by Doug Ward

OXFORD, OHIO-Christians believe that Jesus of Nazareth was a unique individual, fully human and at the same time fully divine. But did Jesus himself believe that he was God? The question of Jesus' self-understanding is a key issue for the scholars involved in the ongoing "quest for the historical Jesus."


One of the most prominent of these scholars is Dr. Ben Witherington III, the Amos Professor of New Testament for Doctoral Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. Witherington has written extensively about Jesus in academic works like Jesus the Sage, Jesus the Seer, The Many Faces of the Christ, and The Jesus Quest. He also is well known to popular audiences through his blog, his columns in the Biblical Archaeology Review, his appearances on the television series Finding Jesus, and his frequent speaking engagements.


On March 3, 2018, Witherington traveled to Oxford, Ohio, for one such engagement. He addressed the identity and importance of Jesus in a lively lecture at Miami University on "A Singular Jesus in a Pluralistic World."


Son of Man and Kingdom of God

He began the lecture by observing that although there are many areas of controversy among historical Jesus scholars, there is general agreement that Jesus often referred to himself as the Son of Man and spoke about the kingdom of God. He added that there is just one place in the Hebrew Bible where both of these phrases appear: the seventh chapter of Daniel.


In Daniel 7, the prophet Daniel describes a vision about a succession of four inhumane and beastly empires. After the fourth of these empires is removed from power, "one like a son of man" is granted everlasting rulership over a worldwide kingdom by "the Ancient of Days" (vv. 13-14). This kingdom is administered by "the people of the saints of the Most High" (v. 27). So the inhumane and beastly empires are displaced by a humane and human empire, ruled forever by the Son of Man and the saints.


Witherington contrasted Daniel 7 with a second messianic passage, God's promise to King David in 2 Sam 7:12-16. After David's death his dynasty would rule after him, with one king following another. God would be like a father to these kings (v. 14), and this dynasty would be established forever (v. 16).


The Gospels make clear that Jesus came from the family line of David (Matt 1), and people sometimes called him "son of David".1 However, Jesus taught that the Messiah would be more than a human descendant of David. Quoting Psalm 110:1, he showed that the Messiah would be David's "Lord" as well as his descendant (Matt 22:41-46).


So Jesus was a member of the royal line of David, but he claimed to be more than that. The term he used to describe the "more" was Son of Man. Witherington commented that since no one else was using this title at the time, Jesus was free to fill it with the content he had in mind.


That content featured the universal, everlasting dominion that the Son of Man would receive from the Ancient of Days (Dan 7:14). After his resurrection Jesus told his disciples, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me" (Matt 28:18). In other words, he had been given this universal dominion.


Jesus also taught that he would return to fully implement his rule. As described by the Prophets, this would include defeating all opposition and judging mankind (Zech 14; Acts 1:11). On the eve of his crucifixion, when Jesus was being questioned by members of the Sanhedrin, he was asked if he was the Messiah (Mark 14:61). He replied, "I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven' (v. 62). Here Jesus was identifying himself again as the Son of Man from Dan 7:13-14. In effect, he was telling his interrogators, "You may think that you are judging me now, but someday I will be judging you."


Witherington asked the audience, "What kind of person thinks he can personally reign forever? Who thinks he will bring God's eschatological reign?" The answer: Only one who thinks he is both God and man. The title "Son of Man" expresses this claim.


There were additional ways, Witherington pointed out, that Jesus implied he was more than human. One was in his manner of teaching. When Jesus taught, he did not use footnotes or say, "Thus saith the Lord." Instead, he spoke on his own authority (Matt 7:29). He made big claims, and that is why his disciples did also.


Only One Way of Salvation

Witherington noted that these claims are distinctly out of step with our pluralistic culture, which tends to believe that there are multiple options for everything. Christianity, on the other hand, makes certain exclusive statements. "I am the way, and the truth, and the life," Jesus said. "No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6). Similarly, the apostle Peter stated, "And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12).


Witherington explained that it is important to frame the issue properly. Christianity is not saying that there is no value in other cultures or religions. The question is not, "How shall we be wise?" or "How shall we be spiritual?" Rather, it is, "How shall we be saved and transformed?" This is the question where the New Testament draws the line.


Christianity asserts that salvation only comes through Jesus because Jesus is unique. Jesus elsewhere said that "no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him" (Matt 11:27). The apostle Paul added, "For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus" (1 Tim 2:5).


Witherington observed that sometimes there is only one solution to a problem. For example, if one needed a heart transplant in 1967, there was only one surgeon available-Dr. Christiaan Barnard. Similarly, there is only one Great Physician and mediator between God and Man-Jesus the Messiah.


Jesus is the only one who can represent God to humanity and humanity to God. Although fully divine, he voluntarily limited himself, putting the "omnis" (omnipotence and omniscience) on hold in order to become a human being (Phil 2:5-11). Having lived a human life, he understands the challenges human beings face (Heb 2:17-18). At the same time, he is the only human being who has lived a sinless life (Heb 4:15), the only one who could have died for our sins, offering a perfect sacrifice on our behalf.


And why was the death of Jesus necessary? Because God is holy, just, and righteous, and so cannot take a pass on sin forever. Light can have no fellowship with darkness, Witherington said, unless darkness is removed.


What about the Unevangelized?

Dr. Witherington addressed one final question: God "desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth" (1 Tim 2:4). But what about those who have never heard the Gospel?


On this question he referred the audience to Romans 1, which states that everyone has received the general revelation of God in creation (vv. 19-20). This means that everyone knows something about the reality and power of God. The question, Witherington said, is not knowledge but acknowledgment. People have too often "exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator" (Rom 1:25). We know the truth, but do not like it. The problem is not ignorance, but sin. As John 1:5 says, "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it."


People will be judged according to what they have done with what they know, Witherington said. And so missions and evangelism are crucial, in order to point everyone away from false religions (the most prevalent one being narcissism) and toward the unique source of salvation, Jesus the Messiah.


Dr. Witherington's address could be described as part lecture and part sermon. He spoke to a predominantly Christian audience at Miami, people who already acknowledged Jesus as Lord and Savior. For this audience, his combination of knowledge and conviction, logic and passion was greatly inspirational.


1One example is blind Bartimaeus (Mark 10:46-52), who was probably thinking of Jesus as a healer like Solomon. (For legends about the healing powers of Solomon, see Josephus, Ant. 8.2.5.)

Issue 33


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On 04 Jul 2018, 18:34.