Every year at Christmas we celebrate the birth of Jesus. The angel said, “You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:12).
The baby. Clearly special, and certainly like no other. But let’s get more specific. Who was this child, really? Who is this child? Believing in him brings peace with God, forgiveness, and everlasting joy. So doesn’t it make sense for us to do our best to be very clear about who he is?
Liar, Lunatic or Lord
The great and well-known literary critic and author C.S. Lewis once wrote that you can’t simply and naively conclude that Jesus was just a great moral teacher and nothing more. If he truly did say and do all the things he said and did, you would have to conclude that he was either a liar, or a lunatic, or the Lord.
For example, perhaps he was a liar. If you think that he knew the truth, but that he lied about it—in other words, that he was merely a human being but lied and claimed that he was divine when he really wasn’t—well, that would make him a liar and not worthy to be believed in or followed.
Second, perhaps he was a lunatic. If you think that he was not right in the cranium, and that he had no idea what he was talking about—in other words, that he made divine claims about himself but wasn’t quite right in his thinking—then he would be a lunatic and, again, unworthy to be believed in or followed.
Third, perhaps he was the Lord. If you think that Jesus knew the truth, and that he was clear-headed and thinking rightly when he talked, then he is in fact Lord. In this case, then that would make him worthy to be believed in and followed.
Human and Divine
Historic Christianity states that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine.
Today, very few people would doubt that Jesus was fully human. There’s nothing controversial about that. That’s the claim of the highly popular (and very inaccurate and misleading) movie called The Da Vinci Code. Even liberal scholars acknowledge that there was a man named Jesus who lived 2000 years ago, made quite a splash, and was crucified by the governing Romans. They might differ on the particulars—specifically, his miracles, some of his sayings, and the resurrection—but it’s hard to argue away the existence of such a well-documented and influential individual. They might disagree that he was divine, but that he existed as a human is hardly in question.
Saturated with divinity
So our specific question in this post is this: Did Jesus say he was God?
As we dig in, I should first be clear that there are many passages in the Bible from other people’s lips and pens describing the divinity of Jesus. I’m not exploring them today, but will highlight them quickly just so that we’re all clear that they exist. All quotes are from the NIV translation of the Bible.
For example, in John 1:1 we read, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” In verse 14 we learn that this Word is Jesus himself.
Colossians 1:15 says, “The Son is the image of the invisible God…” Verse 19 goes on to say, “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him…” Not some of God’s fullness, but all.
In Hebrews 1:3 we are told that Jesus is “the exact representation of [God’s] being, sustaining all things by his powerful word…”
Romans 9:5 can be translated that the Messiah, Jesus, “is God over all, forever praised!”
Philippians 2:6 describes Jesus as being “in very nature God” (or “in the form of God”) and sharing “equality” with him. Later, in verse 11, we come across the early Christian statement of faith that “Jesus is Lord.”
In 1 Corinthians 8:6 we read that “there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.”
Theologian Benjamin Warfield said that when you read through the New Testament, it is “saturated” with the presumption of the divinity of Jesus. I agree.
Worshiping the crucified sophist
In the early centuries, there were also people outside of the Bible who took note of the fact that Christians believed in the divinity of Jesus. In these accounts—which have, thankfully, been preserved for us as historical records—we see clearly that Jesus was venerated as more than a mere human teacher of morality.
Around the year 110, a Roman governor named Pliny the Younger was torturing some Christian women. In that process—as horrific as it was—he learned that they would sing “hymns to Christ as to a god.” That’s what he reported to the Emperor Trajan in a letter.
Here’s another example. In the second century, Lucian of Samosota wrote a book. In it he describes Christians. In doing this, he mocks them. But he offers this telling detail. He talks about how they “worship… the crucified sophist,” which is obviously a reference to Jesus. To him this is supposed to be funny. But its significance to us is that people outside of the faith understood Christians to be people who believed in the divinity of Jesus. You don’t worship someone you don’t think is divine.
With this background in mind, let’s explore what Jesus himself said about himself. And remember that this isn’t some theoretical walk through the clouds. Genuine belief and trust in Christ is what brings us peace with God, forgiveness, and everlasting joy. So we are seeking to better understand what this life-giving Jesus said about himself.
You’ll sometimes hear it said that Jesus never specifically said the words “I am God.” That’s true. However, if he had, it probably wouldn’t have made much of a difference in his cultural context. Here’s why. Broadly speaking, it was a polytheistic culture where people believed in a system of many gods. To say that you were “God/god” could have meant that you thought of yourself like one of many gods, or that you were somehow “of god” or “within god” like some people might still do today as a part of eastern or new age religious expressions.
