“Jesus never claimed to be God.”
You may have heard this claim from a Muslim friend. Or from the mouth of a skeptical New Testament scholar. Or from your child, home from college.
The assertion is false. Jesus did, in fact, make divine claims about himself. But it’s true, however, that Jesus never says anything as explicit as “I am God!” Instead, in all four Gospels, he claims equality with God in more subtle and indirect ways that we might expect. But why?
One possible reason for Jesus’ gradual self-revelation is simply that first-century Jews would not have been able to fathom a multi-personed God without reactively dismissing the claim or drifting into polytheism. Recall the Shema, the confession of faith prayed daily as the centerpiece of Jewish morning and evening prayer, which begins:
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord (Deut. 6:4).
At the heart of ancient Jewish belief was the conviction that God is one. First-century Jews conceived of God as one person with one divine nature. One divine nature in three persons would have sounded like a blasphemous absurdity. Furthermore, the Jews conceived of God as being utterly transcendent of time and space. So, for Jesus in the flesh to claim outright that he was God in an explicit way without first “warming up” his disciples would have been a recipe for ill-timed doubt and disaster.
Jesus’ followers are often provoked to consider his true identity by his actions, and not only his words, as one who had divine power and authority. Jesus frequently leaves them wondering in astonishment, “Who is this?” (Mark 4:41; Luke 8:25). Over time, his disciples gradually reach an “ah-ha!” moment and, upon reflecting on everything Jesus did and said prior—and at the prompting of the Holy Spirit—they realize who Jesus truly is (John 20:28; 2 Cor. 2:4-13).
Thus, as the great twentieth-century apologist Frank Sheed observes in the Catholic Evidence Training Outlines, “To bring their ideas of God to Christ would have got them nowhere. But [they needed] bit by bit to learn Christ, then bit by bit to have it forced on them that this was God.”
Bold claims at the wrong time could get a person killed quickly in first-century Palestine. Jesus was aware of the divine plan and knew the proper timing according to which important events in his life should occur. Not the least of these important events was his crucifixion, which would effectively draw his pre-resurrection ministry—and the bulk of his public ministry—to an end. The Gospels (especially St. John’s) suggest that Jesus was keenly aware of the timing of his own death.
Consider, for instance, when Jesus is in Galilee but refuses to enter Judea because he knew they would seek to kill him if he did so (John 7:1). We cannot easily conclude that it was fear holding Jesus back. Up to this point, Jesus has not shied away from provoking his critics and making new ones, such as in the cleansing of the temple (John 2:13-22). Rather, he seems to be conscious of the fact that the timing of his death is crucial in the designs of Providence, and any explicit public claim of divinity would surely cause a malicious uproar (John 8:58-59) that would upset that timing.
A common objection to Jesus’ belief in his own divinity is the charge that, though it may be argued that Jesus speaks and acts like God in John’s Gospel (John 8:58; 10:30; 14;9), he is not portrayed in such a way in the earlier, synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. If Jesus had revealed himself to be God, either in word or in action, surely the earliest accounts of his life would indicate this! Unfortunately, the critic informs us, they do not.
This objection only works, however, if a critic fails to look at the Gospels through a Jewish lens. For John is not the only Gospel that refers to the divine sonship of Jesus. “The only way to make such a claim,” writes biblical scholar Brant Pitre, “is to completely ignore the miracles of Jesus. . . . as well as the sayings of Jesus in which he speaks as if he is the one God.”
In the synoptics, Jesus forgives sins (Matt. 9:2; Mark 2:5; Luke 5:20). He calms stormy winds and waters (Ps. 103:23-29; Luke 8:22). He speaks about the Torah in a way no other rabbi would dare (Matt. 5). To a first-century Jew, all of these things would have been understood as the actions of a person claiming to possess divine authority.
But the kicker is at the end of Mark’s Gospel (which the majority of experts believe to be the earliest of the Gospels). When Jesus is being tried by the Sanhedrin, he is asked, “Are you the Messiah, the son of the Blessed One?” (Mark 14:61). Jesus replies:
I am; and you will see the Son of man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven (Mark 14:62).
Here in a clear but thoroughly Jewish way, Jesus claims equality with God both in name (the divine name I AM) and in authority (see Ex. 3:14; Dan. 7:13-14). His self-affirmation is, in fact, so radical and direct that the high priest responds by tearing his own garments and spewing the charge of blasphemy upon Christ—a charge issued not for claiming to be the Messiah but for claiming to be something more.
If a critic wants to say that Jesus never claimed to be God, or that only the Gospel of John portrays Jesus as God, he has some uphill climbing to do. The testimony of Matthew, Mark, and Luke say otherwise. Even critical scholar Bart Ehrman found himself changing his mind (in a qualified sense, he warns) on how all four Gospels portray Jesus. On his blog in 2014 he wrote:
Until a year ago I would have said—and frequently did say, in the classroom, in public lectures, and in my writings—that Jesus is portrayed as God in the Gospel of John but not, definitely not, in the other Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
Ehrman then concedes:
These Gospels do indeed think of Jesus as divine. Being made the very Son of God who can heal, cast out demons, raise the dead, pronounce divine forgiveness, receive worship together suggests that even for these Gospels Jesus was a divine being, not merely a human.
Even with the caveats and qualifications, this is a significant admission. Jesus is consistently portrayed in all of the Gospels as one who speaks and acts as God. And if such is the case, then we are all faced with C.S. Lewis’s famous imperative in Mere Christianity:
You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. . . . but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.