Sunday Night Live sermons

Historical Jesus or Christ of Faith - Sunday, 2nd February, 1997

The film "Michael Collins" is an account of the last six years of the Irish patriot and fighter for a free Republic of Ireland. Collins died in 1922.

He was a man of charisma and cunning who developed the Irish Republican Army, the IRA, as the main weapon in fighting England's 700 year domination of Ireland. He refined the weapon of subversive violence, inventing guerrilla warfare against the occupying army. He negotiated the peace in 1921 which resulted in the Irish Free State which allowed the division into the Protestant North and the Catholic South. This was the best he could achieve. This was not good enough for the rest of the republican forces, with the result that civil war broke out and some of his own republicans killed him.

But how do we known the historical Michael Collins? The actor Liam Neeson is very convincing, but is his portrait a historical one or a romantic one? Is the best source of whether he is historically accurate writer-director Neil Jordan? Yet he would be too biased towards Collins. Or should we look for a better source to one of Michael Collins opponents for an unbiased view? Perhaps Winston Churchill in the English Cabinet? But surely Churchill would be biased against Collins. Is it a problem of the medium itself? A film is more Hollywood fiction than tragic Irish facts, making sure the audience is swept along rather than confused by difficult principles and confusing history? Or could there be an unbiased academic historical Collins without any liberties or beliefs shaping the writer? In short, can we discover the historical Michael Collins? And can a film ever show you the historical Collins?

In essence that is the heart of the current theological debate that is gripping the world of theologians and the academic printing presses. Not Michael Collins but Jesus Christ. The problems are similar. How can we know the historical Jesus? There have been more books and theories on this one issue than any other subject in theology over the past few years.

I have gathered them, read them, and come to grips with the arguments, and I want to spend the whole of this year looking at our belief in Jesus Christ in the light of modern argument. I have produced for you a bibliography of the major books and an outline of sermons that will tackle the major issues. Each sermon will indicate the major books tackled for that theme. For Christians, nothing is more important than to understand and to know Jesus Christ. The world seems set against giving Jesus the credibility and authority Christians believe He has. Many within the post-modernist stream within the Uniting Church, are making public statements on social justice issues that have no reference to the teachings and example of Jesus Christ as understood within the scriptures. There is crisis within the Uniting Church mostly because of a rejection of the authority of the Word of God and its teaching about Jesus Christ. It is therefore vital that we know all we can of the historical Jesus and to know the Christ of faith.

The debate is referred to as "The Third Quest For the Historical Jesus." The first quest covered the rise of historical criticism of the scriptures of the nineteen century and was summed up by Dr Albert Schweitzer's book of that name in 1906.

The second quest for the historical Jesus in the 1950-60's followed theologians influenced by Rudolf Bultmann, such as Ernst Kasemann, Gunther Bornkamm and James Robinson who wrote "A New Quest For the Historical Jesus" (SCM 1959), demonstrating the probability of what Jesus did and said.

But from 1980 on, a whole series of archaeological and historical discoveries, new manuscripts and a better understanding of Judaism in the time of Jesus, set scholars off on a third quest for the historical Jesus, seeking to understand Him in the light of His times. The Dead Sea Scrolls have been the most famous of recent discoveries illuminating His era, but there have been many more that have led scholars to see Jesus within the vibrant times of the Second Temple Judaism, the beliefs that existed during the time Herod the Great rebuilt the Temple.

Dr John Squires from the United Theological College reviewed two of the books in the December "Insights". During this year, I will discuss the views of a dozen scholars including Bp John Shelby Spong, Ben Witherington 111; Gregory A Boyd; J.D.Crossan; James H Charlesworth, Michael J Wilkins, Luke Timothy Johnson and those involved in "The Jesus Seminar" and its publications, and two Australians, Bp Paul Barnett and Dr Barbara Thiering. As a special input to our services, we will have multi-media presentations by historian Garry Kent on discoveries from the time of Jesus, and archaeological presentations by David Down on discoveries from the time of Jesus made in the last decade. I believe this congregation will be as informed as any in Australia on the Third Quest For the Historical Jesus. My hope is that more will then come to believe in the Christ of faith.

1. THE WORLD WANTS THE HISTORICAL JESUS ONLY. The media today do not want to acknowledge the Christ of faith, but are willing to accept the historic Jesus. Chuck Colson, was sent to prison for the Watergate cover-up. He was converted while awaiting prison. Colson, who writes widely on issues, says: "The print medium often intentionally distorts what we write. Over the years since I became a Christian, I have always deliberately explained that I have "accepted Jesus Christ." But I discovered that one major U.S. daily, as a matter of policy, will not print the two words Jesus Christ together; when combined, the editor says, it represents an editorial judgement." (Charles Colson, "Kingdoms in Conflict")

What the editor is saying is "Christ means a person Christians believe in and that is not for this newspaper. Jesus is the historical person. Him we can quote." This is a popular viewpoint. But is it valid? Professor I. Howard Marshall of Aberdeen in "I Believe In The Historical Jesus" spends several chapters on definitions, historical method and how we can know Jesus. In my book "Discovering Jesus" I have a chapter entitled "A New Search For Jesus."

