Is Jesus God?
The Three Crosses, by Rembrandt
Is Jesus God?
Jesus Christ is often regarded as the most influential person who ever lived. But was he God? And did the early followers of Christ really believe that he was God, visiting this earth in human form? This question is being freshly debated today, although the debate goes back for centuries.
But before we look at what the early followers of Christ believed, we should first of all ask the broader question "Could God Almighty become a human being?" In answer to that question, we would have to say, yes. Since God by definition is Almighty and all-powerful, it would be possible for God to visit this earth in human form. It would be within the realm of possibility for him to do that.
But what did the early Christians believe, concerning Christ? To consider this we will look at statements of the followers of Christ, found in the New Testament. We will also look at statements in the Old Testament that provide a backdrop, since most of the early believers in Christ were Jewish believers who accepted the inspiration of the Old Testament. (References are taken from the English Standard Version, unless otherwise noted). Then, some references to Christ from non-Christian sources will be briefly considered as well.
To find what early Christians believed, we must look to the New Testament documents. Looking at these New Testament documents, we see that there are various words and titles that are used to describe Jesus. A selection of several of these statements concerning Jesus Christ is given below, along with the estimated date the document was written. The dating of these documents is based on the estimates of reliable scholars in the field of ancient biblical texts. 1
Key Statements Regarding Christ, from the New Testament:
Paul's Letter to the Colossians (around 60 a.d.)
Colossians 2:8-10 "See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ. 9 For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form, 10 and in Him you have been made complete, and He is the head over all rule and authority. (NASB)
Paul's Letter to the Philippians (around 54 a.d.)
Philippians 3:20 "But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself."
The Letter to the Hebrews (68-70 a.d.)
Hebrews 1:3 "The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven" (NIV).
The Gospel of John (70-98 a.d.)
John 1:1 "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made....."
John 1:14 "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth."
The Gospel of Mark (55-60 a.d.)
Mark 14:60-62 "And the high priest stood up in the midst and asked Jesus, "Have you no answer to make? What is it that these men testify against you?" But he remained silent and made no answer. Again the high priest asked him, "Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?" And Jesus said, "I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven."
Paul's Letter to the Philippians (c. 54 a.d.)
Philippians 2:5-8 "Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross."
The Gospel of Matthew (65-70 a.d.)
Matthew 28:8 "So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9 Suddenly Jesus met them. "Greetings," he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, "Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.'"
Paul's Second Letter to the Corinthians (54-56 a.d.)
2 Corinthians 5:10 "For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil."
Paul's Letter to the Colossians (60 a.d.)
Colossians 1:15 "He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 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." (NKJV)
Paul's Second Letter to the Corinthians (54-56 a.d.)
2 Corinthians 4:3-4 "And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing. 4 In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God."
The Gospel of Luke (60-70 a.d.)
Luke 2:11 "For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord."
The Gospel of John (70-98 a.d.)
John 14:8-10 "Philip said to him, "Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us." 9 Jesus said to him, "Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, 'Show us the Father'? 10 Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works.
John 20:26-29 Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." 27 Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe." 28 Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!" 29 Jesus said to him, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed."
The Letter to the Hebrews (68-70 a.d.)
Hebrews 1:7-8 Of the angels he says, "He makes his angels winds, and his ministers a flame of fire." 8 But of the Son he says, "Your throne, O God, is forever and ever, the scepter of uprightness is the scepter of your kingdom."
The Book of Revelation (69-96 a.d.)
Rev 17:14 They will make war on the Lamb, and the Lamb will conquer them, for he is Lord of lords and King of kings, and those with him are called and chosen and faithful." (The word "Lamb" here is a title given to Christ, as can be seen by the context).
The Gospel of Matthew (65-70 a.d.)
Matthew 18:20, Jesus speaking: "For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them."
Mat 28:20b, Jesus speaking: "And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age."
Paul's Letter to the Ephesians (about 60 a.d.)
Ephesians 3:14-17 "For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, 15 from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith."
Paul's Second Letter to the Corinthians (54-56 a.d.)
2 Corinthians 13:5 "Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you--unless indeed you fail the test?"
Paul's Letter to the Galatians (about 48 a.d.)
