Clearly we can know things certain things about Jesus of Nazareth in a historical sense, as no serious historian will tell you such a man never walked the earth; indeed the many TV specials that seem to crop up every other year or so claiming to portray the ‘real’ Jesus of history testify to the popularity of the man and the question of who he was. Yet such treatments usually don’t get us very close to what Christians believe about him. For as St. Paul says, these things are “spiritually discerned” (1 Cor 2:14). No, we’re better off looking to the answer that emerges when Christ himself asks the question. At one particularly poignant moment in their time together, Jesus asked his disciples this very question: “‘Who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter replied, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus answered him, ‘blessed are you, Simon son of John! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.’” (Mt 16:15-17).
When looking for what Christians believe about Jesus Christ, there is of course no better place to begin than the Gospels and Epistles of the New Testament, where we have Jesus proclaimed not just as a young community organizer or revolutionary rabbi from an obscure place called Galilee, but as the Anointed One (Christ/Messiah), the Son of the living God. As I understand it, the Gospel stories mostly tell us who Jesus was (and has been and ever will be), and the Epistles are especially good at telling us how Jesus relates to our lives. The Bible believes both views are required – both the “who” and the “so what” of Jesus – because “the demons also believe, and tremble” (James 2:19). The demons might ‘believe’ in a sense, but they don’t really know Jesus. Indeed, only by exploring the ‘so what’ of Jesus so we come to know him; and to know him is to trust and love him.
We can learn quite a bit about Jesus by looking to the testimony of generations past who loved and knew the risen Christ. Probably the most concise summaries are found in the ancient creeds of the Church, especially the Nicene and Apostles Creeds, the roots of which go back to the earliest days of the Church’s life. Fuller fundamental reflections on the identity and ‘so what’ of Christ are found in the writings of best of the ancient church, most especially in the writings of ancient saints such as St. Ignatius of Antioch, St. Irenaeus of Lyon, and perhaps best of all in the great work by St. Athanasius of Alexandria, On the Incarnation.
But we need not look only to the past to find what we believe, for as these ancient Christians knew themselves, Christ is the God of the living, not of the dead (Mk 12:27). For Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8), and the same Holy Spirit that guided them into deeper love and knowledge of Jesus is the very same one that leads us to the know him today (John 16:13). To know what Christians believe about Jesus, and to love and know him for oneself, one simply has to pay attention on Sunday, where the ancient creeds and prayers of the Church are still said today by Christians of all colors and ages and shapes and sizes; where we not only remember and savor what we believe about Christ, but where we also meet the living Christ for ourselves in the sacrament of Holy Communion, and most of all within ourselves when we abide in his love: “He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me; and he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him” (Jn 14:20-21; see also Jn 15:1-11 and 1 Cor 3:16).
So the best way to learn what Christians believe about Christ is to meet him for oneself, to meet him and come to love him, whereby we come to know him as he is. And when we begin to grow in this loving knowledge, our eyes are opened and we begin to see and learn about Jesus in yet other ways, most notably in the poor, the afflicted, and the suffering; we learn much about our Lord by serving ‘the least of these’ (Mt 25:31f). And there’s also nothing quite like meeting Christ in a fellow Christian, a brother or sister who has applied themselves to the identity of Christ and joins us both in seeking Christ within and in the ‘least of these’, together becoming one in the Holy Spirit, “as he and the Father are one” (Jn 17:20-26).
Coming to know Christ not just as Jesus of Nazareth but as the Church knows him, as Christ, the Son of the living God, is a wonderful thing; but we only come to such knowledge of Jesus by the grace of God, that is, as a gift from God. As Christ taught the crowds, “blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Mt 5:8). And our hearts are only made pure through the work of the Holy Spirit (Rom 5:5; Ps 51:1-12). So let us all hear the words of Paul, praying on our behalf, and learn to pray this apostolic prayer for both ourselves and others:
I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with might through his Spirit in the inner man, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have power to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses all knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Eph 3:14-19).