Many people would agree that Jesus was a great moral and religious teacher, and this is how he is often portrayed in school. The description is convenient, because it enables him to be taught on a par with those of other faiths within a secular environment. However, it is misleading, for it contains a number of historical problems which suggest that he was either much more, or much less, than a Great Teacher.
Problem 1: The Phenomenon of the Crowds
Jesus was incredibly popular, yet the records show that his favour could also evaporate very quickly as he moved on to teach about the cost of true discipleship. This is in contrast to countless other excellent Rabbis of the time, who built up their following much more gradually.
Perhaps one reason was Jesus’ ability, time and again, to perform miracles: healings, raisings from the dead, water into wine, multiplication of loaves and fish. These events would draw the crowds, who hungered for both marvel and meaning, but who then melted away when the challenge came for a changed lifestyle.
The Phenomenon of the Crowds points to Jesus as not only a teacher, but a miracle worker.
Problem 2: The Perception of the Politicians
Records show that Jesus was killed because he was in danger of causing too much of a disturbance for both the Roman occupying forces and the conservative Jewish establishment. The reason for this perception was that Jesus consistently acted as and claimed to be the Messiah of Israel. His claims were radical and disturbing. He spoke about destroying the Temple and rebuilding it again in his way. He demonstrated his antipathy to what was going on there by physically driving out the money-changers.
The perception of the politicians was based in Jesus’ own life and words. He claimed to be far more than simply a great teacher: he saw himself as the Messiah of Israel and Saviour of the World.
Problem 3: The Manner of his Death
Jesus frequently spoke about his coming death. He saw it as ‘a ransom for many.’ He talked of himself as ‘the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep,’ and so on. Long before it happened, Jesus interpreted his coming death as a sacrifice for the sins of all people.
This goes much further than the words of a teacher, passing on instruction about how we should live. Jesus wasn’t merely telling us that we should ‘put others first.’ He was pointing to his death as a crucial moment in the history of the world – something he had actively come for.
The manner of his death points to Jesus as one who saw his existence on earth primarily as an event, rather than being for the purpose of giving moral instruction.
Problem 4: The Claims of his own Words
Jesus both spoke and acted as one who was aware of having a special relationship with God. He claimed to be more than a teacher, and more than a prophet. He claimed to have existed in eternity with God, he claimed equality with God, and that he was the Son of God. Of course it is well known that in ancient times the Jewish kings had been called “sons of God,” as had the Jewish nation. But Jesus’ Sonship was never suggested as a title – it was more of fact of being. He said, “I and the Father are one.” “I came from the Father and I am going to the Father.” and so on.
These are not, in fact, the level-headed claims of a Great Religious Teacher, for if they are untrue, then they have lead millions of people astray over nearly two thousand years. These claims, if they are false, put Jesus on a par with leaders of the most ridiculous cults.
On the other hand, if they are true, the claims of his own words command worship, devotion and allegiance.
Problem 5: The Preservation of his Teachings
When Jesus died, he had just a handful of faithful followers. The authorities had hoped that their leader’s crucifixion would put an end to this dangerous movement once and for all. Within a short space of time, however, something happened which transformed this bunch of frightened followers into a powerful movement.
Even if we didn’t believe any of the Biblical records, the archaeological and historical picture speaks for itself: there are literally thousands of fragments of manuscripts of Jesus’ teaching, scattered around the Mediterranean world. The degree of precise verbal agreement between them is staggering, and they date to within a few decades of Jesus’ death. Why were people so motivated to keep the record of Jesus work and words?
The reason given by those people themselves was the impact of his resurrection and the power of his Spirit, to live in them and transform their lives.
The preservation of Jesus’ teachings points to someone who was far more than a man of words and ethical deeds. It suggests that Jesus claims about being the Son of God, his claims to have come to save and transform the world, society, individuals, his vision of his own death and resurrection as the turning point in human history – all stack up.
Was Jesus just a Great Teacher? C.S. Lewis said he was either ‘mad, bad, or who he claimed to be.’ The only way to really check it out is to try for yourself: Follow his teachings and see whether they ring true.
But don’t simply try to live his lifestyle by ‘doing good to others’ because that’s merely a fraction of what he taught. At least as crucial, if not more so, is to worship him personally, to review your life in his presence, and ask for his cleansing. Treat him as he presents himself – as the Lord, the Saviour, the Son of God. And finally, ask for his power in your life, ask him to fill you with his Holy Spirit: Spirit of cleansing, refreshment, power and service.
Part of the material contained within this page is copyright © 2003 Richard Dormandy