People from various religious groups claim that Jesus is, in some way, God. What they seem to mean is not that Jesus represented God or that Jesus displayed many good or divine qualities in his character but that he actually was God, creator of the universe, Mr Big, Mr Omnipotent himself. Other people deny that Jesus is God and say that it was only many years after his death that people started making these audacious claims for divinity about Jesus.
In this article we will look into the Bible to see if there is any evidence that Jesus considered himself to be God or if he ever claimed to be God. The only substantial records we have of Jesus saying or doing anything are those found in four sections of the Bible. These four sections are generally known by the names of the four men who are supposed to be their authors, namely Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
One very important matter that we must keep in mind is that these four “authors” are describing events that took place in the region that we call the “middle east” in the first century, AD. The events that are described occurred in an era and culture that is very different to many so-called Christian societies of the 21st Century. Jesus is often portrayed in paintings as having long blonde hair, flowing medieval robes, a glowing circle hovering around his head, and a slightly lean body frame as if he was undernourished. In reality Jesus probably had dark hair, possibly wore a turban of some sort, wore practical clothes suitable for carpentry work and while he might not have been a muscle man in the 21st Century ideal, he was likely to have been strong and muscular as a result of the manual labour involved in carpentry. In short, many of the conceptions of Jesus are based on images and ideas that are more suited to fable than to fact.
When Jesus spoke, he talked as a country carpenter. His education was that of a country Jewish boy, not a scholar from a fancy college. Most of the people that would have met were of Middle Eastern or Mediterranean origin — Jews, Syrians, Egyptians, Greeks, Turks, and the people of the lands we presently call Palestine, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Italy. There might also have been a few people that he met from further afield, perhaps from the lands we now call Iraq, Algeria, Libya, Sudan and Ethiopia — we don't really know. One thing we can be sure about is that he himself, and the people he met, did not look or dress, talk or think like city dwellers from north Europe or north America of the 19th, 20th or 21st centuries.
Now let us look at a few events.
(1) Forgiving the sins of the paralysed man.
On one occasion, some men brought one of their friends to Jesus. The story is told by Matthew (in chapter 9), by Mark (chapter 2) and by Luke (chapter 5). The story tells how the man was brought because he was paralysed and could not walk by himself and how he was lowered through a hole in the ceiling of the building because the crowd around Jesus was so great that his friends could not get the paralysed man near to Jesus in any other way. Jesus uses the occasion to make it very clear to the crowd that he has authority to forgive sin. This is how Luke described these events:
One day as he was teaching, Pharisees and teachers of the law, who had come from every village of Galilee and from Judea and Jerusalem, were sitting there. And the power of the Lord was present for him to heal the sick. Some men came carrying a paralytic on a mat and tried to take him into the house to lay him before Jesus. When they could not find a way to do this because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and lowered him on his mat through the tiles into the middle of the crowd, right in front of Jesus. When Jesus saw their faith, he said, “Friend, your sins are forgiven.” The Pharisees and the teachers of the law began thinking to themselves, “Who is this fellow who speaks blasphemy? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” Jesus knew what they were thinking and asked, “Why are you thinking these things in your hearts? Which is easier: to say, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, 'Get up and walk'? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins. . . .” He said to the paralysed man, “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.” Immediately he stood up in front of them, took what he had been lying on and went home praising God.
The good news according to Luke, chapter 5, verses 17 to 25. Taken from the NIV translation of the Bible
Several points need to be noted about this story. First, Jesus does take it upon himself to declare that the paralysed man's sins are forgiven. Second, the religious Jews (the Pharisees and teachers of the Jewish law) were shocked because according to Jewish belief only God could forgive a person's sins in this manner. Third, Jesus apparently knew what they were secretly thinking and challenges them about it. Notice that he does not tell them that they are wrong to think that only God can forgive sins — he merely tells them that he (“Son of Man” was a title he used for himself) does have the authority to do so and reinforces the point by empowering the paralysed man to get up and walk, apparently healed of his disablement.
Now if we forget that Jesus and his audience were Jews, with Jewish beliefs and Jewish ways of thinking then some of what is going on here will be wasted on us. To understand the event we have to understand something of the participants. It is very clear that the Pharisees and religious teachers considered Jesus to be committing a blasphemous act but Jesus response is less clear. He responds to them with a question (“which is easier to say ...”) and then apparently heals the man of his disability. What Jesus is doing is linking two aspects of God in the one event because, according to Jewish thought, only God could forgive sins and only by the power of God could this paralysed person be made able to walk. In effect Jesus is saying to those around him, “Yes, you are entirely correct to think that only God can forgive sins and that only God can heal this sick man. You could have known who I truly am because I forgave his sins but since that is too hard for you then, instead, you could know who I truly am because I healed his sick body”.
