I don’t believe in the Tooth Fairy. I don’t believe in the Easter Bunny. I don’t believe in Santa Claus. You could say, I’m a skeptic! But what if I don’t believe that Babe Ruth, Mark Twain, and Christopher Columbus were real people? That they were myths as well.
Also, what if I don’t believe that people who lived longer ago like William Shakespeare (AD 1600) and Muhammad (AD 600) were real people? And what if I don’t believe that Jesus (AD 30) existed? That He’s a myth made up by Christians.
According to a survey in 2015, 22% of people in England thought that Jesus was a mythical or fictional character, while another 17% were unsure whether He was real or not. The remaining 61 % said Jesus was a real person who actually lived. It was found that younger people are the most skeptical about Jesus’s existence.
What is a “myth”?
In everyday language, the term “myth” is given to stories, ideas or beliefs that are false and not true. They are unreal or imaginary stories that may be called “legend”, “fiction”, “fairy tale”, “folklore”, or “fable”. But academic scholars use “myth” as a synonym for a story with a symbolic message that used to be believed as true, but now there are no implications on the truthfulness of the story. In this post I’m using the everyday usage of the word “myth”, not the academic one.
Let’s look at two skeptical views about Jesus.
Skeptical views about Jesus
Christ myth theory.
Some people claim that Jesus is a mythical character, and not a historical person. He never existed. He was made up by the early church which wrote the New Testament. They conclude this from the following beliefs:
– Jesus left no writings or other archaeological evidence.
– We don’t have any original manuscripts of the New Testament.
– The genre of the gospels may be legendary fiction instead of ancient biography.
– The Gospels and other early Christian writings cannot be verified as independent sources, and may have all stemmed from a single original fictional account.
– All documents about Jesus came well after the life of the alleged Jesus – so it’s all unreliable hearsay. No eyewitness accounts survive.
Mainstream historical view
Others say that Jesus of Nazareth did exist but He had virtually nothing to do with the founding of Christianity and the accounts in the gospels. They believe that Jesus was an extraordinary man, but He didn’t do miracles. The miracles were made up by Christians afterwards and written in the Bible. The life of Jesus was embellished like St Nicholas became Santa Claus.
We will now evaluate these two skeptical views about Jesus. Do they match the evidence or not?
Historical evidence for the existence of Jesus
Most of what is known of the ancient world comes from written accounts by ancient historians. But these only record a sample of human events and only a few of these documents have survived. Few people could write such histories as illiteracy was widespread in ancient times. And the reliability of the surviving accounts needs to be considered. But the existence of someone in history is often easily established on the basis of small textual samples, sometimes even a single name in a list or sentence. For example, my great grandfather Richard Hawke is in a list of people living on the goldfields at Hill End near Bathurst in New South Wales in 1867. This is listed in a book that was published 109 years later in 1976 (“Valleys of gold” by Brian Hodge).
Jesus was a Jew (a minor race) who lived in Galilee, which was a part of Palestine (not the capital, Jerusalem). And Palestine was an outpost of the Roman Empire (a tiny part of a vast empire). He was a long way away from the local center of power and from Rome (the capital of the empire). So the fact that we can find any written record of Jesus outside the New Testament is significant. Based on this, the best place to look for evidence of Jesus that is independent of the Bible is in ancient Roman and Jewish literature.
About 80 years after Christ’s death, the Roman historian Tacitus wrote (“Annals”, 15, 44, AD 115-117): “They (Christians) got their name from Christ, who was executed by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius. That checked the pernicious superstition (Christianity) for a short time, but it broke out afresh not only in Judea, where the plague first arose, but in Rome itself, where all horrible and shameful things in the world collect and find a home”.
The Annals is a history of the Roman Empire from the reign of Tiberius to that of Nero (AD 14–68). The context of this passage is the 6-day fire that burned much of Rome in July AD 64. It indicates the manner and time period of Christ’s death. Emperor Nero (AD 37-68) accused the Christians of starting the fire and he persecuted them.
Josephus is the best known Jewish historian. He was born in Jerusalem and went to Rome in AD 71 where he wrote his histories under Roman patronage. Jesus Christ is mentioned twice in his “Antiquities of the Jews” (a history of Israel from Genesis to the first century AD) published around AD 93 (about 60 years after the death of Jesus).
A passage in Book 18, 63-64 of the “Antiquities of the Jews” says:
“Now, there was about this time (a source of further trouble) Jesus, for he was a doer of surprising works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure (men who welcome strange things). He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him (cease to cause trouble). And the tribe of Christians, so named for him are not extinct to this day”.
The context of this passage is the political disturbances that the Roman rulers dealt with during this period.
A passage in Book 20, Chapter 9, 1 of the “Antiquities of the Jews” says,
“he (Ananus the high priest) assembled the Sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned”.
This event is dated at AD 62. The Bible also says that James was the brother of Jesus (Gal. 1:19). This passage assumes you already know about Jesus, which is true because Josephus has already mentioned him two books earlier.
Summary of Roman and Jewish literature
These two non-Christian historians are independent historical sources, one Roman and one Jewish. What do they say about Jesus?
– He was a Jewish man named Jesus and Christ (in Greek) who lived in Judea.
– He had a brother named James.
– He had a reputation for doing unusual works (possibly miracles)
– He won over both Jews and Greeks (but most of this happened after His death).
– He was sentenced by Pilate to be executed by crucifixion during Tiberius’s reign. The Jewish leadership pressured Pilate to condemn Jesus in this way.
– Christianity and Christians came out of Christ’s ministry.
– Both Jewish and Roman leaders were hostile towards Jesus and Christians.
So, hostile Jewish and Roman witnesses show that Jesus is a historical figure, and not a myth. This means that the first skeptical view that Jesus never existed is debunked. It is a myth itself!
In 2013 Time magazine had an article on “the 100 most significant figures in history”. They ranked them like Google ranks web pages. They said that historically significant people leave evidence of their presence behind. The top rank went to Jesus, followed by Napoleon, Muhammad, William Shakespeare and Abraham Lincoln. So Jesus left an impact in our world. One indication of this is that the years in our calendar are dated from when He was born. Mythical figures don’t leave such an impact. Another indication is the growth of the church despite persecution.
We will now evaluate the second skeptical view that doesn’t believe Jesus did miracles.
Historical evidence for Jesus’ miracles
Now we’ve established that Jesus existed, the question is “did He do miracles?”. Is the only evidence of these in the New Testament that was written by Christians? No! The Christian message was offensive to both the Jews and the Romans. They attacked Christianity by saying that Jesus was a real wonder-worker who made blasphemous claims to divine authority.
Jesus was regarded by the Jews of His day as a person who possessed supernatural powers. According to Justin Martyr, they said that Christ’s miracles “was a display of magic art, for they (Jews) even dared to say that he (Jesus) was a magician and a deceiver of the people” (Justin Martyr, AD 160). They executed Him for sorcery and said His power to do miracles was Satanic.
According to Celsus, an anti-Christian Greek Philosopher, “Jesus performed His miracles by sorcery” (“The true word”, about AD 180). And, “because (Jesus) was poor he hired himself out as a workman in Egypt, and there tried his hand at certain magical powers on which the Egyptians pride themselves; he returned full of conceit because of those powers, and on account of them gave himself the title of God…”.
“These were the actions of one hated by God and a wicked sorcerer…”
Celsus treated Jesus as a person who was a dangerous con-artist like a conjuror or illusionist. He considered Jesus to be a magician who made exorbitant claims.
So both hostile Jews and Greeks acknowledged that Jesus had miraculous powers. And they said that these were magical, Satanic and deceptive.
Were the gospels fabricated?
Some skeptics claim that the gospels were fabricated after Christ’s death and aren’t reliable accounts of what actually happened. But you wouldn’t expect the following in the gospels if they were fabricated:
– Mathew was written by a tax collector and Jews hated these.
– A key event, the resurrection of Christ, was revealed first to women who had low status in society at that time. A woman’s testimony was not accepted in court during those days.
– No Jew would invent a story of a crucified Messiah, and Christians wouldn’t invent such a horrific ending for their leader.
– There are multiple accounts of the life of Jesus in the gospels with variations between them.
