Theology Thursday: Did Jesus Actually Claim to Be God?
It was probably the most frustrating conversation I’d had since the time I tried to explain how I forgot to snip the security tag out of my clothes and that’s what was making the alarm go off! (Another story for another day…)
She was intelligent, well spoken, and passionate. She knew her stuff. She even knew a lot of Scripture.
But she didn’t know Jesus. At least not as Jesus came to earth to be known. And definitely not as Lord and Savior.
Standing in her front yard, my friends and I attempted to break through what felt like a brick wall. For her, the conversation seemed like practice, a verbal sparring match with those she had studied and prepared to debate. For her two daughters, it seemed like a rite of passage, an opportunity to demonstrate their ownership of the indoctrination they had grown up hearing. For me, it was the first time I’d personally encountered a Jehovah’s Witness. And it’s not a conversation I’ll soon forget.
Among the many false doctrines taught by this cult is the belief that Jesus was not God. Instead, they believe He was basically a special human being, the first thing that God (the Father) created. In fact, according to the woman I met a few weeks ago, Jesus never even claimed that He was God.
We may not always encounter people of another religion, but what about those who may respect Jesus as a teacher but don’t recognize Him as Lord? Or those who believe that the whole idea of Jesus being divine was some invention of the Early Church, rather than something Jesus said about Himself?
So how can you and I respond when someone says that Jesus never claimed to be God? To answer this question, we begin with Scripture. Here are a few passages to get us started:
- Toward the end of John 8, Jesus is engaged in a debate with the Pharisees (religious leaders) over his identity. When Jesus claimed that Abraham (the father of Israel) rejoiced over His coming, the Pharisees shot back by asking how Jesus (who was not even 50 years old) could possibly have seen Abraham (who had died centuries ago). To which Jesus replied: “Before Abraham was, I AM” (v. 58). And then it all erupted. The Pharisees were so infuriated that they picked up stones to try to kill Him (v. 59). Why? Because when Jesus claimed, “Before Abraham was, I AM,” He identified Himself as the “I AM” of Exodus 3:14 who appeared to Moses. That means Jesus claimed to be Yahweh, the God of Israel, the Maker of Heaven and Earth. Jesus knew exactly what He was saying about Himself. And so did the religious leaders.
- A little later in the book of John (10:30-32), Jesus claimed that He and the Father were one. He wasn’t just saying that He and the Father had a close relationship; He identified Himself as being equal to the Father. Just look at how the Pharisees responded: They tried to kill Him for what they believed was blasphemy: “[B]ecause you, being a man, make yourself God.” Jesus knew exactly what He was saying about Himself. And so did the religious leaders.
- When Jesus sees the paralytic man whose friends dropped him through the roof, He tells him, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” The scribes in the room (also religious leaders) were offended, believing that Jesus blasphemed. They reasoned to themselves “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” …Exactly! Jesus, knowing their thoughts, identified Himself as God when He declared that the man’s sins were forgiven. Then, He proved His authority to forgive sins by miraculously healing the paralytic man. Jesus knew exactly what He was saying about Himself. And so did the religious leaders.
- At Jesus’ trial, the night before His crucifixion, the high priest asked Him point-blank, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” (v. 61) meaning “Are you the Messiah [God’s Anointed One]?” Jesus not only affirmed that He was the Messiah, but referred to Himself as Son of Man, “seated at the right hand of power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.” By saying this, Jesus identified Himself as the fulfillment of a prophesy in Daniel 7:13-14, which said that the Messiah would be given all rule and glory and that His kingdom would never pass away. That’s something that can only belong to God. When the high priest heard it, he tore his clothes in outrage and accused Jesus of blasphemy. Jesus knew exactly what He was saying about Himself. And so did the religious leaders.
Did Jesus actually claim to be God? Yes. He did. And He knew exactly what He was saying about Himself.
But the woman I met a few weeks ago didn’t. And neither do the countless people you and I see every day.
Jesus invites all of us to come to Him just as we are. But that means we come to Him just as He is: Lord. And in the words of C.S. Lewis, “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 patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.” (Mere Christianity)
As challenging as it was, I’m grateful for the conversation I had with the woman I met a few weeks ago. It reminded me of the importance of knowing what Scripture says about who Jesus is and being able to articulate it clearly. It sobered me to the reality that Satan has put blinders over people’s eyes so they can’t recognize the truth (2 Cor 4:4). And it reinforced the urgency of proclaiming Jesus to be exactly who He says He is.
For more on this doctrine, see Daniel L. Akin, “The Person of Christ,” in A Theology for the Church, rev. ed, ed. Daniel L. Akin, 480–544 (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2014).