Did Jesus Claim to be God?

A Fishing Boat on the Sea of Galilee

One of the popular ways that many scholars reject Christianity is to say that Jesus never claimed to be God.  Instead, they say, the early church “made” him into a god.  Jesus, they say, was a popular rabbi—nothing more.  One version of this theory, which is popular in Israel, is that it was the apostle Paul who turned Jesus into a god.  These scholars claim that in the first three gospels, Jesus never says that he is God.  Only later were these claims “added,” as in the gospel of John, which was written later than the others. 

Arguments of this kind are nothing new.  The religion of Islam proposed its own good Jesus, bad Christian approach more than a thousand years ago.  Mohammed accepted Jesus as a prophet and miracle worker, but not as God.  Christians, he claimed, had changed the Injil (the Gospel). 

Cults like the Jehovah's Witnesses are willing to accept a little more:  they accept Jesus as an angel, but not as God.  The Mormons go even further:  they accept Jesus as a god, but not as the one true God.  They believe that the Father and the Son were originally people like us on another planet who became gods. 

As you can see, whether Jesus is really God or not is an important issue.  The idea that Jesus is in some mysterious way the one true God of the universe sets Christianity apart from all the other religions of the world.  As someone once observed, every other major religion claims that its founder shows the way to God.  Only Christianity claims that its founder is God.

Those who say that Christians invented the idea that Jesus is God face a difficult problem:  Christianity started among the Jewish people, and was for many years mostly a Jewish religion.  The gospel was first preached only to Jews (“...speaking the Word to no one except to Jews alone,” Acts 11:19).  Gentiles didn't become a majority in the Church until the 2nd century.  By this time, the doctrine of Jesus' divinity was well established, and continued to be taught by Jewish Christians long after the Jewish and Gentile branches of the Church split (in the 2nd century).  The divinity of Jesus is therefore clearly a Jewish Christian teaching.

But of all the religious groups in the world, the Jews were the least likely to invent this idea:  most of them continue to resist it today.  The Jewish religion is the most pure form of monotheism the world has ever known.  It is this core belief that put them in opposition to the pagan world around them, and contributed to the destructive wars that drove them from Israel and scattered them around the world, where many remain today. 

And of all the different groups within Judaism, the Pharisees are perhaps the last place to look for the creation of a divine Jesus.  They opposed the idea from the beginning.  Yet Paul was a Pharisee, not only before he accepted Jesus as Messiah, but also afterwards.  As he cried out before the Sanhedrin Council, the highest legislative council of the Jews, “I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees!” (Acts 23:6).  How could Paul the Pharisee accept the idea that a man was actually God—or to put the Christian belief more correctly, that God had taken on flesh, and walked among us? 

According to the New Testament, it wasn't easy.  Paul, known originally as Saul, traveled the region arresting and imprisoning believers in Jesus (Acts 8:1-3).  He started doing this soon after hearing Stephen's claim to see Jesus standing at the right hand of God when he spoke before the Sanhedrin Council (“and he said, ‘Look, I see the heavens opened up and the Son of Man standing at the right of God,’” Acts 7:56).  In a Jewish context, this was a claim that Jesus was God, which was considered a blasphemy by the Council and which caused them to drag Stephen outside of the city and stone him to death (Acts 7:56-58).

Even Jesus' disciples were at first resistant to this idea.  Once in Capernaum, when Jesus claimed to be sent from heaven (“I am the living bread that has descended from heaven...” John 6:51), many of his disciples rejected him and left (“Because of this, many of his disciples went back and no longer went around with him,” John 6:66).  Even after the resurrection, there were some who doubted (“And when they saw him, they prostrated before him, but some doubted,” Matt. 28:17).  This was just not the kind of teaching that could easily come from the Jewish people.

Recent scroll discoveries have shown that in the years just before the time of Jesus, many people expected the Messiah to have god-like qualities.  There are even traces of this in some of the early rabbinical writings.  But the jump from this to actually being God was a big one.  Something almost irresistible had to happen to convince them that Jesus was God. 

It was not Jesus' miracles:  many miracle workers had appeared in Israel both in ancient history and near to the time of Jesus.  Choni the Circle Drawer had appeared just before the time of Jesus.  Every time he prayed for rain, it rained.  But none of these other miracle workers was ever thought to be God. 

It was not even Jesus' resurrection.  Others had been raised from the dead, like Lazarus, and even ascended into heaven, like Elijah.  The thing that made Jesus unique was that he alone claimed to be God, a claim that was supported both by his miracles and the long list of prophecies that he fulfilled.  As the blind man healed by Jesus said, “If this man were not from God, he could do nothing” (John 9:33). 

