What Makes Jesus So Great?

By Neil Earle

No doubt about it, it is easy to get overwhelmed by the tidal flow of Christian podcasts, streaming videos, YouTube sermons about how much God cares and how much He is with us through this ugly Corona virus update.

The sincerity is obvious and that is good. Sometimes though it is necessary to back off and focus on First Principles lest some foundational truths get lost in the rush to encourage. Christians sometimes do get accused of “falling over each other” in the care giving mode. Some suspect us of trying to gain new converts.

So, how about it? Why is Jesus so great? Why should you trust him? Is anything more foundational?

John Stott

John Stott raised this issue creatively in Basic Christianity. Stott argued that the most striking feature of the teaching of Jesus is that he was constantly talking about himself. Yes, he spoke much about the Fatherhood of God and the kingdom of God but then he added that entry into the kingdom depended on men’s response to him. He also called the kingdom ‘my kingdom.’”

This gets interesting, especially in a time when people are so convinced that no one has all the answers, that no one religion or religious figure dominates over the others. That claim seems offensive in our age where tolerance is the supreme virtue but Stott added this: “This self-centeredness of the teaching of Jesus immediately set him apart from the other great religious teachers of the world. They were self-effacing. He was self-advancing. They pointed men away from themselves saying, ‘That is the truth, so far as I perceive it; follow that.’ Jesus said, ‘I am the truth; follow me.’ The founder of none of the ethnic religions ever dared to say such a thing” (page 23).

These statements alone would make Jesus important in religious history. But it goes further. This Jesus of the Gospels, as opposed to the popular image of him, was quite inquisitive about how he was being received. “Who do men say that I am?” he quizzed his disciples once. “Who do you say that I am?” he followed up (Mark 8:27-30).

“Before Abraham was, I am;” “A greater than Solomon is here.” “A greater than Jonah is here.” “If you knew who I was…” he chided the Samaritan woman (John 4:10).

How do we explain this little noticed sidelight to the Gospels? How could Jesus say all this? Want makes him so great?

Breaking all Categories

That’s the story of John 8:56-58. Under the spur of intense debate in the holy city of Jerusalem right there in the temple courts Jesus gave his typical assertions about himself: “I came from God,” “I tell the truth,” “Can any of you prove me guilty of sin?” “If anyone keeps my word he will never see death.”

The religious leaders were flabbergasted. “Are you greater than our Father Abraham?” they shot back. “Who do you think you are?”

Then came the zinger: “I tell you the truth, before Abraham was born, I am” (John 8:56-58).

That did it. Those ultra devout religionists knew Jesus was using the same term the Great God used at the call of Moses – “I am that I am!” They picked up stones to throw at Jesus. His claims blew all their categories.

These statements alone would make Jesus important in religious history. But it goes further. This Jesus of the Gospels, as opposed to the popular image of him, was quite inquisitive about how he was being received. “Who do men say that I am?” he quizzed his disciples once. “Who do you say that I am?” he followed up (Mark 8:27-30).

“Before Abraham was, I am;” “A greater than Solomon is here.” “A greater than Jonah is here.” “If you knew who I was…” he chided the Samaritan woman (John 4:10).

What is this? Muhammed Ali theology – “I am the Greatest!”

That did it. They picked up stones to throw at him. His claims blew all their categories.

The Seven "I Ams"

Did you ever notice that so-called enlightened people, our neighbors and work mates, they can sometimes talk about God until the cows come home? After all, it’s fun to speculate on God – if he exists, and his role – if he has one. But mention “Jesus” and things get a bit awkward. There are the alleged miracles, you see. There are these claims of a resurrection, you know. Then there are these embarrassing statements. No, the young rabbi from Nazareth didn’t leave too much wiggle room. “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).

There’s not much left to say after that except maybe “Prove it!” Think of it! The Buddha didn’t make this claim. Zoroaster didn’t say that. Confucius wasn’t even delving into “the God issue.” Mohammed never came close to teaching in such terms.

The claims Jesus made about himself can leave us all a bit breathless. Just to leave noone in doubt Jesus left us seven “I am” texts in the book of John. The seven “I ams” in John’s Gospel are seven word-pictures or metaphors connected to the mini-sentence “I am.” Here they are:

I am the Bread of Life (John 6:35, 51)
I am the Light of the world (John 8:12)
I am the Gate (John 10:7, 9)
I am the Good Shepherd (John 10:11, 14)
I am the Resurrection and the Life (11:25)
I am the Way, the Truth, the Life (14:6)
I am the Vine (15:1, 5)

Commentaries note how often the theme of life shows up in this formula. Indeed “life,” Zoe in Greek, is one of John’s characteristic words going back to John 1:4 with “In him was LIFE!” One expositor said: “As the Son lives through the Father i.e. has his life from and is sustained by the Father, so the believer has life from and is sustained by the Son…the Father has given to the Son to have life in himself, and through him alone can that divine life be known by man.” 

The Son came to bring us divine eternal life, not the mere chemical existence we all fear for in this time of global pandemic but the very life of the Godhead, life on an altogether more exalted plane than we can imagine coming into us through the active presence ALREADY of the Holy Spirit, “the Spirit of Life” (John 6:63). This is what God through Jesus is offering. Rvai Zacharias ahd said, Jesus didn’t come to make bad people good but to made dead people The Spirit Jesus talked about is the spirit of ever-new beginnings bubbling up inside. This is what Jesus offered (John 4:14).