– The embarrassing parts would probably have been deleted: Jesus’ baptism by John (Mk. 1:4-11), His family believing He was out of His mind (Mk. 3:21), His ignorance of the time of His own return (Mk. 13:32), His not doing miracles in some places (Mt. 13:58), and Jesus calling Peter Satan (Mt. 16:23).
– Why would the apostles invent so many miracle stories, when most Jews expected a political deliverer as Messiah, not a wonder-worker?
– Why would the apostles invent a religion that caused them painful humiliating deaths?
The New Testament was written by the apostles and their associates. The apostles were eyewitnesses to the events they described and the associates would have obtained information from eyewitnesses. Scholars think that the “memory gap” between the events described in the gospels and their documentation is about 30-55 years. There are variations between the gospels. This is because there are multiple witnesses and multiple writers. And like in real life, there are variations between the accounts (each records different aspects and details) but they have the same core message and they are consistent with each other. It’s a bit like children recalling events from their childhood for a parent’s eulogy.
Let’s look at the “copy gap” (between the original document and the oldest manuscript available today) for some historical documents. For the works of Josephus in their original language of Greek, the copy gap was about 800 years and for the Annals of Tacitus it was about 1,000 years. On the other hand, for the New Testament, the copy gap was about 300 years – Codex Vaticanus was copied in AD 300-325 and Codex Sinaiticus in AD 330-360. So the gap is significantly shorter for the New Testament. A longer gap means more copies of copies, which means more potential for copy errors to appear in the text. So the version of the New Testament we have today should be a more accurate copy of the original than is the case for these other Roman and Jewish historical documents. In this way, the evidence for the existence of Jesus is stronger than that for most other people of the ancient world.
Do we have an open mind?
I’ve presented some evidence, but whether you believe it depends whether you have an open mind or not. Our presuppositions can override the evidence in order to inevitably conclude what was presupposed from the start. That’s circular reasoning! In such cases our assumptions and beliefs largely determine our findings and interpretation of these. If we have already made up our minds, no evidence will change them.
Let’s look at some people who investigated Jesus with an open mind.
CS Lewis was Irish and became an atheist in his early teenage years. He graduated from Oxford University with triple First Class Honors in Classics, Philosophy and English. And he wrote many books. His mother died when he was 10 years old, he had been unhappy at school, and he experienced trench warfare during the First World War. But after spending some years with Christian colleagues at Oxford University, at 30 years of age he became a Christian. He realized that atheists don’t have an open mind because they deny the supernatural and therefore the existence of God. They don’t even consider this possibility. But if God exists, then surely the Creator can intervene in His creation. He can alter the natural environment, reverse the progression of disease, or conquer death in ways we consider to be miraculous. He has written many books defending Christianity, including “Mere Christianity”.
Lee Strobel trained at Yale Law School and was an avowed atheist. He was a legal journalist for 14 years. After his wife’s conversion, he began investigating the Biblical claims about Christ. After a nearly two-year investigation, he became a Christian at the age of 29 years. He has written many books defending Christianity, including “The case for Christ”.
Jennifer Fulwiler was an atheist blogger. But she came to realize her mind was closed to ideas that didn’t fit into her atheist worldview. At the birth of her first child the only way her atheist mind could explain the love that she had for him was to assume it was the result of nothing more than chemical reactions in her brain. Then she realized that’s not true! She found that the Christian worldview had the best rational explanation for the world in which we live. She writes a blog called “Conversion Diary”.
Warner Wallace was a homicide detective. He was an atheist, but reading the gospels changed his life. After he saw that they were accurate eyewitness accounts of the life of Jesus, he became a Christian. He stresses that as detectives need to be open minded by avoiding presuppositions, so should we. And the highest standard for prosecution is “beyond a reasonable doubt”, not “beyond every possible doubt”. This is because they are dealing with history, not observational science or mathematics. Wallace writes a blog called “Cold case Christianity”.
This evidence from an author, a journalist, a blogger and a detective shows that when people investigate Jesus with an open mind, they are convinced that He did the things described in the Bible.
Lessons for us
We have seen that Jesus is a historical person and not an imaginary figure. The evidence is overwhelming. And that He wasn’t an ordinary person. He did miracles and founded Christianity that has spread across the world. Also, the gospels are based on eyewitness accounts of the life of Jesus and not something fabricated by early Christians. And people with an open mind will agree with this finding.
Do you have an open mind about Jesus? Have you read about Him in the gospels? Do you think He is a great moral teacher, but don’t accept his claim to be God? In that case, Jesus would be a liar. Why would a person willingly die under an accusation they knew wasn’t true? Or do you think He was deluded? That He had a mental illness? Then why would the apostles give up their lives for such a person? The only other option is that He was the person who He claimed to be and who He demonstrated to be by His miracles, the divine Son of God.
And if Jesus existed and did the things that history says He did and He’s alive today as the Son of God, then what must change in our lives today?
Why did Jesus come?
Jesus coming to earth is a bit like us becoming an ant in order to talk to the ants. Or us becoming an amoeba or bacteria to communicate with them. It’s amazing! It’s even more amazing because Jesus made and sustains the world He entered! The Creator and Sustainer became a creature at the same time.
Jesus came to earth so we can have spiritual life. A life connected with God now. A life that is connected with God forever. That’s called eternal life. He did it to solve the problem of our rebellion against God. Adam and Eve rebelled against God. Noah’s generation rebelled against God. The people of Babel rebelled against God. The Israelites rebelled against God. The Jews and Romans killed the Son of God. And we ignore God. He’s not in our calendar! The Bible says that we all rebel against God and that’s what separates us from Him (Rom. 3:23). We’re all guilty of wrong attitudes and wrong behavior. How do we know what’s right and what’s wrong? The Bible gives examples and our conscience can guide us (Rom. 2:15). The consequence of our guilt is to be separated from God.
Jesus solved the problem of our rebellion against God by taking our punishment when He was executed by crucifixion. He substituted for us. No one else could have done this because everyone else is a rebel and is separated from God themselves. Only Jesus could do this because He is the Son of God who is always in contact with God the Father.
Jesus asked Peter, “Who do you say I am” (Mt. 16:15-16NLT). Peter answered, “You are the Messiah (or Christ), the Son of the living God”. Can you say that as well? If we recognize that we can’t get right with God ourselves because of our rebellion, and that as the Son of God, Jesus has done all that is needed for us to get right with God, then the Bible says that the barrier between us and God comes down and we are no longer separated from Him. We come near to God. We become spiritually alive. If you want to get right with God, pray to Him about it and speak about it to a Christian today.
Jesus described eternal life as follows: “as Moses lifted up the bronze snake on a pole in the wilderness, so the Son of Man (Jesus) must be lifted up (be crucified), so that everyone who believes in Him will have eternal life. For this is how God loved the world: He gave His one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life. God sent His Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through Him” (Jn. 3:14-17NLT).
Here we see that Jesus was on a rescue mission. Just as the Israelites could be healed of snakebite by looking at the bronze snake on a pole, which changed their status from dying to being alive, our separation from God can be removed by accepting Christ’s sacrifice for us. We become spiritually alive and our destiny changes from hell to heaven.
Jesus also said, “I have come that they may have (eternal) life, and have it to the full” (Jn. 10:10). Jesus came so we can have spiritual life. And following Jesus turns an empty spiritual life into a bountiful one. “Life, be in it!” was a program to encourage us to be more physically active. But Jesus says, “Eternal life, be in it!”. Let’s get spiritually active.
Jesus as Lord
But what if you already follow Jesus? This evidence about Jesus and the Bible supports our faith. We are Christians because of historical events, not because of mythical stories.
Peter told Cornelius that Jesus Christ “is Lord of all” (Acts 10:36). “Lord” means a person who has authority over others; a master, boss, chief, or ruler. But most people act like Jesus was a liar or a mental case. They live as though Jesus never came to earth. But if we have trusted Him to bring us close to God, the Bible says that we are to live as though He is Lord of our lives (Rom. 10:9). That means giving Him priority. How can we do that? By obeying God’s commands and principles in the New Testament. A disciple follows their leader.
Paul is also a good example to follow. He said “You should imitate me, just as I imitate Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). Is what we say and what we do consistent with what Paul said and did? Here’s one example from Paul, “dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all He has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind He will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship Him. Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect” (Rom. 12:1-2). Do we give our bodies to God? Does He influence our calendar? Do we copy the behavior and customs of this world? Or, do we let God transform our lives? Do we let Him change the way we think? Are we different from those that don’t follow Jesus? Is it evident that we are spiritually alive?