But if Jesus' claims to be God are so important, why are they missing from the first three gospels?  In fact, they're not missing.  It’s just that they’re presented in Jewish thought forms that non-Jews—including many scholars—often misunderstand.

Look for example at Jesus’ teaching about Psalm 110, one of the psalms of David.  Jesus was talking to the Pharisees when he said, “‘What do you think about the Messiah?  Whose son is he?’  They said to him, ‘The son of David’” (Matt. 22:42).  Here they use the word “son” in the Hebrew sense of being a descendant of someone.  And this was an easy answer:  everyone expected the Messiah to be descended from King David.  In many of the prophets, the Messiah is simply called “David” in the sense of a new David. 

But then “He said to them, ‘Then how does David in the Spirit call him lord, saying, “The Lord said to my lord, ‘Sit at my right until I put your enemies under your feet”’” (Matt. 22:43,44).  What does this mean?  Here Jesus is quoting Psalm 110, which the Bible says is a psalm of David, in other words, that it was written by David.  And of course, David wrote these psalms by the Spirit of God, which is why they’re in the Bible.  Everybody also already knew that the two lords in this verse (“the LORD said to my lord,” Psalm 110:1) referred to God (the first Lord in Hebrew is YHWH) and the Messiah (the second lord).  What the verse means is that God is going to give complete victory to the Messiah over all his enemies. 

But the question of Jesus is, if the Messiah (the second “lord”) is going to be a descendant of David, one of his great-great-great etc. grandchildren, why does he call him “lord”?  Usually the younger one should show respect to the older, not the older to the younger.  So Jesus finishes by saying, “If then David calls him lord, how is he his son?” (Matt. 22:45).  If David calls the Messiah “lord,” how can he be his descendant?  This was a real puzzler. 

Jesus never answered his own question.  But to the people listening, the answer was obvious.  If David calls the Messiah “lord,” then the Messiah is greater than David.  But how can anyone be greater than David, the greatest king of Israel—in fact, so great that David calls him lord?  This teaching was a strong hint that the Messiah is more than an ordinary human being. 

But this is not the only time that Jesus referred to Psalm 110.  He did it again during his hearing before the Sanhedrin Council, after the high priest asked him under oath:  “And the high priest said to him, ‘I charge you under oath by the living God, that you say to us if you are the Messiah, the son of God’” (Matt. 26:63).  The high priest is demanding a straight answer from Jesus, and putting him under oath to get it. 

But something that’s confusing to many people is that for the high priest and for many others at that time, the term “son of God” did not necessarily mean divine as we think of it today.  It can have that meaning, but not always.  The Bible teaches, for example, that all believers are sons of God.  “For you all are sons of God through faith in Messiah Jesus” (Gal. 3:26).  It also calls angels sons of God (“When the morning stars sang together, And all the sons of God shouted for joy?” Job 38:7).  In Hebrew, “son of God” can just mean godly, or being in a special relationship with God, since there is no other God but the one true God.  And this is probably the sense in which the high priest meant it:  ‘are you the godly Messiah that the Bible prophesies about,’ since most people at the time did not expect the Messiah to be God.

“Jesus said to him, 'You said it.  But I say to you, from now on you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right of the Power (in heaven) and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Matt. 26:64).  Jesus agreed with the high priest’s statement that he was the Messiah, the son of God.  “You said it” means ‘what you said is correct’ or ‘I agree.’  Yes, he is the godly Messiah of prophecy. 

But then Jesus went further.  He identified himself with the heavenly lord of Psalm 110:  sitting at the right of the Power, which means sitting with God himself.  And then he combines this with Daniel 7:13:  “I was seeing in visions of the night, and look!—with the clouds of the heavens, one like a son of man was coming.  And he came to the Ancient of Days and they brought him near before him.”  

Who is this son of man?  It’s not an earthly man.  It’s a heavenly man.  The exact expression here is very important, “one like a son of man.”  He looked like a man, but he wasn’t a man, otherwise it would say “a son of man was coming.”  But it doesn’t say that.  It says “one like a son of man.”  He looked like a man, but he was also different than an ordinary man.  And this “one like a son of man” came on the clouds to God in heaven. 

