By L. Alfred James
As a young Christian, I remember learning about the concept of the Trinity for the first time. I read a lot of books that said belief in the “deity of Christ” (the doctrine that Jesus is God) is extremely important. At the same time, I also worked at a grocery store right alongside a Jehovah’s witness who consistently told me that Jesus was definitely not God and never claimed to be God. This coworker (who was a very nice guy) insisted that the Bible never even suggested that Jesus is God. Because I was new to Christianity, I didn’t know what to think or who to believe. In fact, I found the whole topic very confusing.
To make matters worse, I was also confused about how Jesus could be God and be the Son of God at the same time. Doesn’t that sound a bit odd? Does that mean that Jesus is his own son?
In an effort to help bring clarity to these issues, next week we will tackle the subject of Jesus being the Son of God (and what that means) and this week we will focus on some of the more obvious reasons for believing that Jesus is indeed God.
Reason #1: The Apostles Believed He Was God
There are several places in the New Testament in which the biblical authors make it clear that they believe that Jesus is indeed God Almighty. For instance, the apostle John refers to Jesus as the Word, saying, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1).
The apostle Paul follows suit. Discussing the people of Israel, he says, “Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of Christ, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen” (Romans 9:5). And in Philippians 2, says that Jesus has God’s very nature and is equal to God.
Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, 7 but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death-even death on a cross! (Philippians 2:6-8)
For one more passage (and there are many, many more), consider the book Hebrews. According to the author (who never identifies himself), God the Father calls Christ by the title of God: “But about the Son he says, ‘Your throne, O God, will last for ever and ever; a scepter of justice will be the scepter of your kingdom'” (Hebrews 1:8).
Reason #2: This Is Very Odd (because the Jews were monotheists)
All of these biblical authors were Jewish. And since the time of Moses the Jews had been zealously monotheistic. That is, they fiercely believed in only one God. No human being, and no angel, could legitimately claim to be another God. There is only one. In fact, devout Jews recited this truth on a daily basis, by affirming the Shema aloud. Every day, they said, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5). According to all Jews (even if they were not very devout), to say that any human being is God is to commit the sin of blasphemy, a crime deserving of death. No matter how good or holy a human being is, you could never ascribe deity to him or her. Indeed, on one occasion the Jews accused Jesus of doing exactly this:
Again his Jewish opponents picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus said to them, “I have shown you many good works from the Father. For which of these do you stone me?” “We are not stoning you for any good work,” they replied, “but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God.” (John 10:31-33)
Notice how quick they were to start the process of death-by-stoning. This is just one example of how fiercely monotheistic the Jews were. In fact, they would rather die than to say that any human being (such as Caesar) was divine. And on multiple occasions faithful Jews did exactly that. Because of this unwavering commitment, the Roman government actually exempted Jews from worshiping Caesar and the Roman gods (even though they required all other people to do so). The Romans knew from history that if they insisted on this, the Jewish people would be endlessly unruly. They would never yield an inch.
But if Jesus is not God, all of this is quite puzzling. The apostles’ behavior appears utterly schizophrenic. Here we have these apostles, Jewish men who grew up believing that there is only one God, believing that it is blasphemy to say that any human being is God. But these very men now clearly believe that Jesus is indeed God, and proclaim it loudly. How can we explain this?
Reason #3: Jesus Himself Claimed To Be God
The most obvious answer is the best answer. On several occasions Jesus implicitly and explicitly claimed to be God. He did this in several ways. First, by doing things that only God could do. For instance, he forgave a man of his sins:
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 2:5-7)
He also made changes to the law of God. For instance, in Mark 7 Jesus made a pronouncement that effectively ended the food laws that had been in effect since the time of Moses:
Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.” After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. “Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean. (Mark 7:14-19)
Don’t miss that last statement in verse 19: “Jesus declared all foods clean.” While we might not find that statement to be all that striking, it sent shock waves through the Jewish community. For more than a thousand years the Jews had reinforced their sense of identity and their sense of solidarity by avoiding certain foods. Avoiding unclean foods was as obligatory to them as standing for the national anthem is obligatory to a patriotic American. But here Jesus is, with a sense of confident authority, declaring that these dietary practices are now officially over. He “declared all foods clean.” This is a gigantic change to the law of God for the people of God. One does not say such things by accident. This was not a slip of the tongue. There is simply no way Jesus could do this unless he believed he himself was God.
There are plenty of other texts that I could cite to prove this. But one more will suffice. And it is quite self-explanatory:
“I tell you the truth,” 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 8:58-59)
In this passage, Jesus uses a title called the Tetragrammaton that is reserved for God alone. The title comes through in English as “I AM.” But he applies it to himself. God had used this title to identify himself when talking with Moses (Exodus 3:14). Every Jew in Israel knew that this was a name that could only be applied to God. Thus, it is no surprise that those who heard Jesus tried to stone him. No Jew could have heard him say this without understanding him to claim to be God. That is why they, again, picked up stones to stone him.
Reason #4: Jesus Backed Up These Claims
But this was no empty claim. As we’ve seen, Jesus did many other things that only God could do. Apart from what we’ve seen above, he also calmed storms, suspended the Sabbath, and rose again from the dead. If he was not God, he sure looks and acts like God.
Thus, the biblical evidence for Jesus being God is quite powerful. It is actually rather obvious if you know what to look for. This is why it has been the orthodox view for centuries. There is no way around it.
Most importantly, C.S. Lewis saw in these claims of Christ a serious dilemma. The fact that Jesus claimed to be God makes it impossible for us to maintain a neutral position towards him. We can’t merely say he was “a great religious leader,” and then ignore his claim to be God. We can’t say we appreciate his teachings on love, and fail to submit to him as Lord. If Jesus claimed to be God, and he really wasn’t, then he wasn’t a great religious leader. He was evil. But I can’t explain it better than Lewis:
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.’ That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic— on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg— or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.1
1. Lewis, C. S.. Mere Christianity (C.S. Lewis Signature Classics) (p. 52). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.