We have seen that because Jesus lived on earth almost 2,000 years ago, and did miracles to prove His divinity, and paid the price so we can be reconciled with God, if we turn to follow Him, He turns an empty spiritual life into a bountiful spiritual life.
Eternal life, be in it!
Written, February 2017
Also see: Extra-biblical evidence of Jesus
Have you ever worked on a giant jigsaw puzzle? What if some of the pieces are missing? How about piecing together the 20,000 Dead Sea Scroll fragments! Historians piece together pictures of what life was like in days gone by. They also look for patterns – what has remained the same, what has changed, and why. In their investigations, historians follow a process of historical inquiry – they ask questions, form opinions and theories, locate and analyze sources, and use evidence from these sources to develop an informed explanation about the past.
Most of what is known of the ancient world comes from written accounts by ancient historians. But these only record a sample of human events and only a few of these documents have survived. Few people could write such histories as illiteracy was widespread in ancient times. And the reliability of the surviving accounts needs to be considered.
According to Christian history, Jesus lived in Palestine about 5 BC to 33 AD. The gospels record His birth, teaching, death, burial and resurrection. But all historians are biased and selective. Christians are biased towards believing that Jesus existed as a historical person, whereas non-Christians can be biased towards doubting the existence of Jesus. Could the story of Jesus be just a Christian myth or conspiracy and He doesn’t exist outside the Bible or outside early church history? By the way, almost no early ancient historian believes this. But how robust is the historical evidence about Jesus? How confident are we that Jesus lived in history?
Jesus was a Jew (a minor race) who lived in Galilee, which was a part of Palestine (not the capital, Jerusalem), which was an outpost of the Roman Empire (a tiny part of a vast empire). He was a long way away from the local center of power and from Rome (the capital of the empire). So the fact that we can find any written record of Jesus outside the New Testament is significant. Based on this, the best place to look for extra-biblical (outside the Bible) evidence of Jesus is in ancient Roman and Jewish literature.
In His work “Lives of the twelve Caesars” (AD 120, about 85 years after Christ’s death), the Roman historian Suetonius (AD 69 – AD 122) says,
“He (Claudius) expelled the Jews from Rome, on account of the riots in which they were constantly indulging, at the instigation of Chrestus” (Book 5, Life of Claudius 25.4).
Claudius was the Emperor of Rome in AD 41-54. “Chrestus” may be a misspelling of Christ (this is debated by classical scholars). If Chrestus refers to Christ, the riots were about Him, rather than led by Him. Alternatively, it has been suggested that Suetonius misunderstood conflicts between Jews and Christians over “the Christ” as a conflict involving a person named Chrestus (a common slave name). This passage may refer to the expulsion of Jews from Rome in AD 49 mentioned in Acts 18:2. Or, Chrestus could have been an agitator in Rome. As the meaning of this passage is inconclusive, it’s debatable whether it refers to Jesus Christ or not.
Now we move to an earlier reference that is more conclusive. In his “Annals” (AD 115-117, about 80 years after Christ’s death), the Roman historian Tacitus (AD 56 – AD 120) says,
“They (Christians) got their name from Christ, who was executed by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius. That checked the pernicious superstition (Christianity) for a short time, but it broke out afresh not only in Judea, where the plague first arose, but in Rome itself, where all horrible and shameful things in the world collect and find a home” (15, 44).
The most recent complete copy of the Annals was copied in the 11th century AD (1,000 years after it was written). The Annals is a history of the Roman Empire from the reign of Tiberius to that of Nero (AD 14–68). The context of this passage is the 6-day fire that burned much of Rome in July 64 AD. The integrity of the passage isn’t disputed by classical scholars. It indicates the manner and time period of Christ’s death. Emperor Nero (37-68 AD) accused the Christians of starting the fire and persecuted them. This means that the Christians in Rome must have been a well-known group, with many members, and with good internal organization. Paul Barnett suggested that as a former consul in Rome, Tacitus would have had access to official archives and may have seen Pilate’s report to Tiberius about the execution of Jesus and others in Judea in AD 33.
We now move from Rome to Bithynia in Asia Minor (now Turkey). Pliny the Younger was the Roman governor of Pontus/Bithynia in 111-113 AD. We have a whole set of exchanges of his letters with the emperor Trajan on a variety of administrative political matters. Letters 10, 96-97 describe his encounter with Christianity (See Appendix A and B), where the emperor advises that Christians be punished unless they denounce Christianity by worshipping Roman gods.
Pliny said that Christians:
– Wouldn’t offer prayer with incense and wine to images of the Emperor and Roman gods.
– Wouldn’t offer sacrificial animals at temples to the Emperor and Roman gods.
– Wouldn’t curse Christ.
– Met on a fixed day before dawn and sang a hymn to Christ as to a god (worship).
– Pledged not to commit any crimes such as fraud, theft, or adultery, or be dishonest or untrustworthy.
– Assembled together to eat ordinary food (communal meal).
– Practiced depraved, excessive superstition. “Superstition” was what the Romans called religions they didn’t like.
Trajan supported Pliny’s approach, provided he acted justly and not on the basis of rumor.
Pliny’s letter supports the existence of the early Christian Church (80 years after Christ’s death) and its rapid growth and mentions aspects of its belief system. It shows that the movement had spread from Jerusalem into Asia Minor and to Rome. And it was widespread in Turkey at that time. Clearly the movement was named after its founder, Christ. This meant that Jesus existed. Because if Jesus didn’t exist, then Christianity wouldn’t exist. Furthermore, Christians worshipped Christ “as to a god”. Clearly Pliny said this because Christ was a human being, unlike their Roman gods. Also, it states that Christians died for their faith (Pliny executed Christians who refused to renounce their faith), which is unlikely to have happened if Jesus was only a mythical figure that had not existed. So this passage shows the impact of Jesus about 80 years after His death.
Josephus (37 – 100 AD) is the best known Jewish historian. He was born in Jerusalem and went to Rome in 71 AD where he wrote his histories under Roman patronage. Jesus Christ is mentioned twice in his “Antiquities of the Jews” (a history of Israel from Genesis to the first century AD) published around 93 AD (about 60 years after the death of Jesus). The oldest manuscripts of the works of Josephus in their original language of Greek date to the tenth and eleventh centuries (800 years after it was written).
Book 20, Chapter 9, 1 of the “Antiquities of the Jews” says,
“he (Ananus the high priest) assembled the Sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned”.
This event is dated at 62 AD. The Bible also says that James was the brother of Jesus (Gal. 1:19). According to Dr. Chris Forbes (Senior Lecturer in Ancient History at Macquarie University), no historian suggests that this passage is forged or not authentic. This passage assumes you already know about Jesus, which is true because Josephus has already mentioned him two books earlier (see below).
The exact wording of Book 18, 63-64 of the “Antiquities of the Jews” is disputed as it comes down to us only through Christians. It has probably been edited by a Christian scribe (whose annotations have been added to the text) and it’s fairly easy to decide which parts were written by Josephus and by the scribe. Here is a likely wording of what Josephus wrote:
“Now, there was about this time (a source of further trouble) Jesus, for he was a doer of surprising works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure (men who welcome strange things). He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him (cease to cause trouble). And the tribe of Christians, so named for him are not extinct to this day” (D. Bock, 2016)
The context of this passage is the political disturbances that the Roman rulers dealt with during this period. It’s clear from what Josephus wrote that:
– Jesus lived during the time of Pilate.
– Jesus had a reputation for doing unusual works (miracles).
– The Jewish leadership pressured Pilate to condemn Jesus to the cross.
– Jesus died by crucifixion.
– Christianity and Christians came out of Christ’s ministry.
Does any tampering with a passage like this make it inadmissible? No, because historians always face incomplete and inconclusive evidence. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle with lots of pieces missing! In this case, the consensus is that there is a historical nucleus written by Josephus, but it was edited by a Christian scribe.
According to Justin Martyr (Apology 69.7; AD 160), the Jewish view of Jesus was “They said it (Christ’s miracles) was a display of magic art, for they even dared to say that he was a magician and a deceiver of the people” (D. Bock, 2016). So the Jews acknowledged the existence of Jesus and explained His unusual ministry by saying He was a “magician”, “deceiver” and a “false prophet”. In this context a “magician” was an appeal to spiritual forces, and not to an entertainer. Because they tried to explain the source of His power, they accepted Christ’s miracles. This is consistent with the account in the gospels where the Jews say that Jesus:
– was “subverting our nation” (Lk. 23:2).
