Jesus as God: Plurality in the Godhead of the New Testament (Series Part 3)

Let us quickly review where we are. We began our journey from the end, investigating what post-apostolic church fathers, who lived some 200 years before Emperor Constantine reigned, believed concerning the deity of Jesus. We learned that these influential bishops affirmed the divinity of Jesus, and many of them founded their beliefs on the teaching of the Old Testament besides the New Testament. I cannot stress enough the importance of realizing that the notion of a plurality in the Jewish God was widespread before Yeshua ever permanently put on a body, and it remained for about 200 years after Jesus exited the earth as the Jewish scholar, Alan Segal, details in his The Two Powers in HeavenEarly Rabbinic Reports About Christianity and Gnosticism

Some ignorant critics, including many Muslims, often assert that the Bible never claims that Jesus is God. Some others would say Jesus never claims to be God. Both groups of critics are wrong. The bible documents facts to the contrary. The claim that Jesus is God or, more correctly, is a member of the Godhead is an inescapable conclusion when one considers the data en masse

There is a little detail people often ignore in the heat of this debate: Jesus of Nazareth, whatever else he was, was also a man. This is obvious: he was born as a baby, raised by parents, had siblings, had friends, made enemies (he was very good at this), loved by some, and despised by others. Eventually, he was killed. We should carefully note that the claim that Jesus is both God and man does not make up a contradiction. It is not as though I had said, “Jesus is both God and not God.” On the contrary, the claim is that Jesus took on human nature besides his divinity. Yes, this raises important questions such as whether the infant Jesus knew he was God. Christian theologians and philosophers have proposed all kinds of models to deal with issues of this sort. Ultimately, I think a correct and satisfactory model would preserve the genuineness of both the incarnation and divinity without making a monstrosity of either. I, for instance, cannot imagine the infant Jesus being fully aware of his divinity. I am more inclined to think, just as the New Testament teaches, that Jesus increasingly grew in his knowledge. In this Part, I shall present a cumulative New Testament argument for the divinity of Jesus.

The New Testament authors portrayed Jesus as God in different forms. Sometimes they just flatly say that Jesus is Yahweh (as we will consider in Part 4). Many other times, however, they use literary devices that a literate Jew could use to conclude that Jesus is divine. Let us now zero in on the latter.

Jesus Existed Before his Birth

Jesus once asked the experts of the law a direct question. Now, the Pharisee and all the Jews believed in a messiah that was to come to rescue them. Since David was the best warrior-messiah they ever had, and there are passages in the Old Testament saying the rescuer will be a descendant of David, the Jews naturally concluded that the savior would be David’s son. Jesus asked the teachers of the law a question from Psalms 110:1 where David calls the Christ Lord

“The LORD said to my Lord, ‘sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet’” (Matthew 22:41-44). 

Jesus asked them, “If David then calls him ‘Lord,’ how can he be his son?” (45). On that day, the Pharisees could not provide an answer. Jesus here identifies himself with the adonai or “Lord,” claiming a pre-existent life before his conception (cf. John 3:13). Given that the Bible does not teach that humans pre-existed in heaven getting ready to come to the earth, Jesus must have had a non-human existence in heaven before he came to the earth. 

Of course, we may not conclude that he is God based on this datum alone. But we know a little more about Jesus’ heavenly life. In John 17, Jesus prays thus: “And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began” (17:5). Jesus here claims existence with someone he calls his Father before appearing on the earth. Now, we know for sure he was not human since the earth came into existence before all humans. Still, we may not conclude that Jesus is Yahweh. He could just be a decorated angel or any other heavenly being. However, the “other heavenly being” interpretation would be problematic if we understand having glory with the Father as implying eternally having glory with the Father since angels and other heavenly beings are creatures with a definite beginning.

