As we make our way to Christmas Day when millions of Christians worldwide celebrate the birth of Jesus, perhaps it’s worth asking, “Who is Jesus?”
For many, Jesus is first and foremost the Savior of the world. He was born to die, many churches teach, so that those who believe in him can have everlasting life ”salvation.
Curiously, Savior is one of the most infrequent titles used of Jesus in the New Testament. In fact, the word only appears 24 times and six of those reference “God as Savior.”
Far more frequent is the title, “Lord.” Calling Jesus Lord created some tension for early Christians because the title Lord was also applied to the Roman Emperor. Many scholars have pointed out that the some of the writers of the New Testament play up the contrast between the political powers of Rome and the relative weakness of Jesus. Paul certainly seems in touch with this line of thinking as he writes to the Corinthians about the foolishness of the cross.
Eventually the claim that “Jesus is Lord,” brought Christians in the first century into direct conflict with Rome. The Book of Revelation is mainly about a clash between the followers of Jesus and the Emperor Domitian. At issue in the clash was the question of who will be called Lord. The writer of Revelation constantly reminds his audience that believers must be “faithful to the name.”
The title Son of God is frequently invoked to declare who Jesus really is. And when tied to the birth stories it is easy to start thinking that Jesus is God’s offspring. The church throughout its history has spilled a lot of ink and blood trying to make sense of this title.
Unfortunately, church scholars were slow to understand Hebrew biblical thinking. Psalm 2 is a poem that was performed during the anointing of the king in Israel. The Psalmist speaks for God and says, “You are my son, today I have begotten you.” In other words, the title Son of God is another way of saying king. By the way, this is the charge that was placed above Jesus’ cross, “The King of the Jews.”
It is important that we pay special attention to how Jesus referred to himself. If we are trying to understand who Jesus is, then he certainly ought to be able to contribute to the conversation.
Jesus’ favorite designation for himself was “Son of Man.” This is another Hebrew idiom. Sometimes the use of “son of” is literal and straightforward as in the phrase “son of Abraham.” The immediate reference would of course be Isaac. Eventually, however, a “son of Abraham” would be anyone descended from Abraham. The expression in that instance would simply mean descendent.
Other usages include linking the phrase “son of,” with some characteristic. Referring to someone as a “son of encouragement,” means that this person embodies encouragement in their behavior.
If that was the way Jesus was using Son of Man, then his meaning is clear. Jesus was simply referring to himself as “the human.”
So maybe that’s who Jesus is: a teacher and prophet who enters the world and conducts himself as a human being. And maybe, just maybe, in the way he lived his life, and in the words he spoke, there is a model for how we might be human in the world. After all, he did say, “Follow me.”
And behold a child is given and it turns out he is one of us.
James L. Evans, a syndicated columnist, also serves as pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.