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“Who Do You Say That I Am”: Can We Know God?

by V. Rev. Fr. Zareh Sarkissian

Theology is the science that speaks about God and examines all aspects pertaining to faith. The foundation of that discipline is the Bible, without which theology does not affirm anything. However, God in His nature is incomprehensible, impossible to know. We have two basic ways of knowing God. (1) Revelation – That is, the Bible, the verbal revelation. We know God only as much as He has revealed Himself to us- in the past through the patriarchs and the prophets, and in the present era through the Lord Jesus Christ. (2) Creation: We know God from His works – that is, through his creation and his providence.

Theology is science in a certain sense, since for its conclusions, besides the Bible and the early writings of the Church fathers, it is based on rational judgment and on evidence. For example, when speaking with a non-believer, it is not possible to prove the existence of God or the accuracy of the Bible with the Bible. We must speak by appealing to the mind. Now, from an Orthodox point of view, besides the archeological and historical evidences that affirm the accuracy of the Bible, the evidence for the existences of God is: (1) The existence of the world: Nothing comes into existence by itself. Certainly, the cause of all visible and invisible existence must be an absolute “Being.” Everything begins from one; and that first and absolute One is God. (2) The existence of movement: Matter itself is lifeless and static if it does not have a mover outside itself. That mover itself cannot be matter or from matter; there must be a non-material “Being,” which is God. (3) The existence of universal order: Order in creation cannot be accidental. Left to itself, nature moves towards disorder. Order can be only the result of a Great Mind or Intelligence working behind the universe. (4) The desire in a human being to reach the infinite, the yearning for perfection, the inclination for immortality, the existence of conscience and moral understanding.

Digging for the “Real” Jesus

As an Armenian Orthodox Christian, I believe that the creed is the expression of my faith, my understanding and way of conceiving Jesus. By “faith” I understand three things: (1) our confidence in God and our conviction in the truths that we do not directly see; (2) belief that is expressed through our life and deeds; (3) the totality of the truths that we believe. Christ Himself revealed to us the truths, both in written form in the Old Testament and orally during His earthly ministry. The Apostles became the guardians and the transmitters of these truths. The Church inherited the deposit of these truths and preserved them with great zeal through apostolic succession.

Few figures in history are as well-known as Jesus. He is venerated by millions, and became a big business for others. Too often Jesus looks European, but he can be African, Asian, and ironically, occasionally Middle Eastern. His portraits range from laughing friend, to fierce warrior, to serious king. Some Jesuses are emotionally accessible, intensely human, much like any normal, vulnerable human being: Sometimes sad, pensive, at other times joyful, and sometimes tormented. In other words, Jesus seems to look like whatever anyone wishes him to look like. Is this diversity a problem? After all, who knows what Jesus really looked like? We have no eyewitness descriptions of Him. Theo-philosophically speaking Jesus is just like us, that is, representative of humanity as a whole. Christ is seen in the face of the poorest of the poor, echoing the parable of the great judgment:

“I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.' (Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (Matt. 25:35-36, 40)

That raises an urgent question: is there anything about Jesus that is distinct? What makes Him special and distinct? Are we not interested in what makes Jesus a Jesus, and not simply a projection of a community’s ideals or its wishes? The first thing we need to acknowledge is that “real” is itself a loaded term. For example, for some –and much of the contemporary scholars- “real” refer to the Jesus we can reconstruct on the basis of strict historical investigation. At the other hand, there are those who sometimes look upon the work of such scholars with suspicion. The real Jesus for these people is in fact the Christ confessed in the creeds, and celebrated in liturgy. In their view it is the Son of God, Savior, and risen Lord who is the real Jesus, the Jesus who also lived, taught, and died in Palestine some two millennia ago. Such a real Jesus can be both believed in and investigated with the tools of the historian, away all the way from exhaustive strict historical projects.

Some might think that we can fully and wholly settle who Jesus was by going back to the Bible, specifically the New Testament. At first that appears to be a good solution, but the moment we use the Bible, we encounter several problems:

First, people view the Bible in very different ways. Some view it as a sacred scripture, meaning that it must be read straight up as a historically accurate depiction of what once happened. Others view the Bible as a collection of religious documents that have to be evaluated in the light of History, just like any other ancient historical documents. Many view the biblical depiction of Jesus to contain more fiction than fact, especially when it comes to the virgin birth, miracles and resurrection. There are many others, who consider the Bible to be a sacred scripture, but not historically reliable.

Second, the New Testament contains not one record of Jesus, but the four gospels, each of which to varying degree tells the story of Jesus in a distinctive way and from a particular perspective. The gospel of John is very different from the Synoptic Gospels, while the other three depict things roughly the same way.

