Over 800 churches in the Chicago area are taking on seven big questions in a series of discussions over the course of seven weeks. (See exploreGod) The big question this week – Is Jesus God? – is the subject of this piece. I introduced the question in a preliminary blog post (Is Jesus God? Part 1). I will get into the specifics of what Jesus said about himself in this piece followed by what others in his time said about him. (Is Jesus God? Part 3)
There are people who say that Jesus didn’t, in fact, claim to be God. One friend of mine, asked recently, “Jesus was a Jew, right? Didn’t he preach Judaism?” He was suggesting that people took what Jesus said out of context and ran with it, creating a new religion that Jesus didn’t even intend.
I believe my friend is partially right – that Jesus was a Jew, and he came first to the Jews, but that wasn’t his end goal. (See John 1:11-12; John 10:16; see also Got Questions) If we understand the sweep of the Bible, Old Testament through the New Testament, we see that the Jews and Judaism were the platform and the stage on which God could engage with His creation and demonstrate to the world who He is, but the climactic event in that drama was the life, death and resurrection of Jesus for the salvation of all the world.
Of course, Christians believe Jesus was God in the flesh, but, I am getting ahead of myself. The only goal of this piece is to explore the what Jesus claimed about himself, and what other people in his time claimed about him?
On the first point (what Jesus said about himself) we look to the Gospels. I am not contending (here) that the Gospels are historically reliable or accurate, and I am not addressing who wrote them or when they were written. There is plenty of scholarly literature and analysis of that elsewhere. (I believe the evidence shows that they were written by close associates of Jesus within the generation after he died, and they have a high degree of historical authenticity, accuracy and reliability.)
While there are other gospels that some contend should be counted in the canon, I focus only on the four canonical Gospels because they are the most accepted and the least problematic in terms of authorship, historicity, reliability and, therefore, authenticity. They are the earliest expressions of what Jesus said and what others said about him.
Before getting into what Jesus said, however, I should note some of the things he did because they speak as loudly as his words.
That Jesus was well-known for the miracles he did, is implied in this opening address to a crowd in Jerusalem by Peter: “Fellow Israelites, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know.” According to his followers, the miracles, signs and wonders were God’s stamp of approval on what Jesus said.
Of course, the Gospels and other biblical accounts attest to numerous miracles, signs and wonders that Jesus performed. But not just the Bible, others wrote of the miraculous works Jesus was known for, even some non-Christian sources. Josephus, for instance, referred to the “wonderful works” or startling deeds” that Jesus did. The Talmud calls those works sorcery, magic and evil, but (in doing so) acknowledges that Jesus was known for what he did. (See Is there historical evidence of Jesus’ miracles?) The point here isn’t whether Jesus did perform miracles, but that people acknowledged that he did.
So what did Jesus say?
This is not intended to be an exhaustive catalog of the things Jesus said or implied about himself. You might do some exploring and determine for yourself what you think Jesus was saying. In that sense, this will be food for future thought.
One thing to note is that Jesus progressed in what he said about himself. He spoke often in parables, but he got more pointed in what he was saying as time went on. At one point his own brothers challenged him to appear publicly in Jerusalem, daring him to broadcast more openly what he was saying (because they didn’t believe him at that point), (John 7:4-5), but Jesus responded that his time hadn’t come. (John 7:6)
This may explain why he wasn’t more direct in what he said about himself, especially early on. We understand from this that timing was important. We see that the progression involved an increasing openness and boldness that ultimately lead to his death. It isn’t a stretch of the imagination to understand that greater boldness early on may have lead to a much earlier death. (I will get into what the Jews said about Jesus and why they wanted to stone him for blasphemy in the next blog piece.)
One important thing to note is that more direct statements about who he was likely would have gotten Jesus killed much sooner. Though his public ministry was short (about three years), it would have been much shorter if he had been more direct and more open any sooner in that span of his public life.
Still, I think it’s hard to mistake what Jesus was saying about himself. One of those statements that almost got Jesus killed on the spot was referenced in the introductory blog post: “I and the Father are one.” (John 10:30) Another statement that triggered the same reaction (picking up stones to kill him) is a bit more nuanced, but much more telling.
To set up what Jesus said, we have to look through a Jewish lens. According to the Scripture, Moses received the Law of God and gave it to the people. Moses stood in the very presence of God. When Moses first encountered God, Moses was a reluctant conscript in God’s purposes. He had been ostracized from his fellow Jews for decades. He said they wouldn’t believe him, so he asked, who should I say is sending me to them; what is your name? To this question, God responded,
“I AM WHO I AM.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.” Ex. 3:13-15)
This “name of God” was sacred to the Jews – I AM that I AM. God was the great I AM to the Jews. Nothing could be more sacred or more symbolic of God to the Jews than this phrase.
Given that context, how then are we to understand this interchange with Jesus?
“Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad.” The Jews therefore said to Him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have You seen Abraham?” Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I AM.” Therefore they picked up stones to throw at Him; but Jesus hid Himself, and went out of the temple.” (John 8:56-59)
Not only did Jesus claim in this statement to exist before Abraham, the father of the Jewish faith, but he used the sacred name of God for himself – the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Yahweh, the only true God. “Before Abraham was born, I AM”
It’s no wonder they responded by picking up stones to stone him. They knew exactly what he was saying. What he was saying was blasphemy to them!
Jesus made many other claims about himself that equated himself with God. He said, for instance, that he has the authority to forgive sins. And when people didn’t believe him (because only God has that authority), Jesus asked them whether it was harder to say that he forgives sins or to heal. Then, in a demonstration of his authority, Jesus he healed the man he had forgiven for good measure. (Mark 2:5-7)
Jesus said that he answers prayers. (John 14:13-14) He said, “All that belongs to the Father is mine.” (John 16:15) He said that he will come again in glory with the angels to judge the nations. (Matthew 25:31-46) Who says these things?!
Jesus said, “I am the Christ, the Son of the Blessed.” (Mark 14:61) Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life and no one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)
Jesus said that he has the authority to raise people from the dead (John 5:25-29), and he demonstrated that authority by raising people from the dead. (See Luke 7:11-17 (a widow’s son); Luke 8:49-56 (a synagogue leader’s son); John 11:1-44 (Lazarus)) And, if we believe his own words, Jesus raised himself from the dead:
“As the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom he will. For the Father . . . has given all judgment to the Son.” (John 21-22)
“Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up… “He was speaking about the temple of his body” (John 2:19, 21)
Jesus said, “I am the first and the last.” (Rev. 1:17; 22-13). This statement is significant, again, because this exact statement is something that God says of himself through the prophet Isaiah: “I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god.” (Isaiah 44:6)
These things that Jesus said are all the more significant considering that Jesus affirmed the age old words of Moses, “You shall worship the Lord your God and serve him only.” (Luke 4:8, quoting Deut. 6:13) That statement may not seem indicative of a claim that Jesus was making about himself, but the fact that he said it is significant in light of how others reacted to Jesus and what they said about him.
Remember that affirmation Jesus makes about worshiping and serving God only as we move to the next blog piece in the series – Is Jesus God? Part 3. We will consider how others perceived what Jesus was saying about himself, both his followers and those who opposed him.
Recounting what Jesus said about himself, what do you think? Was Jesus claiming to be God? That is the very question Jesus put to his disciples when he said, “Who do you say that I am?”