Who, really, was Jesus Christ? He asked His disciples a year before He was arrested and executed by the horrible death of crucifixion, "Who do men say that I am?"
They gave the top four opinions of the moment: "Some say John the Baptist, some Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets" (Matthew 16:13-14). As we see from this response, some people of that time were willing to go out on a limb and consider that He might have been a prophet brought back to life by God just for this time.
But if you were going to be a true disciple of Jesus Christ, He would insist that you have to know His true identity. So He asked them a second question: "But who do you say that I am?"
Simon Peter was the first to answer: "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." That Jesus was the Son of God was such an important understanding that He remarked, "Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven" (Matthew 16:15-17, emphasis added throughout).
What does it mean to be the Son of God? Over time the disciples came to understand that Jesus existed before His human birth. But who was He? Where was He from?
Son of David through Mary—and Son of God
Jesus was born of the descendants of the tribe of Judah living in the traditional Israelite homeland, at that time under military occupation by Rome. The Gospel writers Matthew and Luke record His genealogy. Matthew gives the genealogy of Jesus through His legal father, Joseph. In his opening statement Matthew says this is "the book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham" (Matthew 1:1).
Matthew immediately answered the question any Jew would have about someone who claimed to be a king of God's people. The Messiah would be a descendent of Abraham and also of King David. God had previously told Abraham, "In your seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed" (Genesis 22:18; compare Galatians 3:16).
The Jews also understood that the Messiah would be a descendant of King David based on 2 Samuel 7:13, where through the prophet Nathan God promised to "establish the throne of his [David's] kingdom forever."
Both Matthew and Luke (who gives us Mary's genealogy) document that Jesus was a descendant of both Abraham and David. Both are also careful not to state that Jesus was the son of Joseph. Matthew 1:16 tells us that "Jacob begot Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus who is called Christ," and Luke 3:23 says that Jesus "began His ministry at about thirty years of age, being (as was supposed) the son of Joseph . . ." The same verse then says "of Heli." This Heli is not Joseph's father Jacob but Mary's father, who is shown to also descend from David.
The story, as Matthew tells it, is that Joseph was betrothed to Mary, but they had not yet lived together as husband and wife, in accordance with betrothal and marriage customs of the time. Mary was pregnant, and Joseph knew he was not the father of the child. He wondered what he should do, giving serious consideration to a private breakup.
But an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream and told him, "That which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit" (Matthew 1:18-20). Thus, Jesus had no human bio-logical father. The father of Jesus of Nazareth was God. Jesus would call Him "My Father"—and He would mean it in a very literal sense.
The Word was with God and was God
The apostle John, apparently writing some six decades after Jesus' death, does not begin with Jesus' human genealogy or His human birth, but with His divine origin. John is precise, right from the beginning of his record, to tell us who Jesus is, where He came from and that He existed before His human conception.
John begins his Gospel with: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God" (John 1:1-2). John refers to Jesus Christ as the Word. He says He was in the beginning with God, and that He was God.
This is not as big a mystery as it seems. What we clearly see here are two divine Beings existent together before all else, both of them God.
This tells us something about God. God is more than one person. The fact that One is with the other and both are God tells us clearly that there are two distinct personages who are God. Some get confused about this, not understanding how the Bible defines or describes "God."
The commonly accepted idea is that Jesus was one person of a triune God—that is, three persons in one. This concept of God cannot be found in John's statement. First, John doesn't speak of three. He names two—the Word (the One who became Jesus Christ), and God (who would become known as the Father).
It wasn't until the fourth century that the Roman church decided in their councils that God is one being but in three persons. Thus, it was long after Jesus' original disciples died that men began to define God as a Trinity. (To learn the whole story, download or request our free Bible study aid Is God a Trinity?)
We do not see a Trinity here in John's discourse, nor is it found in any of the other Gospels. Jesus certainly didn't describe Himself in that way either. He referred numerous times to Himself and the One He called His Father. He described a relationship that could be understood only as one between two distinct Beings who coexisted for eternity.
John records Jesus' final prayer before His death: "And now, O Father, glorify Me together with yourself, with the glory which I had with you before the world was" (John 17:5). Here John is consistent with the opening words of His Gospel. Jesus was with the Father before the world was created and had divine glory with the Father. And here, at the end of His physical time on earth, He prays to the Father to be restored to that same glorified state He had earlier with the Father.
Jesus the Creator, Father and Son are family
John, in the introduction of his Gospel, goes on to say of the One who became Jesus that "all things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made" (John 1:3). He is telling us that the Word, who existed with God the Father, is the One who actually carried out the creation at the Father's direction!
The apostle Paul further substantiates that Jesus was the Creator of everything that was brought into being:
"For by Him 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" (Colossians 1:16). Paul's terminology includes the creation of angels and the authority they currently have in the universe.
Paul adds in Colossians 1:17 that "He is before all things, and in Him all things consist." This means that not only was He the agent who carried out the act of creation, but that He is the One through whose power the creation is sustained.