Jesus Taught as One with a Divine Authority

One of the first things the Jews immediately noticed was different about Jesus was that he taught with authority. Mark 1:22 reports, “The people were amazed at his teaching because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law.” Whereas the teachers of the law, following the traditions of past prophets, would say things like “The LORD says to me to tell you so and so,” Jesus went around saying “Verily I say unto you” daringly bypassing thus says the LORD. This does not establish the divinity of Jesus, but it is noteworthy. Jesus was in effect claiming to be different and superior to all the other prophets, including Abraham and Moses, who taught the Jews about the one true God. He spoke in a manner only appropriate for Yahweh. Once again, this does not conclusively show that Jesus is God. But it shows that Jesus thought himself not to be a typical prophet.

Jesus Forgives Sins

Jesus did other things strictly only appropriate for God. Friends once brought a paralytic to Jesus for healing. The Jews had a theory that sickness resulted from sin—whether of the parents or the invalid. Once the paralytic was laid before him, Jesus utters one of the most unthinkable things a man could ever say in a monotheistic Jewish gathering: “Your sins are forgiven” (Mark 2:5). Experts in the Jewish law understandably thought “this dude is blaspheming!” They also rhetorically asked, “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mark 2:7) These experts in the Jewish laws are correct about God alone being the forgiver of sins because sins are ultimately done against Yahweh. In the Hebrew Bible—the only bible at the time—only Yahweh forgives sins. 

There would not have been much to talk about from this scene if the story ended at that point, since people say all kinds of things all the time. Perhaps, having modern times in mind, Jesus then took the empiricist route: “Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up, take your mat, and walk’?” (Mark 2:9). In effect, Jesus told the Pharisees that words mean little unless they can be supported with verifiable evidence. When he declared that the paralytic’s sins were forgiven, that claim was not quite easy to verify, if verifiable at all. It was an easy, though quite risky, comment that anyone could make. However, he backed up his claim that he could forgive sins just as God would by healing that invalid in the presence of all. This would have forced many Pharisees to either make a consistent conclusion or re-evaluate their theology, for they believed only God can forgive sins, but a man just did the same! So, we have Jesus contextually and seamlessly taking the place of Yahweh here. This is reminiscent of the Angel of the LORD passages in the Old Testament that we already considered.

Jesus as the Son of God

Jesus often addresses himself to his monotheistic Jewish audience by two labels: Son of God and Son of Man. Each of these titles further adds to his claim to divinity. In John 5:15-17, Jesus healed a man on a sabbath, an act that is apparently against the law (as understood by the Jews and the experts in the law). They questioned Jesus and alleged that he was breaking the law. In response, Jesus says: 

My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working.” For this reason, the Jews tried all the harder to kill him; not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.

What is immediately obvious is the Jews’ understanding of Jesus’ claim. That society, and certainly the experts in the law, understood the import of claiming to be God’s Son. They took the claim to imply equality with God. Since Jesus knew his socio-religious context, it is reasonable to assume that he knew how his audience would take his words. Modern readers, especially Muslims, typically miss the weight of this claim. To claim to be Yahweh’s son, in that context, is to claim to be equal to Yahweh. Of course, there are philosophical issues raised by such a claim. If Jesus is any less in his ontological essence than the Father, he cannot be God simply because we reserve the label “God” precisely for the supreme being—he would be a “lesser God” which is a contradiction in terms. What is obvious from the passage above is that the experts in the law took it for granted that Jesus claims equality with God. It is worth mentioning that the conclusion to the divinity of Jesus here does not come from people who love him. His opponents make this conclusion that he claims equality with God.

Jesus as the Son of Man

Many uninformed critics sometimes assert that Jesus’ frequent and preferred self-designation as the Son of Man weakens the claim to divinity. On the contrary, Son of Man is a stronger claim to divinity than Son of God. In the Old Testament, son of man is used primarily for two persons. The prophet Ezekiel was addressed by God primarily as a ‘son of man.’ It is not difficult to see that this label serves as a synonym for “Ezekiel.” The second occurrence is in the Book of Daniel which we already encountered in our exploration of divine plurality in the Old Testament. When Jesus walked around and called himself the Son of Man, the heavenly character of Daniel must have come to the minds of the Jewish audience. Here is 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 worshipped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.

