The day after he died, Jesus was just a man in a small backwater of a country at the far end of the Mediterranean in the mighty Roman Empire, and yet he changed the world forever. His influence far extends beyond anyone else throughout global culture.
In 2015 I preached a short series on some of these aspects of Jesus. (You can find all of them at the end of this blog if you want to hear them and see the slides that accompanied them.) But as we get ready to start a new free course that is open to anyone to join us, “Jesus The Game Changer”, I thought I would return to some of the themes for this blog.
So… Jesus. Who is he?
As Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey, we are told in Matthew’s Gospel that the whole city was ‘stirred’ and asked “Who is he?”
Who else in history has stirred the world so much, that 2000 years after their time on earth, they could still have huge influence? Do any of the other greats of history still have real influence today?… Rameses, Julius Caesar, Genghis Khan, Charlemagne, Henry the VIII, Keiser Wilhelm, Winston Churchill even? And yet the world still asks of Jesus – “Who is he?” He stirs us up in ways we don’t understand.
Nowadays we are focused on celebrity and fame. Consider some recent famous people with long and significant careers who were globally known and who had impact during their lives, but once they died? Entertainment: Bob Hope (d. 2003) – When did you last watch him? Politics: Ronald Reagan (d. 2004) – Can you recall any speeches? Technology: Steve Jobs (d. 2011) – How long before forgotten? I can think of many folk who may say of Steve Jobs and his Apple products will mean that he will never be forgotten, that his influence will just continue – but ponder a second, do we even now really remember Clive Sinclair? (Only if you’re old enough!) He produced the first slim line pocket calculator and the first mass market home computer!
The really odd thing is if we compare the above, or any other famous person in history, Jesus had a really short ‘career’ with very little impact during his life. His public time was only about 3 years. At the end he had maybe a few dozen close followers and possibly a few hundred others who knew him fairly well – and then – he was executed by the Roman Empire.
But now he has… c.2 billion followers (1/3rdof the planet), of which about 26% are in Europe, 37% are in N & S America, 24% sub Saharan Africa and 13% Asia and the Pacific.. There are an estimated 37 million church buildings and around 34,000 organisations dedicated to helping people follow him.
Isn’t this staggering when you consider we don’t know what he looks like, yet he is the most recognised character in art in the world. In music there are just too many songs about him to count them all.
Considering he never wrote a book but the first written about him are simply different to other books of the era. They were copied and circulated unlike any other document in the history of written texts. A couple of early ‘history’ books that are well known and recognised would be as below.
Notice when they were written and how many of the earliest copies we still have – and from what date we have those copies – and these are regarded as primary source materials by historians.
- Heroditus: c.450BC. 8 from 900AD.
- Tacitus: c.100AD. 8 from 1100AD.
- Ceasar’s Wars: c.55BC. 10 from 900AD.
- Livy’s History: c.20BC. 20 from 900AD.
And then look at the New Testament. It was written between 40AD to 100AD. We have over 24,000 copies and part texts, the earliest from around 130AD
Jesus is so different to anyone else who has ever lived. It shouldn’t be possible for him to have had the impact he has – but it has been. Because of Jesus, attitudes:
- to children became what they are today
- to women were radically changed towards equality
- humility became a virtue when it didn’t exist as one before him
Education evolved too. While he never wrote a book, his teaching meant his followers taught, and that started schools and Universities. For example teaching started in Kings School, Canterbury in 597 by the Cathedral – or in Oxford we find the first UK University from before 1096.
His influence on politics includes The Magna Carta, which gave rise to so much of Western political systems, gives freedom for the Church as its first and last clause or at the Coronation of the UK’s Monarch we hear:
“Our gracious Queen: to keep your Majesty ever mindful of the law and the Gospel of God as the Rule for the whole life and government of Christian Princes, we present you with this Book, the most valuable thing that this world affords. Here is Wisdom; This is the royal Law; These are the lively Oracles of God.”
Powerful regimes tried to create calendars around themselves… Rome dated events on the year from an Emperor’s reign.. The French Revolution tried to start one that marked the Reign of Reason. The USSR from the deposing of the Tsar. But the world uses BC/AD – BCE/CE – based on his arrival on the planet.
How about the odd fact that globally a cross in the ground is recognised as a grave… in a cemetery. We start to get a hint of why Jesus may be unique even in this word. The word ‘cemetery’ is used as it comes from the Greek word for a ‘sleeping place’ i.e. with hopes of resurrection
Jesus has a habit of influencing and changing people in ways no-one else ever has with some famous people speaking about Jesus in such amazed terms…
Napoleon: “I know men and I tell you, Jesus Christ is no mere man. Between him and every other person in the world there is no possible term of comparison. Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne, and I have founded empires. But on what did we rest the creations of our genius? Upon force. Jesus Christ founded his empire upon love; and at this hour, millions would die for him.”
HG Wells: “I am a historian, I am not a believer, but I must confess as a historian that this penniless preacher from Nazareth is irrevocably the very centre of history. Jesus Christ is easily the most dominant figure in all history.” He is “the most unique person of history. No man can write a history of the human race without giving first and foremost place to the penniless teacher of Nazareth.”
Florence Nightingale: “People talk about imitating Christ, and imitate Him in the little trifling formal things, such as washing the feet, saying His prayer, and so on; but if anyone attempts the real imitation of Him, there are no bounds to the outcry with which the presumption of that person is condemned.”
Leo Tolstoy: “For thirty five years of my life I was, in the proper acceptation of the word, nihilist, a man who believed in nothing. Five years ago my faith came to me. I believed in the doctrine of Jesus Christ and my whole life underwent a sudden transformation. Life and death ceased to be evil. Instead of despair, I tasted joy and happiness that death could not take away.”
CS Lewis: “A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic – on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God; or else a madman or something worse… You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.” (CS Lewis’ thought is well worth spending some time considering)
Jesus wants us to recognise him for who he is – and he wants to be our brother. If we accept him, he enables us to be adopted into his family – now and for ever, in this life and resurrected with him in the next. He is the hope for us and for the nations today and always. He provides us with peace and purpose and hope even if the world is crumbling around us.
That’s why he has had – and still has – such an influence on the world in ways no-one else ever will, because no-one else will ever be like him. While he died at the hands of the Romans, it is through his resurrection that all these things above, and more, have come about.
Jesus still has an influence because he is the living Son of God.
If you would like to read more on this topic, a great book that influenced the series of talks below is John Ortberg’s “Who is this man?”
The talks below and their associated slides were all given early in 2015 at St Jude’s Church. While they don’t form the basis of the new course, “Jesus – The Game Changer”, they can give more insight into the way Jesus has changed the world. We would also love to recommend the App for the course that can be found for free from either the App Store (iPhones) or the Play Store (Android).
Feel free to listen to the talks below- it may help to download the associated slides in the pdf to add to what you will hear.
"Jesus: who is he" - Week 1 "Carved into history"
The slides for the talk above can be downloaded here: Jesus_Wk1_Carved_into_history_Notes
"Jesus: who is he" - Week 2 "Liberator of women"
The slides for the talk above can be downloaded here: Jesus_Wk2_liberator_of_women_Notes
"Jesus: who is he" - Week 3 "The end of us and them"
The slides for the talk above can be downloaded here: Jesus_Wk3_the_end_of_us_and_them_Notes
"Jesus: who is he" - Week 4 "Not a great man"
The slides for the talk above can be downloaded here: Jesus_Wk4_Not_A_Great_Man_Notes
"Jesus: who is he" - Week 5 "No religious leader"
The slides for the talk above can be downloaded here: Jesus_Wk5_No_religous_leader_Notes