Why believe? Why have faith? In a day when more and more Americans report no religious preference, why have faith anymore? As a campus minister, I watch students come to the university campus and ask these questions. Many wonder if there is good reason to believe. Recently, I listened to several students from a faith background share how they came to a point of wondering if they really believed what their faith taught.
I want to attempt to address this question only from within the framework of my Christian faith. If every religion presents an essential question, the critical question of Christianity is: who is Jesus? Christianity rises or falls on that question. To explore who Jesus is, let’s examine various facets of Jesus’ life. I invite you to put Jesus under the microscope. Can he withstand the scrutiny?
Perhaps Jesus is most widely known for his teachings, so let’s start there. When asked, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan who showed compassion to a man in need. In doing so, he made one despised by his immediate audience, a Samaritan, the hero of the story. In the parable of the prodigal son, Jesus depicted God as a father waiting for our return to him with a willingness to forgive and restore. When opponents attempted to trap Jesus with the question of whether it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, Jesus requested a denarius and asked whose inscription was on the coin. When the crowd answered, “Caesar’s,” Jesus said, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” His unspoken point was that as the coin bore the image of Caesar, so we are made in the image of God.
If we turn to Jesus’ ethic, we find Jesus challenging the status quo of his day. Jesus stated, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” From Jesus, we receive the way of turning the other cheek in forgiveness rather than repaying evil for evil. Jesus insisted ethics are not only about our actions but also our motives. He stated, “You have heard it said that you shall not commit murder, but I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother is guilty.” Jesus’ ethic reaches beyond external actions to the intentions of the heart.
If we examine Jesus’ actions, we have many recorded incidents to consider. Matthew twice gives a summary statement of Jesus’ ministry. He reports, “Jesus was going throughout all Galilee, teaching in the synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every kind of disease and every kind of sickness among the people.” We see Jesus bringing help and healing to those who are hurting.
What about Jesus’ interactions? How did he interact with others? It is interesting that Jesus drew much of the criticism he received from his contemporaries over his interactions, specifically, over the company he kept. Jesus habitually shared meals with the outcast, those looked down upon by the religious community. Three times in the Gospel of Luke, religious leaders grumble and complain that Jesus “receives sinners and eats with them.” His practice earned Jesus a reputation as “a friend of tax collectors and sinners.” Perhaps Jesus’ compassion was most on display in the way he once healed a leper who was considered unclean. Jesus touched this man when he healed him. Not only did Jesus restore the man’s health, he touched what was deemed untouchable.
Thus far, it is difficult to find much objectionable about Jesus. If we turn to his claims, however, things get more interesting. Some of the claims Jesus made are disturbing. Many of the claims he made are statements about himself. Let’s briefly examine three. When healing a paralyzed man, Jesus stated, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” The religious leaders cringed because forgiveness of sins was the prerogative only of God. As if to say, “Exactly,” Jesus responded, “Which is easier, to say…’Your sins are forgiven’ or to say, ‘Get up, take up your pallet and walk’? But so that you know the Son of Man (referring to himself) has authority on earth to forgive sins”—He said to the paralytic, “Get up…and walk.” Mark records that the man indeed rose and walked.
In another exchange Jesus made this audacious statement, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I am.” Not only did he claim eternal existence with this statement, Jesu also laid claim to the divine name, I Am—the name first revealed by God to Moses at the burning bush. Jesus further claimed that our eternal destiny is staked on how we respond to him. Matthew records Jesus stating, “Therefore everyone who confesses me before men, I will confess before my Father who is in heaven.” Jesus’ claims push us to wrestle with the question once asked by his own disciples, “Who then is this?” His claims challenge us to dismiss Jesus as irrelevant or to make him the cornerstone of our lives.
In examining Jesus’ life, we must also consider his death. The Gospel narratives give the greatest portion of their attention to the events surrounding Jesus’ death. How did Jesus see his own death? Jesus stated, “I lay down my life, so that I may take it again, No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own initiative.” He also claimed, “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and give his life a ransom for many.” Jesus saw his death as a ransom payment for us. Why a ransom? Jesus diagnosed our spiritual condition as having a corrupt heart from sin which enslaves us and separates us from God. He lamented that we are sheep in need of shepherd, and said, “I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.” Speaking of his death, Jesus acknowledged, “For this purpose, I came to this hour.” Jesus came not only to teach us about God but to die for our sins so that we might be reconciled to God.
According to the New Testament, Jesus’ death gave way to resurrection. Jesus repeatedly sought to prepare his disciples for his coming resurrection, but they found it difficult to grasp until it occurred. Jesus even claimed, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believe in me will live even if he dies.” The historical evidence for the resurrection invites further scrutiny. Multiple eyewitnesses gave testimony to appearances of Jesus after the resurrection, the disciples went from hiding in fear to bold witnesses for the resurrected Christ, the church emerged around the central belief of the resurrection, and skeptics like Paul and James, the brother of Jesus, came to faith in Jesus as the resurrected one.
Where does this survey of Jesus’ life and death leave us? Jesus’ call to his first disciples echoes still to us: “Repent and believe in the gospel.” That call was followed by his summons: “Follow me.” Jesus’ invitation remains today: “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink.”
People from all walks of life—rich and poor, young and old, successful and desperate—are recorded to have met Jesus in the pages of the gospels. Those who encountered him did not walk away unchanged. We can encounter him today as well through faith. I invite you to search out the basis for faith by examining the life of Jesus. Put Jesus under the microscope.