– “stirs up the people all over Judea by His teaching” (Lk. 23:5).
– was “inciting the people to rebellion” (Lk. 23:14).
– “It is by the prince of demons that He drives out demons” (Mt. 9:34; 12:24).
– was “called Beelzebul (Satan or the prince of demons)” (Mt. 10:25). Here He was accused of being a deceiver.
Also, the Israelites were told in the Pentateuch that a prophet that urged them to follow other gods “must be put to death for inciting rebellion against the Lord your God” (Dt. 13:1-5). So false prophets were to be put to death (Dt. 18:20-22). Furthermore, during Christ’s religious trial, the high priest Caiaphas accused Him of blaspheme, which was punishable by death under the law of Moses (Lev. 24:16; Mt. 26:65-66).
Dead Sea scrolls
Is Jesus mentioned in the Dead Sea scrolls (DSS)? Scholars have dated the scrolls from approximately 200 BC to 70 AD (the date of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans). According to scholars most of the scrolls were written before Christ’s birth and so we wouldn’t expect Jesus to be mentioned in them. That’s why most scholars have dismissed any connection between the community that hid the scrolls in caves at Qumran about 2,000 years ago and the earliest followers of Jesus. Therefore, they assume that Jesus isn’t mentioned in the Dead Sea scrolls. And this preconceived idea may influence how they translate the text of some of the scrolls.
It has been suggested that words such as “dove”, “nail”, “cross” and “mourning” in DSS fragment “4Q451” may refer to Jesus. And “11QT54” says that a person who is a “glutton and drunkard” and a traitor is to be crucified. But it is debatable as to whether these refer to Jesus or not.
Skeptics are biased towards doubting the existence of Jesus. Because the contents of these documents differ from their bias, they usually doubt the authenticity of these passages. But if we discard so many different passages, then we are in effect saying that any ancient document is unreliable and that we know very little about ancient history.
Because of the temporal spread of these documents, it’s unlikely that all the statements about Jesus were interpolated into the original texts. Together with the consistency between these passages, this is strong evidence of the existence of Jesus. The documents stated that:
– Jesus lived in Judea/Palestine.
– Jesus was a wise man and a teacher.
– Jesus did “surprising works” (miracles) which the Jews said was magic.
– Jesus was Jewish and had a brother called James.
– James (who was martyred in AD 62) was a contemporary of Josephus.
– Some people said Jesus was the Christ (that is, the Jewish Messiah).
– Jesus was accused by the Jews.
– Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate, during the reign of Tiberius.
– Jesus had followers (called Christians) who were persecuted for their faith in Christ.
– Early Christians believed Jesus was GOD.
– Early Christians upheld a high moral code.
– Early Christians met regularly to worship Jesus.
– Early Christians were persecuted and some were martyred.
– Christians were named after Christ.
– Within 85 years, Christianity spread from Judea to Asia Minor and Rome and the Christians in Rome were well-known, with many members, and with good internal organization.
So there is significant evidence outside the Bible for the existence of Jesus. This means that the story of Jesus isn’t a Christian myth or conspiracy. By the way, the mere existence of someone in history is (often) easily established on the basis of small textual samples (sometimes even a single name in a list or sentence). So, we are confident that Jesus lived in history. These historical sources rule out the option that the story of Jesus was a fabrication (it was made up).
There are no “contemporary” accounts of Jesus. But the fact is, almost no ancient historical figure has contemporary accounts of their existence, including Alexander the Great, and we don’t see anyone questioning his existence.
It’s also instructive to look at the “copy gap” (between the original autograph and the oldest manuscript) for these historical documents. For the works of Josephus in their original language of Greek, the copy gap was about 800 years and for the Annals of Tacitus it was about 1,000 years. On the other hand, for the New Testament, the copy gap was about 300 years – Codex Vaticanus was copied in 300-325 AD and Codex Sinaiticus in 330-360 AD. So the gap is significantly shorter for the New Testament. A longer gap means more copies of copies, which means more potential for copy errors to appear in the text. So the version of the New Testament we have today should be a more accurate copy of the original than is the case for these other Roman and Jewish historical documents.
Extracts from ancient Roman and Jewish extrabiblical literature confirm that there is a historical basis for the existence of Jesus outside the Bible and outside early church history. So the evidence that Jesus existed is conclusive. Furthermore, these independent extrabiblical sources are consistent with the biography of Jesus given in the gospels of the Bible. This means that the story of Jesus isn’t a Christian myth or conspiracy. And we are confident that the Jesus described in the Bible lived in history.
Appendix A: Pliny’s letter (AD 111)
“It is my rule, Your Majesty, to report to you anything that worries me, for I know well that you are best able to speed my hesitation or instruct me in my ignorance. I have never in the past been present at the investigations into Christians, and so I am at a loss to know the nature and extent of the normal questions and punishments.
I have also been seriously perplexed whether age should make some difference, or whether the very young should be treated in exactly the same way as the more mature. Should the penitent be pardoned, or should no mercy be shown a man who has recanted if he has really been a Christian? Should the mere name be reason enough for punishment however free from crime a man may be, or should only the sins and crimes that attend the name be punished?
Till I hear from you, I have adopted the following course towards those who have been brought before me as Christians. First, I have asked them if they were Christians. If they confessed that they were, I repeated, my question a second and a third time, accompanying it with threats of punishment. If they still persisted in their statements, I ordered them to be taken out (executed). For I was in no doubt that, whatever it was to which they were confessing, they had merited some punishment by their stubbornness and unbending obstinacy. There were others possessed by similar madness, but these I detailed to be sent to Rome, for they were Roman citizens.
Soon, as I investigated the matter, types began to multiply as so often happens, and charges started to spread. An anonymous notebook was presented with many names in it. Those who denied that they were or ever had been Christians I thought should be released, provided that they called on the gods in my presence, and offered incense and wine to your statue (which I had expressly brought in with the images of the gods for that very purpose), and, above all, if they renounced Christ, which no true Christian, I am told, can be made to do. Others informed against admitted that they were Christians but later denied it; they had been, but had given up, some three years past, some further back and one person as long as 25 years ago. All of them reverenced your statue and the images of the gods, and renounced Christ.
They stated that the sum total of their fault or error was as follows. On a fixed day they used to assemble before dawn to sing an antiphonal hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath not for any criminal purpose, but to commit no fraud, no robbery or adultery, to bear no false witness, and not to deny any debt when asked to pay up. After this it was their custom to separate and to reassemble to eat a communion meal, all together and quite harmless. They claimed that they had stopped even that after my edict in which I followed your commands in banning society meetings. So I felt it all the more necessary to find out the truth under torture from two slave girls whom they called Deaconesses. But I found nothing but a depraved and groundless superstition.
So I postponed my inquiry to consult you. The matter seemed worth your attention, especially since the number of those slipping is great. Many people of all ages and classes and of both sexes are now being enticed into mortal peril and will be in the future. The superstition has spread like the plague, not only in the cities but in the villages and the countryside as well. I feel it must be stopped and checked. It is true that everyone is agreed that temples once deserted are now being attended once again, and that sacred ceremonies once neglected are again being performed. Victims for sacrifice are everywhere on sale, for which only an odd buyer could be found a short while ago. All this goes to show how many men could be saved if there is room for repentance.”
Appendix B: Emperor Trajan’s reply
“You have acted quite properly, Pliny, in examining the cases of those Christians brought before you. Nothing definite can be laid down as a general rule. They should not be hunted out. If accusations are made and they are found guilty, they must be punished.
But remember that a man may expect pardon from repentance if he denies that he is a Christian, and proves this to your satisfaction, that is by worshiping our gods, however much you may have suspected him in the past. Anonymous lists should have no part in any charge made. That is thoroughly bad practice and not in accordance with the spirit of the age.”
Written, January 2017
Also see: Jesus:history or myth?
I have been asked the question, “Where did Jesus’ power come from – God, Jesus Himself, and/or the Holy Spirit?” The Bible records that Jesus definitely had miraculous power. In His hometown Nazareth, the people asked, “Where did this man (Jesus) get this wisdom and these miraculous powers” (Mt. 13:54NIV)? Even king Herod said that “miraculous powers are at work in Him” (Mt. 14:2).
