What to Think about Jesus
Grace, mercy and peace be unto you from God, our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
"What do you think about Jesus?" That is a crucial question for all of us. If you ask that question, you will get a different answer from almost every person you ask. A handful of people will say, "I don't even think he was a real person, so he is just a myth like Hercules or Zeus." But even non-Christian secular historians acknowledge that Jesus was a real first-century historical figure, so to deny the existence of Jesus is an untenable position.
Instead, most people are glad to acknowledge that Jesus existed, but then they explain who He is based on their own ideas and agendas, not on what the Bible says about Him. Non-Christian religions have room for a Jesus of their own conception, saying that He was a good man, a great role model, a moral example, a teacher, a prophet, an avatar. Even unreligious people say that they admire Jesus; just consider the T-shirt that says, "Jesus is my homeboy."
The world loves the idea of a Jesus they can fit into their own views, their own religious systems, a Jesus of their own liking who will let them do and believe whatever tickles their fancy. Even some who call themselves Christians try to pick and choose what they want to believe about Jesus. Those who identify themselves as liberal Christians deemphasize that Jesus claimed to be the Son of God and Savior of the world and will instead focus exclusively on His moral message. They will say that Jesus came not to be a divine, crucified Savior but only to show that God loves everybody and that, as we heard in the Gospel reading, the great commandments are to love God with our whole heart and our neighbors as ourselves. One twentieth century theologian (Richard Niebuhr) wrote that the message of the twentieth-century liberal Christianity was that "a God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment though the ministrations of a Christ without a cross."
But finally, all the foregoing answers to the question, "What do you think about Jesus?" ignore what Jesus actually said about Himself, and about what He really did during His life. Any form of re-imagining who Jesus is—without taking full account of what He taught in the Gospels—is just another way of rejecting Him, in the same way that the Jewish Sadducees, Pharisees, and scribes would reject Jesus' teaching and get Him crucified. So let's find out who the real Jesus is by hearing what He teaches in our Gospel reading.
The context of Matthew 22 is Holy Week, just days before Jesus was crucified. Jesus had entered Jerusalem on a donkey, showing that He was the promised King or Christ of Jersualem as the crowds shouted out, "Hosanna to the Son of David!" Then He had cleansed the Jerusalem temple. After these things the Jewish chief priests and scribes began to aggressively attack Him, by questioning and testing Jesus. He responded by telling parables that indicated that He was God's Son and the Christ, and that when the Jews rejected Him God would take the Kingdom away from the Jews and share the Gospel with all nations. Jesus called the Pharisees hypocrites and said that the Sadducees were wrong for denying the Resurrection (He even said they didn't know the Scriptures or the power of God).
Then at the beginning of today's Gospel reading, the Pharisees are gathering around to try to trap Jesus in false teaching. And a lawyer among them asked, "Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?" And Jesus said to him, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets."
We're not told how the Pharisees respond, but we can only assume that they would have to agree with what He said, because the Old Testament teaches these two great commandments so clearly. For example, in our Old Testament reading Moses asks Israel, "What does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the Lord, which I am commanding you today for your good?" And then a few verses later the Lord gives this commandment: "Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt." And in Leviticus, the Lord says, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." So Jesus is teaching nothing new here; He is not really a lawgiver, but the true interpreter of God's Law.
The Pharisees would not have been able to contradict what Jesus said because He was simply quoting the Old Testament, but they wouldn't have liked the response of Jesus because of the radical way He interpreted those laws—in other words, Jesus taught the great commandments in the way that the Lord had originally intended them. The Pharisees had reinterpreted God's Law into something more manageable, doable. As we heard in the parable of the Good Samaritan some weeks ago, that Pharisee simply assumed that he loved God with his whole heart, and then he wanted to justify himself by asking, "But who is my neighbor? Which neighbors do I need to love, and which ones can I hate or ignore?" But Jesus would have none of that. God's original intention for the law to love one's neighbor was that love would be shown to anyone and everyone. Jesus spells this out by describing the Samaritan's mercy on a perfect stranger.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus makes the law to love neighbor truly astounding when He teaches that we must even love our enemies. He said, "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." Jesus shows that God intended the law of love to include all our neighbors, even our enemies. The perfection that God demands includes a perfect love of everyone.
When Jesus says that the two great commandments are to love God wholeheartedly and our neighbors as ourselves, He is stripping away all the legalisms, misunderstandings, and evasions that had been built up around God's Law over the centuries, and in its place He shows the plain meaning of what God had always intended but that sinners had perverted. The Pharisees hated what Jesus was saying because it showed their hypocrisy—their lack of love for others and their desire to show themselves to be righteous.
And the true Jesus shows the same thing to us. He reminds us of God's command that we love and obey Him wholeheartedly—not just doing what He commands, but doing it gladly, willingly, cheerfully. He reminds us that we must accept the doctrines taught in God's Word as true, and adjust our attitudes and lives accordingly. He reminds us that we must show sincere love to all people. But what is the miserable reality for us sinners? We regularly disobey our Lord and doubt His Word, and then our obedience to God is always imperfect, halfhearted at best. And forget loving all people—we often fail to show love and compassion even to our parents, siblings, children, neighbors, and friends—and we want nothing but evil to befall our enemies.
