Jesus is the compelling and mysterious figure at the heart of Christianity. He is an undoubted historical person, whose existence is testified by contemporary historians such as Tacitus and Josephus as well as the Gospels and Letters found in the New Testament. He is sometimes referred to as ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ because of where he grew up. ‘Christ’ is not a surname but a title, meaning ‘anointed one’. There are a number of other titles associated with Jesus, all of which point to important aspects of his significance, such as Our Lord, the Messiah, the Saviour, the Son of God, the Lamb of God, the Good Shepherd, the Redeemer, and the Prince of Peace.
In first century Palestine, Jesus taught that the kingdom or reign of God was beginning, in which justice, peace and compassion would replace oppression and violence. At the time, Palestine was ruled by the Roman empire, and some thought that Jesus would lead an armed revolt. But Jesus was a peaceful revolutionary, teaching of a world in which Romans, Hebrews and all other people might live together in mutual acceptance, as children of the one God who had created them all.
Jesus’ message, or Gospel (the word means ‘good news’) was communicated through personal example and teaching. He called a group of disciples to be the nucleus of the new reign of God, and he welcomed all kinds of people to eat with him, including social misfits and outcasts. His teaching often consisted of stories, or parables, such as the Good Samaritan, alongside sayings about forgiveness and love (no other religious leader has taught that we should ‘love our enemies’). This message was subversive in a number of ways. It threatened the stability of Roman rule. It undermined the agenda of those looking for armed rebellion, and disturbed those seeking to maintain the purity of God’s people. The hostility of the religious authorities, the volatile nature of public opinion, and the pragmatic violence of the Romans led to Jesus’ trial and death by crucifixion around the year 30.
What happened next was unprecedented and unexpected. The discouraged and defeated group of disciples had a series of encounters with Jesus, raised from death by God the Father. They were commissioned by Jesus to take his message to the ends of the earth. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, they set about this task with joy and courage, facing persecution and death. Their numbers increased, and carried on increasing, as new Christian communities were founded. These ‘churches’ are the forerunners of the Church today, in which Christians share the same faith of the first believers, and accept the commission to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, pray and worship in his name, work for the reign of justice, peace and compassion, and invite others to do the same.