The New Testament is replete with direct and indirect claims of Christ’s divinity. Perhaps the most famous is the beginning of the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the word and the word of with God and the word was God” (John 1:1-3). Jesus is the word made flesh (John 1:14). Jesus is God.
Nevertheless, people have struggled to find places where Jesus himself claims to be divine. If you’re looking for a passage in Scripture where Jesus says, “Hey, everyone, I’m God!” you’re not going to find it.
Jesus does make such a claim several times, but it isn’t easy for us to see today, because we are not familiar with the first-century Jewish context he draws upon, and since these claims are somewhat veiled to our eyes, people can reinterpret Jesus’ words to explain away his divine self-reference. While such words can be explained away, Jesus’ audience’s reaction to his words isn’t so easy to dismiss.
Unless your view of the ancient world comes from Monty Python, people didn’t carry stones in their pockets, just itching to stone someone. The charge of blasphemy was serious, and stoning was against Roman law. Therefore, the reaction of Jesus’ original hearers provides a solid indicator as to whether he claimed to be divine.
One example that I take up in my book Hostile Witnesses: How the Historic Enemies of the Church Prove Christianity concerns the reaction of the Jewish high priest to Jesus’ response during his trial before the Sanhedrin. The text reads,
The high priest rose before the assembly and questioned Jesus, saying, “Have you no answer? What are these men testifying against you?” But he [Jesus] was silent and answered nothing. Again the high priest asked him and said to him, “Are you the Messiah, the son of the Blessed One?” Then Jesus answered, “I am; and ‘you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power and coming with the clouds of heaven.’” At that the high priest tore his garments and said, “What further need have we of witnesses? You have heard the blasphemy. What do you think?” They all condemned him as deserving to die (Mark 14:60-64; see also Matt. 26:61-66).
At first glance, it appears that the high priest is overreacting. Where did Jesus blaspheme? Some suggest that Jesus claimed the divine name for himself when he replied, “I am” (see Exod. 3:14). Saying the divine name aloud in the first century would have been a serious offense, but we know this is not the case from the parallel passage in Matthew, where “I am” is given as “you have said so” (Matt. 26:64).
Another possibility is that Jesus’ affirmation to being the Messiah was itself blasphemous. This option is even less likely, since most Jews believed that the Messiah would be a mere mortal. Claiming to be the Messiah, therefore, would not constitute a claim to be God.
Why, then, did the high priest tear his robes in horror at Jesus’ words? Clearly, Jesus claimed something about himself that those present thought warranted immediate execution. But what? The answer may be found in Jesus’ use of the seventh chapter in the book of Daniel, where the prophet receives a night vision and recalls:
As I looked, thrones were placed and one that was ancient of days took his seat; his clothing was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool; his throne was fiery flames, its wheels were burning fire. A stream of fire issued and came forth from before him; a thousand thousands served him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him; the court sat in judgment, and the books were opened (7:9-10).
Note that more than one throne was set up. One was for the “ancient of days”—namely, God—to sit upon, but what about the other? Keep this in mind as we continue with verse 13:
I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed (vv. 13-14).
In this passage, “one like a son of man” comes “with the clouds of heaven” and presents himself before God (the Ancient of Days) and receives universal and everlasting dominion over the whole earth.
These two passages together cause a certain amount of exegetical tension. If God is one, why set up more than one throne? Who sits on the other throne? Indeed, how can any creature be worthy to be enthroned next to God?
The Babylonian Talmud illustrates this tension by recording a dispute between two rabbis who lived in the first decades of the second century:
One verse of Scripture states, “His throne was fiery flames” (Dan. 7:9), but elsewhere it is written, “Till thrones were places, and one that was ancient of days did sit” (Dan. 7:9)! . . . “One is for him, the other for David,” the words of R. Aqiba. Said to him R. Yosé the Galilean, “Aqiba, how long are you going to treat in a profane way the Presence of God? Rather, one is for bestowing judgment, the other for bestowing righteousness” (Hagigah 2:1a-e).
Rabbi Aqiba understood this passage to refer to two thrones: one throne for God and the other for the Messiah, the son of David. Notice Rabbi Yosé the Galilean’s response to Aqiba’s interpretation: “How long are you going to treat in a profane way the Presence of God?” However great the Messiah would be, according to Rabbi Yosé’s perspective, being seated on a throne would be a profanation of the Divine Presence. Instead, he suggested, the two thrones should be understood as symbols for God’s judgment and the bestowing of righteousness.
Later in the passage, Aqiba eventually adopts this view. Others proposed that one throne was for God to be seated and the other was his footstool (Isa. 66:1). In any case, the two thrones were for God alone. Another individual, even the Messiah, could not take the other throne without detracting from the glory of the one true God, since to be enthroned was to possess the authority to exercise dominion. It’s interesting that later rabbis did interpret Daniel 7 to be messianic, but they omit any mention of the thrones.
The prophet Daniel never tells us who sits on the other throne, but he does tell us that the “one like the son of man” presents himself before God (the Ancient of Days) and receives an everlasting and universal dominion. Does this mean that the “Son of Man” is seated on the other throne? Daniel doesn’t say, but Jesus’ reply to the high priest does affirm this question: “I am; and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power and coming with the clouds of heaven.”
The “Son of Man” does sit on the throne at the right hand of the Power (God) and comes with the clouds of heaven—and Jesus is that Son of Man, who receives universal and everlasting dominion! No wonder the high priest tore his robes in horror. Jesus made himself equal to God.
To us who may not be familiar with the prophecies of Daniel, Jesus’ words seem to pertain only to his Second Coming, without any reference to his divinity. The high priest’s reaction forces us to look deeper into the passage to find some warrant for his actions. In this case, the high priest is a hostile witness to the proper meaning of this passage.