That is, the creation is maintained in its present state of existence—sustained, ordered, arranged and continued by the One who was and is the Word. Hebrews 1:3 describes Him as "upholding all things by the word of His power." This obviously refers to a Being of infinite power and creative capacity! He is eternal and divine.
Jesus clearly was the awesomely powerful Being who, submissive to the will of the One He would refer to as Father, served as Creator and exercised authority to rule the entire creation—angelic beings included.
And His repeated references to the Father and Himself as Father and Son, along with the many other similar references throughout the New Testament, help us understand the true nature of God as a divine family—a family into which others may be born!
This is why Jesus is called "the firstborn among many brethren" (Romans 8:29). It is also why Paul, in 2 Corinthians 6:18, quotes God as saying, "I will be a Father to you, and you shall be My sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty." (To learn more, download or request our free Bible study aid What Is Your Destiny?)
"The Word became flesh and dwelt among us"
John 1 further explains that "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us" (John 1:14). Of course, since He became a flesh-and-blood person, it begs the question, what was He before He became a human being?
This is a most extraordinary revelation to us—that the great Being who carried out the creation of all things, inanimate and living, the One who lived forever in the past, eternal, and had all power to rule the universe, became a finite human being capable of experiencing everything a human being could experience, even death.
In 1 John 1:1-2 John goes into this in more detail, reaffirming everything He said previously in language that is unmistakable: "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us" (New International Version).
From John's words we see that the One known as the man Jesus preexisted as God, coexisted with God, and was the One who on Their behalf created the universe and put man on the earth for the purpose of sharing with Them Their great existence. This awesome Being would one day join human beings on earth as a human being Himself so that purpose could be realized.
Equality with God
Paul tells us, "Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 2:5). Paul shows us Christ's attitude of sacrifice and service by relinquishing the divine glory and might He had with the Father in His preexistence.
Paul then urges us to have the same humble, serving, giving attitude as Jesus Christ, "who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped [or held on to]" (Philippians 2:6, English Standard Version).
That is, He did not seek to cling to the power and privileges He had as omnipotent God with the Father. Instead He "emptied himself, by taking the form of a [bond]servant" (Philippians 2:7, ESV). That is, He let it all go—the awesome power, glory and privileges that He rightfully had as the second great eternal Being who was God.
Paul is saying that the Word who became Jesus had equality with God the Father in terms of nature—of existing as the same kind of Being. He was eternal. He was self-existent. He was God. But He was willing to become a human being, subject to temptation, suffering, pain and even death. "He humbled Himself," Paul says in Philippians 2:8. Seeing from where He came, we see how much He was willing to give up for our sakes!
What we see described here is the One who was in the beginning with God, who was the Creator of all things, humbling Himself, divesting Himself of the glory He had as God, and becoming human "for the suffering of death" (Hebrews 2:9).
Paul further tells us that He was the Being who appeared as God in the Old Testament. Notice 1 Corinthians 10:1-4: "Moreover, brethren, I do not want you to be unaware that all our fathers were under the cloud, all passed through the sea, all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed [or went with] them, and that Rock was Christ."
This same Jesus was the One who said, "Let there be light!" He was the One who commanded Noah to build an ark. He was the One who met Abraham and ate with him. He was the One who descended onto Mount Sinai as the God of Israel and gave His law to the people! (To learn more, download or request our free Bible study aid Jesus Christ: The Real Story.)
The One who became Jesus Christ never left the human beings He had a part in creating, but continued to interact with humanity throughout man's brief and turbulent history. And in time, He came to earth as a human being to declare to us the Father and His grand purpose for us (John 1:18).
Let's go back to Paul's statement we just read about Jesus emptying Himself and "taking the form of a bondservant" (Philippians 2:7). He took on the condition of a servant in contrast to one of higher rank.
In becoming human, Jesus descended to the lowest condition or status of humanity—that of a bondservant, a slave. He served God and He served us. "I am among you as the One who serves," He said (Luke 22:27).
This was His attitude, His condition, His state of mind. He was obedient to the point of death, the most terrible death a person could experience. "And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross" (Philippians 2:8, ESV).
What Paul is saying is this: The great divine Being who is God along with the Father and who was with the Father as God in the beginning voluntarily became a lowly human being. He humbled Himself and served us and all of humanity. He paid the ultimate price of indescribable suffering and death.
And this was the ultimate service. Because He was God, He could pay the price for all the sins of all of mankind for all time. This He willingly did—for you and for me!
When we think of Jesus Christ, we should understand Him for who He is. He is God! He is our Creator, the very One who made us! We should understand Him as One who made a clear decision to submit completely to carry out the greatest sacrifice of all time for our sake.
His sacrifice proved to us the greatest of love that could be demonstrated in a way no one should ever doubt. This is why He deserves nothing less than our complete love and service in return!