Did Jesus Know He Was God?
By Elgin L Hushbeck Jr.
One of the core beliefs of Christianity is the Deity of Jesus Christ, the Son of God and second person of the Holy Trinity. This doctrine is clearly supported throughout the writings of the New Testament. In fact, in eight places the writers of the New Testament directly state that Jesus is God.(1) Yet the doctrine of the deity of our Lord has been and continues to be one of the most questioned doctrines of the Church.(2)
One of the main ways in which critics of our Lord's deity attack this doctrine is to claim that Jesus, himself, never claimed to be God. From this premise the critics then go on to claim that the doctrine of the deity of our Lord was either misinterpreted, developed, or flat out invented, depending of the severity of the critic, after the death of Jesus.(3)
So, did Jesus ever claim to be God? The answer depends on how narrow you want to define the question. If the question is: Did Jesus ever directly claim to be God, the question is easy to answer: No. Nowhere does Jesus ever say 'I am God'. Yet this does not mean that he did not know or claim that he was in fact God. Probably a better way to phrase the question is: Did Jesus, during his ministry, know he was God, and if so did he reveal His deity to others?
When we look at the words of Christ as recorded in the Gospels we find that he did in fact know, and act, as God. The first indication of Jesus self-awareness of his deity is to be found in his earliest recorded statement in the Bible. In Luke 2:49 we see that when the twelve year old Jesus was found by his parent in the Temple he said "Why were you searching for me?... Didn't you know that I had to be in my Father's house?" While this statement by itself does not prove that Jesus knew he was God, it does show that at a very young age Jesus was aware of his special relationship to God the Father.
During his ministry Jesus revealed his deity in many ways. Perhaps one of the most clear-cut actions of Jesus, which reveals his deity, was his forgiveness of sins. Mark 2 starts with the account of the healing of the paralytic. Here Jesus simply says "Son, your sins are forgiven" (Mark 2:5).(4) In Isaiah 43:25, and 44:22, God states that the forgiveness of sins is something that the true God does as opposed to Idols (Isaiah 44:12-20). Therefore the Jews were quite correct when they began thinking, "Who can forgive sins but God alone?" (Mk 2:7) It is important to note that Jesus does not say that they were incorrect in their belief that only God can forgive sins. Instead he replies: "Which is easier: to say to the paralytic, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, 'Get up, take your mat and walk'?" (Mk 2:9) Jesus could do both, he could forgive sins as easily as he could heal! Since only God can forgive sins Jesus had to believe he was God.
God is different from humanity. His nature is marked by characteristics that humans just do not possess. Yet Jesus claimed to possess many of these characteristics that only God has. God is Omnipresent (Psalms 139:7-12), yet Jesus also claimed this ability. In Matthew 18 Jesus told his disciples "For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them." (Matt 18:20) After the resurrection, Jesus told his disciples: "And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age." (Matt 28:20).
In the Old Testament God is clearly portrayed as the Judge of the people. "Say among the nations, 'The LORD reigns... he will judge the peoples with equity" (Ps 96:10) Yet in the New Testament Jesus claims that he will be the judge of the people. "And he has given him authority to judge because he is the Son of Man." (John 5:27) Jesus also claimed for himself the power to send the Holy Spirit: "When the Counselor comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father, he will testify about me." (John 15:26) In the Old Testament the Holy Spirit is referred to as the Spirit of God. For Jesus to believe he could send the Spirit of God, he would have to believe that he was God.
Jesus also revealed his deity in the way in which he spoke to the people. An examination of the way in which Jesus used the Old Testament reveals the he considered it to be the words of God.(5) This can be seen in Matthew 19 where Jesus, quoting from the book of Genesis, attributed the words not to Moses but to the Creator (Matt 19:4-5). And yet, whereas the Prophets would preface their messages from God with something like 'Thus says the Lord', Jesus felt that he had the authority to simply say "I tell you." In fact he used this formula over 130 times, many times when teaching on the Old Testament. By doing this Jesus put his words on par with those of God. The only way he could have legitimately done this was if he was God.
Yet while Jesus believed that he was God, he did not make it the centerpiece of his ministry. In fact, Jesus rarely talked about it at all, especially early on in his ministry. One obvious question is: if Jesus really thought he was God, why was he not clearer about it? Why didn't he just come right out and say, 'I am God. The main reason is because it did not suit his purpose. Jesus had two main tasks. First and foremost was to be the Lamb of God, to die for the sins of the world. (John 1:29) Second was to point humanity towards the Father. (John 1:18) While many Jews were expecting a Messiah who would throw out the Romans, Jesus came, not as the King of Kings, but as the Suffering Servant.
