Who - and What - Was Jesus Christ?

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"None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory" (1 Corinthians 2:8, New Revised Standard Version).

The Roman governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate, faced a difficult situation when Jesus was brought before him. Apprehensively, he attempted to dismiss the picture that was emerging in front of him. When Pilate heard the accusation, it struck fear into his heart. "He has claimed to be the Son of God" (John 19:7, NRSV).

Pilate's next question betrayed his fear that he was not dealing with an ordinary man. He had just been given a message from his wife, who received a warning in a dream not to have anything to do with this innocent man (Matthew 27:19). Pilate himself knew that Jesus had been delivered to him because the chief priests were jealous of and despised Him (Matthew 27:18). Yet Pilate couldn't avoid his date with destiny.

He next asked Jesus, "Where are You from?" (John 19:9). Pilate already knew He was Galilean. But what geographical area this Jewish teacher came from was not the question. Where are you really from is what Pilate wanted to know. Jesus was silent. His claim to be the Son of God had already answered this question. But Pilate did not have the courage to deal with this answer.

Accepting the real answer would have made all the difference. The apostle Paul said that none of the rulers of this world knew who Jesus was, where He came from and His purpose for coming, "for had they known, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory" (1 Corinthians 2:8).

Pilate could not face this issue. He knew what was right in this instance, but he feared losing power. He feared Caesar's reaction if it were reported that he did not deal with someone who posed a threat to Roman control in the region (John 19:12). He feared a popular uprising if he did not agree to the Jewish leaders' political demands. He also feared Jesus, because he was not quite sure with whom he was dealing.

Avoiding a difficult choice

In the end political expediency won out. The stage was set to both indict all mankind of guilt and make provision for their forgiveness. Pilate gave the order for Jesus to be crucified. The reality was denied, left for all to confront at a later time.

Most of us tend to ignore unpleasant realities and make choices that we think are beneficial to us. Confronted with evidence as to who Jesus really was, would you face a reality that is too difficult for you to accept? Deep down, maybe we intuitively realize it would change life as we know it. So perhaps it's better, we reason, not to look into this matter too deeply to leave ourselves an out. That's the route Pilate took.

But this is where we have to begin. Who, really, was Jesus of Nazareth? Where did He really come from? If we understand that, it explains everything He did and said.

Most see Jesus as a teacher, a wise man, a Jewish sage who died an unjust and horrible death and founded a great religion.

Is there more to it than that? One of the most controversial topics is the true identity of Jesus Christ—and at the same time it is perhaps the most crucial. It lies at the heart of the Christian faith. What this entails is the understanding that Jesus was not simply an extraordinary human being, but that Jesus was actually God in human flesh.

But if He was God in the flesh, how was He God? This is the part that is often neglected in many explanations—and, as a result, many have difficulty grasping how this could be.

Jesus certainly regarded Himself as much more than only a man, prophet or teacher.

Some say that Jesus made no claims to be God. Some scholars even insist that, years later, leaders of the Christian Church concocted and edited into the record the titles Jesus used, the miracles and His claims and actions that showed He believed He was God. In other words, the argument is that the record has been fabricated and the Jesus portrayed in the New Testament is a legend, a theological product of the early Church.

However, this is historically impossible for several reasons—not the least of which is that immediately after the death and resurrection of Jesus, the Church grew explosively based on the conviction that He was God. There was no time for a legend to develop around exaggerated claims of who Jesus might be.

Peter immediately preached that Jesus had been resurrected from the dead and that He was indeed the Christ and Lord and equated Him with God (Acts 2:27-35). The disciples and the Church knew who Jesus was, as the powerful growth of the Church shows.

The fact of the matter, staggering though it is, is that Jesus of Nazareth was God in the flesh. This fact, which we will further explore, is what makes Christianity unique and authoritative. If Jesus was not God, then the Christian faith doesn't differ in kind from other religions. If Jesus was not God, those in the early Christian Church would have had no basis for their beliefs—beliefs that, in the words of their enemies, "turned the world upside down" (Acts 17:6).

