The Deity of Christ
The belief that Jesus was and is God has always been a non-negotiable for Christianity. Don Closson explains that this belief is based on Jesus’ own words as well as the teachings of the early church.
I recently received a letter from someone who argues that there is only one God, and that He is called many names and worshiped by many different people who hold to many different faiths. This kind of thinking about God is common today, but its popularity does not reduce the intellectual problems that may accompany it. For instance, does this notion of god include the god of the Aztecs who required child sacrifice? What about the warrior gods of Norse mythology: Odin, Thor, and Loki? How does the Mormon belief that we can all become Gods if we join their organization and conform to their system of good works fit into this theological framework? Even John Hick, an influential religious pluralist, believes that only some of the world’s great religions qualify as having a valid view of God. Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism are valid, but Satanism and the religions of the Waco, Texas, variety are not. Belief that all religious systems worship one God raises difficult questions when we see how different groups portray God and seek to describe how we are to relate to Him.
The issue becomes even more acute when one religious tradition claims that God took on flesh becoming a man and walked on the earth. The Christian tradition has claimed for almost two thousand years that God did just that. The Gospel of John proclaims that, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” John is, of course, talking about Jesus, and this claim presents an interesting challenge for a religious pluralist. If what John and the rest of the New Testament writers claim about Jesus is true, then we literally have God in the flesh walking with and teaching a small band of disciples. If Jesus was God incarnate as He walked the earth, we have a first hand account of what God is like in the biblical record. Truth claims about God that counter those given in the Bible must then be discounted. In other words, if Jesus was God in the flesh during His time on earth, other religious texts or traditions are wrong when they teach about God or about knowing God in ways that contradict the biblical record.
In this essay we will consider the evidence for the deity of Christ. Christianity’s truth claims are dependent on this central teaching, and once accepted, this claim reduces greatly the viability of religious pluralism, of treating all religious beliefs as equally true. For if God truly became flesh and spoke directly to His disciples about such things as sin, redemption, a final judgment, false religions and true worship, then we have the God of the universe expressing intolerance towards other religious claims- -specifically claims that discount the reality of sin and remove the need for redemption or the reality of a final judgment. Some might not agree with God’s religious intolerance, but then again, disagreeing with God is what the Bible calls sin.
Rather than begin with a response to attacks on Christ’s deity by modern critics like the Jesus Seminar or New Age gnostics, our discussion will begin with Jesus’ own self-consciousness, in other words, what did Jesus say and think about himself. From there we will consider the teachings of the Apostles and the early church. My goal is to establish that from its inception, Christianity has taught and believed that Jesus was God in the flesh, and that this belief was the result of the very words that Jesus spoke concerning His own essence.
As we begin to examine evidence that supports the claim that Jesus Christ is God in the flesh or God incarnate, a good starting point is Jesus’ own self concept. It must first be admitted that Jesus never defines His place in the Trinity in theological language. However, He made many statements about himself that would be not only inappropriate, but blasphemous if He was not God in the flesh. It is important to remember that Jesus’ life was not spent doing theology or thinking and writing about theological issues. Instead, His life was focused on relationships, first with His disciples, and then with the Jewish people. The purpose of these relationships was to engender in these people a belief in Jesus as their savior or Messiah, as their only source of salvation. Jesus told the Pharisees, the Jewish religious leaders of His day, that they would die in their sins if they did not believe that He was who He claimed to be (John 8:24). And to one Pharisee, Nicodemus, Jesus said, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
Millard Erickson, in his book Christian Theology, does a nice job of laying out evidence that Jesus considered himself equal in essence with God.(1) Unless He was God, it would have been highly inappropriate for Jesus to say, as He does in Matthew 13:41, that both the angels and the kingdom are His. Elsewhere, angels are called “the angels of God” (Luke 12:8 9; 15:10) and the phrase Kingdom of God is found throughout the Scriptures. But Jesus says, “The Son of man will send His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all causes of sin and evildoers” (Matt. 13:41).
When the paralytic in Mark 2:5 was lowered through the roof by his friends, Jesus’ first response was to say that the man’s sins were forgiven. The scribes knew the implications of this statement, for only God could forgive sin. Their remarks clearly show that they understood Jesus to be exercising a divine privilege. Jesus had a wonderful opportunity to set the record straight here by denying that He had the authority to do what only God can do. Instead, His response only reinforces His claim to divinity. Jesus says, “Why do you question thus in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, Rise, take up your pallet and walk’?” To confirm His authority to forgive sins, Jesus enabled the man to pick up his pallet and go home.
