Christ In Christianity

By • Feb 7th, 2011 • Category: Articles


Christianity is a faith that revolves around Jesus’ life and death. As such, one cannot overemphasize the centrality of Jesus to Christianity. 

Jesus was quite unique by any standards. The circumstances of his birth, his life experiences, and his death are nothing short of extraordinary [1]. He managed to establish a following surpassed by none in the history of human spirituality. 

For Christians, Jesus is not a messenger of God delivering a message. He is the message. In comparative religious studies, Jesus is typically compared to Mohammad, and the Bible is compared to the Quran. This comparison, however, does not do justice to the basic tenet of Christian theology. Mohammad (PBUH) was a messenger delivering a message: the Quran. This book contains Divine Words, just as the person of Jesus constituted the Divine Word. Thus, it is more accurate to say that Jesus to Christianity is the Quran to Islam

This article will give an account of Jesus Christ in Christian theology. More specifically, it will examine the life of Jesus, his diverse portrayal in the Gospels, and the issue of his divinity. 

The Life of Jesus Christ

Jesus was unlike any other human, a fact evident from the manner in which he was born. The Bible speaks of the virgin birth of Jesus: 

‘This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph, her husband, was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins”’. (Matthew 1:18-21) 

Jesus is the Greek form of Joshua, which means ‘the Lord saves’ or simply ‘Savior’[2]. Christ is the Greek form of Massiach (or Messiah) in Hebrew- they both mean ’the Anointed One, or the Chosen One by God to save people. 

By all accounts, Jesus was a Hebrew and an observant Jew. The inception of Jesus’ mission is quite intriguing. A Jewish ascetic by the name ‘John the Baptist’[3] seems to have prepared the way for Jesus. John was disillusioned with the Jewish establishment in Jerusalem; he called the establishment corrupt and openly spoke out against it. He urged the Jews to repent and accept the rite of purification by baptism in the River Jordan. 

Jesus was among those who answered John’s call for baptism. He had made the long journey from Nazareth to Judea to be baptized by John: 

‘As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”’ (Matthew 3:16-17) 

Jews were expecting (and still are) the arrival of Messiah, a descendant of King David[4]. The Messiah would establish the promised Kingdom of God on earth. According to the Bible, John the Baptist had immediately recognized Jesus as the Messiah. This recognition was perfectly in line with the prevailing Jewish belief. 

After this monumental event, Jesus began to preach in all the towns and villages of Galilee, proclaiming the good news that “The Kingdom of God has arrived!” (Mark 1:15). 

As we shall see later, Jesus was a revolutionary- not in the political sense of term as an advocate of armed uprising against the existing socio-political order. His message and the core of his teachings threatened the establishment and the dominant ideology of the day. Thus, in the year 30 A.D, Jesus was tried by the Roman authorities for his revolutionary ideas and activities, and then executed on a cross in Jerusalem.

 During his lifetime, many Jews in Palestine had come to believe he was the Messiah. Yet, his crucifixion was completely unexplainable within the framework of Judaism. The Messiah was to be a strong leader who would successfully usher in a new era of justice and peace. In stead, his followers watched helplessly as their teacher and leader was hauled away like a common criminal. In such an atmosphere of grief and disbelief, the original 12 disciples – those closest to Jesus- had scattered after Jesus’ death, their hearts broken, their hopes shattered.

Yet, within 3 days of the crucifixion, rumors began spreading around Jerusalem that Jesus had raised from the dead. Some said his tomb was found empty, while others claimed to have seen him in visions. In one notable occasion, some 500 people saw him simultaneously. 

The Bible speaks of the resurrection of Jesus after his death on the cross. For a period of time, he would occasionally meet his disciples. The first chapter of the Book of Acts records how Jesus spoke with them one last time before he ascended to heaven. Jesus told them they were responsible for taking his message to regions around Jerusalem, and then “to the end s of the earth”[5]. He assured them the power to carry out this mission would come in the person of the Holy Spirit. Then, Jesus ascended to heaven before the very eyes of the disciples. That was followed by the appearance of two angels, who told them that Jesus would one day return to earth to usher in the Messianic Kingdom of God. 

