Jesus Christ: Who is He Really?

Jesus (Forensic Archaeological Reconstruction)

The historical life of Christ—especially the three years of His public ministry—is filled with implications and challenges which pose inescapably the supreme question: Who is He? Is He what He claims to be? His teaching so profound and new, given with such a note of authority; His miracles done with such abundance and ease; the claims He made as to His dignity and nature—at first discreetly, but towards the end of His life more clearly—nearly everything we know about His life and career stimulate in the highest degree the desire to know the truth about Him. The chief effort of the teaching activity of the Church, of its councils, doctors, theologians, especially in the first centuries, was to give an answer to the question: Who is Christ? The answer could not be exhaustive, could not sound the full depth of the mystery of Christ, which transcends the human reason. But it could be accurate as far as it went; it could state the essential features of the mystery; it could safeguard it against false interpretations; it could give an explanation rich though not complete of the unsearchable riches of Christ. 

It is true to say that the chief subject of Christ’s teaching, His chief doctrine and message, is Himself. “I am the truth.” “I am the light of the world.” The great system of Catholic theology is but the expounding of Christ—His Personality, His Incarnation, His mission of teaching and redemption, the eternal life He came to give and the means by which He makes it available to the world. 

Who do you say I am?

The first question which Christ at the beginning of His public career suggested to His contemporaries was — art Thou the Messiah? “Art thou he that is to come or look we for another?” The question had just been asked of John the Baptist—who had rejected it with vehemence and energy, as his response indicates. Attention was soon turned on Christ, especially after the testimony given to Him by the Baptist, whose reputation stood so high with the people. The manner in which Our Lord met that inquiry is at first sight strange and puzzling. It would seem to be the obvious thing to answer yes, at once. But He does not answer yes, even when the question was asked with a passionate eagerness which we think He must have found hard to disappoint. “The Jews gathered around him and asked, “How much longer will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly” (John 10:24). The attitude of Christ is not simple because the situation was not simple. He does not give a direct answer; at first He does not wish to be saluted as the Messiah; He chides the demons and those He healed because they wished to make Him known. “Then he gave them strict orders not to tell anyone about him” (Mark 8:30). The reason for this strange behaviour was that the notion of the Messiah had come to be falsified and corrupted. It was now generally understood in a sense very different from that which it had in the prophets and which Christ had come to fulfil. Owing to a variety of causes, historical and moral, certain features in the complex idea of the Messiah had come to be so emphasised that they came to overshadow and obliterate other and truer features. The Messiah had come to be understood as a national saviour, who was to deliver His people from their enemies and oppressors and lead them in triumph into a state of prosperity. This triumph was to be something external, material, sensational. It was to be a restoration of the kingdom of Israel, but to a greater height of glory than it had even under David or Solomon. 

But Christ had come to reveal a Messiah who was to inaugurate a spiritual kingdom; whose victory would be over man’s interior enemies, over his passions, over the enemies of his soul. The true Messiah was one who was to be meek and humble, who was to secure His triumph by suffering and humiliation. To have accepted at once the title of Messiah would have been to involve the gravest misunderstandings; would have been to arouse desires of worldly glory, prosperity, enjoyment which were simply incompatible with the life Christ was to introduce. It is often said of certain poets and artists that they have to make their own public; that they have to educate their contemporaries up to their own artistic level. With due reverence we may apply the saying to Christ; He had to purify or eliminate a false conception and to restore the true features of a humble suffering Messiah, of one who “… will not cry out or shout, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets. A bruised reed he will not break, nor will he snuff out a smouldering wick…” (Matthew 12:19-20). 