Jesus did not deny that only God could forgive sins. Nor did he explain how it was that he could heal the sick almost at will while other men could not. He simply got on with doing both and acted as if this was a perfectly natural thing for him to do. He did not apologise for offending their religious sensibilities, nor did he tell them they were wrong. When Jesus did quite naturally what only God could do, he was not just claiming to be God but was actually declaring and demonstrating it to be so.
Jesus did not actually stand up in front of the crowd and say “I am God”. What he did was to stand in front of the crowd and do what, as he and the Pharisees and religious teachers all agreed, only God could do; the logical conclusion he left for them to fathom for themselves. If he had merely declared the man's sins forgiven then he would have been acting as if he were God but those around him need not have believed him. However, when he declared the man healed and the man got up and walked away then not only was Jesus acting as if he were God but he was also giving the people around him something tangible and undeniable by which they might also know who he was.
In this story Jesus claims to be God by declaring the man's sins forgiven. His ability to heal the man by his word alone is the proof that his first claim was true and not just the presumptuous speech of a self-important fool.
(2) Jesus claims to have existed before Abraham.
“Before Abraham was born, I am.”
The above statement was made by Jesus at the end of debate between Jesus and some Pharisees. The discussion is a hostile one with each side accusing the other side of being evil and of being liars. There is much in the discussion that is of interest and it can be read in its entirety in John's writing (the good news according to John, chapter 8, verses 12 to 59). However because we are only looking to see if Jesus ever claimed to be God we will concentrate just on this one statement and the Pharisees response to it.
Just as there is much of interest in the discussion, there was also much that antagonised the Pharisees. However the statement that really provoked them was Jesus statement that “I tell you the truth; before Abraham was born, I am.” John records that the Pharisees instant response to this statement was to take up stones to throw at Jesus.
Now to a modern mind Jesus' statement seems very strange and the Pharisees response seems rather peculiar. Why did the Pharisees get so agitated about such an odd statement? To understand their agitation we have to understand a little more about Jewish belief. The Jewish scriptures record that when Moses received his commission from God he asked God who he should tell the Israelites had sent him. The passage can be found in that part of the Bible that is called the book of Exodus, in chapter 3 and verse 16. The key portion of the passage is reproduced below:
Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the desert and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight — why the bush does not burn up.”
When the LORD saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, "Moses! Moses!" and Moses said, "Here I am."
"Do not come any closer," God said. "Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground." Then he said, "I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob." At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God. The LORD said, I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey — the home of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them. So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.”
But Moses said to God, "Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?" And God said, "I will be with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain."
Moses said to God, "Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, 'The God of your fathers has sent me to you,' and they ask me, 'What is his name?' Then what shall I tell them?" God said to Moses, "I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: 'I AM has sent me to you.'" God also said to Moses, "Say to the Israelites, 'The LORD, the God of your fathers — the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob — has sent me to you.' This is my name forever, the name by which I am to be remembered from generation to generation.
Exodus chapter 3, verses 1 to 15.
This passage gives us the significance of what Jesus said, what it meant and why the Pharisees became so angry. From what happened to Moses (as described above) the Jews understood that “I am” was a name that they were to use for God alone. Jesus used this name but applied it to himself. We can see that the other Jews understood perfectly well what he was saying because they picked-up stones to throw at him because death by stoning was the punishment for blasphemy. We know that the Pharisees understood that Jesus was claiming to be God and we know that they understood this without any ambiguity because of the nature and speed of their reaction.
Thus this passage writen in John's section of the Bible describes another occasion when Jesus did claim to be God. Jesus himself was a Jew; he would have known the significance of his own words, he would have known the punishment for blasphemy and he would have known what the likely response was going to be from the zealous Pharisees.
(3) Jesus answers the high-priest and the elders
After Jesus had been arrested he was questioned by the high-priest. This was another occasion when Jesus claimed to be God and thereby enraged his accusers.
Then the high priest stood up before them and asked Jesus, “Are you not going to answer? What is this testimony that these men are bringing against you?” But Jesus remained silent and gave no answer. Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?”
“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?”
They all condemned him as worthy of death.
The good news as it was told by Mark, chapter 14, verses 60 to 64.
Why the outcry? To modern eyes and ears the answer that Jesus gives seems quite simple and inoffensive but the priests of his own age considered this short answer to be a serious blasphemy and sufficient cause to condemn him without any further questioning or the need for a full trial .... why? Again it is because of the use of the divine name “I am”; Jesus does not exactly agree with the priests but instead, goes beyond what they suggest and positively asserts his deity. He does this by uses the divine name in a way that makes it refer to himself and thus, to the Jewish ears of the people around him, he was clearly claiming to be God.
Jesus was a Jew. It is, to me at least, inconcievable that he could have forgotten or been unaware of the double meaning in the use of the words “I am” or have been unaware of the offence their use would cause to his accusers. It seems therefore reasonable to conclude that he used the term because he wished to assert his own divinity.