about God, but this confession of Jesus as the Holy One of God is strictly a true acknowledgement and not a saving confession as in Rom. 10:9. In the words of Geldenhuys, “This is not an exclamation of surprise but of terror and dismay. In the presence of the Holy One the demon is convicted by the knowledge that for him and his kind only destruction is waiting. He knows and recognizes Christ as the Holy One of God, and therefore cries out, shuddering with terror.”[10] “It is a pity,” moaned Scroggie, “that men deny the Deity of Christ when demons acknowledge it.”[11]

II.       Apostolic Confession: (John 6:69)

The context of Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Sent One of God is dramatic and reflects the deep tension of the situation. The negative force of Jesus’ question conveys a certain pathos, which should be retained: “You (plural) also do not wish to go away, do you?” Peter’s reply on behalf of the Twelve yields three separable assertions: (1) There’s no one else to go to! They who have (truly) seen and (truly) heard Jesus know that there is none beside him (cf. Isa. 46:9; Acts 4:12).  (2) Jesus speaks words that give to those who receive them the life of the world to come. (3) The expression of faith and hope has grown to fuller faith and knowledge (observe the perfect tense in v. 69 PEPISTEUKAMEN, lit. “We have come to a place of faith and continue there”[12] and EGNŌKAMEN, lit. “We have recognized the truth and hold it”[13]) they now really believe and have come to know that Jesus is “the Holy One of God.”[14]

The title is no ordinary messianic designation. That is “holy” which belongs to God; hence, Jesus stands over against the world simply as the One who comes from the other world and belongs to God. Standing in that unique relation to God, he embodies the holiness of God, whom Israel confessed as “the Holy One of Israel.” To confess Jesus as the Holy One of God accordingly is to give faith’s response to the utterance of Jesus in v 21: “I am.” In the context of the Gospel as a whole, the Holy One of God, who has been consecrated by the Father and sent into the world (10:36), brings his mission to its God-ordained culmination in consecrating himself as a sacrifice for the world (17:19). He is the holy Redeemer.[15]

Peter’s answer is a genuine confession not only because in it he adopts Jesus’ words as his own (cf. v. 63b) but also because the faith that comes to expression in it reveals the awareness that Peter is confronting a radical choice: when life is at stake there is no other way to go than that of following Jesus (“to whom else…?” cf. 14:6). v. 69 brings out the most basic component in the answer. It is not merely a spontaneous reaction of fidelity and attachment to Jesus’ challenging question; it reveals a deepened insight on the part of the disciples into the identity of the person in whom they have believed: “We have believed and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.” The certainty of faith consists and rests in what it has grown to understand as its object: “The believer does not speak of himself but of him on whom he believes.”[16]

Summation: In light of the several indications in the Gospels of Peter’s growing appreciation of the Deity of Christ, though it is true that his term of address here (“Lord”) “could mean much or little” in itself, in this context, Morris writes, “there can be no doubt that the word has the maximum, not the minimum meaning” of the ascription of Deity to Jesus.”[17] Note the following observations. First as for his statement “You are the Holy One of God,” while it is certainly a messianic title, several things can also be said in favor of viewing it as including the further affirmation, by implication, of Jesus’ divine origin and character. The first factor is Peter’s growing appreciation of who Jesus was. We noted earlier his confession of Jesus as his “Lord” (and that in the divine sense) on the occasion of his call to become a “fisher of men” in Luke 5 when, awed by Jesus’ supernatural knowledge and power over nature, he acknowledged his own sinfulness over against the majestic and ethical holiness of Jesus. We noted that his title of address there and here (“Lord”) suggest Deity, and, once a man has begun to apprehend that Jesus is divine, no title (with the exception of those that clearly mark him out as true man) he ever employs in referring to him can be totally void of intending the ascription of Deity.

Second, while this title (“the Holy One of God”) is applied to Jesus on only one other occasion, leaving little room for extensive comparative study of the title, that one other occasion does cast some light on its meaning here. The title occurs in the mouth of the demoniac in the synagogue at Capernaum, clearly revealing the demon’s awareness of who Jesus was (Mark 1:24; Luke 4:34). The demon was obviously fearful of Jesus and implied that he had the power to cast it into hell, suggesting thereby that Jesus possessed divine authority and power as “the Holy One of God.” Third, the stress on holiness in the title is significant. It reminds us of the frequently occurring title for God, “the Holy One of Israel,” in the Old Testament.[18] In this connection, Morris writes: “There can be not the slightest doubt that the title is meant to assign to Jesus the highest possible place. It stresses his consecration and his purity. It sets Him with God and not man.”[19]

Conclusion: The difference between the demon’s confession and that of Peter is important. Doubtless Peter and the other members of the Twelve entertained at that time a significantly muddier conception of what the expression meant than they did after Jesus’ resurrection and exaltation. It was enough that their first messianic hopes (1:41, 45) were being confirmed, that they saw in Jesus one who was greater than a prophet, greater than Moses, none less than “the Holy One of God”.[20] The late James Boice summed it up this way, “Peter’s great confession of faith is also interesting because of several other words by which Peter indicates how he came to know this truth about Jesus. They are “believing” and “art sure.” The most important thing about them is their order-first, belief; then, certainty. It is the divine order for true understanding in spiritual things. Let us admit at the outset that this runs counter to our natural instincts and to our natural way of doing things. From a human point of view, who ever heard of believing in something in order to be sure of it? We want to make sure of something before we believe in it. We want to test out a person before we trust him. God reverses the order.

