August 15, 2007

Who Was Jesus?

2007 1523 page22 capN DAN BROWN’S NOVEL, The Da Vinci Code, character Leigh Teabing argues that Jesus was regarded as a mere human until the Roman emperor Constantine, leading a church council in A.D. 325, elevated Him to Godhood. This view is commonly held both inside and outside the Christian church.
What shall we say? Is it true that neither Jesus nor the apostles claimed He was God?
Let’s ask Matthew. He introduces Jesus with a quotation from Isaiah 7:14:
“‘Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel’ (which means, God with us)” (Matt. 1:23).*
Matthew believed that Jesus was born into this world to be none other than God with us. And all four Gospel writers declare that John the Baptist came to “prepare the way of the Lord” in fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy:
2007 1523 page22“Make straight in the desert a highway for our God. . . .
Say to the cities of Judah,
‘Behold your God!’
 Behold, the Lord God comes with might,
and his arm rules for him. . . .
He will feed his flock like a shepherd,
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
he will carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead those that are with young” (Isa. 40:3-11).
Isaiah portrays God coming to His people as a gentle shepherd—a clear picture of Jesus. It is from this rich mine of the coming of God to His people that the four Gospels quarry their introductory remarks.
The Evidence Is Clear
The Gospels also tell of Godlike powers exercised by Jesus. He met the challenge: “Who can forgive sins but God alone?”—not only by forgiving a paraplegic, but by bringing life to his dead limbs! (Mark 2:1-12). He took the title Lord of the Sabbath (Mark 2:27) from the fourth commandment, “the Sabbath of the Lord thy God” (Ex. 20:10, KJV). The demons cried out that He was “the Holy One of God” (Mark 1:24)—a title applied only to God in the Old Testament and to Jesus in the New.1
While the first three Gospels begin with Jesus’ birth, John reaches back to His existence from the days of eternity:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made” (John 1:1-3).
These verses clearly identify Jesus. He is God. He is not identical to the Father, but is with the Father. He is the co-Creator of the universe.
John’s Gospel not only begins but also ends with the assertion that Jesus is God.2 When Thomas saw the risen Christ he exclaimed, “My Lord and my God!” (20:28). Here Thomas applies the two names found in the Jewish Shema (“the Lord our God, the Lord is one” [Deut. 6:4, NIV]) to Jesus—that is, both “Lord” and “God.” And all the way through his Gospel John portrays Jesus as God. “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known” (John 1:18, earliest manuscripts). Eight times in this Gospel Jesus calls Himself “I AM.”3 When the woman of Samaria wonders whether Jesus might be the Messiah, He replies, “The one speaking to you, I AM” (John 4:26, literal translation).
But the clearest statement occurs in a debate with the Pharisees:
“The Jews then said to him, ‘You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?’ Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM.’ So they took up stones to throw at him” (John 8:57-59).
Here was a man making Himself God as the Jews liked to charge (10:33)!
Besides these eight “I AM” (without a predicate) statements, Jesus said, “I am the bread of life,” “I am the light of the world,” “I am the resurrection and the life,” “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 6:35; 8:12; 11:25; 14:6). No mere mortal could make such claims. In calling Himself “I AM,” Jesus was using the divine name “Yahweh,” which He had proclaimed to Moses at the burning bush and later to Isaiah.
“God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM.’ And he said, ‘Say this to the people of Israel, “I AM has sent me to you”’” (Ex. 3:14; see also Isa. 43:11, 13).
Some deny Jesus’ preexistence with the Father before He came to earth. They understand that “the Word” was merely a concept in the mind of God—God’s thought or wisdom that did not take physical form until the Incarnation. They assert that God created the world through the Word in His mind, not through a Person. But Jesus repeatedly stated that He personally came from God and was returning to God (3:13; 6:39; 13:3; 16:28). John portrays Jesus as the partner in the everlasting covenant between Father and Son, that He would come to earth to save a perishing world and by so doing reveal the glory of the character of God (1:18; 3:16; 17:5).
In John’s Gospel Jesus performs seven great “signs,” all demonstrating that He is God. He creates wine from water, He heals the infirm man, He feeds the multitudes, He subdues the wind and the waves, He makes the blind see, and finally raises a decomposed body to life (chapters 2, 5, 6, 9, and 11). He states, “I am the resurrection and the life” (11:25). All these are incontrovertible evidences that He is none other than God!4
In Paul’s Writings
What about Paul? Did he believe in the deity and preexistence of Christ? Philippians 2:5-8 is deeply significant here. “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (italics mine).
2007 1523 page22There is much debate concerning verse 6—was equality with God something He had but didn’t cling to, or was it something He didn’t have and refused to grasp? This text could well be translated: “Though He was in the form of God, He did not consider this equality with God a thing to be clung to, but rather emptied Himself.”5 The climactic statement of the passage enforces this view: “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (verses 9-11).