Third, all four gospels and the other writings in the New Testament were written with matters of faith being absolutely central. They were more concerned to communicate who Jesus is presently, alive and who communicate with His followers through His spirit. They were written in order to help the communities of Jesus’ followers who needed guidance. That is why their documents are called “gospels” (Ευαγγέλιον = good news) and not “archives” or “biographies.”

Fourth, with the possible yet limited exception of the ancient non-biblical sources, none of them give us more information on Jesus.

It is not hard to see why regarding the sources as solution renders the search of the real Jesus rather difficult. There is today little consensus among scholars who have attempted to recover and reconstruct Jesus of History: Jesus the charismatic leader; Jesus the religious thinker; Jesus the hypnotic healer; Jesus the social worker/revolutionist; Jesus the prophet of the End… Amazingly and surprisingly all these are presented, flourished and constructed by appeals to the same data.

Christology From Below

Jesus was a Jew from Nazareth in Galilee. This is in itself a significant fact, for it indicates that His roots were in a region that was marginal in relation to the established religious and political centers of power in Judaism.[1] About His early life we know almost nothing. Tradition says that He was an artisan or the son of an artisan.[2] He seems to have studied the Scriptures deeply, but this does not necessarily imply formal training as a rabbi. We can trace His public career from His baptism by John the Baptist, an event that the Gospels retain in memory despite a certain embarrassment about it.[3]

Jesus soon became a controversial public figure, a man who was widely perceived as a prophet mighty in word and deed. He assembled a group of disciples around himself and taught them. He singled out twelve of them as symbolic heads of the new eschatological Israel, which he proclaimed and hoped to bring into being. This act is a sign that he understood his movement in terms of “restorationist eschatology”; in other words, he was anticipating that God would act to restore Israel to its lost glory.[4]

Jesus also attracted a large following among the fringe and outcast groups in Palestinian society.[5] Sinners and tax collectors, cripples, lepers, prostitutes –all the folks who were disdained by educated citizens with taste and theological education: this was the constituency of the Jesus movement. Part of his appeal for these groups derived from his reputation as a healer and miracle-worker.

Jesus spoke characteristically in parables and stories that declared the imminent bursting in of God’s kingdom, bringing grace and mercy in unexpected ways in unexpected places. The parables of the coming kingdom must be taken closely together with his warnings of apocalyptic judgment: he preached that the kingdom of God would bring the radical restoration of God’s justice, settings things right but bringing judgment and destruction on those who resist God’s will.

Jesus’ message was controversial and threatening to the established institutions of religious and political power in his society: the message carried with it reversal values, an exalting of the humble and a critique of the mighty. To the chief priests and the elders, he declared that “the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom before you.”This reversal motif is a foundational element of Jesus’ teaching. We find it in sayings: for example, “whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will find it.”[6] Furthermore, we find it especially in the Lukan version of the Beatitudes,[7] in the parables of the prodigal son[8] and the unjust steward.[9]And, perhaps most importantly, we find it in Jesus’ actions, his association with the unclean and the outcasts.

It is unlikely that Jesus proclaimed an abrogation or even a critique of the Law. His critique seems to have been directed instead at those who professed allegiance to the Law while ignoring its weightier demands of Justice and mercy. In this respect, Jesus stood squarely in the prophetic tradition. The historical Jesus should be understood as a prophet in the tradition of the prophets of Israel, warning God’s judgment on Israel, calling Israel to repentance and acknowledgment of God’s justice in human affairs. Jesus spurned violence as the appropriate instrument of God’s righteousness.[10] He taught love of enemies and rejected any suggestion of armed resistance to authority, even Roman authority. This combination of non-resistance with his inflammatory critique of those in power inevitably finds its consequence in the cross.

Jesus’ activity and proclamation brought him directly into conflict with the guardians of order in Jewish society. Whether it was Jesus’ intention or not, his proclamation of the kingdom of God was inevitably heard as a revolutionary manifesto; the gospel is full of evidence of this. People wanted to make him king,[11] and Peter’s confession means nothing other than this.[12] The inscription on the cross proves that he was executed as one who claimed to be “king of the Jews.” It is true that his whole message entailed a rejection of violence and nationalism, yet his words and deeds incited in the people a vivid expectation that he might, after all, be the one who would deliver Israel. Although, he rejected the way of violent revolution and so disappointed the hopes of many of his followers, but because he excited messianic hopes, he was executed by the authorities as a potential danger to the stability of the social order.

