Even in this secular age, the world’s largest group of religious believers—a full third of Earth’s human population—worships Jesus of Nazareth as the eternal God who appeared in human flesh. Millions more—Muslims, Baha’i, Hindus, Buddhists and others—recognise His unique connection to the Divine, His wisdom and His compassion.
Even a total atheist would struggle to find a person more influential in human affairs than Jesus, the Man who divides history into BC and AD. But arguments over Jesus’ identity have also divided continents, nations and communities. Muslims, for example, though they deeply revere Jesus as a holy prophet, are taught that the very phrase “Son of God” is blasphemy—a grievous insult against the One Supreme God. And mainstream churches refuse to accept Jehovah’s Witnesses and Latter-day Saints (Mormons) as bona-fide Christians precisely because they teach that Jesus is a created being, lesser in divinity and separate in substance from God the Father.
The Christian church itself has even been divided on the identity of Jesus Christ at times. For about a century, beginning in the late AD 200s, debate raged between various theologians and bishops as to whether Jesus Christ was an eternal Being who has always existed in Oneness with the Father, or if He was created. Some even claimed that Jesus did not have a physical body while He was on earth, but only projected this illusion.
And if we go back further it becomes clear that the debate over Jesus’ identity began pretty soon after Mary laid her Baby in a manger. The four biblical accounts of Jesus’ earthly life and teachings—Matthew, Mark, Luke and John—hinge on finding an answer to the question, “Who is this?” (see, for example, Matthew 21:10, Mark 4:41, Luke 5:21, John 12:34).
At Jesus’ criminal trial, the issue of Jesus’ identity was crucial: “The Jewish leaders insisted, ‘We have a law, and according to that law he must die, because he claimed to be the Son of God’” (John 19:7).
So were Jesus’ accusers right or wrong to accuse Him of blasphemy? Narnia author C S Lewis in his 1952 classic, Mere Christianity, highlights the starkness of the options before us as we consider Jesus of Nazareth:
“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 a 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 patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”
An encounter with Jesus
But despite Lewis’ devastating proofs, very few of us will be shoehorned into Christian belief by logic alone. A very real encounter with Jesus is needed, such as was experienced by a nameless woman in the ancient Middle East.
According to the fourth chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus and His disciples were journeying on foot through Samaria—a region north of Jerusalem that the Jews of that day despised for being full of half-breed people with a half-breed religion. At a well outside a town called Sychar, Jesus stopped to rest while His disciples went to buy some food. As He was waiting there a woman came to the well for some water. It was about midday and she was alone, which suggests she was avoiding the usual social gathering of women at the well during the cooler times of the day.
When Jesus asked her for a drink, she was surprised:
“‘You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman,’” she said. “‘How can you ask me for a drink?’ (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)
“Jesus answered her, ‘If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.’
“‘Sir,’ the woman said, ‘you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well . . . ?’” (John 4:9–12).
Even though she was speaking respectfully—calling this strange Jew “sir” and invoking their common ancestor, Jacob—there is still a hint of mockery in her reply: Who do you think you are; full of fancy words about living water, but without a bucket or rope? But as cynical as her question may have been, the issue of Jesus’ identity had quickly become central.
“Jesus answered. . . . ‘Go, call your husband and come back.’
“‘I have no husband,’ she replied.
“Jesus said to her, ‘You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. . . .’
“‘Sir,’ the woman said, ‘I can see that you are a prophet’” (verses 13–19).
Whoa. Suddenly this woman’s reason for avoiding the town gossip-mill is laid bare. But how could this Stranger possibly see straight through her half-truth and know the intimate details of her messed up life? Again, Jesus’ identity is the focus—the Samaritan woman is now prepared to accept Him as a prophet.
But, in order to deflect attention away from her personal issues, she brings up a hot-button religious debate between Samaritans and Jews—this is a woman with a wide experience of men; she knows how easy it is to distract them with a pet topic.
“‘Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain,’” she said, “‘but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.’
“‘Woman,’ Jesus replied, ‘believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. . . . true worshippers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth. . . .’
“The woman said, ‘I know that Messiah’ (called Christ) ‘is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.’
“Then Jesus declared, ‘I, the one speaking to you—I am he’” (verses 20–26).
You’ll struggle to find Jesus stating His identity more directly in the Gospels. But when He makes this grand proclamation, it’s not to crowds or kings, but to a broken woman at a lonely well. He doesn’t take sides in the polarising debate she has invoked—instead He points to a future where squabbles over holy places will be irrelevant. The whole experience leaves the woman deeply impressed; she forgets both her need for water and her shame; she can’t wait to share what she has heard.
“Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, ‘Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?’ They came out of the town and made their way toward him. . . .
“Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony. . . . They said to the woman, ‘We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Saviour of the world’” (verses 28–30, 39–42).
Yes, Jesus is greater than His ancestor, Jacob. He is also more than a prophet. During this encounter, He claimed the title of Messiah and was identified by the Samaritan townspeople as “the Saviour of the world”.
But how was He to save the world? The answer comes from the previous chapter of John’s Gospel, where Jesus once again had a personal encounter, this time a secret meeting with a male religious leader. Jesus put it this way:
“‘No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.’
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:13–16).
There are depths to these few short sentences that we do not have space to explore here, but what is clear is that Jesus is identified as both Son of Man and Son of God—fully human, yet also fully divine; born of a woman, yet “the one who came from heaven”. Jesus also hints here at the way He would die—“lifted up” on a cross—and explains that believing in Him is the way to eternal life. That’s how the Samaritans’ “Saviour of the world” operates: not by crushing His enemies with military or magical weaponry; not with an overwhelming flood of theology and intellect, but by a life and death of sacrifice that values even a single shame-filled woman seeking to satisfy her thirst.
Kent Kingston is editor of Signs of the Times. He lives with his family in NSW’s Lake Macquarie region, north of Sydney.