Galatians 2:20 "I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me."
The Book of Acts (62-65 a.d.)
Acts 26:13-15, Paul (also called Saul) speaking: "About noon, O king, as I was on the road, I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, blazing around me and my companions. 14 We all fell to the ground, and I heard a voice saying to me in Aramaic, `Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.' 15 "Then I asked, `Who are you, Lord?' " `I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,' the Lord replied. (NIV).
There are a number of New Testament texts that can be mentioned regarding the deity of Christ in addition to those mentioned above, but these are some of the key passages for the purpose of this study. It is also important to mention that the texts cited above have no variant readings that affect the meaning of these verses in any significant way regarding the deity of Christ. 2
In looking at the reliability of the New Testament documents from which these quotes came, we would cite Dr. F. F. Bruce, the late Ryland's Professor of Biblical Criticism and Exegesis at the University of Manchester, who said of the New Testament: "There is no body of ancient literature in the world which enjoys such a wealth of good textual attestation as the New Testament." 3
Professor Bruce further states,
"The evidence for our New Testament writings is ever so much greater than the evidence for many writings of classical writers, the authenticity of which no one dreams of questioning. And if the New Testament were a collection of secular writings, their authenticity would generally be regarded as beyond all doubt."4
Having looked at some of the important statements about Jesus Christ that are found in the New Testament, we next want to consider the way that these statements relate to the deity of Christ. Related passages will also be considered.
It is clear that Jesus is called by various titles in these New Testament passages.
One important title is the word, Savior. This word is used in several places in the New Testament. Jesus is called Savior, in the letter of 1st John: "And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world." (1 John 4:14, also v.15).
This word, Savior, is also seen in Paul's writings, in 2 Timothy 1:10: "... by the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel." (NASB).
Paul also uses the word Savior when writing to the Philippian church:
"But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself." (Philippians 3:20-21).
Notice in this passage the power that is credited to Jesus Christ as Savior: He will "transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself." This raises an important question, "How would someone who is only a human being have such power?" To transform the bodies of all believers who have ever lived (past, present, and future) to become like his glorious body - this is a power that would go far beyond that of a mere human being. Not only that, this power of the Savior would also enable him to "subject all things to himself." To subject all things to himself would require a tremendous amount of power. In this statement from Philippians 3:21, Christ is the one who is acting. Clearly, no mere human being could ever accomplish such a thing. For a Savior to be able to subject all things to himself, must be credited to his deity.
In Titus 2:12-14, believers are instructed to "to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works." Here Christ is called "our great God and Savior."
The central work of the Savior in the New Testament is that he died for the sins of all mankind, and rose again three days later. This is spelled out in the writings of the Apostle Paul, one who claimed to have seen the risen Christ:
"For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep (died). 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me." (1 Corinthians 15:3-8).
Paul also wrote concerning Christ,
"See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ. For in Him (Christ) all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form." (Colossians 2:8,9 NASB).
This is a clear statement regarding the deity of Christ. In Christ "all the fullness of Deity dwells, in bodily form." This is a clear, explicit statement in support of the claim that Christ is divine.
This is a compelling statement, from one who had been an enemy of Christ. Paul was an enemy of Christ, until the risen Christ appeared to him in such an intense light, that Paul was blinded for three days (as recorded in Acts 9:1-20, Acts 26:9-18).
To the Galatian church, Paul wrote, "The life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me." (Galatians 2:20b). Paul's assurance was that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, had loved him enough to die for him. Paul's faith was in the Son of God, who had died on the cross for his sins. This same Jesus later appeared to him in an intense, blinding light on the road to Damascus.
Point: For Paul to acknowledge Jesus Christ as the "fullness of deity" in bodily form (Col.2:9) and to state that the Son of God loved him and died for him (Gal.2:20) is a clear confession that the one who died on the cross was divine.
In other words, when Paul looked at the cross, he saw the mystery of God himself revealed. For God to become a man, and then take the punishment for our sins, is the revelation of the compassion of God Himself. No mere human being, no matter how wonderful, would be allowed to take that role.