The economy of revelation and restraint which Christ manifested in this delicate task is full of wisdom and patience and prudence. His general method of procedure was to accept or assume certain titles which were certainly messianic, but which had not been so prominent and consequently had not been so overladen with misunderstandings and misinterpretations. The chief of these was the title Son of Man, which is used sixty-nine times in the Synoptic gospels alone. The formula is used in different senses. “In certain contexts,” says Dom Aelred Graham OSB (The Christ of Catholicism: A Meditative Study; Longman, 1948; p. 154), “the meaning seems to pass from being an emphatic ‘I’ to that of a personal appellation; while designating Jesus it simultaneously manifests the powers with which He knows Himself to be invested and the mission which He claims as His. In other words, the ‘Son of Man’ has become a messianic title.” The title was deliberately vague, and emphasised His human nature. But He employed it often in connection with His highest offices and dignities. “… And you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power and coming with the clouds of heaven” (Mark 14:62). And with the significance of greatness was joined, as the notion was more fully expounded, the idea of suffering, and thus the true features of the Messiah began to be discerned. “… he began to teach them that the Son of Man must endure great suffering, be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes [The elders, the chief priests, and the scribes: the members of the Sanhedrin], and be put to death, and rise again after three days” (Mark 8:31). 

But how disturbing and unwelcome was this prospect of a humble and suffering Messiah, how opposed it was to all the prejudices and hopes of even the best can be judged by the reception it met with from the Apostles, that select public He had been educating so carefully to be able to receive His ideas. Peter unknowingly offers Jesus the superficial and worldly Messianism that would put him in opposition to the will of the Father. He unwittingly repeats the temptation of Satan at the beginning of Christ’s ministry (Matthew 4:1-11) “Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid, Lord. Such a fate must never happen to you” (Matthew 16:22). Here again Peter spoke for the rest — as he did in the confession of Christ’s divinity. The Passion taught them nothing, but rather plunged them deeper into despair; and it required the teaching of the risen Saviour to open their eyes to see what had been written of Himself so long ago by the prophets. “Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” (Luke 24:26) He said to the two disciples to whom He gave that wonderful scripture lesson on the road to Emmaus on the first Easter Day. Here then, line by line, we depict the features of the Messiah delineated by Isaiah and the other prophets — the Messiah who was to conquer through His sufferings, and the figure being described as the Son of Man. 

But the revelation of Christ about Himself went immeasurably deeper than that He was the Messiah or the Son of Man. He was something greater than the Jews had expected or imagined. Hence the significance of St. Peter’s answer at Caesarea Philippi: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” [The Son of the living God: in addition to the Messiahship of Jesus found in the other Synoptics at this point, Matthew also has an acknowledgment by Peter of Jesus’ divinity. Many exegetes believe this is an addition based on Peter’s later understanding of the mystery of Christ after the risen Lord appeared to him (see 1 Corinthians 15:5; Luke 24:34). In any case, Matthew has already mentioned that all the disciples had recognized the divinity of Christ (Matthew 14:33).] The true dignity of Christ was recognised by His Apostles, who had been taught it not by flesh and blood, that is human wisdom, but by the revelation of Our Father Who is in Heaven. The title Son of God was not a messianic one: it was given to those who were singled out for God’s special favours. The application of it in that usual sense would have no special significance for Christ and certainly would not have required an inspiration of the Father. As applied to Christ it has its uniquely literal sense; it conveys the genuine and ultimate truth about Him. He is something incomparably more than priest, prophet, teacher, king; He is all these in a supreme way because He is the eternal, only begotten, Son of the Father. 

Byzantine depiction of the Apostles, Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke and John

With the express purpose of establishing this vital truth, St. John wrote his gospel a generation after the Synoptists. But the truth is clearly conveyed also in the Synoptists. Obviously such a revelation required the greatest delicacy; a premature assertion would have shocked and scandalised those who believed in the unity of God but had not come to the knowledge of the Trinity of Persons. A direct affirmation of His divinity would have defeated His purpose. But by a series of discreet revelations, by claims and assertions suggestive without being shocking, the great mystery is gradually unfolded. The Son of Man is Lord of the sabbath; He changes and completes the law with supreme authority; He forgives sin; He is greater than the Temple; He claims a devotion, a love and a service which no creature could claim; He promises a universal presence and assistance which only God could give; He speaks of God as His Father in a sense that is completely distinctive; He is the Son, one with the Father in word and work. The evangelist will say at the beginning of his gospel: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. And we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). It is most significant that at the Passion when He is on trial before the Sanhedrim and Pilate all the political and minor religious charges are dropped as being evidently false, and He is condemned for making Himself the Son of God. Each of the four evangelists record that He claimed that title and was condemned for claiming it (Matthew 26:63; Mark 8:29-30; Luke 9:20-21; John 19:7). 

