(The weekly GPS Small Group Guide can be downloaded in .PDF format from the individual sermon page, found at http://www.cor.org/worship in Sermon Archives)
Searching for the “Historical” Jesus
A Grow-Pray-Study guide for small groups
This guide uses the Scripture readings from the daily “GPS” study guide. Group members may read the daily readings before the group meeting, or read the verses aloud when the group meets. The group may subdivide into two or three smaller groups, each discussing a set of the daily readings and the matching questions on page 2, or the entire group may discuss those questions together. We pray that, whatever pattern of study you choose, the Holy Spirit will weave God’s Word into the life and heart of each group member.
1 John 1:1-5
Sometimes we think the New Testament is just a set of inspiring devotional works, detached from history or “reality.” In fact, these 27 books are first-century documents from people who knew Jesus of Nazareth personally or had talked to the apostles and others who knew him. Real people knew Jesus, bore witness to him, and worshipped him—all within a few decades (at most) of his death. As the writer of 1 John insisted, they were sharing what they had seen, heard and touched.
First-century readers attached great importance to the testimony of eyewitnesses to battles, political events and the like. When Luke, who entered the New Testament story midway through the book of Acts, set out to write the story of Jesus, he did not falsely inflate his own knowledge of events. He honestly reported that his role was that of investigator and reporter. His story, he said, relied on what he learned from those who WERE eyewitnesses.
Today’s reading is a part of the sermon Peter preached in Jerusalem less than two months after Jesus’ death. Luke published Acts sometime between 60 and 80 C.E. If Peter’s claim that “we are all witnesses” had been false (or if Luke’s account of the sermon had been an invention), there would have been many people still alive who could have easily discredited his words. Yet Luke confidently recorded Peter’s bold sermon.
The apostle Peter was invited to tell a Roman centurion and his staff about his faith in Jesus. These people, due to their military rank and access, could easily confirm (or contradict) any factual claims Peter made. Luke recorded that Peter made one verifiable claim after another: “You know… you know…we are witnesses.” The early Christians would be startled and dismayed if they knew that some later scholars would routinely assume that they were “mythmaking,” or just plain lying.
1 Corinthians 15:1-11
As the apostle Paul moved farther and farther into the Greco-Roman world, he spoke with Greek philosophers who found the idea of resurrection from the dead absurd (cf. Acts 17:32). He knew his converts in Corinth would face that skepticism. In support of their faith, he referred them, not to vague “spiritual” claims, but to living witnesses who’d met Jesus after his death. In effect, he was saying, “You can check this story out—it’s really true.”
In everything from popular novels to scholarly articles and books today, you can read claims that no one thought Jesus was divine until centuries after his death. Yet that’s plainly not the case. No responsible scholar dates the letters of Paul, and other first-century writings like Hebrews, that late. These documents clearly show that people spoke of Jesus as God within (at the very most) a few decades. (For deeper study of this subject, consider books like Larry Hurtado, How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God?: Historical Questions about Earliest Devotion to Jesus.)
To access the Family Activity suggested in this week’s GPS, download the printable GPS from http://www.cor.org/guide.
Lord Jesus, help us discern the reality of you amid all of the claims and confusion that surround your story. Thank you for moving your people to record their confident testimony, and thank you for keeping the belief of those witnesses alive in us. Help us to live as confidently in our faith as those who experienced your story first hand, over 2,000 years ago. Amen.
CONNECT (5-10 minute discussion, at most)
When people ask, “How were your holidays?” how do you answer? Why do you answer the way you did? Are you honest, or do you just answer positively no matter what actually happened?
QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION AND STUDY
Read 1 John 1:1-5. Who is this letter referring to? Most scholars believe that either the apostle John or a close associate of his wrote the letter. Knowing this, how much credibility would you give this writer and his letter? From your perspective, what is the main message of these verses? Are the verses trying to persuade us that a man, Jesus, existed, or that he was more than a mere man? How do these verses affect your faith? These are only 5 verses in a very large Bible. To you, how significant are these 5 verses and why?
Read Luke 1:1-4. Who was the author of this Gospel? What was his purpose in writing? Based on these opening verses, how would you describe Luke’s intent for the book—as factual and historical, or embellished and spiritualized? What kind of research would you think Luke must have done before writing this Gospel? Who might some of the witnesses have been? What would have made them credible to Luke? Would he have reported their testimony accurately? Why? Do you believe the historical soundness of our faith still matters today?