So what do you think about Jesus now? Do you like the Law He is preaching? The Pharisees surely didn't, which is why they wanted to silence Him for attacking their religious ideas, and our sinful flesh wants to silence the demands of God's Law as well. You can see why so many people have opted to pick and choose from what He says, rather than to believe all His teachings. For the real Jesus presents God's Law with all of its radical, heavy demands in order to show us our utter sinfulness and desperate need for a gracious, forgiving Lord and merciful Savior.
Jesus was trying to show the Pharisees that you can't get right with God by keeping your nose clean, by living an outwardly righteous life, but that they would need a Redeemer to save them from their sins, the promised Messiah or Christ. However, the Pharisees thought they were already right with God by birth as Israelites, by circumcision, and by keeping the Law as well as they could, and so the Messiah they were looking for wasn't a Redeemer from sin but a political ruler, someone like King David, who would drive out the Romans and win back the Promised Land for the Jews. Likewise, liberal Christians today don't believe that God punishes sin or sends people to hell, so the only Christ they think Jesus should be is as a moral teacher. And so there is no way Jesus fits the expectations of the Pharisees or liberals about who the Christ is.
Yet in Matthew's Gospel, Jesus is presented not as a political ruler or moralist but as the only Savior from sin, death, and hell. Matthew begins, "The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham" (Matthew 1:1). A little later, the angel Gabriel tells Joseph what sort of Christ He would be when he says that the One born of the Virgin Mary will "Save His people from their sins," not from political oppression or from ignorance of how to be a good person. In Matthew 16, Jesus asks the apostles, "Who do men say that I am?" and Peter makes the great confession given to him by God, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." And right after that, Jesus says that the Christ will go up to Jerusalem to suffer and die as a ransom for the masses, to redeem us from our sins.
In the second half of our Gospel reading today, Jesus has two items on His agenda: first, He wants to turn the tables on the Pharisees and test them, just the way they have been trying to test Him; and second, He wants to teach an important point about who the Christ, the Son of David, is. Jesus shows them that the Christ isn't just any ordinary man who will die on the cross, but actually He is greater than David, greater than any other man, because He is actually David's Lord. This truth is so important for us because only a Divine Redeemer could die for the sins of the whole world. St. Matthew writes, "Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them a question, saying, "What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?" They said to him, "The son of David." He said to them, "How is it then that David, in the Spirit, calls him Lord, saying, " 'The Lord said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet'? If then David calls him Lord, how is he his son?" And no one was able to answer him a word, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions."
In the Bible, it would be unthinkable for a man to call his son "Lord." The father is always in authority over the son. So for David to describe the Christ as his Lord means that the Christ had to be in existence before David. Jesus quotes Psalm 110, which is a prophecy about the Messiah, and it says, "The LORD said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet." This means that the one true God, the LORD of Israel, the great I AM who appeared to Moses in the burning bush and called Israel out of slavery in Egypt, He is the One who says to David's Lord, "Sit at My right hand," that is, "Be My right hand Man and rule My Kingdom." This can't be any ordinary man! It is similar to the time in John's Gospel when Jesus tells the Jews that Abraham looked forward to seeing Jesus' day, and He said, "Before Abraham was, I AM," that is, I AM the LORD God of Israel.
We are quickly entering some territory that is very difficult to understand, and it centers in the highest mysteries of our Christian faith: that the One True God is the Holy Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and that the Christ is Jesus, who is not only a true man but is also the only-begotten Son of God. This is the only way that David's Son can also be David's Lord. This is the only way that Jesus could be before Abraham.
And when Psalm 110 prophesies that the Christ, David's Son and David's Lord, will sit at the LORD's right hand, it includes all the things that Jesus would do before He ascended to God the Father's right hand, from whence He will come to judge the living and the dead. This means that God so loved the world that He sent His only-begotten Son into the world to take on human flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary, that He would live a perfect, sinless life, loving God and neighbor completely, and then He would lay down His life as a ransom for the masses to redeem us from sin, death, and hell. And now the resurrected LORD Jesus calls you to trust in Him as your total Savior from God's wrath and from the assaults of the devil, for the prophecy says that Jesus will sit at God's right hand and reign over His Kingdom until He puts all of God's enemies underfoot and crushes them on the Last Day.
So what should you think about Jesus? Not just anything you come up with on your own, but rather you are to believe, teach, and confess whatever your LORD has told you about Himself, most of all that He has done all things for you, to rescue you from the damnation and accusations of God's Law and to save you for an everlasting resurrected life with Him in heaven. And He has not left you or forsaken you, but has told you where you can find His presence and full assurance of your salvation: in Holy Baptism, you are united with His death and resurrection; He comes to absolve you from all your guilt in Confession and Holy Absolution; and He comes in the Lord's Supper to feed you His true body and true blood, given and shed for the forgiveness of your sins.
What should you think about Jesus? No one has said it better than Dr. Luther in his explanation of the second article of the Creed in the Small Catechism, words that all of us should know by heart and have in our minds everyday: "I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary, is my Lord. Who has redeemed me, a lost and condemned person, purchased and won me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil; not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death, that I may be His own and live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, just as He is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity. This is most certainly true." In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.