Growing up, I heard a lot about Jesus. I read the stories and learned the parables. But my knowledge of the nature of Jesus was deficient at best. I had heard of the Trinity but I just thought of that as a group of three important people: God, Jesus and the Spirit, whatever that was. I was shocked when as an adult I came to the understanding that Jesus was supposed to be God. Why did I not know this before? As I learned more, I discovered that this was not just a minor issue. In the first five hundred years of the church, this was the issue. Hundreds of people gave their lives over their belief that Jesus was not just a created being but was in fact equal with God. This sounds like something that we should know about. I am going to deal with three questions around the idea of the divinity of Christ and then try and tie it all together with why this matters.
I. Was Jesus Just a Prophet?
There are many people who respect Jesus very much but who deny that Jesus was God. Muslims have a deep respect for Jesus. Jesus is mentioned much more in the Qur’an than Muhammad. Yet in Islam, the only unforgivable sin is to consider someone equal to God, and in this they have Christians who affirm the deity of Christ in mind. If you kill someone, there is room for forgiveness. But if you say Jesus is God, you are finished. It is not just Muslims who have a problem with Jesus as God. Many people today read passages in the Bible such as the Sermon on the Mount and can affirm that Jesus was a moral teacher and a good man. But God? That seems to be stretching things. In John 8, Jesus gets into the argument with some of the Jews. Jesus presents Himself, not as another prophet in line with the rest of the Old Testament prophets, but as something even more exalted. Jesus then makes a radical statement: “Before Abraham was, I am.” (John 8:58) Jesus is not only saying that He is older than Abraham, He is calling Himself “I Am.” The Hebrew word for “I Am” is the root of the covenant name for God that was revealed to Moses. Jesus is claiming to be God. These Jews became so upset that they picked up stones to kill Jesus. People continue to become angry over claims of the divinity of Jesus. People can accept a human Jesus who is willing to take His place among the world’s religious leaders, but a divine, incarnate Jesus is too much. People may not like it but Jesus gives us no other choice. Jesus forgave people instead of just stating that God had forgiven them because He had the authority to forgive. Jesus is God.
II. Was Jesus an Angel?
There are those who will accept that Jesus was more than a man. Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example, have an exalted view of Jesus. However, their view is somewhat different than the traditional Christian view. One of our key passages for the deity of Christ is John 1:1, which uses “Word” as a title for Jesus. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” This clearly teaches Jesus as equal but distinct from God the Father. But Jehovah’s Witnesses translate this differently. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was a god.” Do you see the difference? They are willing to accept an exalted Jesus, but not one quite equal with the Father. If you go deeper into their beliefs, you will find that they believe that Jesus is the archangel Michael. In 1 Thessalonians 4:16, it says that the Lord Jesus will return with the voice of the archangel, most likely Michael. They conclude that this voice must be Jesus’ own and therefore Jesus is Michael. It is more likely that Jesus will return with Michael announcing His arrival. But it is worth us examining this claim. This belief that Jesus was a supernatural but a created being is very ancient. Was Jesus some sort of angel? In the first couple of chapters of Hebrews, the author goes to lengthy attempts to show that Jesus is not an angel but is much greater. For example, Hebrews 1:4, speaking of Jesus, says: “having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.” This is what the author of Hebrews believes about Jesus: “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.” (Hebrews 1:3) Jehovah’s Witnesses might be nice people, but when it comes to Jesus they have missed the mark. Jesus is not an angel or any other created being but is God Himself in human form.
III. But Is Not Jesus the Son of God Rather Than God Himself?
The thing you might be thinking is: we do not often speak of Jesus as God but rather we use the title Son of God. Which one is correct? Both are. They just speak of different things. One speaks of His essence and the other of His role and position. Let me try to explain. Throughout eternity, there has always been only one God. But within that one God there is movement, there is relationship, there is diversity of role. We call this diversity Father, Son and Holy Spirit. They share the unity of one God and celebrate the diversity of three persons. The Son is fully God in that He has eternally co-existed with the Father and there never has been a time when the Father existed but the Son did not. The Son is the Son in that He chooses to submit to the Father, not because of a difference in nature but a difference of role. So Jesus is fully God. But Jesus is also the Son of God. Jesus is not just the pre-existent second person of the Trinity. Jesus was conceived within the womb of His mother Mary. Since God is the one that caused that conception, Jesus is in every aspect the Son of God. This was not the language of the pagan god-men who were conceived by the mating of god and woman. The language used is similar to creation in Genesis and so mysteriously God creates a fetus within Mary that is fully human and yet contains the full essence of God. Jesus is both God and Son of God.
Let us be honest: does any of this really matter? Does anyone really care if Jesus is man, angel, Son of God or God? It does matter and we should care. It all comes down to this: what is our real need? Was it for good moral teaching and spiritual truths that point us toward God? If that is the case, we really did not need Jesus. Read Isaiah or Jeremiah or any of the other Old Testament prophets, they did a fine job of that. In fact, in much of His teaching, Jesus quotes the Old Testament. He did not say much that was unique. What about the miracles? Moses and Elijah did miracles as well, Jesus was not unique in this either. Not to mention, as interesting as the miracles are, they are really of not much benefit to us today. So what is our problem? Our problem is separation from God. Sin puts up a huge separation, something greater than the Berlin Wall and the Great Wall of China combined. We need something greater than a teaching or a miracle. We need something that can bridge that infinite gap between God and humanity. That bridge is the sacrificial death of the Jesus who was both God and man. This equipped Jesus to both represent us in our humanity and to be up to the task in His divinity. Does it matter that Jesus was God? It is literally a matter of life and death. If Jesus was not God, then we are not reconciled to God. But because Jesus is God, we have been brought into relationship with God. Jesus shares His relationship with the Father with us so that we too are children of God. That is only possible because Jesus is God.