WHAT DID JESUS REALLY SAY? by Ian Ellis-Jones Honorary Minister, Sydney Unitarian Church PRECIS OF AN ADDRESS DELIVERED AT THE SYDNEY UNITARIAN CHURCH ON SUNDAY, 6 MAY 2007Now, despite what they told you in Sunday School, assuming for the moment thatyou went to Sunday School, or in Scripture classes at school, the true Biblicalposition in relation to Jesus is, I believe, as follows:- 1. Jesus was not, and could not have been, the Messiah. 2. Jesus did not claim to be the Messiah. 3. Even if Jesus were the Messiah, that does not make him God. 4. Jesus did not claim to be God or equal to God. 5. The most that can be claimed from the Bible is that Jesus was the “Son of God”, but not the Supreme or Almighty God. 6. Even if Jesus did call himself the “Son of God”, and that is by no means clear, that is a purely human title and not a reference to a divine figure. 7. The title most used by Jesus to describe himself was “Son of Man”, which does not imply that Jesus was claiming to be God.1. Jesus was not, and could not have been, the Messiah.The Jews never expected that any other than a being distinct from and inferior toGod was to be their Messiah. In other words, the Messiah will be truly human inorigin and in no sense divine. Further, any talk of the Messiah being the “son ofGod” is totally out-of-the-question and unbiblical: see eg Dt 18:15; Jn 1:45. The
kingdom of the Jewish Messiah is “of this world”, whereas Jesus asserted thathis kingdom was “not of this world” (Jn 18:36).The Jewish scriptures make it perfectly clear that the Messiah will be a mereman, born naturally to a husband and wife (cf Jesus’ supposed supernatural“virgin birth”: Mt 1:23; Is 7:14 [the latter a reference, not to the Messiah’s birth,but that of King Hezekiah, being directed at King Ahaz]). Sure, a remarkable andvery wise teacher and leader, but a mere man, and certainly not a god or demi-god or someone who was supposedly fully god and fully man at the same time.(The idea that God could become man, or that man could become God is stillunthinkable to Jews. Could God become man? God can do anything, except actin a self-contradictory manner, which would be the case were God to becomenon-corporeal.)According to the Jewish scriptures this Messiah will bring complete spiritual andphysical redemption to the Jewish people, will build the Third Temple (Ez 37:26-28; cf Jesus lived while the temple was still standing), gather all Jews back toIsrael (Is 43:5-6), usher in a new era of world peace and moral perfection, thusbringing to an end all hatred, oppression, evil, suffering and disease ("Nationshall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall man learn war anymore": Is2:4), and spread universal knowledge and love of the God of Israel. Ultimately,this Messiah will supposedly unite all humanity as one ("God will be King over allthe world - on that day, God will be One and His Name will be One": Zech 14:9).Jesus failed to fulfil any of these things whilst he was with us. That is the reasonthe Jews believe the Messiah is yet to come. It is also the reason the earlyChristians invented the doctrine of the “Second Coming” in order to give Jesus a“second chance” to get it right!2. Jesus did not claim to be the Messiah.