Bread of Life Amplified

“Bread of Life” may seem like a neat analogy but Jesus’s exposition took it to a new level. In John 6:53-54 he says “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life and I will raise him up at the last day.”

Those are words never found in the Hindu Vedas or Shakespeare or the Koran. Jesus is claiming that He Himself is the only essential for true life. Yes, he is talking about himself again and this time his claims are so stupendous that many of his disciples leave him (John 6:66).

The next “I am” statement is also as sweeping. “I am the Light of the word” (John 8:12). This statement was given at a Jewish festival when the inner courts were lit with torches and candelabra so bright that the whole city glowed. The bright lights accentuated eight days of rejoicing (John 7:10-11). The crowds hearing Jesus knew that light is the first thing God created. A pillar of fire guided Israel in the wilderness. But right there in those Temple courts a carpenter from Nazareth proclaimed himself humanity’s One True Source of Enlightenment amid the darkness of this world. Jesus adds: “He who follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” This strong affirmation again makes him utterly different.

Christians are those who have concluded that Jesus surpasses all other religious leaders. It is the difference between light and darkness. Jesus as the true Light, says John Tasker, “opens the eyes of men’s spiritual understanding and guides them into the truth about themselves and about what God has done to satisfy their most urgent needs.” To forsake Jesus for some other spiritual leader is to miss out on what is of first importance in religion: to know truth from error.

The God who Serves Us

“I am the Gate” in John 10:7 reinforces the strong claims Jesus makes that there is no other way to God than through Him. Today this claim bothers people. Jesus is indeed a rock of offence that people stumble over (1 Peter 2:8). Other teachers may have come up with some good principles for living or advanced some intriguing philosophies but Jesus is not a philosopher. Neither is he a philosophical or theological principle to be argued about.

Gates provide access and Paul taught the Ephesians that “through him we have access to the Father” (Ephesians 2:18). The difference with Jesus is this: Moses had a sense of God’s immensity; Isaiah and the prophets of Israel wrote movingly of “the God who inhabits eternity,” Peter and Paul preached wonderfully but Jesus…he brings access. He comes from the very heart of the Triune God – the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – to bring us back to there in the Spirit, to be equipped for service and then to be sent back out again (2 Corinthians 5:20). In a very real sense, through him we sit, already, in the heavenly places (Ephesians 2:6).

Early church fathers saw that. One of them wrote that “when Jesus brings us to the Father he calls himself a door, when he takes care of us, a Shepherd.” And indeed the Shepherd analogy – one of the most famous and endearing word pictures in Scripture – follows right after. There is one difference. Jesus calls himself “the Good Shepherd.”

The word used for “good” here is not simply the Greek word “agathos,” referring to moral virtue. It is “kalos” which is the sense conveyed in the phrase “the good doctor,” or “a good mother.” Kalos conveys the sympathy and graciousness which Jesus brings with him. Jesus did good things for other people. He healed. He served. “Good Master” the afflicted cried out to him. What a difference from too many world religions. Pagan worship puts you on the spot – you were obliged to do something for the god. But the Israelites knew a God who did things for them. In Jesus, he still is, He promises to shepherd us to living springs of water and to feed us with everlasting nourishment (Revelation 7:16-17).

“Truths” vs. The Truth

Just before the raising of Lazarus, Jesus had a fairly intense interview with the dead man’s sisters. They knew if Jesus had been there he could have healed their brother. When Jesus replied that their brother would live again, Martha repeated the Jewish creed about the dead living again at the last day. Jesus answered with a very bold “I am” statement: “I am the resurrection and the life,” he said, “Whoever lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25).

Jesus proved the truth of that claim by raising Lazarus under the very noses of the Jerusalem hierarchy. This is one of the climactic moments in the book of John. His enemies now had to get rid of him (John 11:45-50). And they did…for a while.

Jesus as the Resurrection and the Life means that even death is but a way-station on our walk with him toward real life. When a medieval saint was dying he told those around him: “Weep not, as I leave the land of the dying. I trust to see the blessings of the Lord in the land of the living.” Revelation 14:13 says “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord.” What a statement! One of the very important reasons for Jesus’ coming was to deliver us from the fear of death that all we humans have (Hebrews 2:12). While other religious teachers and gurus may point us over there or in there or out there Jesus claims to be the Truth personified. As he himself summarized: “I am the Way to the Father, the Truth about existence and the Life of the world to come (John 14:6).

The last “I am” statement makes Jesus of supreme importance to his followers. “I am the vine,” he said. We are branches (John 15:5). As we stay attached to him we are able to learn more and more about who he is and the tasks he has set us to perform in our time. William Barclay stated that unlike other human teachers, the more we know Jesus the more we admire and adore him. He truly is the one and only. He is the greatest! Everything he claimed was backed up by his resurrection from a rock tomb. Yes, he is somewhat beyond us but he is moved by our cries for help as he was at Lazarus’ grave. And he comes to us to tell us, “Don’t worry, my friends. I have overcome the world and all it can do to you. And you can too.”

Can anything be greater than that?