Was Jesus Just a Man, or God?
No doubt about it, Jesus Christ has been the dominant figure in the history of the western culture for almost twenty centuries. Talk about staying power! Equally constant: the debate about who He is.
Almost everyone who has heard of Jesus has developed an opinion about Him. That’s to be expected, as He is the most famous, and controversial, person in world history. Was Jesus just a man — or, as Jesus Himself claimed, God in human form?
The controversy about Jesus extends to this core identity. On the one hand, Christians believe Jesus is the divine Son of God, the fulfillment of ancient biblical prophecies, the promised Savior of the world.
Skeptics, on the other hand, assert that Jesus was neither divine nor claimed to be. He was possibly a great teacher — just one among many who claimed to possess the truth. But Jesus’ claims of power and authority, they say, were proved exaggerated when the Romans nailed His body to a cross. Anyone who claimed to see Jesus alive afterward, they add, simply experienced grief-induced visions.
Heck, spend even five minutes reading any published book by a prominent skeptic, and you just might find yourself questioning if anything you believe about Jesus contains a nugget of truth. Because it’s easy to twist the truth. But doubts are good, because they motivate us to deeper study. If we’re going to call ourselves “followers of Christ,” we should have a solid basis for doing so.
So which is it? Was Jesus just a man? Or was Jesus actually God, as He boldly claimed?
As Alister McGrath, Oxford professor of science of religion, writes: “The challenge posed to every succeeding generation by the New Testament witness to Jesus is not so much, ‘What did He teach?’ but ‘Who is He? And what is His relevance for us today?'”
To answer that, we need to look at some of the lofty claims Jesus made, as recorded by the New Testament writers.
Jesus Claims His Deity Directly
“Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” Jesus said, “I am. And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.” Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “What further need do we have of witnesses? You have heard the blasphemy! What do you think?” And they all condemned Him to be deserving of death (Mark 14:61-64).
On trial for His life, Jesus addressed the Sanhedrin with words He knew they would find blasphemous. That’s interesting, right? Jesus didn’t tiptoe around the issue. He answered them directly, using Old Testament references that He knew they would instantly understand.
The Gospel of John records that Jesus made this claim on a number of occasions. Once, when Jesus replied, “Most assuredly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM,” the Jews took up stones to throw at Him. Their reaction leaves little doubt that they understood His reference as a claim to divinity. The Jews knew that anyone daring to make that claim was blasphemous and, according to Mosaic law, deserving of death.
Jesus claimed also that He was worthy of the same honor due God the Father. And even that God couldn’t be honored if Jesus wasn’t honored. He also claimed that to see Him was to see God. That would have blown the minds of these Jews. Per author and minister William Barclay, “To the Greeks, God was characteristically The Invisible; the Jews would count it as an article of faith that no one had seen God at any time. …. It may well be that to the ancient world this was the most staggering thing Jesus ever said.”
In the Matthew account of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, Jesus repeatedly cites Old Testament law, but then asserts His authority over it. Can you picture the scene? People crowding around Jesus — likely drawn by His willingness and ability to heal — and they hear Him boldly declare that He has authority even higher than their respected Mosaic Law. Jesus’ words were extraordinary in a Jewish culture that revered the teachings of prophets and patriarchs as sacred. On at least six occasions (commonly referred to as the antitheses), Jesus uses the formula, “You have heard that it was said..but I say to you.” In doing so, Jesus was plainly contrasting His superiority to their Jewish tradition!
If that didn’t spin their heads enough, Jesus went even further: He actually received worship as God. These Jews knew full well that Scripture issues a persistent warning against worshiping anyone or anything but God Himself. The first of the Ten Commandments, for example, clearly states, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). It is remarkable, then, to find that Jesus freely accepted worship. In no record do we find Jesus stopping people from worshiping Him.
Within the Jewish context in which the first Christians operated, it was God and God alone who was to be worshiped. So imagine the hurdle it took for the Jews hearing Jesus’ claims to disregard Scripture and call Him “Lord.” Many did while He was still alive. And convinced of His deity, the New Testament tells us that the early church continued to give Jesus worship after His death and ascension.
