The Greatest Man Who Ever Lived
“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”—MATTHEW 16:16.
1, 2. (a) How might a man’s greatness be determined? (b) What men in history have been called Great, and why?
WHO do you think is the greatest man who ever lived? How do you evaluate a man’s greatness? By his military genius? his superior mental abilities? his physical strength?
2 Various rulers have been called Great, such as Cyrus the Great, Alexander the Great, and Charlemagne, who was termed “the Great” even during his own lifetime. By their formidable presence, men such as these wielded great influence over those whom they ruled.
3. (a) What is a test by which to measure a man’s greatness? (b) Using such a test, who is the greatest man who ever lived?
3 Interestingly, historian H. G. Wells described his test for measuring a man’s greatness. Over 50 years ago, he wrote: “The historian’s test of an individual’s greatness is ‘What did he leave to grow? Did he start men to thinking along fresh lines with a vigor that persisted after him?’ By this test,” Wells concluded, “Jesus stands first.” Even Napoléon Bonaparte noted: “Jesus Christ has influenced and commanded His subjects without His visible bodily presence.”
4. (a) What contrasting views exist regarding Jesus? (b) What place in history does a non-Christian historian give to Jesus?
4 Yet, some have objected that Jesus is not a historical person but a myth. At the other extreme, many have idolized Jesus as God, saying that God came to earth as Jesus. However, basing his conclusions solely on the historical evidence regarding Jesus’ existence as a man, Wells wrote: “It is interesting and significant that a historian, without any theological bias whatever, should find that he cannot portray the progress of humanity honestly without giving a foremost place to a penniless teacher from Nazareth. . . . A historian like myself, who does not even call himself a Christian, finds the picture centering irresistibly around the life and character of this most significant man.”
Did Jesus Really Live?
5, 6. What do the historians H. G. Wells and Will Durant have to say regarding the historicity of Jesus?
5 But what if someone told you that Jesus never really lived, that he was, in effect, a myth, an invention of some first-century men? How would you answer this charge? While Wells acknowledges that “we do not know as much about [Jesus] as we would like to know,” he nevertheless observes: “The four Gospels . . . agree in giving us a picture of a very definite personality; they carry a conviction of reality. To assume that he never lived, that the accounts of his life are inventions, is more difficult and raises far more problems for the historian than to accept the essential elements of the Gospel stories as fact.”
6 The respected historian Will Durant reasoned in a similar way, explaining: “That a few simple men [who called themselves Christians] should in one generation have invented so powerful and appealing a personality, so lofty an ethic and so inspiring a vision of human brotherhood, would be a miracle far more incredible than any recorded in the Gospels.”
7, 8. How greatly did Jesus affect human history?
7 Thus, you could reason with such a skeptic: Could a mythical character—a person who never really lived—have affected human history so remarkably? The reference work The Historians’ History of the World observed: “The historical result of [Jesus’] activities was more momentous, even from a strictly secular standpoint, than the deeds of any other character of history. A new era, recognised by the chief civilisations of the world, dates from his birth.” Think about it. Even some calendars today are based on the year that Jesus was thought to have been born. “Dates before that year are listed as B.C., or before Christ,” explains The World Book Encyclopedia. “Dates after that year are listed as A.D., or anno Domini (in the year of our Lord).”
8 By his dynamic teachings and by the way he lived his life in harmony with them, Jesus has powerfully affected the lives of untold multitudes of people for nearly two thousand years. As one writer aptly expressed it: “All the armies that ever marched, and all the navies that ever were built, and all the parliaments that ever sat, all the kings that ever reigned, put together have not affected the life of man upon this earth as powerfully.” Still, say the critics: ‘All that we really know about Jesus is found in the Bible. No other contemporary records concerning him exist.’ Yet, is this true?
9, 10. (a) What did early secular historians and writers say about Jesus? (b) Based on the testimony of early historians, what does a respected encyclopedia conclude?
9 Although references to Jesus Christ by early secular historians are meager, such references do exist. Cornelius Tacitus, a respected first-century Roman historian, wrote that the Roman emperor Nero ‘fastened the guilt for the burning of Rome on Christians,’ and then Tacitus explained: “The name [Christian] is derived from Christ, whom the procurator Pontius Pilate had executed in the reign of Tiberius.” Suetonius and Pliny the Younger, other Roman writers of the time, also made mention of Christ. In addition, Flavius Josephus, a first-century Jewish historian, wrote in Antiquities of the Jews regarding the death of the Christian disciple James. Josephus said in explanation that James was “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ.”