Jesus, the I AM

Perhaps the boldest claim Jesus made about His identity was the statement, "Most assuredly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM" (John 8:58). Translated into English, His statement may appear or sound confusing. But in the Aramaic or Hebrew language in which He spoke, He was making a claim that immediately led the people to try to stone Him for blasphemy.

What was going on here? Jesus was revealing His identity as the actual One whom the Jews knew as God in the Old Testament. He was saying in one breath that He existed before Abraham and that He was the same Being as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Anciently when the great God first revealed Himself to Moses in Exodus 3:13-14, Moses asked Him what His name was. "I AM WHO I AM," was the awesome reply. "Thus you shall say to the children of Israel, 'I AM has sent me to you.'"

Jesus clearly claimed to be this same Being—the "I AM" of Exodus 3:14, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Exodus 3:15).

"I AM" is related to the personal name for God in the Old Testament, the Hebrew name YHWH. When this name appears in our English Bibles, it is commonly rendered using small capital letters as LORD. It is transliterated as "Jehovah" in some Bible versions.

When Jesus made this startling statement, the Jews knew exactly what He meant. They picked up stones to kill Him because they thought He was guilty of blasphemy.

"I AM" and the related YHWH are the names of God that infer absolute timeless self-existence. Although impossible to translate accurately and directly into English, YHWH conveys meanings of "The Eternal One," "The One Who Always Exists" or "The One Who Was, Is and Always Will Be." These distinctions can apply only to God, whose existence is eternal and everlasting.

In Isaiah 42:8 this same Being says, "I am the LORD [YHWH], that is My name; and My glory I will not give to another, nor My praise to carved images." A few chapters later He says: "Thus says the LORD [YHWH], the King of Israel, and his Redeemer, the LORD of hosts: 'I am the First and I am the Last; besides Me there is no God" (Isaiah 44:6).

To the Jews, there was no mistaking who Jesus claimed to be. He said He was the One the nation of Israel understood to be the one true God. By Jesus making claim to the name "I AM," He was saying that He was the God whom the Hebrews knew as YHWH. This name was considered so holy that a devout Jew would not pronounce it. This was a special name for God that can only refer to the one true God.

Dr. Norman Geisler, in his book Christian Apologetics, concludes: "In view of the fact that the Jehovah of the Jewish Old Testament would not give his name, honor, or glory to another, it is little wonder that the words and deeds of Jesus of Nazareth drew stones and cries of 'blasphemy' from first-century Jews. The very things that the Jehovah of the Old Testament claimed for himself Jesus of Nazareth also claimed" (2002, p. 331).

Jesus identified with YHWH

Dr. Geisler goes on to list some of the ways Jesus equated Himself with YHWH of the Old Testament. Let's notice some of these.

Jesus said of Himself, "I am the good shepherd" (John 10:11). David, in the first verse of the famous 23rd Psalm, declared that "The LORD [YHWH] is my shepherd." Jesus claimed to be judge of all men and nations (John 5:22-27). Yet Joel 3:12 says the LORD [YHWH] "will sit to judge all ...nations."

Jesus said, "I am the light of the world" (John 8:12). Isaiah 60:19 says, "The LORD will be to you an everlasting light, and your God your glory." Also, David says in Psalm 27:1, "The LORD (YHWH) is my light."

Jesus asked in prayer that the Father would share His eternal glory: "O Father, glorify Me together with Yourself, with the glory which I had with You before the world was" (John 17:5). Yet Isaiah 42:8 says, "I am the LORD, that is My name; and My glory I will not give to another ."

Jesus spoke of Himself as the coming bridegroom (Matthew 25:1), which is how YHWH is characterized in Isaiah 62:5 and Hosea 2:16.

