On the day after Jesus' death, it looked as if whatever small mark he left on the world would rapidly disappear," writes John Ortberg in his new book, Who Is This Man? The Unpredictable Impact of the Inescapable Jesus (Zondervan). "Instead, his impact on human history has been unparalleled." Ortberg, the California megachurch pastor and bestselling author, spoke with Joe Carter, an editor for the Gospel Coalition, about how Jesus changed the perception of everything from art and architecture to children and human dignity.
How does this book differ from other books on Jesus?
Who Is This Man? is about the impact of Jesus on human history. Most people—including most Christians—simply have no idea of the extent to which we live in a Jesus-impacted world. From the existence of hospitals to the notion of universal human dignity and rights to the prizing of virtues like humility and forgiveness, our lives are simply unimaginable apart from his life.
In the Gospel of Mark, the scribes asked Jesus, "Which commandment is the most important of all?" Jesus quoted from Deuteronomy 6:5—"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might" (ESV)—but added the admonition to love God "with all your mind." Why the addition?
Cornelius Plantinga called this the Magna Carta for the Christian intellectual life. To love God with all our minds means we should think about him a lot—be interested in him. It also came to include the thought that "all truth is God's truth." This mandate meant monasteries became places of learning that saved classical texts, giving rise to scholarly guilds and eventually universities, and propelled universal literacy movements.
How did Jesus change the perception and value of children?
In the ancient world, children were commonly left to die of exposure if they were the wrong sex (guess which one), or sold into slavery and often used sexually. O. M. Bakke, a Norwegian church historian, has written that Jesus' blessing of children—and his using them as an example to be spiritually emulated—was essentially unprecedented, and led to the eventual end of practices like exposure and infanticide, as well as to such innovations as orphanages and godparents.
How did Jesus change perceptions of human equality?
Through Jesus, the truth prized in Israel that every human being is made in the image of the one true God became accessible to the entire world. It's not simply Jesus' teaching that fueled people's moral imagination. It was his ceaselessly courageous embrace of lepers and prostitutes, of Samaritans and soldiers and sinners, of tax collectors and zealots that fueled the world's first movement that sought to include every individual regardless of ethnicity or status. The philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff argues that the modern embrace of human dignity, rights, and justice is built on this Judeo-Christian foundation.
Why, if the word "rabbi" doesn't appear in the Old Testament, do the Gospels apply it to Jesus on 11 occasions?
The elevation of the "rabbi" signaled that—often through pain and exile—a dream arose in Israel to impact the world not through the imposition of political power but through the beauty of ethical and spiritual life with God. It was Jesus who articulated and incarnated this dream in a way that turned Israel and other countries upside-down. It's a dream whose full implications the human race has yet to realize, but from which it has yet to recover.
You say that Jesus is without parallel in the entire history of art. Why do you think artists have been so inspired by him?
Because Israel banned images of God and produced no visual art, you might expect the ascendancy of Jesus to mean the diminishing of art. Art is built on the deepest themes of human meaning: good and evil, beauty and ugliness, life and death, love and hate. No other story has incarnated those themes more than the story of Jesus.
Jesus' impact extends into such diverse areas as architecture and the calendar system. What do you consider his most surprising influence?
From a purely human perspective, the biggest surprise is that Jesus had any influence at all. Normally, if someone's legacy will outlast their life, it's apparent when they die. On the day when Alexander the Great, or Caesar Augustus, or Napoleon, or Socrates, or Muhammad died, their reputations were immense. When Jesus died, his tiny, failed movement appeared clearly at an end. No one would have pronounced Jesus "Most Likely to Posthumously Succeed" on the day of his death.
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