WE HAD AN INTERESTING PROFESSOR at Harvard University who used to attempt to introduce Christ to his classes. In attendance, he would have, in addition to the divinity school men, a number of the regular university students. The latter were often totally ignorant of Christ. This fact, far from dismaying the professor, rather pleased him; for from these students he got what he liked to call “the virgin reaction” to Jesus. The theological students, having been acquainted with Jesus before, could only afford the philosophy of the second glance. But Dr. H. J. Cadbury, who himself had studied the texts hundreds of times, could always learn something from those who would give the fresh response of the newly introduced. Let us attempt to put ourselves in the position of these students and try to experience the initial response to Jesus Christ.
I. The Humanity of Christ
When we read the accounts of Jesus we instinctively recognize Him as the perfect man. Matthew describes One whom we see to be the ideal Jew; Mark, the idea! Roman; John, the ideal Son of God; and Luke, the universal ideal who is every man’s ideal and God’s as well. Furthermore, every man who approaches Christ seems to feel the same thing — He is the ideal of that man. To the artist Christ is the One altogether lovely. To the educator He is the master teacher. To the philosopher He is the wisdom of God. To the lonely, He is a brother; to the sorrowful, a comforter; and to the bereaved, the resurrection and the life. To the sinner, He is the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.
“No one,” says Watson, “has yet discovered the word Jesus ought to have said, none suggested the better word he might have said. No action of his has shocked our moral sense. None has fallen short of the ideal. He is full of surprises, but they are all the surprises of perfection. You are never amazed one day by his greatness, the next by his littleness. You are quite amazed that he is incomparably better than you could have expected. He is tender without being weak, strong without being coarse, lowly without being servile. He has conviction without intolerance, enthusiasm without fanaticism, holiness without Pharisaism, passion without prejudice. This man alone never made a false step, never struck a jarring note. His life alone moved on those high levels where local limitations are transcended and the absolute Law of Moral Beauty prevails. It was life at its Highest.”
The virgin reaction of the world to Jesus Christ is, then, this: He is the ideal, the perfect man; the moral paragon of the race. I do not wish to gloss over the fact that not absolutely everyone has agreed with this verdict. I know that George Bernard Shaw spoke of a time in Christ’s life when, as he said, Christ was not a Christian. I know that some have thought that Socrates died more nobly than Jesus; that others believe Christ to have been surpassed. But the overwhelming testimony of the world is to the perfection, the incomparable perfection, of Jesus of Nazareth. These few exceptions could be easily shown to rest on fundamental misconceptions of certain things which Jesus said or did. Moreover, those who do take exception usually think that some imagined fault is a failure of Christ to be, as G. B. Shaw said, a Christian! It is evident that they know of no higher standard by which to test Christ than the standard of Christ Himself.
II. The Deity of Christ
But now we find ourselves in an extraordinary situation. If we admit, as the world does, that Christ is the perfect man, we must then admit that He is also God! Why, you ask, if we acknowledge Christ to be the perfect man, must we then acknowledge Him to be God also? Is there not a great difference between man and God — even between perfect man and God? Why should the admission of the one require the admission of the other? Why must the perfect man be God? For this reason: Because the perfect man says he is God. And if He is not God, then neither could He be a perfect man. We despise Father Divine, as a man, for claiming to be God when we know that he is not. If Jesus Christ is not God, we must despise Him also, for He claims far more clearly than Father Divine that He is God. We must, therefore, either worship Christ as God, or despise or pity Him as man.
A. His own Claim to Deity
Just a minute, you say, what proof do we have that Jesus Christ ever claimed that He actually is God? My answer is that we have overwhelming evidence that He entertained this high opinion of Himself. This, for example, is what He says of Himself:
- “I and my Father are one” (John 10:30).
- “No man can come to the Father, but by me” (John 14:6).
- “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).
- “Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58).
- “I command you by the living God, that you tell us whether you are the Christ, the Son of God,” the high priest asked. “It is as you have said,” was Christ’s reply (Matt. 26:63-64).
- “Baptize,” He commanded, “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19).
- “Whom do you say that I am?” He asked His disciples. “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” Peter replied (Matt. 16:16).
- “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-jona: for flesh and blood has not revealed it unto you, but my Father which is in heaven,” He said (Matt. 16: 17).
Well, you say, is this not a characteristic way for religious teachers to speak? Do not all of them make grandiose statements? It is true that Bronson Alcott once said to a friend, “Today I feel that I could say, as Christ did, ‘I and the Father are one!’” “Yes,” the other replied, “but the difference is this: Christ got the world to believe Him.”
The significant thing is this: not one recognized religious leader in the history of the world has ever laid claim to being God — except Jesus. Moses did not. Paul was horrified when people tried to worship him. Muhammad insisted that he was merely a prophet of Allah. Buddha did not even believe in the existence of a personal God, and Confucius was skeptical. Zoroaster was a worshiper, but he was not worshiped. We repeat — of the recognized religious leaders of all time, Jesus of Nazareth — and Jesus of Nazareth alone — claimed to be eternal God.
Not only did Jesus on various occasions definitely affirm His deity but it is perhaps more telling still that He always assumed it. Take, for example, the Sermon on the Mount. This is regarded as predominantly moral instruction. No heavy theology here, they say. This is Christ telling us what we are to do; not what we are to believe about Him. It is true that He does not directly claim to be God in this passage. Indirectly, however, He says a great deal about Himself and lays impressive incidental claim to His divinity.
Note these six distinct pointers to His supernatural being in this one sermon on Christian morality (Matt. 5-7).
First, He says with absolute authority who shall and who shall not inherit the kingdom of God (the beatitudes). If I, for example, said anything like that, on my own authority, you would smile pityingly or frown.
