What Is So Unique About Jesus?
What is so unique about Jesus? What is so special about him? I hope that every Christian would immediately think of the remarkable mystery of our faith, that Jesus Christ is both fully God and fully man in one person; but here I don’t want to talk so much about Jesus’ person as about his work, which is inseparable from who he is, to be sure, and actually explains who he is. I just want to talk about one central aspect of Jesus’ unique work, but first I want to look at some alternative answers to our question.
Many who seek to honor Christ would answer the question with an answer something like this: “Jesus was an excellent and profound teacher and guide, the most excellent in fact, who teaches us the purest moral perfection in compassion, justice, and love of God and neighbor.” The high point of his teaching, according to this line of thinking, is the Sermon on the Mount, because in it Jesus calls us to pursue the pure heart of what’s good and true, in total love of God and neighbor.
This is true as far as it goes. Jesus was the most excellent of moral teachers and guides. He leads those who follow him into all truth and wisdom. But is teaching us to be good and pure, through the Sermon on the Mount and many other such sermons, what makes Jesus so unique? Buddha, Confucius, Mohammed, and Moses all teach us to be good and pure. The followers of any of these other profound thinkers and spiritual leaders could give their Amen! to everything Jesus preaches here. And unlike Buddha, Confucius and Mohammed, Moses did not think of Christ as just another spiritual guide (see Heb 11:26). We’ll talk about the Sermon on the Mount again a little later.
Others who attempt to answer this question in a way that respects Jesus would say that Jesus is unique primarily because he not only teaches us the highest moral standard, but that he himself attained it in his own life of goodness and love. In other words, Jesus’ uniqueness lies in his being far and away the best of all those who have ever led their disciples in the ways of uprightness and love.
This answer begins to get at Jesus’ uniqueness, because it points to the fact that Jesus – out of all the rest – actually was completely good and pure and so he was just like he taught his disciples they should be. In fact, as truth and justice himself (getting back to his person again), Jesus is the embodiment of what moral uprightness is. But is this in and of itself what makes Jesus so unique? That he was the best of the bunch, the first guru in a long line, the most successful of all the seekers after spiritual attainment? Again, if we talk about Jesus as God, of course he is completely good and pure and just, in a way that is not the best in his class, but in a class all by himself. And if we talk about Jesus as he is also a man, we can say that he was completely good and holy and pure and just. But if we talk about him merely as the best of men and the holiest of humans, and we stop there—where is the uniqueness, the singularity of Jesus’ uprightness? And how could this ever explain his work? How could this ever explain his purpose? He said that he came to serve and to suffer (Matt 20:28).
Who Jesus is, remember, is most clearly seen in what Jesus did. And of all he did, the clearest evidence that he was not simply the most accomplished spiritual guru that ever lived, is the cross. Jesus’ words and actions led him – in goodness and love — straight to the cross, and at the same time he was led there to be murdered shamefully by those who heard his message and saw his deeds. The actions of Jesus and his hearers are completely inconsistent with Jesus being just another moral teacher, even if the best of them. What about sin? The truth and holiness of the Sermon on the Mount is met not with truth and holiness from us, but with godless and wicked rejection of Jesus.
In light of this, others go further (much further) toward grasping Jesus’ uniqueness and claim that Jesus was one of a kind because of his call to us to turn from our wickedness and turn to God and one another in love, the kind of self-giving and self-sacrificing love that God shows toward us in what happened on the cross. On the cross, God expressed his vast love and grace to his world by allowing his own sinless Son – the core of the uniqueness of Jesus’ work – to be killed at the hands of sinful humans. Jesus’ purpose in all this was for us to leave behind the selfish and hurtful life of sin and begin walking with God in a life of thankfulness and faithful service.
This answer is far better overall than the first two, in spite of the elements of truth they contain, because unlike this answer, the other two ignore the reality of human sin and leave God’s saving purposes almost entirely out of the equation. Jesus is not our guru. He is our savior, God’s gracious gift to a world that needs nothing more desperately than him. In response to God’s self-sacrificial love toward us in Jesus’ life and work, we must repent and believe in Jesus. In other words, with God’s help, we must turn from our sin and follow Jesus in trust and obedience, in faith and self-sacrificial love.