As already thoroughly analyzed in Part 2, this “son of man” (literally, “human being” in Aramaic) is worship-worthy and described with a divine epithet, coming (or riding) with the clouds of heaven, which Old Testament writers used to identify Yahweh. The additional point to note here is that when Jesus forgave the sins and healed the paralytic brought to him by friends, he did it as the Son of Man (Matthew 9:1-7; Mark 2:9). In other words, Jesus portrayed himself as the son of man of Daniel—a being with descriptions only appropriate for Yahweh. When we combined the theological assumption of the Jewish law experts that only Yahweh could forgive sins with Jesus’ performance of the same as the divine son of man of Daniel, it is an inescapable conclusion that Jesus led his audience to conclude that he is Yahweh. 

There is yet another important point to make concerning the son of man. In Mark 14, they took Jesus to the Sanhedrin, a sitting of the governmental elders of Israel, including the chief priest, high priest, and experts in the law, for a mock trial. They looked for a reason to kill him. After all other attempts failed, 

“the high priest asked him, ‘Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?’’ (14:61)

 

Jesus responded: “I am.” Keep in mind that the high priest did not ask this question because he believed in Jesus; he did not. Instead, he asked if Jesus thought of himself as the one spoken of in the Hebrew Bible. After he responded in the affirmative, Jesus added:

“And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of the heaven” (14:62).

At this, the high priest said, “’ You have heard his blasphemy. What is your decision?’ And they all condemned him as deserving death.” (14:64). 

Though the high priest addressed Jesus as ‘the Son of the Blessed One,’ the Son of God (see Matthew 26:63), Jesus responded as the Son of Man—appropriating the image of the divine being of Daniel’s vision. The high priest interpreted this claim of Jesus sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and riding on the clouds as a blasphemy—an interpretation that would be accurate only if Jesus is not what he claims to be. Once again, Jesus’ response before the Sanhedrin is a claim of equality with God. 

Jesus as the Lord of the Sabbath

Besides claiming to be the Son of God and Son of Man, Jesus also claimed to be the Lord of the Jewish Sabbath. This claim is another contextually heavy one. The Jewish Sabbath is a serious matter of life and death. The Jews observed various Sabbaths. One idea behind these “holydays” comprises preventing Jews and their servants from overworking themselves in pursuit of material wealth to the point of forgetting about their God. Consider the following passage in Exodus 31:14-15:

You shall keep the Sabbath, therefore, for it is holy to you. Everyone who profanes it shall surely be put to death; for whoever does any work on it, that person shall be cut off from among his people.

Yes, the issue is that serious. The people could not even kindle a fire on the Sabbath (Exodus 35:3); perhaps they could not be trusted with kindling a fire without also trying to work with it. I should mention that not everyone who worked on a sabbath, and there is a very long list of what counts as “work,” was killed; only those who worked intentionally on a sabbath. Only those who dared God by intentionally disobeying got killed (Numbers 15:22-31). 

In Matthew 12, Jesus and his disciples were walking through grain fields on a Sabbath. Because the disciples were hungry, they picked up wheat to eat (12:1). The observing Pharisees rightly pointed out to Jesus that the disciples were breaking the law. In reply, Jesus lectured them that the disciples would not be the first to work on a Sabbath and yet be innocent (12:3-7). In fact, in the same passage, Jesus himself “broke” the law when he healed a man with a shriveled hand (12:10). When asked if it is lawful to heal on the Sabbath, Jesus said it is lawful to good on the Sabbath (12:12). Now, not only did he break the law, but Jesus also dared to change the law of Yahweh. When he taught that it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath, even if that includes working, he introduced something new. On what authority did he change Yahweh’s law? On the authority that “the Son of Man is the Lord of the Sabbath” (12:8). Put another way, Jesus here claims that the Jews’ observance of the Sabbath, from the very beginning, was unto him! But wait, surely every Jew knew that his or her observance of sabbaths was unto Yahweh. Yeah, that is right. Jesus claims here to be Yahweh. 

