Liar, Lunatic, or Lord
By David Feddes
The world’s top rock star has some things in common with a professor of literature. Bono, superstar songwriter and lead singer for U2, grew up in Ireland. C.S. Lewis, a professor of English literature, also grew up in Ireland. Bono and C.S. Lewis both have reached huge audiences. Bono’s band, U2, has sold more than 100 million albums. Lewis’s books have sold more than 200 million copies. Lewis died back in 1963, but every year millions of people still buy his books. Besides being Irish and being popular with millions of people, Bono and Lewis have something else in common that’s even more important: strong convictions about Jesus.
In an interview, Bono said, “It’s a mind-blowing concept that the God who created the Universe might be looking for company, a real relationship with people, but the thing that keeps me on my knees is the difference between Grace and Karma.” Bono went on to explain,
At the center of all religions is the idea of Karma. You know, what you put out comes back to you… And yet, along comes this idea called Grace to upend all that. . . . Love interrupts, if you like, the consequences of your actions, which in my case is very good news indeed, because I’ve done a lot of stupid stuff…
I’d be in big trouble if Karma was going to finally be my judge. It doesn’t excuse my mistakes, but I’m holding out for Grace. I’m holding out that Jesus took my sins onto the Cross, because I know who I am, and I hope I don’t have to depend on my own religiosity… The point of the death of Christ is that Christ took on the sins of the world, so that what we put out did not come back to us… It’s not our own good works that get us through the gates of Heaven.”
The interviewer wasn’t convinced. He said, “Christ has His rank among the world’s great thinkers. But Son of God, isn’t that farfetched?” Bono replied,
Look, the secular response to the Christ story always goes like this: He was a great prophet, obviously a very interesting guy, had a lot to say along the lines of other great prophets, be they Elijah, Muhammad, Buddha, or Confucius. But actually Christ doesn’t allow you that. He doesn’t let you off that hook. Christ says, No. I’m not saying I’m a teacher, don’t call me teacher. I’m not saying I’m a prophet. I’m saying: ‘I’m the Messiah.’ I’m saying: ‘I am God incarnate.’ . . . So what you’re left with is either Christ was who He said He was—the Messiah—or a complete nutcase…
Here Bono was echoing a point C.S. Lewis made in some radio talks that later became a book titled Mere Christianity. Lewis, who taught at Cambridge and Oxford, traced the argument in more detail than Bono did, but the upshot was the same. Lewis said,
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.
Long before Bono and C.S. Lewis, another man faced a radical choice about Jesus. This man wasn’t a rock star or a professor; he was a carpenter. His name was Joseph. Even before baby Jesus was born, the presence of an unborn baby in Mary’s womb confronted her husband-to-be, Joseph, with a drastic decision.
Put yourself in Joseph’s place. The girl you’re engaged to marry tells you that a baby is growing inside her. You know the baby can’t be yours. Then Mary tells you that even though she’s pregnant, she is still a virgin. The baby in her womb got there, she says, through the Holy Spirit of God. What do you do? Well, there’s one thing you can’t do: you can’t pretend nothing has changed. You can’t pretend Mary’s the girl you thought she was. You either have to believe that she is uniquely blessed among women and that her baby is a miracle from heaven—the Son of God—or you’ve got to conclude that Mary is a liar or is out of her mind, unable to face the fact that she’s going to have another man’s child. One choice you don’t have is to go on thinking that Mary is a nice girl whose first child is going to look just like you. As for the child inside her, you’ll either have to regard him with awe and reverence, or else have nothing to do with him. So if you’re Joseph the carpenter, what should you decide?
At first Joseph did what seemed like the most sensible thing. He decided to end the relationship and to leave Mary and her unborn baby on their own. Joseph could have made it harder on Mary by disgracing her in public, but being a decent person, Joseph wanted to handle the breakup quietly. Mary and the baby would have trouble enough, without Joseph adding to it. Still, no matter how nice Joseph tried to be about it, the fact remained he was making a definite decision to reject Mary and the baby and to go his own way. Joseph didn’t believe Mary’s story. He didn’t believe the baby inside her was divine. He intended to break all ties.
But after Joseph had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”—which means, “God with us.”
When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus. (Matthew 1:20-25)
This is the first story that greets us when we open the Bible and start reading the New Testament. The first chapter of the first book of the New Testament, Matthew chapter 1, shows that even in the very first moments of Jesus’ life on earth, even before he emerged from his mother’s womb, Jesus forced a person to choose: either have nothing to do with him, or else believe that he is Savior and God and act accordingly. Joseph is the first person to face that choice, but not the last.
You and I also have to make up our minds about Jesus. Maybe you like to think of Jesus as a spiritual person who taught great moral principles and told other people how to get in touch with God. But that’s not an option. That’s not what Jesus claimed to be or to do. Jesus claimed to be nothing less than God with us; he claimed to do nothing less than save his people from sin. So you have a choice: you can either believe Jesus and accept him as God and Savior, or you can reject him and have nothing to do with him. One thing you can’t do is find some middle ground. There isn’t any.
