My parents chose to become Christians as adults, aged in their forties. As a ten-year-old boy, I made my own decision to trust in Jesus. The question I struggled with then was, “How do I know that God accepts me?” I found comfort and reassurance in Jesus’ promise; “Whoever comes to me I will never drive away.” (John 6: 37) As my faith and knowledge grew into my adult years, I enjoyed affirming my faith, singing “I have decided to follow Jesus.”
In recent years, I have been challenged by a different question; “How do I know it is true?” So, as an adult in my seventies, I have been tempted to give up my faith. It reminds me of an older man running his first marathon. He ran well enough for most of the race. But, when he was a few kilometres from the end, he “hit the wall” and stopped, wondering if he could finish the course. After some time, he made up his mind to keep running to the finish line. Eventually, he completed the race. (I was that runner!) So, in my faith journey, I have taken stock of the facts on which my faith is based, and renewed my commitment to being a disciple. Now, I feel like singing “I have decided to keep following Jesus!”
In my “stocktake of faith,” I fall back on four propositions. They form the foundation on which my faith rests. I put them forward as statements that can be examined, and tested.
- In human history, Jesus is exceptional.
- The Gospel records of Jesus’ life and teaching are historical, reliable, and available.
- The witness accounts of the resurrection are credible.
- The way of Jesus is transformational.
Let’s consider these propositions…
In human history, Jesus is unique.
The poem, One Solitary Life, written a century ago by American pastor James Allen French, still speaks today of the remarkable influence of Jesus.
One Solitary Life,
He was born in an obscure village, the child of a peasant woman. He grew up in another village, where he worked in a carpenter shop until he was 30. Then, for three years, he was an itinerant preacher.
He never wrote a book. He never held an office. He never had a family or owned a home. He didn’t go to college. He never lived in a big city. He never travelled 200 miles from the place where he was born. He did none of the things that usually accompany greatness. He had no credentials but himself.
He was only 33 when the tide of public opinion turned against him. His friends ran away. One of them denied him. He was turned over to his enemies and went through the mockery of a trial. He was nailed to a cross between two thieves. While he was dying, his executioners gambled for his garments, the only property he had on earth. When he was dead, he was laid in a borrowed grave, through the pity of a friend.
Nineteen centuries have come and gone, and today he is the central figure of the human race. I am well within the mark when I say that all the armies that ever marched, all the navies that ever sailed, all the parliaments that ever sat, all the kings that ever reigned – put together – have not affected the life of man on this earth as much as that one, solitary life.
Notwithstanding all the painful failures of Christians great and small to follow in his footsteps; – notwithstanding all the compromising mergers of spiritual leadership and worldly power over the centuries; – and notwithstanding all the shameful wars conducted under the banner of Christ by his followers, even against other Christians, (and in contradiction of his own teaching and example); – it remains true that the positive impact of Jesus’ life and teaching continues to challenge, inform and guide millions of lives today.
Jesus teaches us how to live. He claimed that the person who puts his teaching into practise would have a foundation for a life that would survive any crisis, like a house built on a foundation of rock. (Mt 7: 24-27)
Jesus calls us to be his followers, to enlist in his service and to apprentice ourselves to him for life. (Mt 11:28-30.)
The Gospel records of Jesus’ life and teaching are historical, reliable, and available.
The four biographies of Jesus, which we know as the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, in the Christian Bible, were written as separate, independent accounts of Jesus within the lifetime of his followers. They draw on various sources, some of which overlap. Matthew and John were both members of Jesus’ team of twelve apostles. Mark, a younger disciple, was an associate of both Paul, and Peter in Rome. Luke, a Gentile physician, collected the stories of those who had known Jesus personally. These writings preserve in permanent form the oral traditions that were being widely circulated in the Early Christian Churches. (By the middle of the second century, these four Gospels were accepted as authentic and authoritative, according to Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyon.)
Today, in universities around the world, thousands of scholars – Christian, Jewish and secular – study these and other records to search for knowledge about this historical figure, and the significance of his life. The number of manuscripts of the Gospels, and the other books of the New Testament, dating from the early second century, far exceeds the number of available manuscripts of any other ancient book. As Christianity spread throughout the Roman world and beyond, the Gospels were translated into other languages. Scholars also use copies of these translations to check and cross reference the earliest manuscripts, leading to a high level of confidence in determining the actual wording and meaning of the original texts.