You will also sometimes hear people say something like this. ‘If Jesus was the Son of God, then he can’t also be God.’ But here’s something we need to keep in mind. As explained by Tim Keller in his book Making Sense of God, “in ancient times an only son inherited all the father’s wealth and position and was thus equal with him.” So calling Jesus “the” Son of God—not merely “a” son of God—was a more exalted claim than a lot of people today realize. Plus, I’ll offer a further word about the Trinity a little later on.
So what we want to know is whether Jesus identified with the God of Israel—the one God of the Bible who is the maker of heaven and earth. Is he eternal, almighty, and the proper recipient of our worship? Did that capital-G God come to us personally in human form in Jesus of Nazareth?
To answer that question, we’ll look at two categories of passages. First, clear statements by Jesus himself about his divinity. Second, doing things only the God of Israel can do. At the end, I’ll offer some observations and conclusions.
Clear statements by Jesus himself about his divinity
Let’s jump in with our first category: Clear statements by Jesus himself about his divinity.
1. In John 10:30 Jesus says: “I and the Father are one.”
2. In John 12:45, he says: “The one who looks at me is seeing the one who sent me.” That’s a reference to his heavenly Father. When you look at Jesus you are seeing his heavenly Father.
3. In a famous verse from Mark 9:37 he says: “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.” To welcome Jesus is to welcome his heavenly Father.
4. In John’s Gospel, Jesus says seven key statements about his identity. These are often referred to as the seven “I am” sayings. Let me highlight them for you. You’ll recognize many of them:
“I am the bread of life” (John 6:35).
“I am the light of the world” (John 8:12).
“I am the gate for the sheep” (John 10:7).
“I am the good shepherd” (John 10:11).
“I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25).
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).
“I am the true vine” (John 15:1).
Here’s why these statements are significant.
First, it’s significant in and of itself that Jesus makes these statements. He is speaking of himself in highly exalted terms. If I said to you, ‘Good morning, everyone, welcome to worship at Westminster Church, I, Matthew, am the bread of life,’ or ‘I, Matthew, am the light of the world,’ that would be pretty bold! When Jesus’ first audience heard him, it would have been equally as bold to them.
Second, these “I am statements” are significant because of the exact phrase “I am.” The oldest manuscripts we have of these texts are in Greek. “I am” is a translation of the Greek words “ego eimi.” Here’s the connection. When God was speaking with Moses at the burning bush, Moses asked God what his name was. God answered, “I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14). The first part of God’s response—“I am”—is this exact same Greek phrase “ego eimi.” Think back to the “I am” sayings in the Gospel of John. There are easier ways to say “I am the bread of life” or “I am light of the world” in Greek. But this same “ego eimi” phrasing is used to intentionally help us make the connection that Jesus is to be identified with the God of Israel—the same God who revealed himself personally to Moses at the burning bush!
Third, combine this exact use of words with the fact that all of these things that Jesus says he is are connected to who God is and to the things God himself does in the Old Testament. For example, Jesus says his is the bread of life. Well, guess what? God feeds his people manna and quail in Exodus 16. Jesus says he is the light of the world. Well, guess what? God gives light in Genesis 1 and Exodus 13:21. Jesus says he is the good shepherd. Well, guess what? God is our shepherd as in, for example, Ezekiel 34, Jeremiah 23, and Psalm 23. The examples go on and on.
In short, Jesus is using words and concepts that Jewish people would have known about, and would have known belonged to their God. And he applied them, very remarkably, to himself!
5. In John 8:57-58 Jesus is in an argument with some religious leaders. He talks about Abraham (from the book of Genesis) seeing Jesus work and being glad about it. Keep in mind that, historically speaking, Abraham lived waaaaay before Jesus. In response, they say, “You are not yet fifty years old, and you have seen Abraham!” In response, here is what Jesus said: “Very truly I tell you, before Abraham was born, I am!” Hold on a minute. What did he say? He claims to have been alive since before Abraham—who, for the record, walked the earth over 2000 years before Jesus. In this remarkable passage, Jesus is claiming is own eternal pre-existence. So, what did his adversaries do? “At this, they picked up stones to stone him…” Why? Because they realized he was claiming to be divine.
6. In Luke 10, Jesus has sent seventy-two people out on a mission. When they return to him they say, “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.” So clearly there is spiritual warfare happening. In response, Jesus says, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven” (verse 18). He’s saying that he saw Satan—as a rebellious angel—fall from heaven before human history.
7. Jesus claimed to have the power to destroy death itself. “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die” (John 11:25-26). Wow. Who has the power to destroy death? God does! And Jesus claims it of himself.
