November 2006 - Vol. 2
The Son of Man
In memory of C.S. Lewis, who opened our eyes concerning these truths
by Carlos Mantica
An excerpt from his book, From
Egghood to Birdhood: Hatch or Rot as a Christian (available in Spanish
["Christ Pancrator" - a 6th century
icon, St. Catherine's Monastery, Mount Sinai, Egypt]
Who is Jesus of Nazareth?
Sometimes we know, or think we know, a person, and after many years it turns out we really did not know who he was. I think the same can happen to us concerning Jesus. We have known him for years, but maybe we don’t know what his real identity is.
"Who is in fact Jesus of Nazareth? What is his true identity? What makes him different from everyone else?"
Having walked side by side with him for many years is no guarantee of certainty. If you remember, this is the same question Jesus posed to his disciples, and they could not answer it: "Who do people say the Son of man is?" he asked. And then the disciples replied: "Well, some people say that you are Elijah, others say you are Jeremiah, others say you are John the Baptist." People just didn’t know who Jesus Christ was.
Two thousand years later, many people continue to give the same answers as that day. They won’t use the same words, but the meaning is the same. Elijah and Jeremiah were great prophets; John the Baptist was a brave, moralizing leader. For millions of people, including many who call themselves Christians, Jesus is, above all, that: a great leader, a great teacher, a great moralist, a great prophet... but only that.
As often happens with misunderstandings, Jesus was in fact all that, and had those features in common with Elijah, Jeremiah and John the Baptist. But that is not his true identity.
"But who do you say that I
What made him different from them? Since people were unable to answer, Jesus asked his disciples: "But who do you say that I am?" And only Peter replied, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God" (Mt. 16:15-16).
What I would like to do is to demonstrate that Christ cannot be for us, above all, a great teacher, or a great leader, or a great moralist, or a great miracle-worker, or a great prophet. That he was in fact all of these things, but that this is not his true identity. That if Jesus is not, first and foremost, what Peter said he was ("You are the Christ, the Son of the living God"), then Christ is none of those other things. He is neither a great teacher, nor a great moralist, nor a great leader, but merely a fraud who does not even deserve our attention.
I’m sure all of us have heard many times expressions like this: "I believe in Christ! I believe that Christ is the most extraordinary Teacher that has ever lived; that his doctrine is the most beautiful, the most humane and at the same time the most sublime of all doctrines; that his personality is exquisite; that he is a leader worth dying for. But I cannot accept that Christ is God."
Any man who were merely a man and said the things that Christ says, does not deserve to be called a teacher or a leader or a moralist or anything of that sort. There are but two possibilities: either you call him a madman, a scoundrel, a cheat, or whatever you can think of, or else you call him the Son of God. One can spit at him, abuse him or kill him, or else one must fall at his feet and acclaim him as Thomas did, "My Lord and my God!" (John 20:28). But there is really nothing in what he says or in what he does that would allow us to reconcile the impossible. Either we worship him and we serve him as God... or we will be entitled to despise him and neglect him as one who is not worthy of being taken seriously. And now I want to explain why this is so.
In a certain way we have to accept that Christ was a great teacher. In fact, he says so himself to his apostles: "You call me Teacher... and you are right, for so I am" (John 13:13). One day some soldiers were sent to arrest him, and they came back to their officers with empty hands and this explanation: "No man ever spoke like this man!" (John 7:46). At one of the most difficult moments, when everyone wanted to desert Jesus, precisely because of one of those absurd things he said, Peter alone can exclaim: "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life" (John 6:68).
"I am the Truth"
Yet this is not the kind of teacher that those who want to see Jesus only as a teacher have in mind. Indeed, Jesus is a very strange teacher. A teacher will normally say, "I tell the truth," or, "I teach the truth." There may even be some teacher who thinks, "I have the truth." But Christ does not say that. He says: "I am the truth." And, brothers and sisters, that’s quite a different thing. Because, if he is the truth, in order to be his disciple it won’t be enough to listen to him the way you listen to a teacher. It will not be enough to believe what Christ says, but you have to accept what Christ is. And you have to have him, you have to be in him, because, if he is the truth, then I cannot be in the truth if I am not in him.