Shortly after Jesus’ death, the same followers who had fled in terror when he was arrested began proclaiming that he had been raised from the dead and had appeared to them. They understood this as a justification of his whole life and message, particularly of his status as God’s anointed one, the Messiah. They also saw the realization of the final triumph of God’s kingdom in history. There were no independent witnesses to the disciples’ claim outside the community, however. Jesus did not appear to Pilate or in Rome to Caesar. Many New Testament scholars and theologians think it is inappropriate to describe the resurrection as a historical event. For example, Bornkamm asserts that “the event of Christ’s resurrection from the dead, his life and his eternal reign, are things removed from historical scholarship. History cannot ascertain and establish conclusively the facts about them as it can with other events of the past.”[13] But still, something incredible and extraordinary happened shortly after Jesus’ death that rallied the de-spirited disciples and sent them out proclaiming to the world that Jesus had risen and had appeared to them. Reductive psychological explanations fail to do justice to the widespread testimony to this event within the original community and to the moral seriousness of the movement that resulted from it. The best explanation is to say that God did something beyond all power of human imagining by raising Jesus from the dead. God is powerful at work in the world in ways that defy common sense, redeeming the creation from its bondage to decay. That of course, is precisely what the early Christians believed and proclaimed:

“I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places,far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.” (Eph 1:17-21)

Easter is the most important event in the Christian tradition. This is especially true for the eastern traditions. The reason for the significance of the resurrection of Jesus is that the resurrection represents God’s vindication of Jesus. By his being raised from the dead, what Jesus said and did received God’s ultimate sign of approval. Jesus turns out to have spoken the truth when he said the kingdom of God is coming. Resurrection is the ultimate declaration that Jesus is “Son of God,” as St. Paul says “[Jesus] was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord.”[14] The Christian religion becomes something very different if Easter is taken out of the picture. Was resurrection an event in real history? Jesus’ early followers would have insisted on that without hesitation. Everything depends on that being true. I return once more to St. Paul when he says:

“If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (1Co 15: 13-14, 17-19)

The controversies over Easter will continue both because of the importance of Easter for Christians and because of the historical and scientific difficulties attending the claim that God raised Jesus of Nazareth from the dead. Despite their desire to reassure their readers that there were witnesses who could vouch for the truth of their momentous claims, both St. Paul and the evangelists appear to have been aware that historical enquiry, then as now, can take us only so far. Even at the final moment of the risen Jesus’ commissioning of his followers, “some doubted.”[15] And Thomas, despite his being the very first to recognize and confess Jesus as divine,[16] has been forever tarred in popular culture with the label doubting. Jesus’ words to him and to all who struggle with the resurrection and who would wish for empirical proof are a fitting conclusion to this subdivision: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe!”[17]

Christology From Above

How early followers of Jesus understood and expressed their devotion to and convictions about who Jesus was and is? Jesus asks his followers, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answers, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!”It is also a shocking moment that St. Peter turns out not to catch on that this will mean that Jesus, “the Son of Man,” will die. To compound matters, Jesus insists immediately thereafter that his followers take up their own cross and follow him.[18] Easter, as we mentioned earlier, in the thinking of early Christians represents a major turning point in God’s dealings with not only humanity but the world as a whole. The early followers of Jesus were therefore essentially forward-looking, eagerly anticipating the completion of this great revolution in the very near future. This also affected, quite naturally, their Christology. We should then not be surprised that the earliest Christological emphasis falls, first, on the vindication of Jesus as the messenger of the Kingdom, as the Righteous One, and second, on his coming in the very near future as Lord and Son of Man, coming to save and judge.[19]

When we get to later writings in the New Testament, such as the Gospel of John, remarkably the Jesus portrayed there, from the first lines onward, revealed as a divine figure who has come into the world to bring light and salvation. He is fully conscious of his divine origin and destiny, and he proclaims his divinity openly to all who will listen and to many who will not. There is no secretiveness about Jesus’ identity in the Gospel of John; after his arrest, he can truthfully declare to the high priest, “I have spoken openly to the world… I have said nothing in secret.”[20] He is the preexistent Logos who was with God before creation, through whom the world was made.[21] We are told repeatedly that he has come down from heaven,[22] and he pointedly contrasts his heavenly origin to that of “the Jews,” saying, “You are from below, I am from above, you are of this world, I am not of this world.”[23]

