Are the Claims by Jesus True by John Stott?
The passages below are taken from John Stott’s book “Why I Am A Christian,” published in 2003 by Inter-Varsity Press.
My first answer to the question “Why am I a Christian?” has been to refer to the Hound of Heaven, who pursued, pricked and prodded me until I surrendered to him. My second answer is, ‘Because I am convinced that Christianity is true, or better, that the claims of Jesus are true.’
In our tolerant, pluralistic society, whenever someone becomes a Christian, the usual patronizing comment is: ‘How nice, dear! I’m sure it will be a great help to you. One needs the comfort of religion in our hard and threatening times.’
Well, I don’t for a moment deny that Jesus Christ is an enormous help and comfort to his followers. But he also poses a radical challenge. So the second reason why I am a Christian is not that it is nice but that it is true.
Our postmodern culture, in reaction to the self-confidence of modernity; has lost all sense of assurance and affirms that there is no such thing as objective or universal truth. All our understanding is held to be culturally conditioned, is relative, and everybody has his or her own truth. Christians have a different conviction, however, namely that there is such a thing as objective truth.
A good example of this claim is the example of the apostle Paul during one of his trials (Acts 26 NIV). Standing before King Agrippa, and being given liberty to speak, Paul told the story of his Jewish upbringing, his persecution of the church, his dramatic conversion and his commissioning as the apostle to the Gentiles. He proclaimed that the Messiah had to suffer and to be the first person to rise from the dead.
At this point Festus, procurator of the Roman province of Judea, interrupted Paul’s defence and shouted, ‘You are out of your mind, Paul! Your great learning is driving you insane.’
‘I am not insane, most excellent Festus’, Paul responded calmly. ‘What I am saying is true and reasonable’ (see verses 24—25). Indeed, it is reasonable precisely because it is true. I could say the same.
Let’s be clear, to begin with, that the claims of Christianity are in essence the claims of Christ. I have no particular wish to defend ‘Christianity’ as a system or ‘the church’ as an institution. The history of the church has been a bitter-sweet story; combining deeds of heroism with deeds of shame. But we are not ashamed of Jesus Christ, who is the centre and core of Christianity.
Indeed, there are many people who are critical of the church, yet who at the same time retain a sneaking admiration for Jesus. In fact, I have never yet met anybody, do I expect to, who does not have a high regard for Jesus Christ. Jesus appeals to twenty-first-century people like us. He was a fearless critic of the establishment. He championed the cause of the poor and needy. He made friends with the dropouts of society. He had compassion on the very people whom others despised and rejected. And although he was fiercely and unjustly attacked, he never retaliated. He told his disciples that they must love their enemies, and he practised what he preached. There is a great deal about Jesus to admire.
Without doubt the most noteworthy feature of the teaching of Jesus was its quite extraordinary self-centredness. He was, in fact, constantly talking about himself. True, he spoke much about the kingdom of God, but then added that he had come to inaugurate it. He also spoke about the fatherhood of God, but added that he was the Father’s ‘Son’.
In the great ‘I am’ statements, which John records in his Gospel, Jesus claimed to be ‘the bread of life’, ‘the light of the world’, ‘the way, the truth and the life’ and ‘the resurrection and the life’. But elsewhere too he put himself forward as the object of people’s faith. ‘Come to me’ and ‘Follow me’, he kept saying, promising that if they did come, their burdens would be lifted and their thirst quenched (e.g. Matthew 11:28; John 7:37). More dramatic still were his references to love. He knew and quoted the supreme Old Testament commandment to put God first and love him with all our being. But now he asked his followers to give him their first love, adding that if they loved anybody—even their closest relatives—more than they loved him, they were not worthy of him (e.g. Matthew 10:37—39 NIV).
This prominence of the personal pronoun (‘I — I — I — me — me — me’) is very disturbing, especially in one who declared humility to be the pre-eminent virtue. It also sets Jesus apart from all the other religious leaders of the world. They effaced themselves, pointing away from themselves to the truth they taught; he advanced himself, offering himself to his disciples as the object of their faith, love and obedience. There is no doubt, then, that Jesus believed he was unique, and it is this self-consciousness of Jesus which we need to investigate further. There were three main strands of it, three relationships that he claimed—firstly to the Old Testament Scriptures, secondly to the one he called his Father, and thirdly to the rest of humankind, including ourselves.
First, in relation to Old Testament Scripture, Jesus claimed to be its fulfilment.
This sense of fulfilment was his self-consciousness from the beginning to the end of his public ministry. His first recorded word according to the Greek of Mark’s Gospel was peplerotai, ‘fulfilled’. He proclaimed: ‘The time has come [literally, ‘has been fulfilled’] … The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!’ (Mark 1:15 NIV). That is, the kingdom or rule of God, long promised in the Old Testament, had at last arrived; he himself had come to usher it in. In consequence, if people would but humble themselves, repent and believe in him, they could ‘enter’ or ‘inherit’ the kingdom there and then.
