Who Was Jesus of Nazareth?

A Difference of Opinion?

Doug Focht, Jr.

Toward the end of His ministry, Jesus asked his disciples, "Who do men say that the Son of Man is?" (Matt. 16:13–17). They answered that some said He was John the Baptist, some said He was Elijah and still others thought Jesus might be a resurrected Jeremiah or one of the other prophets. What is interesting, but often overlooked in these verses, is that each of these answers, though incorrect, had some Scriptural basis. The "Bible" during Jesus’ time was the Old Testament (from Genesis to Malachi), and each of these answers expressed a "different interpretation" of Scripture. Yet as we will see, even though there was some truth in each of these answers, they were all wrong!

As we uncover more information from historical sources such as the Dead Sea scrolls, we understand that by Jesus’ time there were several "theologies" regarding the Messiah—who He would be and what He would do. The Scriptures predicted a suffering Messiah (Isaiah 53, Psalm 22), and yet a conquering Messiah (Psalm 2) and a kingly Messiah (Dan. 7:13–14). The same Isaiah who referred to Him as a suffering servant in chapter 53 referred to Him earlier as, "Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace," and predicted that "the government would rest on His shoulders" and that His kingdom would be established forever (Is. 9:6–7). "How could the Messiah be all of these?" it was wondered. Apparently, a common interpretation by the time of Jesus was that there would be several who would appear in conjunction with the Messiah. The Messiah Himself (Greek, "Christ") would rule and reign. But there would also be a "Prophet" who like Moses would usher in the "New Covenant" which Jeremiah had predicted in Jeremiah 31:31ff. Another would suffer in place of the nation and would bear the sins of the people, as Isaiah had predicted. Few understood that all these would be fulfilled in one man.

In order to see that conflicting biblical interpretations existed even before Christ, let’s look at those so-called "Bible-based" answers that men were making regarding Jesus of Nazareth. We will look at each of these answers in the reverse order in which they were given, since the answers are chronologically reversed.

Some said Jesus was Jeremiah or one of the prophets

When God spoke the commandments to the people from Mt. Sinai, Exodus 20:18–19 records that the people were so frightened at the sights and sounds emanating from the mountain that they begged Moses, "Speak to us yourself and we will listen; but let not God speak to us, lest we die" (Ex. 20:19). Recalling this incident at a later time, in Deuteronomy 18:18–19, Moses recounted to the people the words of the Lord:

"The LORD your God will raise up for you a Prophet like me from your midst, from your brethren. Him you shall hear, according to all you desired of the LORD your God in Horeb in the day of the assembly, saying, 'Let me not hear again the voice of the LORD my God, nor let me see this great fire anymore, lest I die.' And the LORD said to me: 'What they have spoken is good. I will raise up for them a Prophet like you from among their brethren, and will put My words in His mouth, and He shall speak to them all that I command Him. And it shall be that whoever will not hear My words, which He speaks in My name, I will require it of him.’" (NKJ)

Many prophets had come and gone since the time of Moses, but it was hard to say that any of them were "like Moses," who not only was a prophet (a prophet is someone who speaks for God), but also the one who delivered to them the covenant on Sinai—what we sometimes call the "Old Testament Law." The prophet Jeremiah had predicted that God would make a "new covenant" with Israel and Judah, which would be different from the one He made with them in Sinai (Jeremiah 31:31–32). Would Jeremiah him self return to speak this "new covenant" to them like Moses spoke the first one? Or would one of the other prophets return to speak to them once more? Was Jesus of Nazareth Jeremiah or one of the prophets?

Some said Jesus was Elijah.

By the time of Alexander the Great, around the 300’s BC, the Jews understood that God was not speaking to them as He once had, through the prophets. However, the last prophet, Malachi, had predicted that before the coming of the Messiah, God would first send them Elijah the prophet to prepare the way for Him:

Malachi 3:1

"Behold, I am going to send My messenger, and he will clear the way before Me, and the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple; and the messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight, behold, He is coming,’ says the Lord." (NASB)

Malachi 4:5–6 (last verses of the Old Testament)

"‘Behold, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord. And he will restore the hearts of the father to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the land with a curse."

