This Man Jesus
Who was this Jesus, anyway? We really know very little about him. Our main sources are four books, written decades after his death, which devote about a third of their space to the last week of his life. The gospel writers were not so much interested in history as in theology. But the picture that emerges from what little we do know about Jesus reveals a fascinating individual.
Most likely born into a middle class family and brought up as a skilled tradesman, Jesus could have made a good life working as a carpenter like his father Joseph. Instead, after being dunked in the Jordan River by an itinerant preacher/prophet named John, Jesus left the family business and disappeared into the desert.
He returned forty days later with a message, "The Kingdom of God is at hand." Many Jews at the time were looking for a Messiah to throw off the oppression of the Roman Empire and institute the Kingdom of God, but Jesus came with a different mission: "To bring good news to the poorhellip;to proclaim release of the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." (Luke 4:18-19) Though some of his would-be followers urged him to set up his kingdom—with themselves as his trusted advisors, of course—he confounded them with statements like, "The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed…in fact, the kingdom of God is among you." (Luke 17:20-21)
Jesus never owned a home; he never ventured beyond walking distance of the place he was born; he quit his job at age thirty and never had a steady income again. By today's standards, he would be considered a failure or a dropout. In his own time he was thought to be a troublemaker, and was arrested and executed for it.
But his story does not end there.
The third day he rose from the dead
He ascended into heaven
And sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
- The Apostles' Creed
The resurrection of Jesus is the centerpiece of Christian belief. What do Christians mean when we talk about the resurrection? The gospels mention an empty tomb. Mary Magdalene reported to the apostles that Jesus had risen from the dead. The early opponents of the church scoffed, suggesting that the body had been stolen, or that Mary had mistakenly visited the wrong tomb, or even that Jesus was not quite dead when he was taken down from the cross, and had simply awakened and departed.
However, shortly after the tomb was found empty, Jesus' followers reported seeing him in various places—on the seashore, inside a locked room, on the road to a nearby town—but they didn't always recognize him. One disciple, Thomas, even expressed doubt to Jesus' face that it was really him. But somehow, Jesus was able to work a transformation in the lives of his followers that he hadn't been able to before his death. They began to stand up to the authorities, to preach the message despite being threatened, even to follow Jesus in dying for their faith.
It is in the apostle Paul that the work of the risen Christ is the most dramatic. Paul's first encounter with Christ happened one day as he was traveling to Damascus. Without warning he saw a blinding light and heard a voice. Though his traveling companions were unaffected, Paul's life was forever changed. He went from being an enemy of the church to being its most vocal promoter. He traveled to places where Christ was not known, and established new churches. He was arrested more than once, but he kept preaching even in prison. Ultimately, he too was put to death for his teaching.
Through the centuries, many others have had their lives transformed through encounters with Christ. The transformation doesn't always begin with a blinding light, it doesn't always happen suddenly, and it doesn't usually result in a death sentence these days, but the change that it produces is real and lifelong. And the transformation that God works in a person's life is the true meaning of the resurrection.