Was Jesus Typical or Exceptional
Posted by on July 12, 1997Topic: DebatesTopic: Jesus ChristTopic: Just Thinking MagazineTopic: MoralityTopic: New Testament StudiesTopic: Reliability of Scripture
Topic: Apologetics Training
All great questions of life have only one answer. Conflicting and contradictory answers cannot be valid. Jesus’ unique claim for himself while answering Thomas (Jn. 14:6) is a statement which is philosophically and logically reasonable. Even those who deny unique and exclusive approaches to truth would insist that their own approach is unique and exclusive! Otherwise, they would have nothing to say! Truth, by definition, is therefore exclusive and narrow. It has to exclude errors in order to qualify to be truth. If I should insist that the sum of two and two can only be four and nothing else, no one in his right mind would accuse me of being narrowminded! In fact, in every department of life we proceed on this basis in our search for truth.
However, when it comes to the most important issues concerning God, we abdicate our intellectual responsibility by embracing the wrong kind of broadmindedness in our pursuit of truth. From Jn. 14:6 we conclude that Jesus made this unique claim for himself as the truth. There is no reason why his claim should be rejected out of hand just because it is unique. For this very reason, in fact, we ought to investigate his claims all the more seriously.
Some years ago, Dr. Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan, former president of India, made this statement as Spalding Professor of Eastern Ethics at Oxford University, “Jesus is not exceptional but typical.” This article is devoted to an analysis of the truth of that statement and will examine his birth, life and teachings, death, resurrection and lastly, his influence in history.
First, it is reasonable to expect that if God were to become man, his entry into the world would be, to say the least, unusual. God could have made his advent into the world in such a spectacular way that there would have been no doubt that it had taken place. But God had to identify himself entirely with the human race. The incarnate God had to be both human and divine. This was accomplished in the wisdom of God in the virgin birth of Christ. This event was one of the prophecies of the Old Testament about the Messiah (Is. 7:14) and it is stated by Matthew, the Gospel writer to the Jews, to have been fulfilled literally (Mt. 1:23). This miraculous birth also ensured that the child would be free from the taint of original sin, an indispensable requirement for the task Jesus was to perform on earth.
Second, one of the characteristics of the synoptic Gospels which Christians are likely to miss is the matter off act way in which they record the life story of Jesus Christ. They do not use publicrelations’ methods to promote the Master, but are dispassionate and routine narratives of his life. Unlike much of the Gospel of John, the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) are not so much doctrinal propositions about the deity of Christ, but more so, coldblooded—and in the case of Luke, investigative—accounts of what he said and did. However, it is impossible to miss how naturally the following facts emerge from these documents:
The unique moral character of Jesus Christ stands indelibly printed on the pages of the narratives. Even his worst detractors could not point an accusing finger at him. At his trial it was difficult to find two witnesses who would agree to any of the false charges brought against him. More importantly, Jesus himself was self consciously guilt free of any sins of omission or commission. During the course of his life, he could ask the Pharisees, “Which one of you can convict me of any sin?” (Jn. 8:46). When he stood on trial before Pontius Pilate, one could not say who was on trial! Even Pilate came to the conclusion that there was nothing faulty, wrong or criminal about this strange prisoner that had been brought before him and Pilate pleaded repeatedly with the crowd to let him go.
Jesus lived an exemplary life. We need only to read some of the biographies of great men and women who have come before us to see that they were mortals subject to the same moral frailties that you and I experience in our normal human life. However, we cannot but come to the conclusion that Jesus lived an exemplary moral life, which he constantly affirmed without a trace of pride.
Regarding his teaching, we find that the didactic content was of a value and quality vastly different from and superior to the philosophies and worldviews in the various cultures of our world. To demonstrate this dimension, look at one crucial aspect of his teaching: He defined all virtue only in terms of relationships. He always linked vertical relationship with God with horizontal relationship with fellow human beings. Jesus placed equal emphasis on both. Today’s philosophies emphasise one or the other. We may have a philosophy which says that in order to be related to God, one has to cut oneself off from society. On the other hand, we have worldviews which say that by rightly relating to man, one can rightly relate to God. This critique would also apply to all philosophies which bring about an unhealthy dichotomy between the spiritual and material worlds.
