It is sometimes argued that Jesus never claimed to be God, in so many words, as in, “I am God.” But if we look a little closer at what he did claim about himself, and appreciate what that meant from his perspective and that of his first hearers, we shall find that he claimed nothing less. What needs to be understood at the outset, however, is that Jesus never claimed to be the Father. It is clear that despite his uniquely close relationship with his Father, Father and Son are separate Persons. Nevertheless, they share the divine attributes that make them, with the Holy Spirit, the Godhead.
Setting aside the considerable testimony of the New Testament writers in passages such as John 1:1–2, 14; Rom 9:5; Titus 2:13–14; Heb 1:3; Col 1:19; 2:9, the application of YHWH passages to Jesus, his worthiness to be worshiped and references to his complete supremacy, we will concentrate on Jesus’ own claims about himself. But firstly, note his response to being directly addressed as God. When Thomas was confronted with the risen Christ, he said to Jesus, “My Lord and My God!” If Jesus had a problem with this designation, it is surprising that he did not correct his disciple. That this is no mere argument from a vacuum is evident from what happened next. Jesus acknowledged Thomas’ belief, but gave greater commendation to “those who have not seen and yet have believed.” John immediately follows this account with the purpose statement of his whole Gospel; “these things are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” Thomas’ declaration thus becomes the climactic resolution to John’s theme of Who is Jesus? We must be wary of forcing a different interpretation that fits with preconceptions such as “We know Jesus can’t be God, so we need to explain this passage away” (John 9:24, 32–34).
So what was Jesus’ self understanding? What claims did he make about himself? Jesus claimed possession of, and authority over, the things of God. He referred to the angels and to the Kingdom of God as his as they are also his Father’s (Luke 1:32–33; 22:29–30; Matt 13:41–43; John 18:36). He also claimed the roles and titles of the God of the Old Testament; Shepherd, Judge, Lord. The Shepherd motif is an important expression of God’s relationship to Israel; God promised that he himself would be their Shepherd (Ezek 34) and that prophecy was fulfilled in Jesus’ claim, “I am the Good Shepherd” (John 10). As Son of Man he claimed to be the great eschatological figure prophesied to claim the kingdom and be worshiped in the very presence of the Ancient of Days (Dan 7:13–14; Mark 14:61–62). He claimed to be the Alpha and Omega who shares the throne of God (Matt 26:64; Luke 20:42–44; Rev 1:8; 22:6, 13).
Jesus claimed the prerogatives of God. He claimed and exercised the prerogative of God to forgive sins. Not just sins against himself, personally but any and all sins. All sin is ultimately against God (Psa 51:4), and yet the Father gave him authority to forgive on his behalf. In Mark 2:5–12, a paralytic was brought to Jesus for healing. Perceiving the man’s greater need, Jesus said to him, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” As C.S. Lewis notes,
One part of the claim tends to slip past us unnoticed because we have heard it so often that we no longer see what it amounts to. I mean the claim to forgive sins: any sins. Now unless the speaker is God, this is really so preposterous as to be comic. We can all understand how a man forgives offences against himself. You tread on my toes and I forgive you, you steal my money and I forgive you. But what should we make of a man, himself unrobbed and untrodden on, who announced that he forgave you for treading on other men’s toes and stealing other men’s money? Asinine fatuity is the kindest description we should give of his conduct. Yet this is what Jesus did. He told people that their sins were forgiven, and never waited to consult all the other people whom their sins had undoubtedly injured. He unhesitatingly behaved as if He was the party chiefly concerned, the person chiefly offended in all offences. This makes sense only if He really was the God whose laws are broken and whose love is wounded in every sin. In the mouth of any speaker who is not God, these words imply what I can only regard as a silliness and conceit unrivalled by any other character in history.”
The Scribes’ reaction was as Lewis described; “Why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” Jesus’ reply was authoritative; “The Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins,” and he proved it by healing the paralysis. No wonder the crowd exclaimed, “We never saw anything like this!”
Furthermore, Jesus claimed the prerogative of judging the world (John 5:22, 27; Matt 25:31–46) even though throughout the Old Testament it is YHWH who is and will be the Judge (1 Sam 2:10; Psa 9:7–8; 75:7; 82:8; 96:13; Isa 33:22; Mic 4:1–3). He directed people to believe in himself in order to be saved (John 14:1; Luke 19:9–10) even though there only ever was and ever would be one Saviour; God (Isa 43:11; 45:21; Hos 13:4; Luke 1:47; 2:11). In John 14:1 he exhorted the disciples to believe in him as they believe in God. Jesus claimed to be the Way, the Truth and the Life. He claimed to be the only way to God (John 14:6) and the only one who could reveal God (Matt 11:27). His truth would set people free (John 8:32). He not only claimed the power of life and death but claimed to be the resurrection and the life (John 11:25; 20:31, 3:15–16). He claimed to share the very glory of God (John 1:14; 17:5) — YHWH who had declared he would never share his glory with another (Isa 42:8; 48:11)! Furthermore, Jesus accepted worship, even before his exaltation, whilst acknowledging it was due only to God (Matt 4:10; 8:2; 9:18; 14:33; 15:25)
These claims are so familiar that we probably fail to appreciate their import. His audience was Jewish; the chastised people who had learnt through tribulation and punishment the consequences of rejecting their Lord and Saviour, the One God who would share his glory with no other, their only Lord, Saviour, Redeemer, their Judge. And here was a mere man (so they thought!) usurping these titles and prerogatives of the Master of the Universe himself! No wonder they regarded his teaching, in their willful blindness, as nothing short of blasphemy.