The miracles associated with Jesus were events that couldn’t be explained by natural occurrences. So they require supernatural explanations. That’s why they are said to confirm Christ’s divinity (Jn. 20:30-31).
As Jesus was sent to earth by God the Father, was this the source of His power?
God the Father
After Philip asked, “show us the Father”, Jesus said, “Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing His work” (Jn. 14:10). The NET translates “His work” as “His miraculous deeds”, and says that this is most likely a reference to the miracles that Jesus had performed as a manifestation of the mighty acts of God. And Luke said that God the Father did miracles through Jesus Christ and “because God was with Him” (Acts 2:22; 10:38). Finally, through His “incomparably great power” and “mighty strength”, God the Father, “raised Christ from the dead” (Eph. 1:19-20). This was the greatest miracle of all.
So, God the Father was the power behind Christ’s miracles. But as Jesus was a member of the divine trinity, was this another source of His power?
His own divine power
Jesus’ miracles demonstrated His amazing power. When Jesus walked on the Sea of Galilee during a storm and calmed the storm, the disciples said “Truly you are the Son of God” (Mt. 14:22-32). When Jesus said He could forgive a paralyzed man’s sins and heal him, the religious leaders knew that only God could do this (Mt. 9:1-8; Mk. 2:5-12; Lk. 5:18-26). Then Jesus healed the paralytic (a visible miracle) to confirm that the man’s sins had been forgiven (an invisible miracle). And when Jesus healed a paralyzed man on the Sabbath day He referred to it as His work (Jn. 5:17). As Christ’s miracles provided evidence of His divinity, they were evidence of His inherent divine power (Jn. 20:31).
Luke said “the power of the Lord was with Jesus to heal the sick” (Lk. 5:17). The Greek noun kurios translated “Lord” (Strongs #2962) in this verse, which means master and owner, is applied to Jesus in Luke 5: 8, 12 elsewhere in this passage. Therefore, according to the context, in v.17 it means that Jesus had absolute power to heal the sick (some infer that the lack of an article in the Greek text implies the reference is to God the Father, but the article is also absent in verses 8 and 12). Contrary to some teaching, Jesus didn’t empty Himself of His divine power when He became a man (Phil. 2:7). Instead, He always had this divine power, which could be used when required.
When Jesus defended His claim to be equal with God He said, “the Son (Jesus) can do nothing by Himself, He can do only what He sees His Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does” (Jn. 5:19). This doesn’t mean that Jesus had no inherent ability to accomplish anything miraculous on His own. He was so closely united with God the Father that He could only do the very things which He saw His Father doing. Jesus also said, “By myself I can do nothing; I judge only as I hear, and my judgment is just, for I seek not to please myself but Him (God the Father) who sent me” (Jn. 5:30). Jesus is so closely united with God the Father that He could not act by Himself. He could not do anything that was independent or inconsistent with His Father’s will. Instead, He was obedient to His Father and always in fellowship and harmony with Him. Finally, Jesus raised Himself from death (Jn. 2:19; 10:17-18). As already mentioned, this was the greatest miracle of all.
So, His own divine nature was the power behind Christ’s miracles. But as Jesus was “full of the (Holy) Spirit”, was this the source of His power (Lk. 4:1)?
The Holy Spirit
From His baptism, Jesus was indwelt by the Holy Spirit (Mt. 3:16; Lk. 4:18). During this period, the Holy Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil (Mt. 4:1); empowered Jesus’ return to Galilee (Lk. 4:14); empowered Jesus to drive out demons (Mt. 12:28); and empowered Jesus to instruct the apostles (Acts 1:2). When the 72 disciples returned with joy from a missionary trip, Jesus was “full of joy through the Holy Spirit” (Lk. 10:21). The sin of blasphemy against the Spirit was attributing Christ’s power over demons to Satan’s power rather than the Holy Spirit (Mt. 12:31-32; Mk. 3:29).
According to Scripture, the main miracle associated with the Holy Spirit seems to be driving out demons. So, the Holy Spirit was the power behind some of Christ’s miracles.
We have seen that the Bible says Jesus had miraculous power and that the source of this power was God the Father, Christ’s divine nature and the Holy Spirit. So, the whole divine trinity provided the power for Christ’s miracles.
Written, November 2016
Also see: Why did Jesus do miracles?
Christ’s resurrection and the feeding of the 5,000 are the only miracles recorded in each of Mathew, Mark, Luke and John of the Bible. According to the Bible, Jesus was the first person to be raised from death to eternal life, never to die again (Rom. 6:9; 1 Cor. 15:23). But who raised Jesus back to life from death? The Bible gives various answers to this question.
God did it
The most frequent explanation is that God raised Jesus from death (Acts 2:24, 32; 3:15, 26; 4:10; 5:30; 10:40; 13:30, 33, 34, 37; 17:31; Rom. 4:24; 10:9; 1 Cor. 6:14; 15:15; Col. 2:12; Heb. 13:20; 1 Pt. 1:21). “God raised Him (Jesus) from the dead so that He (Jesus) will never be subject to decay” (Acts 13:34NIV). As Jesus was both a physical human being and the spiritual Son of God, the death and “decay” refer to His physical body, and not to His divine nature. Only people die, not spirits. His earthly body wasn’t eternal but was subject to death just as ours is.
Righteousness is promised “for us who believe in Him (God) who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. He (Jesus) was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification” (Rom. 4:24-25). So Christ’s death dealt with the problem of our sins and the fact that He rose confirms that the price has been paid to make us right with God. As Paul says, ‘‘If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised Him (Jesus) from the dead, you will be saved’ (Rom. 10:9).
Also, “by His power God raised the Lord (Jesus) from the dead, and He (God) will raise us also” (1 Cor. 6:14). So because God raised Jesus from death, in the future He will also raise the bodies of believers from death. Resurrection is the opposite of death. Death separates the body from the soul and spirit, while resurrection reunites them. But as noted above, it didn’t affect the divine part of Jesus.
God the Father did it
The Bible also says that God the Father raised Jesus from death (Rom. 6:4; Gal. 1:1; Eph. 1:19-21; 1 Pt. 1:3). Paul said that through His “incomparably great power” and “mighty strength”, God the Father, “raised Christ from the dead and seated Him (Jesus) at His (God the Father’s) right hand in the heavenly realms” (Eph. 1:19-20). So Jesus was raised and given the place of highest honor and authority (the right hand) in God’s dwelling place (the heavenly realms).
It should be noted that some of the instances of the word “God” used in the context of Christ’s resurrection actually refer to God the Father (1 Th. 1:9-10).
Jesus did it
The Bible also says that Jesus raised Himself from death (Jn. 2:19; 10:17-18). Jesus told the Jews, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days” (Jn. 2:19-21). In this instance, the temple was a metaphor for His body. So to “destroy this temple” was a figurative way to predict His death and to “raise it again” was a figurative way to predict His resurrection. When Jesus said that He had the power to raise Himself back to life, it shows that He had divine power, because this is impossible for a human being to do.
When Jesus predicted that faithful Jews and faithful Gentiles would be united in the Christian church, He described how this would be made possible: “The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father (Jn. 10:17-18)”. To “lay down” one’s life is to die willingly and to “take it up again” is to resurrect back to life. So He willingly died and rose again for those who trust in the saving power of His death and resurrection. This passage says that Jesus used His divine power to rise from death in obedience to the command (instruction or plan) of God the Father. This was possible because His divine power wasn’t affected by His death – it wasn’t destroyed.
Did the Holy Spirit do it?
Some think that the Bible also says that the Holy Spirit raised Jesus from death (Rom. 8:11; 1 Pt. 3:18). Romans 3:18 says:
NIV: “And if (since) the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of His Spirit who lives in you”.
ESV: “If the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you”.
HCSB: “And if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead lives in you, then He who raised Christ from the dead will also bring your mortal bodies to life through His Spirit who lives in you”.
NET: “Moreover if the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead lives in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will also make your mortal bodies alive through His Spirit who lives in you”. And according to the NET Bible “the one who raised Jesus from the dead” and “the one who raised Christ from the death” refer to God. So this verse belongs to the first category. “God did it”.
