Why it matters who Jesus is

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Jesus is unique in three important ways

By Jon M. Isaak

I like telling people what I do for a living—and watching their reaction. Whether in conversation with the parent sitting next to me at my son’s water-polo match or my daughter’s soccer game, I am sure to get an interesting response. When I tell them I teach at a local seminary, they invariably ask, “What do you teach?” I say, “Jesus.”

In the conversation that follows I can elaborate on Jesus in several ways. I can respond as a professional historian and recite a list of statements about Jesus’ life that are almost beyond dispute and acknowledged by virtually all Jesus scholars regardless of political or religious persuasion. These include: born near the time of the death of Herod the Great; spends his childhood and early adult years in Nazareth, a Galilean village; baptized by John the Baptist; called disciples; teaches and ministers in Galilee; preaches “the Kingdom of God”; goes to Jerusalem for the Passover; creates a disturbance in the temple area; eats a final meal with his disciples; arrested and interrogated by Jewish authorities; executed on the orders of the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate; after his death, his followers experience what they describe as the “resurrection”; convinced that he will return to found the kingdom, they form communities to win others to faith in Jesus as God’s Messiah.

Sometimes, however, it is also appropriate to elaborate on my neighbor’s query by filling out the significance of Jesus’ life and ministry, because I am also a confessing Christian and a biblical theologian. There are three things I would highlight.

1. Jesus’ identity is unique. The New Testament writers use various ways to identify Jesus. They call him the anointed one, the son of David, the Son of God, the preexistent Word (John 1:1). In addition, they are uniform in their testimony to Jesus’s remarkable life as a prophet, miracle worker, healer and teacher, as well as his unique character as sinless (Heb. 4:15) and perfect (Heb. 5:9).

Two writers, Matthew and Luke, underline the special circumstances surrounding his birth. They speak of his mother, Mary, conceiving him by the Holy Spirit while she is a virgin (Matt. 1:18; Luke 1:35). Matthew and Luke use the Virgin Birth to make two large theological statements. In Matthew, Jesus’ miraculous birth is tied to prophecy and fulfillment (Matt. 1:22–23). Jesus’ birth is living proof that “God is with us” (Emmanuel) and that God’s ancient promise to Abraham is being fulfilled (Gen. 12:1–3). These affirmations resonate with the Gospel’s concluding promise: “I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20).

In Luke, Mary’s virginal conception is used to link Jesus to the creation story in Genesis. Jesus’ birth is a new creation story; it is God’s miraculous intervention, moving creation to the final stage of its completion. The Holy Spirit that overshadows Mary (Luke 1:35) is the same Holy Spirit that broods over the waters of chaos generating light and life (Gen. 1:2).

2. Jesus’ mission is unique. The New Testament writers show how Jesus links the “Son of Man” expressions (Dan. 7:13) with Isaiah’s “servant” texts (Isa. 42, 49, 52, 53, 61), finding in these ancient texts words to characterize his own mission. Jesus responds to God’s call on Israel, a call flexible enough to include Israel, a remnant within Israel, and a representative individual, the Messiah.

Likely, Jesus sees the title, Son of Man, as a “job description” for the New Israel. He sees his mission as inviting others to join him in filling out God’s purpose, first for Israel and then for all the nations of the world. By raising Jesus from the dead to new life, God shows approval for the way that Jesus chooses to embrace God’s mission, to defeat the power of sin, and to embody the purpose for which God set the universe in motion.

3. Jesus’ contribution is unique. All the New Testament writers are convinced that Jesus is a real human being, but more than that, the perfect human being. Jesus is the God-man who lives in a way unlike any other human being, a way that shows most clearly what God is like and what humanity is to be like.

Later, this conviction is enshrined in the creedal language, confessing that Jesus is fully divine and fully human. Such fully-fully terminology is designed to rule out the half-and-half terminology (half divine and half human) and the either-or terminology (either divine or human) that some early Christian groups promoted.

The fully-fully terminology picks up the consistent New Testament witness to both of Jesus’ functions; he initiates and completes God’s creation. Jesus is both “pioneer and perfecter” (Heb. 12:2). By virtue of his obedience, Jesus confirms his identity as God’s Messiah, the divine Son of God and opens access to God so that, freed from sin’s grip, we are finally able to join Jesus in accomplishing humanity’s mandate of partnering with God to complete the creation enterprise (Heb. 5:8–10).

I enjoy telling people what I do. What can I say? I love Jesus; he helps me understand better who we are as human beings and what God really desires. Jesus finally makes it possible for human beings to realize their God-given potential.

 

Jon M. Isaak is currently teaching at Fresno Pacific University and was a professor of New Testament at MB Biblical Seminary in Fresno, Calif., from 1998 to 2010. Prior to that, he was a missionary with MBMS International, now MB Mission, teaching in DR Congo and Russia. This summer Isaak will begin serving as director of the Center for MB Studies in Winnipeg, Man.

This article is taken from Isaak’s book, New Testament Theology: Extending the Table, published by Wipf and Stock, 2011, and is used by permission of the publisher.

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This article is part of the CL Archives. Articles published between August 2017 and July 2008 were posted on a previous website and are archived here for your convenience. We have also posted occasional articles published prior to 2008 as part of the archive. To report a problem with the archived article, please contact the CL editor at editor@usmb.org.

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