On a trip to Caesarea Philippi with His disciples, Jesus struck up a conversation about who people believed He was. After some discussion about how Jerusalem perceived Him, Jesus asked them the most critical question, "Who do you say that I am?" (Mark 8:27–30 (NIV).
What we believe about Jesus's identity has dramatic implications for understanding the gospel. Was Jesus merely a good guy with a strong connection to God? If so, the Gospels are a tale about an influential man suffering a tragic fate—from which he somehow recovered. But if Jesus is God—as Christians have believed since the first century—it becomes a potent story about just how far our Creator is willing to go to rescue His creation.
Who was Jesus? To answer this question, we have to take a close look at the Gospels. Let’s start by examining what Jesus said about Himself.
Did Jesus claim to be God?
To get to the bottom of Christ’s identity, we need to start with Jesus' own words. Did He claim to be to be God, or was that something that was foisted upon Him by His followers?
1. Christ judges the nations
Jesus often established Himself as the judge of the nations. First-century Hebrews would have clearly understood this to mean that Jesus considered Himself equal with God.
"When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
"Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.'
"Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?'
"The King will reply, 'Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.'
"Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.' They also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?'
"He will reply, 'Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.' Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life" (Matthew 25:31–46).
Jesus often taught in parables, which are short stories designed to illustrate a dramatic point. And while He didn't intend His listeners to attach meaning to every element of a parable, this story has a particularly curious feature: Jesus uses it to identify Himself as the earth's judge.
The parable of the sheep and the goat is intended to show us how God identifies with the weak and powerless. But instead of making God the central character of the story, He centers the story around "the Son of Man"—a term Jesus only used about Himself (Matthew. 8:20, 18:11; Mark 10:35–45).
There is no question that Jesus is ascribing to Himself all the characteristics that the Jews would have attributed to God:
- He comes in glory.
- He’s surrounded by angels.
- He’s seated on a glorious throne.
- He’s referred to as “the King.”
- He gathers all the nations before Him.
- He judges/separates them.
- He makes proclamations regarding their eternal destinies.
All of these details make it difficult to overlook the fact that Christ's parable positions Himself as God.
2. Christ forgives sin
Only God has the power and the right to forgive sins, and in Scripture we find Jesus claiming that right for His own.
"A few days later, when Jesus again entered Capernaum, the people heard that he had come home. They gathered in such large numbers that there was no room left, not even outside the door, and he preached the word to them. Some men came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. Since they could not get him to Jesus because of the crowd, they made an opening in the roof above Jesus by digging through it and then lowered the mat the man was lying on.
When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralyzed man, '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?'" (Mark 2:1–7)
To an Israelite, all sin was first an infraction against God. That’s why when David cries out to God in Psalm 51 over his sin against Bathsheba and Uriah, he says, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight” (Psalm 51:4).
This idea that all sin is a sin against God is what makes Jesus' response to the paralytic so intriguing. This man has done nothing to Jesus. There's nothing that Jesus would need to pardon. Yet, Jesus does so. No one even mentions sins, and Jesus wipes the man's slate clean.
The way the teachers of the law respond tells us everything we need to know about the implications. Jesus forgives the paralytic as if He is God.
3. Jesus makes Himself equal with God
The Jews placed a clear boundary between themselves and God. They considered God's name too holy to speak out loud. Jesus didn't seem to respect those boundaries, but even seemed to speak as if He was God’s peer.
"So, because Jesus was doing these things on the Sabbath, the Jewish leaders began to persecute him. In his defense Jesus said to them, 'My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working.' 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" (John 5:16–18).
It's sometimes difficult to understand what Jesus is insinuating in many of His comments. Thankfully, we can learn a lot by observing the reactions of the people around Him. Any question about the implication of Christ’s comments is evident in the way the Jewish leaders respond to Him.
4. Jesus establishes His authority
One of the chief jobs that was God's alone was the final judgment of the dead. Here we see Jesus claiming that assignment as His own.
"Very truly I tell you, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live. For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself. And he has given him authority to judge because he is the Son of Man.
Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out—those who have done what is good will rise to live, and those who have done what is evil will rise to be condemned" (John 5:25–29, NIV).
