Even with two of the six weeks of this debate devoted to discussing the person of Jesus Christ, we have an embarrassing wealth of riches from Scripture on the subject and cannot possibly do all of it justice in the space and time allotted. I have written a book on the subject, co-authored with my good friend J. Ed Komoszewski, entitled Putting Jesus in His Place: The Case for the Deity of Christ. It isn’t exhaustive, but it surveys the biblical teaching about Christ’s deity in a way that many people have found helpful.
Toward a Biblically-Based Christology
Ideally, our doctrine of Christ should take into consideration everything the Bible says about Christ. No one will do this perfectly, of course, but we should cast as wide a net as possible and bring to bear material from throughout the Bible. On the other hand, for various reasons some parts of the Bible will and should play a larger or more prominent role in Christology.
One commonly stated reason for assigning some texts priority, however, requires some rethinking. I am referring to the common hermeneutical canon that we should interpret the “obscure,” “ambiguous,” or “unclear” texts in light of the “clear” texts. Many people who appeal to this principle to validate their interpretations have engaged in untold mischief. All too often, people view any text that agrees with their predetermined position as “clear” and any that does not as “unclear.” The reasoning often proceeds along these lines: “My opponent thinks that Text A teaches his doctrine. However, Text B clearly teaches my doctrine, which is contrary to his. Furthermore, scholars disagree about the meaning of Text A. Since Text A, then, is not clear, we should go with the clear teaching of Text B.” Using this form of argument, it is all too easy to dismiss from serious consideration texts that do not seem to fit one’s theological position.
The reality is that almost invariably Text A seems clear to one group while Text B appears equally clear to an opposing group. Furthermore, one can find some scholars with differing opinions about the meaning of almost every text, including Text B (whatever that text may be). Scholarly inventiveness and creativity know almost no bounds, and since academia in the humanities (including biblical scholarship) encourages revisionism, scholars often put forth differing explanations of a text simply because they think that’s their job. In the end, “clarity” and “obscurity” are usually subjective judgments that reflect the beliefs of the interpreters more than they inform us about the texts themselves.
Since we cannot assign priority to texts on the simplistic assumption that our favorite texts are the clearest, we need another approach. The approach I propose is to identify, on the basis of specific criteria, the major passages treating the subject. The criteria (which overlap with one another) include the following:
- Subject matter: The text’s main subject or theme directly relates to the doctrinal issue at hand.
- Length of treatment: The text addresses the subject or theme at some length, in what we might call a paragraph (or longer), rather than just one or two sentences.
- Place of the book in Scripture: A book’s place in the canon is relevant because biblical revelation took place over many centuries and went through discernible stages tied to historical events and developments.
- Purpose of the book: This criterion also overlaps the subject matter criterion, but pertains to the book as a whole, not just the individual passage.
- Genre of the passage or book. Some genres are more directly relevant to addressing doctrinal issues than others. Generally, narratives to inform us about historical matters and didactic genres (sermons, lectures, treatises, etc.) inform us about doctrinal matters. Of course, in Christianity historical and doctrinal matters sometimes overlap.
- Comprehensiveness: A passage is more comprehensive if it addresses more aspects or dimensions of a topic than other passages do. The more comprehensive a passage is, the more it ranks as a major passage.
- Confessional material: Passages that incorporate or present confessional or creedal material are especially important because they express the believing community’s faith in a more formal, systematic, or intentional manner.
- Position within the book: In some cases the position of a passage within a book gives that passage some priority or heightened importance. The two most obvious positions in a book of relevance here are at the beginning and at the end, or at least at the climax (especially in a narrative book).
Based on these criteria, what would be the major passages on the subject of the identity of Jesus Christ? All of the major passages should be in the NT, since books written after Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection will offer more direct reflection and teaching about the identity of Jesus than books written before his coming. Eight passages stand out:
- Matthew 28:16-20: This passage comes at the end of Matthew and presents Christ in his exalted status.