Consider next the dramatic incident recorded in Luke 4:14—21, which took place in his home village of Nazareth on a certain Sabbath day. Jesus attended the synagogue service, as was his custom. He was given the scroll of the prophet Isaiah from which to read, and the set lesson was from our chapter 61:
‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour’
(Luke 4:18—19; cf. Isaiah 61:1—2 NIV).
Having finished the reading, Jesus rolled up the Isaiah scroll, returned it to the synagogue attendant and sat down, ready, as a visiting rabbi, to expound the reading. And as the eyes of the congregation were fastened on him, he astonished them by saying: ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled (peplerotai again) in your hearing’ (Luke 4:21 NIV). In other words, ‘If you want to know to whom the prophet was referring, he was writing about me.’ It was an extraordinary claim to be the fulfilment of Scripture.
So Jesus continued to affirm that ‘the Scriptures . . .
testify about me’ (John 5:39 NIV) and that ‘Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day’ (John 8:56 NIV). And after his resurrection ‘he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself’, adding, ‘Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms’ (Luke 24:27, 44 NIV).
In particular, Jesus saw himself in two Old Testament figures. The first was ‘the son of man’, a human person in Daniel’s vision, who ‘was given authority, glory and sovereign power’, so that ‘all people, nations and men of every language worshipped him’ and his dominion would be ‘an everlasting dominion that will not pass away’ (Daniel 7:13—14 NIV).
But Jesus also saw himself as Isaiah’s ‘suffering servant’, who ‘was despised and rejected by men’ and ‘bore the sin of many’ (Isaiah 53:3, 12 NIV). Thus ‘son of man’ in Daniel 7 was a title of honour, while ‘suffering servant’ in Isaiah 53 was a title of shame. Then Jesus did what nobody had ever done before him. He fused the two images by saying that the Son of Man must suffer many things (Mark 8:31). He insisted that it was only through suffering and death that he would enter into his glory.
One day, as recorded by Matthew and Luke, Jesus made his strongest and clearest statement: ‘Blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear. For I tell you the truth, many prophets and righteous men longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it’ (Matthew 13:16—17; cf. Luke 10:23—24 NIV). In other words, their eyes were actually seeing, and their ears actually hearing, what the Old Testament prophets had longed to hear and see for themselves, but did not. The prophets lived in the time of anticipation, the disciples in the days of fulfilment.
It is a highly significant claim. For many people are prepared to regard Jesus as a prophet, including the whole world of Islam. But Jesus neither thought nor spoke of himself in those terms. On the contrary, instead of being one more prophet in the long succession of the centuries—even the final prophet—Jesus claimed rather to be the fulfilment of all prophecy. All the varied prophetic streams of the Old Testament converged on him. It was in and with his coming that the new age had dawned and the kingdom of God had at last arrived.
Secondly, in relation to God, whom he called ‘Father’, Jesus claimed the unique relationship of ‘Son’.
I deliberately add the adjective ‘unique’, because the use of the term or title ‘son of God’ is not by itself definitive. The expression is used in Scripture in a wide variety of ways. Angels are occasionally called ‘sons of God’ (e.g. Job 1:6; 2:1 NIV). So was Adam (Luke 3:38 NIV). So were Solomon (2 Samuel 7:14) and Israel as a whole (Exodus 4:22; Hosea 11:1 NIV). In fact, the term came to be applied to all the anointed kings of Judah, and especially to the coming Davidic king, the Messiah (e.g. Psalm 2:7).
So the title by itself is not conclusive. After all, we who seek to follow Jesus today are permitted to call ourselves the sons and daughters of God. Yet the way in which Jesus used the term was distinctive: To begin with, he gave it the definite article, calling God the Father, and himself the Son’, in fact the Father’s unique Son (Matthew 11:27 NIV), in an absolute and unqualified way. We may claim to be ‘a’ son or ‘a’ daughter of God, but we would not dream of calling ourselves ‘the’ daughter or ‘the’ son. Yet Jesus did, and thereby implied that there existed between himself and the Father a unique reciprocal relationship, which enabled him to say, ‘no-one knows the Son except the Father, and no-one knows the Father except the Son’ (Matthew 11:27 NIV). And he expressed this unique intimacy of relationship by addressing God as ‘Abba’, ‘my Father’.
The late Professor Joachim Jeremias of Gottingen (1900—82) wrote about the significance of this:
To date nobody has produced one single instance in Palestinian Judaism where God is addressed as ‘my Father’ by an individual person … But Jesus did just this … The most remarkable thing is that when Jesus addressed God as his Father in prayer he used the Aramaic word ‘Abba’ … Nowhere in the literature and the prayers of ancient Judaism—an immense treasure all too little explored—is this invocation of God as Abba to be found … Jesus on the other hand always used it when he prayed … To a Jewish mind it would have been irreverent and therefore unthinkable to call God by this familiar word. It was something new, something unique and unheard of, that Jesus dared to take this step and to speak with God as a child speaks with his father, simply, intimately, securely … Abba as an address to God is ipsissima vox [the very voice itself], an authentic and original utterance of Jesus . . .1
We do not of course fully understand the self-consciousness of Jesus. Nor do we know how he came to experience the fatherhood of God. But we do know that, already at the tender age of twelve, he thought of God as his Father and was able to ask, ‘Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?’ (Luke 2:49 NIV). We also know that his intimate relationship with the Father continued throughout his life, even through his sufferings (except for that horrendous moment of God-forsakenness on the cross), until his final words when he died, which were, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit’ (Luke 23:46 NIV).
