When I was a youngster my family observed the practice of opening Christmas presents on Christmas Eve. The positive side of this was that we got to open our presents one day sooner than others. The one drawback to this arrangement was the torture of enduring the preliminaries. First of all, we waited for my grandmother—to my recollection, she never did arrive either early or on time. Then there was dinner. Of course, we children choked our food down only to have to suffer the wait for our elders to finish eating at a more sensible pace. Then there were the dishes to wash. Then finally we had to wait until all the presents were passed out, each of us with a small pile at our feet.
As I approach this study on the life of Christ, I feel much as I did as a child years ago, watching the driveway for the first signs of my grandmother’s arrival, itching for the preliminaries to be done with so the real pleasures could be enjoyed. The distressing fact is that now I am grandpa and it is I who am holding up the proverbial show. Nevertheless, there are some preliminaries which must be gotten out of the way before we begin to immerse ourselves in the text of the gospels themselves.
I can honestly say that I approach the study of the life and ministry of our Lord Jesus with more eagerness and expectation than any study I have ever attempted from the Word of God. Before we look into this ‘one solitary life,’ let me mention some of the reasons why it is such a significant topic for study.
(1) When we come to the Christ of the Gospels we are at the fountainhead of the New Testament and the fulfillment of much of the Old.
David Brown has written, “The Fourfold Gospel is the central portion of Divine Revelation. Into it, as a Reservoir, all the foregoing revelations pour their full tide and out of it, as a Fountain, flow all subsequent revelations.”1
Even better put are the inspired words of the apostle Paul who wrote, “For in Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:16-17).
To put the biblical revelation together concisely, Jesus Christ is the focal point of all history. He is the fulfillment of Old Testament hopes; He is the source of all New Testament revelation and expectation. He is all in all. To study the life of Christ is to study the fountainhead of all New Testament revelation.
(2) To relive the pages of Scripture recorded by the gospel writers is to walk with our Lord in His earthly ministry.
There is much interest these days in “walking where Jesus walked,” that is, in visiting in the Holy Land. I could wish that every Christian might have that privilege. But far greater is the privilege which every Christian does have to walk the dusty roads of the Holy Land with our Lord Jesus through the eyes of the inspired Gospel writers. It is in these pages that we encounter the greatest personality of all history.
Harnack once said,
“The man who can read the first three Gospels … without being sensible that a mighty personality is at work in them—a personality swaying the hearts of men and far beyond the power of men to invent—must be denied the capacity to distinguish between fiction and the documentary evidence to a historical and personal life.”2
(3) To study the life of Christ is to behold God in human flesh. No gospel writer has said it more clearly or concisely than John:
And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth. John bore witness of Him, and cried out, saying, “This was He of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me has a higher rank than I, for He existed before me.’” For of His fulness we have all received, and grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ. No man has seen God at any time; the only begotten God, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him (John 1:14-18).
Throughout the Old Testament men were forbidden to attempt to represent the living God by means of graven images.3 The fundamental reason for such a prohibition was that no man-made image could properly reflect the majesty and perfection of the infinite God.4 In the Old Testament period, God was to be worshipped on the basis of His words (revelation) and works. With the invasion of Jesus Christ into human history, man may now worship God in the person of His Son. In that sense, Jesus Christ is the only image of God acceptable to God. He is the full disclosure, without any blemish or distortions, of God Himself. “For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form” (Colossians 2:9). If we wish to know more about God, especially as He relates to the day-to-day matters of life, we need simply learn more of Christ. As Godet has written, “Jesus is God lived by man.”5
(4) When we study the life of Christ in the Gospels we meet the “real” Jesus.
In spite of all of the bizarre and incredible acts of men, few have been so candid as to admit that God was not on their side. It is easy to comprehend why so many have made Jesus the leading proponent of their cause. As a result we have been bombarded with nearly every type of ‘Jesus.’ I mention but a few.
There is, for example, the gentle Jesus, hero of the pacifist cause. This is the Jesus meek and mild who instructs us to turn the other check, even as he submitted, non-violently, to the abuse of men.
