“Jesus never claimed to be God, and his first followers didn’t think he was God.”
You won’t be involved in apologetics long before you hear this argument. Many skeptics today argue the central Christian teaching that Jesus is God was invented years after Jesus’ lifetime. Some say the belief originated with the Gospel of John, commonly thought to be written around A.D. 90, sixty years after the death of Jesus. Others say the divinity of Jesus wasn’t invented until the Council of Nicea in A.D. 325.
Skeptics particularly use the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) in an attempt to prove their point. These three Gospels were likely written decades before John’s and therefore represent an earlier phase in the development of Christian teaching. Unlike John’s Gospel (cf. 1:1 and 20:28), the synoptics contain no explicit passage associating the word “God” (Greek, theos) with Jesus. So, to the modern skeptic, this means the authors of those three Gospels didn’t believe Jesus was divine. The author of the Gospel of John (which skeptics would argue was not the apostle) or someone even later “invented” that belief.
However, each synoptic Gospel clearly proclaims the divinity of Jesus, but for various reasons does not use the term “God” (theos) to do so. We will examine the Gospel of Matthew to show that it proclaims the divinity of Jesus in ways that, though they are more obscure to modern readers, would have been clear to its contemporaries. Accepting Jesus’ divinity may be an act of faith, but accepting that Matthew believed it is simply a matter of acknowledging the clear evidence in his Gospel.
Show, don’t tell
Modern skeptics demand an obvious declaration in Matthew along the lines of, “Hey, guess what, guys? Jesus is God!” Without such an explicit statement of the divinity of Jesus, they assume Matthew didn’t actually believe Jesus was God. However, they are examining this ancient text without understanding the context in which it was written.
What was that context? The Gospel of Matthew was written by a Jew to Jews living in the first-century Roman Empire. The primary distinguishing factor of the Jews as opposed to the prevailing Roman culture was their fierce monotheism. For the Jew, unlike for the Roman pagan, God was one and ruled over all.
If someone came to the Jews and proclaimed, “This man is God,” they would have dismissed the assertion. Therefore, if Matthew wanted to proclaim the divinity of Jesus, he couldn’t just come out and state it. He had to show his readers that Jesus was God, which he does throughout his Gospel. Modern readers might miss these demonstrations, so we need to unpack Matthew’s words to see how he does it.
God with us (Matt. 1:22-23, 28:20)
A key theme in Matthew’s Gospel is fulfillment. Jesus of Nazareth is the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies concerning the coming messiah. As Jesus himself says, “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matt. 5:17, emphasis added). Eleven times Matthew describes an event and writes that it happened “to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet.” This theme is vital for Matthew’s purpose of establishing for his Jewish audience that Jesus is the one for whom God prepared the world.
The first time Matthew uses the language of fulfillment is in the proclamation of Christ’s birth:
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel (which means “God with us”) (Matt. 1:22-23).
For Matthew, this is the ultimate fulfillment of prophecy in Jesus’ life. He is Emmanuel. He is “God with us.” The passage Matthew is quoting is Isaiah 7:14, in which the prophet is trying to convince King Ahaz to trust the Lord rather than make alliance with his pagan neighbors. At the time of the original prophecy, it was interpreted as a metaphor: God will guide his people Israel—he will be “with them.” But Matthew sees much more than a metaphor here: he sees a literal fulfillment of God being “with us.” Jesus is not just the promised messiah; he is God himself come in the flesh.
In fact, the inclusion of this first fulfilled prophecy sets the tone for Matthew’s Gospel. Matthew stocks his Gospel with clues pointing to Christ’s divinity. In a sense, Matthew is saying in 1:22-23, “Jesus is more than just a prophet, he is more than a man. He is God himself among us. Now I will demonstrate to you how this inexplicable reality is true.”
Before we examine two of these clues, let’s skip to the conclusion. Matthew begins his Gospel with the announcement of the divinity of Jesus; he concludes it the same way via an inclusio, a literary device in which the author brackets a story with related material at the beginning and the end to emphasize a specific point.
When an author uses an inclusio, it’s a sign to the reader that he’s making an important point. Inclusios are commonly found in sections of biblical texts, but here Matthew creates an inclusio for his entire Gospel: in the very last line (28:20), Jesus tells his disciples, “I am with you always, to the close of the age.”
See the connection? The coming of Emmanuel means God is with us. Jesus promises, “I am with you.” Not only do we have the connecting promises to be “with us,” we also see a connection between Jesus and “I am.” In the book of Exodus, when Moses asks God for his name so he might tell his people who sent him, God answers, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” Jesus is this “I AM.”
By telling his disciples, “I am with you always,” Jesus is fulfilling the very words of the prophet Isaiah that God himself will be with us.
