This morning we begin a series on “the essential Jesus.” Over the next few months, we cover many of the key events in His life and many aspects of His ministry.
It is an indisputable fact that Jesus is the most widely-known and influential religious Figure of all time. Most of the world reckons time based on His birth. Almost every major world religion honors Him – even though they re-invent Him to fit into their own religious world-view. For example, Islam calls Jesus a prophet who is inferior to Allah, and Buddhism sees Jesus as an enlightened guru.
But how do we know that these are re-inventions? This assumes that we can know who the real Jesus was, and that we can therefore identify deviations from the real Jesus. The answer to this question until recently has been simple – the Jesus from the four (canonical) gospels of the New Testament is the real Jesus. Therefore, the Muslim prophet Jesus is inaccurate since the canonical Jesus claimed to be God. Therefore, the Buddhist guru Jesus is inaccurate since the canonical Jesus claimed to be the sole Savior from sin.
But especially in the past few decades, this traditional assumption has evaporated. Scholars, novelists, movie makers, television programs and (of course) the internet argue that the canonical Jesus is itself a re-invention.
Why not the Da Vinci Code Jesus?
The most popular example of this view is Dan Brown’s best-selling novel (and movie), The DaVinci Code. Though the book is “fiction,” it promotes as fact the views of scholars like Elaine Pagels (author of The Gnostic Gospels), who seek to debunk the canonical Jesus. Brown and Pagels make the following assertions:
Jesus never claimed to be the divine Son of God. The church invented this version of Jesus 3 centuries later. The real Jesus was a mortal who espoused a Gnostic (like New Age) spirituality that involved enlightenment through sexual intercourse.
Jesus was romantically involved with Mary Magdalene. He later married her, sired a daughter by her, and intended for her to lead the church after his departure. The church suppressed this and invented a “bachelor” Jesus to promote its male chauvinist views.
The New Testament canon was the invention of the church “winners” (those who assumed power in the 4th century). They rejected 70+ other “gospels,” many of which gave a more accurate portrait of Jesus (including the “Gospel of Thomas”), and selected the four that most agreed with their views.
Since then, the New Testament has further evolved through countless translations, additions and revisions – to such an extent that an accurate portrait of the historical Jesus may be lost forever.
Americans seem have gobbled up this view. There is currently a widespread cynicism about the canonical Jesus and general agnosticism about who the real Jesus is. But the actual evidence overwhelmingly points to the Jesus of the canonical gospels as the correct portrait.
Why the Jesus of the canonical gospels?
There is an enormous amount of evidence that supports the canonical Jesus as the real Jesus. I am only going to give a brief survey of the highlights of this evidence. Recommend Moreland, Jesus under Fire for further study.
First, the canonical gospels are the earliest accounts of Jesus’ life. Virtually all scholars agree that they are first-century documents – written between the mid-50’s (Mark) and 90 AD (John). By contrast, all of the above portraits are mid-second-century (“Thomas”) or later. This is important, because the closer in time a historical document is to the events it reports, the more reliable it is likely to be. And because eyewitness opponents were still alive when these documents were written, they could have refuted this testimony. Yet there is no record of this!
Second, the canonical gospels are based on eyewitness accounts. Eye-witness testimony is the most reliable testimony possible for historical accounts. Matthew was one of Jesus’ disciples, as was John. Mark was a follower of Jesus, and his account is mainly Peter’s eye-witness description of Jesus. Luke states expressly that his account is a compilation of eye-witness testimony. They were also persecuted and/or executed for their testimony – so there is no reason to suspect self-serving dishonesty. By contrast, the “Gospel of Thomas” is a pseudonymous work because it was written around 150 AD –after the death of Thomas, Jesus’ disciple. Other “gospels” were written even later.