Thirdly, in relation to human beings Jesus claimed the authority to be their saviour and their judge.
One of the most extraordinary things Jesus did in his teaching (and did it so unobtrusively that many people read the Gospels without even noticing it) was to set himself apart from everybody else. For example, by claiming to be the good shepherd who went out into the desert to seek his lost sheep, he was implying that the world was lost, that he wasn’t, and that he could seek and save it.
In other words, he put himself in a moral category in which he was alone. Everybody else was in darkness; he was the light of the world. Everybody else was hungry; he was the bread of life. Everybody else was thirsty; he could quench their thirst. Everybody else was sinful; he could forgive their sins. Indeed, on two separate occasions he did so, and both times observers were scandalized. They asked, “Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?’ (Mark 2:5—7; cf. Luke 7:48—49 NIV).
If Jesus claimed authority to forgive the penitent, he also claimed authority to judge the impenitent. Several of his parables implied that he expected to return at the end of history. On that day, he said, he would sit on his glorious throne. All nations would stand before him, and he would separate them from one another as a shepherd separates his sheep from his goats. In other words, he would settle their eternal destiny. Thus he made himself the central figure on the day of judgment.
These are breathtaking claims. Jesus was by trade a carpenter. Nazareth was an obscure village on the edge of the Roman Empire. Nobody outside Palestine would even have heard of Nazareth. Yet here he is, claiming to be the saviour and the judge of all humankind.
People were amazed by his authority. They felt awe and wonder in his presence. Some declared that he must be mad. Others left everything, rose up and followed him.
Here, then, are the three main relationships that Jesus claimed. In relation to the Old Testament Scriptures, he was their fulfilment. In relation to God the Father, he enjoyed the unique intimacy of sonship. In relation to human beings, he claimed authority to be their saviour and their judge. Three words encapsulate his claims—fulfilment, intimacy and authority. He claimed to be the Christ of Scripture, the Son of God and the saviour and judge of the world.
‘My reading of the Gospels’, wrote Hugh Martin, a New Testament scholar, ‘after the closest scrutiny and making all allowances, is that Jesus never ceased in word and act to claim lordship over the hearts and lives of men. We may regret that, we may resent it, but the fact cannot be denied. The evidence in all our documents is incontrovertible.’2
What, then, do we make of his claims? One thing we cannot do (though many people try to) is ignore them. If we sweep them under the carpet, they have the disconcerting habit of popping out again. They are woven into the texture of the Gospels; we cannot pretend they are not there. We cannot dress Jesus up as a nice, harmless little teacher of ethical platitudes.
The situation is very simple. The claims of Jesus are either true or false. If they are false, they could be deliberately false (in which case he was a liar, an impostor) or they could be involuntarily false (in which case he was deluded). Yet neither possibility appears at all likely. Jesus hated religious pretence or hypocrisy. He was a person of such integrity that it is hard to believe he was a charlatan. As for having a fixed delusion about himself, there certainly are psychotic people who imagine they are the Queen of Sheba, Julius Caesar, the Emperor of Japan or some other VIP. But one thing is fatal to this theory in regard to Jesus. It is that deluded people delude nobody but themselves. You have only to be in their presence for two or three minutes before you know that they are withdrawn from reality and living in a world of fantasy. But not Jesus. He has succeeded in persuading (or deluding) millions of people, for the very good reason that he seems to be what he claimed to be. There is no dichotomy between his character and his claims.
This dilemma has been forcefully expressed by C. S. Lewis:
A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the devil of hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon; or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.3
This is the paradox of Jesus. His claims sound like the ravings of a lunatic, but he shows no sign of being a fanatic, a neurotic or, still less, a psychotic. On the contrary, he comes before us in the pages of the Gospels as the most balanced and integrated of human beings.
Consider in particular his humility. His claims for himself are very disturbing, because they are so self-centred; yet in his behaviour he was clothed with humility. His claims sound proud, but he was humble. I see this paradox at its sharpest when he was with his disciples in the upper room before he died. He said he was their lord, their teacher and their judge, but he took a towel, got on his hands and knees, and washed their feet like a common slave. Is this not unique in the history of the world? There have been lots of arrogant people, but they have all behaved like it.
There have also been humble people, but they have not made great claims for themselves. It is the combination of egocentricity and humility that is so startling—the egocentricity of his teaching and the humility of his behaviour.
Why am I a Christian? Intellectually speaking, it is because of the paradox of Jesus Christ. It is because he, who claimed to be his disciples’ Lord, humbled himself to be their servant. (33-46)
1. Joachim Jeremias, The Central Message of the New Testament (SCM, 1965), pp. 16—17, 19—20, 21, 30.
2. Hugh Martin, The Claims of Christ: A Study in His Self-portraiture (SCM, 1955), Pp. 42—43.
3. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (Geoffrey Bles, 1952; revised edition Fount, 1997), p. 43.