Now that we’ve seen how Matthew wraps his Gospel in an inclusio that declares that, in Christ, God is now with us, let’s look at two of the many “divinity clues” Matthew lays out throughout his Gospel to lead us to accept his conclusion: the power Jesus has to forgive sins, and his declaration that he is the “Lord of the Sabbath.”
Your sins are forgiven (Matt. 9:2)
At the beginning of Matthew’s ninth chapter, we read the touching story of a paralytic brought by his friends to Jesus for healing. Matthew tells us, “Jesus saw their faith [and] said to the paralytic, ‘Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven’” (Matt. 9:2). Forgiveness of sins isn’t what the paralytic or his friends requested, and it’s likely they wouldn’t even conceive of asking for it from this Galilean preacher. After all, only God could forgive sins.
The nearby scribes immediately recognize the problem. They say to themselves, “This man is blaspheming” (Matt. 9:3). And if Jesus is not God, they are correct. Imagine a stranger telling you your sins are forgiven. Note Jesus didn’t even say, “God forgives your sins,” just a simple “Your sins are forgiven.” What gives him the right to make this statement?
Jesus accuses the scribes of “evil” (Matt. 9:4) for saying he’s guilty of blasphemy. As a good Jew, Jesus knows only God can forgive sins, yet he also openly forgives sins. Who does Jesus think he is?
Of course, anyone can say, “Your sins are forgiven,” but only God can actually forgive them. To demonstrate that his words have divine authority, Jesus goes on to heal the paralytic (Matt. 9:6). Note the simplicity of Christ’s words of healing: “Rise, take up your bed and go home” (Matt. 9:7). Jesus does not invoke God’s name or power; he heals by his own power.
Miracles such as this, of course, are also found in the Old Testament. However, in all the miracle stories in the Old Testament, it is clear that God is the power behind them. The person performing the miracle is merely a conduit for the Almighty; there is no suggestion that the miracle worker himself has an innate supernatural power. But in the Gospels, the source of Christ’s miracles is Christ himself.
The miracles point to Christ’s divinity: he performs them under his own power and not in the name of someone else (as when Peter heals the lame beggar in Acts 3:6 “in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth”). So, when Jesus heals the paralytic under his own power—something only God can do—he is demonstrating that he also has the (divine) power to forgive sins.
Lord of the Sabbath (Matt. 12:8)
As we progress through the Gospel of Matthew, we witness growing opposition to Jesus. This opposition is directly connected to his acting in ways only God could act. In the first eight chapters of Matthew, Jesus meets no resistance to his preaching and healing ministry. The first opposition Matthew records we already saw when Jesus forgave the sins of the paralytic in 9:2. After that incident, it appears the Jewish religious leaders are looking for ways to challenge Jesus.
One of these challenges relates to Jesus’ activity on the Sabbath. For first-century Jews, the Sabbath was a crucial aspect of their religion, with each week revolving around this holy day. This was the day God himself rested, and so each person was called to rest too. Many rules and regulations built up over the years designating what was, and especially what wasn’t, allowed on the Sabbath. Since God instituted the Sabbath, no one was above the Sabbath. To break the rules of the Sabbath would be to place oneself on the same level as God.
In the twelfth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, we find Jesus and his disciples walking through a grain field on the Sabbath. The disciples are hungry, so they pluck the heads of grain and eat them. Seems like a reasonable activity. The problem is, almost all “activity” was to be avoided on the Sabbath. The Pharisees—now looking for ways to challenge Jesus—accuse the disciples of breaking the Sabbath (Matt. 12:2).
It’s easy to see the Pharisees as cardboard-cutout villains serving simply as foils to Jesus, but here they are correct, at least as Judaism was practiced in the first century. Flawed though the Pharisees were, they wanted to please God, and they sincerely believed breaking the Sabbath would dishonor him.
Jesus in response tells the story of David—the man after God’s own heart—eating bread in the temple when he was hungry. David does this even though it was unlawful for anyone but a priest to eat that bread (Matt. 12:3-4). Is this simply Jesus using a historical example to show there are exceptions to Judaism’s rules (which he does on other occasions, such as Mark 3:1-5 and Luke 13:10-17)? No, in this case he goes further; he states, “I tell you, something greater than the temple is here” (Matt. 12:6).
What could be greater than the temple? The temple was the center of the universe to the Jews; it was where God came down from heaven to be with his people. No building, no city, no person was greater than the temple. For Jesus to claim to be greater than the temple was as great a blasphemy as him saying he forgave sins.
And Jesus goes even further: “For the Son of man is lord of the Sabbath” (Matt. 12:8). God himself instituted the Sabbath at the creation of the world. It was God’s way to center all of creation on the worship of his glory. In the Old Testament, God tells Moses of the importance of the Sabbath:
Say to the people of Israel, the appointed feasts of the Lord which you shall proclaim as holy convocations, my appointed feasts, are these. Six days shall work be done; but on the seventh day is a sabbath of solemn rest, a holy convocation; you shall do no work; it is a sabbath to the Lord in all your dwellings (Lev. 23:2-3).
