What is a Christian?
A Christian is someone who has acknowledged that Jesus is King, has come to him for forgiveness for their sins, and has committed themselves to his lifelong service. Christians are joined to Christ by a bond closer than marriage, and their highest loyalty is to him. They see loving him, serving him, and getting to know him through the Bible as the basis of their lives, because they know that he has forgiven them, saved them from God’s judgment, and set them free from their past to be new people who will rise again to eternal life with him when he returns.
Why would anyone think like that?
Because Jesus gives a whole new way of looking at the world. More than that, he claims to give the true way of looking at the world - and the only way to make sense of it, and of your part in it. To understand why Christians love Jesus so much, here's what you need to know...
There is one, and only one, real God, who made the universe, the world and us. Yet when we come to know him through Jesus, we find that he is three persons – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Each is a genuine person who relates to and loves the other two as one person loves another; they are not the same person. Each is fully God, yet there are not three Gods; one God, in three persons. This is known as the Trinity.
While this defies human understanding, this is exactly what we should expect when thinking about the God who made us; he cannot be grasped by the human mind, because the human mind is far too small – and God is far too big – for the task. But although we cannot make sense of him, it is only this God who allows us to make sense of the whole of the rest of life. Foundational to a Christian understanding of the world is that countless things we take for granted in the way the world is are only so because the God who made them is the Holy Trinity. This includes such things as that the world is basically consistent and logical, or that relationships and families and love matter to us, or that we are able to make sense of the world around us at all – all problems that non-Christian thinkers find impossible to deal with.
Needless to say, this makes the Christian God radically different from the gods of every other religion – including the convictions which drive western society today, such as ‘freedom’ and ‘equality’, which are often, in effect, treated as gods. It is a core conviction of Christianity that every other god is, at bottom, a human invention. They have been made by human beings.
While all other gods have been made by us, the Holy Trinity, in contrast, made us. Only the Holy Trinity is truly alive, real, made all things, and is in control today and for ever. And only the Holy Trinity should be served and worshipped by human beings.
How do Christians know this? Simply, because God has shown himself to be like this, through one person of the Trinity – the Son – becoming a man.
Who Jesus is
Jesus is God the Son – who has always, as one person of the Trinity, been God, and always will be – but who, at one point in history, became a man, without in any way becoming less than fully God. From the moment when he was conceived in the womb of a virgin about 2000 years ago, He has been both God and man, in one person. This is known as the incarnation.
Why did this happen? Because only in this way, through this man, Jesus Christ, who was and is also God, could men and women come to know the God who has made them – and through this could all the evils of pain, suffering, sadness, cruelty and death be undone, God’s judgment on human sin dealt with, and the world brought to be what God has intended it to be from the outset.
The Kingdom of God
Jesus’ first recorded preaching in the Bible is these words:
‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the good news.’ (Mark 1:15)
Central to Jesus’ message was that the ‘Kingdom of God’ was very near. What did he mean by this? To grasp it we have to look back to the beginning of history.
When God made the world, he made it to be ruled over by mankind as king over it – ruling it on God’s behalf, for its good. But the first man and woman refused to do this, and wanted to rule it for themselves – independently of God. From that first refusal to obey God spring all the evils of the world as we know them today. All that is wrong with the world is fundamentally because men and women do not recognise the rightful authority that God has over them; do not recognise that to be human means to under God, not independent of him, because he made us, and we did not make him.
Jesus’ claim about himself was that he was the man whom God had sent to be the king over the world – who would rule it in perfect righteousness, submitting perfectly to God his Father, as God had originally intended for his creation. God had already been building the core of his kingdom in the nation of Israel for many hundreds of years; in Jesus the kingdom was finally going to be established, under its rightful king. This is why Jesus most often referred to himself as ‘the Son of Man’ – according to a well-known prophecy (Daniel, chapter 7), this referred to the man to whom God was going to delegate all his authority to rule over the world, and who would indeed share in all of God’s own glory. The ‘Kingdom of God’ which Jesus proclaimed is his rule as God’s king over God’s world.
The huge surprise for Jesus’ contemporaries was what he said about how he was going to bring this kingdom about. Not by raising an army and conquering, as normal kings do. But by suffering and dying:
‘For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’ (Mark 10:45)
Jesus insisted again and again that the central point of his mission was to die, and then to be raised back to life by God.