The people of Jesus’ day did not fully understand the reason for the coming of the Messiah, nor did they understand exactly what the "terrible day of the Lord" was (some versions read "dreadful"), but they did know it involved some kind of judgment and that Elijah would come before that day. Maybe Elijah would come first and "straighten the people out" so that they would not be consumed in judgment by the Messiah. Some thought maybe Jesus was this "reincarnated" Elijah.

Some said Jesus was John the Baptist.

After almost 400 years of prophetic silence, John appeared on the scene preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Mark 1:4) and multitudes went out to hear him and obey him. Why? Something about John convinced the people that God was once again speaking to them through this prophet. We don’t have the space or time to review those reasons now, but we do know from the questions the Jewish leaders asked John that part of the reason for his great following was that people believed he was fulfilling Scripture. We see in John 1:19–21 some of the evidence for saying that the Jews believed in three separate individuals who would appear at this time. John answered in the negative to three questions. Was he the Christ? No. Was he Elijah? No. Was he "the Prophet?" Again, no. Who then was he? John’s answer is the key to his popularity. He claimed he was the one who was to begin the fulfillment of what the prophets wrote. Quoting from Isaiah 40:3, John said,

"I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as Isaiah the prophet said." (John 2:23)

But John would soon be imprisoned and then beheaded by Herod Antipas. Many then wondered whether John had really accomplished what he set out to do. After all, he had performed none of the great works and miracles of Elijah (cf. John 10:41); and if his work was not finished, then why did God allow him to be put to death? In recounting the story of John’s execution, Matthew (in Matt. 14:1–12) indicates that if Herod didn’t fully believe that Jesus was John the Baptist raised from the dead, at least he and certainly others had entertained that thought. Was Jesus then John the Baptist reborn?

Was Jesus the Christ?

The answer given by Peter, of course, is the only correct answer: "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God" (Matt. 16:16). Jesus said to Peter, "Flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven" (vs. 17). But how did God reveal it to him? Did He whisper in his ear that Jesus was the Christ? Maybe. Did He give him a "direct revelation" like one of the prophets of old? Perhaps. Yet thousands, and soon millions of people would believe that also. How? By what evidence? When Peter preached the first gospel sermon in Acts 2, he began disclosing the evidence which was there for all to see who cared to listen: The fact that the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth "fits" all the prophecies made concerning the Messiah and His times.

It is doubtful that one person, and much less a committee could piece together such a tight-woven theology and "invent" a character who would fulfill so many prophecies where no other person ever did or ever would. It is even less probable that they could have succeeded in preaching such a theology during the lifetime of those who would have known whether Jesus really did the things they said; and it is unthinkable that people would willingly forsake the pleasures of this world—pleasures which they could see, taste, touch and feel—for a Christ they could not see and a promise that could not be realized until after death. It is not by any mysterious means that God reveals Himself to His creation. Faith comes by the word of God (Rom. 10:17). Anyone who takes the time to compare the events of the life of Christ as recorded in the gospels with the predictions of the Old Testament prophets, can see the power behind the Scriptures.

Can the word be interpreted any way one wants to interpret it? Yes, just as the people during Jesus’ day interpreted the Scriptures according to their own pre-conceived theologies. But the Bible itself says, "Knowing this first, that no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation, for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit." (2 Pet 1:20-21). And today, as then, when people have different opinions about Jesus of Nazareth, those differences can not be blamed on the Scriptures, but upon people’s ignorance or unbelief of the Scriptures. Who do you say that Jesus of Nazareth is?

—From Growing in Grace, Vol. 1 #19; April 20, 1997

To contact the author, please send e-mail to: dnfj@yahoo.com