Someone said to me this week, “Jesus claimed to be the Son of God but as any critical thinker would agree, that phrase is not supposed to be taken literally. What he meant was, we are ALL derived from God.”
I’ve got a few friends who will readily concede to me that “Yes Stuart, Jesus was a great man. But that’s as far as it goes.” That got me to thinking. Does any evidence exist in the Gospel texts to suggest that Jesus believed himself to be God himself?
I think there is – and as I lay this out, I’m adapting an argument made first by J. Warner Wallace.
Lots of evidence exists in the new Testament Gospels to suggest that Jesus of Nazareth believed himself to be God. Yet so many people in the 21st century can miss this evidence. Why? I think there are three good reasons
1 – because many people make the mistake of judging Jesus without reading what the Bible says about him.
2 – because the Gospels are ancient documents written at a specific place and time in history. The words aren’t timeless in themselves (although many of the truths expressed thru the words are). The words themselves actually make sense in the context of that 1st century Jewish culture.
3 – because a lot (tho not all) of Jesus claims to divinity are TACIT CLAIMS. In other words – the claim was understood by his 1st century hearers as implied without being completely and overtly stated. If these claims are implied to 1st century hearers…we need to do a little bit of work to “get them” in the 21st century in a completely different culture.
So what statements does Jesus make – as part of his teaching – that 1st century hearers understood to mean he was implying that he was God himself?
FIRST – Jesus made Statements related to his Place of Origin.
Have you ever had an inspiring mentor or teacher? They are good things to have in life. Our mentors and teachers have – I suspect – always been of the same kind of stuff as us. Flawed, gifted human beings. Yet Jesus taught that he was distinct from his hearers.
Jesus continued, “You are from below; I am from above. You belong to this world; I do not. 24 That is why I said that you will die in your sins; for unless you believe that I am who I claim to be,[a] you will die in your sins.” John 8:23-24
Jesus answered, “My Kingdom is not an earthly kingdom. If it were, my followers would fight to keep me from being handed over to the Jewish leaders. But my Kingdom is not of this world.”
Pilate said, “So you are a king?”
Jesus responded, “You say I am a king. Actually, I was born and came into the world to testify to the truth. All who love the truth recognize that what I say is true.” John 18:36-37
What I’m saying here is that Jesus was a unique teacher – not just for his wisdom and insight. But also because he distanced himself from his audience.
SECOND – Jesus made statements about his Position and Authority
What we see time and again in the gospels, is his tendency to teach about his divine position and his authority. He made statements that point to him having authority over his hearers.
“The Son of Man will send his angels…” Matthew 13:41.
This is an interesting one – the name Son of Man was often used by Jesus to refer to himself…and it builds into the case I am making here – because altho it sounds like a pretty mundane title to our ears (aren’t we all sons of men?) to 1st century Jewish ears it pointed to a prophecy from the Prophet Daniel who speaks of the son of man coming on the clouds of heaven…given authority and rule over the whole world. His hearers understood what he was linking himself to…and they didn’t like it one bit. You can read about that encounter in Matthew 26:64.
“I tell you the truth, everyone who acknowledges me publicly here on earth, the Son of Man[a] will also acknowledge in the presence of God’s angels. 9 But anyone who denies me here on earth will be denied before God’s angels. Luke 12:8-9.
So here the angels belong to God…but in our previous quote…the angels belong to Jesus. This would be inappropriate unless Jesus and God were one and the same.
Jesus told him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me. 7 If you had really known me, you would know who my Father is.[a] From now on, you do know him and have seen him!”
Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.”
Jesus replied, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and yet you still don’t know who I am? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father! So why are you asking me to show him to you? John 14:6-9
He has talked about the Angels being his…now he is claiming to his followers that….anyone who has seen him has seen God himself.
Jesus replied, “All who love me will do what I say. My Father will love them, and we will come and make our home with each of them. John 14:23
Increasingly we are seeing where a Trinitarian understanding of God comes from in Scripture. We don’t have the Holy Spirit mentioned here…but the father and the Son are one and the same…yet distinct somehow.
THIRD – Jesus Made Statements about his Equality with God
Jesus replied, “I have already told you, and you don’t believe me. The proof is the work I do in my Father’s name. 26 But you don’t believe me because you are not my sheep. My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one can snatch them away from me, for my Father has given them to me, and he is more powerful than anyone else.[a] No one can snatch them from the Father’s hand. John 10:25-29
Whose hand are we talking about here – Jesus…God’s…? Who is giving eternal life? God the Father…Jesus? The two are enmeshed together somehow. Jesus and God are the same yet distinct persons.
FOURTH – Jesus never speaks “for God” he always speaks for himself.
At the time of the Old Testament, you had guys going around saying lots of challenging things. Isaiah…Jerimiah. And sometimes they would say something like…that’s what I think…but here is God’s actual words. We see it in phrases like, “This is what the sovereign LORD says”, or “This is what the LORD says”
Fast forward a few hundred years to Jesus time. The people at the time held him up to be a teacher and a prophet. But the irony is, Jesus (who knew the Old Testament tradition backwards and forwards) never used the approach of the Old Testament prophets in his teaching. He never said…”This is what the Lord says”. Instead – he said things like this.
“I tell you the truth, unless you are born again…” John 3:3
“But I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away…” John 16:7
Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” John 23:42-43
And on and on it goes thru the gospels. Jesus speaks for himself as a prophet from God. How impertinent! But not if he is actually who he says he is – GOD.
FIFTH – One day he DID come right out and say the 1st century equivalent to “I AM GOD”
And we can tell that this is what happened based on the reaction of his audience at the time.
His words here would be understood by his 1st century hearers in the context of Exodus 3:14 where the patriarch Moses meets God at the burning bush. And God commissions Moses to free the Israelite people from the Egyptian Pharaoh. And Moses – slightly nervous no doubt – asks who is sending me? And the reply comes.
God replied to Moses, “I am who i am.[d] Say this to the people of Israel: I am has sent me to you.” Exodus 3:14
Okay – that’s the backstory.
John’s gospel reports that one day before a crowd…he gets very specific about his identity with them. And culturally his hearers understood him.
Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, before Abraham was even born, I am! John 8:58
Jesus is calling himself by the sacred name that Moses received back in the Exodus 3 days. And we know that his hearers got his meaning…cos they heard it as blasphemy and decided to punish Jesus for it!
At that point they picked up stones to throw at him. But Jesus was hidden from them and left the Temple. John 8:59
While Jesus was often tacit in his admissions about his identity…sometimes he was very explicit…with his “I AM” statement and his “Son of Man” identity.
In summary – there is a powerful cumulative case emerging here.
If we accept Jesus as a great teacher – then we also have to look seriously at his claims of identity. Jesus claimed that he and God were one. And – we see that the intensely mono-theistic Jews who he was speaking to…who could not think of adopting the heresy of polytheism…began to worship Jesus themselves.
“My Lord and my God!” Thomas exclaimed. John 20:28
Why were the comfortable doing that? Because they intuitively got that…God the Father and God the Son were both persons of the one Godhead.