Who do you say I am?

 

GUEST ARTICLE

Who Do You Say I Am?

Timothy Oliver

But I fear, lest by any means, as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtilty, so your minds should be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ. For if he that cometh preacheth another Jesus, whom we have not preached, or if ye receive another spirit, which ye have not received, or another gospel, which ye have not accepted, ye might well bear with him.” 2 Corinthians 11:3-4

The apostle Paul was deeply concerned about the Corinthian Christians being led astray from the true faith. In their day, just as in the last quarter of the twentieth-century, rampant religious pluralism not only called the exclusive claims of Christianity into question,1 but also presented serious challenges to the maintenance of pure and sound doctrine within the household of faith.2 Various voices clamored to be heard, no doubt demanding in the name of “tolerance” to be recognized as legitimately Christian. Paul could see in the Corinthians a tendency to be so tolerant that they were in danger of accepting a false Jesus, a false (demonic) spirit, and a false gospel.

Modern culture has fared no better. A great diversity of religious organizations and doctrines vie for acceptance as legitimate Christianity. From the standpoint of logic alone these different views are sufficiently contrary to each other that they cannot possibly all be correct. More importantly, their divergence from the teaching of the Bible concerning Jesus is so great that most must be described as “another Jesus” who differs from the biblical Jesus. This article will examine some of these different Christs, and then present the biblical picture of Christ. Obviously, nothing like a full-blown Christology may be attempted here. That is not necessary, however, to understand the subject sufficiently to recognize the false Christs of alternative religions.

The Mormon Jesus

The Mormon Church, calling itself The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, points to its use of Christ’s name as proof that they are a Christian church. Critics do not contest the devotion of Mormons to a being they know under the name of Jesus Christ, and can understand the Mormons’ consternation at being labeled as a non-Christian, even anti-Christian, church. Christians nevertheless continue to regard Mormonism as such, largely due to its extra-biblical teaching about Christ. Mormons want this teaching to be accepted as “additional information.” Christians, who recognize that the additional information also contradicts the biblical witness, cannot accept such extra-biblical teaching.

Some essential aspect of Christ’s being is acknowledged by Mormonism to be eternal (on the same basis all humanity is said to be eternal3). Christ is nevertheless a created (read, organized) being according to Mormonism. His existence as a self-conscious, organized being having a spirit body entails that he had a beginning, and thus owes his existence as such a being to previously existing beings-his celestial parents. He was their first-born spirit-child,4 to be followed by the spirits of all the rest of humanity to live on this earth (and other worlds without number).5

While Mormonism says Jesus Christ is divine, it recognizes nothing in his ontological nature that would distinguish him from the rest of humanity. That is, Mormonism has so redefined divinity as to grant the divine nature to every human being. Humans and God are of the same species; humans are “Gods in embryo” with the potential of maturing into Gods themselves.6 Jesus is simply one more of these beings whose performance established a purity deemed worthy to exercise divine power even before acquiring a physical body like that of God the Father.7 To provide that physical body, God the Father came to earth and had sexual relations with Mary.8

Mormonism acknowledges the historical events of Jesus’ life as recorded in the Bible, and most of his teachings. They even acknowledge Christ as Jehovah (Yahweh), the God of the Old Testament, and so again, they believe they are following the Jesus of the Bible. However, they fail to adequately apply to Christ the divine attributes portrayed in the Old Testament. The Mormon Jesus is not unique as the one and only God in all eternity,9 nor truly and fully God from all eternity past.10

The Mormon Jesus provides only resurrection and immortality (living forever in a physical body) as a free gift of grace to all humanity, apart from any human effort, works, or virtue. While Mormons believe Jesus made an atonement for sin, they don’t believe that atonement by itself saves anyone from sin. But neither do they believe that they can save themselves through their own efforts alone. Final and permanent forgiveness of sins and eternal life with God require God’s grace (provided in Christ’s atonement), plus ordinances, human repentance of all sin, and doing good works.11 All these elements are essential; no one of them, without the others, is sufficient for full salvation. Salvation by the Mormon Jesus therefore requires not only faith in Christ, but faith in ordinances, faith in a priesthood, faith in priesthood holders, and reliance on one’s own works as sufficiently righteous to induce God to apply all the benefits of the atonement to oneself.12

