Many skeptics charge that Jesus was a good Jew and therefore had no intention of creating a new religion. Instead, it was His Apostles who created Christianity. New Testament scholar, Bart Ehrman, is a highly popular representative of this thinking:
- When one reconstructs the actual sayings and deeds of Jesus, they all stand firmly within this Jewish apocalyptic framework. It was only his later followers who saw him as starting a new religion. He appears to have had no intent to start a new religion. His was the religion of the Jews. (Jesus, Interrupted, 237)
While it is true that Jesus wasn’t explicit – at least at the beginning - about wanting “to start a new religion,” there were many reasons for this. Such a move would have been interpreted as seditious. Had He spoken against the Mosaic Covenant – and His many detractors were trying to entice Him to do just that – He would have been brought up on capital charges (Deut. 13:1-10).
Besides, had He been entirely transparent about His identity and His work, His own disciples would probably have been unable to receive it. When He finally disclosed to them that He was the Messiah, He presented this disclosure in the form of a question:
- "But what about you?" he asked. "Who do you say I am?" Simon Peter answered, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." (Matthew 16:15-16)
However, it soon became clear that Peter was unable to handle even this truth, let alone Jesus’ divinity, especially after He revealed that He would have to be put to death:
- From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. (Matthew 16:21)
Were they ready for this disclosure? Evidently not! Peter chastened Jesus for such a thought:
- Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. "Never, Lord!" he said. "This shall never happen to you!" (Matthew 16:22)
Never had Jesus been so candid with His disciples, but never had Peter been so resistant to Jesus’ words, and never had Jesus been so harsh with Peter:
- Jesus turned and said to Peter, "Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men." (Mat. 16:23)
What can you do when your students “do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men?" You must go slowly!
There was much that He couldn’t tell His disciples. Only at the end of His earthly ministry did He reveal to them that He was initiating the New Covenant:
- This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. (Matthew 26:28; Mark 14:24; Luke 22:20)
In many ways, this is a remarkable statement. The covenant, which He was now establishing, would bring about “the forgiveness of sins,” referring back to Jeremiah’s promise of a New Covenant (31:31-34). This contained several radical implications:
- He was suggesting that He was the new Moses (Deut. 18:15-18).
- He was fulfilling the Passover. It was no longer about the blood of a lamb, but of the Messiah (Isaiah 42:6; 49:8).
- Jesus was virtually starting a new religion with new realities, but one in line with OT prophecies.
In harmony with this New Covenant, when Jesus issued His final charge to His disciples, the Mosaic Law had no part of it:
- Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age." (Matthew 28:19-20)
Jesus made no mention of circumcision or of making Jewish converts. They were being sent to the “nations” to baptize them. Nor would they baptize them into Moses. Instead, they would baptize their new converts into the Trinity, of which He was a divine member.
Also, He doesn’t say to baptize them into the “names” (plural) but rather the “name” singular. This is because the Three all shared the same divine Name or Character. They were One!
Nor were they to teach Moses, but rather “everything I have commanded you” – a command that only God could legitimately make!
However, the reality of His work and the New Covenant was something that Jesus had been cryptically hinting from almost the beginning! Therefore, the two above verses couldn’t have been mere add-ons to support the “evolving” Jesus-worship of the early church, as Ehrman claims. Instead, the Messiah-ship of Jesus is intricately woven into the fabric of all four Gospel accounts.
Although Jesus was guarded about His identity, His divine mission was disclosed in many other ways. John the Baptist recognized in Jesus, “The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29). It had been revealed to Mary that the infant she was carrying was the seed of God, the Holy Spirit and that He would reign over an everlasting kingdom (Luke 1:31-33). To Zechariah, it was revealed that his child John:
- Will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord [Jesus] to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins. (Luke 1:76-77)
To the lowly shepherds, the angels announced that a child born in a filthy animal stall was the long-awaited “Lord” (Luke 2:11) Messiah. The Holy Spirit dropped the promised Messiah, Israel’s “salvation” (Luke 2:30), into the hands of the righteous Simeon. Could it be that only Jesus was unaware of His divine vocation? Of course not! Therefore, the notion that Jesus was just a good Jew who had no intention of bringing about monumental changes is entirely without merit.
After this, it was revealed to the pious, 84-year-old Anna that the child would be the “redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:38). In a dream, the Spirit informed Joseph that the child in Mary’s womb would “save his people from their sins” (Mat. 1:21). The Magi even “worshipped” Him (Mat. 2:11).
How then can Ehrman claim that “He appears to have had no intent to start a new religion?” Of course, the skeptics could claim that all four Gospels were entirely invented. However, martyrs do not shed their blood for their deceptive inventions.