Read Acts 2:22-33. Read the paragraph under “Wednesday”, above. Peter was saying, in effect, “You all know what happened to Jesus because you were there and were eyewitnesses.” When he said this and later when it was written down, if that hadn’t been verifiable, what would have happened to this book? What would have happened to the Christian movement in the Roman Empire? Do you believe Peter when he said that Jesus’ death and resurrection was no tragic accident, that it happened with “God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge”?
Read Acts 10:34-43. In this presentation, Peter used words like “You know…you know…we are witnesses…by witnesses.” How would early Christians react if they knew that present day scholars would routinely assume that they were “mythmaking,” or just plain lying? Peter proclaimed Jesus as “Lord of all.” What other “lords” existed in the Roman world at that time? What other “lords” exist in the world for people today? What “lords” has Jesus challenged and dethroned in your life? Peter was calling others to become Christ followers. What leads you to believe that God wants us, too, to reach out to non-religious and nominally religious people?
Read 1 Corinthians 15:1-11. The apostle Paul spoke and wrote about Christ coming back to life after his death. He referred to hundreds of people who witnessed this miracle. He challenged his readers to verify the story. How do you think these facts affected the spread of Christianity? Why didn’t the Hebrew and Roman powers simply display Christ’s body to put an end to the movement? Do you think of the resurrection as the appearance of Christ’s “apparition,” or as his living, breathing, speaking, eating and drinking human body? How important is Jesus’ resurrection as evidence that Jesus is God? How important to your faith are these eyewitnessed biblical stories of Christ, his life, death and resurrection?
Read Hebrews 1:1-3. What do these verses say about who Jesus was? How would the author, if asked directly whether Jesus was God, have answered? How do you answer that question? Today, some people question whether Jesus was God, saying that that concept wasn’t developed until centuries later. In reading these verses, would you agree?
From a couple of weeks ago: Did you identify as many things as possible that have made your life wonderful? Did you share the list with family and friends as part of your Christmas celebration? Share your lists with the group.
FOR ADDITIONAL INSIGHT
From Pastor Adam Hamilton’s sermon, January 5, 2014:
Let’s begin with an easy question, as there is great consensus even among secular scholars, agnostics and atheists that Jesus actually lived. He was a real, historical person. Dr. Louise Antony, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Massachusetts and a noted atheist stated, “I don’t personally know a single atheist who would deny that Jesus existed.” Bart Ehrman, a popular agnostic writer and professor at the University of North Carolina recently wrote a book called, Did Jesus Exist? in which he offers an emphatic yes….
The question for many skeptics, and even for many Christians, is not whether Jesus existed, but to what degree the gospels and other New Testament writers accurately describe the Jesus who existed. That’s the question I’d like to focus our attention on in the rest of this message.
Let’s consider what precipitates the question. In the gospels we find that Jesus is born of a virgin, he walks on water, he opens the eyes of the blind, he raises the dead, he feeds thousands with a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish. In the end, following his crucifixion and burial on Friday, he is resurrected on Sunday. The idea of Jesus the preacher and teacher who was crucified is not hard to believe. But Jesus the healer, the man who calms the storms, who walks on water, who casts out demons and who himself was raised from the dead, who was the divine son of God—this Jesus is harder to believe in….
Numerous theologians and biblical scholars have accepted two propositions: First, the miraculous or supernatural cannot happen. Second, early Christians, in their devotion to Jesus, described him and his impact upon their lives by telling stories of miracles he had supposedly worked that illustrated his impact upon their lives….
There have been hundreds of books written under some variation of the title, “The Life of Jesus” that promised to reveal the real Jesus. The latest of these is Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, which spent three weeks at #1 on the NY Times Bestseller List this fall.
I finished reading Zealot last week. Aslan lays out the premise of the book, writing: “In the end, there are only two hard historical facts about Jesus of Nazareth upon which we can confidently rely: the first is that Jesus was a Jew who led a popular Jewish movement in Palestine…the second is that Rome crucified him for doing so.” We can rely only upon these two facts because the gospels are unreliable sources of information about Jesus. They were written 40 to 60 years after Jesus’ death and reflect the faith of the early church, says Aslan….I watched an interview with Aslan recently, and he declared that Jesus never said things like, “Love your enemy.” Presumably he never said to pray for those who wrong you, or turn the other cheek, or the truly great among you will be your servant, or forgive others. I agree with a number of insights Aslan offers that I think are important, but in the picture of Jesus he paints, which is nearly the antithesis of Jesus as portrayed in the gospels, I think he widely misses the mark….