Jesus and worship—Part One

Perhaps the strongest piece of evidence for the divinity of Jesus surrounds worship. People worshipped Jesus frequently in the New Testament. The following are some instances of Jesus being worshipped:

As they came into the house and saw the child with Mary, his mother, they bowed down and worshiped him. (Matthew 2:11)

Then those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” (Matthew 14:33)

But Jesus met them, saying, “Greetings!” They came to him, held on his feet, and worshipped him (Matthew 28:9)

When they saw him, they worshiped him, but some doubted (Matthew 28:17)

So they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy (Luke 24:52)

He said, “Lord, I believe,” and he worshiped him. (John 9:38)

We cannot over-emphasize this point: people who professed that there is only one God (cf. Deuteronomy 6:4), and would not worship Roman gods, worshipped Jesus. These Jews either fell into idolatry or they discovered something many people today struggle to grasp. 

A critic may argue that not all these instances of worship imply that Jesus is Yahweh. I agree. For instance, that the Magi worshiped the baby Jesus probably does not amount to much. After all, we have reasons to think that the Magi were not monotheistic; they probably were not even Jews. Magi practiced Zoroastrianism and would not have had the same understanding of worship as a monotheistic Jew. 

However, it is hard to say similar things about the other instances of worship. In the blind man’s case who Jesus healed—by the way, as the Son of Man—in John 9, an act that was heavily investigated by the Pharisees, the man was a Jew with some sanctified commonsense that towered above religious shackles. The healed man even dared to engage the experts in the law in textual interpretation. He worshiped Jesus in understanding. 

Also, the worship instance in Matthew 14 was another case of intentional worship. This was the instance when Jesus’ Jewish disciples responded to the culmination of extraordinary events they had witnessed. Jesus had miraculously fed well over five thousand people, healed many people, cast out devils, and taught in authority. Hearing the news that his cousin, John the baptizer, had been beheaded, Jesus needed a solitary place to pray. He sent his disciples ahead to the other side of the river. Hours later, Jesus had to catch up to the disciples. With no boats available, Jesus trekked on the lake defying Archimedes’ principle along with the laws governing fluid mechanics. Having commonsense, the disciples concluded it must be a weightless ghost approaching them on the water. When they learned it was Jesus, they worshipped him. The disciples knew some experiential physics: If pounds of flesh, blood, and bones could walk on water and even enable another human, Peter, to defy the laws of fluid mechanics along with him—keeping in mind the other things already known about this individual—he deserves to be worshipped as one would Yahweh. I can see no other adequate explanation. 

Last, people worshipped the resurrected Jesus in the other instances quoted above. These monotheistic Jews worshipped a being who they saw die and rise from the dead state, never again to die. The case of worship in Luke 24 was when they watched Jesus levitate into the skies, once again defying the laws of gravity and fluid mechanics. They watched Jesus ride on the clouds of heaven. The people, once more, evidently worshipped in understanding. 

Jesus and worship—Part Two

There is a second part to the worship argument that I think is even stronger. It is one thing to say people worshipped Jesus. It is another thing to say Jesus accepted or received the worship of people as though he were God. We could easily make a case that we cannot trust humans on this issue of worship. After all, humans worship all kinds of things. Even the monotheistic Jews of the Old Testament repeatedly fell into idolatry, worshipping other gods from time to time. However, at exactly zero time did Jesus forbid people from worshipping him! In contrast, let us compare the writings of John in the book of Revelations 19. A mighty angel had shown John many frightening, heart-breaking, and awe-inspiring things. In verse 10, the Apostle writes: 

At this, I fell at his feet to worship him. But he said to me, “Do not do it! I am a fellow-servant with you and with your brothers who hold to the testimony of Jesus. Worship God! For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.” Revelations 19:10.