Another possibility is that the term “Spirit of Him” could be a title of the Holy Spirit like “Spirit of God” (Rom. 8:9). According to this interpretation, the Holy Spirit raised Jesus from death. But according to its context, this verse is saying that the Spirit of God within us is stronger than the sin that is in our bodies. Which is similar to “The one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world” (1 Jn. 4:4). So this verse doesn’t definitely say that the Holy Spirit raised Jesus from death – it is only a debatable inference.
1 Peter 3:18 says that Christ was:
NIV: “made alive in the Spirit”.
ESV: “made alive in the spirit”.
HCSB: “made alive in the spiritual realm”.
NET: “made alive in the spirit”. And according to the NET Bible “The reference may not be to the Holy Spirit directly, but indirectly, since the Spirit permeates and characterizes the spiritual mode of existence”.
As most of these contemporary translations don’t capitalize “spiritual”, there is no conclusive evidence in 1 Peter 3:18 that the Holy Spirit raised Jesus from death.
The Bible definitely teaches that Jesus was raised from the dead by God, God the Father and by Himself. Is this a contradiction? No, because God the Father and Jesus Christ are referred to as “God” in the Bible and they can do what God alone can do (Heb. 1:8).
None of the verses say that God the Father alone raised Jesus from the dead, or that Jesus by Himself without the aid of the Father raised Himself, or that Jesus didn’t have the power to raise Himself. Paul called Jesus “the author of life” (Acts 3:15) and Jesus certainly had the power to resurrect Lazarus back to life (Jn. 11:11-44). Furthermore, Jesus told Martha “I am the resurrection and the life” (Jn. 11:25).
Also, it doesn’t follow that the Father and the Son must be one and the same person in order for all these statements to be correct, since all that is required is for them to have the same ability and power to raise the dead. After all, Jesus said that He could do everything that the Father does (Jn. 5:19-24).
Whether the Holy Spirit, who is also referred to as “God” (Acts 5:3-4), was involved in the Resurrection of Christ is a debatable matter as the Bible doesn’t seem to provide conclusive evidence of this.
Written, October 2016
12 images of Christ’s death
Earlier this year consumer advocate Choice found that dried oregano is being padded with substitute olive and sumac leaves. One product contained less than 10% of the real thing, while other brands had just 11-50%. Dried olive and sumac leaves were a cheaper substitute that looked similar to oregano. Some of the suspect samples came from Turkey.
Other food scandals include imitation honey, horsemeat marketed as beef, mislabelled seafood, and peanuts being mixed into ground cumin. These are examples of bad substitution. Today we are looking at a good substitution by God.
Every good drama, movie or story has at least one climax. The climax is the turning point of the story when the main problem is addressed. Today we are looking at the climax of the bible.
In the introduction of the Bible it describes how our earliest ancestors Adam and Eve rebelled against the God who made them and this resulted in all the problems we experience today like evil, pain, suffering, disease and death.
The climax is when God solves the problem of people’s sinfulness. He does this by coming to the earth and taking the punishment that we all deserve – that’s the substitution. The Bible’s climax has two twists. Firstly, Jesus’ followers believe He is the Messiah, but their hopes are dashed when instead of setting up His kingdom on earth, He is executed as a criminal. So their great expectations are replaced by grief and loss. Secondly, a few days after His burial Jesus miraculously resurrects back to life and the grief and loss is replaced with joy! What a dramatic fluctuation in emotions!
There is a movie called “God’s not dead!”. Well today we are looking at when God died. That’s amazing! How could the God with the power to create and sustain the universe die like a human being? We will see that multiple images and symbols are required to convey the message of Christ’s death and its impact.
The symbols of Christ’s death are categorized below as: people, animals, inanimate things, and religious ceremonies.
Abraham sacrificing Isaac
Hebrews 11 says, “By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son” (Heb. 11:17NIV). When God tested Abraham’s faith about 4,000 years ago, he told him to sacrifice Isaac his only son. At the last minute, God provided a ram to take Isaac’s place. That’s another substitution. This climax in Abraham’s life happened on Mount Moriah, which was also near the place where Christ later died, in Jerusalem (Gen 22:1-14; 2 Chron. 3:1).
Isaac is like Jesus: they were only sons loved by their fathers, and willing to do their father’s will (Gen. 22:2; Mt. 4:17). But there is a difference: Isaac didn’t die as a sacrifice but Jesus did; and Abraham was spared the grief but God wasn’t.
If the death of Jesus is like Isaac bound on the altar, it reminds us of the role of God the Father and God the Son. This symbol also reminds us of how the death of Jesus was God’s plan which depended on Christ’s obedience. It’s all about God.
Jonah swallowed by the big fish
Jesus said, “as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man (Jesus) will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Mt. 12:40). When Jonah was thrown overboard in a Mediterranean storm in about 760 BC, he was swallowed by a huge fish and he was in the belly of the fish for three days (Jon. 1:17). After this he was vomited onto dry land (Jon. 2:10). Then Jonah preached in Nineveh and when they turned to follow God, the Israelites were relieved of the Assyrian threat.
The Bible says that Jonah is like Jesus: being swallowed by the fish was like Christ’s death, being in the fish for three days was like Christ buried in the tomb and being vomited out was like Christ’s resurrection back to life. It says that “God provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah” (Jon. 1:17). It was God provision. Likewise, God provided Christ’s death for us.
The Bible also says that Jesus rose on “the third day” after His death and burial (Mt. 16:21; 17:23; 20:19; Mk. 9:31; 10:34; Lk. 9:22; 18:33; 24:7, 21, 46; Jn. 2:19; Acts 10:40; 1 Cor. 15:4). The third day means the day after tomorrow (Lk. 13-31-33). Apparently the Jews counted parts of days as whole days.
If the death of Jesus is like Jonah being swallowed by the fish, it reminds us that the death of Jesus was God’s plan. He provided it. This symbol also reminds us that Christ was only dead for three days and then He rose back to new life.
Animal sacrifices in Old Testament times were also symbols of Christ’s death. For example, the ram that replaced Isaac on Mount Moriah was like Jesus. An innocent animal died as a substitute instead of Isaac. Likewise, although He was sinless, Jesus took our punishment. He died in our place. Paul said, “God demonstrates His own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us”. He died for us. And “Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us as a … sacrifice to God” (Rom. 5:8; Eph. 5:2).
And during the Passover, a lamb was killed and its blood put on the door frames of their houses. The lamb had to be “without defect” (Ex. 12:5). This is like Jesus because Peter said, He was “a lamb without blemish or defect” (1 Pt. 1:19). That’s a metaphor saying He’s like a lamb without blemish or defect. God said, “when I see the blood (on the door frames), I will pass over you” (Ex. 12:13). In this way the Israelites were saved from the death of their firstborn. None of the Israelites died because a lamb had died instead of them. They benefited from the animal’s death. They received mercy instead of judgment. They were protected from God’s judgment. On the next day, in the exodus they were delivered and rescued from slavery in Egypt. After this, the Passover was celebrated annually in remembrance of this great deliverance from slavery.
It’s interesting that Jesus celebrated the Passover on the evening before He died, and He was crucified on the day of the Passover (14 Aviv) – a Jewish day is comprised of a night followed by the daylight hours. Also Paul said, “Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed” (1 Cor. 5:7). Another metaphor. So the Passover lamb is like Jesus. It died to save the household from God’s judgment.
John the Baptist called Jesus, “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn. 1:29). The lamb was a sacrificial animal among the Jews. It was killed as a substitute and its blood was sprinkled around. Here all humanity benefits from Christ’s death (it’s for “the world”), not just the Jews.
Jewish animal sacrifices (like the burnt, fellowship and guilt offerings, and the day of atonement) that were required under the law of Moses are symbols of the death of Jesus. In all these cases, innocent animal life was given up to protect human life. The judgment and penalty for their sins were carried out through a transfer of the sin of the people to the animal sacrifice. Forgiveness is possible because the penalty of sin (death) is transferred to a sacrificial animal. The animal was a substitute for the people. The Bible says, “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Heb. 9:22). The shedding of blood means death.
A major difference between the animal sacrifices and Christ’s death is that the sacrifices continued daily, weekly, and annually, whereas Christ only needed to die once (Heb. 9:26; 10:1, 11-12). His single death fulfilled the animal sacrifices of the old covenant (Heb. 9:7-28; 13:11-12). So there is no need for animal sacrifices anymore (Heb. 10:18). His death was “once for all”. For all time and for all people.