This doesn’t have as much punch for us today as it did for them back then.  We’re used to the idea that people go up to God in heaven when they die.  But as we mentioned the other day, this was not the understanding in Jesus’ day.  The souls of the dead went to Hades, the realm of the dead.  Even for those who believed the good side of Hades was in the heavens, as the Church believed, this was not in the direct presence of God.  Paradise was in a lower heaven than the highest heaven where God the Father was.  The direct revelation of the Father to us, face to face, will only be after the resurrection.  So for this one like a son of man to be presented before the Father in heaven was an incredibly awesome thing.  It implied that he was different than all other men, that he was divine. 

When Jesus combined this with Psalm 110, it meant that the place where the Messiah was sitting to the right of God was in heaven!  Now this was also something incredible, because to sit with God in heaven meant to rule with God in heaven!  But only God can rule from heaven!  Right!  So this, too, meant that the Messiah was God!

This is why, when Jesus said this, “Then the high priest tore his clothes, saying, ‘He blasphemed!  What need do we still have of witnesses?  Look, you have now heard blasphemy’” (Matt. 26:65).  Blasphemy is a very serious sin.  The custom when you heard blasphemy was to rip your clothes.  It was just as if you heard that somebody died.  Because the penalty for blasphemy was death. 

But what did Jesus say that was a blasphemy?  He said that he himself, the Messiah, was equal to God, which meant he was God.  To their minds, for a man to claim this insulted the holiness and the majesty of God, and so it was a blasphemy.  But notice also that this is the only way in which Jesus’ words could be taken as a blasphemy.  They clearly understood that he was claiming to be God.    

Another example is Luke 5, where Jesus healed the paralytic.  We spoke about this the other day.  The crowd listening to Jesus was so big, the friends of the sick man had to dig a hole in the roof to let him down before Jesus.  Most of us overlook what Jesus then said to the man, "Your sins are forgiven" (Luke 5:20).  But the Jewish leaders had a strong reaction:  They called his words blasphemy (“Who is this that speaks blasphemies?  Who is able to forgive sins but God alone?” Luke 5:21).  Why were they so upset about this?  According to Jewish thinking there were two kinds of sins:  sins against your fellow man, and sins against God.  For Jesus to say that all the man’s sins were forgiven included sins committed against God, which according to the rabbis could only be forgiven by God himself.

They did not misunderstand Jesus. Rather he pressed the point, saying, "'But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on the earth to forgive sins,' he said to the paralytic, 'I say to you, get up, pick up your mat, and go to your home" (Luke 5:24).  In a Jewish context, for the Son of Man to have the authority to forgive sins can only mean one thing:  that the Son of Man is God!   

Even Jesus' use of the title "Son of Man" points to his divinity.  I’ve heard many teach that the title Son of Man refers to Jesus’ humanity.  But this is incorrect.  For Jesus’ disciples, the “Son of Man” referred to the "one like a son of man" coming on the clouds of heaven in Daniel 7:13.  This is something that no ordinary human can do. 

It was not just the miracle that amazed the people (“And they were all seized with amazement and were glorifying God and were filled with fear, saying, ‘We have seen remarkable things today!’” Luke 5:26).  It was Jesus' claim to be God—a claim supported by the miracle that followed! 

When Jesus went to preach in his home town of Nazareth, the people were at first happy to listen to him (“And all were bearing witness of him and were wondering at the gracious words that were going out from his mouth, and they were saying, ‘Isn’t this the son of Joseph?’” Luke 4:22).  They were hoping to see miracles like he had done in Capernaum (“And he said to them, ‘No doubt you will say to me this proverb, “Physician, heal yourself”; do things as great as we have heard took place in Capernaum here in your hometown, too,’” Luke 4:23).  But by the end of his message, they were ready to kill him.  Why? 

On the surface, there's nothing unusual about Jesus' sermon (“But in truth I say to you, there were many widows in the days of Elijah in Israel, when heaven was shut up for three years and six months, as a great famine was on all the land; and Elijah was sent to none of them, but only to a widow woman in Zarephath of Sidon,” Luke 4:25,26).  He simply said that in the time of Elijah, many widows in Israel weren’t helped by the prophet, but only a Gentile woman in Sidon.

He also said that in the time of Elisha many lepers in Israel were not healed (“And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet, and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian,” Luke 4:27).  Only a foreigner, Naaman was healed.  What’s so bad about that?  What did he say that upset them so much? 

His listeners were very familiar with the stories of the prophets Elijah and Elisha.  Much of their ministry had taken place in the countryside around them.  So they knew that the reason no miracles had taken place in those days was because the nation had fallen into idolatry, led by King Ahab and his Phoenician wife, Jezebel.  And because of this, they immediately understood Jesus' deeper meaning:  that the reason he did so few miracles in Nazareth was because of their hardness of heart toward God.  He was comparing them to the generation of Jezebel!

