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The Son of God Among Us

The Historical Jesus?

This week’s lesson claims that “the historical evidence is overwhelming clear” that Jesus lived on earth. We should be careful about making this claim, even though his life and death is at the center of our Christian beliefs and we are prepared to testify that he lived in Palestine about two thousand years ago. In fact, his existence has not been proven beyond a doubt, nor is there any physical evidence that Muhammad, Plato, Socrates, or Julius Caesar ever existed. Their existence is based on testimony and surviving documentation.

Hundreds of generations have struggled for centuries to find physical evidence that Christ lived on earth. However, it is not “physical evidence” that justifies the Christians’ belief in Jesus’ incarnation. The best proof is evidence we offer that he works in our lives through the Holy Spirit.

Muslims face much the same issue regarding the historical existence of Muhammad. Conservative Islamic scholars do not approve efforts among Muslims to use archaeology and other scientific methods to prove that Muhammad lived on the Arabian Peninsula. They see such efforts as evidence that the researchers do not fully believe revelations in the Koran, in other words, that they are doubting Muslims. In contrast, they consider Islam a religion based on divine revelation, and thus above observation, experimentation, and natural facts.

Attempts to Explain Jesus

In witnessing situations, words about the beauties of Christ’s life and what he can do for sinners are very important. However, personal testimony as revealed in the lives of witnesses will always offer the strongest argument.

David Penman (1936—89), an Anglican archbishop of Melbourne, Australia, and for many years a missionary to Muslim areas, stated matters this way:

Despite more than a decade in Asia and the Middle East, I have yet to meet a Muslim who has been convinced and persuaded by the quality of our arguments or by the extent of our knowledge to follow Jesus of the Gospels. Rather, that transformation has only been born out of the miracle of love transplanted into theology, life, and witness by the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

To this statement must be added the fact that Christians have used all sorts of approaches over the past thousand years to win Muslims for Christ. These have included legions of books, articles, and leaflets, all of which have featured interesting and convincing arguments presented to explain the divinity of Christ as the savior of the world.

In contrast, experience tells us that one of the best ways to convey important Christian doctrines is not in the witness or the excellence of the argument. Rather, it is found in the homesickness of Muslims as they recognize that they are sinners who yearn for peace and forgiveness.

The saving grace of Christ, his qualities, and his role in salvation cannot be explained. They must be experienced. Christ becomes a reality that people can experience when they see themselves as helpless sinners in need of salvation and discover that the way to peace of mind and assurance of forgiveness is not through obedience to laws or rituals.

Recognition of God’s preparedness to pardon and give new life through Jesus Christ offers the best and most efficient way to introduce Muslims to him. Such a life-giving experience will probably not enable a person to explain the mystery. However, it will empower that person to become a convincing witness to the influence of a loving God. Because of the salvation experience, Jesus Christ will be accepted, understood, and appreciated.

Jesus, Publicans, and Sinners

In the texts chosen for this week’s lesson (Matt. 11:19; Mark 2: 15; Luke 15: 1, 2), the words publicans and sinners appear together. What kind of sins could have been connected with publicans?

  1. Publicans were junior public servants employed by the hated occupation powers, the gentile Romans. Publicans were traitors to Judaism, and thereby backsliders.
  2. Their employment was on a contract basis. A fixed amount of what they collected in taxes and customs had to be paid to the government. They could keep whatever they could extract in excess. Publicans gathered customs on exports, imports, and taxes at their booths and were known to be dishonest.
  3. In their work, the publicans had close contact with gentiles, not only their Roman masters but also some of their other customers. Conservative Jews considered themselves unclean if they had relations with gentiles and most Jews thought it unlawful to pay tribute to pagans, which included their Roman occupiers.

Pharisees Blacklisted

The Pharisees (“the separated”) emphasized strict interpretation and observance of the Mosaic Law in both its oral and written forms. In addition to being a religious sect, the Pharisees comprised a political party, a social movement, and a school of thought. They represented an idea somewhat similar to the Islam caliphate, where religion and politics formed a synthesis.

Jesus denounced the Pharisees more than any other group of people. He did this probably because he found their righteousness external. They hypocritically emphasized importance in outward and visible things to impress people with their religiosity.

Christ placed religion on a different footing. He believed instead that the heart—not merely a person’s external actions—should be right with God. Not only should a person clean the outside of the cup and platter, but above all they should also care for the inside.

Raised and educated a Pharisee, Paul applied his training and background in a positive way as important elements in his successful missionary work for Jews and gentiles. In his day, gospel proclamation was based solely on the Old Testament; only a verbal account of Christ’s ministry existed. Of all the apostles, Paul was best qualified to decide which divine absolutes in the available Scriptures should be kept, preached, and obeyed, and which Jewish cultural forms neglected. This was extremely important when the gospel had to be contextualized to the gentile world.

Christ Sought the Winnable People

Christ came to save all sinners. Why, then, did he mix with publicans but avoid the Pharisees?

One reason could be that, whereas the Pharisees despised and isolated Jesus, the publicans accepted him. Downtrodden and despised people tend to be most receptive. They feel a need; they want to be understood and appreciated; other people despised them. This could be the reason for their openness and hospitality. It certainly was convenient for Jesus, who wanted to reach all kinds of people.

David was anointed to succeed Saul after God rejected him as king. However, Saul persecuted David and was not prepared to give him the throne. As a result of intrigues from Saul and his men, David had to organize his own defense force.

The constitution of David’s first followers is recorded in 1 Samuel 22:1–2:

David left Gath and escaped to the cave of Adullam. When his brothers and his father’s household heard about it, they went down to him there. All those who were in distress or in debt or discontented gathered round him, and he became their leader. About four hundred men were with him.

This passage gives interesting insights into how new movements, political parties, religious sects, and pioneering enterprises begin. The first followers are generally people dissatisfied with the general state of affairs, the government, past affiliations, and even their own social status. For the same reason, no doubt many sinners (publicans) desired to be near Christ, and he accepted them.

The same reasons could also be given for the progress Seventh-day Adventist missions have had in the developing world today. Perhaps it also explains why Christian churches have little success in the developed world, where relatively few people are in distress, overburdened with debt, and discontented. The big issue is this: Do we have room for these people and are we able to communicate with them?

Questions for Discussion:

  1. Would your spiritual life be strengthened if you had factual proof that Christ lived in Palestine two thousand years ago?
  2. Do you feel that more people would accept Jesus if you—in a witnessing situation—could offer proof that his existence is a historical reality?
  3. Which classes in modern societies could be classified as “Publicans and Sinners?” “Pharisees and Scribes?”
  4. How would Christ address them today?

Borge Schantz writes from his native Denmark. He holds a doctorate from the School of World Mission at Fuller Theological Seminary and has served the Seventh-day Adventist church as a pastor, evangelist, teacher, and administrator. He was also founding director of the Seventh-day Adventist Centre for Islamic Studies.

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