A leader may say, "This is the way you need to follow." Christ, instead, does not point to a way, but says: "I am the way... Follow me!" A Latin American singer, quoting an old adage from Chinese Buddhism, says: "I no longer mistake the moon for the finger that points to it." The world is full of leaders – fingers pointing to moons and ways. Christ does not point to anything. Christ is that moon, and points to himself.
Neither is Christ the great miracle worker who brings those who had died back to life. Instead, he says, "I am the life." Thus he has rescued us from death, offering himself up for us. In one of the most tender passages of the Gospel, Martha, his friend for many years, but who, like many others, has not yet understood who Christ is, comes near Jesus and, with her eyes full of tears, says to him: "I know that [Lazarus] will rise again in the resurrection at the last day." Jesus replies: "I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die" (John 11:24-25).
If this man is merely a man, then he’s utterly crazy. Jesus says things like these: "I am the resurrection. I am the life. I am the light of the world. I am the bread which came down from heaven. I am the true vine. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end." And even more clearly, "When you have lifted [me] up... then you will know that I am." That I am what? "I am that I am." This is the name with which God reveals himself to Moses at Sinai. He and his Father are one.
But what I want to underscore is that this so-called Teacher does not say, "I know, I teach, I announce, I point to, I can, I lead," but "I am." Either Jesus is he who is, who was and is to come, the Son of the living God, or else he is nothing but an irresponsible madman to whom one could never ascribe the title of teacher.
He comes to close all other
Neither can one think of Christ as a great religious leader. Why? Because if religion is that which man has done to come near to God, if religion is the way to come to God, then Christ does not teach us how to come to God. Rather, he is the God who comes to man. He does not point to ways of reaching God, but exactly the opposite. He clearly says, "No one comes to the Father, but by me" (John 14:6). He does not come to open ways for reaching God. He comes to close all the ways that had been opened by man and by the so-called religious leaders. He is the only way. And no one comes to the Father except through the only way that is Christ.
He has not come, either, to teach us about God the way theologians and teachers do. Rather, he has come to reveal God to us by revealing himself to men. This is the meaning of the term Logos, the Word. The incarnate Word expresses what God is, the idea that God has about himself. And Christ reveals God to us by revealing himself. That is why he tells Philip, "He who has seen me has seen the Father" (John 14:9). Christ does not reveal God in the style of Israel’s teachers, but making God present among us. "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us" (John 1:14).
Christ is no mere moralist
As you know, other people have tried to see in Jesus Christ a great moralist. And he certainly was such, but not in the fashion of those who would like Christ to be merely a moralist. If Christ is not God, then even as a moralist he is a disaster. To begin with, he would almost always be found in bad company. He was a friend to prostitutes, tax collectors, collaborators of the Roman invading imperialism, usurious moneylenders, and all this under the excuse that "I came not to call the righteous, but sinners" (Mt. 9:13).
He commends a prostitute because she spends a lot of money – money that should have been given to the poor as must be – in some perfume for anointing him. Judas remarked, "That’s an injustice! There are so many people in need!" But Jesus goes even farther when he chides the owner of the house, who had invited him over to dinner: "You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven" (Lk. 8:46-47), and this was because of that squandering of money and of love that she showed towards him.
In Luke 16 he praises an administrator because he forgives his master’s debtors a lot of debts that he had no right to forgive, and he praises him precisely because he has won friends for himself on the basis of someone else’s money.
In Matthew 21:31 he scandalizes everyone when he asserts, "The tax collectors and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you."
In Luke 18, in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector who went up to the temple to pray, what this great moralist teaches us is that, between this perfectly virtuous man – because he indeed was – , though full of conceit because he thought he would save himself by his merit, and this sinner – who is not pretending before God, but is really a sinner – , but who acknowledges to be guilty, what Christ says is, "I’d rather take the sinner."
To a woman who had been caught in adultery and that was condemned to death, he says: "‘Where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ She said, ‘No one, Lord.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again’" (John 8:10-11). The moralists of Israel would stone an adulterous woman to death. This man, instead, writes down on the ground the sins of the moralists, and forgives the adulterous woman. As an extreme act, one of the few people to whom Christ promises Paradise (as if it were his) is nothing less than a thief, and this at the very scaffold.
So, let us thank God that Christ is no mere moralist. If he were one, then you and I would have been nailed to that cross. But he took our place, which is also a crazy act – to die for people like me!