- John 1:1-18. John tells his readers that he wrote the whole Gospel to persuade them as to who Jesus is—the Christ, the Son of God (John 20:30-31). The Gospel of John is the only book with this stated purpose, and so it is appropriate that discussions of the identity of Jesus give “disproportionate” attention to this one book. The Prologue, which comes at the very beginning of the Gospel (John 1:1-18), is the one sustained didactic passage outside of Jesus’ own speeches in the book. Furthermore, the Prologue’s purpose is to “pull back the curtain” and let the reader know who and what Jesus is even before the narrative begins.
- John 20:26-31: This is the climactic passage in the Gospel of John and includes the author’s purpose statement.
- Romans 10:8-13: In this passage, Paul states in a clearly confessional manner the message of faith in Jesus as Lord and explains what it means.
- 1 Corinthians 8:4-6: This relatively short text is a formal, creedal statement rich beyond its length.
- Philippians 2:6-11. Christ is the subject of this famous passage; more specifically, the passage focuses on Christ’s status, offering a sweeping account of Christ’s humiliation and exaltation (making it important for reasons of comprehensiveness). It is didactic material and very likely drew on confessional material, perhaps in the form of a “hymn.”
- Colossians 1:13-20. This is another passage in which Paul apparently drew on confessional material (possibly another “hymn,” though the evidence for this is weaker here than for Philippians 2). Like Philippians 2:6-11, the whole passage focuses on the status of Christ. It makes a good number of affirmations or statements about Christ in a relatively compressed space (again, similar in length to the Philippians passage). The epistle to the Colossians is a didactic work, and a major theme of the epistle is the exclusive position of Christ.
- Hebrews 1:1-14. The subject of this passage is the superiority of the Son to the angels. A major theme of the book as a whole is the superiority of Jesus and his covenant to the old covenant. Hebrews 1 is a lengthy passage, comes at the very beginning of the book, is didactic material (Hebrews is probably a written sermon or lecture), and appears to incorporate some confessional material (the argument supporting this last point is somewhat involved).
Notice that these eight major Christological passages come from different parts of the New Testament—four from Paul (who wrote about half of the books of the NT), two from John, one from Matthew, and one from Hebrews. Thus, these major passages represent a good cross-section of New Testament teaching on the identity of Jesus Christ. In this post and next week’s post, then, I will discuss the teachings of these eight passages pertaining to the identity of Christ, with supplemental references to other biblical texts as appropriate. This post will address the texts in Matthew and John, along with an excursus on two texts in John that anti-Trinitarians claim deny that Jesus is God. Next week’s post will address the texts in the epistles (as far as space allows!).
Jesus’ eleven apostles met Jesus after his resurrection on a mountain. “And when they saw him they worshipped him, but some doubted” (Matt. 28:17). Nothing in the context suggests that what some doubted was that Jesus had risen or that it was Jesus whom they saw. Rather, it seems that some doubted the propriety of worshipping Jesus. Their doubt makes no sense if this act was comparable to bowing before a human dignitary, as many anti-Trinitarians assert. Surely, Jesus’ disciples would have had no doubts about showing Jesus such courtesy and respect. No, apparently some doubted that Jesus was the proper object of religious worship, the act of humbling oneself toward a supernatural figure. Their doubt presupposes the biblical and conventional Jewish belief that the Lord God was the only proper recipient of such acts of religious devotion.
In the context of Matthew, the scene recalls the Temptation narrative that immediately precedes Jesus’ ministry (4:1-11). In the third, climactic temptation, the devil takes Jesus to a high mountain, shows him all the kingdoms of the world, and offers them to Jesus if he will worship him (4:8-9). Jesus rebuffs the temptation, quoting Deuteronomy 6:13, “You shall worship the Lord your God and serve only him” (4:10). Now, after Jesus’ resurrection, he meets his disciples on a mountain and receives their act of worshipping him. The contrasting parallel is made complete by Jesus’ assurance to those who doubted that worshipping him was indeed appropriate: “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth” (28:18). This is the authority that the devil claimed he could give to Jesus if Jesus would worship him. Now Jesus has that authority, not from the devil, but from God the Father. No higher validation of Jesus’ authority was possible. The evident parallels between Matthew 4:8-10 and 28:16-18 confirm that “worshipped” in 28:17 denotes the act of religious devotion that Jesus himself had stated should go to God alone.