Then we have the humanitarian Jesus. He is the Jesus whose high calling was to relieve the world of misery and suffering. Just as he devoted Himself to battle suffering, pain and misery, so must we.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, there is Jesus the revolutionary. Here is the hero of the anti-establishment movement. Just as this Jesus rocked the boat of the status quo, so should we. Just as He, they allege, sought to overthrow corrupt and unjust institutions of His day (even by use of violence), so should we.
There is also the broad-minded Jesus, whose love (we are told) seems to permit, or at least tolerate, the sins defined by ‘wooden literalists,’ ‘fundamentalists,’ and other narrow minded bigots. He would welcome women into positions of church leadership as well as homosexuals.6 He would take a more tolerant view of divorce, sexual morality and such.
The liberals would introduce us to the misled and mundane Jesus. This individual, from what little truth we could ferret from the ‘mythical’ accounts of the gospels, was one who was misled as to His true identity and mission, and who surely could have performed no miracles.
Some of these views (though not all!) contain elements of truth. Jesus did manifest compassion and concern for the physical needs of people. But generally even where some truth is present, there is an improper emphasis placed on one aspect of Christ’s teaching or example. Rather than seeing our Lord as a whole person equal to and greater than the sum of His biblical portraits, we perceive Him only in those areas which support our own hang-ups.
The ‘real’ Jesus is not the figment of our imagination Who comforts us in our errors and confirms our prejudices and preconceived notions. The real Jesus is the Christ of the Gospels, the full manifestation of deity in human flesh. It is this Jesus Whom we shall meet in the gospels. The Jesus of our imaginations has little to offer, but the Jesus of biblical history is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).
(5) The life of Christ confronts us with a personality which forbids indecision and neutrality.
The unreal Jesus, who is the product of human imagination, is not a very commanding figure. At best He requires a mere ‘tip of the hat’ or a few words of polite praise. Men can easily sidestep commitment to the Jesus which men have reshaped into their own image. But the real Jesus leaves man no such option. His life and teaching demands decisive decision. He was either God or He was not. If He was not God’s Messiah, He was either a deceiver or self-deluded. In John chapter 7, we see just one instance of the way Christ divided men. The reactions of men were decisive and extreme. They were either willing to die for Him or that He should die.
As R. T. France has so well said it, “Those who understand who Jesus is and what he stands for are still today given to extreme reactions … It is only those who do not understand who can be indifferent, and dismiss Jesus with a well-meant but patronizing word of praise.”7
Those who resist Christ are as zealous about it as those who receive Him as Savior. To face the person and the work of Christ in the gospels is to forever leave the middle ground of neutrality and non-commitment.
I will never forget a Bible study we conducted in our home several years ago. We decided, with another neighbor, to study the gospel of John. Our neighbor ended up inviting virtually everyone in the neighborhood. One couple came for the first time when we were dealing with chapter 3. Then we left for vacation. I urged our neighbor to continue the study in our absence. The next week when he was teaching the study, the unsaved woman blurted out, “You know, it almost appears that Jesus was claiming to be God.” My good friend and neighbor wisely replied, ‘Why don’t we keep that in mind as we continue our study.” Somewhere in the study of John, both this woman and her husband were converted.
Perhaps as you are confronted with the person of Jesus Christ in this series, you will be compelled by the sheer weight of the evidence to the kind of commitment some would call fanatical. If so, you would be in the company of many who beheld Him in the flesh, and multitudes more who have believed yet have not seen, save through the eyes of faith and the testimony of those among whom He tabernacled.
(6) When we study the life of Christ we learn of God’s pattern and provision for our Christian experience.
T. W. Manson once wrote, “To the two questions: What does God offer to man? and What does God require of man? the New Testament returns one answer: the life of Christ.”8
First and foremost, the Lord Jesus Christ is God’s provision for man’s sin. Jesus Christ died in the sinner’s place. He Who was sinless took man’s sin upon Himself, and suffered the penalty of God’s wrath for all who believe (2 Cor. 5:21). He provides every believer with His righteousness so that we may spend eternity in fellowship with God (Rom. 3:21-26). But in addition to this He is the example, He is the standard of righteousness for all who believe. The trials and tests which we face are not unknown to Him, for He was tempted in all points, yet without sin (Hebrews 4:15). His life is the pattern for Christian conduct (1 Pet. 2:21).
