Every time I think carefully about what strict Jewish monotheists began to say about the Nazarene carpenter, I am dumbfounded.
The Greeks and Romans believed in lots of gods and goddesses who would, they said, sometimes show up on earth. But the Jews knew better! The center of Jewish faith for centuries, and certainly in the time around the birth of Jesus, was a strict monotheism. There is only one God.
At this time in history, these Jewish monotheists expected this one God to do dramatic new things. They waited eagerly for God to send a military Messiah who would defeat the Roman oppressors and establish Jerusalem as the center of a free nation. This expected Messiah would be powerful but certainly not divine.
Then a carpenter from Nazareth came preaching, healing and announcing that the long- expected messianic kingdom was actually arriving. In fact, he claimed to be the expected Messiah.
But the carpenter astonished his fellow Jews by presenting a very different picture of the messiah. He taught his disciples that they should love their enemies. Instead of killing the Roman imperialists, Jesus told his disciples that as messiah he would die at the hand of the Roman oppressors.
That even Jesus’ disciples did not understand or like this message is clear from Peter. When Jesus asked the disciples who they thought he was, Peter said: the Messiah. But when Jesus immediately explained that he must die rather than kill the Romans, Peter rebuked Jesus (Mark 8:27-33). Like most Jews of his day, Peter knew the Messiah was supposed to kill the Romans, not get killed by them. Jesus’ response to Peter? “Get behind me, Satan”.
And Roman soldiers did crucify Jesus. Every Jew in Jesus’ day knew that if someone claimed to be the messiah and then got killed by the Romans instead of conquering them, that person was a fraud, a fake-- and certainly not the expected Messiah! The New Testament scholar N. T. Wright points out that there were messianic claimants at this time but there is not a single instance where the disciples of a messianic claimant continued to believe in him after he was killed. On the day after the crucifixion, the disciples knew Jesus was a fraud.
So why did Jesus’ disciples soon start telling everybody that the crucified Jesus was truly the Messiah? Their explanation: Jesus’ resurrection. The risen Jesus met with them, talked with them, and ate with them. (See Wright’s 800 page THE RESURRECTION OF THE SON OF GOD for the historical evidence.)
After that, they did not just call him Messiah. They started using even more amazing titles. After he met the risen Jesus, Thomas is reported to have blurted out: “My Lord and my God” (John 20:27-28). At Pentecost, Peter said Jesus was “both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36). The Greek word Lord (kurios) is the word used in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament to translate the word Yahweh-- the word for the one God.
The disciples remembered that the carpenter from Nazareth had claimed the authority to forgive sins-- to the great annoyance of the religious leaders who considered this blasphemy because only God can forgive sins (Mark 2: 1-7). And at his trial, Jesus acknowledged that he was “the Son of the Blessed One”. The Jewish leaders promptly denounced this as blasphemy ( Mark 14:61-64).
The story of Saul of Tarsus is most amazing. A brilliant student of the best Jewish scholars of the day, Saul was a strict monotheist. So it is not surprising that he considered the early followers of Jesus to be heretics who should be imprisoned and killed.
Then he met the risen Jesus on the way to Damascus. And this strict Jewish monotheist became the most successful evangelist for Jesus, traveling throughout much of the Roman empire urging everyone to embrace Jesus as Messiah and Lord.
Paul, this highly trained strict Jewish monotheist, began to call the carpenter “kurios” (Lord, God).Paul actually took words from Isaiah where the monotheistic prophet has Yahweh, the one God, mocking the idols and asserting that” before me every knee will bow, by me, every tongue will swear”( Isaiah 45:23) and applies them to the carpenter from Nazareth: “God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord [kurios]” (Philippians 2:9-11).
Nobody knew better than Saul of Tarsus that it was blasphemy to call Jesus the carpenter kurios (Yahweh). Unless it was true. But that was the only way to make sense of what these first century monotheistic Jews had experienced.
The carpenter from Nazareth had claimed to be the Messiah. He even made seemingly blasphemous claims. But then the Jewish and Roman leaders killed him to prove that he was wrong. And that would have been the end-- except that he was alive again on the third day. That and the dramatic outpouring of the Holy Spirit and many resulting miracles demonstrated that something utterly unexpected had happened.
The only possible explanation was that the carpenter from Nazareth was much more than just a very good, very wise man. He was also truly God in the flesh.
It took the church several centuries to try to think through this reality of who Jesus was and fit it with their agreement with the Jews that there is only one God. Eventually they articulated the doctrine of the Trinity: one God in three divine persons.
We will never fully understand that mystery. But it is what strict Jewish monotheists actually experienced that led to that understanding.
At the center of the largest religion in the world today is the astounding claim that their founder, the Carpenter from Nazareth is true God as well as true man. No other major religion today makes that kind of claim about their founder. That claim is either the worst mistake in the history of religion. Or it is true. Because of the witness of strict Jewish monotheists, we know it is true.
Utterly dumbfounding! Utterly wonderful!
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