Third, the canonical gospels reliably report other known historical events. Unlike the “Gospel of Thomas” (which contains no historical narrative) or other apocryphal gospels (which are obviously mythical – NEXT WEEK), the canonical gospels make themselves vulnerable to falsification by reporting hundreds of people and events in space and time. They have survived 20 centuries of unprecedented scholarly attack, and archeology especially has confirmed their accuracy. This proven historical reliability means that we have no objective basis for skepticism about their accounts about Jesus.
Fourth, the preservation of the canonical gospels is an established fact. The closer to the originals the copies are, and the more copies we have, the more certain we can be what the originals said. We have only a few copies of these pseudo-gospels, and most of these copies are hundreds of years after the originals. By contrast, we have over 5000 copies of the canonical gospels—dating back to within 250 years of the originals (and fragments going back to the early second century). The New Testament is by far the best attested ancient document in the world!
Fifth, the fact that the canonical gospels’ authors “have an agenda” does not impeach the accuracy of their accounts. Yes, they wrote their gospels to persuade others to believe in Jesus as the Messiah and follow Him. But only a cynical person insists that such a purpose guarantees distortion. Do we reject Jewish historians’ accounts of the Holocaust because they have an agenda (i.e., to prevent it from happening again)? Accounts claiming to be historical should be evaluated along the above four lines – and they attest to canonical gospels’ reliability. (Ironically, it is the other portraits of Jesus that are guilty of letting their agendas distort their accounts!)
In summary, we don’t have to guess which portrait is the real Jesus and which are the re-inventions. Even non-Christian Jewish scholars declare that because of the canonical gospels “. . . we know more about Jesus than about almost any other first-century Jew.” God went out of His way to preserve this record, because He wants us to be able to know about His Son, and about His Son’s great love for us, and about how He came to rescue us. So let’s begin . . .
Jesus’ family tree
Let’s begin the way the New Testament begins – with Jesus’ genealogy (read Matt. 1:1-17). Why does Matthew expect us to be interested in Jesus’ family tree? There are two answers to this question. Let’s start with the more obvious one . . .
Re-read 1:1. Matthew wants to confirm specifically that Jesus is the descendant of David and of Abraham. The point of this is far greater than just that Jesus has a couple of celebrities in His family tree. It is to show that Jesus is the fulfillment of a promise that God made to Abraham and David – a promise that is profoundly important for the whole world, and for you and me personally.
Over 2100 years before Jesus was born, God made a multi-faceted promise to Abraham (read Gen. 12:1-3). God would bless Abraham by multiplying his descendants into a great nation (Israel). But God’s blessing on him and his descendents was not an end in itself. He would bless them so that they could be a blessing to others. Through Abraham’s descendants God would one day extend a blessing to all of the ethnic groups in the world – a king who would arise from Abraham’s descendants to bring God’s loving rulership to all the nations (read Gen. 49:10).
About 1100 years after Abraham, God selected David to be king over Israel, and disclosed His plans for David’s line – read 2 Sam. 7:12,16. God will establish a Davidic dynasty that will ultimately last forever. This means that one of David’s descendants will be the above-promised king.
Matthew begins this way because he wrote his gospel to convince Jews that Jesus was their Messiah. This is one of dozens of Old Testament Messianic predictions that Jesus fulfilled (COMING WEEKS).
The second reason why Matthew begins with Jesus’ family tree is more subtle, but also more wonderful. Normal Jewish genealogies tended to be very selective, including only certain kinds of ancestors. But Matthew’s selection process deliberately includes some unusual names (UNDERLINE 4 WOMEN).
Jewish genealogies usually included only male ancestors, a reflection of male-dominated Jewish society. But these names were women. Why does Matthew deliberately include them? Jesus came from women because He came for women (e.g., Jesus’ female disciples – Lk. 8:1-3).
Jewish genealogies usually included only male Jewish ancestors, because the whole point of the genealogy was to prove Jewish ancestry. But these women were Gentiles. Why does Matthew deliberately include them? Jesus came from Gentiles because He came for Gentiles (e.g., the Syro-Phoenician woman – Mk. 8:26-30).