Those who deny that Christ is God raise the objection that Jesus said his authority was “given” to him, and ask how anyone could give God authority (or why God would need to give God authority). They argue that this is a derived and therefore inferior authority to that of God. This objection ignores the orthodox explanation that the Lord Jesus, by choosing to come into the world “not to be served, but to serve” (Matt. 20:28), had placed himself in a position in which he depended on the Father to exalt him.
Jesus then commands his disciples to go make more disciples from people of all nations, “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (28:19). Jesus, the Son, identifies himself alongside the Father and the Holy Spirit as the Deity to whom each new disciple is to commit himself in the covenant rite of baptism. The Father clearly is God, and as we shall see in week 5, the Holy Spirit in this text must also be God; it follows that the Son in this text is also God. If we exclude the idea that these are three Gods, as we should, the conclusion that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one God follows. In any case, Jesus is here explicitly making himself, as the Son, one of the persons toward whom disciples perform a religious act of devotion and covenant commitment. There is no precedent in biblical religion for performing such religious acts in devotion to a mere man, no matter how great a man.
After instructing his disciples to teach new disciples to observe everything he commanded them, Jesus concludes: “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (28:20). Here Jesus promises to be with all of his disciples, wherever they are in the world, as they make disciples of all nations, in every generation until the end of the age. Such a promise implies that Jesus has the capacity to be present in any and all parts of the world simultaneously. The statement recalls God’s promise to Jacob, “Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go” (Gen. 28:15). In short, Jesus’ promise presupposes that he possesses the divine attribute of omnipresence. Nor is this an isolated statement in the Gospel. Prior to his death, Jesus told his followers, “Where two or three have gathered together in my name, there I am in their midst” (18:20). Only someone who is omnipresent could deliver on a promise to be present in the midst of every gathering of believers anywhere in the world. Jewish rabbis taught that where two Jews sat together to hear the Torah, the Shekinah—the manifest glorious presence of God—would be with them. Jesus claims that his divine presence will be with any two disciples who meet together to honor him (see Putting Jesus in His Place, 117-18).
The evidence of this final statement in Matthew illuminates the reference toward the beginning of the Gospel to Jesus as “God with us” (1:23). Critics commonly argue that this expression means nothing more than that God was to be present through Jesus in his ministry and death. It means at least that much, of course, but in light of 18:20 and 28:20, it evidently means much more. Jesus promised that he himself would be present “with us” who believe in him whenever and wherever we gather in his name, and as we take the gospel to people of all nations. In this light, the statements in 1:23 and 28:20 form an inclusio, “bookends” statements in the Gospel revealing Jesus to be quite literally God with us.
Some of my remarks here come from Putting Jesus in His Place (138-42).
John’s Prologue (John 1:1-18) begins and ends with references to Jesus Christ as “God.” These statements form an inclusio, marking the beginning and the ending of the Prologue. Between these two statements that call Jesus God is a rich tapestry of affirmations about Jesus that confirm his identity as God.
John says that the Word was already existing (ēn) “in the beginning” (vv. 1, 2). The opening words of the Gospel, “In the beginning” (en archē), are the same as the opening words of the OT, “In the beginning” (Gen. 1:1). This is not mere coincidence, since both passages go on immediately to talk about creation and light (Gen. 1:1, 3-5; John 1:3-5, 9). Thus, attempts to circumvent this point by referring to other texts using the word “beginning” in other ways miss or ignore the contextual evidence. John states that everything that came into existence—the world itself—did so through the Word (vv. 3, 9). These statements affirming the Word’s existence before creation and his involvement in bringing about the existence of all creation reveal him to be eternal and uncreated—two essential attributes of God.
