“Ahem! Excuse me! May I have your attention, please! I just thought it would be important for you all to know that I’m God. You should probably start worshipping me now since I’m the one who is sustaining your every breath.”
— Things Jesus Never said.
Recently I was talking to a Muslim. His hang-up was that Jesus never explicitly said: “I am God”. Since he never said that, why did Christians come to believe that he was God? I’m sure you’ve heard something like this before.
Jesus Never Explicitly Said I’m God
It’s true to say that Jesus never said the words “I am God”. But does someone have to come out and say who they are to be that person? Was Jesus being all that ambiguous about his identity? I can’t see how that’s the case. Think about it for a second. I’ll call this the parable of the high school teacher.
Say there’s a person who never said: “I’m a teacher”. But they go to work at the school every day, they lead classrooms, they grade papers. When the students say “teacher”, he turns and gives them attention. He never corrects them. He calls the principle his boss.
The school pays him. He parks in the teacher’s spots in the parking lot. He eats in the teacher’s lounge and talks shop with other teachers around the water cooler. He meets with parents. He gives out hall passes, puts kids in detention when they act up and has the authority to pass or fail students.
Now say that some smart-guy of a student gets an idea and says “Hey! Wait for a second! Ya know, I’ve never heard him call himself a teacher. I’m not going to listen to them! I’m not going to show up to class. I’m done with homework in this class. If I get a failing grade, I’ll tell the principle that he never called himself “teacher”.
The other students would think that their classmate’s antenna wasn’t picking up all the channels, right?
Jesus Wasn’t Subtle About Being God
Let’s look at how the Gospels present Jesus. Most Christians would point out a few famous verses in the Gospel of John:
“if you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father” (John 14:9-11) or “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30)
Or they’ll drop the trump card where Jesus refers to himself as the pre-existent “I AM” in John 8:58. There’s nothing wrong with that approach.
The problem is this: There are some famous skeptics like Bart Ehrman who will say you can’t use John. He’ll say that John presents a divine Jesus that the Synoptics don’t really portray. I could say a lot more about the historical reliability of John and perhaps I’ll get into that another day. But for now, let’s stick to the synoptic gospels.
I’ll start with Mark’s Gospel. There we see the teachers of the law getting hot because Jesus forgives a man’s sins:
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?”
Immediately Jesus knew in his spirit that this was what they were thinking in their hearts, and he said to them, “Why are you thinking these things? Which is easier: to say to this paralyzed man, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up, take your mat and walk’? But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” So he said to the man, “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.” He got up, took his mat and walked out in full view of them all. This amazed everyone and they praised God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!” (Mark 2:5-11)
Jesus also rejiggered divine commandments based on his own authority. Over and over we read in Matthew where he says “you have heard that it was said…but now I say to you…” about a host of topics in the Law. He even claimed to transcend the Sabbath since the Son of Man is the “Lord of the Sabbath”. (Matthew 5:21, 27, 33, 38, 43, Mark 2:27-28). He says that his teachings are the foundation to build our lives on (Matthew 7:24-25). He teaches he will return and sit on a glorious throne and judge the nations. (Matthew 25:34-46). He authorizes his disciples to heal the sick and cast out devils in his name. (Luke 10:1-20)
He calls himself greater than the temple (Matthew 12:6). He believed he had the authority to cleanse the temple (Mark 11:28-29). He exercises authority over weather (Mark 4:35-45). He’s worshipped. The Magi come and worship him at his birth (Matthew 2:11). He’s worshipped when he and Peter walked on the water (Matthew 14:33) and he doesn’t correct his disciples. We see at his trial in Mark that his claim to divine authority is what got him crucified:
“I am,” said Jesus. “And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.”
The high priest tore his clothes. “Why do we need any more witnesses?” he asked. “You have heard the blasphemy. What do you think?” (Mark 14:61-64)
This is a direct reference to Daniel 7:13-14:
“In my vision, at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.”
Jesus’s favorite self-designation was “The Son of Man”. Daniel says that this Son of Man is worshipped and has an everlasting dominion.
So let’s recap. In the Synoptic Gospels Jesus:
- Receives worship
- Forgives Sins
- Exercises power over nature
- Teaches that his commands are binding
- Will judge the world
- Claims to be greater than the temple
- Authorizes his followers to exercise power demons his name
It’s like the old adage says, if it walks likes a duck, and talks like a duck…
Could The Disciples Really Have Biffed It That Bad?
Jesus can’t be a good teacher if his disciples got this mistaken notion that he was God. Yet we see in the early letters to the churches that is exactly who they believed him to be.
For instance, Paul said he ran his gospel by Peter, James, and John – the head honchos who claimed to also have seen Jesus after his death. Over and over Paul ascribes deity to Jesus. Philippians 2:5-11 is a prime example, and most scholars believe it’s an early hymn of worship that didn’t originate with Paul himself. Let’s take a look:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
What even caused Paul to persecute Christians in the first place? It was that they were ascribing deity to a mere man, or so Paul thought. And here this zealous monotheistic Jew coms to worship Jesus as the Lord, Yahweh in the flesh. And this is the same gospel he submits to the early church leaders, and they say “Same, Paul. Same. You keep telling it everywhere you go”.
So no, Jesus didn’t come right out with it. But if you didn’t catch his drift, you weren’t paying very good attention. His followers did, and that’s why we see the deity of Jesus proclaimed right out of the gate.