Naming the Man from Nazareth

Within the space of a few verses from chapter one of St. John's Gospel, seventeen to be exact (John 1:35-51), Jesus is referred to by no fewer than seven different titles: Lamb of God, Rabbi, Messiah, the One about whom Moses and the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth – son of Joseph, Son of God, and King of Israel. St. John's Gospel is full of such titles, many of which Jesus ascribes to himself. He calls himself the Bread of Life, the Light of the World, the Good Shepherd, the Way – the Truth – and the Life, the Vine, the Bread of Life, the Resurrection and the Life, etc. In fact, the number of titles ascribed to Jesus in the Fourth Gospel is dizzying. Because we live so many thousands of years after the composition of the Gospel, this particular aspect of the Gospel may elude us. All of these titles are St. John's way of confronting the answer to an important question for the men and women of the first century after Jesus' birth; namely, who was this Jesus of Nazareth? 


We tend to take it for granted. Christians believe that Jesus is God in the flesh. All the titles by which we call Jesus – Holy Redeemer, Sacred Heart, Savior of the World, Incarnate Word, Christ the King, etc. – are based upon our faith that Jesus was and is God. For the people who lived in those first years after his passion, death and resurrection, knowledge of Jesus as God was still in development. By the time St. John writes his Gospel, the Christian community had been wrestling with the identity of Jesus for at least sixty or seventy years. The community that gave birth to this Gospel had come to the conclusion that Jesus was God; consequently, one can assert that one of the primary reasons for this Gospel was to publicize their faith in this basic fact.


Scripture scholars see the first chapter of St. John's Gospel as an attempt to ask the question "Who was this Jesus Christ?" The Gospel asks the question by placing in the mouths of the apostles the various titles by which he had come to be known. Notice that none of the seven titles, even the title "Son of God," actually states that Jesus is God. However, throughout the rest of the Gospel, each time a new title is introduced it is preceded by the words "I AM," two simple words that assert that Jesus is the God who was revealed to Moses in the burning bush as "I AM WHO AM."


The three synoptic Gospels all write of a scene in which Jesus asks the disciples "Who do people say that I am?" This scene is not part of St. John's Gospel. For the sacred writer of this text, the question need not be asked. The first chapter of the Gospel began with the words that answer the question once and for all: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." (John 1:1)

Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator


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