Portraits of Jesus Christ in the Gospels

 The primary sources for the story of Jesus are the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John [6]- the first 4 books of the New Testament. 

The Gospels were recorded several decades after the crucifixion of Jesus. Very few of Jesus’ actual words seem to have been recorded in the Gospels. Much of their material had been affected by post-Jesus development in the churches. By the time the first Gospel (Mark) was written, historical facts had been somewhat overlaid with mythical elements.  It is perhaps safe to say that the Gospels simply capture and express the meaning Jesus had acquired for his followers.  The style of writing, content, and emphasis differ among the Gospels, as if each writer was addressing a different audience and a different challenge. Each Gospel reflects how Jesus and his message genuinely consumed its writer. Taken together, the Gospels portray who Jesus was and what his message meant for humanity’s salvation. 

In the following, we will briefly examine how Jesus is portrayed in the 4 Gospels. 

Gospel of Mark

The Gospel Mark is the first full-length account of the life of Jesus. It is generally believed that John Mark[7] around 70 A.D. wrote it, some 40 years after Jesus’ crucifixion. 

Mark portrays Jesus as a Servant. Initially, this may seem like a paradox, since Jesus is the King in the Kingdom of God. Jesus had powers no worldly king ever had: he raised people from the dead, restored deformed bodies, gave sight to the blind, and drove out demons. Such performance would indicate immense power, yet we rarely associate power with servants! Far from it, we typically think of servants as having no identity, power, or worth. 

The image of Jesus as a servant indicates a radical reversal of values, a shift of paradigm. Jesus turns the values of the world upside down. The mighty are brought low. The last are made first. The rich cannot buy status. Mark’s message is that the power of God is not like the world’s power. The power of God is the willingness to kneel, suffer, and serve- as exemplified by the life and death of Jesus. Greatness in God’s kingdom is shown by service and sacrifice. Thus, following Jesus is not about claiming rank or privilege; it is about serving others. 

By any definition, this is a radical reversal of values– a major shift in a believer’s focus and priorities. Jesus was a revolutionary; so was his religion and message. It definitely put the religious establishment of his day on notice, as well as the political authorities.  

A far-reaching and lasting revolution is one that takes place in the prevailing system of values, the people’s worldview and consciousness. The logic of this proclamation is quite simple: our actions are driven by our priorities in life. In turn, our priorities are shaped by our ideals; and, ideals are formed by values. Thus, if our values change, our way of life will fundamentally change. This is what Jesus aspired to do. 

Gospel of Matthew

Although the Gospel of Mathew is not the first gospel written, but it is the first placed in the New Testament. It is perhaps the most frequently read book in the Bible. It is widely believed that Mathew Levi, a Jewish tax collector, wrote this Gospel sometime around 80 to 85 A.D.[8] 

Matthew portrays Jesus as the Messiah. Perhaps the whole purpose of this gospel is to provide clear and compelling evidence, especially to the Jews[9], that Jesus is the Messiah- the Savior. Jews were waiting for the Messiah. He would be their king and return them to the glory they once had under the reign of King David. Matthew begins his book by claiming that Jesus was a descendant of David, and repeatedly refers to him as ‘Son of David’. 

If Matthew would try to provide evidence that Jesus was just the Hebrew Messiah, we would not have a new religion called Christianity. We should not be blind-sighted by his use of the word ‘Messiah’. In fact, Matthew’s exposition of this concept would ultimately lead to the negation of Judaism by later Christians. 

Jews always expected the Messiah to be an earthly king that would establish heaven on earth. Matthew seems to argue the opposite[10]. He portrays Jesus not as an earthly king, but as one with heavenly powers, position, character, and aspirations. Matthew explains that Jesus’ kingdom is not anything like the kingdoms of this earth: it is full of mercy, justice, equality, wisdom, love, and hope. This Messiah is the Prince of Peace. He is not a warrior king who rides on a stallion leading an army to claim his throne. Rather, he is the merciful savior who comes on the back of a mule and claims the human heart. 