The Watchtower Jesus

While Mormonism subverts Jesus’ divinity by redefining divinity itself, the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society (whose members are commonly known as Jehovah’s Witnesses) simply denies that Jesus is truly divine in the same sense as God the Father.13 This does not stop them from acknowledging that Jesus is in a limited sense divine, and a mighty god. They deny, however, that He is Almighty God, eternal, uncreated, and sharing the nature and substance of the Father as God.14 The Watchtower instead says that Christ was the first creation made by Jehovah God. Notably, he was not known at that time as Christ but as “the Word” (logos) and as Michael the archangel. Then, using Michael (pre-incarnate Christ) as His agent, Jehovah God created all other things.15

It was not God, then, but Michael the archangel who took on human flesh in Bethlehem.16 Aside from his conception in a virgin, Michael’s existence as the man Jesus was not particularly different from other men until his baptism at age thirty when he was anointed with holy spirit to be the Christ (Messiah).17 And it was not God, but the created being Michael who was in Christ reconciling the world to God by his ransom sacrifice on the cross18 (which the Watchtower says was not a cross, but a “torture stake”19). After Jesus died and was buried, his resurrection consisted in Michael the archangel returning to his former position in the spiritual realm, while the physical body of Jesus “was disposed of by Jehovah God, dissolved into its constituent elements or atoms.”20 Michael/Christ now stands as judge and executioner, ready to inflict Jehovah’s wrath on the wicked at the appointed time.21

Like the Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses profess belief in an atonement, usually referred to as “the ransom sacrifice.” Jesus is also referred to as the Mediator. Unfortunately, the covenant of which he is mediator includes only 144,000 “spirit anointed” Christians out of all humanity.22 These are the only people who will ever go to heaven to be with God. But Christ is not the only mediator. In the Watchtower system these 144,000 become mediators themselves, administering to other humans not in the covenant (but who nevertheless are sufficiently obedient and put faith in the merit of the ransom sacrifice of Christ) almost all the blessings of the covenant secured by Christ.23 The one blessing not received by the humans not included in the covenant is life in heaven with God.

The rest of humanity who put faith in the ransom sacrifice and survive Armageddon will receive forgiveness of sins and life everlasting on a paradise earth. Survival of Armageddon, however, is no certainty even for those putting faith in the ransom sacrifice.24 As in Mormonism, more than God’s grace is required. Repentance (cessation) of sin, submission to the Watchtower, and wholehearted devotion and service to God are all essential. Instead of being Savior, the Watchtower Jesus will be executioner even to Watchtower members who fail to serve Jehovah and His organization properly.25

The New Age Jesus and Christ

The New Age Movement itself is so diverse that nothing can be written here which will satisfy every self-consciously New Age person as representative of their beliefs about Jesus Christ. There are a number of points, however, which are generally true of most New Age believers.

Perhaps the first and most important point to note is the usual distinction made by New Agers between Jesus and Christ.26 Jesus, in himself, is almost invariably regarded as merely a man like any other man, except that He may also be acknowledged as a great or even supreme teacher and example for, and of, humanity.27 Christ, on the other hand, is usually identified more as a divine essence or power, which came upon Jesus, or to which Jesus somehow attuned himself. As such, this same Christ is believed to be accessible by all persons, something like “the Force” (or perhaps the “light side” of the Force) in the Star Wars movies. Anyone can be “a Christ” or tap into “the Christ,” given sufficient dedication, knowledge, “technology,” and practice.28

Another distinguishing element of most New Age belief systems is pantheism.29 This is the idea that all is God and God is all. Frequently, then, the New Age Christ is identified as the Divine Consciousness in its essence. Attaining a Christ Consciousness is to experience one’s fundamental unity with the Universe and everything in it. It is to become lost in the Divine Consciousness, or better put, to experience oneself as the Divine Consciousness, at one with the Universe as a manifestation of one’s self. The New Age Christ is all: he creates, sustains, permeates all – and oneself is Christ.