8. Mark 14:53-65 recounts the trial of Jesus. The high priest asked him, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” In response Jesus said: “I am.” He goes on to give this further and critical detail: “And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.” Here’s some critical background information. “Son of Man” is the title Jesus uses the most for himself, so it’s obviously very important if we want to better understand who Jesus understood himself to be. So who is this “Son of Man?” Is it simply a reference to the fact that he is a human, that he is a son of a man like the rest of us? Not really. Let’s press further.
In Daniel 7 a figure called a “son of man” arrives in a glorious scene “coming with the clouds of heaven” (verse 13). If that sounds familiar it’s because Jesus quotes that exact same line at his trial. In the next verse in Daniel 7, we learn that this son of man has come as a global and cosmic judge: “He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.”
That, my friends, is no small detail. This is the same “Son of Man” with whom Jesus of Nazareth identifies. Is he the son of Mary from Nazareth? Yes. But he is also our global and cosmic judge—the one who has all authority, glory and sovereign power; the one who all nations and peoples of every language will worship; and the one who has an everlasting domination and kingdom which will never be destroyed.
Doing things only the God of Israel can do
Having surveyed these statements from Jesus’ own mouth, let’s move to our second category: Doing things only the God of Israel can do.
1. Forgive sins
In Mark 2 Jesus forgives a paralyzed man: “Son, your sins are forgiven,” he says. But why would he do that? If Tom sins against Larry, and if Bob comes along and says to Tom, “your sins are forgiven,” Bob’s got nothing to do with it; it’s not Bob’s place to forgive Tom. Larry is the one who needs to forgive Tom.
In the Bible, all sins are primarily against God. So Jesus, by saying that the sins of the paralyzed man are forgiven, is putting himself in God’s place as the one whose job it is to forgive sin. And guess what? That’s exactly what people thought he was doing. That’s why the “teachers of the law” said, “Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (verse 7). No one but God. And Jesus does it.
2. Receive worship
In John 20:28 after the resurrection, the disciple Thomas sees Jesus and says, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus accepts his statement and his worship. Think of how significant this is. In Revelation 22:8-9, we learn that even angels can’t receive worship; only God can receive worship. And so does Jesus.
Jesus also receives worship by the blind man who was healed in John 9:38, and by some of the disciples after his resurrection in Matthew 28:17. In John 5:23, Jesus says that people are to “honour” him just as they honour his heavenly Father.
3. Claim lordship over the Sabbath day of rest
In Mark 2 Jesus was criticized for what he did on the Sabbath, the day of rest. In verse 28 he says, “So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” When he says “Son of Man” he is referring to himself, as we’ve already discussed. Not only that, but he is claiming to be master and Lord over the Sabbath day rest and to be the authoritative teacher about what it means and what is allowed. Considering the fact that the Sabbath was established by God, and that it is the central day of the Jewish week which is intended to ground us and remind us of the beauty, design and purpose of God’s created order, what Jesus has done is no small thing. He says he is Lord of the Sabbath.
4. Has knowledge equal to the God of Israel
In Matthew 11:27 Jesus says, “All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”
5. Shares all authority with the God of Israel
Matthew 28:19-20 is best known as the Great Commission where Jesus tells his disciples to go and make disciples of all nations. But right before that commission is the lesser-known, but equally important, verse 18. In fact, the Great Commission is grounded in verse 18. It says: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” Not some authority, but all. Jesus shares all authority with the God of Israel.
The glory of God through the filter of a human being
So there is a short summary of statements by Jesus himself about his divinity, and of Jesus doing things that only the God of Israel can do. In the words of Tim Keller: “When we look at Jesus Christ as he is shown to us in the Scriptures, we are looking at the glory of God through the filter of a human being.”
What these passages tell us is that Jesus was clear about his divinity. He both said and did things that only the God of Israel can do. Further, he said and did them in ways that the people of his time would have understood. This would have helped them make the connection. Clearly, many of them did.
None of this means that Jesus is identical with his heavenly Father. He isn’t. Christian theology, rightly rooted in the teachings of the Bible, inform us that there is only one God, and that God is made known to us in three distinct “persons”—Father, Son (Jesus) and Holy Spirit. The Father is not the Son or Spirit, and the Son is not the Father or Spirit, and the Spirit is not the Father or Son. And yet, the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God. Together, they are Trinity—“tri-unity.”