Are the gospels reasonably reliable sources of information about the historical or real Jesus? It is true that the gospels were likely written from 40 to 60 years after the death of Jesus. For some that makes them immediately suspect. So let me start by questioning the assumption that something written 40 years after an event would be unreliable….
My Aunt Celia Belle was over for Thanksgiving. We call her Aunt Ce Ce. She’s 98 years old, but she is amazing. She is the living repository of our family history….She handed me these papers on Thanksgiving—the story of my great-grandfather and great-grandmother, her parents. She titled it “Memories of Henry Leonard and Bertha Belmear Richardson, which have been lovingly recorded so their descendents will have a better appreciation of their long and useful lives.” I love this. She tells their stories, going back to the research she’d done on their childhoods and the stories they told about their childhoods. Then the years she knew them as her parents. My Aunt is describing events beginning with the late 1800’s and throughout the 1900’s. Both of her parents died more than 40 years ago.
Here’s the question: Do you think these accounts are reasonably reliable and trustworthy accounts of what my great grandparents were like, what they said and did? Or do I need to set aside all but the bare outlines she’s provided and begin my quest for the historical Henry and Bertha as opposed to this history so lovingly prepared?…
At the start of his gospel, Luke says that he has carefully investigated everything, that his sources include material from those who were eyewitnesses, the earliest disciples. He notes that others before him had written accounts of Jesus. These gospel accounts, particularly Matthew, Mark and Luke, seem to be written to convey the actual identity of the historical Jesus, and what these early Christians believed about him. Are they to be set aside as unreliable in favor of something written last year? Or are they reasonably reliable accounts that help us see who Jesus really was and is? In the end, we each make a choice and answer the question for ourselves….
Albert Schweitzer is one of my heroes. He was a liberal theologian and scholar, a Lutheran pastor, a doctor and a medical missionary. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952. He gave much of his life to developing a hospital and treating the sick in Africa. Many of my conservative friends would say he wasn’t “saved” because he did not believe all the right things about Jesus. But he loved Jesus, and sought to follow him. He closed his book, The Quest for the Historical Jesus, with these words: “He speaks to us the same word [he spoke to his disciples long ago]: ‘Follow thou me!’ and sets us to the tasks which he has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship…and they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.”
You may not know what to do with all the things Christians believe, and the gospels proclaim, about Jesus, but if you would follow him, that’s enough here at Resurrection. As you begin following him you’ll come to see him, I think, in ever deeper ways. His call to you is, “Come, follow me.”
What others have said about who Jesus was
Perhaps the best of the bunch:
– “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.” ― C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
– “We can no more reject Jesus’ existence than we can reject the existence of a mass of pagan personages whose reality as historical figures is never questioned. ….. In recent years, ‘no serious scholar has ventured to postulate the non-historicity of Jesus’ or at any rate very few, and they have not succeeded in disposing of the much stronger, indeed very abundant, evidence to the contrary.” (Michael Grant – historian at Cambridge University)
– “Our tendency in the midst of suffering is to turn on God. To get angry and bitter and shake our fist at the sky and say, “God, you don’t know what it’s like! You don’t understand! You have no idea what I’m going through. You don’t have a clue how much this hurts.” The cross is God’s way of taking away all of our accusations, excuses, and arguments. The cross is God taking on flesh and blood and saying, “Me too.” ― Rob Bell
– “Turn around and believe that the good news that we are loved is better than we ever dared hope, and that to believe in that good news, to live out of it and toward it, to be in love with that good news, is of all glad things in this world the gladdest thing of all. Amen, and come Lord Jesus.” ― Frederick Buechner
– “Power, no matter how well-intentioned, tends to cause suffering. Love, being vulnerable, absorbs it. In a point of convergence on a hill called Calvary, God renounced the one for the sake of the other.” ― Philip Yancey
– “When we learn to read the story of Jesus and see it as the story of the love of God, doing for us what we could not do for ourselves–that insight produces, again and again, a sense of astonished gratitude which is very near the heart of authentic Christian experience.” ― N.T. Wright
– “Feed your faith and starve your doubts.” — Kenneth E. Hagin Sr.
This week prayerfully consider to what extent you believe that Jesus lived, died, was resurrected bodily and is God. Make a list of how these beliefs have shaped your life. Also ask yourself how your belief has affected others. Next week, share with the group whatever you discovered.