The Gospel of Luke

This gospel was written by Luke somewhere around 59 and 63 A.D. Luke is believed to have been a Greek doctor, and the only gentile (non-Jew) author in the Christian Bible[11]. The writing style and the vocabulary used in this book indicate that the author must have been well educated. 

Luke portrays Jesus as the champion of the poor and the outcast, one who had the greatest sympathy for the wretched of the earth- the poor, the despised, the hurt, and the sinners. These people never show up on the radar screen of any civilization- no ideology advocates their cause. They are the unforgotten in worldly kingdoms. 

Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus Christ is crafted to give credence to this portrayal. A young couple, Mary and Joseph, travel miles to be enrolled in a census (as decreed by Roman authorities). They are poor and not married yet. Since they cannot find appropriate accommodations in a lodge, they have to make due in a barn. And, that is where Jesus is born. He is wrapped in cloths, and laid in a manger. The barn is cold, uncomfortable, and it stinks! The first people who come in to congratulate Mary for the newborn are shepherds. Those days, shepherds were generally viewed as unclean and unholy. 

Why is the birthplace of Jesus so significant? Jesus is King, but contrary to worldly kings, he is not born in a palace, but in a barn. His court is filled with simple folks, not princes and princesses. Luck is not a historian narrating a factual event; rather, he is carefully painting the character of a faith, the nature of Jesus’ kingdom, and the kind of king Jesus is. This portrait of the Savior has inspired generations of devout Christians to choose the poorest of the poor and the outcast to serve. Witness Mother Theresa, who served the untouchables in India, one of the poorest nations of the world. 

The Gospel of John

The authorship of this gospel is a subject of dispute. Most scholars attribute it to John the Apostle. It was written around 90 to 100 A.D. 

The Gospel of John differs from the other 3 Gospels both in form and content. It does not contain a genealogy, or any record of the birth or childhood of Jesus, or the appointment of the disciples. John uses symbolic language in his exposition, and often gives words and events double meaning. 

This Gospel is written from a unique spiritual perspective, with a great emphasis on themes such as light and darkness, blindness and sight, truth and glory, and eternal life. 

John’s main thrust is in portraying Jesus as divine and eternal. This emphasis on the divinity of Jesus perhaps indicates the direction Christian theology was taking toward the end of the first century. This Gospel uses phrases beginning with I am to reveal the true identity of Jesus: 

  • I am the bread of life (6:35)
  • I am the light of the world (8:12)
  • I am the gate (10:7)
  • I am the good shepherd (10:11)
  • I am the resurrection and the life (11:25)
  • I am the way, the truth, and the life (14:6)
  • I am the true vine (15:1)

  To prove Jesus is divine, John heavily emphasizes on miracles performed by Jesus[12]. Miracles are acts unexplainable by rational thought and can be performed only by those who enjoy powers from out of this world. These supernatural activities are meant to be ‘signposts’, proving that Jesus was divine in nature. 

Six of the miracles attributed to Jesus in the Bible are unique to the Gospel of John.  A few of the more famous miracles mentioned by John are: 

  1. Turning water into wine (2:1-11).  This is supposedly the first miracle attributed to Jesus. At a wedding party, there was a shortage of wine. Instantly, Jesus turns 6 jars of water into wine.
  2. Healing the official’s son (4:43-54). A king’s officers had a son who suffering from an illness. He had traveled a long distance to meet Jesus, and to beg him to heal his son. The officer said, ‘Come before my child dies’. Jesus replied, ‘you may go. Your son will live.’ The official took Jesus at his word and departed. When he reached home, he found out that his son was well.
  3. Healing the lame man in Jerusalem (5:1-9). 

