One of the most difficult and mooted questions about Jesus is what he conceived himself to be. Did he regard himself as the Messiah? If so, what did that mean to him? Why did he so often call himself the Son of Man? Much ink has been spilled in the prolonged discussions of these issues. Across the centuries the relation of Jesus to God has engaged some of the best minds among his followers and is still a subject of debate. That is partly because of the paucity of our records, partly because of the difficulty of penetrating fully into the mind of another, but chiefly because we here have to do with a subject which stretches our minds and our comprehension to the limit and even then cannot be fully apprehended.
It must be obvious to any thoughtful reader of the Gospel records that Jesus regarded himself and his message as inseparable. He was a great teacher, but he was more. His teachings about the kingdom of God, about human conduct, and about God were important, but they could not be divorced from him without, from his standpoint, being vitiated.
It is clear that Jesus believed himself to have a relation to God such as no other human being has ever known. Even if we did not have the many statements in The Gospel according to John, such as those which describe him as the Logos (the "Word") become flesh, and in which Jesus declares that he and the Father are one, we would have the startling assertion by Jesus preserved in The Gospel according to Matthew that all things have been delivered to him by the Father, that no one knows the Son except the Father and that no one knows the Father except the Son and any one to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. This is corroborated by the conscious authority with which Jesus spoke. While declaring that he had not come to destroy the Law and the Prophets, he said emphatically that he came to fulfil them, thus assuming his authority to do so. By implication he also pronounced the Law to be imperfect and for the exact Justice of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth enjoined more than once in the inherited standards of his people he commanded his followers not to resist one who is evil. In contrast with the Jewish prophets who regarded themselves as but the mouthpieces of God and who either by implication or expressly supported their pronouncements by "thus saith the Lord," Jesus repeatedly used the words, "I say unto you," with the quiet assumption that he had the inherent right to speak in such fashion. This was among the reasons for the indignation which he aroused among the religious leaders of the Jews. They deemed him to be blaspheming, to be arrogating to himself the functions of God. With an air of authority which angered some about him, believing as they did that he was usurping the prerogatives of God, in more than one instance he declared an individual's sins forgiven.
Again and again Jesus made it clear that he regarded himself as both in the continuity of what had preceded him in the spiritual life of the Jewish people — the Law and the Prophets — and as inaugurating something which was radically new. He saw the Law and the Prophets as pointing forward to him and as culminating in him. As we have said, he insisted that he did not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets but to fulfil them. But in the fulfilling he contrasted what was said in them with what he declared to be right in such a striking manner, as in divorce, oath-taking, and retaliation, that he seems not so much to be completing as to be supplanting. In each instance a case can be made for the use of the word "fulfil" as a description of what he was doing, but the advance over the past is so great as to appear a revolutionary departure from it. Many of those who heard him exclaimed that his was a "new doctrine." He himself lent support to this reception by a saying about new wine in old wine-skins and of unshrunk cloth on an old garment with the frank statement that in each case the attempt to combine the old with the new would be disastrous to both. He believed that what he was beginning was strikingly different even from the movement of John the Baptist, for while he spoke of the latter in terms of high praise, saying that he was "more than a prophet," and that among those born of woman there was none greater than he, he was emphatic that "he that is least in the kingdom of God is greater than" John. To be sure, Jesus spoke of scribes (or scholars) who, "instructed unto the kingdom of heaven," brought out of the treasures of their learning what was both old and new: each could be better understood in light of the other. Moreover, no one of the sayings of Jesus, if taken by itself, is without precedent or parallel in the earlier or contemporary literature of his people. Yet in the forms of statement, especially in the parables, and in the synthesis and the emphasis given them there is a freshness which bears the stamp of conscious authority and of originality and genius.
So unique did Jesus believe his relationship to God to be that he seems to have found no designation in the scriptures of his people or in common usage which exactly described it. This may account for the reluctance which some of our accounts appear to reflect in him to allow himself to be called the Messiah. That term was associated with a variety of stereotypes and to accept it would be to lay himself open to even more grave misunderstanding than he had to face. When he welcomed the burst of insight with which Peter declared that he was the Christ (Messiah), the son of the living God, and began to point out that for him, Jesus, that meant the cross and the resurrection, that disciple showed his complete lack of comprehension of what his Master believed the Messiahship to entail. He was presumably quite astonished and bewildered when Jesus turned and rebuked him. If, after months of intimacy, Peter did not understand, how much less the thousands who had not enjoyed that association. It was not until after the crucifixion and the resurrection that even his most intimate disciples began to see what was inseparable from his mission and to comprehend who and what Jesus really was.
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