This is supported in the Old Testament as well, because there it is made clear that ultimately only God can be called Savior: "I, I am the LORD, and besides me there is no savior." (Isaiah 43:11)
Also, in Isaiah chapter 43: "For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior." (Isaiah 43:3).
Also in Hosea 13:4 "I am the LORD your God ever since the land of Egypt, And you shall know no God but Me; For there is no Savior besides Me." (NKJV).
Looking again to the New Testament, in the angelic announcement of Luke 2:11 Christ is called Savior and Lord: "For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord."
Conclusion: For Christ to be the Savior in the way that is described in the New Testament would only be possible if he were God.
The clear teaching of the New Testament is that only a divine Savior can save. This shows the ultimate consequence of denying that Christ was indeed God: No Divine Savior, means no salvation.
Certainly it was mind boggling to early Jewish believers, that a human being could also be God in the flesh. This reality probably only dawned on them gradually, and became more and more clear after the resurrection of Christ. But even in the Old Testament there are statements that would point to a divine Messiah. From the Old Testament prophet Isaiah:
Isaiah 9:6 "For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 7 Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this."
This child to be born was called "Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace." This points very clearly to the Deity of this child, and was a prophecy of the birth of Jesus Christ. The phrase "Mighty God" is translated from the Hebrew words "El Gibbor." This same exact phrase is used one chapter later in Isaiah, in chapter 10, verse 21: "A remnant will return, the remnant of Jacob, to the mighty God (El Gibbor)." Clearly, this is a statement of Deity.
* NOTE: Some additional Old Testament passages to refer to, along with related New Testament passages, would be Daniel 7:13,14, Jeremiah 23:5,6, Matthew 22:41-46, Psalm 110:1, Isaiah 7:14, Matthew 1:22,23, Ezekiel 1:26-28, Jeremiah 9:23,24, I Corinthians 1:30,31, Genesis 1:27, 2 Cor. 4:3,4.
Some people have trouble believing that God could become a man, in order to reveal himself to us. But the question is, why would that be difficult for God Almighty? In fact, there can be many reasons why God would want to do that. To become a human being would enable God to experience what we experience as human beings. It would enable God to experience our joys, our sorrows, and the reality of suffering. It would enable him to set an example for us, regarding how to live. It would also enable God to demonstrate his love for us, in a concrete way. This is what can be seen at the cross.
Another testimony that Jesus is God is found in John chapter one. This chapter points so clearly to the deity of Christ, that Christ's enemies have attempted for centuries to try to explain it away in some form or fashion. In John chapter one, Jesus Christ is given the title of "The Word." -
"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." (John 1:1). That this opening statement of the gospel of John refers clearly to Jesus Christ is brought out more fully in John 1:14, which says "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth."
So we have John 1:1, which says that the Word was God. Then we have John 1:14, which says that the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us. The only conclusion that can be reached from these verses is that Jesus Christ (the Word) was indeed God in the flesh.
The Indwelling Christ
To the Galatians, Paul wrote, "I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me." (Galatians 2:20a). Here Paul is saying that his old, selfish nature had been crucified along with Christ. Now Christ was living in him. This is seen by Paul as a great key to the Christian life: it is not simply trying to live according to a set of rules, but it is Christ living within you, giving you love, companionship, and strength.
Paul also prayed for the Ephesian believers: "that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith--that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:16-19).
Paul prayed that Christ would dwell within the hearts of these believers. Then they would know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge. Knowing this love of Christ would result in them being filled with the fullness of God. The New Testament also refers to Christ dwelling in believers in several other passages (Colossians 1:27, Romans 8:10, etc..). This indwelling of the presence of Christ is clearly taught in the New Testament, and to those who experience it, it is an undeniable proof of God's existence. Paul did not just say that Christ was making him feel good, or warming his heart. He said that Christ was living in him (Galatians 2:20).
What is the point of these passages, in regard to the deity of Christ? Well, for Christ to dwell in the hearts of believers everywhere, in the way that is described above, would only be possible if Christ were God. Christ is here revealed to have obvious divine qualities. He loves every believer, manifesting this love within their hearts. He is omnipresent; in other words, He is present everywhere, and he has the authority to live in the hearts of believers everywhere.