Two other areas that Jesus claimed authority over was the judging of sin and the observance of the Sabbath. Both were considered God’s prerogative by the Jews. In John 5:22-23 Jesus says, “The Father judges no one, but has entrusted all judgment to the Son, that all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father.” Jesus also claimed authority to change man’s relationship to the Sabbath. Honoring the Sabbath is one of the Ten Commandments, and the Jews had been given strict instructions on how to observe it. In the book of Numbers, Moses is told by God to stone to death a man who collects wood on the Sabbath. However, in Matthew 12:8 Jesus says that “the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”
These examples show that Jesus made claims and performed miracles that reveal a self awareness of His own divinity. In our next section, we will continue in this vein.
Christ’s Self-Perception, Part 2
At this point in our discussion we will offer even more examples of Jesus’ self knowledge of His essential equality with God.
A number of comments that Jesus made about His relationship with the Father would be unusual if Jesus did not consider himself equal in essence with God. In John 10:30 He says that to see Him is to see the Father. Later in John 14:7-9 He adds that to know Him is to know the Father. Jesus also claimed to have existed prior to His incarnation on earth. In John 8:58 He says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” Some believe that the words used here by Jesus constitute His strongest claim to deity. According to the Expositors Bible Commentary this passage might more literally be translated, “Before Abraham came into being, I continuously existed.” The Jews recognized the phrase “I am” as one referring to God because God used it (1) to describe himself when He commissioned Moses to demand the release of His people from Pharaoh (Exodus 3:14), and (2) to identifyhimself in the theistic proclamations in the second half of Isaiah. Jesus also declares that His work is coterminous with the Father. He proclaims that “If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” (John 14:23). The Jews hearing Jesus understood the nature of these claims. After His comment about pre-existing Abraham, they immediately picked up stones to kill Him for blasphemy because they understood that He had declared himself God.
In Jesus’ trial He makes a clear declaration of who He is. The Jews argued before Pilate in John 19:7, “We have a law, and according to that law he must die, because he claimed to be the Son of God.” Matthew 26 records that at Jesus’ trial, the high priest tells Jesus, “I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.”Jesus replies, “You have said it yourself, . . . But I say to all of you: In the future you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.” This would have been a wonderful opportunity for Jesus to save himself by clearing up any misconceptions concerning His relationship with the Father. Instead, He places himself in a position of equality and of unique power and authority. Again, the Jews understand what Jesus is saying. The high priest proclaims, “He has uttered blasphemy. Why do we still need witnesses? You have now heard his blasphemy.” He calls for a vote of the council, and they demand His death (Matt. 26:65-66).
Another indicator of how Jesus perceived himself is in His use of Old Testament Scripture and the way He made His own proclamations of truth. In a number of cases, Jesus began a sentence with “You have heard that it was said, . . . but I say to you. . . .” (Matt. 5:21-22, 27-28). Jesus was giving His words the same authority as the Scriptures. Even the prophets, when speaking for God, would begin their statements with: “The word of the Lord came to me,” but Jesus begins with: “I say to you.”
There are other indications of how Jesus saw himself. For example, Christ’s claim to have authority over life itself in John 5:21 and 11:25, and His use of the self referential “Son of God” title point to unique power and authority and His essential equality with God.
The Apostles’ Teaching
We will turn now to look at what Jesus’ followers said of Him. The Gospel of John begins with a remarkable declaration of both Christ’s deity and full humanity. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.” Later in verse fourteen John remarks that this “Word” became flesh and walked among them and points to Jesus as this “Word” become flesh. What did John mean by this remarkable passage?
The first phrase might literally be translated: “When the beginning began, the Word was already there.” In other words, the “Word” co- existed with God and predates time and creation. The second phrase “The Word was with God” indicates both equality and distinction of identity. A more literal translation might be “face to face with God,” implying personality and relational coexistence. Some groups, like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, make a great deal of the fact that the word “God” in the third phrase “The Word was God” lacks an article. This, they argue, allows the noun God to be translated as an indefinite noun, perhaps referring to “a God” but not “the” almighty God. Actually, the lack of an article for the noun makes the case for the deity of the “Word” more clearly. The Greek phrase, theos en ho logos describes the nature of the “Word,” not the nature of God. The article ho before the word logos shows that the sentence describes the nature of the Word; He is of the same nature and essence as the noun in the predicate; that is, the Word is divine. It is interesting to note that verses 6, 12, 13, and 18 of the same chapter refer unambiguously to God the Father and use an anarthrous noun, i.e., a noun without the article.(2) Yet strangely the Jehovah’s Witnesses do not dispute the meaning of these passages.