But as far as this answer goes, does it go far enough? This answer accounts for God’s grace and his saving purposes, but does it take the biblical testimony to God’s holiness and justice seriously enough? This answer accounts for human sin, but does it account for its utter evil in God’s sight, and the just anger of God which burns against this sin and the sinners from whose hearts this rebellion flows? The “For God so loved the world” of John 3:16 must stand together with the “wrath of God” which “is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness” of Rom 1:18.
If Jesus’ shameful death on the cross was only to show God’s love and grace, why did he have to suffer and die at all? God has shown love and grace in countless ways to us who do not deserve it, every day—is this why Jesus died on the cross? And is this all that happened on the cross? A murder by the people and a self-sacrifice by Jesus? What was God doing in the cross? He was showing love to the world, but not to Jesus.
So this last answer gets at Jesus’ real uniqueness as the savior from God sent to a sinful world, but it does not get it all, and it does not get at the very heart of it. God is as just and holy as he is loving and gracious; we need not only to see God’s love in the cross and Jesus’ call to trust and obey—we need confidence that God’s holiness is maintained and his justice is met. How could he be a trustworthy God otherwise? We need more than God’s help to trust and obey him—we need to be brought from death to life, from darkness to light, from rebellion to allegiance, from doubt to faith.
The very heart of Jesus’ uniqueness lies in this: that all he is and all he has done, he is and has done for us. The good news of the gospel is that Christ both died the death we deserve to die, and lived the life we should have lived, that we may die to sin and live to God through him.
A good way to see this is through the Sermon on the Mount again. In all that Jesus preached to those crowds, before he was telling them how they should live or what to go out and do and accomplish, before all that, he was telling them two things: First, by proclaiming that the poor, the mourning, the meek, the hungry, the merciful, pure, etc. are “blessed” (Matt 5:3-11), Jesus was proclaiming, as Paul said later, that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). In saying to the people that this is the character of those who are blessed by God, Jesus says these things “so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world be held accountable to God” (3:19). Jesus is proclaiming law here, not gospel—the Sermon on the Mount is not good news for sinners: “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (3:20).
Second, at the same time that he is placing all his hearers under the condemnation of the law because of sin, he is doing so in order to have mercy on all: in pushing the failure of the crowds (and all of us) to keep his words, he simultaneously holds up himself as the only one who is meek, merciful, pure, etc. in the sight of Almighty God. With every breath and every step he took, flooded with temptation from every side, Christ never sinned, never failed to do all that pleased his Father. He accomplished all that he was given to do (John 17:4). And he did all this for us, on our behalf. He places himself before us as the only one in whom we must trust, looking away from ourselves completely, putting confidence only in him for our standing before God. Jesus is telling us that in and of ourselves all we have is despair; but we are not left hopeless, because he is our hope—our only hope.
Jesus’ words, as all the Bible, are a two-edged sword, condemning all self-righteousness and justifying the ungodly who believe. Only in light of these two things that Jesus is doing in the Sermon on the Mount – the same thing he does in all his teaching, what all the Scriptures are doing – can we then look at how Jesus calls those who believe in him to live in light of such a great salvation. We can only look at what the Sermon on the Mount says to “do” in light of what Christ has already “done” perfectly on our behalf and in our place. Only in looking to his cross can we then take up our own crosses with confidence by the power of the Spirit (Luke 14:27).
This is certainly not all that is unique about Jesus, but it is at the heart of what is unique about what Jesus has done in life and death and beyond, all done for us. His blood cleanses us from all our sin, and his life of perfect goodness gives us confidence before almighty God. In him we live not to sin but to God. Buddha, Confucius, and Mohamed don’t offer any of this—no gospel, just endless variations of law with no power to save. The unique gospel of Jesus Christ is the only power of God for the salvation of all who believe, and he is faithful and just to do it.