In past years I’ve taken the first warm weekend in November to hang my outside Christmas lights on the house and bushes – but this year that first warm weekend came with rain and heavy winds. The next weekend the temperatures dropped below freezing – then more heavy winds and rain. Then came the snow, and finally freezing rain. I threw in the towel on putting up the outside lights and settled on dragging the artificial tree with the built-in lights from the basement to my living room.
This has been a unique Christmas season, in ways more unusual than simply an early arrival of winter weather – in fact, the most unusual in my lifetime. On display for the world to see have been the contrasts between light and darkness, good and evil. Front page news stories of the generosity of much of humanity have been juxtaposed with accounts of the consequences of evil and violent actions by a few nuts. The bright colors and joyful Christmas hymns have filled the air at shopping malls, while a few rebellious nonbelievers demanded and obtained the right to set up displays of demonic creatures and words of hate.
I’m not sure why, but this Christmas season my mind keeps going back to the instance in the life of Jesus where He first asked His disciples, how the general population described Him. This event is described in three of the four Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, so it must be pretty important. Jesus interestingly got several answers to His question: “Some say John the Baptist, some Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” But when He asked them, “Who do YOU say I am,” Peter answered unequivocally: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” I realize Peter was one of the three Apostles who are described as Jesus’ inner circle – who, along with James and John probably spent the most time with Him and received more personal training. But even the general population of the time saw the marvelous and miraculous things He did – and heard many of His teachings first-hand. How could all not come to the same conclusion as Peter? How could they be so confused as to believe Jesus was a former prophet risen from the dead, rather than the One who He both claimed and demonstrated to be, “the Christ, the Son of the living God”?
Last weekend the house that my youngest son and I co-own experienced a partial electrical failure. It wasn’t totally unexpected – for I knew when we bought it, we’d have to eventually replace the dilapidated fuse box with a modern circuit breaker system. But the timing for the $2000 expenditure wasn’t convenient. Yet, on Tuesday, as I parked my car outside his home and walked up to meet and pay the electrician for the work, I heard a voice shout out from a sidewalk in front of one of his neighbors, “Jesus is Lord!” It took me a few seconds to locate the smiling face of the mailman, and to realize that he’d seen and was affirming the message that my oldest son had plastered on the rear window of the car. The man’s acknowledgement of Jesus as God put everything in perspective – and I thanked God that the electrical problem that was burdening me financially, had not caused serious property damage or endangered the lives of my son or his buddies that lived there. This mailman knew the proper answer to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say I am.”
Then on Wednesday, I prepared to attend a celebration of a friend’s life, who was taking an early retirement. Not sure of what Mike’s plans for the future were, I was moved to give him copies of the two books I’d written this year, along with a note encouraging him to always keep busy, “because even us techies have something to offer society and God.” Several hours later, after he’d arrived home and opened the gift, we talked, and he shared that God had spoken to him and told him to retire four years earlier than he’d originally planned – that God had work for him to do, helping less fortunate people, and writing a book about the many miracles in his life. He said my note and gifts were just the confirmation he needed, that he’d made the right decision. I’m positive Mike knows the proper answer to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say I am.”
Earlier that afternoon, as I walked into the small hall that he’d chosen for his retirement celebration, I was enthusiastically approached by several people whom I had worked with over the years. One was a woman who looked familiar, but for the life of me, I couldn’t either recall her name or how we knew each other – but she seemed to know me and wanted to know everything I’d been doing the last couple years. Out of the blue, she began to tell me in great detail about her own spiritual life – which consisted in going to seers and fortune-tellers, participating in séances that called up deceased loved ones, and in worshipping saints. My spirit churned inside. When she finally took a break from talking I felt I needed to at least caution this woman (whose name or the circumstances of our relationship I still couldn’t remember) about the dangers of dabbling in the occult. I’d barely gotten out the words, when it was apparent that I was no longer “Mr. Nice Guy” in this woman’s eyes. With a vicious and loud voice she upbraided me: “Who was I to judge her? Who was I to tell her she was on a wrong path.” Fortunately, at that moment God had mercy on me, as the host of the celebration asked everyone to be seated so he could open with prayer. For the next two hours, as we shared a meal and as we listened to the many congratulatory speeches and presentation of awards, I prayed that some day, before it’s too late, this woman would learn and receive the proper answer to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say I am.”