Other details of the Johannine portrait bear witness to Jesus’ exalted supernatural status. He has supernatural knowledge of what is in the hearts of people,[24] he apparently does not hunger for ordinary material food,[25] and he mysteriously disappears from hostile crowds.[26] Unlike the synoptic Jesus, the Jesus of John’s Gospel breaks repeatedly into lengthy Christological discourses in which he proclaims his identity and oneness with God. In short, we find here a Jesus in whom the divine glory is manifest from start to finish, “God going about on the earth.”[27] The “glory” witnessed by the believing community[28] threatens to obliterate the confession that the Word (really) became flesh. That is why, in Kasemann’s formulation, the Christology of John is in danger of slipping into “naïve docetism,” an unintentional denial of the humanity of Jesus.[29] According to Raymond Brown, it is likely that the docetic schismatics against whom 1 John rails – Those who denied that “Jesus Christ has come in the flesh”- were in fact taking their cues from these elements from the Fourth Gospel.[30] Against such a reading, 1 John seeks to interpret the heritage of the Fourth Gospel in a way that underscores the genuine humanity of Jesus. Such an interpretation is not without foundation, for John’s narrative also contains numerous features that convey the physical and human reality of the incarnation. John gives us a Jesus who gets thirsty and asks a Samaritan woman for a drink,[31] a Jesus who weeps at Lazarus’s grave.[32] Jesus is the Word become flesh,[33] and his flesh is not merely a vestment donned for a revelation-play; he is a man who knows pain and the joys and sorrows of embodied existence.

The gospel according to John is precisely this: that God has done the impossible in order to save us. Jesus, the man from heaven, has become a “finite fact” for the sake of the finite world. “No one has ever seen God,” says John at the conclusion of his prologue, but by becoming flesh Jesus, “the only Son, who is close to the father’s heart, who has made him known. Jesus is the definitive interpretation, in human form, of God, and therefore of the will of God.

Reshaping the Fallen Messiah

According to Rev. Dr. Eugene Pentiuc, Messiah and Messiahship were a collective destiny. God’s anointed people were to represent him on earth. Such a notion is revealed in the creation narratives of Genesis, through the use of Hebrew term “adam”. This term connotes “humanity” as a totality, not a particular person or individual. It was this collective that received the commission to care for the rest of God’s creation. The first Messiah, the first anointed one, was the primeval human collective. Humankind, made in God’s image, was created to represent his kingship on earth, as we can see in Genesis 1:28, “God blessed them, and God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth." Unfortunately, this didn’t last long. Human’s transgression of God’s commandment not to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil precipitated a rapid and deep fragmentation of the created world, beginning with the union between male and female. Adam’s accusation of Eve in front of the Creator[34] mirrors this fragmentation. The image of God in humanity is at risk, and the original messiah, humanity, is fallen. Sin divides humanity in itself and humanity from God. Therefore, God devises a new means of restoring relationships and reestablishing the unity of his creation: the rising Messiah. Hence, this fallenness precipitated the requirement of the rising Messiah: Jesus Christ, the perfect one, “the last Adam,”[35] to come and restore humanity to its natural state of unity.[36]

The life of Jesus Christ as recorded in the Gospels shows us that he was a person in relationships. He spoke often about his relationship with the Father and the Holy Spirit. He affirmed that he came to do the will of the Father. Through his words and deeds, Jesus revealed to us the loving and merciful Father. At the same time, Jesus spoke about his relationship with the Holy Spirit. He began his preaching by declaring that the Spirit was upon him. He spoke about the Holy Spirit as the Comforter and Advocate. Jesus revealed to us not only the Triune God but also some valuable aspects of the intimate relationship between himself and the Father and the Holy Spirit. Through his ministry on earth, Jesus also entered into relationship with others. His life was lived in fellowship with others. He called men and women to be his companions and followers. Regardless of their background, occupation, race or gender, Christ invited them to follow him and to be bearers of his ministry of reconciliation. As we mentioned before, often Christ challenged the social and religious customs of his day that prevented genuine relationships among persons or diminished the true dignity of the person. He spoke of his intimate relationship as the link between the vine and the branches.[37] He underscored the importance of the relationships not only with God but also with one another and with all of creation. We human persons, created in the “image and likeness” of the Triune God, are called to grow in authentic relationship with God, with our own selves, with other persons, and with the creation.

Based on the reality of the Risen Christ and his teachings, the faith of the Apostolic Church offers profound insights into the mystery of the triune God and the manner that he relates to us. God is ultimately a mystery that we cannot fully grasp with our reason alone. Yet at the same time we affirm that God has revealed something about Himself in order to draw us closer to Him. The One who is beyond approach has chosen to approach humanity in love for the sake of our salvation. In Orthodox tradition, each person must strive truly to imitate Jesus and to be a person who lives in communion with God. Our true self is expressed when we live in communion with the source of life and holiness. With this in mind, the Fathers of the Christian East placed a special emphasis upon the gift of freedom. The freedom to choose is one of our essential human characteristics. St. Gregory the Theologian tells us: “From the beginning, the creator granted human persons their freedom and a free will. They were bound only by the laws of the commandments.”[38] The most important choice that a person can make is the decision to relate with God by responding freely in love to His love. In this sense, true human freedom is first and foremost expressed through communion with God. When persons do not choose to imitate Jesus, they are not truly free. They easily become attracted to and enslaved by idols. This decision to live in communion with God is fundamental to every other relationship.