As the Jewish leaders begin to persecute Jesus for the things He's doing and saying, He doesn't apologize or backtrack. In fact, He doubles down on His comments. Not only does His oneness with the Father require that He work on the Sabbath, but a time is coming when the dead will rise to be judged by Jesus, the Son of Man.
5. Jesus claims He came before Abraham
It would be absurd for anyone in the first century to claim to know the Old Testament prophets and luminaries, yet when the Jewish leaders mistake Jesus for doing that with Abraham, He tells them that He preceded Abraham.
"Jesus replied, 'If I glorify myself, my glory means nothing. My Father, whom you claim as your God, is the one who glorifies me. Though you do not know him, I know him. If I said I did not, I would be a liar like you, but I do know him and obey his word. Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad.'
'You are not yet fifty years old,' they said to him, 'and you have seen Abraham!'
'Very truly I tell you,' Jesus answered, 'before Abraham was born, I am!' At this, they picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus hid himself, slipping away from the temple grounds" (John 8:54–59).
In another altercation over His authority, Jesus tells the teachers of the law that Abraham looked forward to His arrival. Since there are at least 41 generations separating Abraham and Jesus, the Jewish leaders don't understand what He's saying. It doesn't immediately register that He's speaking about prophecies Abraham received regarding the coming Messiah.
When the leaders scoff, Jesus not only makes the outlandish claim that He's been around since before Abraham's birth, but He also invokes the name God gave Himself when He spoke to Moses from the burning bush: "I AM."
Did the apostles think Jesus was God?
It's one thing that Jesus claimed to be God, but it's probably essential to figure out if the people in His inner circle believed Him. So, the next question we have to ask ourselves is, "Did the apostles think that Jesus was God?" And when you begin to look at the evidence, you discover that Jesus' disciples and the New Testament writers did.
1. John believes Jesus created the universe
"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made" (John 1:1–3).
Like the other three Gospels, John's Gospel tells the story of Christ's ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection. But John kicks his book off by giving you his conclusion:
- Jesus is the Word (logos) of God—the very expression of who God is.
- He's eternal.
- There is nothing that wasn't created by or through Him.
2. Paul believed that Christ was self-existent
"For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him" (Colossians 1:16).
In words that echo John, Paul talks about Jesus as a creative force, but there’s another element at play here, too. Not only has all of this been created through Him, but it's also been created for Him. He exists apart from His creation, which exists to bring Him joy.
The writer of Hebrews echoes similar sentiments:
"In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe" (Hebrews 1:1–2).
3. Peter believed Jesus was sovereign
"It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at God's right hand—with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him" (1 Peter 3:21b–22).
To the apostles, the resurrection was proof that Jesus was the universe’s ultimate authority. Everything in heaven and earth is submissive to Him. This is very similar to the vision that the apostle John received of a glorified Jesus:
"I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and wages war. His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself. He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. Coming out of his mouth is a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. 'He will rule them with an iron scepter.' He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written:
KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORD
"And I saw an angel standing in the sun, who cried in a loud voice to all the birds flying in midair, 'Come, gather together for the great supper of God, so that you may eat the flesh of kings, generals, and the mighty, of horses and their riders, and the flesh of all people, free and slave, great and small'" (Revelation 19:11–18).
4. Thomas became convinced Jesus was God
"Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, 'We have seen the Lord!'
"But he said to them, 'Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.'
"A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, 'Peace be with you!' Then he said to Thomas, 'Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.'
"Thomas said to him, 'My Lord and my God'" (John 20:24–28)!
Thomas' doubts are completely understandable. He witnessed Jesus' death but wasn't with the rest of the disciples when the resurrected Jesus made His first appearance (John 20:24). But the moment he touched the risen Lord’s wounds, his reaction was immediate. Jesus simply had to be God. There was no other explanation.
Peter came to a similar conclusion about Jesus:
"Simon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ, to those who through the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ have received a faith as precious as ours" (2 Peter 1:1).
These sentiments are echoed in Paul’s words to Titus:
"For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ" (Titus 2:11–13).
Christ's divinity wasn't an invention of the church
You don’t have to look too hard to see where the idea that Jesus was God originated, the idea shows up throughout the New Testament. It's clear that Jesus considered Himself God and expected His followers to respond in kind, even asking them to pray in His name!
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