10 The New Encyclopædia Britannica thus concludes: “These independent accounts prove that in ancient times even the opponents of Christianity never doubted the historicity of Jesus, which was disputed for the first time and on inadequate grounds at the end of the 18th, during the 19th, and at the beginning of the 20th centuries.”
Who Really Was Jesus?
11. (a) Essentially, what is the only source of historical information about Jesus? (b) What question did Jesus’ own followers have about his identity?
11 Essentially, though, all that presently is known about Jesus was recorded by his first-century followers. Their reports have been preserved in the Gospels—the Bible books written by two of his apostles, Matthew and John, and by two of his disciples, Mark and Luke. What do the accounts of these men reveal regarding the identity of Jesus? Who really was he? Jesus’ first-century associates pondered that question. When they saw Jesus calm a wind-whipped sea with a rebuke, they wondered in amazement: “Who really is this?” On a later occasion, Jesus asked his apostles: “Who do you say I am?”—Mark 4:41; Matthew 16:15.
12. How do we know that Jesus is not God?
12 If you were asked that question, how would you answer? Who really was Jesus? Of course, many in Christendom would say that he was Almighty God in human form, God incarnate. Yet, the personal associates of Jesus never believed that he was God. The apostle Peter called him “the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (Matthew 16:16) And search as you may, never will you read that Jesus claimed to be God. Rather, he told the Jews that he was “God’s Son,” not God.—John 10:36.
13. How was Jesus different from all other men?
13 When Jesus walked across a stormy sea, the disciples were impressed by the fact that he was not a man like any other man. (John 6:18-21) He was a very special person. This was because he had previously lived as a spirit person with God in heaven, yes, as an angel, identified in the Bible as the archangel. (1 Thessalonians 4:16; Jude 9) God had created him before He created all other things. (Colossians 1:15) Thus, for untold ages of time, before even the physical universe was created, Jesus enjoyed intimate fellowship in heaven with his Father, Jehovah God, the Grand Creator.—Proverbs 8:22, 27-31; Ecclesiastes 12:1.
14. How did Jesus become a man?
14 Then, nearly two thousand years ago, God transferred his Son’s life to the womb of a woman. He thereby came to be a human son of God, born in the normal manner through a woman. (Galatians 4:4) While Jesus was developing in the womb of his mother, Mary, and later when he was growing up as a boy, he was dependent upon those whom God had selected to be his earthly parents. Eventually Jesus reached manhood, and evidently then he was granted memory of his previous association with God in heaven. This occurred ‘when the heavens were opened up to him’ at his baptism.—Matthew 3:16; John 8:23; 17:5.
15. How do we know that Jesus was fully human when he lived on earth?
15 Truly, Jesus was a unique person. He was, nonetheless, a man, the equal of Adam, whom God originally created and placed in the garden of Eden. The apostle Paul explained: “‘The first man Adam became a living soul.’ The last Adam became a life-giving spirit.” Jesus is called “the last Adam” because, like the original Adam, Jesus was a perfect human. But after Jesus died, he was resurrected, and he rejoined his Father in heaven as a spirit person.—1 Corinthians 15:45.
How Best to Learn About God
16. (a) What made association with Jesus such a privilege? (b) Why could it be said that seeing Jesus was the same as seeing God?
16 Think for a moment of the marvelous privilege that some enjoyed as personal associates of Jesus when he was on the earth! Imagine listening and talking to, watching, and even working with the One who had spent perhaps billions of years as an intimate companion of Jehovah God in heaven! As a faithful son, Jesus copied his heavenly Father in everything that he did. In fact, Jesus imitated his Father so perfectly that he could tell his apostles shortly before his execution: “He that has seen me has seen the Father also.” (John 14:9, 10) Yes, in every situation he encountered here on earth, Jesus did just as his Father, Almighty God, would have done if He had been here. Thus, when we study the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, we are, in effect, learning just what kind of person God is.
17. What fine purpose was served by the Watchtower serial “Jesus’ Life and Ministry”?
17 Therefore, the serial “Jesus’ Life and Ministry,” which ran in successive issues of The Watchtower from April 1985 to June 1991, not only provided a fine picture of the man Jesus but also taught a great deal about his heavenly Father, Jehovah God. After its first two segments, a pioneer minister wrote the Watch Tower Society in appreciation, saying: “What better way to draw closer to the Father than to get to know the Son better!” How true that is! The Father’s tender care for people and his largeheartedness are magnified in the life of the Son.