Second, He said that His disciples would be hated and suffer persecution for His sake. Suppose that I said that Martin Luther suffered for my sake, what would you think about me?
Third, “but I say unto you” is a constant refrain through this sermon, by which Christ assumes His right to speak with the authority of the Word of God on which He was commenting.
Fourth, He says that in the last judgment people will say to Him, “Lord, Lord”; but “then I will profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, you that work iniquity.”
Fifth, the sermon concludes with the parable of the two houses, one built on sand and the other on a rock; one to fall and one to stand. And what is this rock? His teaching.
Finally, the people sensed the supreme dignity of this person who had taught them, for they observed that “he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.”
B. Contemporaries Affirm Christ’s Deity
What did Jesus’ contemporaries think of Him? “Behold the man,” said Pilate. “Truly this was the Son of God,” said the centurion who watched Him die. “Never man so spake,” the people said. “Behold the Lamb of God,” was the testimony of John the Baptist, whom all men recognized as a prophet. “My Lord, and my God,” said doubting Thomas. When Jesus asked His disciples who they thought He was, Peter, standing near Caesarea Philippi, a city built in honor of Caesar who was claiming divine honors, and not far from the grotto to Pan, the god of nature whom many worshiped, said: “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” John said of Him, “We beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” And Paul adored Him with a most abundant variety of expressions as his great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. For example, he uses the expression, “unsearchable riches of Christ,” and other expressions concerning Christ’s riches in his epistles. What does Paul mean by the “unsearchable riches of Christ”? That is the very point. It is impossible to put enough meaning into the expression to do justice to the feeling of the Apostle. Rendell Harris, attempting to translate this expression in Ephesians 3:8, threw up his hands in despair and cried: “The unexplorable wealth of Christ!”
C. Influence of Christ Implies His Deity
What of the influence of Jesus Christ on the succeeding centuries? Shortly before His death, He said: “Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else believe on account of the works themselves. ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father” (John 14:10-12). These were very ordinary men to whom Christ — admittedly the most extraordinary person ever to appear in human history — said that they should do greater works than He had done. A strange prediction that was, and stranger still that it has been fulfilled. Yet even stranger still is how it has been fulfilled.
When Christ uttered this prophecy, infanticide was a common thing. Quintillian and others regarded it as a beautiful custom to abandon infants. It was the followers of Jesus, to whom Jesus had said, “Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not,” who put an end to this “beautiful custom.” Clement, Origen, Tertullian, the fathers of the church, exposed the horror of infanticide. And the weakest of all creatures, the human infant, became the best protected of all, as the followers of Jesus continued to much greater lengths the emancipation of childhood. As James Stalker has written:
Christ converted the home into a church, and parents into His ministers; and it may be doubted whether He has not by this means won to Himself as many disciples in the course of the Christian ages as even by the institution of the church itself.
Murder for pleasure was eradicated by the disciples of Christ. When Jesus uttered the promise about “greater works,” the Romans regarded gladiatorial combats as the choicest of amusements. The bloodier the battle of condemned slaves or captives the rarer the diversion. Telemachus, who leaped into the arena in an attempt to separate the warriors and succeeded only in having himself stoned by an enraged mob of spectators who saw in this man only a mad spoilsport, was, of course, a Christian. He died, but gladiatorial combats were to die with him, as the church was to do greater works in this area than her Founder.
Another example is cannibalism. Of all the atrocious deeds of man against man, the most gruesome is cannibalism. With this practice of degenerate savagery Christ had no personal contact; yet its abolition is the work of those who, in His name, have done greater works than He. When a South Pacific islander told a European mocker of foreign missions that if it had not been for the missionaries he would not be alive to say that he did not believe in missions, he was true to the record. It was through missionaries, a number of whom actually became victims of this hideous practice, that cannibalism has been almost entirely exterminated. Many a soldier in World War II subsequently told of his amazement to find himself welcomed rather than devoured in some remote island where he had been stranded. How glad were such men, who trudged wearily through the jungles with a fear of what the next clearing would reveal, when they saw Christian churches and knew that they were safe. These were the experiences which made missionaries of GI’s and produced the now famous “khaki-colored viewpoint.” They found the church there, for the disciples were doing greater works than their Lord.
Time would fail us to mention all the gesta Christi. Suffice it here to repeat what James Russell Lowell said a century ago, “Show me a place on the face of the earth ten miles square where a man may provide for his children in decency and comfort, where infancy is protected, where age is venerated, where womanhood is honored, and where human life is held in due regard, and I will show you a place where the gospel of Christ has gone and laid the foundation.”
We are fully aware that to attribute Godhood to any man is a colossal affirmation. It borders on the incredible — the impossible. But when we consider the impression of Christ’s perfect humanity, the great claims He made for Himself in the most humble way, the unrestrained adoration and worship of those who knew Him, the miracles associated with Him whose life was a “blaze of miracle,” and the constantly recurring miracles of grace which have attended the heralding of His name throughout the world, we propose (if it is difficult to believe that a man was also God) that it is impossible to deny Christ’s deity. It is difficult to believe; it is impossible to doubt. What will you do with Jesus?
Dr. John H. Gerstner was born in Tampa, Florida, and raised in Pennsylvania. He earned his Ph.D. from Harvard University. Dr. Gerstner pastored several churches before accepting a professorship at Pittsburgh-Xenia Theological Seminary, where he taught church history for over 30 years. He served as a visiting professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, and adjunct professor at Knox Theological Seminary in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. Dr. Gerstner was also professor-at-large for Ligonier Ministries for many years, and recorded numerous lectures on audio and video for that organization.
Dr. Gerstner was a stalwart champion of the cause of reformed theology and, in particular, the teachings of Jonathan Edwards. This article is adapted from his book, Theology for Everyman.