23 September 2013

The Greatest Human ever?

by Dr Philip Church

The recent rugby test at Eden Park between the All Blacks and the Springboks lived up to its advance hype, and once again the Springboks left Eden Park having come second. For the All Blacks it was probably a bit of a hollow victory, given some of the bizarre rulings from the officials. In the lead up to the game I was interested to read a column in the NZ Herald by Kevin Putt, former rugby player, now employed by Kings College (p. A15, 12 Sept 2013). He was writing about the respect that South African rugby followers have for New Zealand, and the desire that the Springboks have to win again at Eden Park. As he reflected on the upcoming game he looked back to what he considers to be the “greatest All Black-Springbok game ever played,” the 1995 World Cup final, and of course the subsequent film (he did omit to mention Suzie, and her impact on the result). What caused me to prick up my ears though, were the reasons he suggested were behind the making of the film. He noted that the game unified a nation, but more significantly, the film depicted the person who was probably “the greatest human ever ... Nelson Mandela.” Now that is pretty high praise.

Certainly Mandela has had a huge influence for good, dismantling the legacy of apartheid and fostering an atmosphere of reconciliation. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, and was awarded the US Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Order of Canada and the Soviet Order of Lenin. The Queen awarded him the Bailiff Grand Cross of the Order of St. John and the Order of Merit. According to Newsweek he is the “national liberator” of South Africa ... its Washington and Lincoln rolled into one” (26 August 2009). The UN even dubbed his birthday as “Mandela Day.”

Great and all that this is, however, there may be others who qualify to be called the greatest human being ever. In modern times I think of Mother Teresa, also awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (1979). Mother Teresa founded the Missionaries of Charity with over 4,500 sisters in over 100 countries. She has been beatified by the Catholic Church, and is on the way to sainthood. I expect many Catholic Christians might like to see her alongside Mandela for this award (if award it is). Moving away from recent times I think of such figures as Luther and Calvin, and Aquinas, also people of great influence, although quite a different sort of influence. And since greatness is probably in the eye of the beholder, I suspect that over one billion Muslims might want to see Mohammed in the list of people vying for the award.

But what about people from ancient times? According to Sirach 49:14-16,

Few have ever been created on earth like Enoch, for he was taken up from the earth. Nor was anyone ever born like Joseph; even his bones were cared for. Shem and Seth and Enosh were honored, but above every other created living being was Adam.

Other ancients that might be considered are Noah, Moses, Joshua, David and Solomon, of course, not to mention, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel. The list could go on, and (like the author of Hebrews), “time would fail me” to talk of the Beloved Disciple of Jesus, and Paul the Apostle, or even the author of Hebrews himself.

But all these, and many others who could be added to the list would defer to Jesus of Nazareth. James Allan Francis put it like this in 1926,

​He was born in an obscure village, the child of a peasant woman. He grew up in still another village, where he worked in a carpenter shop until he was thirty. Then for three years he was an itinerant preacher. He never wrote a book. He never held an office. He never had a family or owned a house. He didn't go to college. He never travelled more than 200 miles from the place he was born. He did none of the things one usually associates with greatness. He had no credentials but himself. He was only thirty-three when public opinion turned against him. His friends deserted him. He was turned over to his enemies and went through the mockery of a trial. He was nailed to a cross between two thieves. When he was dying, his executioners gambled for his clothing, the only property he had on earth. When he was dead, he was laid in a borrowed grave through the pity of a friend. Nineteen centuries have come and gone, and today he is the central figure of the human race, the leader of mankind's progress. All the armies that ever marched, all the navies that ever sailed, all the parliaments that ever sat, all the kings that ever reigned, put together, have not affected the life of man on earth as much as that one solitary life.

Now I am not sure where Francis was coming from, but a rather glaring omission from all this is any reference to the resurrection of Jesus, his exaltation to the right hand of God and the hope of his return. This is where the NT speaks most eloquently about his greatness.

Two texts come to mind. Philippians 2:9 reminds us that Jesus has been given the “the name above every name” and Heb 1:1-4 that he has sat down at the right hand of God, and the measure of his superiority to the angels is the superior name he has been given. The actual “name” in this text is debated, but I think it is “Lord” as in Phil 2:10, where every tongue will confess that “Jesus Christ (the man who humbled himself and died on a cross) is Lord.” Hebrews 2:5-9 goes along the same path proclaiming that Jesus, a true human (one made a little lower than the angels) is now “crowned with glory and honour because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone (Heb 2:9).” Giving him the name “Lord” is identifying him with the Yahweh of the OT. Jesus, the human now sits alongside God on the throne of God, and is to be honoured as God. Truly this makes him the greatest human ever.

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