The gospels, now proven to be first-rate historical documents, record what Jesus of Nazareth said and did during his brief time on earth. The second premise in the argument for inerrancy is that Jesus claimed and proved to be nothing less than God in flesh. What is the data to support the truth of this second premise?
Many have opinions about who Jesus of Nazareth was. The list includes:
“Jesus was a great prophet and teacher.”
“Jesus was a great religious leader.”
“Jesus was the Son of God but not actually God.”
“Jesus was a part of God but not God.”
“Jesus was greater than other humans but less than God—much like angels.”
All these opinions differ from who Jesus himself claimed he was. In one way or another they say he was in some way less than the eternal, all-powerful, all-knowing God who exists necessarily and is the source and sustainer of all else. Each of these opinions misunderstands or misconstrues Jesus’ clear statements of who he understood himself to be.
It is of critical importance to get this right. If Jesus did not claim to be God and prove this was so, we cannot take his view of Scripture as authoritative.
We must first establish that Jesus actually claimed to be God. Once established, we must go on to determine if he provided adequate evidence to substantiate this claim. This week I’ll discuss the first of these issues: evidence that Jesus did, in fact, claim to be God.
Jesus’ Direct Claims to be God
Several times Jesus makes direct and undeniable claims that he is nothing less than the eternal God of the universe. One such passage is John 8:57-59. In a discussion with Jewish leaders over his identity, Jesus says Abraham “rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad.” (8:56) The Jewish leaders understood him to say he had some type of a personal relationship with Abraham, their ancestor. None of them claimed such a relationship, as they were all born many generations later. So they responded, “You are not yet fifty years old, and you have seen Abraham!” (8:57) To be sure they were not missing his point, Jesus then made the claim even more explicitly: “Very truly I tell you, before Abraham was born, I am!” (8:58) At this point the Jewish leaders tried to kill him for making such an egregious claim.
How were they so sure this was a claim to be God? The answer is in the words “I am” This was the title God used of himself when talking to Moses in the “burning bush” recorded in Exodus 3:13-14:
Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’”
Due to Moses’ encounter with God here, this became one of the names the Jewish nation used for God—the great “I AM.” It carried with it the connotation that their God did not come to be at some point in the past—He exists eternally. And here was this uppity young Jesus, saying he was this eternal “I AM”! Such an outrageous claim to be the eternal God could not be tolerated. He must be put to death immediately! This is the first clear and direct claim by Jesus to be God.
A second direct claim is found in John 10. Again Jesus was in a discussion with the Jewish leaders over his identity (this was a huge issue for them, and rightly so)! Jesus blatantly says, “I and the Father are one.” (10:30). The Jewish leaders react the same way as they had earlier—they “picked up stones to stone him.” (8:31). Jesus challenged them as to why they wanted to stone him: “I have shown you many great miracles from the Father. For which of these do you stone me?” (8:32). The Jewish leaders’ reaction is telling, leaving no doubt what they understood Jesus to be saying: “We are not stoning you for any of these, but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God." (8:33).
An important part of interpreting a text is to understand how the original hearers would have interpreted it. In this case, they tell us how to interpret his claim to be “one” with the Father. It is a claim to be one in essence—to be the very same being as the Father. They have no doubt Jesus is claiming to be the Eternal, Holy, Self-Existing, Omnipotent, Omniscient, Omnibenevolent God of all Creation. And for this they must stone him.
Interestingly, some argue that Jesus is not claiming here to be one in essence with God, but only one in purpose, as we are all one in purpose with God when we do His will. The interpretation of the first hearers shows this is not what Jesus is claiming. They, too, were all “one” with God in purpose. Such a claim did not constitute grounds for a stoning. Only the claim to be one with God in essence would cause the Jews to try killing Jesus on the spot. (See also John 5:18: “For this reason they tried all the more to kill him; not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.”)
In Matthew’s gospel we find Jesus making several other direct claims to deity. In Matthew 18:20 he promises his followers “…where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” Think if I said that to you. You would think I was crazy! How can I be everywhere two or three people get together because of me? I could only do that if I were infinite—able to be everywhere at once. But only God is infinite. Jesus is claiming he, too, is infinite. Therefore he is claiming he is God. (A similar claim is made in Matthew 28:20: “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”)
Jesus’ Indirect Claims to be God
He forgave sin
Mark 2:5-7 records Jesus’ interaction with a paralytic:
When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Now some teachers of the law were sitting there, thinking to themselves, “Why does this fellow talk like that? He's blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?”
Jesus forgives this man’s sin. Think about that for a moment. Sin is ultimately against God, so only God can forgive sin. Jesus believes he has the right, as the one sinned against, to forgive this man’s sin. He is clearly indicating he believed he is God. The religious leaders’ reaction confirms this—they understand that only God can forgive sin!
He Accepted Worship
It was clear to Jews of Jesus’ day, as it is clear to us today, that only God is to be worshipped. This is made explicit in Exodus 20:1-6 (the beginning of the “Ten Commandments”):
And God spoke all these words: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand [generations] of those who love me and keep my commandments.”
Jesus himself reiterates this command in Matthew 4:10, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.”
But Jesus turns right around and allows others to worship him! For instance, in Matthew 14:32-33, during a storm on the Sea of Galilee, “…when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down. Then those who were in the boat worshipped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’” By accepting their worship he is strongly communicating, in this highly monotheistic culture, that he believed himself to be God and thus the one worthy of their worship. (For another example see John 9:38.)
He Applied God’s Titles to Himself
Jesus often uses or accepts titles reserved for use of God alone. For instance, there are many prophecies in the Hebrew Scriptures promising a coming Messiah who will rescue God’s people. This Messiah is to be born as a child but will be the eternal God, as we read in Isaiah 9:6: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (Italics added)
Jesus is not shy about identifying himself as this promised Messiah. For instance, consider his conversation with his disciple Peter (Matt. 16:13-17):
When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven.”
Other titles of deity he uses of himself are “the Christ” (Mark 14:61), “Lord” (Matt. 3:3), “Son of God” (Jn. 5:18), “Son of Man” (Mark 10:45, cf. Daniel 7:13-14), and “Bridegroom” (Matt. 9:15; cf. Hosea 2:19-20 and Ez. 16:38ff).
The data overwhelmingly supports the fact that Jesus claimed to be God in flesh. Perhaps C.S. Lewis put it best when he summarized:
I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: “I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.” . . . let us not come up with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. (C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, p. 56)
Yet so far this only shows Jesus claimed to be God. I have yet to show he proved these claims are true. I’ll dive into that next week.
Until then, grace and peace.
For further reading I suggest Tim Keller’s Jesus the King: Understanding the Life and Death of the Son of God