Many today deny that which even demons proclaim out loud. In Mark 5:6-7, the Gerasene demoniac, "when he saw Jesus from afar, he ran and worshipped him; and crying out with a loud voice, he said, ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.’" The case of the Capernaum demoniac in Luke 4:34 is similar: "What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God." Thus, even demons know it!
To the shame of all, it is the most incredulous of all disciples who says what no one else in the whole Bible had said— "My Lord and my God!" (John 20:28). He says it thus, with all clarity, for everyone to understand, because we are slower to understand and harder of heart than the very unbelievers and the demons.
What makes Jesus Christ different?
For others, Christ was a great revolutionary. Those who say that have not read Che Guevara. For Che, a revolutionary’s first duty is not to let others kill him. He says so in his memoirs. For Christ, instead, the very reason why he becomes a man is to let others kill him. That’s more than enough for me.
Finally, there is one more error into which many people fall, which is to believe that if all of us were to follow the wise advice of this great teacher and moralist we would all live in a true Paradise. But, brothers and sisters, strange though this may seem to you, this is not completely true.
I know that if we all followed his doctrine, if we all lived according to his commands, we would live in a much better world. That’s obvious. But that is not what makes Christ different from the rest of men. That does not make him unique. The world would also be much better if we all lived according to the teachings of Plato, Aristotle, or Confucius. So this is not what makes Jesus Christ different. The world has never heeded great teachers or followed their advice. What makes us think that it would be different in Christ’s case?
Oh, we say, it’s because his doctrine is much better than the rest. Well, if it’s better, that puts us in a much worse place. Because, if we were not able to obey the law that was given to Moses, which nobody fulfilled except Jesus, much less will we be able to live according to the Beatitudes or the New Commandment. If we failed our elementary school, how can we pass our high school?
That is why, if Christ only came to give us good advice, to give us a better morality than any other, a doctrine that is superior to the rest, then he came in vain and could have spared the trip.
But the Lord did not come to share his advice, or to give a new law so that, being forced to live it out, we would live in happiness. The perfect law had already been given, and he came to fulfill it, not to change it. Christ gave in order to give us power to fulfill the law, to give us his own Spirit, which is his own way of being, God’s energy and power, so that we might be and love with his own way of being and of loving. Now that’s the topic of a whole new book.
Christ is not content with us just being good. Christ is not content with us just being better. Christ is not content with just forgiving our sins. Christ wants us to be like him. Christ wants us to be him-members of his body (1 Cor. 12). Christ wants us to be perfect as his heavenly Father is perfect, and he died in order to make all of this possible, and has given us his own Spirit in order to gradually make that possible in each of us.
Christ is not a mere teacher, nor is he the greatest teacher. But for millions of Muslims, for millions of Jews and maybe for millions of Christians, that’s all that Christ Jesus is.
Now I ask you very seriously the same question that Jesus once asked those who had been with him for several years: "Who do you say that the Son of man is?" If you answer like Peter, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God," then the Apostle John has one word for you: "To all who received him... he gave power to become children of God" (John 1:12).
Who is Jesus of Nazareth today?
And yet we have not actually answered the question, Who is Jesus of Nazareth? What is his true identity? And that’s because I am not asking who Jesus was, but rather who Jesus of Nazareth is today. Today Christ is something more than he was when he posed that question. There is something that the Incarnate Word had the possibility of not being but now is.
When the Apostle John tells us that "in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God," he is saying what Christ has been from all eternity. He is the Pantocrator, the sovereign Lord of all things and their creator. Through him and for him all things were created. John is answering with what Christ was from the beginning.
But today Christ is something more than he was before. When Peter replies, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God," he is responding correctly to what Christ is and continues to be. He is the Divine Word, made flesh in Mary’s womb, who became a man in order to save us – that is, he is the expected Messiah, the Christ, and at the same time the Son of the living God. Before that he was not a man, nor the Son of man, nor the Messiah. Today he is something more.
Jesus is the Word from all eternity, "begotten not made," as we say in the Creed. As Son of God he becomes the son of man, the son of Mary, when he is conceived in his mother’s womb. Only then is he a man. Throughout his ministry he is also a prophet, a teacher, a miracle-worker, and a moralist. When he dies he becomes our Redeemer. When he gives us his Holy Spirit he becomes our Savior. Christ is all of those things, but he is something more. And this is something that originates in his death.