There was a pool in Jerusalem where disabled people used to lie down at. Jesus went there for a visit. He saw a lame man, and asked if he wanted to get well. The man naturally responded positively: 

‘Then Jesus said to him, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.” At once the man was cured; he picked up his mat and walked.’ (5:8)  

  1. Feeding 5000 people with just a few loaves of bread and fish (6:1-14). A large crowd had gone to meet Jesus on a grassy hill. They were hungry.  His disciples were wondering how to feed so many people. They only had 5 loaves of bread and 2 little fish among them. Jesus distributed the fish and bread among the crowd. They all had enough to eat. Jesus then asked his disciples to gather the leftovers- that filled twelve baskets!
  2. Walking on water (6:15-21). A few of the disciples were on a boat on Lake Galilee. A strong wind was blowing and the waters grew rough. While they were rowing, they saw Jesus approaching the boat, walking on the water.  Then, they took him into the boat.
  3. Restoring sight to the blind man (9:1-41). One day Jesus saw a man blind from birth. Jesus spit on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man’s eyes. He then asked him to wash his face in a nearby pool. The man went and washed, and came home seeing.
  4. Raising a man from the dead (11:1-44). A man by the name Lazarus died out of an illness. He was buried in a cave. Four days later, Jesus went to his tomb, and asked the people to remove a large stone covering the entrance to the cave. Jesus then called in a loud voice: “Lazarus, come out!” And the dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.
  5. Showing his disciples how to make an amazing catch of fish (21:1-14). This event took place after his crucifixion. It was the 3rd time Jesus had shown himself to his disciples. Seven of his disciples went fishing on Lake Galilee. They fished all night and did not catch any fish. Early the next morning, they headed backed to shore, where Jesus was standing. Jesus said to them: “Friends, have you caught any fish?” Unaware he was Jesus, they answered: “No”. He said: “Throw your net into the water on the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” And they did. They caught so many fish they could not pull the net back into the boat.


Divinity of Christ

In many respects, Jesus was exceptional and unique, a fact not missed by Christians. They correctly concluded that Christ had somehow enabled them to cross the gulf that separated God from humanity. The puzzling question was how he had done it? And, which side of the Great Divide was he on? Was he a man or God? These questions have been the subject of great debates over the centuries.  

Nowadays, most Christians, irrespective of their sectarian tendency, view Jesus as ‘divine’[13].  However, there seems to be little historical evidence that early Christians really thought Jesus was God. A couple of observations are worth mentioning here. First, Jesus was a Hebrew. His immediate followers were almost all Jews, and called him the Messiah, a prophecy Judaism promoted. In fact the religion of Jesus was originally indistinguishable from Judaism. Early Christians had an entirely Jewish conception of God. Thus, nobody in the Jewish community expected the Messiah to be a divine figure. Jews expected the Messiah to be a descendant of King David. The Psalms sometimes called David or the coming Messiah “the Son of God”, but that was simply a way of expressing his intimacy with Yahweh. Jews certainly did not believe that Yahweh actually had a son. 

Secondly, there are references to Jesus as the ‘Son’ of God in the Gospels. However, early Christians understood this term in its Jewish sense. They did not believe that Jesus had been the Incarnation of God himself: he had simply possessed God’s “powers” and “Spirit”. Jesus manifested God’s activity on earth. He was given certain divine “powers” enabling him to perform God-like tasks, such as healing the sick and forgiving sins. When people saw Jesus in action, they had a living image of what God was like. However, possession of divine powers was not to be identified with the inaccessible divine essence. 

It took centuries and a great deal of theological work to attribute divinity to Christ. Some 400 years after his crucifixion, ‘divinity of Christ’ became the officially sanctioned dogma of the Christian church. Over time, the Church formulated two doctrines depicting Jesus as divine: Incarnation[14] and Trinity[15]. The historical details surrounding the development of these doctrines are both fascinating and instructive. It is amazing how strongly Christian theologians felt about the divinity of Christ as essential to their faith, even in the face of immense difficulties in its conceptual formulation. To this day, it has been quite a challenge to harmonize the Christian conviction that Jesus was divine and their belief in One God. 

