Is Jesus God?
What is theology? It is simply thinking about what matters to Christians. And it is too important to be left to clergy or only taught in theological colleges. There is no more important theological question, for Christians, than who is Jesus Christ? We follow him. We identify with him. And today we gather to worship God in his name.
It has been said that in Hollywood, over-estimating the intelligence of the audience is a sure way for a picture to lose money! Do I follow this principle? Do I ‘dumb-down’ the four-sermon series on I plan to give on Christology? Sometimes I get feedback that I expect you, my patient listeners, to have a PhD in theology or psychology. Perhaps I risk that again, but I will do what I can to give a sophisticated argument on central themes relating to our faith. You will have a copy of the sermon on GUC website, I am happy for there to be questions and even controversy. I will address who Jesus is in terms of central doctrines of:
- Was Jesus God?
- What does it mean that “Christ died for us?”
- Did Jesus rise from the dead? Bodily or spiritually?
- Did God come to us in Christ (including the question of the Virgin Birth)
This first sermon is on whether Jesus was God.
The Hebrew people believed in one God. They were monotheists. We need to understand this if we are to begin to appreciate the New Testament and what was distinctive about Christianity. The cultural and historical context of the Bible is pagan. A roman emperor, in his lifetime, could be declared a god and temples established to worship him. In contrast the dividing line between created including human and divine is Hebrew thought was like standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon. You look over at God in the far distance!
The OT upholds the principle of one God. The Bible opens with “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1). Is there anything in the gap between creator and created? The only possible candidates are the ‘Spirit of God’ (Gen 1:2) and personalized Wisdom (Prov 8) but these are expressions of God and not separate entities. The only possible contender for a separate divine being is the ‘Son of man’ figure in late apocalyptic literature. This is seen in Daniel “I saw (literally) ‘one like a son of man’, coming with the clouds of heaven” (7: 13) and indeed this god-like figure is given dominion and glory (Dan 7: 14). However, apocalyptic is very vivid in imagery, probably poetic and drew freely from semitic literature. Interestingly, Jesus referred to himself as the ‘Son of man’ in the gospels. He was not being humble but using this apocalyptic title (which might indicate a divine being).
Basically, for the Jewish people there was only one God. This was what was most distinctive about the Jewish religion in a pagan world. Jesus was a Jew and this was the context of his ministry.
When we read the NT we see a diversity of literary styles, which can be confusing but reasonably straightforward when we understand how the authors expressed themselves.
First, Paul’s theological approach. Christ is at the centre of God’s action, especially his death, resurrection and ascension which has changed the relationship between God and humanity. Christ has been raised to cosmic significance which is universal in his letters to the churches. One example will suffice: In Colossians Christ is the image of the invisible God (1:15) and “in him all things in heaven and earth were created… He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (1:17). Jesus Christ is asserted to be the eternal creator. In short God. This reflects the faith of the early church and we see it expressed in the Philippian hymn (2:6-11).
John’s Gospel is very different in language to the other Gospels. In the prologue (1:1-18) Jesus was identified with the Word, and echoing Genesis, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1) The link was clear with the historical Jesus, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory of a Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.” (1:14) It is possible that John’s idea of the word conveyed the rational principle of reality but it is abundantly clear which side of the Grand Canyon the Word belongs in his thought.
I believe that the Synoptic Gospels, that is Matthew, Mark and Luke, are the most misunderstood books in the New Testament. They tend to be seen as simply stories about Jesus, sometimes miraculous and therefore hard to believe. Two begin with the story of the virgin birth which marks Jesus out as both like but unlike us. Clearly the authors believed that there was something special about him. This difference in Jesus is not fully seen until his ministry begins. What is truly shocking is that Jesus begins to dowhat was only proper to Yahweh or the God of the Old Testament. There are subtle indicators such as announcing an exodus and teaching with authority (Mark 1:27), providing manna with the miracle of loaves and fishes (Matt 14: 13-21). But the most dramatic and obvious indicators caused astonishment in the witnesses. A paralysed man was brought to Jesus on a stretcher and Jesus not only healed him, but said, “Friend, your sins are forgiven you.” (Luke 5:20) The Pharisees rightly reacted that this was blasphemous since only God could forgive sins. He raised a young girl from the dead (Matthew 9:18-26) and conquered death through his resurrection. One of the clearest indications that the gospel writers saw Jesus as God was the incident of stilling the storm “What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?” (Matt 8: 23-27) Also Jesus walking on the water (Mark 6:48). Both recall the primal battle between Yahweh and the sea monsters representing chaos. Jesus overcomes chaos in creation represented by calming the storm and stilling the waters to walk on.
And finally in the book of Revelation, possibly among the last of the New Testament writings, Jesus is divine (and almost no longer human). This is seen in the description of the glorified Jesus (1:12-16) and in John’s response which was to fall as if dead at his feet. Appropriately Jesus receives worship from the saints in heaven.
In later centuries the church worked on its ecumenical creeds which defined Jesus as fully God and fully human. This was not a later addition, but a theological formulation of what was recognised in the early church, though it took centuries for work out an appropriate formula. If there is anything surprising about this formulation it is that Jesus was fully human!
Why is all this important?
It is important for Christians to know who they follow. Was Jesus a prophet? Yes. Was he a great teacher? Yes. Was he a perfect example of what it is to be human? Yes. Was he a miracle worker? Yes. And was Jesus a divine figure? The early church believed this to be the case.
I think it is important that we recognise Jesus Christ as fully divine. He provides a human face to God. Importantly, we want to know at the deepest level what God is like? The answer has always been, since the New Testament, look at Jesus. There is only one personality of God and that is embodied in the person of Jesus Christ. There is no harsh judgmental God of the Old Testament, there is only one divine personality, and we see that, to our great relief, in Jesus Christ.
Rev Dr Bruce A Stevens is supply minister at GUC.