Two days later, Friday evening I attended a Christmas dinner at a friend’s home. The “price” of admission was a bag of groceries that my friend would deliver to an outreach center that feeds and houses needy people. Most of the people in attendance were active members of a Christian denomination that I had once been a part of. As a result, much of the conversation focused on doctrinal and personal issues and traditions associated with that denomination. As some of the discussion got personal and negative, in particular with respect to named leadership, I unsuccessfully attempted to change the subject – and finally determined that I should just leave. I’m so grateful in this season to have local church leadership that I have nothing but the greatest admiration for, and peace and unity in the congregation. On my way home, I thought about these brothers and sisters in the Lord, whose hearts I’m sure are truly seeking after God and doing much to help their fellow man. Still I wonder if they might not be a little put off by the question, “Who do you say I am,” and describe a Jesus that’s at least a little different than He described Himself. I sincerely hope not!
The next morning I attended our men’s prayer meeting. Right on cue, an associate pastor began to describe an encounter several years earlier between himself and a Christian brother who was a member of another congregation. As they casually discussed some doctrinal issues, it became apparent that they each had a vastly different understanding of the doctrine of salvation and the role of the Holy Spirit. The other “brother” actually said he felt like punching the man who is now my pastor over the disagreement. Fortunately it ended peacefully – but again I wonder, why can’t we all answer the question the same, when asked, “Who do you say I am.” We may give the same generic answer, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God;” and that’s important – but more than that, we should accept everything He said about Himself and what He said He delegated to each one of us, His followers.
That afternoon I was called upon to lead worship at a Christmas luncheon and prayer meeting. The speaker at the meeting (who incidentally and proudly was my oldest son) challenged each of us to take the Good News of Jesus to the people God has placed around us, family members, friends, neighbors, and even strangers we meet at the mall. He spoke about the many people he meets on college campuses and in business establishments who claim to know Jesus, but their Jesus is often much different than the One described in the Bible. Their Jesus accepts alternate lifestyles as normal and doesn’t judge or punish sin. I think what keeps him going, aside from his deep conviction to the Word of God, are the few people who start out not knowing the Jesus of the Bible, but who are convicted by the Word they hear preached and eagerly seek to know this real Jesus and make Him the boss in their lives.
Sunday morning was a traditional and uplifting Christmas service at my church. I found it interesting that, near the end of my Pastor’s message he pointed out that nearly every religion outside of Christianity claims a part of Jesus, but not the whole. Muslims accept Jesus as a prophet, but not the Son of God. Hindus accept Jesus as one way to their millions of gods. As my Pastor gave his altar call, he too asked the question: “Who do YOU say Jesus is?”
Jesus unequivocally claimed He was Divine and equal with God. He claimed to have authority to forgive sins – and He behaved as if he really was the person chiefly offended in all offences. He claimed to have always existed with the Father and that they were One. And He insisted He would come back to judge the world at the end of time.
For more than two centuries, preachers and Christian apologists have used an interesting argument called “the Trilemma” to get people to consider Jesus’ question that He asks each one of us: “Who do you say I am.” One of the earliest presentations of the argument was by the Scottish preacher John Duncan around 1860: “Christ either deceived mankind by conscious fraud, or He was Himself deluded and self-deceived, or He was Divine. There is no getting out of this trilemma. It is inexorable.” The argument was widely cited in various forms in the nineteenth century, including by the American preacher Mark Hopkins in his book Lectures on the Evidences of Christianity (1846).
One of the more famous applications was by the former agnostic turned Christian theologian C. S. Lewis. He popularized the argument on BBC radio and later published it in his book, Mere Christianity. “I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say.’ A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the devil of hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. … Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God.”” C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, revised edition, New York, Macmillan/Collier, 1952, p. 55.