By saying this, Jesus was in effect judging the hearts of the people.  This was very serious.  Because they believed that only God had the right to judge people’s hearts.  For Jesus to judge them like this was a claim that he was equal to God.  As even the New Testament teaches, "There is one lawgiver and judge that is able to save and to destroy:  but who are you that judges his neighbor?" (James 4:12).  Only God has the right to judge.  But since the people of Nazareth did not accept that Jesus was God, to them his words were a blasphemy, worthy of death.  That's why they marched him out of town to throw him off the cliff (“and having got up, they threw him out of the city and led him to the edge of the mountain on which the city was built so that they might throw him down from a cliff,” Luke 4:29).  They understood very clearly that he was claiming to be God. 

The same is true of the other times Jesus pronounced judgment:  "Woe to you, Chorazin, woe to you, Bethsaida:  for if the deeds of power that took place in you had taken place in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.  But I say to you, it will be more bearable in the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you" (Matt. 11:21,22).  Chorazin and Bethsaida were small Jewish villages, but they had not repented when they saw the miracles of Jesus.  So it will be better in the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon, two big, pagan cities.  Jesus doesn't speak here using the typical formulas of the Old Testament prophets.  He does not say, “Thus says the LORD.”  Rather, he says "I say to you," relying on none other than his own authority.  Here too, Jesus claims to be God. 

The ultimate expression of this claim is in Matthew 25:31, where Jesus describes the coming of the Messiah, seated on his "throne of glory."  (“But when the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his throne of glory.”)  This is not just a “glorious throne,” as some translate it, but a “throne of glory,” which in the original language implies a throne of heavenly glory. 

This idea of a heavenly throne for the Messiah was familiar to Jesus’ disciples from Psalm 89:36,37.  Here the Messiah is described as "a faithful witness in the cloud."  (The structure in Hebrew, known as a chiasm, tells us not that the moon will be a faithful witness, as sometimes translated, but the Messiah himself.) 

“His seed will be forever,
     And his throne as the sun before me
     As the moon it will be established forever
And (he will be) a faithful witness in the cloud [ba’shakhaq].”

Where is this Messianic throne?  Many translate it “in the sky.”  But the Hebrew word used here, ba’shakhaq, means “in the cloud.”  The throne of the Messiah will be in the cloud, just as Jesus says in Matt. 24:30: “and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.”

In Matthew 25, the Son of Man judges in his own name and by his own authority (“Then he will also say to those on his left, 'Go away from me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire that is prepared for the devil and his angels,” Matt. 25:41).  There is no “Thus says the Lord.”  What does he say instead?  “Go away from me.”  And the judgment he pronounces condemns the wicked to eternal judgment—to Gehenna (the “eternal fire”).  This is a power only God has.  For Jesus to claim it is a claim to be God. 

Perhaps the most dramatic of these claims took place on the Sea of Galilee, after the disciples had been struggling all night in their boat against a strong westerly wind.  Though Jesus had been left behind on the shore, he now suddenly appeared, walking on the water (“But the boat was already many hundreds of meters away from the land, battered by the waves; for the wind was contrary. And in the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea,” Matt. 14:24,25). 

Mark adds the detail that "he intended to pass by them" (Mark 6:48).  Why is this important?  It’s a hint to Job 9, which says, speaking of God:  "who alone stretches out the heavens and treads on the heights of the sea…. See, he passes by me, and I do not see; and he goes by, and I do not discern him" (Job 9:8,11).  What does this mean?  The only one who walks on the sea is God.  If Jesus is walking on the sea, he is God.  

When the disciples cry out in fear, Jesus turns to talk with them (“But immediately he spoke to them, saying, ‘Take courage, I am; don't be afraid,” Matt. 14:27).  He didn’t say "it is I" as usually translated (in English, also in Chinese); but as Matthew, Mark, and Luke all agree in the original Greek, "I am."  This is not a mistake:  it's a deliberate hint to the personal name of God revealed to Moses:  “And God said to Moses, ‘I am that I am.’  And he said, ‘This is what you will say to the sons of Israel, “I am sent me to you”’” (Ex. 3:14).  Here God reveals himself as the great “I am.”  When Jesus says that he is the “I am,” he is claiming to be God. 

How did the disciples react to all of this?  They bowed down to him, a word in Greek that means to prostrate yourself, face to the ground (“But those in the boat bowed down to him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God,’” Matt. 14:33).  It was not only Jesus' miracle that impressed them; it was his claim to be God backed up by the miracles of walking on the sea and calming the wind.  This is what made them fall down in worship.  They may not have understood how God could become a man.  But they saw the result with their own eyes.   

