Our 3rd president, Thomas Jefferson, felt that he had a correct view of who Jesus was. He made for himself a condensed edition of the gospels with scissors and paste “paring off the amphibologisms.” He basically attempted to remove all references to Jesus’ deity and any miracles recorded. He felt that when he had done this there would “be found remaining the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.” He felt that the material he had left was “as distinguishable (from the other gospel materials) as diamonds in a dunghill.”
So when we in the 21st century are confronted in the local bookstores with titles like “Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why”; “The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant”; and, “Constantine’s Bible: Politics and the Making of the New Testament” we should not be surprised. Books, both fictional and “non-fictional,” denying or questioning the deity of Jesus are extremely popular, but this is nothing new. As noted above, Jefferson wrote one about 200 years ago (although his book was not published till long after his death). In fact, heresies about the person of Christ were present right from the beginnings of the church age, as even a cursory reading of Paul’s or John’s letters will show.
It would seem though that most of our modern “scholars” do not want to do away with Jesus altogether. They want to keep Him around as a teacher, a rabbi, a philosopher, a new age guru, even a prophet. Like Jefferson, they don’t want a divine Christ. His teachings are fine with them as long as we leave out all that miracle stuff or those claims to Messiahship or Deity.
But it is impossible to separate His moral teachings from His claims to Messiahship and Deity. Jesus never separates His claims from His ethics. Even in the Sermon on the Mount, which many unbelievers admire as a great ethical treatise, His claims are foundational to His teaching. Though He is a teacher and a prophet, these are not the words of a mere teacher or prophet.
-- “Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you BECAUSE OF ME” (Matthew 5:11).
-- “You have heard (referring to the Mosaic Law) … but I SAY TO YOU … ” (5:21 & 22; 27 & 28; 31 & 32, 33 & 34, 38 & 39, 43 & 44). He seems to be putting His words on the same level as the Law of Moses.
-- “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you who practice lawlessness’” (7:21-23). He is saying that He will be the Judge who determines who will enter the Kingdom.
-- “ … My Father who is in heaven …” (21). Though elsewhere He had said “your Father,” here He is claiming a special relationship with God. In John’s gospel we’re told that the Jewish leaders understood this as “ … making himself equal with God” (John 5:17, 18) and wanted to put Him to death for blasphemy.
-- “Therefore everyone who hears these words of Mine and acts on them, may be compared to a wise man who built his house on the rock” (7:24). “Everyone who hears these words of Mine and does not act on them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand” (7:26). His words are to be the foundation upon which one’s life is to be built.
It is impossible to separate Jesus’ moral teachings from His claims to deity. Every demand, every blessing, every warning has its foundation in His claims to divine authority. No other preacher, ancient or modern could preach this sermon. I wouldn’t dare! Although there is much wisdom and even practical advice in it, it is questionable whether it even makes sense apart from the Person who uttered it. It is He who gives meaning and authority to these words. His listeners understood. ”When Jesus had finished these words, the crowds were amazed at His teaching; for He was teaching them as one having authority, and not as their scribes” (7:28, 29). Even Jefferson left these words in!