Jesus Claims His Deity Indirectly
In addition to these direct claims, Jesus did and said many other things that implied His divinity. Let’s look at some examples:
Jesus forgave sins. Jewish scribes steeped in the Law took issue with this. In Mark 2 we read that they asked, “Why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” Knowing their doubts, Jesus explicitly declared that His authority to forgive sins came from His being “the Son of Man.”
In calling Himself the “Son of Man,” Jesus was referring to three things: His earthly ministry of coming with godly power to bring salvation to the lost via His ultimate sacrifice (Matthew 8:19-20; 9:6; 11:19; Luke 19:9-10; Luke 22:47-48); His warning to His disciples about His impending death (Matthew 12:40; 17: 9,22; 20:18); and His Second Coming as the glorious judge of all humanity (Matthew 13:41; 24: 27,30; 25:31, Luke 18:8; 21:36).
Jesus claimed to be “life.” In John 14:6 Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” He didn’t say that He knew these things, but that He was them. In John 11:25 He says, “I am the resurrection and the life.” Merrill Tenney, professor of New Testament and Greek, sums it up this way: “He declared Himself to be the final key to all mysteries.”
Jesus claimed that God gave Him supreme authority. The disciples, who had seen Jesus walk on water and tell angry waves to give it a rest, likely eagerly nodded their assent. Those drawn to Jesus likely felt hope leap in their hearts. But any scoffers either laughed or got pretty darn annoyed at this crowd-attracting fella from that hick town, Nazareth.
In John 5:22 and 5:27 Jesus declares that the Father “has given all judgment to the Son.” At the conclusion of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus gathers a group of His disciples to a mountain in Galilee for some final words, which scholars now refer to as the “Great Commission.” Jesus begins with a forceful declaration: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18). Jesus is point-blank telling His disciples that He shares the seat of God’s throne, a position that places Him over the entire universe.
Jesus claimed that He pre-existed, that He consciously existed before His life on earth, and was aware of it during that life. In John 17:5, Jesus says, “And now, O Father, glorify Me together with Yourself, with the glory that I had with You before the world existed.” In John 6:38, Jesus says, “For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent me.” Similar statements abound in the Gospels and New Testament Epistles.
Jesus claimed to be the “Son of God.” Theologian Michael Green writes that Jesus “asserted that He had a relationship with God which no one had ever claimed before. It comes out in the Aramaic word Abba (father) which He was so fond of using, especially in prayer.” Adds Green, “It is the familiar word of closest intimacy. That is why He differentiated between His own relationship with God as Father and that of other people.”
Not even King David, who wrote most of the Psalms and was known for his closeness to God, prayed in such intimate terms. British theologian George Beasley-Murray observed, “It remains the case that Jesus stands alone in His undeviating use of this mode of address in His prayers to God.” Concludes Maire Byrne, Millowtown Lecturer in Biblical Studies and Old Testament, “From the Jewish prayers many forms of address of God as Father are found, but not Abba. Therefore, the choice of this as a form of address by Jesus is striking.”
Jesus Just a Man?
We began this post with the question, “Who is Jesus?” We then looked at New Testament scripture to see who Jesus claimed that He is.
What we know so far is that the New Testament consistently say that Jesus claimed to be equal to God, empowered with the unique characteristics of God (sovereignty, judgment, divine authority, forgiveness of sins, and preexistence), and thus worthy of worship.
Skeptics, of course, disagree. Some assert that not even His hometown of Nazareth existed, though archaeologists have located and dated a house to be from the time of Jesus.
Skeptic claim otherwise, but too much evidence exists to doubt that Jesus is who He claims to be. May God open our hearts to daily see Him more.
In our next blog post in this series we’ll look at this question: “Is Jesus Lord, liar, or lunatic?” See you then!
This blog post highlights Josh and Sean McDowell’s recently revised apologetics classic, Evidence That Demands a Verdict. We are certain this fully updated and expanded resource will be an effective evangelism tool for you, and strengthen your faith by answering the toughest questions tossed to you by skeptics. Know what you know, because it’s true. But share this truth with LOVE!
If you’d like to start from the first blog post in this series, click here: Apologetics: Apologizing for Believing in God?.