He is the most controversial man ever to live. His own family thought him mad. The people loved him. One of his closest friends betrayed him. The Jewish court convicted him of heresy. The Romans killed him. He never earned a degree and had no formal schooling. He was never elected to office. He never wrote a book. When he died he owned nothing beyond the clothes on his back. But, within three centuries of his death, the entire Roman Empire worshipped him. More books have been written about him than any other individual who has ever lived. Entire libraries have been devoted to understanding his life and his teaching. He changed the course of western civilization and, today, two thousand years since he was born, millions are turning to him in Africa and Asia. Who is Jesus?
Leo Tolstoy, arguably the greatest Russian novelist, author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina, spent much of his life wrestling with the teachings of Jesus. In his later years he wrote The Kingdom of God is Within You in an attempt to implement the teachings of Jesus. Tolstoy corresponded with a young Mahatma Gandhi who, although he remained Hindu, often quoted from Jesus and recognized Jesus’ influence on his thinking. When Martin Luther King, Jr.’s home was bombed in 1956, he stepped out on the front porch to quiet an angry crowd that threatened to do battle with the police. He said, “"We must love our white brothers, no matter what they do to us. We must make them know that we love them. Jesus still cries out in words that echo across the centuries: 'Love your enemies; bless them that curse you; pray for them that despitefully use you.' This is what we must live by.”
Jesus remains popular in the United States. A Barna Group survey concluded that more people claim a “connection” with Jesus than the number claiming a Facebook or Twitter account. Two out of three Americans claim to have a personal relationship with Jesus. But who is the Jesus whom two thirds of Americans claim to know? In his book, Imaginary Jesus, Matt Mikalatos creates a fictional story in which Jesus is seen according to the image that brings us the greatest benefit. In so doing, he introduces “King James Jesus,” “Magic 8-ball Jesus,” “Testosterone Jesus,” “Free Will Jesus,” “New Age Jesus,” and “Meticulous Jesus.” All of this leaves us asking the question again, “Who is Jesus?”
Jesus was the first person to pose this question. According to Luke 9 and Mathew 16, when Jesus’ popularity was growing so that thousands thronged to see and hear him, he took his twelve disciples aside and asked them the question, “Whom do men say that I am?” The disciples looked at one another and began repeating what they had heard others say. “Some say you are John the Baptist,” they said. “Others say you are Elijah. And still others say you are one of the prophets.” After hearing their response Jesus put the question to them more personally. “Who do you say I am?” In both accounts, Peter was the one who spoke first. “You are the Christ the Son of the living God.” Jesus affirmed Peter by saying to him, “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father which is in Heaven.”
Of course Jesus was looking for more than a confession, a creed or mental assent from his followers. It is clear that Jesus expected them to put their faith into action. Elsewhere he said, “Why do you call me Lord, Lord and do not the things that I say.” “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” Perhaps the most important questions any of us will face in this life are, “Who is Jesus?” and, “Are you doing what He said?”