I was an agnostic when I came to Bethany Lutheran College. I had also conveniently redefined sin, concluded no one religion could be true, and was convinced the Bible was filled with errors and myths. I had life figured out, I thought.
So when I walked onto campus, I found it rather strange that intelligent professors believed the Bible to be entirely true, as did most students. I attended chapel services, took required religion courses, and listened as Christianity was brought into other classes. This was a bizarre little world I had entered.
Though I did not fully realize it at the time, I was being encouraged to think about two critical questions: “Who am I?” and “Who is Jesus Christ?”
My religion class was an apologetics course (“The Case for Christianity”) where this second question was dealt with via lectures, readings, one-on-one visits with the professor, and discussions (and debates) with fellow students. And the answers put forth – the claims of Christ – were outrageous.
These outrageous claims are fascinating. Christians sometimes take them for granted. This is not necessarily a bad thing, though it would be helpful if all Christians would remember these claims are outrageous, especially as they walk side by side with those who have a faulty or unclear understanding of the true identity of Christ. For as the records show, Jesus used his claims about himself to compel people to come to terms with both his identity and his work so they would ultimately be confronted with Law and Gospel.
It is these outrageous claims that can cause a person to say, “Whoa! Did I just hear what I think I heard Jesus say about himself?”
His outrageous claims take two forms. Some are indirect. For example, he says he is without sin;1 he hands out forgiveness;2 he prays as if he has been the one sending prophets to the Jews for centuries;3 he claims to be the heart and center of the Bible;4 and he preaches that eternal life is dependent totally on him alone.5
In other words, he talks as if he possesses attributes of God, and he does so without qualification. He never says anything like, “Now don’t read too much into this.” He lets them stand just as they are.
And then there are direct claims where he clearly says, “Here’s who I am.” He does this in a variety of ways, but they all essentially point to one thing: he is God in human flesh.6 And not only did he make these claims himself, but others – both friends and foes – admit he was making these claims.7 In every one of these settings, he never corrects them by saying, “No, I didn’t really say that” or “Well, I really meant something less than that.” Again, he lets their understanding of his claims stand – “He’s telling us he is God” (which people would then either believe or reject).
When I evangelize, I often ask, “What would you think about me if I told you I was a king from some other realm or planet? Or what if I claimed to be God, the maker and preserver of all things? And furthermore, what would you think of me if I were serious and really believed these things about myself?” The other person always says something like, “You would need some real help.”
Jesus clearly was a man, made such claims, and he was completely serious. And people reacted as one would expect. His own family said, “He is out of his mind” and wanted to seize him.8 Others said, “He has a demon, and is insane.”9 Jewish leaders not only opted for the demon-possession theory, but also charged him with blasphemy. And, of course, there were those who believed him to be exactly who he claimed to be.10
So the choices are clear: possessed, crazy, a liar, or the Lord. His claims do not allow for believing he was a mere man who was a great prophet or a wonderful religious leader. Either he was God in the flesh or something quite disgusting.
I have found over and over that a simple explanation of these outrageous claims gets people thinking. It is not uncommon for them to say, “Wow, I have never thought about it like that.” It compels them to grapple with the true identity of Jesus of Nazareth just like it did when he walked on earth.
But two more things need to be said to complete this apologetic approach.
First, when Jesus made these claims, he backed them up – he provided undeniable testimony. His dozens and dozens of miracles were overwhelming proof that his claims were true.11 This especially includes his resurrection – the ultimate defense or apologetic – which always needs to be placed before the doubter and unbeliever.12
But there is a second crucial element. This element deals with the other critical question, “Who am I?” The answer is, “A poor miserable sinner.” When Peter, James, and John traveled up the mount of Transfiguration with Jesus and saw the proof of his glory (that he was the eternal Son) and heard the thunderous voice of the Father as they entered the cloud, they were terrified, as sinners ought to be. When the voice and cloud were gone and when Christ’s glory was once again hidden under his humanity, he said to them, “Have no fear.” Why was he able to say this? Because in a little while, this man, who claimed to be and clearly was God, would travel up another mountain bearing the sins of the world. There on the cross he would receive what all poor, miserable sinners are supposed to receive: God’s wrath and punishment for sins, thereby purchasing real peace with God.
Apologetics, when done right, points to this free, undeserved, unconditional forgiveness and salvation. So even though a sinner may know who he is, he can also know who Jesus is, what he has done, and what that means. No other religion is founded on such claims, provides such historical evidence, or offers such eternal comfort. Christianity stands alone. It is true. And the fields are white for harvest.
Reverend David Thompson
Faith Lutheran Church, San Antonio, TX
* Member, Board of Regents for Bethany Lutheran College & Seminary
2Mark 2:9; Luke 7:48.
4John 5:39; Luke 24:26f.
5John 6:35ff; 14:6.
6“I and the Father are one” (John 10:30); I am “the Son of God” (John 3:16-18; 5:25; 10:36); “Before Abraham was, I Am” (John 5:58); “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36f.).
7“You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God” (Matthew 16:16; see also John 11:27). “We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has made himself the Son of God.” (John 19:7; see also Matthew 4:6; 14:33; 26:63-65; Luke 22:70-71).
10Matthew 16:16; John 7:31.
11See, for example, Mark 2:5ff.
12John 2:18ff.; 20:24-31; 1 Corinthians 15; Matthew 12:38ff.