In Revelation 1:17 Jesus says He is the first and the last, which is identical to what YHWH says of Himself in Isaiah 44:6: "I am the First and I am the Last."

There is no question that Jesus understood Himself as the LORD (YHWH) of the Old Testament.

When Jesus was arrested, His use of the same term had an electrifying effect on those in the arresting party. "Now when He said to them, 'I am He,' they drew back and fell to the ground" (John 18:6). Notice here that "He" is in italics, meaning the word was added by the translators and isn't in the original wording. However, their attempt to make Jesus' answer more grammatically correct obscures the fact that He was likely again claiming to be the "I AM" of the Old Testament Scriptures.

"I and My Father are one"

The Jews confronted Jesus on another occasion, asking Him, "How long do You keep us in doubt? If you are the Christ [the prophesied Messiah], tell us plainly" (John 10:24). Jesus' answer is quite revealing: "I told you, and you do not believe" (John 10:25). He had indeed confirmed His divine identity on a previous occasion (John 5:17-18).

Jesus adds, "The works that I do in My Father's name, they bear witness of Me" (John 10:25). The works He did were miracles that only God could do. They could not refute the miraculous works Jesus did.

He made another statement that incensed them: "I and My Father are one" (John 10:30). That is, the Father and Jesus were both divine. Again, there was no mistaking the intent of what He said, because "then the Jews took up stones again to stone Him" (John 10:31).

Jesus countered, "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).

The Jews understood perfectly well what Jesus meant. He was telling them plainly of His divinity.

The Gospel of John records yet another instance in which Jesus infuriated the Jews with His claims of divinity. It happened just after Jesus had healed a crippled man at the pool of Bethesda on the Sabbath. The Jews sought to kill Him because He did this on the Sabbath, a day on which the law of God had stated no work was to be done (which they misinterpreted to include what Jesus was doing).

Jesus then made a statement that the Jews could take in only one way: "My Father has been working until now, and I have been working." Their response to His words? "Therefore the Jews sought all the more to kill Him, because He not only broke the Sabbath [according to their interpretation of it], but also said that God was His Father, making Himself equal with God" (John 5:16-18).

Jesus was equating His works with God's works and claiming God as His Father in a special way.

Jesus claimed authority to forgive sins

Jesus claimed to be divine in various other ways.

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, NRSV).

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).

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 added in John 5:21,"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."

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 28:9-17). The demon-possessed man of the Gadarenes, "when He saw Jesus from afar ...ran and worshiped Him" (Mark 5:6). 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.

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.

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, an apologist writing in defense of 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).

Christ's claims to hold people's eternal destiny

On several occasions Jesus asserted that He was the One through whom men and women 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 at the end. No mere man can take this role.

Dr. Craig adds: "Jesus held that people's attitudes toward himself would be the determining factor in God's judgment on the judgment day. 'Also I say to you, whoever confesses Me before men, him the Son of Man also will confess before the angels of God. But he who denies Me before men will be denied before the angels of God' (Luke 12:8-9).

"Make no mistake: if Jesus were not the divine son of God, then this claim could only be regarded as the most narrow and objectionable dogmatism. For Jesus is saying that people's salvation depends on their confession to Jesus himself" (Craig, p. 251).

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.

The claim of Jesus' disciples

Those who personally knew and were taught by Jesus, and who then wrote most of the New Testament, are thoroughly consistent with Jesus' statements 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 them called Him God directly. When Thomas saw His wounds, he exclaimed, "My Lord and my God!" (John 20:28). Paul refers to Jesus in Titus 1:3 and Titus 2:10 as "God our Savior."

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 says: 'Your throne, O God, is forever and ever.'" Other parts of this book 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 4:14-5:10). He is greater than all these because He is God.

He left us no middle ground

The renowned Christian writer C.S. Lewis observes: "I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: 'I'm ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don't accept His claim to be God.' That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher ...

"You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to" (Mere Christianity, 1996, p. 56).

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