18. Who is the Author of the Kingdom message, and how did Jesus acknowledge this?
18 The love of Jesus for his Father, as manifested by his complete submission to his Father’s will, is indeed beautiful to observe. “I do nothing of my own initiative,” Jesus told the Jews who were seeking to kill him, “but just as the Father taught me I speak these things.” (John 8:28) So, then, Jesus was not the author of the Kingdom message that he preached. Jehovah God was! And Jesus time and again gave his Father the credit. “I have not spoken out of my own impulse,” he said, “but the Father himself who sent me has given me a commandment as to what to tell and what to speak. . . . Therefore the things I speak, just as the Father has told me them, so I speak them.”—John 12:49, 50.
19. (a) How do we know that Jesus taught in the way Jehovah does? (b) Why was Jesus the greatest man who ever lived?
19 Yet, Jesus did not simply speak or teach what the Father told him. He did much more. He spoke it or taught it in the way the Father would have spoken it or taught it. Moreover, in all of his activities and relationships, he behaved and acted just as the Father would have behaved and acted under the same circumstances. “The Son cannot do a single thing of his own initiative,” Jesus explained, “but only what he beholds the Father doing. For whatever things that One does, these things the Son also does in like manner.” (John 5:19) In every way, Jesus was a perfect reflection of his Father, Jehovah God. So it is no wonder that Jesus was the greatest man who ever lived! Surely, then, it is of vital importance that we consider closely this most significant man!
God’s Love Seen in Jesus
20. How could the apostle John know that “God is love”?
20 What especially do we learn by making an in-depth, careful study of the life and ministry of Jesus? Well, the apostle John acknowledged that “no man has seen God.” (John 1:18) Nevertheless, John wrote with absolute confidence at 1 John 4:8: “God is love.” John could say this because he knew God’s love through what he had seen in Jesus.
21. What about Jesus made him the greatest man who ever lived?
21 Like the Father, Jesus was compassionate, kind, humble, and approachable. The weak and downtrodden felt comfortable with him, as did people of all kinds—men, women, children, the rich, the poor, the powerful, and noted sinners too. Indeed, it was especially Jesus’ surpassing example of love, in imitation of his Father, that made him the greatest man who ever lived. Even Napoléon Bonaparte reportedly said: “Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne, and myself founded empires, but upon what did we rest the creations of our genius? Upon force. Jesus Christ alone founded his kingdom upon love, and at this day millions of men would die for him.”
22. What was revolutionary about Jesus’ teachings?
22 Jesus’ teachings were revolutionary. “Do not resist him that is wicked,” Jesus urged, “but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other also to him.” “Continue to love your enemies and to pray for those persecuting you.” ‘Do to others as you would have them do to you.’ (Matthew 5:39, 44; 7:12) How different the world would be if everyone applied these sublime teachings!
23. What did Jesus do to touch hearts and motivate people to do good?
23 The parables, or illustrations, of Jesus touched hearts, motivating people to do good and to avoid bad. You may recall his well-known story of a despised Samaritan who helped an injured man of another race when pious men of that man’s own race would not. Or the story about a compassionate, forgiving father and his prodigal son. And what about the one concerning the king who forgave a slave a debt of 60 million denarii, yet the slave turned around and had thrown into prison a fellow slave who was unable to pay a debt of only 100 denarii? With simple illustrations, Jesus made deeds of selfishness and greed repulsive and acts of love and mercy so appealing!—Matthew 18:23-35; Luke 10:30-37; 15:11-32.
24. Why can we say that Jesus was unquestionably the greatest man who ever lived?
24 However, what especially attracted people to Jesus and influenced them for good was that his own life matched perfectly what he taught. He practiced what he preached. He patiently put up with others’ shortcomings. When his disciples bickered over who was the greatest, he kindly corrected them rather than harshly rebuking them. He humbly ministered to their needs, even washing their feet. (Mark 9:30-37; 10:35-45; Luke 22:24-27; John 13:5) Finally, he willingly suffered a painful death, not just in their behalf, but in behalf of all humankind! Without a doubt, Jesus was the greatest man who ever lived.
How Would You Answer?
◻ What proof is there that Jesus was an actual person in history?
◻ How do we know that Jesus was a man, yet how was he different from all other men?
◻ Why is studying the life of Jesus the best way to learn about God?
◻ What can we learn about God’s love by studying about Jesus?
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Jesus’ apostles wondered in amazement: “Who really is this?”