Who Was Jesus?
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Who Was Jesus?
Who was Jesus of Nazareth, really? He is undoubtedly one of history’s most famous figures—so famous that history is divided into the period before and after His birth (B.C., or “before Christ” and A.D., Latin Anno Domini, “the year of our Lord”). A third of the human race claims to be His followers.
Ideas about Him have ranged all over the map for the last 2,000 years—from madman to Messiah, from Son of God to common criminal. People have wildly varying ideas about what He taught and what His mission and purpose was. Countless forests of trees have been cut down to provide the paper for the millions of books printed about Him, and tons of ink have been poured out on those pages.
But who did Jesus Himself say He was? What did He say His mission and purpose was? What did He state plainly about Himself?
Most people view Him as a wise man and teacher. However, Jesus claimed to be far more than that—more than a man, more than a teacher, more than a prophet.
He claimed to be nothing less than God in the flesh!
Let that sink in for a moment.
Does it matter if Jesus is what He claimed to be?
It’s become something of a cliché for deluded individuals to think that they are Napoleon Bonaparte, George Washington or some other notable historical figure. But not many make the astounding claim that they’re God in the flesh!
Yet Jesus did. Not once, but many times. Some of those occasions were rather oblique. Some were very obvious—so obvious that those who heard were enraged and immediately wanted to kill Him for blasphemy.
Does it matter? You bet it does. If Jesus wasn’t divine, if He wasn’t who and what He claimed to be, then the Christian belief means nothing. Yes, it certainly has good principles to follow, but who would want to follow a religion based on the delusions of a liar or madman?
But if Jesus’ claims are true—that He is the Son of God and God in the flesh come to earth to live and die and live again to show us the way to life everlasting—then this is the most astounding event in human history. It demands our absolute attention. It demands that we consider the evidence. It demands that we act, for we are fully accountable for how we decide we’ll respond!
Nothing could be more important for you and your life!
Jesus’ astounding claims
So who—and what—did Jesus claim to be?
He made His boldest assertion about His identity in John 8:58. In one of His many debates with those who opposed Him, He stated: “Most assuredly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM.” In English this appears confusing. But Jesus was speaking Aramaic or Hebrew, and those listening understood that He was making a claim that immediately led them to try to kill Him.
What did this mean? What did Jesus say that made them want to stone Him to death for blasphemy?
If Jesus wasn’t divine, if He wasn’t who and what He claimed to be, then the Christian belief means nothing.
Abraham had lived some 2,000 years earlier. Jesus was saying not only that He existed before Abraham, but also that He was the very God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He was revealing His true identity—that He was the Being whom the Jews knew and worshipped as God in the Old Testament period!
A while after Abraham, when the great God revealed Himself to Moses at the burning bush, Moses asked God what His name was. “I AM WHO I AM,” was the reply. “Thus you shall say to the children of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you’” (Exodus 3:13-14, emphasis added throughout).
When Jesus startled them by saying, “Most assuredly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM,” the Jews understood exactly what He meant. “Then they took up stones to throw at Him” (John 8:59). They wanted to kill Him because in their minds He was guilty of blasphemy for claiming to be God!
When Jesus claimed to be “I AM,” He was saying that He was the God who revealed Himself to Moses and who said His name was “I AM.”
The Jews understood exactly who and what Jesus claimed to be—the One whom their nation worshipped as the God of Israel.
“I and My Father are one”
On another occasion the Jews confronted Jesus, asking, “How long do You keep us in doubt? If you are the Christ [the prophesied Messiah], tell us plainly” (John 10:24). Jesus answered, “I told you, and you do not believe” (John 10:25). He had previously confirmed His divine identity, as we just saw, as well as on another previous occasion (John 5:17-18).
Jesus then added, “The works that I do in My Father’s name, they bear witness of Me” (John 10:25). These “works” were miracles that God alone could do. Jesus’ enemies couldn’t refute the miraculous deeds Jesus did, many of which are recorded in the Gospels.
Jesus then made another statement that infuriated them: “I and My Father are one” (John 10:30). He claimed that both the Father and He were divine. As before, there was no mistaking the intent of His statement, because “then the Jews took up stones again to stone Him” (John 10:31).