If the death of Jesus is like an animal sacrifice, it reminds us that Jesus died for us. God died for us! The Creator died for His creation! His creatures! This symbol also reminds us that through the death of Jesus we can receive mercy instead of judgment. This symbol will endure because in heaven we will proclaim, “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain” (Rev. 5:12).
On the day of atonement, the Jewish High Priest put both his hands on the head of a goat and confessed all the sins of the Israelites and “put them on the goat’s head” (Lev. 16:7-10, 20-22). Their sins were symbolically placed on the goat. And the goat was taken away and released in the wilderness to carry all their sins to a remote place. Symbolically it carried away the sins of the people.
This is similar to what happened at Christ’s death. The sins of the whole world were placed on Jesus Christ. Peter said, ‘“He himself bore our sins” in His body on the cross’ (1 Pt. 2:24). And when He died He took the penalty for them – the wages of sin is death. So they were taken away for ever. Aaron laying his hands on the goat symbolizes the placing of our sins on Christ, to be taken away forever. As the goat substituted for the Israelites, Jesus substituted for us.
If the death of Jesus is like the scapegoat, it reminds us that Jesus died for us. This symbol also reminds us that through the death of Jesus our sins are taken away forever.
The heartbroken wife of Alice Springs man Kevin Reid, shot dead in Georgia US recently, has told of how he died protecting her during a robbery attempt. He moved her out of the way and probably saved her life. She said her husband died a hero. That’s an example of sacrifice.
The bronze snake
When Jesus taught Nicodemus about the source of spiritual life, He said “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man (Jesus) must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in Him” (Jn. 3:14-15). So He referred to an incident when the Israelites were travelling through the wilderness towards Canaan in about 1400 BC (Num. 21:5-9). When they complained about God and Moses causing their poor living conditions, God sent venomous snakes and many died. After Moses prayed for the people, God told him to make a bronze snake and put it up on a pole and “anyone who is bitten can look at it and live”. If they looked, they were delivered and healed of the snakebite. God provided a way to save them from death.
Jesus was saying that He must be lifted up on a pole (the cross) like the bronze snake, so that sinners looking to Him by faith might have everlasting life. The next verse says “For God so loved the world that he gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life” (Jn. 3:16). That’s the context of this famous verse. It’s all about how God used the crucifixion to provide a way to save people from spiritual death. The death of Christ was how God loved the world and how He gave His only Son. Like the bronze snake, God has done His part. But we need to do something as well. Just as the Israelites needed to look at the snake on the pole to live, belief, acceptance and trust in God’s act of love is the only way to change our destiny from eternal death to eternal life.
If the death of Jesus is like the bronze snake, it reminds us that His death is the only way to eternal spiritual life. This symbol also reminds us that if we don’t accept that the death of Christ paid the penalty for our sins, we are doomed to eternal spiritual death.
As Christ was crucified on a Roman cross, the word “cross” can be used as a figure of speech for Christ’s death. For example, Hebrews says, “For the joy set before Him He (Jesus) endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2).
As Christ’s crucifixion resulted in the good news of salvation, the word “cross” is also used as an extended figure of speech for the Christian gospel. For example, Paul said, “the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 12:18). The “message of the cross” is the good news (gospel) about the death of Christ. It’s belief in Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection to forgive sins. This is nonsense to unbelievers. But for believers it’s the power of God because God is at work in proclaiming the message and convicting sinners to come to faith in Christ. So both the word “cross” (Gal. 1; Eph. 2:16; Col. 2:13-14), and the phrase the “cross of Christ” (1 Cor. 1:17; Gal. 6:12, 14; Phil. 3:18;) are used to mean the gospel of Christ and all its benefits.
If the death of Jesus is symbolized by the cross, I’m reminded that there were three crosses. This symbol also reminds us of the impact of Christ’s death. The man on one cross believed that the death of Christ paid the penalty for his sins, while the other man rejected this opportunity.
The word “blood” is often used as a symbol of death in the Old Testament. And “shedding blood” means murder. Also, blood had a special role in animal sacrifices. The animal’s blood was evidence that the penalty (of death) had been paid. This is summarized in the New Testament, “the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed (ceremonially purified) with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Heb. 9:22). And covenants were confirmed by blood from animal sacrifices (Ex. 24:6-8).
In the New Testament, blood is often a symbol of Christ’s death. For example, Pilate told the Jews, “I am innocent of this man’s blood” (Mt 27:24-25). And the people replied “His blood is on us and on our children!”. Paul said, “In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins” (Eph. 1:7). And John said, “the blood of Jesus … purifies us from all sin” (1 Jn. 1:7). Here the word “blood” means Christ’s death. By the way, Christ’s physical blood had no miraculous power or properties, but was just like that of any other person.
Jesus didn’t bleed to death, but the terms used in the Bible for Christ’s death include: the blood of Jesus, the blood of Christ, the blood of the Lamb, His own blood, His blood, my blood, and your blood. This symbol occurs so often, that it can be called a motif, which is a recurring element in a story that has symbolic significance. In their repetition, motifs emphasize what’s most important about a story. For example, in his most famous speech, Martin Luther King Jr. used “I have a dream” as a motif to tie together different ideas such as a quote from the US Declaration of Independence and people who once were at odds sitting down together.
The noun “blood”, is also used as an extended figure of speech for the Christian gospel and all the benefits of Christ’s death. These benefits associated with the figurative “blood of Christ” include:
- Redemption (Eph. 1:7; 1 Pt. 1:18-19), like being released from slavery.
- Salvation, like being delivered from danger.
- Forgiveness ( 1:7), like cancelling debts.
- Reconciliation, like restoring a broken relationship, and having peace with God (Rom. 1:20).
- Justification (Rom. 5:9), like acquittal from condemnation and guilt.
- Adoption, like an orphan finding a new family.
- Sanctification (Heb. 10:10; ( 13:12; 1 Jn. 1:7), like gaining Christ’s righteousness, being holy and set apart for God. And cleansing from sin, like “takes away the sin of the world” (Jn. 1:29); “the blood of Jesus, His Son, purifies us from all sin (1 Jn. 1:7); “has freed us from our sins by His blood” (Rev. 1:5); and “they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Rev. 7:14).
All of these benefits are associated with the term, the “blood of Christ”.
If the death of Jesus is symbolized by blood, it reminds us of all the animal sacrifices in the Old Testament. This symbol also reminds us all the benefits of Christ’s death.
The torn curtain
When Jesus died, the heavy curtain that separated the Jewish temple in Jerusalem into two rooms (Ex. 26:31-33) was torn in half from the top to the bottom (Mt. 27:51; Mk. 15:38; Lk. 23:45). As the ark of the covenant symbolized God’s throne and presence in the Most Holy Place, the curtain separated sinful humanity from a holy God. The only person who was allowed into the inner room (the Most Holy Place), was the High Priest who could only enter once per year on the Day of Atonement after the necessary animal sacrifices had been offered.
As the curtain symbolized Christ’s body, its tearing symbolized His death (Heb. 6:19-20; 10:19-20). The tearing of the curtain signified that through Christ’s death believers have direct access to God (Heb. 9:11-14; 10:19-22). It symbolized a new era of access to God for all nationalities, not just the Jews.
If the death of Jesus is symbolized by the torn curtain, it reminds us of the beginning of a new relationship with God. This symbol also reminds us that Christ’s death is the only way for people to approach God the Father.
Jesus came to “give His life as a ransom for many” and He “gave Himself as a ransom for all people” (Mt. 20:28; Mk. 10:45; 1 Ti. 2:6). A ransom was the price paid to free a slave. Similarly, Christ paid the ransom price of His own life to free us from spiritual death and the slavery of sin. He died on behalf of us all, but not all will accept this offer of freedom.
If the death of Jesus is like a ransom, it reminds us that a cost was involved and God the Father and Jesus made that payment. This image also reminds us of the benefits of Christ’s death for believers – it’s like being freed from slavery.
John 3:16 says “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son (as a gift), that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life”. And God “did not spare His own Son, but gave Him (as a gift) up for us all” (Rom. 8:32). And Paul says that Jesus “gave Himself (as a gift) for our sins” as “a sacrifice to God” (Gal. 1:4; 2:20; Eph. 5:2).