In his book that describes his examination of the historical evidence of the Christian faith that led to his conversion from agnostic to Christian, Josh McDowell restates Lewis’ argument and comes more to the point. “Jesus claimed to be God. He did not leave any other options. His claim to be God must be either true or false and is something that should be given serious consideration…. Who you decide Jesus Christ is must not be an idle intellectual exercise. You cannot put Him on the shelf as a great moral teacher. That is not a valid option. He is either a liar, a lunatic, or the Lord. You must make a choice…. The evidence is clearly in favor of Jesus as Lord. However, some people reject the clear evidence because of moral implications involved. There needs to be a moral honesty in the above consideration of Jesus as either a liar, lunatic, or Lord and God.” Josh McDowell, Evidence That Demands a Verdict, revised edition, San Bernardino, Here’s Life, 1979.
But what if there are other unmentioned alternatives? Two such alternatives often cited by some liberal theologians such as Bart Ehrman are that Jesus as described in the gospels is a legendary figure, or that we don’t know for sure what Jesus claimed about Himself. Another theologian, N. T. Wright, comments that Lewis’s argument “doesn’t work as history, and it backfires dangerously when historical critics question his reading of the Gospels.”
As for myself, I’ve read The Conquests of Gaul, by Julius Caesar, in Latin. I’ve read many of the thoughts and works of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and other ancients. I’ve read English translations of Homer’s The Iliad and the Odyssey. Yet the paper trail, or should I say the scroll and tablet trail for the 66 books that make up the Bible is much more vast, unbroken, uncompromised, more current and free of substantial errors than any other ancient document.
Lewis himself actually considered and discounted that the accounts of Jesus were legends: “I have read a great deal of legend and I am quite clear that they are not the same sort of thing.” This and other “additional alternatives” often necessitate (1) an outright denial of the infallibility of the Word of God, (2) an intentional ignoring of the vast archive of evidence for the Bible’s authenticity, or even (3) a mangled reading of the words of Jesus.
Still, other Christian apologists, such as William Lane Craig, in his book, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, revised edition, 1994, agree with the trilemma proposed as a “valid argument,” but nevertheless regard it as “unsound”: “An example of such an unsound argument would be: ‘Jesus was either a liar, a lunatic, or Lord. Jesus was neither a liar nor a lunatic. Therefore, Jesus is Lord.’ This is a valid argument inferring one member of a disjunction from the negation of the other members. But the argument is still unsound, because the first premise is false [i.e.: that there are only three alternatives]: there are other unmentioned alternatives, (for example, that Jesus as described in the gospels is a legendary figure), so that the trilemma is false as it stands.” p. 39.
But as Craig continues to explain, it really doesn’t matter. “… when a person refuses to come to Christ it is never just because of lack of evidence or because of intellectual difficulties: at root, he refuses to come because he willingly ignores and rejects the drawing of God’s Spirit on his heart. No one in the final analysis really fails to become a Christian because of lack of arguments; he fails to become a Christian because he loves darkness rather than light and wants nothing to do with God… Should a conflict arise between the witness of the Holy Spirit to the fundamental truth of the Christian faith and beliefs based on argument and evidence, then it is the former which must take precedence over the latter, not vice versa… The Bible says all men are without excuse. Even those who are given no good reason to believe and many persuasive reasons to disbelieve have no excuse, because the ultimate reason they do not believe is that they have deliberately rejected God’s Holy Spirit.” pp. 35-37.
“What, then, should be our approach in apologetics? It should be something like this: ‘My friend, I know Christianity is true because God’s Spirit lives in me and assures me that it is true. And you can know it is true, too, because God is knocking at the door of your heart, telling you the same thing. If you are sincerely seeking God, then God will give you assurance that the gospel is true. Now, to try to show you it’s true, I’ll share with you some arguments and evidence that I really find convincing. But should my arguments seem weak and unconvincing to you, that’s my fault, not God’s. It only shows that I’m a poor apologist, not that the gospel is untrue. Whatever you think of my arguments, God still loves you and holds you accountable. I’ll do my best to present good arguments to you. But ultimately you have to deal, not with arguments, but with God himself.’” p. 48.
It is my desire also that all men and women come to this same understanding that Jesus is God and Lord of All, and open the doors of their hearts to His knocking. Like the brilliant apologist, Craig, I too may have bad arguments – but that does not give anyone the excuse to ignore the truth that God made evident throughout His creation. Every human being is accountable for his or her decisions. And this is the most important decision of all: “Who do YOU say I am?”