By the way, they did not then and never could, as Jews, have believed that Jesus was a god different than the one true God.  For them, there was only one God, so it could only be that one true God that somehow stood before them in human flesh.  For this manifestation of God they had a name, "the Son of God" (or as John clarifies the expression, “the only begotten Son” of God, in John 3:16); for it was clear that the world went on, the stars continued to shine, and God in heaven continued to rule the universe as he always had before.  God had not left heaven to appear before them.  But he sent an "extension" or "manifestation" of himself: his Word, his arm, his face, his glory, his likeness, his salvation—whichever of the many Biblical names you would like to use for this incredible phenomenon; a personal manifestation of God's presence sent to earth to speak directly to us.  That personal manifestation, in the flesh, is Jesus.

Many people, when they hear that Jesus is the “son” of God, think this means that he is a different person, a different being than the Father, like a human father and son are two different beings.  But this implies that there are two gods, not one God, an idea that the Bible rejects. 

In fact, sonship has a very different and specific meaning in its original Jewish context and in the Hebrew language.  Being a “son of” someone often implies that you share the same character.  For example, Job 41:34 mentions the “sons of pride.”  This just means people who are proud.  They share the character of pride.  It doesn’t mean that “pride” is their physical father.  It’s talking about resemblance rather than physical descent.  When the Bible calls someone a “son of the devil,” as in Acts 13:10, this doesn’t mean he is physically a son of the devil, but that he shares the character of the devil.  You could also say that he shares the spirit of the devil.  But this doesn’t mean he is a child by birth.  It only means that Satan has planted thoughts and ideas in his mind that he has accepted, and so has become like the devil. 

Jesus speaks in Matt. 8:12 and 13:38 of the “sons of the kingdom.”  These are not descendants of the kingdom.  It just means that they are people who will participate in the kingdom of God.  They have the character and nature of the people who are in God’s kingdom.  This is also true in Luke 20:36, when Jesus mentions “sons of God” and “sons of the resurrection.”  These are people who share the character of God and who will rise in the resurrection of the righteous.  Luke 20:34 mentions:  “the sons of this age.”  John 12:36 mentions “sons of light.”  And there are many others. 

All these expressions refer to character, not birth.  In the same way, when Jesus is called the Son of God, this does not mean that he is an offspring in the ordinary physical meaning of that word.  He is not a child in the sense of being a separate and distinct being from God the Father.  Rather, he is a part of the one true God, an extension of God to us:  the arm of God.  But this spiritual extension or part of God shares the Father’s character and nature.  That’s why he is called the Son of God.  Not because he is a separate being, but because he is an accurate image or representation of the Father to us. 

As it says in Heb. 1:3:  “Who being the radiance of the glory (of the Father) and a representation of his nature...”  Jesus is the radiance of God’s glory, just like the light of the sun that we see is a radiance of the sun.  And just as this radiance of the sun is what brings us an image of the sun, in the same way, Jesus is the image that we can see of the Father.  But this radiance is not of a different nature than the sun; it’s part of what the sun itself is:  it’s an extension of the sun to us.  And that’s what Jesus is to us of the Father.

As it says in Col. 1:15:  “who is the image of the invisible God, firstborn of all creation.”  Jesus is the image of the Father sent to us.  In him, we see the Father.  By the way, the “firstborn of all creation” here does not mean that Jesus was the first thing made in the Creation, as this is sometimes misunderstood.  In Jewish society at the time, the firstborn son was the heir of his father, he inherited most of the father’s estate.  For Jesus to be the firstborn means that he is the heir of all creation, that he is in authority with the Father over all creation.   

Exactly how Jesus, who was a real man, could also be God is a mystery the Bible does not explain.  Yet it does say, over and over again, that he is God, as he himself clearly claimed in so many different ways.  Whether people believe it or not is a different question.  But to say that he never claimed to be God, as many do, is clearly false.  This is not a belief that the disciples would have made up for themselves.  As believing Jews, it was quite difficult for them to accept.  But they did finally believe it, because the claims of Jesus were backed up by his miracles, and by his fulfilling prophecy, over and over again. 

I don’t claim to know how God became a man.  But if God is real, why wouldn't he come to visit?  Not in the full revelation of his power, of course.  That would destroy us (Ex. 33:20); but in the appearance of a man to lead us back to himself.  The disciples saw him with their own eyes, and were convinced by what they saw and heard (1 John 1:1-3).  What about you?  Do you accept Jesus' claim to be God?