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Who was/is Jesus?

Who was/is Jesus? If we read the New Testament as historical narrative—rather than through later theological grids—the dominant story by a country mile is the one about the man who was marked out at birth, and by his birth, as Israel’s future saviour and king, who was chosen and anointed by Israel’s God to bring a powerful end-of-the-age message to Israel regarding the coming decisive intervention of God in the affairs of his people for better and for worse, who was fiercely opposed by the political-religious establishment in Jerusalem and put to death, who was raised from the dead, who was given supreme authority to rule as Israel’s king in the midst of his enemies throughout the coming ages, and who was eventually to be confessed as Lord by the nations of the Greek-Roman world.

Woven into this thoroughly coherent eschatological narrative is a secondary plot line, according to which the primal Wisdom or Word of God found embodiment and expression in Israel’s revolutionary Messiah: “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn. 1:14). This “incarnational” argument, for which we are almost entirely dependent on John, became the foundation stone for the Trinitarian model that the Church Fathers quite reasonably developed over the next two or three centuries.

But in my view, if we are to read the New Testament aright, this cannot be allowed to obscure the primary political character of the story about Jesus. In a further attempt to prevent that happening, here are some of the main pieces of evidence for the basic contention that Jesus was given the authority to act as prophet, Messiah, judge and king, though really it comes down to the whole New Testament story told as a continuation of Israel’s story. If you’re concerned that this way of thinking about Jesus has no personal relevance for you, you could try reading this.

