Confession: Who is Jesus?

Throughout this semester, I will be posting the situational "confessional briefs" I am writing for one of my classes. These are 750-800 word answers to common questions about faith, which must include bountiful biblical references and ancient/modern theological texts. My goal here is not to set out conversation ending pronouncements, but start a conversation around the table of grace. Join me!

Question: Who is Jesus Christ, and why is he important to Christians?

Context: For this question, I am assuming a collegiate/campus ministry setting, where the question has come up in conversation from a young history major who was raised nominally Christian, but grew to doubt faith over time.

I confess...

        Historically, Jesus Christ was a Nazarene Jew, born in Bethlehem somewhere between 6-4 BCE.1 The existence of an influential rabbi under this name during this time period is not contested, because both sacred texts such as the Bible and government histories attest to Christ’s presence. The question at hand has less to do with biographical facts about the Nazarene, and more to do with who Christ is theologically. Beyond his human rabbinical role, the Christian Scriptures hold two ideas in tandem with one another concerning Christ’s identity. The authors of the Christian Bible see Christ as both the fulfillment of the Old Testament office of “Messiah” and as the incarnate God in the flesh. The Gospels claim Christ as Messiah many times, with the author of Mark claiming Jesus as “Christ” (Messiah) in the very first verse of the book (Mk 1:1). The Gospel authors claim this title as a fulfillment of an Old Testament vision of a coming Messiah, a David-like leader who would rescue God’s people from suffering and sin (Mt 26:56, Is 53:6). At the same time, New Testament authors proclaim that Christ is not only Messiah, but God in the flesh, Emmanuel God-with-us (Mt 1:23). The author of Hebrews describes Jesus as the “exact representation” of God (Hb 1:3).

        As time moved forward and the Christian faith solidified, theologians articulated the importance of holding multiple realities about God in tension, claiming them all to be true and important. Perhaps the most concise setting of these multiple realities in one truth was adopted by the Council of Chalcedon in 451 CE. The so-called Chalcedonian Creed is not often spoken in worship, but it’s phrasing of Christ as one being with two natures, God and human, survives as the Church’s most common understanding of Jesus’ identity.2 Christ is at the same time both fully God and fully human. Within this definition, Christ is fully God, able to create and redeem, while being fully human, able to empathize with us. Historically, the church has confessed that Jesus is more than a moral teacher or a revolutionary Rabbi: but also the creator and sustainer of the universe, born to an unwed couple in a barn, growing in wisdom and stature to show us the Way, die for us, and resurrect in the power which he will use to resurrect his people.

        If one can accept the concept of a dual natured Christ fulfilling the ancient role of Messiah, the question still looms why this might be important to us today. What does it matter if the authors of Scripture and the historic church believed Christ to be God and human? Even if Jesus fulfilled some ancient prophecies, what bearing does this have on a postmodern life? Were Christ’s action limited to a personal, spiritual salvation for those who quietly believe within the confines of their church, I wouldn’t have much of an answer here. The hope of the Gospel in our current setting though is far beyond personal practice. Two concepts of the ongoing importance of Jesus to Christians today come to mind. First, the broken body of Christ and the resurrection grant us hope for the future. After reaching adulthood, our bodies are in a constant state of breaking: decaying until our ultimate death. This is not fun or easy to think about, but nevertheless remains as our impending reality. One of the most profound and relevant truths of Jesus Christ is that as eternal God, he experienced our temporary reality – present in a broken body, pouring out for us a new covenant (Lk 22:19). Death is now a joke in the face of our God, as Christ resurrected, mocking our most pressing, perilous reality (1 Cor 15:55). Therefore faith in Christ is not agreeing to a correct set of beliefs for the sake of feeling comfortable in an uncertain world, but rather is the practice of resurrecting all that was dead among us. In the current context, this resurrection has been poignantly illustrated as liberation. Because of God’s work through Jesus, liberationists reason, we too have been called to the resurrecting and freeing work of God’s justice and justification in the world.3 Why does Jesus matter to the Christian? Because Christ lived, God is with us. Because Christ lives, we too have been called into brokenness to join and bring new life.

[1] Michael F. Bird, “Birth of Jesus”, The Routledge Encyclopedia of the Historical Jesus, ed. Craig A. Evans (London: Routledge, 2008), 73).

[2] “Our Lord Jesus Christ, at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man.” - The Definition of Chalcedon, adopted by the Council of Chalcedon. Republished in Documents of the Christian Church, Ed. Henry Bettenson and Chris Maunder, 4th Edition, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 54.

[3] “Liberating forgiveness permits the justified one to accomplish the practice of justice with honesty humility, simplicity, gratitude, and faithfulness to the liberating work of Jesus Christ.” – Elsa Tamez, The Amnesty of Grace, republished in The Modern Theologians Reader, Ed. David F. Ford and Mike Higton, (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2012), 292).