Recognizing their murderous intent, Jesus said: “Many good works I have shown you from My Father. For which of those works do you stone Me?” The Jews responded, “For a good work we do not stone You, but for blasphemy, and because You, being a Man, make Yourself God” (John 10:32-33).
Again, they understood exactly what Jesus meant. He was clearly telling them of His divine identity, that He was God as God the Father was God.
“My Father has been working until now, and I have been working”
John’s Gospel records yet another occasion when Jesus angered the Jews with claims of divinity. This took place after Jesus healed a lame man at Jerusalem’s Pool of Bethesda on the Sabbath.
According to the law of God, no work was to be done on the Sabbath. And the Jewish religious authorities were angry, because they misinterpreted the Sabbath command to include what Jesus was doing. “For this reason the Jews persecuted Jesus, and sought to kill Him, because He had done these things on the Sabbath” (John 5:16).
On this occasion, too, Jesus made a statement that they could take only one way: “My Father has been working until now, and I have been working.”
How did they respond to His statement? “Therefore the Jews sought all the more to kill Him, because He not only broke the Sabbath [according to their misguided interpretation], but also said that God was His Father, making Himself equal with God” (John 5:17-18).
The Word was with God and was God
The Bible clearly reveals two divine Beings, God the Father and Jesus Christ the Son. Yet before Jesus was begotten and born as a human being, the Bible doesn’t speak of these two beings as Father and Son. This is understandable, as they were not yet in a father-son relationship at that time.
In a dramatic vision recorded in Daniel 7, some 550 years before Jesus Christ’s birth, Daniel describes these two divine beings as “the Ancient of Days” (God the Father) and “One like the Son of Man” (who would become human as Jesus Christ, whose most common term He used for Himself was “the Son of Man”).
John 1:1-2 describes a time before the world was created, when two divine Beings existed: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.” Here John refers to those two Beings “the Word” and “God”—specifically stating that “the Word was God” also.
John goes on to explain who “the Word” was: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (verse 14). Obviously “the only begotten of the Father” who “became flesh and dwelt among us” is the Being who became Jesus Christ. And “God” In John 1:1-2 is referring to the Father—though “the Word [who became Jesus Christ] was God” also.
Jesus was the Creator of all things
Immediately after stating that “the Word was God” and that “He was in the beginning with God,” John makes a startling statement: “All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made” (John 1:3).
John reveals that the Being who became Jesus Christ was actually the One through whom the universe was created as recorded in the book of Genesis.
Yes—astonishingly, John reveals that the Being who became Jesus Christ was actually the One through whom the universe was created as recorded in the book of Genesis! Several other Bible passages confirm this truth. Notice:
“For by Him [Jesus Christ] all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist” (Colossians 1:16-17).
“God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds” (Hebrews 1:1-2).
While God the Father is the supreme authority, it was Christ who actually did the work of creating. “God . . . created all things through Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 3:9). Colossians 1:17 verifies that the Being who became Jesus Christ had to exist “before all things,” since He created “all things . . . that are in heaven and that are on earth.”
These passages make it abundantly clear that Jesus Christ was not only divine, but was the God who created the entire universe!
“No one has seen the Father”
But John 1 contains another astounding statement that helps us understand who and what Jesus Christ really is. John, concluding his explanation of Jesus Christ’s existence from the beginning with the Father, states: “No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son . . . He has declared Him” (John 1:18).
Jesus Christ Himself makes the same point in John 5:37: “And the Father Himself, who sent Me, has testified of Me. You have neither heard His voice at any time, nor seen His form.”
Jesus confirms this in John 6:46: “No one has seen the Father except the one who is from God; only he has seen the Father” (New International Version).
The apostle Paul also states that no human being has ever seen the Father, speaking of “God . . . whom no man has seen or can see” (1 Timothy 6:13, 16).
And John, last surviving of the original apostles, says plainly that “no one has seen God at any time” (1 John 4:12).
Yet the Bible specifically records that many individuals saw and heard God, among them Jacob (Genesis 32:30), Moses (Exodus 3:6; Exodus 33:17-23; Numbers 12:6-8), Joshua (Joshua 5:13-15 - Joshua 6:1-2), Gideon (Judges 6:12-14), Isaiah (Isaiah 6:1-3) and Ezekiel (Ezekiel 1:26-28 - Ezekiel 2:1-4).