Naturally, then, John affirms that “the Word was God” (1:1c). Those who advocate Arian or polytheistic theologies can try to justify the revisionist translation “the Word was a god,” but consistent Unitarians cannot. Nor can they consistently maintain that the Word was God, since this would lead ineluctably to the conclusion that God became incarnate (1:14). This puts Biblical Unitarians in something of a bind. For example, a Christadelphian book online entitled Jesus: God the Son or Son of God? explains 1:1 by saying, “In Jewish religious thinking and writing Word and Wisdom had come to be applied to God Himself…. In the Aramaic commentaries of the time Memra (word) came to be used as a name for God.” But in the same breath the book states, “So logos, first a thought conceived in the mind, then demonstrated in action, stands for the wisdom of God expressed in His purpose. The Word represents therefore the mind of God.” What all this really means, according to the author, is that “the Son perfectly reflected the mind and wisdom of the Father.” So, from the straightforward acknowledgment that the Word was God, the author veers away to the more theologically palatable explanation that the Word was a thought in God’s mind that Jesus perfectly reflected. This seems to be the conventional Biblical Unitarian explanation. For example, a Biblical Unitarian website article on John 1:1 endorses Anthony Buzzard’s claim that what John meant was that the Word “was fully expressive of God.” But this is not what John 1:1 says.
To justify this linguistically indefensible construal of “the Word was God,” the Biblical Unitarian article contends that it is necessary to avoid a logical contradiction in 1:1. “Logically, nothing can be both ‘identical to’ and ‘with’ anything else. Thus, the sense in which ‘the word’ was ‘God’ is limited by this statement that it was also ‘with God,’ and points to a meaning closer to ‘represents,’ ‘manifests,’ or ‘reveals.’” But why should the second clause (“the Word was with God”) override the otherwise evident meaning of the third clause (“the Word was God”)? Why not argue that the third clause overrides the apparent meaning of the second clause? Better still, why not allow the apparent paradox to stand and accept what both clauses say about the Word? This is what Trinitarians do. We accept that the Word was someone existing with God (the Father) and that the Word was himself God (the Son). On the other hand, in their zeal to avoid a divine preexistent Christ, the Biblical Unitarians end up misconstruing both the second and third clauses. The second clause affirms that the Word was personally with God (pros ton theon, cf. 13:3), which Biblical Unitarians reinterpret to mean that the idea or plan or thought that God had about Jesus was “with him” in his mind, while they interpret the third clause to mean that the Word was the revelation or expression of God’s mind.
John writes, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (v. 14 niv). The word that the niv translates “made his dwelling” (eskēnōsen) literally meant to pitch one’s tent in a place, and it alludes in this context to God’s dwelling among the Israelites in the tabernacle. The tabernacle was essentially a tent where God would make his presence known to the Israelites and meet with them (Ex. 33:7-11; 40:35). Later, the temple served the same purpose as the tabernacle (cf. Ps. 74:7). John says that the Word that made his dwelling among us has the “glory as of the only Son from the Father” (v. 14 esv). The Son is just like his Father when it comes to glory.
John then says that the Son’s glory is “full of grace and truth” (v. 14). This description of the Son echoes God’s description of himself to Moses, who had asked to see God’s “glory” at the tent of meeting (Ex. 33:18). God’s response was to descend in a cloud and to proclaim that he is “abounding in lovingkindness and truth” (Ex. 34:6 nasb). The revelation of God’s lovingkindness or grace and of God’s truth that came through Jesus superseded the revelation that came to and through Moses. John makes that plain two sentences later: “The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (v. 17).