Yes, the foremost Apostle was so overwhelmed by this mighty angel that he wanted to worship him. This buttresses the point that we cannot entirely trust humans with worship. However, this angel stopped the Apostle, saying he is merely a fellow-servant to the testimony of Jesus. (It is worth reiterating that this is a distinction the Angel of the LORD that we investigated in Part 2 never did.) Furthermore, the mighty angel reminded the Apostle to worship only God. Now, if a mighty angel stopped a man from worshipping him because he is unfit to receive the worship, should not the man Jesus have done the same if he was unfit to receive the worship of women and men? 

Last, in Acts 14, Paul and Barnabas healed a man in Lystra, Turkey, born crippled. When the people saw the miracle performed, they exclaimed: “The gods have come down to us in human form!” (14:11) Then the priest of Zeus, the chief god among the Greek pantheon, brought bulls and wreaths to the city gate to offer sacrifices in the worship of Paul and Barnabas (14:12-13). When Paul and Barnabas realized what was going on, “they tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd, shouting: ‘Men, why are you doing this? We too are only men, human like you”’ (14:14-15). 

This is very instructive. These followers of Jesus deemed themselves unfit for worship. Once again, if Apostle Paul, who wrote more than half of the New Testament books and turned the Roman Empire inside out, considered himself unfit for worship, would not the same apply to the man Jesus if he were a mere messenger of God? The verdict is clear: The Son of Man is deserving of worship because he is Yahweh just like the Father is.

Jesus resurrected

I can’t imagine what one would do differently if one lived as a Jew at the time of Jesus. The “blasphemies” of Jesus multiplied almost beyond measure. From the days of the faithful patriarch Abraham through Moses and the other prophets, Jews had learned about a mighty Yahweh who lives in heaven and uses the earth as a footstool (Isaiah 66:1). Yet, this man, Jesus, claims to be Yahweh. Eventually, some Jewish leaders concluded it would be better to hasten his death than wait for nature. 

I should mention that the killing of Jesus need not be seen as outrageous. The Old Testament penalty for breaking the Sabbath, for instance, not to mention claiming equality with God, was death, as discussed already. Thus, the Jewish leaders only had to be genuinely convinced that Jesus broke the law. But that was precisely the problem. They could not genuinely convict him of wrongdoing, and the eventual motivation for killing him was apart from the law (see John 11:48, for example). Some members of the Pharisees, like Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, even believed that Jesus was the promised messiah. The thought of how killing Jesus would take care of all the instability and confusion in the land seems to have been overwhelming. Hence, the people gave him a verdict of death before his trial began. The leaders incited the people against Jesus, and they killed him (Matthew 27:11-56). 

Now, following his death, if Jesus had stayed in the grave, it would be difficult to take his claims of divinity seriously afterward. But after three days, Jesus rose from the dead! The fact of the resurrection is as good as any other evidence of divinity that we can ever find. When Jesus rose from the dead, he did not merely snap out of a death state; he was not in a coma. Professional killers in Roman soldiers certified his death. Recall that hypovolemia was a factor in his death, among other causes, since he bled out; no one snaps out of that without blood transfusion. By his resurrection, Jesus shows he is indestructible and beyond the (permanent) reach of death. He cannot ever die again. Through his resurrection, which he predicted several times during his earthly ministry, Jesus showed he was more than a mere man.

Though I have here provided a cumulative argument – perhaps similar to how the Jews in Jesus’ day would have reasoned to the divinity conclusion – we also have testimonies of people who thought Jesus was God. As we shall see in Part 4, there are many instances in the New Testament where monotheistic Jews straightforwardly called Jesus God.

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