To begin with, he starts saying things he did not say before, things like: "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me," and "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations" (Mt. 28:18-19). He is now entitled to have all the nations of the earth submitted to him. And this time it is Thomas, the incredulous one, as I said earlier, the only one who teaches us the true and full identity of Jesus. In the presence of the risen Christ, Thomas falls on his knees and exclaims, "My Lord and my God!"
Jesus Christ is Lord
He is not just the man-God incarnate. Jesus is now, first of all and above all things, the Lord. This is after he had said, "It is finished... it is fulfilled." And, precisely because he has been obedient unto death, and death on a cross, a new title is now conferred upon him:
Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed upon him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord [this is his new name], to the glory of God the Father (Phil. 2:9-11).John is also aware that something has changed. That is why he now says in Rev. 19:11-16:
Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! He who sat upon it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war... And he has a name inscribed which no one knows but himself. He is clad in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God... On his robe and on his thigh he has a name inscribed, King of kings and Lord of lords.You will perhaps ask for the reason of such a complicated exegesis, just to say that Jesus is the Lord. But it makes sense, because if Christ is truly the Lord, the Lord of everything that exists, and if that is his true identity, but he happens not to be truly your Lord, then, brother or sister, you don’t know who Christ is. Christ is not for you what he truly is and is called to be.
That Christ is the Lord means that he has a claim on everything and on everyone. It means that he owes us absolutely nothing, and that there is nothing we can demand from him, that he has an absolute claim on us and is able to do whatever he wants. It means that our condition is now as servants, because that is the condition he took on for us – not only in order for us to be free, but, as St. Paul says, that we might live no longer for ourselves, but for him who for our sake died and was raised (cf. 2 Cor. 5:15).
Christ accepts no arguments
A man can be admired. In the case of Christ, admiring him is not enough.
A teacher can be believed. In the case of Christ, believing what he says is not enough.
A moralist can be argued against. Christ accepts no arguments.
A leader can be followed. Judas followed him just like the rest.
What makes the Lord different from all others is that a Lord can give commands. He can command, "Follow me;" he can command, "Love me;" he can command, "Serve me;" he can command, "Believe in me;" he can command, "Obey my precepts;" he can command, "Fulfill the mission I have entrusted to you."
He can command, "Come, O blessed of my Father" (Mt. 25:34). He can command that the same amount be paid to those of the sixth hour as to those of the ninth hour, because it is his will that it be so. Because "you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s" (1 Cor. 3:23).
He can command to the fig tree, "Wither down!"; and to the tempest, "Be still!"; and to Peter, "Get behind me!"; and to the paralytic, "Rise!"; and to Lazarus, "Come out!"
Christ's true identity and
In the identity and greatness of Jesus, the Lord, our own identity is also involved. David had written concerning Christ, "The Lord said to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand, till I make your enemies your footstool’" (Psalm 110:1). Concerning us, Paul says that he "raised us up with him, and made us sit with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus" (Eph. 2:6).
God the Father has done with us, his children, the same he did with his only-begotten Son. This is such a lofty mystery, so high above our understanding, so far superior to everything we have seen or heard or have even been able to imagine, that, just like Paul, we must pray that
the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him... that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power in us who believe, according to the working of his great might which he accomplished in Christ when he raised him from the dead and made him sit at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come; and he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fulness of him who fills all in all (Eph. 1:17-23).I don’t know if you understood this passage. Christ sat at the right hand of the Father, and he has made us to sit (not some day in the far-away future, but right now) in the heavenly places with Christ.
He put all things under him, both the things in this age but also in that which is to come; things in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth. And we, his Church, are the fulness of Christ our head, of him who fills all in all; we all constitute the total Christ. And because we are his body, then the lowliest among us, he who could be considered to be at the height of the soles of the feet of that body whose head is Christ, he who is the most unworthy... even that individual is above every rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named in this age and also in that which is to come, because all things have been placed under his feet!
That is, brothers and sisters, the true identity of Christ. And that is, brothers and sisters, our true identity.
To the only God, our Savior through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and for ever. Amen (Jude 25).