Take these examples. David declared, “I had fainted, unless I had believed to see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living” (Ps. 27:13). Jesus said to Martha, “Said I not unto thee that, if thou wouldest believe, thou shouldest see the glory of God?” (John 11:40). In Hebrews we are told, “Through faith we understand” (Heb. 11:3). There is a reason for this, of course. Quite simply it is because divine truth is beyond us. God’s ways are not our ways. So we will begin to know and understand God’s ways only as we begin to know and (in part) understand God. And we can begin to know God only through trusting Him. Assurance, insight, knowledge—these are the fruit of believing. Certainty that Jesus is the Son of God comes, therefore, not by listening to the arguments of professors or by reading the latest of theological books or articles, but by believing what God has said about His Son in the Scriptures.”[21]


[1] cf. the interview Peter Jennings gave to Christianity Today (June 12, 2000), pp. 72-73.

[2] The magazine CCM: Music, Faith & Culture (CCM stands for Contemporary Christian Music) devoted its April 2000 issue to the miniseries and raved about it even though they acknowledged that it had repeatedly taken extra-biblical liberties (i.e., sensational special effects like Jesus flying!) (p. 30), cf. the critique by R.M. Anker “Lights, Camera, Jesus: Hollywood looks at itself in the Mirror of the Messiah” Christianity Today (May 22, 2000), pp. 58-63.

[3] J.W. Sire, Scripture Twisting: 20 Ways the Cults Misread the Bible (IVP, 1980), p. 24.

[4] For extensive documentations on this cf. H. Hanegraaff, Christianity In Crisis (Harvest House, 1993).

[5] E.P. Clowney, “The Unchanging Christ” in Our Savior God: Studies on Man, Christ, and the Atonement ed. J.M. Boice (Baker, 1980), p. 77.

[6] J. H. Gerstner, Primitive Theology: The Collected Primers of John H. Gerstner (Soli Deo Gloria, 1996), pp. 115-160.

[7] Noted NT scholar N.T. Wright does not exaggerate when he writes, “Caricatures abound (to which the Bible gives no authority): the Jesus who wanders round with a faraway look, listening to the music of the angels, remembering the time when he was sitting up in heaven with the other members of the Trinity, having angels bring him bananas on golden dishes. (I do not wish to caricature the caricatures; but you would be surprised what devout people sometimes believe.)” cf. his “Biblical formation of a Doctrine of Christ” in Who Do You Say That I Am?  Christology & the Church ed. D. Armstrong (Eerdmans, 1999), p. 62.

[8] cf. John Blanchard Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up? (Evangelical Press, 1989), p. 14.

[9] cf. R.H. Stein, Luke: The New American Commentary (Broadman, 1992), p. 163.

[10] N. Geldenhuys, The Gospel of Luke (Eerdmans, 1979), p. 173.

[11] Dr. W. Graham Scroggie on Luke & John (rpt. Ark Publishing, 1981), p. 21.

[12] L. Morris, The Gospel According to John (Eerdmans, 1977), p. 390.

[13] C.K. Barrett, The Gospel According to St. John: An Introduction with Commentary and Notes on the Greek Text (SPCK, 1978), p. 207.

[14] Warfield made this important observation, “First of all, then, we notice that there seems to be an element of boastfulness in this confession. This suggests itself by the obtrusion of the personal pronoun. We might read our English version and think of the emphasis falling on the believing and knowing which is asserted. We cannot so read the Greek. The emphasis falls rather on the “we.” “And as for us,” says Peter, “we at least” have believed. Peter is contrasting himself and his fellow apostles with others and priding himself on the contrast.” B.B. Warfield Faith & Life (rpt. Banner of Truth, 1990), p. 106.

[15] cf. G. Beasley-Murray, John: Word Biblical Commentary (Word, 1987), p. 97.

[16] cf. H. Ridderbos, The Gospel of John: A Theological Commentary (Eerdmans, 1997), p. 249.

[17] L. Morris, The Gospel According to John (Eerdmans, 1977), p. 389.

[18] This summarization is taken from R.L. Reymond A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (Nelson, 1998), pp. 280-281.

[19] Morris, p. 390.

[20] cf. D.A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (IVP, 1991), p. 303.

[21] J.M. Boice, The Gospel of John II (Zondervan, 1976), p. 238.

Jesus the Evangelist

by Richard D. Phillips

Rev. Richard D. Phillips digs into the early chapters of the Gospel of John to discover principles you can use for Christian outreach that were modeled by witnesses for Jesus and by Jesus Himself. Phillips unfolds biblical principles for evangelism by examining the ministry of John the Baptist and the calling of the first of Jesus disciples. Then, through a brief study of the Lords encounter with the Pharisee Nicodemus, he presents us with a theology of the gospel. Finally, he focuses in on Jesus stirring encounter with the Samaritan woman to show exactly how Christ shared the good news.

Phillips clear and concise handling of these key stories will both motivate and instruct you in your witness on behalf of Christ. An appendix looks at the relationship between God’s sovereignty and evangelism.

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