Today we can read the Gospels, translated into our own languages. As we read, we find the Gospels are written in a down-to-earth idiom, available to ordinary people, rather than the style of an academic presentation or theological dissertation. In his teaching, Jesus speaks to the common people, and uses illustrations from the everyday life of his day to make his meaning clear.
Translators have sensed “the ring of truth”; the impression of eye-witness accounts rather than “cleverly invented stories.” As we read the stories of Jesus and the early church, we can be confident that we are reading records of events that really happened. It is as if several relatives separately wrote letters about meeting a teacher or life coach who had changed their lives. We should therefore read the Gospels critically, but carefully, as if our lives depended on it! (See also “Forty years on…”)
The witness accounts of the resurrection are credible.
After the humiliating public execution of Jesus, the disciples never expected to see him alive again. What changed their minds?
They described how they became convinced, against their own expectations. Their lives were turned around. They willingly faced persecution and death for witnessing to the resurrection. Some of their hearers were convinced by the credibility of their testimony, and the transformation of their lives. By the repetition of this process over 20 centuries, the Good News comes to us today!
If the disciples had concocted a story which they knew to be false, to retrieve some dignity and meaning to their lives after the collapse of the Jesus movement, they would certainly have written a different account! They would be unlikely to record the embarrassing details of Peter, the leader of the early church, denying his Master, and the other male disciples fleeing for their lives. They would not have written that the women were the first to discover the empty tomb, and the first to meet the risen Jesus! (Women then were regarded as unreliable witnesses in legal and popular thinking,) Whatever we are to make of the story of Jesus coming back to life, we must admit that the disciples believed this story, and bet their very lives on witnessing to it. So where does that leave us?!
For myself, I accept that the reports of Jesus returning to life should be taken at face value; as the honest, historical accounts of those who saw the Risen Jesus. This, for me, changes everything! I read again the Gospel stories, and watch the disciples slowly coming to realise that this man has a unique relationship with God. As they live with him for three years, they experience his personality and character. They come to understand his paramount ethical stature. They see his miraculous deeds. They hear his claims to be the promised Jewish Messiah, and his confidence that he will overcome death and sit at God’s right hand, and return as the judge of all the world.
Then, along with Doubting Thomas, I acknowledge His Authority over my life, and declare Him “my Lord, and my God.” I accept the statement of the first creed, that “Christ died for our sins,” and accept that I am forgiven and accepted by God, through Jesus. So, after this review, I recommit myself to “patiently running the race set before me, focussing on Jesus.” (Heb 12: 1,2)
Can you base your life on this story? I can only suggest that you must check it out for yourself with all the honesty, and urgency that you can find! (See also “Faith, reason and evidence.”)
The way of Jesus is transformational.
“The proof of the pudding is in the eating!” we say. You can only judge the quality of something after you have experienced it. But relationships are not an experiment!
In a serious relationship, we can use our mind to investigate, enquire and assess a person as to their character, attractiveness, resources, trustworthiness and availability. But the relationship will only progress when we engage the heart and will, and make a choice to commit, opening the possibility of joy and fulfillment, love and adventure, and accepting the risk of rejection and disappointment. We can, and should, examine the story of Jesus with our best mind and attention. But will we come to him, on his terms?
It is the experience of many millions, including myself, that to know and follow Jesus is to be undergoing transformation. But to experience that change, we must accept his proposal!
May I challenge you, if you are serious about discovering if God is real, and if Jesus is, as he claimed, the Way, the Truth and the Life, to ask God to reveal Jesus to you? You might also ask for a friend who has experienced the change that Jesus brings, and whose life reflects something of Jesus, to be a guide and mentor on the search for truth. (see Headline 24; “Seek, and you will find!”)
In my faith journey, many Christians have helped me through teaching, friendship, encouragement and example. Influential authors have included C. S. Lewis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, John Hercus, J. I. Packer, Sheila Cassidy, Richard Foster, Philip Yancey, Eugene Peterson, John Lennox, John Dixon, Tom Wright and John Goldingay.
Geoff Francis is a retired General Practitioner, and the author and editor of this website.