Finally, it should be noted that there are at least two distinct readings of Trinity amongst Christians: Latin and Greek. The Latin reading (Catholic and Protestant) is philosophical in its orientation; it offers a literal and logical-rational explanation of Trinity. The Greek reading (Eastern Orthodox) is mystical; it has a symbolic slant to its exposition, arguing that Trinity is not a logical or intellectual formulation but an imaginative paradigm. It has to be lived by Christians, not thought, because God lies beyond human concepts and perception. At the end, however, all Christians view Jesus as divine in his nature – a notion their siblings (Jews and Muslims) find incompatible with pristine Monotheism. 

[1] The Holy Quran also validates the uniqueness of Jesus. The Quran indicates that the Holy Spirit conceived him in Mary; he was a prophet in the crib; and he was not killed on the cross even though that is what the Roman authorities thought they had done. Jesus ascended on high as a body appearing to be that of Jesus was on the cross (see the Quran, 4:157-158). 

[2] The name captures the essence of Christians’ conviction that salvation is possible only through Jesus.  

[3] Some Bible scholars claim John the Baptist was Jesus’ cousin; others have disputed their relationship. 

[4] He was a king and a spiritual leader who founded the first independent Jewish kingdom in Jerusalem. 

[5] From the outset, Christianity has had an expansive nature. Even though Christianity was initially a Jewish sect, it quickly parted ways with Judaism and became a gentile religion. Whereas Judaism never abandoned its tribal roots, Christianity became a ‘world’ religion precisely due to its evangelistic and missionary bent. After his resurrection, Jesus charged his followers with the responsibility to “be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Christians took such statements as a call to bring others to their faith, a process commonly known as ‘conversion’. Unfortunately, the zeal of spreading the ‘Good Word’ has sometimes led to ‘forced conversions’, particularly in Africa and the Americas. 

[6] Gospel means ‘Good News’. According to Christian theology, humanity was doomed due to the Original Sin of Adam and Eve. Jesus Christ made it possible to escape this awful predicament. At last, salvation is possible through faith in Jesus: that is the good news. 

[7] Mark was a companion of Paul, arguably the most influential character in the history of Christianity. Most scholars believe Paul formed and shaped Christian theology. Thus, Christianity is really Paul’s vision of Christ and salvation. 

[8] The exact date is not known. However, since the fall of Jerusalem at the hands of the Romans in 70 A.D. is mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew (22:7), it must have been written after this date. 

[9] Matthew attempts to show the continuity between Jesus and the Hebrew religious tradition.  He points to the Hebrew Scriptures extensively to back up his claim that Jesus is the Promised Messiah: 53 direct quotes and 76 other references. He also states that Jesus did not come to abolish the Law of Moses, but to fulfill it (5:17). 

[10] The task would be left to the famous Christian theologian, St. Augustine, to put Jesus’ kingdom as opposed to the Jewish utopia. In his famous book, ‘The City of God’, he articulates that any attempt to establish the kingdom of God (heaven) on earth is bound to fail. 

I should point out that the same theological debate took shape in the Islamic world later on: Can we establish a utopia governed by Allah’s wisdom, design, and laws on earth? The debate has continued to this day. Muslim revolutionaries in the modern times seem to argue that it is possible to create a ‘heavenly order’ in human society. The conservatives, skeptical of man’s capacity for the ‘Divine’, are not convinced about the feasibility of such a grand project. 

[11] He is also the author of the Book of Acts in the Bible, whose instructions were highly important for the development of the early Christian church. Centuries later, the ideas of the Book of Acts became instrumental in the rise of the Protestant Reformation. 

[12] In general, miracles aim to reveal the gracious nature of Jesus. In Christian theology, Grace is the unconditional and undeserved love of God for humanity. Furthermore, Jesus is viewed as the instrument of God’s Grace; in fact, he is the very manifestation of God’s Grace. 

[13] Being or having the nature of a deity or God. 

[14] Simply stated, Incarnation is a belief that God assumed a human form in the person of Jesus through the act of ‘self-emptying’. Jesus was the embodiment of God- or ‘Divine Logos’ made flesh. Thus, Jesus was completely human and completely God. 

[15] Refers to a group consisting of three closely related members. In Christian Theology, Trinity means the unity of three divine figures (the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit) in one Godhead.

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