The priests and religious leaders had understood His message before this, as is clear from the great parable of the lord of the vineyard which He spoke in the Temple after Palm Sunday, and which was directed primarily to the priests. The parable conveyed briefly the spiritual history of Israel — the vineyard which God had planted and cared for, and from which He wished to draw His just returns. He sends servant after servant to collect His fruits, but they are ill-treated and sent away empty-handed by the husbandmen whom the master put over the vineyard. “Then the owner of the vineyard said, ‘What shall I do? I will send my beloved son. Perhaps they will respect him.’” (Luke 20:13). The priests did not need to have the parable explained. The vineyard was Israel; they were the wicked husbandmen; the servants were the prophets whom they had rejected; and the last messenger who now came to demand God’s rights was the only begotten Son. The parable tells prophetically how they received Him. “And so they seized him, killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard” (Mark 12:8). The issue was clear between Christ and them: their sin would be done in full light. It is significant that this parable is given by the Synoptists. 

The revelation which is made indubitably but without special emphasis by the Synoptists is the express purpose of the fourth gospel. “But those written here have been recorded so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that through your belief you may have life in his name” (John 20:31). The prologue, which is a doctrinal statement of the life and meaning of Christ, expresses the mystery clearly, in the terms which have been received by the Church as the official statement of the mystery. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. And we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:1, 14

That Jesus Christ was not merely a prophet or the Messiah, but that He was something immeasurably greater, is the message of the New Testament. His supreme revelation is not precisely a doctrine but Himself; by revealing Himself, the Son of God made man, He has revealed Christianity. He is the author and finisher of the Faith, at once its motive and object. It is that fact which gives its unique character to Christianity. No other religious teacher has made such a claim. Religious teachers have claimed, at the most, to be the mouth-piece of God, His prophets, commissioned to speak His message in the world. But there was one religious teacher who proclaimed Himself to be the only begotten Son of God equal to the Father, or rather one with Him. To the expounding and defence of this revelation the main effort of the teaching authority of the Church was directed until the theological exposition was established at the Council of Chalcedon in Bithynia (modern day Kadıköy, Turkey) from 8 October to 1 November 451, when the main lines of Christology were formulated. 

Much of the work of exposition was called out by the necessity to refute heresy; because the mystery was the main object of attack from heretics from the beginning. Some denied the humanity of Christ; He had only assumed an apparent or phenomenal body; he was an apparition. Others denied that He was really God; He was only a man highly favoured by God, greater than Moses but of his class. Others again denied that the two natures, the divine and the human, were really distinct; He was a composite or amalgam of the divine and the human, but was neither of them specifically. Against these false interpretations the true doctrine was developed and expounded with ever fuller clearness. 

The first concern of the Church was to safeguard both the divinity and the humanity. Jesus Christ was a man, conceived and born of a human mother, flesh of her flesh and bone of her bone, Who grew and developed like other children, passing through the normal stages of human growth. He had a full human nature; body and soul, with their full endowment of powers, intellect, will, imagination. He had a full complement of human emotions, sensibilities, feelings, needs. His humanity is clearly seen in the gospels. He eats and sleeps; He is hungry and thirsty; he is glad and sorrowful; He is indignant, disappointed, grateful, moved to tears, to admiration, to pity. He was a complete man with the full range of human powers and feelings. He shared all necessary human qualities; He was like us in all things except in sin and the weaknesses which resulted from sin. 

