Was Jesus God?
To say the least, it’s an important question. If Jesus was God-on-earth, then everything he said and did becomes so important, it simply can’t be ignored.
If he wasn’t God incarnate, then something went haywire between the time he died and the time the Christian scriptures were written. If Jesus wasn’t God, to put it bluntly, then his first followers created that idea after his death. Reading the writings of Paul, John, Luke, Matthew, Peter and the author of Hebrews, there’s no doubt they all considered Jesus to be divine.
But if all of those early voices were creating a re-imaged Jesus, then the words of Jesus aren’t nearly that important. He was simply a man whose devoted followers turned him into a legendary figure.
Wouldn’t it have helped if Jesus had addressed the subject?
Or perhaps it would help if we could hear what Jesus had to say from the context of his culture, in his language, and in his particular place in history.
I’m reminded of the translator who tried to communicate a visiting speaker’s illustration that involved a Burger King restaurant. “There was once a king in the land of Burger,” the translator began …
And with that, the illustration crashed and burned. The speaker had in mind a fast-food restaurant. His listeners were envisioning a royal family in a foreign land!
A lot gets lost when translators move across language barriers and cultural lines. More proper context is lost when 2,000 years pass. No wonder we sometimes feel frustrated when we try to take in the big picture of the Bible.
Never is that more important than when dealing with the question of who Jesus was. Was he the human-flesh version of Almighty God … or not? Can we avoid the “King of Burger” mistakes that can so easily skew our understanding of the Bible’s teaching?
Perhaps we can. Consider these factors:
- Jesus pronounced forgiveness of sins, shocking all who heard him (Matthew 9:2, Luke 7:48). Obviously, only God can forgive sins, and yet Jesus claimed that power. Adding to the confusion of his hearers was what Jesus did after he offered such a divine blessing.
- Jesus healed people as if his power was unlimited (see Matthew 9:3 and following, for example). Since only God has unlimited power, the countless miracles of healing drew many people to believe that Jesus was, indeed, God-on-earth. According to the Gospels, these miracles occurred hundreds of times.
- Jesus accepted worship. In Matthew 14:32-33, the disciples of Jesus worshipped their leader, having just watched him walk on water. The miracle itself usually gets all the attention, but shouldn’t a regular human being reject human worship? Wouldn’t that be much more true for a Jewish rabbi who was dedicated to the Ten Commandments? After all, God alone should be worshipped. And yet Jesus acted as if worship of himself was an appropriate action!
- Jesus once claimed the name of God for himself. In a heated argument, Jesus used the famous story of the burning bush. In that story, God pronounced His name as “I Am.” Jesus used this language in describing himself. While that might slip past modern-day Bible readers, it didn’t slip past those who were present. They tried to kill Jesus on the spot! See John 8:54-59.
- Jesus also claimed his divinity before Caiaphas and the other religious leaders on the day of his crucifixion. Again, Jesus doesn’t answer the “Are-you-the-Messiah” question with a “Yes” or “No,” and that confuses a modern-day reader of the Bible. But watch what the high priest did in response to what Jesus said. He tore his clothes and took immediate action to have Jesus executed! (See Mathew 26:62-68.) What Caiaphas and the other leaders heard was an unqualified “Yes!” As a side note, Jesus had previously made this same, life-threatening claim (John 5:18).
- Jesus controlled the weather, stopping a storm in its tracks. This is not in the power of a normal man!
- Jesus multiplied food instantly, without troubling with the laws of nature that govern how food grows. Speaking of defying the laws of nature, he also walked on water. Only the Creator of such natural laws could hold such power of them!
- Jesus brought dead people back to life on at least three occasions. There was a young girl in Capernaum, a young man in Nain, and Lazarus of Bethany. Again, only God could bring life out of death.
- According to the eyewitnesses, angels announced his conception, his birth and his resurrection. On the occasion of his baptism and at what is called the “Transfiguration,” a voice from heaven proclaimed Jesus to be God’s son.
- Jesus claimed that all of scripture had pointed to him (Luke 24:27). He also took the world’s most symbolic meal – Passover – and claimed the symbolism of the meal was about him! The bread and wine elements became known as the Christian “Lord’s Supper,” but the shocking idea of a single man saying the sacred meal was about him escapes us. It did not escape those who were present as he said those words. They were profoundly affected by them, which is why we still use them today in Christian communion.
- Jesus accurately predicted things about the future, including the coming destruction of the Temple, which was still under construction even as he spoke the words. It was destroyed 40 years later.
- Jesus also predicted his own death and resurrection, and according to eyewitnesses who never recanted their stories, Jesus was, indeed, raised from the dead.
Perhaps there are only three options at this point to consider.
First, Jesus was insane. That’s a real possibility. Remember David Koresh? He, too, claimed to be the Son of God. Like so many other people who have claimed divinity, Koresh was also crazy. Perhaps Jesus fits into this unfortunate category.
Second, the followers of Jesus made all of these stories up. Though there is no other comparable example in all of human history, it is conceivable that Jesus’ heartbroken followers simply made all of the stories up so they could pretend Jesus was God-in-human-flesh. If so, they pulled off an incredible act. The first written proclamation of the divinity of Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:3 and following) occurred within 10 years or less of his death. All four Gospels were written within 40 years of his death. In terms of studying ancient history, this is remarkable. It should take more than a century – or closer to three centuries – for legends to develop about a heroic figure. Otherwise, eyewitnesses who knew the truth would refute made-up stories. Think of an event like Pearl Harbor or even the more recent attack on September 11, 2001. If you’ve seen something that traumatic with your own eyes, you’ll not tolerate someone making up fanciful stories about the event. The same would have been true for eyewitnesses who’d seen the violent execution of their beloved leader 2,000 years ago.
Or third, Jesus was God in human flesh.
Call me simple, but I’ll go with Option Three. There’s too much circumstantial evidence. Too many people were willing to suffer on account of these stories for me to believe they made them up. There is also too much archeological and geographical evidence that confirms facts that can be validated about narrative. And frankly, it’s more difficult to believe that a handful of followers could (1) agree on a made-up story and (2) convince thousands of people to believe that their story was true.
Was Jesus God?
If Jesus was just a man, don’t worry about it.
But if Jesus was God, your answer will constitute the most important decision you’ll ever make.