Elsewhere, Ehrman admits:
- The oldest and best sources we have for knowing about the life of Jesus…are the four Gospels of the NT…This is not simply the view of Christian historians who have a high opinion of the NT and in its historical worth; it is the view of all serious historians of antiquity…it is the conclusion that has been reached by every one of the hundreds (thousands, even) of scholars. (Truth and Fiction in the DaVinci Code, 102)
Since Ehrman is unwilling to discount the Gospels, he can’t discount their evidence either.
Clearly, Jesus believed that He was on a divine mission. Talking about His body, Jesus told His disciples, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John (2:19). To refer to His body as the temple was to set Himself up against the Mosaic Temple. Jesus would now be the place where Israel would come to meet with God.
Elsewhere, He reveals that He is even “greater than the temple” (Matthew 12:6) and the Sabbath (12:8).
Contrary to Ehrman, there is really a wealth of evidence that Jesus saw Himself ushering in the New Covenant. In subtle ways, Jesus was preparing His disciples for the fulfillment and the passing away of the Mosaic Covenant (Mat. 5:16-18). For instance, He taught that we are not defiled by contact with things that had been deemed unclean under Mosaic Law:
- "Are you so dull?" he asked. "Don't you see that nothing that enters a man from the outside can make him 'unclean'? For it doesn't go into his heart but into his stomach, and then out of his body." (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods "clean.") (Mark 7:18-19)
According to Mark, this teaching cryptically undermined the Mosaic Law. In His delivery of His Sermon on the Mount, He spoke with the authority that only the Messiah could speak. In six instances, He corrected the religion of the day by contrasting it with “but I say to you!” No ordinary human rationally could speak with such authority!
He then concluded:
- "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?' Then I will tell them plainly, 'I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!'” (Matthew 7:21-23)
In effect, Jesus informed the crowd that He (along with His teachings - Mat. 7:24) holds the keys to heaven and hell! His miracles proclaimed the same message. How then could Ehrman and others insist that Jesus regarded Himself as no more than a mere human:
- The idea that Jesus was divine was a later Christian invention, one found, among our Gospels, only in John. (249)
Ehrman believes that the last Gospel, John’s, would have the most to say about the deity of Christ, because, at this point, the church had evolved into this belief. Meanwhile, Mark’s Gospel was the first, according to Ehrman, and accordingly, would have the least to say about it:
- There is not one word in this Gospel about Jesus actually being God. (247)
Okay, let’s put aside the Gospel of John (and even the other Gospels) and play by Ehrman’s rules. Admittedly, the Gospel of Mark has less to communicate about Jesus’ divinity than the other Gospels. However, it does not support Ehrman’s charge that it contains “not one word…about Jesus actually being God.” Here are several lines of counter-evidence:
- Jesus fulfills Isaiah’s prophecy (40:1-3) about the coming of “Yahweh” (Mark 1:2-3). In light of this, Mark equates Jesus with Yahweh.
- Jesus forgives sin (Mark 2:5-7). The religious leadership understood that He was equating Himself with God by doing this, but Jesus never corrected them. He left them with the impression that He does believe Himself to be God.
- Jesus declared Himself the “Lord of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27), making Himself out to be the divine Law-giver.
- Mark includes the account of the Transfiguration (Mark 9:1), during which time the Father declares Him, “My Beloved Son” (9:7), setting Him above Moses and Elijah, granting to Him a special ontological status.
- The demon-possessed confess that Jesus is the “Holy One of God” (Mark 1:24; 3:11; 5:7).
- Jesus claims that peoples’ response to Him determines their heavenly fate (Mark 8:35; 10:29-31).
- Jesus receives worship (Mark 11:9-10; cp. Psalm 118:25-26) that can be given only to God.
- Jesus cryptically equates Himself with the pre-existent “Lord” of Psalm 110 (Mark 12:35-37).
- Jesus sees Himself as fulfilling Daniel’s prophecy regarding the “Son of Man” (7:14) coming in the clouds (Mark 13:26-27).
Admittedly, many of these are cryptic references to Jesus’ deity. However, we encounter a cryptic, parable-making Jesus in each of the Gospels! Interestingly, such references argue against the idea that the early church changed the Gospels to bring Jesus “up to date” with their “evolving” theology. Doubtless, if the unsophisticated early church had wanted to alter the originals, they would have been more explicit about this. They would have inserted the words, “I am God” into Jesus’ mouth! Instead, the Gospels seem to allow us to behold the genuine voice of our Lord. Praise His Holy Name!