For Christ to be called Savior and Lord and then dwell in the hearts of believers everywhere in the ways that are described here would be impossible, if Christ were not God. Only God has such privilege, authority, and love.
Paul also wrote to the Corinthian church, and said "Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?--unless indeed you fail to meet the test!" (2 Corinthians 13:5). Clearly, the actual presence of Christ dwelling in the believers was assumed to be a reality.
Christ, the Image of the Invisible God
A revealing statement about Christ is that he is called "the image of the invisible God." (Colossians 1:15). This is an important statement about the nature of God. God in his full essence and nature is invisible to us. But there is a part of God's nature that he has disclosed to us and made very personal and visible. This is seen in Christ, who is called the image of the invisible God. In order to relate to his creation, God makes himself known through Christ, who is God's image. Yet God is also more than Christ, and greater than Christ alone. God the Father is described as One who dwells in unapproachable light. God the Father is described as "the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see. (1 Timothy 6:15b-16). This awesome reality of God in his fullness is so powerful that he is described as One who dwells in "unapproachable light."
So we can see why God would make himself known through only a part of himself: we simply would not be able to bear his full disclosure! So God humbled himself in the person of Jesus Christ, and made himself known to us.
Jesus described this awesome reality of God, the One who is so glorious that he dwells in unapproachable light, as "Father." The complete union between Jesus and the Father is described when Jesus said, "I and the Father are One." (John 10:30). This inseparable link between Jesus and the Father is also demonstrated when Jesus said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father, except through me." (John 14:6).
So God is more than Jesus Christ, and sometimes God and Christ are spoken of in distinct terms. Yet Jesus also said, "I and the Father are One." In Christ all the fullness of deity dwells, in bodily form (Colossians 2:9). To fully grasp the depth of this mystery, you would have to be God, yourself! Yet even a child can grasp the love of Jesus.
The love of God is amazing, that he would humble himself to such an extent that even a child could receive his love!
The truth is that God wants to make himself known. The one who was dying on the cross was not only a man - He was God in human form, giving his life in sacrifice so that those who believe in him could be forgiven and dwell with him forever. Faith in Christ flows from the love of God, and is the basis for eternal life: "For God so loved the world, that he gave His only-begotten Son, so that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life." (John 3:16).
The fact that Christ is called the image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15) has a profound meaning that goes all the way back to the first chapters in Genesis. There God said, "Let us make man in our image." (Genesis 1:26). The fact that God said "Let us make man in our image" proves that God indeed had an image. This is further stated in Genesis 1:27, which says, "So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them." This passage demonstrates conclusively that according to the Old Testament, God had an image.
Yet we see in the Old Testament that God forbid the Jewish people from making images (see Exodus 20:4, Leviticus 26:1). So on the one hand, we know that God had an image, because it says, "So God created man in his own image." On the other hand, he forbids his people from making an image. How do these two statements fit together?
God forbid the use of images in the Old Testament because the sinfulness of man rendered him unfit to make an accurate image of God. This is obvious when you look at all the various idols that people made in the ancient Near East. People worshipped calves and oxen and birds and snakes. God's image was terribly distorted. In later centuries the Greek and Roman pantheons revealed gods that were lustful, prideful, seductive, and flawed in many other ways. Because of human sinfulness and corruption, the images that people came up with were always flawed and distorted.
So God forbid his people from making images, until the time came that he would reveal his image to them. God's image was finally revealed in Jesus Christ. In other words, if you want to see a picture of what God is like, you will see that accurate picture by looking at Jesus - his love, his character, and his dying on the cross for our sins. This is why Jesus is called the image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15, 2 Corinthians 4:4). Jesus was God in the flesh, and so he alone is the accurate and true image of God.
If you reason this out, it makes perfect sense: If God was going to take on human flesh, and then die on the cross to offer forgiveness for man's sins, this would be a unique act, a unique revelation of who God is and what his love is like. The death and the resurrection of Christ provide the true image of God, revealing his holiness and love. And God would not want all kinds of other images to get in the way: distorted and flawed images of who he was. These false images would "muddy up the waters," endlessly distorting and corrupting the picture of what he was really like!
