No man ever spoke like this man
Great moral teacher or Savior? Jesus’ claims about himself make him more than a moral teacher.
Theodore J. Hartwig
C. S. Lewis, the British teacher at Oxford and Cambridge, was a prominent defender of the Christian faith. He first came to the attention of Americans with the publication of his satirical Screwtape Letters in 1942. The book featured letters of a senior devil, Screwtape, giving advice to his protégé, Wormword, on proper methods for encouraging sin and undermining Christian faith.
In another work, Mere Christianity, Lewis makes a case that Jesus was exactly who he said he was and could be no other. In its best known passage he writes:
I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: “I am ready to accept Jesus as a really great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.” That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would rather be a lunatic—or else He would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at him and call him a demon; or you can fall at his feet and call Him God and Lord. But let us not come with any patronising [sic] nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not let that open to us. In the end, to receive Jesus as nothing more than a great moral teacher is to reject Him as your Savior and Lord; it is to receive a Jesus of your own devising and imagination. He did not just come to teach you and improve you, but to save you from your sins (p. 45).
Lewis’s words ring with the same stark either-or message of Jesus. “He who is not with me,” Jesus declared, “is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters” (Matthew 12:30). Jesus makes a startling claim. So Lewis observed that Jesus is not just a man who is merely a great teacher because he would not say the sort of things Jesus said.
We note that also in what people thought of Jesus. “The crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law” (Matthew 7:28,29). Even the palace officers confirmed this. The chief priests and Pharisees had sent them to arrest Jesus in the temple. But they returned from their assignment without Jesus and told the men who sent them: “No one ever spoke like this man” (John 7:46 ESV)!
Let’s explore what Jesus said about himself and discover that he is more than a great human teacher. He is God and Lord. Unbelievers and naysayers, to be sure, have written off whatever words they think Jesus actually spoke. They conclude that those words are simply garbled recollections or inventions added by his followers 50 to 100 years later. They become victims of their own human intellect and their scientific method of Bible dissection. But the words Jesus spoke of himself no other great religious teacher in all history ever spoke.
Indeed, no man ever spoke like this man.
“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
The Gospel of St. John records seven extraordinary claims Jesus makes about himself. They are known as the “I Am’s.”
Among the most beloved are his words to Martha at her brother Lazarus’s death. Jesus claims he is the resurrection and the life (John 11:25).
Another is the statement spoken to his disciples just before his suffering and death. They were troubled and confused. How could they follow him once he was gone? Jesus assured them, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).
It’s a mind-boggling claim, not at all popular in our religiously permissive society. When Jesus describes himself as the way, bear in mind that his way toward eternal life is different from every other. All others ways strive to reach eternal life by natural human thought and wisdom. They all rely, in one way or another, on human effort. But other ways will be not only misleading but illusory. When Jesus is the way, then the means of reaching its goal is absolutely certain. It rests on nothing human but solely on what Jesus has done.
Jesus next describes himself as the truth. Remember the conversation between Jesus and Pilate. When Pilate asked whether Jesus was a king, he answered: “My kingdom is not of this world. . . . For this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” To which Pilate responded, “What is truth?” (John 18:36-38). The quest for truth has been ceaseless. From antiquity to the present, people have sought to find the truth. But they do not find it outside of Jesus. He is the eternal Word of God—the truth—who became a humanbeing. For us and our salvation he suffered on the cross, died, and on the third day rose from death to assure his followers of their resurrection and eternal life.
Finally, Jesus describes himself as the life. What first comes to mind are Jesus’ words that “whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). At this place, however, Jesus seems to speak about the life of his followers in this present world. At another place, Jesus added this meaningful postscript to the truth: “[It] will set you free” (John 8:32). Truth creates life that is freely eager and ready to serve. It’s a new life within. The truth of Jesus fills the hearts of his followers not only with gratitude for setting them free from sin but also with hope of eternal life. Then the heart has a glorious freedom of willing obedience to the Savior’s commands. Because he lives in believers, they strive to live like him.
Because Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, it must follow that no one comes to the Father except through him. The way of Jesus is unique, discounting all human effort to reach its destination. The truth of Jesus is unique, proclaiming a message that is not a human invention but a proclamation of God—the gospel. The life of Jesus is unique in its power to change natural, self-centered human hearts to be different and other-centered. Because Jesus is this way, this truth, and this life, it must follow that no one comes to his Father except through him.
Theodore Hartwig, professor emeritus at Martin Luther College, New Ulm, Minnesota, is a member at St. John, New Ulm.
This is the first article in a four-part series about how Jesus describes himself.
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Author: Theodore J. Hartwig
Volume 101, Number 9
Issue: September 2014
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