  1. The infancy narratives present Jesus not as God incarnate but as the descendant of David “who will shepherd my people Israel” (Matt. 2:6). “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Lk. 1:32–33).
  2. If the language of the accounts of Jesus’ baptism is meant to recall Isaiah 42:1, as I think most commentators would accept, then Jesus is portrayed as the servant of YHWH who has been chosen and anointed with the Spirit in order to fulfil YHWH’s purposes.
  3. Satan’s offer of the kingdoms of the world to Jesus suggests that the authority to rule over the nations has to be given to Jesus, either by Satan or by God: “To you I will give all this authority and their glory, for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will” (Lk. 4:6).
  4. Luke has Jesus read out Isaiah 61:1-2 to the same effect (Lk. 4:16-21). He identifies himself with the prophet who has been given the Spirit of God, anointed by YHWH, to proclaim on YHWH’s behalf good news to the poor in Israel, liberty to captive Israel, the year of YHWH’s favour towards his people and judgment against his enemies.
  5. The centurion in Capernaum seems to think that both he and Jesus are “under authority” (Matt. 8:9; Lk. 7:8).
  6. After the healing of the paralytic, the crowds glorify God, “who had given such authority to men” (Matt. 9:8). Matthew does not appear to think that this contradicts Jesus’ own statement: “that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” (Matt 9:6). Daniel’s son of man figure does not have authority by right or before the crisis described in the latter half of the book; he receives it following judgment against the beasts (Dan. 7:9-14).
  7. The consistent identification of Jesus with Daniel’s “one like a son of man” can only mean that he is given the authority to rule as a result of faithful suffering—and will come with the clouds of heaven, at some point in the future, to exercise that authority with respect to Israel, the nations and his disciples (cf. Matt. 10:23; 13:41; 16:27-28; 19:28; 24:27-30; 24:39, 44; 25:31; 26:64; and so on).
  8. After the resurrection Jesus says to the disciples, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matt. 28:18). You can’t ask for a clearer statement than that. We read in Daniel that “the God of heaven has authority in the kingdom of humans and he will give it to whomever he desires” (Dan 4:28 LXX; cf. 4:17). God will take the kingdom from Nebuchadnezzar and give it to another. This corresponds precisely to the New Testament narrative: God has supreme authority in heaven and earth, but he takes it away from the kings and rulers of Israel and the nations and gives it to his Son.
  9. The assumption underlying the conversation between Jesus and the chief priests, et al., in the temple about his authority is that the authority to act as he did had been given to him: “By what authority are you doing these things, or who gave you this authority to do them?” (Mk. 11:27-33).
  10. In Luke’s version of the parable of the talents, the nobleman, who is presumably to be identified with Jesus, “went into a far country to receive for himself a kingdom and then return” (Lk. 19:12). Jesus will receive the kingdom, the authority to judge and rule over Israel and the nations, after his, and he will return to vindicate his faithful disciples.
  11. The Father has given Jesus “authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man” (Jn. 5:27). He is the Son of Man because he suffers at the hands of apostate Israel in collusion with an aggressive pagan empire. This is another unequivocal statement that Jesus is given the authority, which YHWH would otherwise have reserved for himself, to act as eschatological judge.
  12. Jesus expressly denies that he is speaking on his own authority. “The one who speaks on his own authority seeks his own glory; but the one who seeks the glory of him who sent him is true” (Jn. 7:17-18; cf. 12:49; 14:10). He does nothing on his own authority but speaks as the Father taught him (Jn. 8:28).
  13. Jesus asks the Father to “glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all flesh” (Jn. 17:1–2).
  14. Jesus says, “I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This commandment (entolēn) I have received from my Father” (John 10:18).
  15. On the day of Pentecost Peter says, “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36). He cites Psalm 110:1: “The Lord said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool” (Acts 2:34–35)—arguably the most influential Old Testament text for the interpretation of Jesus’ resurrection. The Lord who is YHWH installs the Lord or ᐣadon who is greater than David at his right hand to rule in the midst of his enemies throughout the coming ages.
  16. Later Peter says that “the God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Saviour” (Acts 5:30–31).
  17. Peter tells Cornelius that God sent the word to Israel through Jesus, having anointed him with the Holy Spirit and power. Jesus healed the sick and cast out demons not because he was God but because “God was with him” (Acts 10:36-38).
  18. The difference between David and Jesus is not that Jesus was YHWH and David wasn’t but that God raised Jesus from the dead and installed him as his king forever, after the order of Melchizedek (Acts 2:22-38; 13:37; cf. Heb. 5:5-6)
  19. Paul tells the men of Athens that the God of Israel has fixed a day on which he will judge the pagan world “by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:31).
  20. Paul’s “gospel” was that Jesus “was determined Son of God in power… by his resurrection from the dead” (Rom. 1:4).
  21. Christ is given authority to rule in the midst of his enemies, in accordance with Psalm 110:1, until the last enemy is destroyed. Then he must give that authority back to God (1 Cor. 15:24-28). The authority to rule is not a permanent possession.
  22. The “name which is above every name” (in my view “Lord”, but this is debatable) is “graciously bestowed” (echarisato) on Jesus, in order that he might be confessed as Lord by the nations of the ancient pagan world (Phil. 2:9-11).
  23. The story about Jesus in Ephesians is that God raised him from the dead, seated him at his right hand above all rule and authority, and (again referencing Psalm 110:1) “put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church” (Eph. 1:20-23). Pre-eminence and authority are not things that Jesus has of necessity, because he is the eternal Son, but are given to him after the resurrection.
  24. According to Hebrews, Jesus was “appointed” or “made” the “heir of all things; he “became” superior to the angels; he “inherited” a more excellent name; he is the king who was “begotten” on the day of his resurrection, who was made a son, who was brought into the oikoumenē as “firstborn”; he was made to sit at the right hand of God in accordance with Psalm 110:1; all things were subjected to him, and he was crowned with glory and honour “because of the suffering of death” (Heb. 1:1-2:9).
  25. Although Jesus was a son, he “learned obedience through what he suffered” and was, for that reason, “designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek” (Heb. 5:10) .
  26. For the author of Revelation, Jesus is the Son of Man, who suffered, died, was raised from the dead, and was given “glory and dominion for ever and ever”; he is “ruler of kings on earth”. Because he died and rose to new life, he has “the keys of Death and Hades” (Rev. 1:4-7, 17-18).
  27. The living creatures and twenty-four elders fall before the throne of God in heaven and declare that God is worthy because he created all things. When they fall before the Lamb, they sing a new song—here is the christological novelty: Jesus is worthy to open the scroll of eschatological judgment because he conquered death, because he was the Lamb that was slain (Rev. 4:9-11; 5:5-14). Jesus is given the authority to judge both Israel and the nations not because he is identified with YHWH but because he has earned the right to open the scroll.
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