The Apologetics of Jesus
Was Jesus an apologist? As we read through the Gospels it could not be more evident that we see Jesus utilize a variety of methodologies to communicate spiritual truths. Since there was no New Testament canon at that time, it is not as if Jesus was cognizant of 1 Peter 3:15-16 where we read, “But sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence; and keep a good conscience so that in the thing in which you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ will be put to shame. So I doubt that Jesus walked around saying, “ I have been called to be an apologist and I need to carry out my task in a faithful manner.” However, Jesus offered reasons on several occasions as to why He is the Jewish Messiah and God incarnate. So let’s take a look at some of these and try to learn some things.
1. Jesus asked questions
For starters, if you read through the Gospels, you will see Jesus asked 153 questions. This is something that needs to be practiced by all Christians. As Christians we tend to be great talkers but poor listeners. If you read through the rabbinical literature, you will see that asking questions is a common occurrence. In all my discussions with my friends that are skeptics, I tend to ask the following questions:
1. If Christianity is true, would you want to be a Christian?
2. If the God of the Bible exists, would you want to know that?
3. If the God of the Bible does exist, would you be interested in looking at the evidence?
In some cases, asking questions helps to cut to the real issue at hand. When I ask these questions, many people realize they really have no intention of surrendering to God. In the end, no evidence will really convince them. And in one case, I even had one skeptic tell me they didn’t want Christianity to be true. It is true that Biblical faith involves the entire person—-the intellect, the emotions, and the will. And this is why we generally see there are three barriers to belief:
#1 Emotional Barriers: Many people have emotional issues with the claims of Yeshua or the claims of the Bible. Perhaps they have been hurt or their present circumstances have caused barriers to being able to trust that there really is a loving Creator. We need to be sensitive to these issues.
#2 Intellectual Barriers: There are always skeptical barriers. What kind of evidence to do have for God? What about science? Miracles are not possible! There are many more intellectual objections. They have been around for a long time.
#3 Volitional Barriers: In this case, the will is in the way. We trust the Spirit of God to work in this area. While can’t give life to the spiritually dead, the Spirit of God can use our words to remove barriers.
2. Jesus Appealed to Evidence
Jesus knew He could not show up on the scene and not offer any evidence for His Messiahship. In his book On Jesus, Douglas Groothuis notes that Jesus appealed to evidence to confirm His claims. John the Baptist, who was languishing in prison after challenging Herod, sent messengers to ask Jesus the question: “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” (Matt. 11:3). This may seem an odd question from a man the Gospels present as the prophetic forerunner of Jesus and as the one who had proclaimed Jesus to be the Messiah. Jesus, however, did not rebuke John’s question. He did not say, “You must have faith; suppress your doubts.” Instead, Jesus recounted the distinctive features of His ministry:
“Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.” (Matt. 11:4-6; see also Luke 7:22).
Even in the Messiah Apocalypse, which is dated between 100 and 80 B.C.E mentions a similar theme as seen in Matt.11: 4-6: “He [God] frees the captives, makes the blind see, and makes the bent over stand straight…for he will heal the sick, revive the dead, and give good news to the humble and the poor he will satisfy, the abandoned he will lead, and the hungry he will make rich.”
Jesus’ works of healing and teaching are meant to serve as positive evidence of His messianic identity, because they fulfill the messianic predictions of the Hebrew Scriptures. What Jesus claimed is this:
1. If one does certain kinds of actions (the acts cited above), then one is the Messiah.
2. I am doing those kinds of actions.
3. Therefore, I am the Messiah.
3. Jesus Appealed to Testimony and Witness
Because Jesus was Jewish, he was well aware of the principles of the Torah. The Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Theology notes that the Biblical concept of testimony or witness is closely allied with the conventional Old Testament legal sense of testimony given in a court of law. In both Testaments, it appears as the primary standard for establishing and testing truth claims. Uncertifiable subjective claims, opinions, and beliefs, on the contrary, appear in Scripture as inadmissible testimony.
Even the testimony of one witness is insufficient—for testimony to be acceptable, it must be established by two or three witnesses (Deut 19:15). In John Ch 5:31-39, Jesus says,” If I alone bear witness of Myself, My testimony is not true.” Far from the verification, Jesus declares that singular self-attestation does not verify, it falsifies. We see in this passage that Jesus says the witness of John the Baptist, the witness of the Father, the witness of the Word (the Hebrew Bible), and the witness of His works, testify to His Messiahship. (1)
4. Ontology: Being and Doing-The Actions of Jesus
Ontology is defined as the branch of philosophy that examines the study of being or existence. For example, when Jesus says, “If you have seen Me, you have seen the Father” (John 14:9), ontology asks questions such as, “Is Jesus saying He has the same substance or essence of the Father?” Ontology is especially relevant in relation to the Trinity since Orthodox Christians are required to articulate how the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are all the same substance or essence. In relation to ontology, the late Jewish scholar Abraham J. Heschel said, “Biblical ontology does not separate being from doing.” Heshel went on to say, “What is acts. The God of Israel is a God who acts, a God of mighty deeds.” (2) Jesus continually appeals to His “deeds” that testify to His Messiahship. We see this in the following Scriptures:
But I have a testimony greater than that from John. For the deeds that the Father has assigned me to complete the deeds I am now doing testify about me that the Father has sent me (John 5:36-5:36).