Thus, there is only one “Lord of the Sabbath”: Yahweh. Yet Jesus tells the Pharisees plainly that he himself (Jesus usually uses the phrase “Son of Man” as a self-reference) is its Lord. The implication is clear: Jesus is making himself equal to God.
Worship him (Matt. 2:11, 28:9, 17)
We saw that Matthew brackets his entire Gospel in an inclusio emphasizing his key theme that Jesus is “God with us.” He also includes another Gospel-length inclusio to demonstrate the divinity of Jesus: the fact that he receives worship.
In Matthew’s second chapter, we see the wise men coming to Jerusalem saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East and have come to worship him” (Matt. 2:2, emphasis added). Of course, the wise men were pagans, not followers of the Jewish religion, and so their idea of who can be worshipped would not have been strictly monotheistic. And yet Matthew relates this story without any commentary that might shed a negative light on the wise men’s desire to worship the baby Jesus.
In fact, later in the chapter, the wise men in fact do worship Jesus: “going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshipped him” (Matt. 2:11). Neither Mary nor Joseph object to this worship of their newborn son.
As with the idea of God being “with us” in Jesus, Matthew uses this worship of Jesus as an inclusio in his Gospel. In the final chapter, he relates various appearances of the risen Christ. Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” go to see the tomb on Easter morning (Matt. 28:1). Upon meeting an angel, the women run back to tell the disciples, on the way encountering Jesus in his resurrected glory. Matthew says, “They came up and took hold of his feet and worshipped him” (Matt. 28:9). Like the wise men, the two Marys give Jesus something one may give only to God: worship.
Later, when Jesus meets the disciples in Galilee, Matthew tells us “when they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted” (Matt. 28:17). Again, we see Jews worshipping Jesus. Even the fact Matthew says “some doubted” gives credence to the fact this was true worship given to Jesus as to God, for of course some doubted: how could anyone receive worship other than God alone?
Remember again Matthew’s audience (and Matthew himself): these were first-century Jews raised with strict monotheism. Although the pagans around them might worship many gods, they reserved worship for God alone. Yet Matthew makes clear Jesus himself deserves this same worship, for Jesus is God.
Our modern world is filled with skepticism. Heroes must be toppled from their pedestals, and gods must be struck down. It’s no surprise that our times have seen a concerted effort to deny the divinity of Jesus Christ. But modern skeptics are not content simply to deny that Jesus is divine; they assert that his first followers did not believe he was divine, either.
For if this is true, then the divinity of Christ—a core teaching of the Christian faith—would be an invention of the later Church. A key line of attack for the skeptics is to argue that the first Gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—do not claim divinity for Jesus.
Yet, as we’ve seen here, the Gospel of Matthew clearly does so. Matthew does not do this in a clumsy, ham-fisted way. He doesn’t simply say “Jesus is God” and hope his readers will believe him. Instead, like a good teacher, Matthew leads his readers to that conclusion. He doesn’t tell, he shows.
In his two Gospel-length inclusios, Matthew sets out the proposition he is making: Jesus is “God with us” who is worthy of worship. Then he sprinkles hints and clues throughout his Gospel to back up this claim.
For the first-century Jew reading this text, the conclusion is inescapable: Jesus is God, come in the flesh.
Other Divinity Clues in Matthew
Here are a few other clues to Christ’s divinity in Matthew’s Gospel:
“Prepare the way of the Lord” (3:3)
Matthew tells us the mission of John the Baptist is to “prepare the way of the Lord” (Matt. 3:3). This is a quote of Isaiah 40:3, which references preparing the way for God himself.
“I say to you” (5:21, 27, 33, 38, 43)
Five times the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said . . .” then follows with “But I say to you . . .” In each of those instances, Jesus assumes the authority only God has.
Blind receive sight (11:4-6)
Jesus describes his ministry to John the Baptist’s disciples: “The blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.” Jesus references a prophecy of Isaiah, who said these things would happen when “your God will come” (Isa. 35:4).
Clothed in light (17:1-8)
Matthew’s description of the Transfiguration uses imagery connected to God in the Old Testament: “And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his garments became white as light” (Matt. 17:2). This echoes “Thou art clothed with honor and majesty, / who coverest thyself with light as with a garment” (Ps. 104:2).
Judge of the Nations (25:31-45)
In the parable of the sheep and the goats, Jesus says, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne” (Matt. 25:31). Who is the final judge of all nations? Jesus is saying he has an authority that God alone has: to make final judgment.