True, there are New Testament verses such as Mt 16: 16 and 17 (wherein SimonPeter says, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God, to which Jesusreplies, “Blessed art thou, etc”), and Mk 14: 61 and 62 (wherein Jesussupposedly admits at his trial that he is “the Christ, the Son of the Blessed”)which can be read as support for the view that Jesus did claim to be the Messiah.However, as regards the verses in Mt 16, in Mark’s version of the same incident(the earliest!) Jesus doesn’t actually endorse what Peter says. Secondly, asregards Jesus’ supposed admission in Mark 14 that he is the Christ there isagain a variant reading; Matthew and Luke portray Jesus not as explicitlyadmitting the charge. In Acts 2:36 there is the suggestion that God appointedJesus as Messiah only after the crucifixion. In short, the matter is by no meansfrom doubt.3. Even if Jesus were the Messiah, that does not make him God.Irrespective of whether or not Jesus believed he was the Messiah, even if hewere the Messiah that does not mean he was God. As I’ve already said, any talkof the Messiah as being God or even the “son of God” is totally unacceptable.4. Jesus did not claim to be God or equal to God.Jesus never said that he himself was God. Indeed, he virtually denied that hewas God, when he exclaimed, “Why callest thou me Good? There is none goodbut one, that is God” (Mt 19:17; see also Mk 10:18.)Jesus’ purported utterance, “I and my Father are one” (Jn 10:30), must be seenin its total context, for Jesus spoke of the Father, who sent him, as God, and asthe only God: see eg Jn 17:3 (“This is life eternal, that they might know Thee, theonly true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent”). Jesus was not claimingto be God in any unique sense. He was simply saying, “I am one with God inaffection and design”. As for his reported utterance, “no one comes to the fatherexcept by me” (Jn 14:6), my view is the same as that of the great Methodistpreacher Dr Leslie Weatherhead, which is also that of the Jesus Seminar – I
don’t believe that Jesus ever said that. If he did, he was referring to his way oflife, his teaching, nothing more than that. Strangely, there appear to be a sizablenumber of Christians who, when reading this verse, interpret it mean that Jesusis God and that no one can get to heaven except if they worship Jesus andaccept him as their Saviour and Lord. The popular perception that this verseclaims that Jesus requires our worship in order for us to receive salvation is notthe intended meaning of this verse.5. The most that can be claimed from the Bible is that Jesus was the“Son of God”, but not the Supreme or Almighty God.Now, the Jews - except in two instances that I will now explain - never opposedJesus on the ground that he purportedly pretended to be God or equal with God.In the two instances in question, when charged, in the one case, with makinghimself God, and in the other, with making himself equal with God, Jesuspositively denied the charges. In reply to the charge of assuming to be equalwith God (“My Father worketh hitherto, and I work”: Jn 5:17), Jesus saysimmediately, “The Son can do nothing of himself, but what he seeth the Fatherdo (Jn 5:19)”; and directly after, “I can of mine own self do nothing” (Jn 5:30). Healso said, “My father is greater than all” (Jn 10:29). Is not the father, then,greater than the son? Jesus also affirmed, in another connection, and withoutthe least qualification, “My Father is greater than I” (Jn 14:28). Jesus positivelydenied himself to be the author of his miraculous works, but referred them to theFather, or the holy spirit of God: “The Father that dwelleth in me, he doeth theworks” (Jn 14:10). “If I cast out devils by the spirit of God” (Mt 12:28). Jesusdistinctly stated that the miraculous works bore witness, not to his own power,but that the Father had sent him: see Jn 5:36.In answer to the charge of making himself God (“I and my Father are one”: Jn10:30), the Jews did indeed infer that Jesus was supposedly claiming to be God(see Jn 10:31), but Jesus quickly rephrased his claim with the term "Gods son",
appealing to the Jews in substance thus: Your own Scriptures call Moses a god,and your magistrates gods; I am surely not inferior to them, yet I did not callmyself God, but only the Son of God. See Jn 10:34-36.In other words, Jesus, after having said, “I and my Father are one,” gave hisdisciples distinctly to understand that he did not mean one substance, equal inpower and glory, but one only in affection and design, as clearly appears fromthe prayer he offers to his Father in their behalf --“that they all may be one; asthou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us” (Jn 17:21).Jesus was saying, “The father is in me, and I am in the father”, which is awonderfully panentheistic view of God. (Similarly, Jesus is also reported to havesaid, “I am in my Father: and you in me, and I in you” (Jn 14;20).)6. Even if Jesus did