The New Age Jesus makes no claim to save man from sin or the wrath of a Holy God against sin, for the simple reason that there really is no sin, in a moral or culpable sense. He was not so much a savior as a revealer.30 What Christ revealed through Jesus, and through many other adepts today, is simply what works and what does not work – true knowledge vs. ignorance, what promotes and what prevents experiencing oneself as the Divine Consciousness. Faith in Christ, fully realized, will ultimately be seen and understood as faith in Oneself.31 It is to know by experience that I am the I Am.32

The Christian Science Jesus and Christ

Christian Science was perhaps the first modern attempt to blend Christianity and what is referred to today as New Age philosophy or beliefs. True to form, it distinguishes between the man Jesus and the Christ. For example, the man Jesus suffered on the cross; the Christ did not suffer anything.33

God, as the only author of man, has a perfect idea of man. Mary, according to Christian Science, was able to give birth to Jesus while a virgin because she was able to conceive of this perfect idea, this divine Principle dwelling in the bosom of God. Fully recognizing that “being is Spirit,” Mary understood that the manifestation of God’s perfect idea did not require a flesh and blood father. Born out of Mary’s “self-conscious communion with God,” Jesus was “endowed with the Christ,” and was “the offspring of soul” rather than “of material sense.”34

The Christian Science Christ is the Spirit, the Divine Truth, Life, and Love which animated the man Jesus. The Christ is the Way, while Jesus was the “way-shower.”35

Neither the Jesus nor the Christ of Christian Science offers humankind salvation from sin by means of a substitute suffering the penalty of sin in their place.36 Instead, the only hope of pardon and salvation for any person lies in that person eliminating all sin (false beliefs and the behavior they spawn) from his/her life.37

The Jesus and Christ of the “Jesus Seminar”

Within “Liberal Christianity” it has become chic to “search for” (read define) the “historical Jesus.” That is, scholars in this tradition seek to separate the man Jesus from all the religious “myth” that has grown up around Him. The Jesus of history was a man. The Jesus of the gospels, the “Christ of faith,” is a theological construct – the myths built around and upon the man Jesus by the early Church and its leaders. The scholars mean to deconstruct these myths so that the “real” Jesus may be seen.38

 Whether or not it is the object of such studies, their effect is to justify any number of other “Christs” or theological constructs that may have been extant in the first centuries after the death of the man Jesus, which were later “suppressed” by the Church fathers.39 Naturally this process denies any ultimate authority or legitimacy to the Christ as understood in historic, biblically orthodox Christianity.40Moreover, in the pluralistic worldview so common today, it has the added appeal of validating any other “Christ” moderns may choose to believe in, particularly those for whom some first century roots may be found.

Christ, then, does not exist in actual historical fact or even as a metaphysical or spiritual reality,41 but only as various sets of belief about Jesus the man. And the man Jesus appears to be a very ordinary man indeed, in the hands of the Jesus Seminar’s scholars, who hold to an entirely “naturalistic” worldview that denies out-of-hand any possibility of the miraculous.42 Thus, any account of the miraculous in connection with Jesus must be stripped away to find Jesus, the real man. Likewise, all statements indicating His divinity or warning of impending judgment fall to the Seminar’s shears. All that is left is a vapid and boring little man who never could have gotten himself crucified, much less inspired anyone to start a movement or create “myths” about himself.43

The Jesus of the Bible

The Jesus of the Bible was, and is, fully God, and fully human. Put another way, there is no separation between Jesus and Christ in the Bible. Jesus was, and is, the one and only God-Man. Even the gospel of our salvation depends upon this truth. Had Jesus not been both God and man He could not have atoned for the sins of all His people. No righteous being in the universe accepts worship of himself, but always directs worship to God as the only Being worthy of worship.44 Jesus, however, did accept worship of himself on different occasions,45 and taught that this was proper.46 Either He was unrighteous, in doing so, or He really was God in human flesh.

Though they refused to believe it, the Jewish leaders rightly understood Jesus’ claim to be God and the revelation of God.47 The deity of Christ is also taught in Acts and various epistles of the New Testament.48 Paul and the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews apply to Christ Old Testament scriptures that were explicit references to God.49 And John, who so clearly teaches the divine nature of Jesus,50 nevertheless also makes acknowledgment of His humanity an essential article of the faith.51

None of the above, however, means that Jesus is the Father. While Jesus claimed a union with the Father indicative of His own divine nature, He also distinguished between Himself and the Father.52 In other words, while They are one Being, one God, together with the Holy Spirit, They are also distinct Persons. Being God Himself, Jesus is co-equal to the Father; He cannot be less and still be God. Nevertheless, Jesus could still say that the Father was “greater” than He.53 This probably has particular reference to His state while on earth, having humbled Himself to become a human being.54