However, because of man's free will this "distortion of God" took place in ancient history and is continuing on today, with man's corrupted nature producing all kinds of distorted concepts and pictures of what God is like. Sadly, these distortions keep some people from discovering the true nature of God. The answer is to look to Jesus himself, rather than all the distorted images and false concepts that man has created.
In the New Testament, one of the disciples (Philip) asked Jesus if he would show them the Father. Philip had that age-old human desire, to see God. In response, Jesus said, "He who has seen me has seen the Father; how can you say, "Show us the Father?" (John 14:9 NASB). Here Jesus in his own words reveals himself as the image of God the Father! Jesus knew who he was, and he knew why he came: to reveal what God was like. Jesus went on to explain: "Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works." (John 14:10). For Jesus to say, "He who has seen me has seen the Father" was a clear indication that Jesus was indeed the image of God.
As the image of God, Jesus Christ represents the very being of God. This is brought out in Hebrews 1:3, which says, "The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven" (NIV). Notice here that Christ is the "exact representation" of God's being. And for Christ to "sustain all things by his powerful word" would only be possible if Christ were God.
Some additional points are important to give us a more complete picture of Christ from the New Testament:
(1) Although Christ was recognized as being divine, he was not all of God there was. As mentioned above, Christ came to reveal the invisible nature of the Father.
(2) Jesus Christ was not only fully divine; he was also fully human. Since Jesus was fully human, he illustrated a very important human characteristic: human life was to be lived in humble dependence upon the Father. So Jesus illustrated this dependence upon the Father, as a result of his genuine humanity.
To understand the various passages about Christ in the New Testament, it is helpful to realize that the full picture that is revealed about Christ is that he is fully God, and yet fully man. (Again, though this may be difficult to grasp, simply ask the question: Would it be too difficult for God to become a human being, and yet remain God? The answer, obviously, is no. This would not be difficult for God).
It is helpful to see that some statements in the New Testament focus on the humanity of Christ, while other statements focus on the deity of Christ.
Statements that emphasize the humanity of Christ will show the human nature of Jesus. They will reveal the limitations of his humanity. They will tend to show a distinction between Jesus, and His Father. They will show Jesus praying, or Jesus involved in human activities, or Jesus acknowledging God (the Father) in some way.
Statements that emphasize the deity of Christ will show the divine nature of Jesus. These statements will show the authority of Christ as God. These statements about Jesus Christ will be statements that could only be said of someone divine. They will go far beyond the definitions of what someone who is "only human" could do, or be. If you honestly search the New Testament writings, you will find numerous statements that highlight either the deity or the humanity of Christ. And some passages will combine both concepts, pointing to both his humanity and his deity ( John 1:1 &14, and Philippians 2:5-11, for example).
An additional point: one of the greatest distortions of God's image that is being manufactured today is by modern "scholars" who are remaking Christ into an image that would be totally unrecognizable to the early church. This false image has been created by their own skepticism concerning Christ. Some are attacking the humanity of Christ, while others attack the deity of Christ. The deity of Christ has been attacked by older scholars such as Rudolf Bultmann, scholars connected with the "Jesus Seminar," and modern critics such as Bart Erhman. Apparently these scholars feel there is no consequence for denying the deity of Christ.
The deity of Christ was not a concept that was "added on" later in Christian history, as some have falsely claimed. It is there from the earliest Christian writings. We have already looked at some of the many clear statements from the New Testament itself, supporting the deity of Christ. The New Testament documents can solidly be dated from around A.D. 48 to A.D. 98.
Outside of the New Testament
Christ was also acknowledged in some important non-Christian sources. For example, the Roman historian Tacitus refers to Christ. Tacitus is a acknowledged as a reliable Roman historian. When he was describing the way that the Roman emperor Nero was persecuting the Christians and falsely blamed them for a great fire in the city of Rome, he says,
"he falsely charged with the guilt, and punished with the most exquisite tortures, the persons commonly called Christians, who were hated for their enormities. Christus, the founder of the name, was put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign of Tiberius: but the pernicious superstition, repressed for a time, broke out again, not only through Judea, where the mischief originated, but through the city of Rome also." 5
Here Christ is acknowledged as the founder of the Christian faith, and it is stated that he was put to death by Pontius Pilate of Judea in the reign of the Roman emperor Tiberius. The historian Tacitus is obviously not very favorable towards the Christians - so his testimony is an important one from a non-Christian source.
