Who is Jesus Christ?
Was he a historical figure who lived and died, or is he still alive today? Was he a prophet, a rabbi, a moral example? Or was he who he claimed to be? And while we’re at it, just exactly who did he claim to be? Is he, because of his claims, as C.S. Lewis famously articulated on his BBC radio program and in his book Mere Christianity, necessarily a liar, a lunatic, or the Lord?
Is he the Jesus we see in old movies: A blue-eyed, white guy with a well-trimmed beard, who sort of glows and speaks with a British accent? Or is he more hip, like a scene from Talladega Nights: “I like to picture Jesus in a tuxedo t-shirt because it says, ‘I want to be formal, but I’m here to party.’”
Is he the Jesus we hear about in song? The Jesus of hymns and praise choruses: What A Friend We Have? Name Above All Names? Is that how we should respond to him? Or will it be more like I Can Only Imagine? Surrounded by his glory, what will my heart feel? Will I dance for you Jesus, or in awe of you be still? Will I stand in your presence, or to my knees will I fall? Will I sing Hallelujah? Will I be able to speak at all? Or, perhaps, for those less misty, it’s enough that we tap our foot along with the Doobie Brothers, because Jesus Is Just Alright With Me!
Is he the Jesus pop-culture defines? Jesus as rendered by Oprah? Lady Gaga? Sure, John Lennon apologized for his infamous ‘The Beatles are more popular than Jesus’ boast, but among Justin Bieber Beliebers, the Biebs definitely has the upper hand.
Is he the Jesus we’ve seen in literature? Is he Mary Stevenson’s Lord—you know, the one who assured her that when she only saw one set of footprints in the sand it was because he was carrying her? Or is he the Jesus from William Paul Young’s The Shack—a middle-eastern carpenter who hangs out with a portly African American woman (God) and an Asian looking mirage (the Holy Spirit)?
Is he the Jesus we see represented on CNN? The Lord of demonstrators holding signs that read: ‘God Hates Fags’ and ‘God Is Judging America’? Is he the Lord of the famous ministers caught in sex scandals and televangelists making ridiculously false claims about the end of the world, all punctuated with pleas to send in your money… quick!
Is he the Jesus of Christianity? The Jesus of Mormonism? The Jesus of the Jehovah’s Witnesses? Are they all one and the same, or are they very different?
Is he the Son of God or is he God in flesh? Yes? To which one? Both?
The Bible records a conversation Jesus has with his disciples. He asked them, “Who do people say I am?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
It’s one thing to consider what others think—John Lennon had an opinion and so did Ricky Bobby. But your answer to the question ‘Who is Jesus?’ is key. It will determine how you live in response.
Did you see that but?
In 1923 the Pan-American Conference convened in Santiago, Chile. The New York Times declared that this conference would be crucial, as tensions between South American countries were coming to a head, Argentina, Brazil and Chile were in an arms race, and posturing for war.
President Warren G. Harding’s contingent from the United States was headed by Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes. Hughes was viewed by ambassadors from many nations as the only mediator who could ease tensions. He would have to be very clear on the various parties and their positions—especially tricky for an English speaking man, as most of the dialogue would be in Portuguese and Spanish, coming to him through translation.
Hughes, it is recorded, gave these instructions to his translators: “While a running translation is ample for my purposes, you must take great care to give me each and every word after any speaker says ‘but.’
Wise man. The words that follow but, in conversation and in print, are often of the utmost importance. Think about it. Have you ever had anyone offer you an apology, “I’m sorry, but…” You have to listen carefully, because their apology may just become an insult. Have you ever been to traffic court? The Judge often offers three alternatives—plead guilty, not guilty, or plead guilty but with an explanation. If you choose that third option, the Judge agrees to listen to what you say—after the but, you see—to consider any mitigating circumstances before imposing sentence. Yes, I’ve been to traffic court. What can I say? Sometimes when you work for the Lord you have to go very fast!
I suggest that the word but, as often as it appears in the Bible, can help us get a clearer picture of Jesus Christ. It can help us answer, for ourselves, the question, Who is Jesus? Interpreting the Hebrew of the Old Testament, parsing the Greek of the New, or trying to wrap your mind around the Latin of scholars can leave you with a headache. Wrestling with doctrines and dogma trying to understand Christ can be intimidating. But there’s nothing imposing about the word but—you use it in just about every conversation you have. It’s your language. The word but serves as a great clarifier, it lends to your understanding of what’s being communicated every day. And it appears thousands of times in your Bible, offering insights. Let me show you.
A very complex passage on the birth of Jesus is clarified a bit when we consider a statement like, “Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit.” Many difficult teachings in the Sermon on the Mount are set in a clearer context when Jesus used the formula, “You have heard it said… but now I say unto you…” How about the simplicity of the gospel when Jesus said, “He who believes is not condemned, but he who does not believe is condemned already” as recorded in John chapter three? But is a word to look for, to underline, highlight or star—it can be a great tool in your Bible reading.
But is a game changer. Look back at that dialogue between Jesus and his disciples, “But who do you say I am?” The words that follow that but call for a response. It brings the conversation home—this isn’t really about what others think, anymore. Now it’s about you—what do you think?
So who is Jesus Christ?
Let’s look into it. By tracing the one hundred and eighty-two appearances of the word but in the Gospel of Matthew, considering many other appearances of the word but in the gospels, and from across the pages of the entire Bible, Old and New Testaments, we’ll gain a clearer and fresher—indeed a much more revealing look—at Jesus.