But it may also refer to the manner in which the First and Second Persons of the Godhead relate to one another, both in eternity and while Christ was incarnate on earth. The Bible makes it clear that men and women are equal in Christ,55 yet the husband is head of the wife,56 and not the reverse. Likewise the First and Second Persons of the Godhead, though equally God in their nature, relate to one another as a loving Father and Son, the Son always submitting to, and doing, the will of the Father.57

[We prefer to refrain from speculative ideas of “persons” and the intricacies of the “Godhead” and the “Trinity” and encourage all to aim for more Scriptural terminology and concepts. RH]

The Jesus of the Bible is also not merely the “way-shower” illuminating the path to God, which all men must likewise tread for themselves. Rather, according to His own claim, He is the way itself.58 He did not simply make salvation a possibility; He accomplished the salvation of His people.59 Of all that the Father has given Him, He loses not one.60 His atoning death cancels forever their debt of sin.61 His perfect righteousness, demonstrated in His sinless life on earth, is credited to the believer as an entirely free gift.62That righteousness, the righteousness of God, lacks nothing; it is sufficient, alone, without any addition or supplement by man, to put its recipient in a completely right relationship with God. In Him the believer is complete.63

1 Jack Finegan, Myth & Mystery: An Introduction to the Pagan Religions of the Biblical World. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1989).

2 D.A. Carson, The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996): 270-72 and notes. Gerald Bray, Creeds, Councils and Christ (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1984).

3 Doctrine & Covenants 93:29.

4 Bruce R. McConkie, Conference Reports, October 1948: 23. Lowell L. Bennion, An Introduction to the Gospel. (Salt Lake City: The Utah Printing Co., 1959): 129-30. Robert L. Millet, “Jesus Christ: Overview,” and Jerry C. Giles, “Jesus Christ: Firstborn In the Spirit,” in Encyclopedia of Mormonism. (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1992).

5 Moses 1:33; D&C 76:24.

6 Ezra Taft Benson, The Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson. (Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, 1988): 21. Discourses delivered by Elder Abraham H. Cannon, in the Tabernacle, Salt Lake City, Sunday Afternoon, July 1st, 1894, and Orson F. Whitney, at the Y.M.M.I.A. Annual Conference, June 9, 1895, both in Brian H. Stuy, ed. Collected Discourses. 5 vols. (Burbank, California, and Woodland Hills, Utah: B.H.S. Publishing, 1987-1992) Vol. 4.

7 Bruce R. McConkie, Doctrinal New Testament Commentary. 3 vols. (Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, 1965-1973): 190.

8 Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, 4:218; 8:115. Bruce R. McConkie, The Promised Messiah, (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Company, 1978-82): 468. Idem., Mormon Doctrine, (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966): 546-47, 742. Larry E Dahl, “The Morning Breaks, the Shadows Flee,” Ensign, (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, April, 1997): 15.

9 Deuteronomy 4:35, 39; Isaiah 44:6, 8, 24; Psalm 147:5.

10 Psalm 41:13; 90:2; 93:2; Habakkuk 1:12.

11 Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine. 2d ed. (Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, 1966): 669, 671. Moroni 10:32, 33.

12 Doctrine & Covenants 14:7; 76:52. Joseph Smith Jr., Lectures on Faith. Compiled by Nels B. Lundwall. (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, n.d.): 33, 37, 57-59.

13 Insight on the Scriptures, Vol. 2. (Brooklyn: Watchtower Bible & Tract Society, 1988): 52.

14 Ibid., 54.

15 Ibid., 52, 393-4.

16 Micah 5:2. The Watchtower applies Micah 5:2 to Christ, but identifies Christ as Michael the archangel.

17 Insight, 56, 59, 60. Neither is holy spirit God, according to the Watchtower, but it is the power of God put forth by God for various purposes, as in creation and to empower people for God’s service (Insight, 1019-24).

18 2 Corinthians 5:19.

19 Insight, 61, 1116-17.

20 Watchtower, September 1, 1953, p. 518.

21 Survival, (Brooklyn: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, 1984): 28, 60. Reasoning from the Scriptures, (Brooklyn: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, 1989): 341. Watchtower, November 15, 1995, p. 15.

