Earlier this year the British press had a field day with a story about BBC television newsreader Natasha Kaplinsky. It seems that she and her husband were declined an upgrade at a sumptuous hotel in Agra, India, close to the Taj Mahal.
She asked the receptionist, ‘Do you know who I am?’ The answer was apparently ‘No!’ The Daily Telegraph feature writer teasingly suggested that Kaplinsky’s question was ‘a perilous one to ask beyond a 10-mile radius of the BBC’s Shepherd’s Bush studios’.
A question of identity
Fast rewind 2,000 years, to a question that seems even more out of place. Another ‘unknown’ person living in a tiny Middle Eastern land asked his friends, ‘Who do people say I am?’
Bearing in mind that he had been born into a working class family, lived in a town ‘on the wrong side of the tracks’, and held no position in politics, business or religion, his question sounds presumptuous if not preposterous. Yet twenty centuries later millions of people are fascinated by it – and deeply divided in their response.
The person concerned was a Jew called Jesus of Nazareth, the founder of the Christian faith. People are fascinated with his question because Christianity is the only religion based on the identity of its founder rather than on his teachings. The answer to his question is crucial, therefore, in assessing Christianity’s integrity, value or power.
Did Jesus exist?
Some people say he was a myth. Almost exactly a year ago Luigi Cascioli filed a criminal lawsuit against Father Enrico Righi, the parish priest in the Italian holiday resort of Bagnoregio.
The basis of the lawsuit? The priest had written in his parish bulletin about the existence of Jesus. Cascioli alleged that in claiming that Jesus existed, Righi was deceiving the people and perpetuating a 2,000-year-old myth.
The case was sensational but the charge by no means unique. The British philosopher Bertrand Russell (like Cascioli, an atheist) once wrote, ‘Historically, it is quite doubtful whether Jesus ever existed at all’. Richard Dawkins repeats the assertion in his latest anti-religious best-seller, The God delusion.
But this is absurd. Quite apart from the mass of data in the Bible itself, at least nineteen celebrated first- and second-century authors record more than 100 facts about Jesus. One of these (the sceptical Greek philosopher Celsus) mounted a ruthless, sarcastic attack on virtually every aspect of Jesus’ teaching – but never once cast doubt on his existence! We can safely dismiss the ‘myth’ idea out of hand.
The carpenter’s son
Others say he was just a man. Certainly, he was a man – not some kind of superman, angel or android! Untold numbers of paintings and drawings show him with wings, a halo, or some other supernatural feature. Films and plays have supplied other ‘extras’. But they are wrong. None of these exaggerations has any historical basis.
Once, struck by something he said, his hearers dismissed him as ‘the carpenter’s son’ (Matthew 13:55). On another occasion someone mistook him for a gardener. He had all the usual physical limitations.
He could not stand on the day he was born, jump 100 feet in the air or be in two places at once. The Bible charts his normal development as ‘a baby’, ‘a child’ and ‘a boy’ (Luke 2:16, 40, 43).
We are told of times when he was tired, hungry and thirsty. At different times he was ‘full of joy’ (Luke 10:41) and ‘overwhelmed with sorrow’ (Mark 14:34). Clearly, those who say that he was a man are telling the truth … but not the whole truth!
The promised Messiah
Jesus claimed he was the ultimate Messiah (Hebrew for ‘anointed one’). He was not just another special person sent by God but God himself, who had come into the world to deal radically with mankind’s greatest problem.
The New Testament calls him ‘Christ’ (the Greek equivalent of ‘Messiah’) over 500 times. We shouldn’t be surprised. He fulfilled something like 300 Old Testament ‘Messianic’ prophecies – covering his birth, character, power, influence, rejection, suffering, death, and even his resurrection from the dead!
This explains why Jesus had every right to say, ‘The [Old Testament] Scriptures … testify about me’ (John 5:39) and did not hesitate to claim that he was truly divine as well as truly human.
On one occasion he bluntly stated, ‘I and the Father are one’ (John 10:30) and when friends asked him to show them God he simply replied, ‘Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father’ (John 14:9).
No other religious leader ever made such claims! But why would such a being come into the world? He came to deal with mankind’s greatest problem.
What is that problem? The Bible could not be clearer. One short statement sums it up – ‘All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’ (Romans 3:23). Our greatest problem is not physical, mental, psychological or financial. It is not about our relationships, our jobs, our bodies or our bank balances.
Our greatest problem is that although created ‘in the image of God’ (Genesis 1:27) man has rebelled against his Maker. Deciding to ‘do their own thing’, our first parents fatally fractured their relationship with God and found themselves under God’s righteous condemnation.
Every one of us has inherited this disaster. By nature we are self-centred rebels fighting against a holy God, preferring our ways to his. As someone has said, ‘The heart of the human problem is the problem of the human heart’.
We are guilty, lost and helpless, cut off from the only one who can give our lives security, stability, dignity and meaning. We drift towards eternity, oblivious to the fearful punishment God has ordained for those who reject him.
Dealing with catastrophe
But how did Jesus (who is God the Son) deal with this catastrophe? In the most amazing way imaginable. He left heaven to dwell on earth for thirty years. He lived the perfect life that you and I have never lived.
He then allowed himself to be put to death in the place of sinners – bearing in his own body and spirit the penalty they deserved. It was the most phenomenal rescue mission the world has ever known.
And we know it was successful. How? Because after three days he rose from the dead, then later returned to heaven. He now offers forgiveness and eternal life to all who turn from their sins and trust him as their Saviour.
This is the real Christmas message. The child born at Bethlehem 2,000 years ago was no mere man, but ‘a Saviour … Christ the Lord’ (Luke 2:11). Is he your Saviour and Lord? If not, why not?
Why choose to spend another Christmas – or another day, another year, or the rest of your life – stubbornly rejecting God’s mercy, when Jesus came that you might have eternal life and ‘have it to the full’ (John 10:10, 28)?