There is also an early and important Roman historical source that points to the deity of Christ.
111 AD - Pliny the Younger
An important reference to Christ is found in one of the letters of Pliny, a Roman governor, to the emperor Trajan. This is a well established document from Roman history, It is dated around 111. a.d. In this letter, Pliny is asking for advice from Trajan, on how he should handle Christians who have been brought before him, and have been accused of believing in Christ. The Emperor Trajan had sent Pliny the Younger to Bithynia to govern a troubled area. They corresponded quite often during Pliny's mission. Trajan was a Roman Emperor who reigned from 98 A. D. until his death in 117 A. D.
After describing his method of interrogating the Christians, Pliny says,
"They affirmed, however, that the whole of their guilt, or their error, was, that they were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verse a hymn to Christ as to a god, and bound themselves to a solemn oath, not to do any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft, adultery, never to falsify their word, not to deny a trust when the should be called upon to deliver it up." 6
What is interesting here is that a Roman observer is stating that these believers would sing "a hymn to Christ as to a god." Although he was not a theologian, Pliny noted from his interrogations that these believers were worshipping Christ. Pliny understood from the testimonies he had obtained that these Christians were worshipping Christ as a god. This letter of Pliny is important as an early reference to Christ, from a non-Christian source. It is also important because it points to the fact that early believers worshipped Christ. This acknowledgement of the deity of Christ would put the Christians on an increasing collision course with the Roman empire.
From this letter by Pliny, we can see that the idea of the deity of Christ was something that even a Roman governor was aware of, based on the testimonies of Christians he interviewed. This was not something that was invented by later writers. Here in 111 a.d., a Roman governor is acknowledging that Christians worshipped Christ as "a god." His understanding of Christian doctrine, though limited, was much sharper than that of the modern day "Jesus scholars" who deny the deity of Christ.
Christians were seen to be worshipping another Lord, another deity, instead of the Roman Caesar. The early Christians not only confessed Jesus as Lord; they claimed that he alone was to be acknowledged as Lord. The Greek and Roman gods (or the Roman emperor) could not be worshipped by the Christians. This placed them on a collision course with the Roman empire. Christians could be put to death because they refused to acknowledge Caesar as Lord.
The Roman emperor was seen to be divine; that is why Romans were required to confess Caesar as "Lord." Christians, however, confessed Jesus Christ as Lord. This confession of the Lordship of Christ, along with their refusal to acknowledge Caesar as Lord, could be sufficient for the death penalty. A study of the history of the Roman empire reveals that this was a key point of contention between Christians and the Roman empire. 7
In conclusion, the deity of Christ is clearly established in the New Testament writings. Although some modern scholars may deny this, and though some pseudo-Christian groups may join them, the clear testimony of the New Testament documents is that Jesus was God incarnate, visiting this earth in human form.
The importance of this truth is seen in the fact that those who teach against the deity of Christ would cut people off from eternal salvation. This issue is crucially important, because only a divine Savior can save.
It is a revealing fact that the doctrine of eternal life is only alluded to in the Old Testament, but becomes clearly established in the New Testament. This New Testament teaching concerning eternal life is based on faith in the Son of God, and this must include faith in his divinity because this is a central truth about Jesus that is clearly taught in the New Testament. Those who deny it preach "another Jesus," one who is powerless to save.
The evidence of the New Testament clearly rests on the divinity of Jesus Christ:
John 1:1-5 "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.
3 All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. 4 In him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it."
John 1:10-14 "He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. 12 But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. 14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth."
