The Uniqueness Of Christ In A Pluralistic Age
Suppose you had to pinpoint the one essential difference between Christianity and all other world religions: what would you say that one essential difference is? If you are like most people, you will think of religion as our search for God. So different religions are simply what different people think about God.
But Christianity is not a religion if that is how you define religion. What sets Christianity apart from all other faith systems is that it does not talk about man’s search for God. No, Christianity is the amazing story of God’s stepping down to earth, God searching for man. Christianity is the story of how God has appeared in our midst in the Person of Jesus, His Son.
This is how the apostle John opens the letter we call 1 John. The actual words he uses are as follows (1 John 1:1-2): "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched – this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us."
God has "appeared." Everything else in Christianity depends on this one essential fact: God has appeared on earth. This in fact is what we celebrate at Christmas: God’s appearing in our midst in that tiny baby in Bethlehem.
Only One God
But let us understand what this means. When the apostle John wrote that God had appeared, what did he mean by that? We must understand that John was a Jew. As a Jew, he believed in one God who was not to be confused with the world or any part of the world, but rather this one God had made the world, had made everything that can be seen, had made human life, the animal kingdom, the stars, the earth and all its elements. Everything that exists had come into being by the all-powerful Creator. This God was the God the Jews believed in.
But John writes this: "That which was from the beginning…we have seen with our eyes…the eternal life which was with the Father…has appeared to us." John, as a Jew, was convinced that God had come to earth.
Do you realize what a staggering claim this is? It has been well described by C. S. Lewis, who struggled with the claim of Christ to be God. As he moved from atheism to agnosticism, to theism, and finally to full-bodied Christian faith, Lewis came to grips with the claim that God has appeared on earth. He wrote this:
"God selected one particular people and spent several centuries hammering into their heads the sort of God He was, that there was only one of Him and that He cared about right conduct. Those people were the Jews.... Among these Jews there suddenly turns up a man, Jesus, who goes about talking as if He were God. He claims to forgive sins. He says He has always existed. He says He is coming to judge the world at the end of time. Now, let us get this clear: among pantheists, anyone might say that he was a part of God or one with God, but Jesus, since He was a Jew, could not mean that kind of God. God in their language meant the Being outside the world, who had made it and was infinitely different from anything else. And when you have grasped that, you will see that what Jesus said was, quite simply, the most shocking thing that has ever been uttered by human lips."
"That which was from the beginning …we have seen…The eternal life, which was with the Father…" our eyes have looked at. The life appeared. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us and we have seen His glory, the very glory of God (see John 1:14). God has appeared! That is what Christianity claims. That is what Jesus claimed and upon His claim rests our faith.
Jesus the Test of Truth
What are the consequences of believing that God has appeared, that Jesus is God? Because He is God, He is the test of truth. Jesus defines what truth is. Jesus is God. That means we now have an unchanging standard by which to measure everything that confronts us in life. The definition of who God is, who He is in reality, not in fantasy, not as we would imagine or like Him to be, but as He really is in fact, the truth about Jesus defines the truth about God. He is God. God has appeared and now He defines what truth is. Jesus defines the truth about God.
It was this staggering awareness of who He was that gradually began to creep over the disciples as they realized that they were face to face with God. Jesus said to them, the night that He had the last supper with them, "‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me. If you really knew Me, you would know My Father as well. From now on, you do know Him and have seen Him.’ Philip said, ‘Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.’ Jesus answered: ‘Don’t you know Me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen Me has seen the Father’" (John 14:6-9).
God has appeared! God has appeared and we have seen with our own eyes and testify to it that Jesus is God. That means that we now have a test of what is true about God. The believers that the apostle John was writing to were mixed up in their minds. Some people were coming into their church claiming to know the truth about God, but it was different from the truth they had heard from the apostle John. And so they were confused. They did not know what to believe about God.
We Can Know the Truth
What is the truth about God? This is not just a question of merely historical interest. Theological change is sweeping across North America today and people are searching for anything that will lead them to the truth. People are like leaves in the autumn winds that whip through Toronto, moving up the street, down the street, this way, that way, going around in circles, going one way then another. They are tossed to and fro in their understanding about God by every new teaching that comes around. People will buttonhole you at airports, knock on your door, advertise on TV and radio: "Here is where the blessing of God has fallen. No, it is over here. Believe this and you will know the truth. No, believe that."
The people John was writing to were no different. How could they know? How can we know? There is no need to be blown here and there. John writes, "You have the truth. Jesus, the eternal life which was with the Father, has appeared. That which was from the beginning we have seen and we testify to it" (paraphrase). Jesus is the test of teaching that is really from God. So the apostle John writes in 1 John 4:1: "Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits…." Test the spirits to see whether they are from God because many false prophets have gone out into the world. It is nothing new that there is confusion in hearts that are seeking the truth about God. And then he goes on to say this: "This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God [what is the test?]: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God" (vv. 2-3).
Jesus Defines God
The truth about God is defined by the One who stepped down from glory and became a baby in Bethlehem and went to the cross for our sins. Jesus is God! Jesus, therefore, defines who God is.
Do you see why John and his readers and we today can be so sure of the truth about God? It is because God has appeared in the Person of His Son. In Jesus Christ, God has made a full disclosure of who He is: His personality, His character, His plan, His purposes. Whatever claims to be from God must agree with what God has said about Himself by coming down, clothing Himself in human flesh, walking among us.
The Jesus of History Is God
The Word was made flesh, and that Word that was made flesh in Bethlehem is the test of anything that claims to be from God. The historical Jesus that John and many others heard and saw and touched is not the Jesus of modern liberal scholarship which strips away the supernatural until what is left is merely the vain imaginations of men who think that 2000 years after the fact they are closer to reality than those people who walked and talked with Him, the people who put their lives on the line….
There was a Man the existence of whom is acknowledged even by the secular Roman and Jewish historians of His day, one Jesus who went about through Palestine, who appeared, in fact, before the Roman governor of His day, and this Man was put on trial for His life and crucified on a Roman cross. It was all witnessed by the very people who are writing these documents for us. This historical Jesus is the test of truth.
No Jesus, No Christianity
Let us understand that everything in Christianity stands or falls with this Jesus. James Boice has written: "Without the historical Christ, Christianity ceases to be Christianity. What we believe about Christ is not optional. If Jesus did not really come in the flesh, die for sin, rise from the dead, ascend into heaven from which He will come again, then Christianity is stripped of its essential doctrines. There is no sure revelation of God, no atonement of sin, no hope for life beyond the grave, and no future either for the world or the individual. Without the historical Christ and His work, there is nothing left."
But it is not myth. It is not fiction. It is fact! This is what makes Christianity unique: Christ! Without Him Christianity ceases to exist. With Him there is hope for the whole world!
This article first appeared in the April 18, 1996 issue of The Gospel Witness. Reprinted with permission of The Gospel Witness.