If I do not perform the deeds of my Father, do not believe me (John 10:37).
But if I do them, even if you do not believe me, believe the deeds, so that you may come to know and understand that I am in the Father and the Father is in me. (John 10:38).
Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you, I do not speak on my own initiative, but the Father residing in me performs his miraculous deeds (John 14:10).
The New Testament authors show that Jesus performs the same “deeds,” or “acts,” as the God of Israel. For example, Jesus imparts eternal life (Acts 4:12; Rom. 10:12-14), raises the dead (Luke 7:11-17; John 5:21; 6:40), and shows the ability to exercise judgment (Matt. 25:31-46;John 5:19-29; Acts 10:42; 1 Cor 4:4-5). Jesus also has the authority to forgive sins (Mark 2:1-12; Luke 24:47; Acts 5:31; Col. 3:13). Just as the God of Israel, Jesus is identified as eternally existent (John 1:1; 8:58; 12:41; 17:5; 1 Cor. 10:4; Phil. 2:6; Heb. 11:26; 13:8; Jude 5); the object of saving faith (John 14:1; Acts 10:43; 16:31; Rom. 10:8-13), and the object of worship (Matt 14:33; 28:9,17; John 5:23; 20:28; Phil 2:10-11; Heb. 1:6; Rev. 5:8-12).
5. The Miracles of Jesus
In the Bible, miracles have a distinctive purpose: they are used for three reasons:
1. To glorify the nature of God (John 2:11; 11:40)
2. To accredit certain persons as the spokesmen for God (Acts 2:22; Heb. 2:3–4)
3. To provide evidence for belief in God (John 6:2, 14; 20:30–31). (3)
Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin, told Jesus, “‘Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him’ ” (Jn. 3:1–2). In Acts, Peter told the crowd that Jesus had been “accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him” (Acts 2:22).
In Matthew 12:38-39, Jesus says, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign! But none will be given it except the sign of Jonah the prophet.” In this Scripture, God confirmed the Messianic claim when Jesus said the sign that would confirm his Messiahship was to be the resurrection.
It is important to note that not all witnesses to a miracle believe. Jesus did not do His miracles for entertainment. They were done to evoke a response. So perhaps Paul Moser is right on target in what he calls “kardiatheology” – a theology that is aimed at one’s motivational heart (including one’s will) rather than just at one’s mind or one’s emotions. In other words, God is very interested in moral transformation.
We see Jesus’ frustration when His miracles did not bring the correct response from his audience. “Even after Jesus had done all these miraculous signs in their presence, they still would not believe in him” (John 12:37). Jesus himself said of some, “They will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead” (Luke 16:31). One result, though not the purpose, of miracles is condemnation of the unbeliever (cf. John 12:31, 37). (4) So the Biblical pattern of miracles is the following:
Sign/Miracle—–Knowledge is Imparted—–Should Result in Obedience/Active Participation
6. Jesus Appealed to the Imagination
Since the parables appealed to the imagination, Jesus made use of the parables to illustrate his message. Parables were used to explain the kingdom and character of God. The Greek word “parabole” means “a comparison.” The two most common forms of comparison are simile and metaphor. In comparing simile and metaphor, a metaphor suggests a comparison while a simile explicitly states such a comparison. The Hebrew word for parable is “mashal.” In the Tanakh, there is a wide range of meaning of the word mashal. In some cases it is referred to as a Proverb (1 Sam: 24:13; Ezek. 12:22-23; 16:44; 18:2-3). Mashal is also seen as Riddle (Ps. 49:4; 78:2; Prov. 1:6; Ezek.17:2), and Allegory (Ezek. 24:2-5). (6)
7. Jesus Appealed to His Own Authority
Another way Jesus appealed to those around Him was by His own speaking authority. The rabbis could speak of taking upon oneself the yoke of Torah or the yoke of the kingdom; Jesus said, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me.” (Mt 11:29). Also, the rabbis could say that if two or three men sat together, having the words of Torah among them, the shekhina (God’s own presence) would dwell on them (M Avot 3:2). But Jesus said, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I will be among them” (Matt 18:20). The rabbis could speak about being persecuted for God’s sake, or in his Name’s sake, or for the Torah’s sake; Jesus spoke about being persecuted for and even losing one’s life for his sake. Remember, the prophets could ask people to turn to God, to come to God for rest and help. Jesus spoke with a new prophetic authority by stating, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Mt 11:28). (5)
8. Jesus appealed to the authority of the Hebrew Bible
Jesus was raised on the Hebrew Bible. It could not be more evident that He had a very high view of Scripture. We see the following:
1. Jesus viewed himself as being revealed in the Torah, the Prophets and the Psalms, (Lk. 24:44); (Jn. 5:39)
2. Jesus taught Scripture was authoritative: Jesus quotes passages from the Torah in the temptation in the wilderness (Matt. 4:1-11).