22 Insight, 362.

23 Ibid., 363. Survival, 65.

24 Survival, 80.

25 Ibid., 60, 64, 67, 92.

26 See, e.g., George Trevelyan, Operation Redemption: A Vision of Hope in an Age of Turmoil, (Walpole, NH: Stillpoint, 1985): 37. Mark L. and Elizabeth Clare Prophet, The Lost Teachings of Jesus 1: Missing Texts, Karma and Reincarnation, (Livingston, MT: Summit University Press, 1986): 115-16.

27 See, e.g., Levi Dowling, The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus Christ, (London: L. N. Fowler & Co., 1947): 54, 97.

28 David Spangler, Reflections on the Christ, (Forres, Scotland: Findhorn Publications, 1981): 73.

29 Dowling, 56.

30 Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels, (New York: Random House, 1979): xx.

31 David Spangler, Relationship and Identity, (Forres, Scotland: Findhorn Publications, 1978): 44.

32 Mark L. and Elizabeth Clare Prophet, The Lost Teachings of Jesus 2: Mysteries of the Higher Self, (Livingston, MT: Summit University Press, 1988): 62.  David Spangler, The Laws of Manifestation, (Forres, Scotland: Findhorn Publications, 1983): 23-24.

33 Mary Baker Eddy, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, (Boston: First Church of Christ, Scientist, 1971): 38:21-24.

34 Ibid., 29:14-30:25 passim.

35 Ibid., 26:10-33; 30:10.

36 Ibid., 11:12-20; 22:27-23:7; 25:3-9; 35:30-36:9.

37 Ibid., 40:8-16.

38 Robert W. Funk, Roy W. Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar, The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus, (New York: Polebridge Press, 1993): 1-7.

39 Gregory Riley, One Jesus, Many Christs: How Jesus Inspired Not One true Christianity, But Many, (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1997).

40 Funk, et al., 5-7, 24-26.

41 A possible exception to this general view is: Marcus Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1994). Though Borg, a Jesus Seminar member, dismisses the New Testament records, he seems to advocate a spiritual view of Jesus along New Age lines.

42 Douglas Groothuis, Searching for the Real Jesus In An Age of Controversy, (Eugene: Harvest House Publishers, 1996): 28-32.

43 Ibid., 35-36.

44 See, e.g., Matthew 4:10; Acts 10:25-26; 14:11-18; Revelation 19:10; 22:8-9; cf. Acts 12:21-23.

45 Matthew 14:33; Luke 24:51-52; John 9:38; 20:28-29.

46 John 5:22-23.

47 John 5:18; 8:58-59; 9:40-41; 10:33; 19:7.

48 E.g., Acts 20:28; Romans 9:5; 2 Corinthians 5:19-20; Colossians 1:16-19; 2:9; Titus 3:4-6.

49 Cf. 1 Corinthians 1:30 with Isaiah 45:24 and Jeremiah 23:6; 33:16. Cf. 1 Corinthians 1:31 with Jeremiah 9:23-24. Cf. Philippians 2:9-10 with Isaiah 42:8; 45:22-23. Cf. Hebrews 1:6 with Psalm 97:7; Hebrews 1:8-9 with Psalm 45:6-7; Hebrews 1:10-12 with Psalm 102:25-27.

50 John1:1-4, 14; 2:19-21; 8:24, 28, {43, 47}, 58; 10:38; 13:19.

51 1 John 4:1-3.

52 John 10:28-30, 38; 12:44-45; 14:9-11; 17:5, 10, 24.

53 John 10:29; 14:28.

54 Philippians 2:6-8.

55 Galatians 3:28.

56 Ephesians 5:23.

57 Luke 22:42; John 4:34; 5:19, 30; 6:38; 7:16; 8:28-29; 10:37-38; 12:49-50; 14:10, 24, 31; 17:4.

58 John 14:6.

59 Matthew 1:21.

60 John 6:37-40; 10:28-30; Romans 8:29-30.

61 Colossians 2:13-14; Romans 8:31-39.

62 Romans 4:4-8, 11, 22-24; 5:17, 19; Philippians 3:8-9; Colossians 1:12:14.

63 Colossians 2:10; 2 Peter 1:2-4.

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