By Imitating Jesus, the human person is called to express a love which reaches beyond self –to God, to others, ultimately to the entire creation. The supreme example for us is always the loving surrender of the Son of God who freely entered into our midst in Christ for us and for our salvation. St. Athanasius rightly declares: “God became a human person so that the human person may become divine.”[39] As God, so to say, “went beyond Himself” for our salvation, so too we are called to reach beyond ourselves to others.

The relationships among the followers of Christ are also meant to be a constant remainder of the importance of the deep relationship which each of us has with every member of the human family. Regardless of circumstances or of belief, our faith reminds us that the same loving and merciful God created everyone. Each person, regardless of ethnic origin, sex, or economic background is part of the same human family that the Creator has fashioned. Each of us has been united with God in a very intimate way through the humanity that Christ has shared. Not all may recognize these fundamental truths. Yet, the follower of Christ seeks to affirm them and to live by them. We are called by Christ not simply to love those who are like us. Love implies respect for the dignity and value of the other. We are called to love one another as Christ loves us. Ultimately, these relationships of love contribute to the salvation of the whole world. The loving person is a healer and reconciler. The Church, the new family in Christ, therefore, is related to all humanity, and called to be the healer of her time. While each person is free to choose Christ, no one is meant to be left behind. The Church is always an icon of God’s love for all and the sign of the inherent bond which exists among all people who share a common Father. Speaking of the relationship between the Church and the entire world, Archbishop Anastasios says: “Just as the life of Christ, the new Adam, has global consequences, so too, the life of His mystical body, the Church, has worldwide importance and impact. Everything the Church is and everything it does concerns all of humanity, throughout the entire world. As an indication and ‘icon’ of the kingdom, the Church is the axis of cohesion in the entire process of ‘recapitulation’ –the process by which all things become united in Christ. It is on behalf of all people that the Church acts, offers the Divine Eucharist, and praises God. It radiates the glory of the living Lord throughout the entire world.”[40]

We are all called to ascend towards the Kingdom step by step through the ladder of faith instructed by the incarnate Word of God. This calling again reminds us of our great responsibility, which St. John states: "Beloved, we are God's children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.”[41]

[1] John Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, (New York: Doubleday, 1991) p. 43 [2] Mark 6:3; Matthew 13:55 [3] E.g. Matthew 3:13-15 [4] E. P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism, (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985) 87 [5] John D. Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant, (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991) [6] Mark 8:35 [7] Luke 6:20-26 [8] Luke 15:11-32 [9] Luke 16:1-8 [10] See Mark 10:42-45 [11] John 6:15 [12] Mark 8:29 [13] Gunther Bornkamm, Jesus of Nazareth, trans. Irene and Fraser McLuskey, (New York: Harper & Row, 1960) p.180 [14] Romans 1:4 [15] Matthew 28:16-17 [16] John 20:28 [17] John 20:29 [18] Mark 8:34-9:1; Matthew 16:24-28; Luke 9:23-27 [19] E.g. 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Acts 1 [20] John 18:20 [21] John 17:5; 8:58 [22] John 3:31; 6:51-58 [23] John 8:23 [24] John 2:23-25 [25] John 4:31-34 [26] John 7:30; 8:59 [27] Ernst Kasemann, The Testament of Jesus: A Study of the Gospel of John in the Light of Chapter 17, trans. Gerhard Krodel, (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1968) pp. 8-9 [28] John 1:14 [29] Ernst Kasemann, The Testament of Jesus: A Study of the Gospel of John in the Light of Chapter 17, trans. Gerhard Krodel, (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1968) p. 26 [30] Raymond Brown, The Community of the Beloved Disciple, (New York: Paulist, 1979) [31] John 4:7; cf. 19:28 [32] John 11:35 [33] John 1:14 [34] Genesis 3:16 [35] 1 Corinthians 15:45 [36] Colossians 3:11 [37] John 15:1 [38] Gregory the Theologian, On Care for the Poor, Oration 14:25 [39] St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation, 54 [40] Archbishop Athanasius, Facing The World: Orthodox Christian Essays On Global Concerns, (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003) p. 148 [41] 1 John 3:2-3


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