Imagine he who is larger than the universe the size of an embryo. As Max Lucado puts it: “God was given eyebrows, elbows, two kidneys, and a spleen. He stretched against the walls and floated in the amniotic fluids of his mother.”*
J.I. Packer is right on the mark when he says this about the child born in Bethlehem: “The Christmas message rests on the staggering fact that the child in the manger was—God.” The eternal God wrote himself into the story of human history—and into the individual stories of each and every one of our lives—to offer peace, forgiveness and eternal joy. Personally.
Amazingly Early, Explosively Rapid
I should also note that the divinity of Jesus wasn’t something that the church deceptively fabricated over the passage of time to suit its own purposes. What has been discussed in this post has come from the mouth and actions of Jesus himself. Larry Hurtado is a high-respected scholar and Emeritus Professor of New Testament Language, Literature and Theology at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. In his book Honoring the Son: Jesus in Earliest Christian Devotional Practice, he observes: “the treatment of Jesus… rightfully entitled to the sort of reverence otherwise confined to God, was amazingly early and explosively rapid, not an incremental process.”
Richard Bauckham is professor of New Testament studies at St. Mary’s College, University of St. Andrew’s, Scotland. In his book God Crucified: Monotheism & Christology in the New Testament, he offers a profoundly helpful analysis about the life of Jesus and how Jews from the first century (who adhered to a strict monotheism) could come to honour him as divine. “New Testament writers,” he says, “clearly and deliberately include Jesus in the unique identity of the God of Israel…” Not some time later, but right away.
Hmm, curious. That’s certainly not what we usually hear from those in our culture who are actively trying to dismiss God and the claims of Jesus.
The T.V. Host Larry King was once asked, if he could interview one person from history who would it be? “Jesus Christ.” The interviewer went on to say, “If you could only ask him one question, what would it be, and why?” King responded: “I would ask him if he was really born of a virgin, because the answer to that question changes everything.”
The reason it would change everything is because, in that case, he would in fact be who the Bible has always taught him to be: fully God and fully human, and the only one eminently qualified to reconcile broken people like you and me to our awesome God.
Honest, thoughtful answers
I appreciate that this post may, for some of you, raise even more questions, or perhaps different ones. Maybe you doubt the reliability of the Gospel stories themselves [if so, you might find this document helpful, and also this blog.], or maybe you have other questions about things Jesus said that have you scratching your head. I encourage you to pursue them. The Lord gave you a brain. I’m sure he didn’t intend for you to turn it off. I’m reminded of Einstein’s maxim that “Curiosity has its own reason for existing.” Asking honest, thoughtful questions often results in discovering honest, thoughtful answers. That’s certainly what I’ve discovered after twenty years of engaged inquiry.
Willing to give his life for it
So, was Jesus a liar, a lunatic, or Lord?
According to Jesus, he was the Lord. And this, my friends, is very good news. In his weekly devotional, my friend and colleague Jeff Loach, said: “As the second Person of the Trinity, our Saviour was active in creating the world, so it’s no wonder that he was willing to give his earthly life for it.”
Or consider the well-known words of Hark! The Herald Angels Sing:
Christ, by highest heaven adored, Christ, the everlasting Lord,
late in time behold him come, offspring of a virgin’s womb.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see! Hail the incarnate deity!
Pleased on earth with us to dwell, Jesus, our Emmanuel.
Who do you believe in? And who are you going to follow into an uncertain year?
With God’s help I’m going to do my best to follow Christ the Lord. I hope you do too. As Jesus himself said in John 8:12: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”
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 Benjamin Warfied, “The Deity of Christ” in The Fundamentals. A Testimony to the Truth. (Chicago: Testimony Publishing Co., 1909), I, 23-26, passim.
 An more fulsome explanation of these two examples (and one more) is found in: Michael A.G. Haykin, The Church Fathers as Spiritual Mentors (Kitchener: Joshua Press, 2017), 10-13.
 Timothy Keller, Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical (New York: Viking, 2016), 239.
 Timothy Keller, Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God (New York: Dutton, 2014), 49.
 J.I. Packer, Knowing God (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1973), 58.
* I’ve lost the exact page number, but I believe this is from: Max Lucado, God Came Near: God’s Perfect Gift (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004).
 Larry Hurtado, Honoring the Son: Jesus in Earliest Christian Devotional Practice (Bellingham: Lexham Press, 2018), 9-10.
 Richard Bauckham, God Crucified: Monotheism & Christology in the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdman’s, 1998), 77.
 As quoted in: Mark Clark, The Problem of God: Answering A Skeptic’s Challenges to Christianity (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017), 221.
 You can find this post in a devotional posted on December 11, 2020 and called “This Amazing Baby” at https://passionatelyhis.wordpress.com/2020/12/11/this-amazing-baby/
 Words: Charles Wesley (1707-1788).