Here Paul is quoting from Isaiah 45, a chapter in which God asserts six times that He is God and there is no other (verses 5, 6, 14, 18, 21, 22). The chapter concludes with the declaration:
“And there is no other god besides me,
a righteous God and a Savior. . . .
‘To me every knee shall bow,
every tongue shall swear’” (verses 21-23).
Paul takes these powerful statements from Isaiah about the only God and Savior and applies them to Jesus! He credits Jesus with a rank and honor explicitly reserved for Israel’s God and Him alone!6 Every knee will bow to Jesus and every tongue confess His Lordship, the worship due only to God!7 What Paul does here is to include Jesus in the Godhead. So Paul’s paean of praise to Jesus in Philippians 2 both begins and ends with the concept that Jesus is God.
We must assert here that Paul was a monotheist—he did not believe in two Gods. He makes this plain in the following discussion:
“We know that ‘an idol has no real existence,’ and that ‘there is no God but one.’ For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth . . . yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist” (1 Cor. 8:4-6).
Paul’s statement, “there is no God but one” is drawn from the Shema—“the Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deut. 4:6, NIV). Notice that he applies the word “God” to the Father, and “Lord” to Jesus Christ, both of whom are the source of life and existence, and both of whom are one. Paul includes Jesus in the most basic Jewish statement of faith, saying that the Father and the Son constitute one God.
Paul thought it necessary for Christians to confess that “Jesus is Lord,” for “the same Lord is Lord of all and bestows his riches upon all who call upon him. For ‘every one who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved’” (Rom. 10:9-13). By using this quotation from Joel 2:32, Paul indicates that he means Lord in the highest sense—Yahweh!
The book of Hebrews quotes the Psalms to prove that Jesus is God:
“But of the Son he says,
‘Thy throne, O God, is for ever and  ever. . . .
‘Thou, Lord, didst found the earth
in the beginning’” (Heb. 1:8-12, from Ps. 45:6, 7 and 102:25).
The New Testament’s Last Words
What about the book of Revelation? Of the Father it says, “‘I am the Alpha and the Omega’ says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty” (Rev. 1:8; see also 21:6). These titles come from Isaiah 44:6:
“Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel
and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts:
‘I am the first and I am the last;
besides me there is no god.’”
But in Revelation 22 Jesus takes all these titles to Himself. “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end” (verse 13). Jesus appropriates the titles of Isaiah’s one and only God to Himself!
And so we ask, Who existed with the Father from the beginning, but God? Who could be the co-Creator of the universe, but God? Who could be Emmanuel, God with us, but God? Who is the great I AM, but God? Who is the way, the truth, and the life, but God? Who is the light that enlightens every person coming into the world, but God? Who can forgive sins, but God? Who is the resurrection and the life, but God? Who is the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end, but God? To whom shall every knee bow and whose Lordship shall every tongue confess, but God?8
There is no question but that Jesus and the New Testament authors regarded Him as God. What does it mean to you that God did not create a substitute but that He Himself made the long journey from the throne of heaven to the manger and the cross to find and redeem you?
 *Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references in this article are from the Revised Standard Version, copyright © 1946, 1952, 1971, by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission.
1Hebrew, qadosh. The New Testament refers to Jesus as the Holy One four times.
2Chapter 20 is the formal conclusion to John’s Gospel. Chapter 21 is the epilogue.
3The expression I AM—ego eimi—without a predicate occurs in the following passages: John 4:26; 8:24, 28; 13:19; 8:58; 18:5, 6, 8.
4Some challenge Ellen White’s statement: “In [Jesus] was life, original, unborrowed, underived” on the basis of Jesus’ statement: “As the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself” (John 5:26). The surrounding verses indicate that Jesus’ experience as Son of man gave Him authority to judge and raise the dead either to life or damnation (verses 2-29). His humanity entitled Him to be a judge, to impart life and death. But before He took on humanity He already had life in Himself—“In Him was life” (John 1:4).
5See N. T. Wright, The Climax of the Covenant (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), pp. 82-84. 
6Ibid., pp. 93, 94.
7This reminds us of another statement by Paul, “looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Savior Jesus Christ; who gave himself for us [to] redeem us from all iniquity” (Titus 2:13, 14, KJV). Are “the great God” and “our Savior Jesus Christ” one person or two? In the New Testament the words “appearing” (Greek, epiphaneia and parousia) always refer to Jesus’ coming (1 Tim. 6:14; 2 Tim. 1:10; 4:1, 8; 2 Thess. 2:8).
8These questions were suggested by Ganoune Diop’s presentation, “And the Word Was God” at the Adventist Theological Society’s Symposium on the Trinity, recorded by American Cassette Ministries, P.O. Box 922, Harrisburg, PA 17108-0922.
Beatrice S. Neall is retired after a career as a missionary and college Bible teacher. She is the author of several books.