John also makes explicit an even more startling implication: the revelation that Moses received of God’s glory, of God himself, was only an anticipation of the revelation of God that came through his Son. John’s statement, “No one has ever seen God” (v. 18a), clearly recalls the Lord’s statement to Moses, “no man can see me and live” (Ex. 33:20). John concludes: “It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (John 1:18b NRSV). The textual evidence we have now strongly favors the use of theos here for Christ, and the best translation is the one quoted here from the NRSV (see Putting Jesus in His Place, 328 notes 14-15). In this text there can be no circumventing the fact that the one who makes the Father known is a real person distinct from the Father, yet this only Son of the Father is himself God. The apparent paradox of the opening sentence of the Prologue recurs in its closing sentence—just in case we missed it or didn’t believe it the first time! The Prologue thus affirms twice that Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, is God.
Here again, much of what I say comes from Putting Jesus in His Place (142-44).
There is essentially no controversy among biblical scholars about the fact that in John 20:28 Thomas is referring to and addressing Jesus when he says, “My Lord and my God!” The reason is simple: John prefaces what Thomas said with the words, “Thomas answered and said to him” (v. 28a), that is, to Jesus. It is therefore certain that Thomas was directing his words to Jesus, not to the Father. Of course, no one would ever have questioned this obvious conclusion if Thomas had said simply “My Lord!” It is the addition of the words “and my God” that have sparked some creative but untenable interpretations of the text, such as Margaret Davies’s tortured explanation that “my God” referred to the Father while “my Lord” referred to the Son (Rhetoric and Reference in the Fourth Gospel , 125-26).
The Biblical Unitarian website’s explanation is no more plausible. It asserts that the term “God” (theos) “was a descriptive title applied to a range of authorities” and that “it was used of someone with divine authority.” The article makes no attempt to demonstrate exegetically that such a weaker sense fits the context. Thomas’s words echo statements addressed in the Psalms to God, especially the following: “Wake up! Bestir yourself for my defense, for my cause, my God and my Lord!” (Ps. 35:23; cf. 5:2; 84:3). These words parallel those in John 20:28 exactly except for reversing “God” and “Lord.” More broadly, in biblical language “my God” can only refer (on the lips of a faithful believer) to the Lord God of Israel. The language is as definite as it could be and identifies Jesus Christ as God himself.
In identifying Jesus as God, Thomas did not of course mean that Jesus was the Father. Earlier in the same passage, Jesus had referred to the Father as his God. (This statement is consistent with the Gospel’s teaching that Jesus was the Word made flesh; as a human being, the incarnate Word-Son properly honors the Father as his God.) It is interesting to compare Jesus’ wording with the wording of Thomas. Jesus told Mary Magdalene, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” (John 20:17). As in John 1:1 and 1:18, the Father is called “God” in close proximity to a statement affirming that Jesus is also “God.” The conventional Jewish usage in 20:17 ought to alert the reader that the same usage also applies in 20:28, however shocking or paradoxical that may seem.
John’s conclusion that he wants his readers to believe that Jesus is the Son of God (20:30-31) is not at odds with understanding Thomas’s statement in 20:28 as a model confession of Jesus as Lord and God. In the Prologue as well, John insists that Jesus is both God (1:1, 18) and the Son of God (1:14, 18). As D. A. Carson has observed, “This tension between unqualified statements affirming the full deity of the Word or of the Son, and those which distinguish the Word or the Son from the Father, are typical of the Fourth Gospel from the very first verse” (The Gospel According to John , 344). We might dismiss one apparent instance of such paradoxical affirmations in close proximity as an anomaly or exegetical oddity. Three instances in the same book, positioned at key turning points, must be deliberate. Johannine Christology, whether we like it or not, deliberately affirms both that Jesus is God and that he is the Son of God.
To summarize, the Gospel of John refers to Jesus Christ explicitly as “God” three times: at the beginning and end of the Prologue (1:1, 18) and at the climax of the book (20:28). These three strategically placed affirmations make it clear that Jesus is and always has been God. As Murray Harris puts it, “In his preincarnate state (1:1), in his incarnate state (1:18), and in his postresurrection state (20:28), Jesus is God. For John, recognition of Christ’s deity is the hallmark of the Christian” (3 Crucial Questions about Jesus, 98-99).