Why? Because God is determined that Jesus’ kingdom should not be empty; that it should be full of countless men and women who love him and serve him and so, through him, be what God always intended human beings to be. They in turn will make the world everything that God always intended it to be.
But the problem is that all human beings have become wicked by rejecting God’s authority. Not only has this made the world the sad, painful and often downright evil place it is today, but it has left us all standing under a just sentence of death from God. God is a righteous judge who is rightly furious that his creatures should defy him in this way. If anyone is to become part of God’s kingdom, restored to full, loving relationship with him, they need to have the guilt of their sins, and God’s impending righteous condemnation of them, taken away.
This is what Jesus accomplished by dying on a cross. He was the only man who never did anything wrong; who did not deserve death. At the cross he willingly allowed God the Father to punish him for the sins of all those whom he came to save, so that they are completely forgiven without God in any way being unjust. So whenever anyone places their trust in Jesus, and recognises him as God’s King, they find that guilt for all their past actions, and any fear of God’s judgment, is taken away for ever.
Jesus was crucified and buried on a Friday. On the following Sunday, two days later, God raised him from the dead. His disciples met him, alive again, and spoke to him, ate with him, touched him, talked with him. He was not merely back from the dead, but beyond death; he had the same body, recognisable and real, but also transformed so that it no longer quite belonged in this world (on one occasion he appeared inside a locked room; on another, he disappeared from in front of two disciples’ eyes). After forty days of appearing regularly to his disciples, and teaching them about what had just happened and what would happen next, he went up into heaven to sit at God’s right hand. He is still there today, a man who is also God, ruling over God’s world with all of God’s authority.
If the cross of Jesus is the 'how' of the Christian gospel, the resurrection of Jesus is the 'what' of the Christian gospel. Jesus’ death is how he brings people into his kingdom; his resurrection is what they get when they come into his kingdom. This is because Jesus’ resurrection is the ‘firstfruits’ of the new creation; like the first ripe apple of the season, there will be thousands – millions – more like it. Every follower of Jesus will rise again, bodily, to eternal life beyond death, just like he did. More than that, when God raised Jesus from the dead, God gave him the authority to rule over God’s creation that man was made to have in the first place. Every follower of Jesus will come to share in this rule over God’s creation – which means to become truly human, to fulfil humanity’s true role.
In fact this is the centrepiece of God’s plan for his whole creation – which is to make all of it new. Creation will be gloriously transformed to be all that God always intended it to be. God has started with Jesus’ body; he will do the same for Christians, and the rest of creation, when Jesus returns.
So God has a day planned when Jesus will return, and make the whole world new. At the centre of this will be that he will judge the world, having raised all the dead to life again. He will declare Christians to be righteous, not because they are in themselves but because he was and is righteous for them, and their sins were dealt with at the Cross. And he will justly condemn all those who have persisted in rejecting God’s authority. And so his people, the church, will inherit the earth, under the rule of God’s incarnate Son, Jesus Christ.
How do we know all this?
Jesus is not only the centre of what we know as Christians, he is also how we know it. Because he is God himself, who has become a man, he has fully and completely revealed God to us. It is by knowing Jesus that we know the Father. But what of those of us who were not around when Jesus walked the earth? The Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, caused the revelation that Jesus brought to be written down reliably – which is what we have in the New Testament, the part of the Bible written after Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. The Old Testament (written before Jesus) was also written under the authority of the Holy Spirit, and is also all about Jesus. So the whole Bible is the Holy Spirit teaching us about Jesus, the Son, who reveals the Father to us. The whole of the Trinity is therefore involved in revealing himself to us.
Which is why Christians have always considered the Bible to be the totally reliable word of God, carrying all of God’s authority. It is through the Bible that we come to know God; and through that come to know ourselves, and what this universe is really all about. Everything described above is an attempt to summarise the Bible’s teaching.
What is a Church?
Those who have acknowledged Jesus as King, and have become part of his kingdom, are the Church – the people whom Jesus acknowledges as his own, in whom he has already begun his work of recreation, by forgiving them their sins and making their hearts new. They are the nucleus of God’s new creation.
While there is only one Church across the whole world, it meets in individual congregations – which are commonly known as churches. Being part of a church is an essential part of the life of a Christian, because God’s aim is to create a perfect church – a vast multitude of people who are all one family, who all together worship and serve the Holy Trinity. In the church Christians find their true home and true family; they are taught God’s word and encouraged by their fellow Christians; and they have their faith strengthened through baptism and the Lord’s supper.