A gift involves a giver and a receiver. Here the gift is salvation through Christ’s death and resurrection. The givers are God the Father and His only Son, Jesus. And the receivers are those who accept God’s supreme gift.
If the death of Jesus is like a gift, it reminds us of the love and generosity of the divine givers. This image also reminds us that we need to accept the gift in order to receive its benefits.
In March this year, Ryan Martin drowned just minutes after saving the life of a young girl near Coolangatta. He was one of a number of people who went to the girl’s aid. He didn’t know the girl, he just saw her in trouble and went to help. She was carried safely to shore but moments later Mr Martin began to struggle against the rough current. Surf lifesavers pulled him from the water but were unable to revive him. A friend said “He sacrificed himself to save the life of a young girl. The act of a true hero”. He gave her the gift of life, when she faced death.
Christian baptism is a public identification with the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ (Rom. 6:3-11). People are baptised by being immersed in water. It’s like a short version of Jonah being swallowed by the big fish. But they are under the water for a few seconds rather than three days! Going into the water is like death by drowning. Staying under the water is like burial, and coming up out of the water is like resurrection. It’s a drama that shows we are united with Christ’s death and should no longer be slaves to sin. And instead of being raised like Christ, we have a new spiritual life. Paul said “if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (1 Cor. 5:17).
Paul summarized the gospel message as: “what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3-4). Christ’s death was the payment for sin. His burial was the proof of His death. And His resurrection was the proof of God the Father’s acceptance of the sacrifice of Christ, and that death is conquered.
If the death of Jesus is symbolized by baptism, it reminds us of its power over sin and Satan. This symbol also reminds us of how the death of Jesus can bring a new spiritual life.
The Lord’s supper
At His last Passover, Jesus told His disciples to remember Him regularly like the Jews had remembered the Passover associated with the exodus from Egypt. They were to do it by communally eating bread and drinking wine. The bread and wine were metaphors of Christ’s death. When Jesus said “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me” (Mt. 26:26; Lk. 22:19; 1 Cor. 11:24), He meant that the broken bread represented His broken body. When Jesus said, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Mt. 26:28; Lk. 22:20; 1 Cor. 11:25). He meant that the wine represented blood, which was a symbol of His death.
As the old Mosaic covenant between God and the Israelites was confirmed by blood from animal sacrifices (Ex. 24:6-8), the new covenant was confirmed by Christ’s death.
If the death of Jesus is symbolized by the Lord’s Supper (the bread and wine), it reminds us that His death is the source of our spiritual life. This symbol also reminds us that the new covenant is superior to the old one and to all other religions.
We have looked at several symbols of Christ’s death from the Bible. They show that: It depends on God the Father and God the Son like Abraham sacrificing Isaac. It’s followed by resurrection like when Jonah was swallowed and vomited out by the big fish. In it Jesus was our substitute like an animal sacrifice – He took our punishment so we could receive God’s forgiveness and mercy. Through it, a believer’s sins are taken away forever like the scapegoat. It’s the only way from spiritual death to spiritual life like the bronze snake. It offers a choice to accept or reject like the choices made by those on the other two crosses. It has many benefits associated with the motif of blood. It began a new relationship with God like the torn curtain. It results in freedom like a ransom. It needs to be accepted like a gift. It gives power over sin and Satan like baptism. And it’s superior to the old Jewish covenant and all other religions like the Lord’s supper.
So multiple images and symbols are required to convey the message of Christ’s death and its impact.
In response, have you accepted God’s gift of forgiveness and salvation? Have you entered into the new relationship with God? Have you transformed from spiritual death to spiritual life? It’s the most important thing we can do. If not, confess your sinfulness like that criminal on the cross, who turned (repented) to trust that through Christ’s sacrificial death he could be reconciled with God.
If we are believers: When we realize what they have done for us, how often do we thank God the Father and Jesus for this great sacrifice? Do we keep meeting collectively to obey the Lord’s command to “do this in remembrance of me” (Lk. 22:19; 1 Cor. 11:24-25). Do we appreciate the exchange: Jesus took our punishment so we could receive God’s forgiveness and mercy? Are we assured that our sins are taken away forever? Are we free of the slavery of sin? Do we realize the implications of Christ’s resurrection and our new spiritual life? Is our spiritual life evident? And do we appreciate all the benefits associated with salvation?
Written, September 2016
Muhammad Ali, former world heavyweight boxing champion, died recently.
The greatest boxer
Born in Louisville, Kentucky as Cassius Clay, he won an Olympic gold medal at Rome in 1960. At the turn of the millennium, Ali was voted man of the century, sportsman of the century, and personality of the century. In 1999 Ali was named Sportsman of the Century by Sports Illustrated and Sports Personality of the Century by the BBC.
After beating Sonny Liston in 1964 to become the world heavyweight boxing champion, Clay boasted, “I am the greatest!” Then he changed his name to Muhammed Ali. Ali dominated boxing in the 1960s and 1970s and held the heavyweight title three times. His fights were among the most memorable and spectacular in history, but he quickly became at least as well known for his colorful personality and his showy antics in the ring.
“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” was one of many phrases Ali used to describe what he could do in the ring, while “I am the greatest” was a common catchcry. He was a charismatic boxer with a flair for showmanship. His courage inside and outside the ring and his verbal taunting of opponents were legendary, as were his commitment to justice and his efforts for the sick and underprivileged.
Muhammad Ali was an entertainer. He leaves behind a legacy of thrilling fights, trash talk poetry and taking a stand against racism, inequality and war.
Bill Clinton praised his stunning gifts: his strength and speed in the ring, his wit and way with words and managing the public and his mind and heart. And he said that Ali was smart.
Although Ali received many accolades, he wasn’t the greatest man to have lived. Here’s what the Bible says about Jesus Christ.
The greatest ever
“Christ is the visible image of the invisible God.
He existed before anything was created and is supreme over all creation, for through Him God created everything in the heavenly realms and on earth.
He made the things we can see and the things we can’t see—such as thrones, kingdoms, rulers, and authorities in the unseen world.
Everything was created through Him and for Him.
He existed before anything else, and He holds all creation together.
Christ is also the head of the church, which is His body.
He is the beginning, supreme over all who rise from the dead.
So He is first in everything.
For God in all His fullness was pleased to live in Christ, and through Him God reconciled everything to Himself.
He made peace with everything in heaven and on earth by means of Christ’s blood on the cross” (Col. 1:15-20NLT).
Because He is “first in everything” and “supreme over all creation”, Jesus Christ is indeed “The Greatest!”. He is supreme in creation (He created everything and holds it all together) and in redemption (He died to enable us to be reconciled and have peace with God).
Jesus Christ is not only supreme in the physical world, but also in the spiritual world. He’s the source of spiritual life, the first to be resurrected with a glorified body and the leader of a new creation.
So, Jesus is supreme and unique in greatness.
Lessons for us
Although Ali was called “A man of faith” who was “deeply religious and spiritual”, he wasn’t spiritually smart. Everyone has some kind of faith, but it’s what we are trusting in that counts. At his Muslim funeral service (jenazah), there were prayers for his sins to be forgiven, for him to be “surrounded by light”, and for him to be accepted into heaven. Unfortunately, it’s too late to pray for these after someone’s death. These are matters to be decided during one’s life, not afterwards. It seems that Ali rejected the strong spiritual foundation of the Bible which he knew about as a youth and accepted a weaker one instead.
Although Muhammad Ali was a great boxer, his achievements are insignificant compared to those of Jesus Christ. While, Ali’s body rests in Cave Hill Cemetery, Jesus sits at the right hand of God. Ali was praised in eulogy, but Jesus Christ will be praised universally: “To Him … be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!” (Rev. 5:13). Over time Ali will be forgotten, but Jesus will be praised eternally.
Jesus said, “And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul? Is anything worth more than your soul?” (Mt. 16:26). So, wealth doesn’t help our eternal destiny. Fame doesn’t help our eternal destiny. Religious observance doesn’t help our eternal destiny. And good works (and it seems as though this was how Ali thought he would get to heaven) don’t help our eternal destiny. All these can take so much of our time and energy that we can miss the central purpose of our life (eternal life and following Christ) and spend eternity in hell. In the big picture nothing matters without faith in Christ.
Let’s be spiritually smart and trust in Jesus Christ. He’s the greatest of all, not Muhammad Ali.
Written, June 2016