One of the great mysteries of the past 2,000 years is how Jesus came to be known as God. Born in obscurity without connections, living as a little-known Jewish peasant in the first century, and dying from a bloody crucifixion, are not the usual steps on a path to universal acclaim. Just as perplexing though, is how after gaining such a following worldwide, new theories from the so-called “mythicists” have emerged that say Jesus never even existed!
In his book Did Jesus Really Exist?, agnostic scholar Bart Ehrman shares his surprise at having to address this question. “I am not a Christian, and I have no interest in promoting a Christian cause or a Christian Agenda,” he explains, “But as a historian I think evidence matters…and a dispassionate consideration of the case makes it quite plain: Jesus did exist.”[mfn]Ehrman, Bart. Did Jesus Really Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. (New York, Harper One, 2012), 5-6.[/mfn]
Challenges such as this highlight a larger struggle for people of faith in a skeptical world. While they seek to develop a relationship with Christ, to tune into his voice, a thousand other voices try to dissuade them. Whether through the militant position of the mythicists, or a more passive dismissal of historians, larger society does not encourage believing in Jesus as Lord and Savior. But despite the growing popularity of these positions in the Western world, the reality is, believing in Jesus has always been hard work.
One of the more disputed aspects of the gospels is the miraculous stories from the life of Jesus. John 6 starts off with two of the more phenomenal examples of stories under critique.
The first one is the feeding of the five thousand. From a meager offering of five loaves and two fishes, Jesus caters a meal for 5,000 plus, including take home bags. The crowd’s response is understandable: “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world!”
Realizing that they want to make him King, and having no intention of accepting this coronation, Jesus retreats alone into the mountains. After waiting for Jesus until evening, his disciples depart across the sea without him. But they encounter a stormy night, and have difficult time making progress. Less than a third of the way across, they are startled to see someone walking right to them, on top of the water! Then Jesus reveals himself, quiets their fears, and joins them in the boat, delivering them immediately to their destination.
Keep in mind, these two events happened after Jesus had already gone on a spree of healing people. As unbelievable as these stories sound, experiencing them first hand would be pretty compelling reason to at least hold Jesus in high esteem. But as these skeptical crowds show, the movement from wonder to trust is not an easy one.
Prove Yourself to Me
When the happily fed crowd finds Jesus the next day, they’re perplexed at how he made it to the other side of the sea. They knew he snuck off into the mountain, and apparently saw the disciples set out alone in the boat. No doubt they heard the a storm from the night before. How did he get here?
This pivotal question makes the following dialogue all the more intriguing. It is notable how Jesus dodges the question, especially if he wants this crowd to believe in him. In coming all the way across the sea, they seem eager to follow him. Wouldn’t revealing, maybe even replaying the sign from the night before help his cause?
Instead, Jesus returns to an early theme from John, of questioning a person’s reason for seeking him. He subtly rebukes the crowd, when he declares, “You are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.” In other words, “You may be feigning spiritual interest, but you really just want a free meal ticket! Your heart is not in this.” Jesus then challenges them to accept the signs and do, “The work of God…believe in him whom he has sent.”
If the people had embraced the signs as a revelation of Jesus, belief would be their natural next step. But they wanted more from Jesus, particularly for themselves. “Give us this bread always,” was their way of saying, “Show us what you can do for us, prove yourself to us. Then we’ll consider trusting you…as long as you keep responding to our desires!” Unfortunately, Jesus was about to make believing in him even more difficult, not easier.
As the people keep demanding more and more signs, Jesus draws a line in the sand. “Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you have no life in you,” he declares. The people are understandably repulsed by this gruesome metaphor, but it is not the imagery that offends them. It’s the condition of accepting Jesus as the Son of God.
It may seem unfair to hold the audience to such a high expectation. After all, Jesus is demanding they believe that he, a man they have known since childhood, is the son of God. Additionally, he challenges them to accept a crucified leader as the means to life. This isn’t a concept that fits anyway in their paradigm of redemption.
Still, these issues do not stop the honest of heart from believing. Peter states directly what happens when one chooses to respond with trust in Christ: “We have believed and we have come to know, that you are the holy One of God.” There are two stages of faith revealed here: believing and knowing. The first one comes when someone responds honestly to the evidence and begins to trust in Jesus. They don’t know all the answers, but they know enough to put their faith in him.
The second stage comes from a direct experience, in a trusting relationship, with Christ. “We have come to know,” is a statement of intimacy. It highlights a relationship in which there is a depth of sharing, one that includes secrets shown only to those who already put their trust in Jesus. They not only trust the words of Jesus, they know from personal experience who the Spirit has revealed him to be.
Nothing More Practical
Believing in Jesus is hard work. In a skeptical world, there are a lot of reasons for this. Two thousand years separating us from his physical life on earth make this only more challenging. But the main reason it is difficult is simply because relationships are hard work.
Sometimes people object to the pairing of “work” and “faith.” Any talk of work is considered a violation of grace. But the opportunity to have a relationship with Jesus is a tremendous act of grace. Not only that, but it is grace that empowers us to transcend our sinful flesh and relate with the divine. There is no greater use of the grace of God than to work hard at developing a relationship with him, to give your all to falling in love with him.
Consider these words from Fr. Pedro Arrupe:
“Nothing is more practical than finding God, than falling in love in a quite absolute, final way. What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning, what you do with your evenings, how you spend your weekends, what you read, whom you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude. Fall in love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.”[mfn]Fr. Pedro Arrupe, S.J., Finding God in All Things: A Marquette Prayer Book.[/mfn]
This is the result of doing the work of God, of investing your best energies and intellect towards a growing faith in Jesus. It is the reward of the labor of seeking God with our whole heart, and one that more than makes up for the effort.
For Prayer & Reflection
- What evidence compels you to believe in Jesus? What causes you to doubt him?
- When in your life have you been disappointed that Jesus didn’t “prove himself” to you?
- How do you feel about approaching belief in Jesus as a task you must work at? Are you willing to put in the effort? Do you know how to?