Was Jesus Merely a Great Man?

HAVE YOU EVER met a man who is the center of attention wherever he goes? Some mysterious, indefinable characteristic sets him apart from all other men. Well, that’s the way it was two thousand years ago with Jesus Christ. “The Jesus of the gospels, unlike the Jesus of religious sentimentalism, is both gentle and tough, witty and serious, stern and tenderhearted. The one thing the people who met him could not do was to stereotype him. He demolished all their labels and expectations, upset their attempts to pigeonhole him as a prophet, a wonder-worker, or a conventional rabbi.”[1]

But it wasn’t merely Jesus’ personality that captivated those who heard him. Those who witnessed his words and life tell us that something about Jesus of Nazareth was different from all other men.

Jesus’ only credentials were himself. He never wrote a book, commanded an army, held a political office, or owned property. He mostly traveled within a hundred miles of his village, attracting crowds who were amazed at his provocative words and stunning deeds.

While most great people eventually fade into history books, Jesus is still the focus of thousands of books and unparalleled media controversy. And much of that controversy revolves around the radical claims Jesus made about himself—claims that astounded both his followers and his adversaries.

It was primarily Jesus’ unique claims that caused him to be viewed as a threat by the Roman authorities and the Jewish hierarchy. Although he was an outsider with no credentials or political power base, within three years, Jesus changed the world for the next 20-plus centuries. Other moral and religious leaders have left an impact—but nothing like that itinerant preacher from Nazareth.

What was it about Jesus Christ that made the difference? Was he just a great man, or something more?

These questions get to the heart of who Jesus really was. Some believe he was merely a great moral teacher; others believe he was simply the leader of the world’s greatest religion. But many believe something far more. Christians believe that in Jesus, God the Son, actually visited us in human form. And they believe the evidence backs that up [See Trinity article].[2]

So, who is the real Jesus? As we take a deeper look at the world’s most controversial person, we begin by asking, could Jesus have been merely a great moral teacher?

Great Moral Teacher

Even those from other religions acknowledge that Jesus was a great moral teacher. Hindu leader Mahatma Gandhi, who was “mightily influenced by Jesus’ teaching,” spoke of Jesus as “a person who, in his love for the poor, oppressed, and outcast, stood against evil with his whole being to the end, despite the threat of violence.”[3]

Likewise, Jewish scholar Joseph Klausner wrote, “It is universally admitted…that Christ taught the purest and sublimest ethics…which throws the moral precepts and maxims of the wisest men of antiquity far into the shade.”[4]

Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount has been called the most superlative teaching of human ethics ever uttered by an individual. In fact, much of what we know today as equal rights actually is the result of Jesus’ teaching. Historian Will Durant, a non-Christian, said of Jesus that “he lived and struggled unremittingly for ‘equal rights’; in modern times he would have been sent to Siberia. ‘He that is greatest among you, let him be your servant’—this is the inversion of all political wisdom, of all sanity.”[5]

Many, like Gandhi, have tried to separate Jesus’ teaching on ethics from his claims about himself, believing that he was simply a great man who taught lofty moral principles. This was also the approach of one of America’s Founding Fathers.

Thomas Jefferson cut and pasted a copy of the New Testament, removing sections he thought referred to Jesus’ deity, while leaving in other passages regarding Jesus’ ethical and moral teaching.[6] Jefferson carried around his cut-and- pasted New Testament with him, revering Jesus as perhaps the greatest moral teacher of all time, while denying his miracles.

In fact, Jefferson’s memorable words in the Declaration of Independence were rooted in Jesus’ teaching that each person is of immense and equal importance to God, regardless of sex, race, or social status. The famous document sets forth, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.”

By simply cutting and pasting his revised New Testament, Jefferson never addressed the issue that if Jesus falsely claimed to be God, he couldn’t have been a good moral teacher.

But did Jesus really claim deity? Before we look at what Jesus claimed, we need to examine the possibility that he was simply a great religious leader.

Great Religious Leader

Surprisingly, Jesus never claimed to be a religious leader. He never got into religious politics or pushed an ambitious agenda, and he ministered almost entirely outside the established religious framework.

When one compares Jesus with the other great religious leaders, a remarkable distinction emerges. Ravi Zacharias, who grew up in a Hindu culture, has studied world religions and observed a fundamental distinction between Jesus Christ and the founders of other major religions.

In all of these, there emerges an instruction, a way of living. It is not Zoroaster to whom you turn; it is Zoroaster to whom you listen. It is not Buddha who delivers you; it is his Noble Truths that instruct you. It is not Mohammad who transforms you; it is the beauty of the Koran that woos you. By contrast, Jesus did not only teach or expound His message. He was identical with His message.[7]

The truth of Zacharias’s point is underscored by the number of times in the Gospels that Jesus’ teaching message was simply “Come to me” or “Follow me” or “Obey me.” Jesus also made it clear that his primary mission was to forgive sins—something only God could do. Prior to Jesus, “the Temple represented everything that made Israel unique in the world. But Jesus changed all that. Forgiveness of sin was now found in him, not in the Temple cult. He claimed the authority to cancel the debt of sin and offer new life.”[8] Former skeptic C. S. Lewis remarks of Jesus, “The things He says are very different from what any other teacher has said. Others say, ‘This is the truth about the Universe. This is the way you ought to go.’ But He says, ‘No man can reach absolute reality, except through Me.’”[9]

In The World’s Great Religions, Huston Smith observed, “Only two people ever astounded their contemporaries so much that the question they evoked was not ‘Who is he?’ but ‘What is he?’ They were Jesus and Buddha. The answers these two gave were exactly the opposite. Buddha said unequivocally that he was a mere man, not a god—almost as if he foresaw later attempts to worship him. Jesus, on the other hand, claimed… to be divine.”[10]

And that leads us to the question of what Jesus really did claim for himself. Specifically, did Jesus claim to be God?