“God . . . has in these last days, spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds.”
Putting all of these scriptures together—some saying that no one has ever seen God and others showing that the God of the Old Testament many times visibly appeared and audibly spoke to individuals, we are left with one inescapable fact: The God who appeared to these individuals was not God the Father, but the Being who became Jesus Christ.
This explains why John stated that “No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son . . . He has declared Him” (John 1:18). This also helps us understand Jesus’ statement in Matthew 11:27, that “no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”
To summarize: No human being has ever seen God the Father. The God who appeared to various individuals in Old Testament times was actually the Being who would later come in human form as Jesus Christ. Jesus now reveals the Father to those whom He chooses and whom the Father calls (John 6:44; John 6:65).
The apostle Paul confirms this. Writing of ancient Israel’s sojourn in the wilderness after the Exodus, he states that “they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ” (1 Corinthians 10:4).
Where does that leave us?
Jesus’ claims as to His identity are indeed staggering. Some who heard those claims wanted to kill Him. Others were bewildered. Some put His claims to the test, followed Him, and became part of a movement that “turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6). Those who were closest to Him were so convinced that they willingly followed Him down the pathway to death, never wavering in their convictions.
This understanding of who and what Jesus Christ was and is today is why His sacrifice is so enormously important. It took nothing less than the death of the Creator of all mankind to pay the penalty for all the sins of all mankind for all time!
And what is Jesus Christ today? In His last hours with His disciples before He was arrested and crucified, He prayed to His Father: “And now, O Father, glorify Me together with Yourself, with the glory which I had with You before the world was” (John 17:5). Resurrected from the tomb, He now sits in glory at the Father’s right hand, awaiting the time of His return to earth to establish His Kingdom and to reward His faithful flock.
What about you? Do you have the courage and conviction to surrender your life to the God who not only made you, but surrendered His life for you? The choice is yours!
The Claim of Jesus’ Disciples
The statements of those who personally knew and were taught by Jesus, and who then wrote most of the New Testament, are thoroughly consistent with Jesus’ declarations about Himself.
His disciples were monotheistic Jews. For them to agree that Jesus was God, and then to give their lives for this belief, tells us that they had come to see for themselves that the claims Jesus made about Himself were so convincing as to leave no doubt in their minds.
The first Gospel writer, Matthew, opens with the story of the virgin birth of Jesus. Matthew comments on this miraculous event with the quote from Isaiah 7:14, “ ‘Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,’ which is translated, ‘God with us’ ” (Matthew 1:23). Matthew is making it clear that he understands that this child is God—“God with us.”
John is likewise explicit in the prologue to his Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God . . . And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:1-14).
Some of the disciples called Jesus God directly. When Thomas saw His wounds, he exclaimed, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28). Some view this as simply an expression of surprise. But such profane use of God’s name would have been unacceptable among the Jews of that day.
Paul refers to Jesus in Titus 2:13 as “our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.” Peter likewise calls Him “our God and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:1).
The book of Hebrews is most emphatic that Jesus is God. Hebrews 1:8, applying Psalm 45:6 to Jesus Christ, states: “But to the Son He [the Father] says: ‘Your throne, O God, is forever and ever.’” Other parts of Hebrews explain that Jesus is higher than the angels (Hebrews 1:4-13), superior to Moses (Hebrews 3:1-6) and greater than the high priests (Hebrews 4:14-16; Hebrews 5:1-10). He is greater than all these because He is God—along with the Father.
—From our free study guide Is God a Trinity?
In What Other Ways Did Jesus Claim to Be God?
Jesus claimed to be divine in various other ways not specifically covered in this article. Let’s look at some of them.
1. Jesus claimed authority to forgive sins
When Jesus healed one paralyzed man, He also said to him, “Son, your sins are forgiven you” (Mark 2:5). The scribes who heard this reasoned He was blaspheming, because, as they rightly understood and asked, “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mark 2:6-7).
Responding to the scribes, Jesus said: “Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? . . . But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—He said to the paralytic—“I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home” (Mark 2:8-11, New Revised Standard Version).
The scribes knew Jesus was claiming an authority that belonged to God only. Again, the Lord (YHWH) is the One pictured in the Old Testament who forgives sin (Jeremiah 31:34).