Does Jesus in John’s Gospel Deny that He Was God?
Anti-Trinitarians commonly cite two texts in the Gospel of John to show that in this book Jesus actually denied that he was God. The first passage reads:
“Jesus answered, ‘Is it not written in your law, “I said, you are gods”? If those to whom the word of God came were called “gods”—and the scripture cannot be annulled—can you say that the one whom the Father has sanctified and sent into the world is blaspheming because I said, “I am God’s Son”?’” (John 10:34-36).
First, in this passage Jesus simply does not deny that he is God. Anti-Trinitarians must wring such an implication from the text. Indeed, Christ’s comments here did not alleviate the Jews’ impression that he was claiming to be God (10:30). After Christ finished his response by saying, “the Father is in me and I am in the Father,” the Jewish authorities “tried again to arrest him” (vv. 38-39). Evidently, Jesus’ answer did not convince them that he was not blaspheming. If Jesus was not claiming divine equality or identity, it would have been easy enough to have said something like, “I’m not God; I’m just his Son, one of his creatures.” He never did so.
Second, in context Jesus was indeed claiming to be God. He had just asserted that he was the good shepherd who gives eternal life to his “sheep” and that “no one will snatch them out of my hand” (v. 28). He then says the same thing about the Father: “no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand” (v. 29). These parallel statements allude to Old Testament texts in which the Lord God speaks of his divine power over life and death: “See now that I, even I, am he; there is no god besides me. I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and no one can deliver from my hand” (Deut. 32:39). “I am God, and also henceforth I am He; there is no one who can deliver from my hand” (Is. 43:13). Jesus is thus claiming an exclusively divine power in words clearly alluding to two of the strongest monotheistic statements of the Old Testament.
Jesus then follows up this claim with the famous saying, “The Father and I are one” (John 10:30). In this context, Jesus’ claim to be “one” with the Father appears very likely to be an allusion to the classic monotheistic statement of the Old Testament, the Shema (Deut. 6:4), in effect including himself with the Father in the oneness of God. (On this point, see my series on this blog, “In what sense are Jesus and the Father one?” and Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the God of Israel , 104-106.) This makes it quite understandable that his Jewish opponents would seek to stone him for blasphemy because they understood him to be making himself out to be God (John 10:33).
The second text in John that some cite to show that Jesus denied being God is Jesus’ statement in prayer, “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (17:3). Again, though, Jesus does not actually deny that he is God.
First, what John 17:3 actually says is perfectly consistent with the doctrine of the Trinity. Trinitarianism affirms that the Father is the only true God. After all, if there is only one true God, and the Father is God, then the Father must be the only true God. It is also consistent with the Trinity to affirm that the Father sent Jesus Christ.
So what’s the problem? Anti-Trinitarians think that the sentence creates a disjunction between “the only true God” and “Jesus Christ,” implying that Jesus Christ is not the only true God. But this is not quite correct. John 17:3 does distinguish between the Father (“you”) and “Jesus Christ,” and in this same statement identifies the Father as “the only true God,” but the statement does not deny that Jesus Christ is also true God. Rather, Christ is honoring the Father as the only true God (which he is!) while trusting the Father to exalt him at the proper time. Thus, Jesus immediately goes on to affirm that he had devoted his time on earth to glorifying the Father (v. 4) and to ask the Father in turn to glorify him (v. 5).
If John 17:3 did mean that the Father was the only true God to the exclusion of Jesus Christ, then it would be odd for John in other passages to affirm that Christ is God. If there is only one true God, and Jesus is not that God, then he is not truly God at all. Yet John explicitly calls Jesus “God,” and does so in contexts that make it clear that he is God no less than the Father.
I conclude that neither John 10:34-36 nor 17:3 blunts the force of the opening and climactic passages of the Gospel, which teach that Jesus Christ is God.