MANY SCHOLARS ARE convinced that Jesus claimed to be God. Although, as a man, Jesus honored his Father as God, there were many times when he made statements and claims that set him apart from all other men. Author John Piper, for instance, explains that Jesus claimed power uniquely belonging to God.
Jesus’ friends and enemies were staggered again and again by what he said and did. He would be walking down the road, seemingly like any other man, then turn and say something like, “Before Abraham was, I am.” Or, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.” Or, very calmly, after being accused of blasphemy, he would say, “The Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” To the dead he might simply say, “Come forth,” or, “Rise up.” And they would obey. To the storms on the sea he would say, “Be still.” And to a loaf of bread he would say, “Become a thousand meals.” And it was done immediately.
But what did Jesus really mean by such statements and nature-defying deeds? Is it possible Jesus was merely a prophet like Moses or Elijah? Even a superficial reading of the Gospels reveals that Jesus claimed to be someone more than a prophet. No other prophet had made such claims about himself; in fact as we will see, no other prophet ever put himself in God’s place as Jesus did.
Some argue that because Jesus never explicitly declared “I am God,” he denied his own deity. They argue, “If Jesus didn’t say those exact words, he must not be God.” But how can anyone dictate to the Creator of the universe what he must or must not say? Is it possible Jesus had another way of revealing his deity to us? To find out we need to examine more closely how Jesus revealed himself to others.
For example, Jesus also never explicitly declared, “I am a prophet.” Yet his followers considered him to be as much of a prophet as Moses and Elijah. Likewise, Jesus never stated verbatim, “I am the Messiah,” but when asked, he acknowledged he was, and his disciples had no doubt that he was the fulfillment of numerous messianic prophecies.
So can we rule out Jesus’ deity because he didn’t declare, “I am God”? Using that logic we would have to conclude that Jesus wasn’t a prophet or the Messiah either. To discover the real Jesus, we must look further at the statements he made about himself in the context of his Jewish audience, and how they would have perceived them.
In fact, Jesus’ statements about himself contradict the notion that he was merely a great man or a prophet. On more than one occasion, Jesus referred to himself as God’s Son. Biblical scholar Peter Kreeft indicates this term meant Jesus was claiming to have the exact same essence as God the Father.
When asked whether he thought it far-fetched for Jesus to be the Son of God, lead singer of U2, Bono, answered:
No, it’s not far-fetched to me. Look, the secular response to the Christ story always goes like this: He was a great prophet, obviously a very interesting guy, had a lot to say along the lines of other great prophets, be they Elijah, Muhammad, Buddha, or Confucius. But actually Christ doesn’t allow you that. He doesn’t let you off the hook. Christ says, “No.” I’m not saying I’m a teacher, don’t call me a teacher. I’m not saying I’m a prophet….I’m saying I’m God incarnate. And people say: No, no, please, just be a prophet. A prophet we can take.
Certainly not everyone agrees with Bono’s view of Jesus. But as one reads the Gospels, it is difficult to contradict the singer’s understanding that Jesus could not have been simply a great prophet. It is Jesus’ stunning claims that set him apart.
Before we examine some of Jesus’ claims, it is important to understand that he made them in the context of the Jewish belief in one God (monotheism). No faithful Jew would ever believe in more than one God. And Jesus believed in the one God, praying to his Father as “the only true God.”
But in the same prayer, Jesus spoke of having always existed with his Father. And when Philip asked Jesus to show them the Father, Jesus said, “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” So the question is, was Jesus claiming to be the Hebrew God who created the universe, or was Jesus himself part of God’s creation?
The God of Abraham and Moses
Jesus continually referred to himself in ways that confounded his listeners. As Piper notes, Jesus made the audacious statement “Before Abraham was born, I am!” He told Martha and others around her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies.” Likewise, Jesus would make statements like “I am the light of the world” and “I am the way and the truth and the life.” These and several other of his claims were preceded by the sacred words for God, “I AM” (ego eimi). What did Jesus mean by such statements? What is the significance of the term “I AM,” and why did he continually use it?
Once again, we must go back to context. In the Hebrew Scriptures, when Moses asked God his name at the burning bush, God answered, “I AM.” He was revealing to Moses that he (Yahweh) is the one and only God, who is outside of time and has always existed. Incredibly, Jesus was identifying himself with the very same holy words God used in describing his eternal existence to Moses. The question is, why?
Since the time of Moses, no practicing Jew would ever refer to himself or anyone else by “I AM.” As a result, Jesus’ “I AM” claims infuriated the Jewish leaders. One time, for example, some leaders explained to Jesus why they were trying to kill him, saying, “Because you, a mere man, claim to be God.”
Jesus’ usage of God’s name for himself angered the religious leaders. The point is that these Old Testament scholars knew exactly what he was saying—he was claiming to be God, the Creator of the universe. How do we know? Because it is only this claim that would have brought the accusation of blasphemy. To read into the text that Jesus claimed to be God is clearly warranted, not simply by his words, but also by their reaction to those words. [See “Did Jesus Claim to be God?”]
C. S. Lewis initially considered Jesus a myth. But this literary genius, who knew myths well, concluded that Jesus had to have been a real person. Furthermore, as Lewis investigated the evidence for Jesus, he became convinced that not only was Jesus real, but also he was unlike any man who had ever lived. Lewis writes, “Then comes the real shock. Among these Jews there suddenly turns up a man who goes about talking as if He was God. He claims to forgive sins. He says He always existed. He says He is coming to judge the world at the end of time.”
To Lewis, Jesus’ claims were simply too radical and profound to have been made by an ordinary teacher or religious leader.
Some have argued that Jesus was only claiming to be part of God. But the idea that we are all part of God, and that within us is the seed of divinity, is simply not a possible meaning for Jesus’ words and actions. In fact, Jesus continually reinforced the Old Testament teaching that there is only one God.
Jesus taught that he is God in the way the Jews understood God and in the way the Hebrew Scriptures portrayed God, not in the way Hinduism, Pantheism or the New Age movement understands God. Neither Jesus nor his audience had been weaned on Star Wars, and so when they spoke of God, they were not speaking of cosmic forces. There is simply no basis to redefine what Jesus meant by the concept of God.
Now let us get this clear. Among Pantheists, like the Indians, anyone might say that he was a part of God, or one with God….But this man, since He was a Jew, could not mean that kind of God. God, in their language, meant the Being outside the world who had made it and was infinitely different from anything else. And when you have grasped that, you will see that what this man said was, quite simply, the most shocking thing that has ever been uttered by human lips.
Certainly there are those who accept Jesus as a great teacher, yet are unwilling to call him God. As a Deist, Thomas Jefferson had no problem accepting Jesus’ teachings on morals and ethics while denying his deity. But as we’ve said (and will explore further), if Jesus was not who he claimed to be, then we must examine some other alternatives, none of which would make him a great moral teacher. Lewis argued, “I am trying here to prevent anyone from 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.”
But there’s another way of looking at it. What if Jesus was simply not being truthful about his own identity?