Was Jesus’ conception a miracle or the result of sexual betrayal? Was Jesus the Son of God, born of a blessed virgin, or was he the illegitimate son of some cheating lowlife? Did Jesus come to save his people from their sins, or did he lie when he claimed authority to forgive sins? Should you trust and worship Jesus as God with us, or should you dismiss him as a crazy man with delusions of grandeur? Is Jesus liar, lunatic, or Lord? You have to make up your mind.
When Mary told Joseph about the baby in her womb, Joseph had to face reality and make a decision. One thing Joseph couldn’t do was to go ahead with business as usual and name the baby “Joseph, Jr.” and pretend that this was a nice, ordinary boy. This baby was either the worst thing that had ever happened in Joseph’s life, or the best. Joseph had to make up his mind, one way or the other. With God’s help, Joseph came to believe that Mary’s baby was indeed “God with us.” Joseph welcomed Mary into his home and her Son into his heart. When the child was born, Joseph named him Jesus, meaning “the Lord saves.”
Those claims about Jesus—that he is the one who saves his people from sin, and that he is God with us—those claims appear right at the beginning of the story of Jesus, even before Jesus was born on the first Christmas. And those claims become even more forceful when Jesus grows up and goes public.
Who Is This?
Until Jesus is about thirty years old, he works beside Joseph in the carpenter shop and lives an ordinary life. But after he turns thirty, Jesus goes public, saying and doing things that nobody has ever said or done before. Jesus tells a woman, “Your sins are forgiven.” The people nearby wonder, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” (Luke 7:48-49) Jesus tells a man, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Some religious teachers are outraged. They complain, “Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mark 2:5-7) Who does Jesus think he is? Does he think he’s God or something? C.S. Lewis, author of The Chronicles of Narnia and many other books, says in Mere Christianity,
We can all understand how a man forgives offenses against himself. You tread on my toe and I forgive you, you steal my money and I forgive you. But what should we make of a man, himself unrobbed and untrodden on, who announced that he forgave you for treading on other men’s toes and stealing other men’s money? … Yet this is what Jesus did. He told people that their sins were forgiven, and never waited to consult all the other people whom their sins had undoubtedly injured. He unhesitatingly behaved as if He was the party chiefly concerned, the person chiefly offended in all offenses. This makes sense only if He really was the God whose laws are broken and whose love is wounded in every sin. In the mouth of any speaker who is not God, these words would imply … a silliness and conceit unrivaled by any other character in history.
The religious leaders are right that when Jesus announces forgiveness of sins, he is talking like he’s God. Since they won’t take the plunge and trust Jesus as God and Savior, they have no other choice but to reject him as a liar and blasphemer. There is no middle ground. Either Jesus is God, here to save his people from their sins, or he’s a lunatic or something worse.
Is Jesus a lunatic, a crazy man? The Bible tells of a time when some of Jesus’ relatives think so. They hear what he’s been saying and doing, and they think he’s out of his mind. They want to take him back home with them and take care of him. A crazy man can’t be expected to look out for himself.
But is Jesus really out of his mind? The religious teachers don’t think so. They know that Jesus is too intelligent and too powerful for a crazy man. But if he’s not a lunatic, what is he? If he’s not God, the only other explanation for his amazing intellect and power is that he’s getting it from some other source. If he’s not from heaven, he must be from hell. The religious leaders say that Jesus is possessed by Beelzebub, the prince of demons (Mark 3:21-22).
The Bible records a number of times when they make similar accusations. How does Jesus react? On one occasion when the religious leaders say that he’s demon-possessed, Jesus denies it and then goes on to say that he honors his heavenly Father and that anyone who keeps his word will never see death. His opponents exclaim, “Now we know you are demon-possessed! Abraham died and so did the prophets, yet you say that if anyone keeps your word, he will never taste death. Are you greater than our father Abraham? He died, and so did the prophets. Who do you think you are?”
Jesus responds, “My Father, whom you claim as your God, is the one who glorifies me… Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad.” At this Jesus’ enemies are dumbfounded. This man Jesus hasn’t even reached middle age, and he has seen Abraham, who lived two thousand years earlier? Jesus’ adversaries snort in disgust.
“I tell you the truth,” Jesus answers them, “before Abraham was born, I am.” What a thing to say! The Lord God Almighty once told Moses, “I am who I am.” Now here’s this man claiming those words “I am” for himself. “Before Abraham was born, I am.” This man thinks he’s God! Now the religious teachers are sure that Jesus is a liar from hell. They pick up stones to kill him. But Jesus slips away (see John 8:48-59).
On another occasion, Jesus says, “I and the Father are one.” Again his enemies pick up stones to kill him. Jesus says, “I have shown you many great miracles from the Father. For which of these do you stone me?” “We are not stoning you for any of these,” they reply, “but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God” (John 10:30-33).