call himself the “Son of God”, and that is by nomeans clear, that is a purely human title and not a reference to a divinefigure.The title, “Son of God”, is a purely human title. In Jewish tradition the title did notmean a divine figure: see eg Ps 2: 7: “You are my son, today I have begottenyou.” The king (eg Solomon) is God’s first-born (see Ps 89:27). Angels,Israelites in general, righteous people, and (in the New Testament) Christianscan all be spoken of as sons of God, and can address God as Father.Is Jesus God’s “only begotten son” (cf Jn 3:16)? If you think that, you havecarnalized a myth. The news, according to the Ancient Wisdom, is that we are allbegotten of the Only One. There is Only One, and everybody is the onlybegotten son. The verse encapsulates an important metaphysical truth: one’sonly begotten son refers to a creative and saving idea, thought or desire, the“father” being mind, thinker or consciousness, creatively expressed. Realizationof one’s desire is one’s saviour.Anyway, did Jesus call himself the Son of God? Evangelical Christians rely uponverses such as Mk 13:32 (where Jesus uses the words, “But of that day and that
hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son,but the Father”) and Mt 11:27 (“All things are delivered unto me of my Father:and no man knoweth the Son, but the Father …”, etc), but commentators pointout that both of those verses have question marks against them and are probablylater interpolations and not the actual words of Jesus. Further, there is nowherewhere the title “Son of God” must be read as implying that Jesus was in someway equal with God. In Mark’s gospel (the earliest), the title “Son of God” ispurely a human title.7. The title most used by Jesus (indeed over 60 times) to describehimself was “Son of Man”, which does not imply that Jesus was claimingto be GodThat title was used over 60 times and only by Jesus himself. He never reallyexplains the meaning of the title, but it appears to be linked with what Jesus sawas his mission in life, and that Jesus saw himself as a representative humanbeing through whom God was acting in an important way.So, how did Jesus see his mission? To die for our sins, as a ransom for many?No! That was not the message of Jesus. True, Mk 10:45 says, “The Son of Mancame … to give his life a ransom for many”, but higher criticism makes it clearthat those words come from Mark or the editor. Indeed, the words occur in aportion of Mk 10:41-45 which is known as a duplicate of another portion (viz Mk9:33-35) in which the “ransom” idea is wholly absent. In fact, there’s noreference to Jesus’ martyrdom at all. The obvious interpolation represents not ateaching of Jesus but the faith of the church. As for Mt 26:28 (“For this is myblood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins”),the lastmentioned words (“for the remission of sins”) are, as criticalcommentators such as Dr Vincent Taylor has pointed, a comment added by theevangelist and not authentic.
Both of these supposed utterances of Jesus are incongruent to the whole tenorof Jesus’ teachings. They are hyper-Paulinistic editorial additions to support alater theological interpretation of Jesus’ death. Critical investigation of thedocuments confirms that.Jesus of Nazareth, “a man approved of God” (Acts 2:22), preached what isdescribed in the New Testament as the “gospel of God”. He said, “The time isfulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”(Mk 1:15; cf Mt 4:17, 10:7, Lk 4:43) Note, not the “gospel of Our Lord JesusChrist”, but the “gospel of God”. In Mk 1:14 we read that Jesus came into Galilee“preaching the gospel of God”. This is the answer to those Christian evangelistswho assert that there was no Christian gospel until after Jesus had died.Ironically, the gospel that they proclaim is not the gospel of God that Jesusproclaimed.So, why all this Jesus the Messiah stuff, especially from the pen of St Paul? AsI’ve already mentioned, Jesus was totally unsuccessful in redeeming the Jewspolitically. Therefore the early Christians could no longer look upon this as thetask of the Messiah. His redemption had to be given a new meaning. Theytherefore taught that his mission was not to redeem humanity from politicaloppression but to redeem it from spiritual evil. Worse still, Jesus had beenignominiously executed. If Jesus was the true Messiah, how could that happen?How and why would God allow that? So the Messiah’s mission had to beredefined and then expanded. Unfortunately, there were so many otherMessianic prophecies that poor Jesus had failed to fulfil. Thus, the earlyChristians were forced to teach that Jesus would return to the world again in a“second coming”. How clever, and very convenient! How wonderful!In short, the most that can be claimed from the Bible (both Old and NewTestaments), weighing everything in the balance, is that Jesus was the Son ofGod (a very human title in any event) but not the Supreme or Almighty God.