The German theologian, Rudolf Bultmann removed all that was supernatural about the life and teaching of Jesus, and discounted passages written by believers. Hence, he was left with little over. He said: "I think we can known almost nothing concerning the life and personality of Jesus, since the early Christian sources show no interest in either, and are moreover fragmentary and often legendary; and other sources about Jesus do not exist."("Jesus and the Word" London 1934, p8) His views caused a 25 year lull in the quest for the historical Jesus.

The modern searcher wants to ask: How do you know that Jesus actually existed? Are the Gospels historically reliable? What evidence is there outside the New Testament? What kind of history is found in the Gospels? What light does the Dead Sea Scrolls throw upon the person of Jesus? These and many other questions I intend to examine in this series of addresses throughout this year.

We seek sound, historical evidence of the life, teachings, death and resurrection of Jesus. Is Bultmann right in how little there is to find, or are all these modern scholars helping us discover the historical Jesus? All historians have a personal bias. If you listen to the responses to the film "Michael Collins" you will hear as many responses as there are Irish. Modern historians look at Jesus through tinted spectacles and colour Him with their own values.

We hold three objectives: First, to understand as much as possible of the contemporary life of Jesus' time. We will examine every significant discovery of manuscripts, archaeology and lifestyle of His time. Second, to interpret within the bounds of New Testament teaching that evidence. For example, Paul says "Christ died for our sins." That Jesus died is a fact to be sought by historical research. That He died "for our sins" is an interpretation of the fact that must be understood by faith. We will interpret within the Christian framework. Others also interpret from within their own frame work, sometimes Jewish, Marxist, atheist, humanist and so on. Thirdly, we will see how we can accept the personal relationship with Jesus Christ which alone makes for a Christian understanding of Jesus and for a friendship that transcends the centuries.

2. SOME CHRISTIANS WANT THE CHRIST OF FAITH ONLY. The strong emphasis of knowing Christ personally by evangelicals and knowing the power of God within by Pentecostals, have led some Christians wanting the Christ of faith only. These Christians see Jesus as God's Son who came to earth to defeat sin and reconcile humanity with God. Jesus Christ is God's intervention in history, fulfilling the prophecies and through His death and resurrection accomplishing the great work of human redemption, and through His ascension now rules with God as Lord and will soon come as King over all.

Such a cosmic view dismisses the historical Jesus, as if nothing Jesus ever did is of significance. Only His death and resurrection is of eternal value. These Christians emphasise the Lordship of Christ. They know His presence and await His return. All is of faith in Him as living Lord. To know Christ and to make Him known is our supreme purpose. To possess His Spirit is the end of Christian experience. There is no need to know anything of the historical Jesus. Our salvation depends not upon knowledge but upon our relationship with the living Christ. But this is not Christianity either. This is Gnosticism.

There is also the danger of liberal theology that says we can know nothing of the historical Jesus, but what is important is that we respond to the preached Gospel. But this also is not the New Testament message. Believing in the Christ of Faith is essential but without the historical Jesus there would be no Christ of faith. There is a risen Lord, but there first was a crucified Jesus. True Christianity always balanced both the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith within the believers experience.

3. WE MUST KNOW THE HISTORICAL JESUS AS THE CHRIST OF FAITH. Jesus both dwelt in history and lives in eternity. The Jesus of history is the bed-rock of our faith in the Lordship of Christ. The Jesus of history is inadequate without the Christ of faith. The Christ of faith needed to be incarnate in one who lived and died as we do. The historical Jesus is essential to understand the Christ of faith. Salvation was made possible by the Cross and Resurrection, but first of all the incarnation had to make the Cross real. The life of Jesus models how we should live and His teaching illustrates what we should believe.

The New Testament teaches the history of Jesus and urges belief in Him as Lord and Saviour. Jesus said that those who saw Him in the flesh and knew Him as the carpenter of Nazareth could count their blessings, but those who knew Him by faith alone, were even more blessed. After the resurrection (John 20:28-29) Thomas said: "My Lord and my God." And Jesus replied: "Because you have seen me you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed." Those who know the Christ of faith know all that is needed for salvation but they lack the human dimension for living as He did.

The Lord Christ has roots in the historical Jesus.

We will examine every evidence of the historical Jesus in order that we can believe deeper in Him as Saviour and Lord. Jesus said to Peter Matt 16:13-17 "Who do you say I am?" Simon Peter answered, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." Peter had known Jesus from the time of His call to ministry, had travelled and worked with Him daily for the three previous years. He knew the historical Jesus. But now He knew the Christ of faith. So may you.

Gordon Moyes

"HONEST TO JESUS" Robert W Funk, Hodder 1996;
"I BELIEVE IN THE HISTORICAL JESUS" I.Howard Marshall, Hodder, 1977.
"DISCOVERING JESUS" Gordon Moyes, Albatross, 1984.
"THE JESUS QUEST" Ben Witherington 111, IVP 1995
"THE JESUS I NEVER KNEW" Phillip Yancey, Zondervan, 1995
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