3. Jesus discussed how Scripture (The Hebrew Bible) is imperishable in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:2-48).
4. Jesus also discussed how Scripture is infallible: (Jn. 10:35)
So we can ask two things: What is your view of the Hebrew Bible? Do you read it?
9. Jesus as the Embodiment of Wisdom
Israel’s Wisdom literature includes books such as Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes. Yeshua most certainly fulfilled the role of a sage by attributing the Wisdom literature to Himself. In the recent book called The Messiah Mystery: Toward A Perfect World, Rabbi Jacob Immanuel Schochet (who thinks the Messiah has not come), says the following about one of the expectations of the Messiah. He says:
His wisdom shall exceed even that of King Solomon; he shall be greater than all the patriarchs, greater than all the prophets after Moses, and in many respects even more exalted than Moses. His stature and honor shall exceed that of all the kings before him. He will be an extraordinary prophet, second only to Moses, with all the spiritual and mental qualities that are prerequisites to be endowed with the gift of prophecy. (7)
It is interesting that Jesus spoke about this messianic qualification 2,000 years ago. As it says in Matt. 12:42; Lk. 11:31: “The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with the men of this generation and condemn them; for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, and now one greater than Solomon is here.”
10. Jesus is the agent to bring someone out of epistemic darkness
Biblically speaking, revelation is needed because of sin. People do not find God, rather God finds us. He has to take the initiative to reveal His plans and intentions for humanity. The reason He is the one to do this is because sin has dampened the cognitive faculties that God has given us to find Him. In other words, sin affects the whole person—mind, emotions, and will. People can and do harden their hearts towards God. And sadly, sometimes people can reach the point where they are desensitized towards the ways of God. Another way to say this is that they are extensively affected by sin. One of the main themes of John’s Gospel is people’s epistemic darkness and how an encounter with the revelation of Jesus can transfer a person from darkness to light. These main epistemic themes occur throughout John’s Gospel:
1. Epistemic darkness
3. Jesus as the revelation of God/ His teaching
4. Saving truth
5. Sensory Perception
6. Cognitive perception
7. The Spirit as a cognitive agent
8. People’s response
9. The relationship between the Father and the Son
10. The relationship between the believer with the Father and the Son (8)
For Judaism the Torah had been the main source of knowledge of God. But now we see that with the coming of the Messiah that the entire epistemic foundation for knowing God has now become the person and work of Jesus the Messiah (John 1:17-18; 5:39, 46). (9)
So as we have looked at some of the apologetic methods of Jesus, perhaps we can concur with Douglas Groothuis when he says the following:
“Our sampling of Jesus’ reasoning, however, brings into serious question the indictment that Jesus praised uncritical faith over rational arguments and that He had no truck with logical consistency. On the contrary, Jesus never demeaned the proper and rigorous functioning of our God-given minds. His teaching appealed to the whole person: the imagination (parables), the will, and reasoning abilities. For all their honesty in reporting the foibles of the disciples, the Gospel writers never narrated a situation in which Jesus was intellectually stymied or bettered in an argument; neither did Jesus ever encourage an irrational or ill-informed faith on the part of His disciples.”
1. Sproul, R.C, Gerstner, J. and A. Lindsey. Classical Apologetics: A Rational Defense of the Christian Faith and a Critique of Presuppositional Apologetics. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing. 1984, 19.
2. Heschel., A.J. The Prophets. New York, N.Y: 1962 Reprint. Peabody MA: Hendrickson Publishers. 2003, 44.
3. Geisler, N. L., BECA, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book. 1999, 481.
5. Skarsaune, O., In The Shadow Of The Temple: Jewish Influences On Early Christianity. Downers Grove, ILL: Intervarsity Press. 2002, 331.
6. Stein, Robert H, The Method And Message of Jesus’ Teachings. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1978, 34-35.
7. The Jewish Learning Institute, The Messiah Mystery: Toward a Perfect World. Canada: The Jewish Learning Institute. 2000, 56.
8. Mary Healy and Robin Parry, The Bible And Epistemology: Biblical Soundings On The Knowledge of God. Colorado Springs, CO: Paternoster