Conversely, to the Jewish lawyer who asked him “What is the greatest commandment?”, Jesus responded,”You shall love the Lord your God…You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This statement was unique among all the teachings we have because first, worship of God was taught by Jesus as one of an intimate, personal love relationship. Worship is commonly taught in religious and ritualistic terms only. It is also assumed that loving a fellow human is a natural human phenomenon.
And the second unique aspect of Jesus’ teaching addresses this assumption: By putting the first commandment first, Jesus made it clear that we can selflessly love others only when our self is dealt with adequately by our relationship with God. At the same time, he also made it clear that our selfless love of others is the only demonstrable evidence that we truly love God. No amount of external religiosity as an expression of love to God can replace these relationships. By this master stroke, he dealt with a third misapprehension—that human relationships were insignificant and did not amount to much in the sight of God. In Jesus’ teaching, relationship with God as well as relationship with one another were both spoken of from an absolute standpoint.
It is this dimension of teaching which is unique to Jesus Christ. It is out of these combinations of relationships that virtue of any kind could flow. For example, rude and angry language against anyone was forbidden because it was tantamount to brutal murder (Mt. 5:21,22). His standard of moral purity equated a lustful look with the physical sin of adultery (Mt. 5:27,28). It is difficult to gainsay the conclusion that Jesus’ teaching was exceptional.
Moreover, Christ himself claimed his uniqueness. He claimed equality with God by offering forgiveness. The Jews who heard his teaching had no doubt that he claimed to be God. Whether it was about forgiveness (Mk. 2:5-7), his Messiahship (Mt. 26:63 66), or his preexistence (Jn. 8:58,59), his audience was convinced of his claims to deity and they proceeded to put him to death.
Third, through his death Jesus exemplified God’s love for us. He as God expressed forgiveness of sins and he proclaimed this forgiveness as the sole basis on which one could come into a personal relationship to the Father. He also told his disciples and others that the purpose of his life was to give it up as “a ransom for many” (Mt. 20:28). This ransom was effective sacrifice for sins to God only because Jesus was sinless by nature through his unique birth and by choice through his obedience to the laws of God. He spoke of the sacrificial death he was to accomplish and when Peter tried to dissuade him, Jesus sternly rebuked him (Mt. 16:16, 21-23).
Fourth, his resurrection is the most crucial factor in establishing the exceptionality of Jesus Christ. The resurrection of Christ was the legitimate climax to his unique life and death. He foretold his resurrection to his disciples directly (Mt.16:21) and to others through parables (Mt. 12:40).
Frank Morrison, a British lawyer of the 1930s, undertook an expedition to collect circumstantial evidence to disprove the resurrection. Such evidence, of course, is admissible in all courts of law in civilised countries to prove or disprove events of which there are no living eyewitnesses. When he analysed the evidence, he reached a stunning conclusion: The resurrection had actually taken place! Morrison presented his case in his book, Who Moved the Stone?
Another factor worth considering is the character of the disciples. They were eleven cowardly men who shut themselves in a room after the crucifixion because they were afraid. Yet what galvanized them into action so that within their own lifetime, much of the thenknown world could hear the message of Christ? Some of them paid for this message with their lives. Would they have done so if the resurrection were a hoax? If the resurrection were not true, then Christianity would be the biggest fraud perpetuated on the human race!
Fifth, we cannot ignore the mark that Jesus has left upon history. Kenneth Scott Latourette, the great historian, writes: “As the centuries pass, the evidence is accumulating that, measured by his effect on history, Jesus is the most influential life ever lived on this planet. That influence appears to be mounting” (American Historical Review, January 1949). Even historian William Lecky, a skeptic, writes, “It may be truly said that simple record of three short years of active life has done more to regenerate and soften mankind than all the disquisitions of philosophers and all the exhortations of moralists. This has indeed been the wellspring of whatever is best and purest in the Christian life. Amid all the sins and failings, amid all the priestcraft and persecution and fanaticism that have defaced the Church, it has preserved in the character and example of its founder an enduring principle of regeneration” (History of European Morals from Augustus to Charlemagne, New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1903).
It would be reasonable to conclude that the source of that influence could not have been but exceptional.