Thank God Jesus Christ is not only the standard of righteousness, He is also the source of it. He is both the pattern and the provision for the Christian walk. It was the death of Christ which saved us from sin in the past; it is the life of Christ which delivers us from sin in the present and future.
Paul wrote in Romans chapter 5,
“Much more, then, having been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life” (Rom. 5:9,10).
Again in Romans chapter 6 we are told,
“Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall be also in the likeness of His resurrection” (Rom. 6:4,5).
The teaching of the New Testament is that the Christian life is one in which Jesus Christ lives His life out in us. Orthodox Christians have taught much on the death of Christ (although much more should be done), but we have not given sufficient emphasis to the life of Christ. It is in this study of the life of Christ that we shall learn more of our Lord as the pattern and provision for Christian living.
(7) Further, the study of the life and teachings of Christ is foundational to a proper understanding of the dispensational distinctions between God’s program for Israel in the Old Testament, and His program for Gentiles in the New.
Even a casual reading of the Old Testament leaves us with the impression of incompleteness. That which God had promised, that for which Israel hoped, had not yet been fulfilled. Israel awaited the literal fulfillment of God’s promise both of a king who would reign eternally with peace and glory for the nation and anxiously awaited the coming Messiah and His reign.
Yet when we turn to the epistles of the New Testament, little is said of this kingdom. And more puzzling yet, God’s interest and activity seems focused upon the Gentiles more than the Jews. We read much about the church and little about Israel. Some have understood this transition to mean that God will fulfill His promises to the nation Israel through the church and that Israel as a nation has no literal earthly kingdom to which she can look forward.
But the Apostle Paul explained in Romans chapters 9-11 that although God’s purposes for Israel have been temporarily postponed, they are still certain, for Israel’s unbelief is neither total nor permanent (cf. especially 11:25-32). God will literally fulfill His promises to His people.
Our study of the life of Christ will help us understand just why this delay has occurred. First of all, we can now look back upon the Old Testament prophecies and discern two distinct lines of prophecy. One line predicted the first coming of Messiah as the suffering Savior, Who would forever put away the sins of His people by His death on the cross (cf. Psalm 22; Isaiah 52:13–53:12). The other line of prophecy foretold the kingdom that Messiah would establish after atonement had been made for His people (cf. Isaiah 9:6-7; Daniel 7:13-14).
These two comings of Messiah were not perceived by Old Testament saints. We now understand because of the gospel accounts and their explanation by the Apostle Paul. When the Lord Jesus Christ presented Himself to the nation Israel, He did so as their promised Messiah. In Luke chapter 4, He presented Himself as the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy (Isa. 61:1-2). By His works, He validated His power and authority to make such a claim. By His teaching, He revealed that true nature of His kingdom.
Most Israelites had a different kind of Messiah in mind, and a different concept of the kingdom. Consequently, they began to withdraw from Him and Jewish leadership quickly began to resist Him as a real threat to their aspirations.
None of this caught our Lord by surprise, for the Messiah must first suffer before He could reign. Our Lord began to withdraw from ministry to the masses and pour His life into His disciples. He began to teach the crowds in the veiled language of parables and to explain in detail only to His intimate followers and friends. He began to speak less of His earthly kingdom and more of His interim program for the church. He dealt less with Jews and more with Gentiles. Our Lord began to more openly and aggressively attack the Jewish leaders, showing their error and provoking their anger. He strategically retreated when things became prematurely volatile. He literally engineered His own death by the hands of His opponents.
All of this, as Paul makes clear in Romans 9-11, was a part of God’s marvelous master design to save both Jews and Gentiles. Jewish unbelief and rebellion brought about the death of Christ for the sins of men, whether Jew or Gentile. It also made possible the proclamation of the gospel to the Gentiles. In God’s program for the church, He saves Jews and Gentiles precisely the same way He has always saved men, by faith in Christ. It is not the Gentiles who must be saved by becoming Jews (and thereby submitting to circumcision, self-baptism, and the Law), but the Jew who must enter by the door the Gentile Christians have passed through, the door of faith.