Still, not everybody who meets Jesus thinks he’s a raving lunatic or a demon-possessed liar. Some believe in him, though it takes a while to sink in that he really is God with them. Jesus talks with his followers, and he doesn’t just teach them the way to God, or the truth about God, or how to have life from God. He says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” One of his friends says in bewilderment, “Lord, show us the Father, and that will be enough for us.” Jesus answers, “Don’t you know me, even after I have been with you for such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father?’ Don’t you know that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me?” (John 14:6-10)
All or Nothing
Jesus is clearly a man who thinks he’s God. That means you can’t just think that he’s an inspired prophet or a wise teacher. You either have to accept Jesus as Savior and Lord, or else you have to reject him as absolutely wicked or wacky. It’s all or nothing. C. S. Lewis writes,
There is no half-way house and there is no parallel in other religions. If you had gone to Buddha and asked him ‘Are you the son of Bramah?’ he would have said, ‘My son, you are still in the vale of illusion.’ If you had gone to Socrates and asked, ‘Are you Zeus?’ he would have laughed at you. If you had gone to Mohammed and asked, “Are you Allah?’ he would first have rent his clothes and then cut your head off. If you had asked Confucius, ‘Are you Heaven?’, I think he would have probably replied, ‘Remarks which are not in accordance with nature are in bad taste.’ The idea of a great moral teacher saying what Christ said is out of the question… We may note in passing [adds Lewis] that Jesus was never regarded as a mere moral teacher. He did not produce that effect on any of the people who actually met Him. He produced mainly three effects—Hatred—Terror—Adoration. There was no trace of people expressing mild approval.
These days, however, some people do express mild approval of Jesus. Maybe that’s your reaction. You don’t adore and obey Jesus as God or trust him as the only one who can save you from sin and hell. But you don’t really want to say anything bad about Jesus either. So your reaction to Jesus is mild approval. You say he’s a wise prophet or spiritual teacher. But if that’s what you say, you’re simply ignoring what Jesus actually says.
Suppose I introduce myself to you and say, “Hi, my name is David Feddes. I was educated in a seminary, and now I’m a preacher.” You say, “Nice to meet you, Mr. Lettuce. I’m glad you’re dedicated to a cemetery where flowers are a feature. We need people like you to keep our graveyards beautiful.” At that point, I’m not going to say, “I’m glad you appreciate me.” No, I’m going to say, “You didn’t hear me right. My name isn’t Lettuce, it’s Feddes: F-E-D-D-E-S. And I didn’t say I’m dedicated to a cemetery where flowers are a feature. I said I was educated in a seminary, and now I am a preacher.”
A misunderstanding like that may sound silly, but it’s no sillier than hearing Jesus claim to forgive sins and to be God with us and then saying, “Glad to meet you, Jesus. You say you’re a good teacher with some helpful spiritual ideas? I think that’s great, and I may even want to use a few of your ideas myself.” At that point I can almost hear Jesus saying, “Did I say I’m just a good teacher? No, I claimed authority to forgive sins. Did I say I was offering you some helpful ideas about God and that you can pick and choose which ones you like? No, I said that I am one with God and that I give eternal life to all who believe in me.” Let me quote C.S. Lewis again:
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 a level with a 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.
The people who thought Jesus was crazy or demon-possessed had at least one thing right. They understood that Jesus was claiming equality with God, and they were reacting to that claim.
When Jesus confronts you, there is no room for half-baked thinking, no room for half-hearted action. You must make up your mind and then act accordingly. Joseph the carpenter made his decision to believe in Jesus as the Son of God. C.S. Lewis the professor made his decision to believe in Jesus as the Son of God. Bono the rock star made his decision to believe in Jesus as the Son of God. What’s your decision?
Whatever you do, don’t just mumble a few nice things about Jesus. Make up your mind. Was Jesus miraculously born of a virgin, or wasn’t he? Was Jesus God with us or wasn’t he? Was Jesus crucified as a sacrifice for our sins or wasn’t he? Did Jesus rise from the dead or didn’t he? Is Jesus alive and reigning supreme right now, or isn’t he? If you don’t believe what Jesus said about himself and what the Bible says about him, then don’t try to say something nice about Jesus. Forget about Jesus. But if you do believe in Jesus’ miraculous birth, his perfect, divine life, his sacrificial death, his glorious resurrection, and his present reign, don’t just file those beliefs away in your mind. Welcome Jesus into your life.
When God changed Joseph’s mind about Mary’s baby, it wasn’t just a matter of Joseph forming a new opinion. Can you imagine Joseph believing in Jesus as God’s Son—and then abandoning him anyway so he could do his own thing? No, once Joseph believed the truth, he acted upon it. Joseph let go of his former plans. He obeyed God. He welcomed Jesus into his life. Be like Joseph. Accept that Jesus is indeed God with us, and realize that this means you can’t go on with business as usual. Welcome Jesus into your life, and follow his path wherever it leads you.
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.