The Sabbath was appointed by God from the very beginning, from the time of Creation itself (Gen 2:2–3; Ex 16:23–29; 20:8, 11; Deut 5:12–15) and it superseded even other divine laws (John 7:22–23). Jesus claimed to be Lord of the Sabbath. He claimed that he had the right to determine what was appropriate to do on the Sabbath and had jurisdiction over this God-appointed institution (Matt 12:8; Mark 2:23–28; Luke 6:5;13:13–16; John 5:2–18). Jesus juxtaposed his own words with Scripture, placing his own authority on a par with God’s word. Instead of saying, like the Old Testament prophets, “Thus says the Lord,” or “The word of the Lord came to me,” he says simply, “But I tell you . . .” (Matt 5:21–22, 27–28). He spoke with a final, overriding authority and claimed that his words, unlike heaven and earth, would never pass away (Matthew 24:35; cf. Isaiah 40:8). “No one ever spoke like this man,” declared the guards (John 7: 46). Jesus even saw fit to elaborate on, or move beyond what was written in the Old Testament Scriptures, or at least the way they were commonly interpreted. He even overrode the Mosaic law when he declared all foods clean (Mark 7:19). The Ten Commandments directed, “You shall not murder,” but Jesus elaborated (Matt 5:21–22). Likewise, the Law said, you shall not commit adultery, but Jesus went further (Matt 5:28). Where the law permitted divorce, Jesus took his questioners back to the Creation mandate (Matt 5:32). He told them not to swear but simply tell the truth (Matt 5:34) and overrode the “eye for an eye” provision with the command to not resist an evil person (Matt 5:39). In each of these the phrase used is ego de lego; the ego is grammatically redundant but adds emphasis; “But I say . . .” In speaking this way, Jesus gave his words the authority equivalent to Scripture; quite appropriate for the Word made flesh to do.
Jesus’ teaching is God’s teaching; it originated with his Father in their eternal relationship (John 7:17; 8:26, 28, 38; 12:49–50; 14:10, 24). He was the fulfilment of Isaiah 54:13, the means by which “they will all be taught by God” (John 6:45). Jesus declared himself to be the living bread which came down from heaven. To come to Jesus, a person must be drawn by the Father and everyone who listens to and learns from the Father comes to Jesus. Jesus is the only one who has seen the Father; he came from the Father and that is where his teaching originates; the Godhead (John 6:44–46). “The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life,” he said (verse 63). Coupling these verses with those that demonstrate Jesus’ personal authority (“But I say to you…”) we can see that there is no separation between the words of Jesus and those of the Father. Jesus exhibited divine authority, but it was not autonomous. The message originates within the Godhead and Jesus, the Word made flesh, spoke what he had seen and heard. Jesus claimed a unique relationship with the Father; to be one with the Father (John 10:30; 17:12-21) and that to see and know him is to see and know the Father (John 14:7–9). These are claims of a relationship between Father and Son, through eternity that can be said of no other, even those who have “walked with God” or been “the friend of God.” Jesus claimed to do the very works of God, whatever God himself does (John 5:19; 10:37–38). CS Lewis again:
Then comes the real shock. Among these Jews there suddenly turns up a man who goes about talking as if He was God. He claims to forgive sins. He says He has always existed. He says He is coming to judge the world at the end of time . . . God, in their language, meant the Being outside the world, who had made it and was infinitely different from anything else. And when you have grasped that, you will see that what this man said was, quite simply, the most shocking thing that has ever been uttered by human lips… In the mouth of any speaker who is not God, these words imply what I can only regard as a silliness and conceit unrivalled by any other character in history. Yet (and this is the strange, significant thing) even His enemies, when they read the Gospels, do not usually get the impression of silliness and conceit. Still less do unprejudiced readers. Christ says that He is “humble and meek” and we believe Him; not noticing that, if He were merely a man, humility and meekness are the very last characteristics we could attribute to some of his sayings.”
So these are Jesus’ own claims, which demonstrate his self-understanding. In many circumstances, a person can function in a role that is not intrinsically theirs; a parent may function as a teacher, for example. But one cannot function as God without being God. Jesus spoke of himself in unequivocally divine terms and was worshiped and glorified by his disciples and the other early Christians as God. To treat someone as God, to honour, worship and ascribe the names and prerogatives of God to someone who is not God is idolatry, but to do this for Jesus is not idolatry, it is to rightfully acknowledge him as no less than God, with us.
C.S. Lewis quotations from Mere Christianity (London: Fount, 1977), 352–53.