and the Word was made flesh…

He was then man, truly and completely — but He was more than man. He claimed to be the Son of God, one in nature with the Father and equal to Him. We have already seen some of the ways in which this tremendous claim was made; and that it was the explicit charge on which He was put to death. That he is God and man is the teaching of the gospels, which all Christians believed from the beginning; but how He can be both; how the one Person can be truly God and truly man is the Mystery of Jesus which the Church alone elucidates truly. The briefest statement of the mystery is the first: “The Word was made flesh.” The Word is the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, the Son of the Father begotten from all eternity, God of God, Light of Light, to Whom the Father has given the complete Divine Nature which makes Him equal to the Father. This Divine Person at a moment in time assumed a complete human nature in virtue of which He is from that moment also man. As God then He is eternal and infinitely perfect; He lives the Divine life, a life without change or succession, that eternal now into which is gathered supereminently all the intensity of existence, a life without past or future, a life of infinite activity and happiness. As Man He lives a human life— one of change, succession, emotion, experience, in conditions of time, place and matter.

Two natures and two lives — but one Person. That is at once the explanation and the mystery of Christ. He is a Divine Person, Who has assumed a complete human nature, by reason of which He is now man for ever. That Person then through his Divine Nature is eternal, equal to the Father, was with the Father before creation. That same Person was made flesh, was born of a human Mother, grew, suffered and died. We must say that His Mother is the Mother of God because she is the Mother of a Person. Catholic teaching has always guarded these two points in the mystery, the unity of Person and the duality of nature. Without entering into philosophical questions we may say that a person is one who is sui juris—“of one’s own right,” who is the subject to whom his actions are attributed and who is responsible for them. Notions, like person, nature, substance, were taken over from Greek philosophy and given a true but analogical application to God. 

Jesus Christ is thus a Person, Who is the subject of His acts and is responsible; Whose acts are human or Divine according as they are done by His human or Divine Nature; but they are His acts, the acts of a Divine Person. It is He who acts. Pointing to the Child in the crib at Bethlehem or to the Man dying on the cross at Calvary, we can and must say that is God, that is the Person Who made the world. We could not say that He made the world with the hands which manipulated the hammer and axe in the workshop at Nazareth: but we must say that they are the hands of Him Who created. The acts of His human nature are human, His acts of love, compassion, sorrow, joy; but they are the acts of a Divine Person and as such are of infinite dignity and worth. The Word was made flesh, became man without ceasing to be God. We cannot express the mystery by saying that Jesus Christ was a man who was adopted by God, or a man who became God; because from the first moment of its existence His human nature was assumed by the Word. We must say that God became man. The Church’s explanation safeguards the mystery and explains it adequately, but not exhaustively; it still remains a Divine mystery transcending human reason, which is accepted on Divine Faith and not on human study and speculation.

St. Thomas speaks of the Incarnation as the miracle of miracles; and Fr. Charles Lallement, S.J. († 1674), says that after the Incarnation there is nothing more to wonder at in creation. All is supremely great in this mystery; the motives from which it came; the virtues by which it was achieved; the effect which is the God-Man; the purpose and aim. “In previous times, God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways through the Prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us through his Son,” (Hebrews 1:1-2). Jesus is the Word of God uttered from all eternity in the Divine generation; and uttered, as it were, in His human nature by the Incarnation, in terms of human life and thought, as far as these were adequate to express an infinite utterance. He is the last revelation of the Father: not last merely in time, not merely the last up to date which might be superseded. He is the final, complete, achieved utterance of God in the world. The God-man is Himself the supreme testimony and message of God’s power, mercy, wisdom and, most of all, love. When at the last supper Philip asked for a final vision of the Father, some impressive theophany, Jesus says: “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father…” (John 14:9).

He is Himself the vision of the Father; His words and deeds, His activity are the Father’s. And when he speaks like this He means incomparably more than St. Paul means when he says: “And now it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). He does not speak of a moral or accidental unity of Grace but of a unity of nature by which He and the Father are One in Divine life and operation.