The author of Hebrews writes plainly of Christ’s deity. The first chapter states that, “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of His being, sustaining all things by His powerful word.” The passage also states that Jesus is not an angel nor is He just a priest. In Colossians 1:15 Paul adds that, “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by Him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.” Although Paul clearly attributes godlike qualities to Jesus, the use of the word firstborn often causes confusion. The word can be a reference to priority in time or supremacy in rank. Since Jesus is described as the Creator of all things, the notion of supremacy seems more appropriate. Philippians 2:5-11 also talks of Jesus existing in the form of God. The Greek term used for form is morphe, denoting an outward manifestation of an inner essence.
Mention should also be made of the use by New Testament writers of the word Lord for Jesus. The same Greek word was used in the Greek Old Testament, the Septuagint, as the translated word for the Hebrew words Yahweh and Adonai, two special names given to God the Father. The Apostles meant to apply the highest sense of this term when referring to Jesus.
The Early Church
Thus far we have been examining the Christian claim of Christ’s divinity, first considering Jesus’ own self-concept and then the thoughts of those who wrote the New Testament. It is not within the scope of this essay to argue that the words attributed to Jesus by the writers of the New Testament are indeed His. Instead, we have argued that the words attributed to Jesus do claim an essential equality with God the Father. The traditional view of the Christian faith has been that God has revealed himself to us as three separate persons–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–who shared a common essence.
Belief in Jesus’ essential equality with God the Father was communicated by the Apostles to the church fathers to whom they handed the task of leading the church. Even though these early leaders often struggled with how to describe the notion of the Trinity with theological accuracy, they knew that their faith was in a person who was both man and God.
Clement of Rome is a good example of this faith. Writing to the church at Corinth Clement implies Jesus’ equality with God the Father when he says “Have we not one God, and one Christ and one Spirit of grace poured upon us.” Later, in his second letter, Clement tells his readers to “think of Jesus as of God , as the judge of the living and dead.” Clement also wrote of Jesus as the preexistent Son of God; in other words, Christ existed before He took on human flesh. Ignatius of Antioch spoke of Christ’s nature in his letter to the Ephesians, “There is only one physician, of flesh and of spirit, generate and ingenerate, God in man, life in death, Son of Mary and Son of God.” A little later, Irenaeus of Lyons (ca. A.D. 140-202.) had to stress the humanity of Christ because of Gnostic heresy that argued that Jesus was only a divine emanation. Irenaeus wrote, “There is therefore . . . one God the Father, and one Christ Jesus our Lord, who . . . gathered together all things in himself. But in every respect, too, he is man, the formation of God: and thus he took up man into himself, the invisible becoming visible, the incomprehensible being made comprehensible, the impassible becoming capable of suffering, and the Word being made man, thus summing up all things in himself” (Against Heresies III, 16). During the same time period, Tertullian of Carthage (ca. A.D. 155-240) wrote of Christ’s nature that “what is born in the flesh is flesh and what is born in the Spirit is spirit. Flesh does not become spirit nor spirit flesh. Evidently they can (both) be in one (person). Of these Jesus is composed, of flesh as man and of spirit as God” (Against Praxeas, 14). Later he added, “We see His double state, not intermixed but conjoined in one person, Jesus, God and man” (Against Praxeas, 27).
By A.D. 325 the church had begun to systematize Christianity’s response to various heretical views of Christ. The Nicene Creed stated, “We believe in God the Father All-sovereign, maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible; And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all the ages, Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten not created, of one substance with the Father, through whom all things came into being.”(3)
The belief in Jesus Christ being of the same essence as God the Father began with Jesus himself, was taught to His Apostles, who in turn handed down this belief to the early church Fathers and apologists. Christ’s deity is the foundation upon which the Christian faith rests.
1. Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1985), pp. 684-90.
2. Merrill C. Tenney, The Expositors Bible Commentary, vol. 9 (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Publishing House, 1981), pp. 28-29.
3. Henry Bettenson, ed., Documents of the Christian Church (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967), p. 26.
© 1997 Probe Ministries.