It is my respectful submission to you this morning that we need to get back to thismore simple, and original, form of Christianity. Now, Jesus may not be God inany exclusive or unique sense, but he must surely be more than a teacher andmoral exemplar. Yes, he is much more than that, for the Personality of Jesus,can be experienced as a living presence, for he comes to us, and visits us, in ourhome and in our community. Yes, he comes to us through an idea, a word wehear, and a person who is suffering or joyful. We meet Jesus in our interactionswith others. Everyone we meet, everyone we serve, is in the image of Jesus.Roman Catholics understand this so much better than Protestants. Yes, the“Anonymous Christ” comes to us in so many ways, and we fail to recognize thatJesus’ incarnation continues all the time, in us and in other people, not in anysupposedly supernatural sense, but in a perfectly natural sense. Thus, we read inMt 25:34-40: Then the King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?” The King will reply, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”Jesus’ followers were originally known as “people of the way”. Jesus, in his visionof the Anonymous Christ, offers us a vision and a challenge. The call to follow isnot a call to worship Jesus. No, the Way of Jesus is a call to follow his path, tolive as he lived, and to serve. We read in John’s Gospel, “Sir, we would seeJesus” (Jn 12:21). Well, as far as I’m concerned, all we really need to know aboutJesus and what is, or at least ought to be, our vision and challenge, can be foundin one verse of the Bible, namely, Lk 9:11, which reads:
When the crowds learned [where Jesus was], they followed him; and he welcomed them and spoke to them of the kingdom of God, and cured those who had need of healing.First, the crowds followed Jesus. Millions still do, for he continues to speak to ourtime, saying, “Follow me”. One of my favourite Christian books is In His Stepswritten by Congregational minister Charles M Sheldon and first published in1896. Sheldon, a leading exponent of the Social Gospel, challenges us to askourselves, in every situation in which we find ourselves placed, “What wouldJesus do?” That’s a good start, for, as Bishop Markus van Alphen has written,Jesus “stands for the personality of every human being who treads the path ofpurification” (“Jesus Christ and his True Disciples”, Esoteric Christianity E-Magazine, July 2002, <http://www.lcc.cc/ecem/vanalphenmf/jesus.htm>).Secondly, Jesus welcomed the crowds. No one was turned away. That is why wedo not turn away any person who comes to this Church with good intentions.That is why we erect no barriers around our altars (metaphorically speaking, forwe have no altar as such). However, more is required of us than that. We mustmake sure we erect no barriers outside this place as well.Thirdly, Jesus spoke of the Kingdom of God. That kingdom was not of this world(see Jn 18:36), for Jesus gave the words “Kingdom of God” new meaning. TheKingdom of God, for Jesus, was a spiritual kingdom, not a physical organization,and it was both a present and future reality all at the same time. Jesus formed acommunity that strove, in steadfast service, to be a living model of God’s reign.We accept the Kingdom of God by building it here on earth. Thus, the Kingdomof God, sensibly interpreted, is not some supernatural event that will supposedlycome to pass when this world comes to an end but a kingdom of this world inwhich there is justice, equality and freedom for all.Fourthly, Jesus cured those who needed healing. Our task here is to provideopportunities for healing. We come here as broken, damaged people in need of
healing. The healing word of Jesus, expressed most powerfully in his greatoutpouring of suffering love, still has the power to change lives.I am reminded of something the Presbyterian Samuel Angus wrote in hiswonderful book Jesus in the Lives of Men (1933): Jesus is not accredited to us today by his miracles, or by a virgin birth, or by a resurrection from an underworld, or by a reanimation of his body from the grave, or by fulfillment of prophecies; he is accredited by his long train of conquests over the loyalties of men, and chiefly by the immediate, intimate and inevitable appeal made by him to everything that is best and God-like in each of us, and by his ability to “make men fall in love with him”, and “to win the world to his fair sanctities”.Out of gratitude to the sacred or divine, we are told in the New Testament topresent ourselves as a “living sacrifice” (Rom 12:1). We do that by livingselflessly for others and, as a result, we not only encounter the AnonymousChrist, we also share our saving experience of the Anonymous Christ with thosewith whom we come into contact. The message of the apostle Paul, and Jesushimself, is that we must re-surrender and rededicate ourselves every day,“fervent in spirit, serving the Lord” (Rom 12:11). We must remain ever open totruth and ever willing to change, no matter what. We must work, in steadfastservice, to bring about the Kingdom of God on earth. Amen. -oo0oo-