Copyright © 2009 by M.A. Erickson
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1 . Dating of the N.T. documents here has for the most part followed the dating from F.F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1971). For the dating of Matthew and Mark I have followed the earlier dating mentioned by Bruce M. Metzger, in The New Testament: it's Background Growth, and Content (Nashville, TN, Abingdon Press, 1983), p. 96-98. John is given a wider date range because some scholars have argued for an earlier date for John, especially since the discovery of a manuscript fragment of the Gospel of John that dates between 100-150 a.d. (See interview with Bruce Metzger by Lee Stroble, The Case for Christ: A Journalist's Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), p. 79-80)
2 Based on the textual apparatus for the United Bible Societies Greek New Testament (Third Edition), and the alternate readings given by the New International Version (1984) and New American Standard Bible (1977).
3 F. F. Bruce, The Books and the Parchments (Old Tappan, NJ: Revell, 1963), p. 78.
4 F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1971), p. 15.
For a helpful summary, see Dr. John Ankerberg and Dr. John Weldon, regarding the reliability of the New Testament documents:
"Few scholars question the general reliability of ancient classical literature on the basis of the manuscripts we possess. Yet this manuscript evidence is vastly inferior to that of the New Testament manuscripts. For example, of sixteen well-known classical authors (Plutarch, Tacitus, Seutonius, Polybius, Thucydides and Xenophon, etc), the total number of extant copies is typically less than ten, and the earliest copies date from 750 to 1600 years after the original manuscript was first penned.6 ( McDowell, Evidence That Demands a Verdict, p. 42; Robert C. Newman, "Miracles and the Historicity of the Easter Week Narratives," in John Warwick Montgomery (ed.), Evidence for Faith: Deciding the God Question (Dallas: Probe, 1991), pp. 281-84.). "We need only compare such slim evidence to the mass of biblical documentation involving over 24,000 manuscript portions, manuscripts, and versions, with the earliest fragments and complete copies dating between 50 and 300 years after originally written."
"Given the fact that the early Greek manuscripts (the Papyri and early Uncials7) date much closer to the originals than for any other ancient literature, and the overwhelming additional abundance of manuscript attestation, any doubt as to the integrity or authenticity of the New Testament text has been removed. Indeed, this kind of evidence is the dream of the historian. No other ancient literature has ever come close to supplying historians and textual critics with such an abundance of data." (The Historical Reliability of Scripture, by Dr. John Ankerberg, Dr. John Weldon. http://www.ankerberg.com/Articles/editors-choice/EC1205W1.htm )
5 Tacitus, Annals. In Great Books of the Western World, ed. By Robert Maynard Hutchins. Vol. 15, The Annals and The Histories by Cornelius Tacitus. Chicago: William Benton, 1952, p. 44.
6 Pliny, Letters 10.96, a.d. 111-112
7 Ibid. Pliny's Letter to Trajan, cited above, illustrates what would become a common policy of the Roman government towards the early Christians who were brought before them. The stark choice that faced these early believers is revealed in the words of Pliny: "Meanwhile, in the case of those who were denounced to me as Christians, I have observed the following procedure: I interrogated these as to whether they were Christians; those who confessed I interrogated a second and a third time, threatening them with punishment; those who persisted I ordered executed........Those who denied that they were or had been Christians, when they invoked the gods in words dictated by me, offered prayer with incense and wine to your image, which I had ordered to be brought for this purpose together with statues of the gods, and moreover cursed Christ--none of which those who are really Christians, it is said, can be forced to do--these I thought should be discharged."
Ankerberg, John & Weldon, John. The Historical Reliability of Scripture
Bruce, F.F. The Books and the Parchments (Old Tappan, NJ: Revell, 1963).
Bruce, F.F. The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1971).
Dowley, Tim, Ed. Eerdman's Handbook to the History of Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: 1977).
McDowell, Josh. The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict ( Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1999).
Metzger, Bruce M. The New Testament: Its Background, Growth, and Content (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1983).
Strobel, Lee. The Case for Christ: A Journalist's Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001).
Tacitus, Annals. In Great Books of the Western World, ed. By Robert Maynard Hutchins. Vol. 15, The Annals and The Histories by Cornelius Tacitus. (Chicago: William Benton, 1952).
Yamauchi, Edwin. "Jesus Outside the New Testament: What is the Evidence?" Jesus Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents the Historical Jesus. Ed. By Michael J. Wilkins and J.P. Moreland. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995).