It is interesting to note that as the end of his ministry approached, Jesus became much clearer concerning his real identity. Whereas in the early part of his ministry Jesus taught chiefly about the Father and the Kingdom of God, as the end approached he began to teach more and more concerning himself, as opposed to his Father. As Millard Erickson has suggested "We might, for example, contrast the Sermon on the Mount with the discourse in the upper room. In the former, the message is centered upon the Father and the kingdom. In the latter, Jesus himself is much more the center of attention." (6)
While Jesus often taught the people in parables, to his disciples he was much more direct. In his explanation of the Parable of the Weeds (Matt 13:24-30) Jesus makes some truly amazing statements, amazing that is unless he is God. As he is explaining to his disciples who the items in the parable represent, Jesus states that: "The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels. As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil." (Matt 13:39-41) Here Jesus clearly says that the angels belong to him and that the kingdom at the end of the age is his kingdom. Yet the angels belong to God and elsewhere this kingdom is called the kingdom of God.(7)
One of the most direct claims by Jesus is his claim to be the Son of God. Now it is true that in one sense God is the Father of us all and therefore we are all children of God. (8) But we are children of God by adoption not by nature.(9) Jesus did not claim to be just a child of God. Jesus claimed that he was "God's one and only Son" (John 3:18) This was something very different than the relationship we have as God's children.
The fact that the Son of God and Child of God are not synonymous can also be seen by the way in which the term was used by those around Jesus. For example, in the Gospel of Matthew Satan challenged Jesus saying : "If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread" (Matt 4:3) and "If you are the Son of God throw yourself down [from the Temple]" (Matt 4:6). The demon-possessed men of the Gadarenes, feared Jesus saying, "What do you want with us, Son of God? Have you come here to torture us before the appointed time?" (Matt 8:29) After Jesus walked to the disciples on the water and calmed the storm they worshipped him saying "Truly you are the Son of God" (Matt 14:33). The Messiah and the Son of God are seen as the same by both Peter (Matt 16:16) and Caiaphas (the high priest) (Matt 26:63). The Jews who taunted Jesus while he was on the cross said: "Come down from the cross if you are the Son of God" (Matt 27:40) and that God should save him (Matt 27:43). Finally, "When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, 'Surely this was the Son of God!'" (Matt 27:54).
In all of these instances the term "The Son of God" is associated with power and status that would not belong to a child of God. Children of God cannot normally turn stones into bread, walk on water, calm storms, strike fear into demons, or save themselves from crucifixion and yet these were all abilities that those around Jesus expected of the Son of God. Yet still one could argue that this meant that the term 'the Son of God', only meant someone special, a sort of super prophet.
For Jesus, however, the term meant much more than this. The position of the Son of God is much more than that of a super prophet. Jesus told Nicodemus that salvation, one's eternal destiny, is based on their faith in the Son of God. (John 3: 15-18) Later Jesus said: "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6) If Jesus were not God than salvation would be based on faith in something other than God. Jesus would be leading us away from God and to himself! Yet at other times Jesus said that salvation was based on faith in the Father (John 5:24) Thus, for Jesus, salvation can be gained through faith in the Son or faith in the Father. The two are clearly equated. To believe one is to believe the other.
For Jesus, however, there was more than just an equation of belief. Jesus said "If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well." (John 14:7) This is a truly amazing statement. Jesus says to know him is to know the Father. But the Father is God. So what Jesus is really saying is that to know him is to know God. The only way this could be true is if Jesus fully represented all of the characteristics of God. (10) But the only way Jesus could fully represent the characteristics of God is if he was God.
A few verses later Jesus says: "Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me;" (John14:11) Now as Christians who have experienced the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, we are comfortable with the ideal of a person being indwelt by God. But Jesus is saying more than just that he is indwelt by God here. Not only is the Father in him but Jesus also claims that he is in the Father. Once again how is this possible unless Jesus is God.
Towards the end of his ministry, while he was in Jerusalem for the Feast of Dedication, Jesus was confronted in the temple area by some Jews who demanded that he tell them if he was the Christ. (John 10:22-39) Jesus responded by saying that he had already told them but they didn't listen. Then he went on to make one of the most clear-cut statements of his deity in the New Testament: "I and the Father are one". (John 10:30) The Greek word for one, hen, is not in the masculine case but in the neuter. Thus Jesus is not saying that he and the Father are the same person but that they are unified in nature and equality.(11)
Perhaps the most clear-cut example of Jesus claiming to be God can be seen in John 8. In another dispute with some Jews, Jesus said that "Your Father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad." (John 8:56) This statement in and of itself raises many questions since Abraham had died almost 2000 years earlier, a fact that the Jews immediately seized upon: "You are not yet fifty years old and you have seen Abraham!" (John 8:57) Jesus answered them with an even more amazing claim "I tell you the truth, before Abraham was born, I AM!" (John 8:58). What does Jesus mean by this? There are two points that reveal Jesus' meaning. 1) Jesus said "I AM" instead of "I was" as one would have expected if Jesus' claim was merely that he had pre-existed Abraham. 2) When Jesus said this, the Jews immediately tried to kill him. Now either Jesus was speaking to a group of irate grammarians, or there was some further significance to his choice of "I AM".