2. Christ claimed power to raise the dead
Jesus claimed yet another power that God alone possessed—to raise and judge the dead. Notice His statements in John 5:25-29:
“Most assuredly, I say to you, the hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God; and those who hear will live. . .All who are in the graves will hear His voice and come forth—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.”
There was no doubt about what He meant. He had said in John 11:21, “For as the Father raises the dead and gives life to them, even so the Son gives life to whom He will.” When Jesus resurrected Lazarus from the dead, He said to Lazarus’ sister Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25).
Compare this to 1 Samuel 2:6, which tells us that “the Lord [YHWH] kills and makes alive; He brings down to the grave and brings up.”
3. Jesus accepted honor and worship
Jesus demonstrated His divinity in yet another way when He said, “All should honor the Son just as they honor the Father” (John 5:23). Over and over, Jesus told His disciples to believe in Him as they would believe in God. “Let not your heart be troubled; you believe in God, believe also in Me” (John 14:1).
Jesus received worship on many occasions without forbidding such acts. A leper worshipped Him (Matthew 8:2). A ruler worshipped Him with his plea to raise his daughter from the dead (Matthew 9:18). When Jesus had stilled the storm, those in the boat worshipped Him as the Son of God (Matthew 14:33).
A Canaanite woman worshipped Him (Matthew 15:25). When Jesus met the women who came to His tomb after His resurrection, they worshipped Him, as did His apostles (Matthew 28:9; Matthew 28:17). The demon-possessed man of the Gadarenes, “ran to meet Jesus and fell down before him” (Mark 5:6, New Living Translation). The blind man whom Jesus healed in John 9 worshipped Him (John 9:38).
The First and Second of the Ten Commandments forbid worship of anyone or anything other than God (Exodus 20:2-5). Barnabas and Paul were very disturbed when the people of Lystra tried to worship them after their healing of a crippled man (Acts 14:13-15). In Revelation 22:8-9, when John the apostle fell down to worship the angel, the angel refused to accept worship, saying, “You must not do that! . . . Worship God!” (Revelation 22:8-9, NRSV).
Yet Jesus accepted worship and did not rebuke those who chose to kneel before Him and worship.
4. Jesus’ instruction to pray in His name
Jesus not only tells His followers to believe in Him, but that when we pray to the Father, we are to pray in Christ’s name. “And whatever you ask in My name, that I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son” (John 14:13). Jesus made it clear that access to the Father is through Him, telling us that “no one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6).
The apostle Paul states of Jesus: “Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9-11).
Paul is telling us that God the Father Himself is upholding the fact that Jesus is God, by exalting His name to the level of the One through whom we make our requests and the One before whom we bow. Jesus also assures us that He will be the One who will give the answer to our prayers (“. . . that I will do,” John 14:13).
In so many ways Jesus revealed Himself as the God of the Old Testament. The Jews saw Him do many things that only God would or could do. They heard Him say things about Himself that could only apply to God. They were angered and responded with outrage and charged Him with blasphemy. They were so infuriated by His claims that they wanted to kill Him on the spot.
5. Jesus’ special relationship with God
Jesus understood Himself to be unique in His close relationship with the Father in that He was the only One who could reveal the Father. “All things have been delivered to Me by My Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father. Nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and the one to whom the Son wills to reveal Him” (Matthew 11:27).
Dr. William Lane Craig, author of many books and articles defending Christian belief, says this verse “tells us that Jesus claimed to be the Son of God in an exclusive and absolute sense. Jesus says here that his relationship of sonship to God is unique. And he also claims to be the only one who can reveal the Father to men. In other words, Jesus claims to be the absolute revelation of God” (Reasonable Faith, 1994, p. 246).
6. Christ’s claims to hold people’s eternal destiny
On several occasions Jesus asserted that He was the One through whom people could attain eternal life. “This is the will of Him who sent Me, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have everlasting life; and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:40; compare John 6:47 and John 6:54). He not only says that people must believe in Him, but also that He will be the One to resurrect them. No mere man can take this role.
The conclusion is inescapable: Jesus understood Himself as divine along with the Father and as possessing the right to do things only God has the right to do.
—Condensed from our free study guide Jesus Christ: The Real Story