Jewish genealogies usually included only upstanding male Jewish ancestors, to show the spiritual pedigree of the person. But these women were sexually sinful and/or broken. Why does Matthew deliberately include them? Jesus came from Gentiles because He came for sinful and broken people (e.g., the Samaritan woman – Jn. 4).
This is the best news of all – the real God, the God of the Bible, loves and redeems broken people. His plan of blessing is not just to send a King who will rule the world; it is also to send his Son to rescue deeply broken people (read Luke 19:10; 1 Tim. 1:14).
What about you? Are you a sinful, broken person? Has your life been broken by people who used you, by horrible situations, and/or by your own wrong choices? Jesus can redeem your life. There is no person so sinful and broken, no situation so horrible, that Jesus cannot forgive you and redeem your life into one that expresses His redemptive love to others. Many in this room, including myself, have seen God do this in our own lives.
Do you want Jesus to forgive you and redeem your life? He already loves you, He already died for your sin, and He already knows how He wants to redeem your broken life to give hope to others. But he won’t do this without your permission. You need to tell Him that you are sinful and broken and ask Him to forgive and redeem you. Are you ready to do this?
 Dan Brown, The DaVinci Code (New York: Doubleday, 2003), pp. 230-250.
 “Archaeology confirms a whole raft of details susceptible to (archeological) corroboration – for example, the existence of the pools of Siloam and Bethesda in Jerusalem (the latter with five porticoes just as John 5:2 describes), Pontius Pilate as prefect of Judea, Roman crucifixion by driving nails through the ankle bones, fishing boats large enough to hold 13 people (like Jesus and his 12 disciples), the tomb of Caiaphas, the probable ossuary (bone-box) of James, brother of Jesus, and so on. And all of these details in the Gospels were once doubted before the archaeological confirmation came forth.” Craig L. Blomberg, “The Historical Reliability of the Gospels,” http://www.4truth.net/fourtruthpbbible.aspx?pageid=8589952775.
 “Simply because a writer is passionately committed to promoting a particular cause does not at all mean he or she will falsify the facts. Often, such a person will work all the harder to tell the story straight . . . After all, often the truthfulness of something is what produced the personal commitment in the first place.” Craig L. Blomberg, “Where Do We Start Studying Jesus?” Jesus Under Fire (Zondervan Publishing House, 1995), pp. 36,37.
 James H. Charlesworth, ed., Jesus’ Jewishness: Exploring the Place of Jesus within Early Judaism (Crossroad, 1991), p. 81. “Almost” in the quote refers to the apostle Paul, about whom we know even more.
 When Tamar got cut out of the family inheritance, she disguised herself as a prostitute and solicited her father-in-law. When she became pregnant, she blackmailed him into giving her enough money to live on. Yet God worked through this dysfunctional family to ultimately bring forth His Messiah.
Rahab was a prostitute. She hid Israelite spies in her house (a whore-house?). Imagine what kind of life Rahab had – her family upbringing, her abuse by men, her choice to survive by using the men who were using her, etc. Yet God not only spared her life, but also provided a Jewish husband and brought His Messiah from their family.
Ruth was a Moabitess who married a Jewish man. Then he died, Ruth’s mother-in-law’s husband died, and her sister-in-law’s husband died. This left them without protection or financial support. As a Gentile widow in Israel, she faced a life of possible ostracism and abuse. But a godly older Jewish man fell in love with her and married her. And from her family came David, and ultimately Jesus the Messiah.
Bathsheba was a Hittite wife of Uriah, one of David’s military officers. While Uriah was away at battle for David, David seduced Bathsheba, got her pregnant, and then tried to cover this up by having Uriah killed. When God exposed the scandal, there was a ripple effect that caused terrific heart-ache for many decades. And yet God worked through Bathsheba to bring forth King Solomon, who was to be the ancestor of the Messiah.