The significance of "I AM" is to be found in book of Exodus. Moses was reluctant to go to the Israelites because they might ask him the name of God and Moses did not know it. Therefore: "God said to Moses, 'I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: I AM has sent me to you.'" (Ex 3:14) Thus "I AM" is the name for the God who spoke to Moses from the burning bush. It is the name for the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It is the name of the God that would led the Jews out of captivity in Egypt. It is the name of the God that spoke to the prophets and whom the prophet spoke for. And it was the name that Jesus claimed for himself. Jesus not only claimed to be God, he claimed to be the God who spoke to Moses from the burning bush. When Jesus made this claim, devote Jews in the first century had only two possible courses of action: 1) Kill him for blasphemy or 2) Fall down an worship him. The Jews before Jesus choose the former.
Sometimes, critics argue that Jesus is not really claiming to be God in these verses and that if we could only understand them in a first century context, we would see that they do not teach his divinity. Critics claim that when Christians see the divinity of Christ in these verses, they are reading back into them, doctrines that were developed by the church at a later time. The main response to this point of view is that words in context have meanings. While it is true that we must try to understand these statements of Jesus in a first century context, this is not as difficult as critics seem to imply. In fact, we can see the first century interpretation of these verses in the New Testament itself, for the writers not only recorded the statements of Jesus but the reactions and responses of those who heard him.
For example, what was the first century Jewish interpretation of Jesus claiming that God was his Father and that he was thus the Son of God? John records the reaction of one group of Jews to such a claim: "For this reason the Jews tried all the harder to kill him; not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God" (John 5:18). To the Jews to whom Jesus spoke, Jesus was claiming equality with God.
Just after Jesus claimed that "I and the father are one" the Jews picked up stones and were going to stone him. Jesus asked them "I have shown you many great miracles from the Father. For which of these do you stone me?" In their reply to Jesus we can see the first century interpretation of his statement: "We are not stoning you for any of these, but because you, a mere man, claim to be God." (John 10:30-33) The reaction of the Jews could not be clearer. They thought that Jesus had claimed to be God.
One could claim that the Jews themselves did not correctly understand the statements of Jesus. But then they would not have been the only ones. After Jesus' resurrection he appeared to the disciples, but Thomas was not present and would not believe. A week later Jesus appeared again and this time Thomas was present. Thomas' response was "My Lord and My God" (John 20:28) Thomas, a disciple, also thought Jesus was God. It is important to point out that if Jesus was not God, Thomas had just committed blasphemy. And yet Jesus did not rebuke him but accepted the title.
It would seem that all who heard the statements of Jesus understood that he had claimed to be God. Some saw this as Blasphemy and attempted, and eventually succeed, to kill him. Others believed his claims and worshipped him. No one seems to say 'No, he didn't really mean that'.
We have seen that Jesus claimed for himself the right/ability to perform actions that only God could do. He claimed the right to forgive sins. The ability to be omnipresent. The right to be the final judge of people at the end of time. The ability to send the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God. Jesus spoke to the people, not with the authority of a prophet of God (Thus says the LORD), but with the authority of God himself (I tell you). He spoke of his angels and his kingdom.
Jesus claims for himself a special and unique relationship with the father, he claimed to be the one and only Son of God. He said that salvation was based on faith in him. Jesus said that if you know him, you to know the Father and he claimed to indwell the Father.
Most importantly Jesus directly stated, "I and the Father are one" and claimed that he was the "I AM" of the Old Testament. Those around him understood these claims to be claims to God. While some people believed his claims and others rejected them, all seem to have understood them to be claims of deity.
Therefore the conclusion is inescapable, Jesus did claim to be God incarnate. When combined with his teachings on the Father and on the Holy Spirit and the unity of God, it becomes clear that Jesus viewed God as what Christians would later describe as the Trinity and that he was a member of it. Did Jesus know he was God? The answer, based on his own words, is clearly yes.
1 John1:1, John 1:18, John 20:28, Rom 9:5, Titus 2:11, 2 Pet 1:1, Heb 1:8, 1 John 5:20
2 Arianism, the first major doctrinal controversy in the Church, was a dispute over the deity of Jesus. Today one of the distinctive marks of cults is their denial in some fashion of the Deity of Christ (Mormon, Jehovah Witness, etc)
3 For and example of a sever critic see: Hyam Maccoby, The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity (New York: Harper & Row, 1986) pg 204-5
4 Other instances of healing/forgiving are Matthew 9:2, Luke 5:20, Luke 7:47
5 John W Wenham, Christ's View of Scripture in Inerrancy, edited by Norman L Geisler (Grand Rapids, MI: Academie Books, 1980) pg 3-38
6 Millard J Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapid, MI: 1985) pg 685
7 Even Matthew, who normally refers to the kingdom as the kingdom of heaven refers to it as the kingdom of God in 6:33, 12:28, 19:24, 21:43, and 26:29
8 Matt 6:9
9 Eph1:5, Rom 8:23
10 Thomas V. Morris, Understanding Identity Statements (Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press, 1984), chap 6
11 Merrill C. Tenney John The Expositors Bible Commentary, ed Frank Gaebelein (Grand Rapids, MI: Regency; 1981) pg 112