Who Speaks for Jesus? (Mark 3.7–19)

Who speaks for Jesus?

Today, a cacophony of voices claims to speak for the “real Jesus.” The chapter titles of The Jesus Quest by Ben Witherington capture the essence of those contrary voices:

  • Jesus the Talking Head
  • Jesus the Itinerant Cynic Philosopher
  • Jesus, Man of the Spirit
  • Jesus the Eschatological Prophet
  • Jesus the Prophet of Social Change
  • Jesus the Sage: The Wisdom of God
  • Jesus: Marginal Jew or Jewish Messiah?

Which of these contradictory voices speaks for the real Jesus? Mark 3.7–19 offers two vignettes in answer to that question. Let’s take a close look at both.

In Mark 3.7–12, the demons speak for Jesus. This vignette is a summary statement about Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. So powerful were Jesus’ deeds that people from all throughout the region came to see him: “he had healed many, so that those with diseases were pushing forward to touch him. Whenever the evil spirits saw him, they fell down before him and cried out, ‘You are the Son of God.’” It is not surprising that the devils recognize God’s Beloved Son. They are, after all, very good theologians, having once served God in heaven. What is surprising is Jesus’ response to their orthodoxy: “he gave them strict orders not to tell who he was.” Why the concern for secrecy? Did Jesus reject the devils’ testimony because it was false? No. It was true. The problem was that they had wrenched theological content from its ethical context. The devils proclaimed Jesus’ sonship only when he exercised power against them. The crowds might mistakenly come to equate divine sonship with power. And if Jesus had the power to expel demons from bodies, might he not also have the power to expel Romans from the Holy Land? Neither the devils nor the crowds equated Jesus’ divine sonship with humility, servanthood, and the cross. But Jesus did, so he commanded the demons to shut up.

In Mark 3.13–19, the apostles speak for Jesus. Jesus “appointed twelve—designating them apostles—that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach and to have authority to drive out demons.” In other words, Jesus appointed apostles so that they might carry out his ministry when he was gone. Notice that they engaged in the same activities as Jesus: authoritative preaching and powerful deeds. But now notice that the first thing Jesus called the apostles to do was simply to “be with him.” The devils feared Jesus from afar; the disciples loved him up close. Through daily observation, they saw what it meant for Jesus to be God’s Beloved Son. They saw him taken to the cross. They saw him raised from the dead. They were eyewitnesses to his manner of life.

In time, of course, those apostles and their associates left us the books of the New Testament. As we consider the cacophony of voices claiming to speak for the “real Jesus,” we should listen to their voices first and foremost. And then we should follow Jesus, the Servant Son of God.

The Real Jesus (1 John 2:20-23)

Who is the real Jesus?

Last year [this was written in 2007], just in time for Easter, the National Geographic Society published its translation of The Gospel of Judas, a second century Gnostic writing that makes a hero out of Judas Iscariot. According to this so-called gospel, Judas betrayed Jesus at Jesus’ behest, in order to liberate the divine spark of Jesus’ soul from its imprisonment in Jesus’ body.

No reputable scholar that I know of thinks The Gospel of Judas is historically accurate.[1] But some scholars—not to mention many ordinary readers—think that historically accurate information about Jesus is hard to come by, if it can be come by at all. They are what I would call “historical Jesus relativists.” The canonical Gospels draw one portrait of Jesus, so their argument goes, Gnostic gospels (such as Judas) draw another, and who’s to say which is more accurate?

Throughout 1 John, John is responding to erstwhile Christians who have seceded from the church because of their denial of the truth about Jesus. What’s worse, they are trying to convince the remaining church members to follow their heretical lead. By way of reply, John writes this in 1 John 2:20-23:

But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth. I do not write to you because you do not know the truth, but because you do know it and because no lie comes from the truth. Who is the liar? It is the man who denies that Jesus is the Christ. Such a man is the antichrist—he denies the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father; whoever acknowledges the Son has the Father also.

These verses contain three criteria for determining the real Jesus:

First, the test of spiritual experience: John writes of “an anointing from the Holy One.” Most likely, this refers to the baptism of the Holy Spirit that was the characteristic experience of Christians in the New Testament. As various passages in Acts make clear, this experience of the Holy Spirit united Christians despite their religious backgrounds, ethnicity, and geographical location (Acts 2:1-4, 8:14-17, 10:44-48, 11:15-18, 15:6-11, 19:1-7). And, as various passages in the Gospels make clear, baptism in the Spirit was the work of the resurrected Jesus (Matthew 3:11, Mark 1:8, Luke 3:16, Acts 1:5).

Second, the test of tradition: John writes, “all of you know the truth.” They learned the truth when they first believed the gospel. It was the heretical secessionists who were promoting novel ideas, not John. For John, the truth about Jesus had been handed down from Jesus through apostles such as himself. Faith involved receiving this tradition with grateful affirmation.

Third, the test of doctrine: For John, neither experience nor tradition alone guarantees access to the real Jesus. Experiences can be faked, and given enough time, traditions can become deformed. What is necessary are truth claims. According to John, the truth about Jesus is that he is “the Christ,” that is, the Messiah of Israel and Savior of the world. Deny that truth, and you have cut yourself off from access to the real Jesus.

So, who is the real Jesus? The One known for centuries through the common experience, unbroken tradition, and faithful doctrine of the church.

[1] Darrell L. Bock, The Missing Gospels: Unearthing the Truth Behind Alternative Gospels (Nashville, TN: Nelson, 2006); Craig A. Evans, Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2006); and N. T. Wright, Judas and the Gospel of Jesus: Have We Missed the Truth about Christianity? (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2006).

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