The life of Christ, then, records the authentication of Jesus Christ as Israel’s Messiah, His presentation of Himself, and His rejection by His own people. All of this fulfilled the Old Testament prophecies concerning Messiah. Israel’s rejection of Messiah (not only by putting Jesus to death, but by rejecting the apostolic presentation of the gospel after His resurrection) necessitated the parenthetical church age in which we live. For this we Gentile Christians can greatly rejoice, for it has meant our salvation.
(8) Jesus Christ is the determining factor between life and death, heaven and hell.
I am well aware that many people sincerely believe that God has provided many ways to Heaven. Some will enter God’s heaven, we are told, by faith in Buddha, others by good works, still others by the way of Islam. If man were responsible for such matters, this might be the case. But Jesus Christ is unique in that He makes an exclusive claim to be God’s own provision for eternal life. Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me” (John 14:6).
Such is the teaching of Peter, “And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men, by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
With Peter, John agrees: “He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God” (John 3:18).
Jesus Christ is the most important person in all of recorded history. When you stand before the judgment bar of God, God will not ask you what church you joined, or how many attendance buttons you earned, or how much money you gave, or whether or not you were baptized. God will ask you but one question, “What have you done about My Son, Jesus?” Have you trusted in Him as your Savior? Do you believe He died for your sins? Are you resting in His righteousness for God’s approval? To have Him, is to have eternal life. “He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life” (1 John 5:12).
Perhaps my greatest struggle in preparing for this series in the life of Christ has been the decision as to how I should approach the study. Some have endeavored to deal with the subject chronologically, but there is little agreement on such matters, for chronology was not a great concern to the gospel writers.
Others have approached the gospels harmonistically. Such a study seeks to look at the life of Christ through the eyes of the gospel writers collectively. There is great value to such a study, but this would necessitate a lengthy analysis of the gospels. In our study we will deal with the major events in the life of our Lord, expounding (generally) the passage that most fully depicts that event. We will begin with the crucial events at the birth of our Lord and the early parts of His ministry. Then we will deal with some of the more prominent themes of His teaching.9 Finally, we will return to a more chronological approach toward the end of our Lord’s earthly ministry, focusing upon His last week of ministry.
May God use this study to enable us to know Him more intimately and to serve Him more devotedly.
“In other parts of Scripture we hear Christ by the hearing of the ear; but here our eye seeth Him. Elsewhere we see Him through a glass darkly; but here, face to face. The orthodox Fathers of the Church well understood this peculiar feature of the Gospels, and expressed it emphatically by their usages—some of them questionable, others almost childish. Nor did the heretical sects differ from them in this; the best proof of which is, that nearly all the heresies of the first four or five centuries turned upon the Person of Christ as represented in the Gospels. As to the heathen enemies of Christianity, their determined opposition was directed against the facts regarding Christ recorded in the Gospels. And it is the same still. The battle of Christianity, and with it of all Revealed Religion, must be fought on the field of the Fourfold Gospel. If its Credibility and Divine Authority cannot be made good—if we must give way to some who would despoil us of its miracles, or to others who, under the insidious name of ‘the higher criticism’ would weaken its historical claims—all Christianity is undermined, and will sooner or later dissolve in our hands. But so long as the Gospels maintain their place in the enlightened convictions of the Church, as the Divine record of God manifest in the flesh, believers, reassured, will put to flight the armies of the aliens.
“You have often supported the cause of the Christian feminists with a compassion for them and their struggle with the Apostle Paul. It is my hope that you have the same compassion for the Christian gays which we represent. Homosexuality can be sinful, but it can be Christian as well. Any form of sexuality (homo or hetero) can be abused, but it can also be used for the glory of God and the blessing of God’s people. I would be interested in sharing more if you are interested. I only hope that you have some compassion for the gays who struggle with Paul and who love the Lord Jesus Christ. John Martin, Evangelical Concerned, Chicago, IL.” “Letters,” The Wittenburg Door, April-May, 1977, p. 6.