Is Jesus God?


There have been many challenges over the ages concerning not only who but what Jesus is. Some say he was based on pagan myths, while others say he was based on other human beings. Those objections have faltered. Interestingly, some of the earliest challenges about Jesus’s identity denied his humanity, not his divinity. Examples include Docetism and Apollinarianism.  

Nonetheless, whether you talk to Jewish or Muslim faithful or critical scholars of the New Testament, you can hear various versions of the claim that Jesus was not God. Two of the most difficult challenges most often leveled is that Jesus was not considered divine in the early church and that he never referred to himself as God.  

The claims above will be addressed in this sprint through the evidence. Since it is generally accepted that Jesus is rather clearly divine in other New Testament writings besides the “Synoptic” Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke, so-called due to their similarities), the focus here will be on the Synoptic evidence.

Did the Early Synoptic Gospels Consider Jesus God?

The Synoptic Gospels identify Jesus as God in many different ways. First, of course, by including the quotes of Jesus in which he affirms himself as God. Those are discussed in the next section. But there are other ways as well.

“Lord” became the most common designation for Jesus by the Gospel authors.

The letters of Paul had already been written and were influential in Christianity by the time the Gospels were penned. This means that Paul—who most often called Jesus “Lord” and the Father “God,” though sometimes he called Jesus “God” as well (Romans 9:5; Titus 2:13)—can help fill in some of the context on what may have been meant by the word “Lord.” Not only did Paul use Jesus’s name in the place of Yahweh when quoting Old Testament texts (Philippians 2:10-11, Isaiah 45:23), but in 1 Corinthians 8:6 he essentially rewrote the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4) to show that Jesus was now realized as a Person of the Godhead. Previously, Yahweh was both God and Lord.

Now, most of the time, “God” is Father and “Lord” is Son. The Gospel authors refer to Jesus as “Lord” too much to think they meant it in a non-divine way. Rather, they meant it in the same way that word was used in the Old Testament for Yahweh. This is especially true when we recognize that they wrote their Gospels in a Christian context where Paul’s epistles already existed and were considered normative for the nascent community.

The above is important context to keep in mind when we read the Synoptic Gospels, but so is the internal context of how each author uses particular words. In Matthew, for example, we read about “an angel of the Lord” appearing to Jesus’s family (Matt. 1:20, 2:13) and prophets whom the Lord had spoken through (Matt. 1:22). But then there is a switch, and the term is used interchangeably of the figure understood as “God” (Matthew 4:7, 10) and of Jesus (Matt. 3:3, 7:21). Matthew 3:3 especially uses the word “Lord” to speak of both that Being understood as “God” in the Old Testament and Jesus in the New. Others throughout Matthew’s Gospel continue to call Jesus “Lord.” They perhaps did not know how true their words were, but the Gospel authors who includes those quotes did.

Luke makes this clearer yet by referring to Jesus not just as “Lord” but “the Lord” (Luke 7:13, 10:1, 11:39, to name just a few), as Cambridge University’s Simon Gathercole has observed. Gathercole also points out the foreshadowing salvific language used in the Gospels. For instance, in Matthew, the disciples exclaim, “Lord, save us!” (Matt. 8:25). One gentleman who perhaps did understand Jesus’s true identity asked him to “have mercy on my son,” who was possessed by a demon. Two blind men also ask the “Lord” for “mercy” for the healing of their eyes (Matt. 20:31).

Jesus performed divine miracles.

When Jesus calmed the storm (Matt. 8:23-27; Mark 4:36-41; Luke 8:22-25), it showed that he had control over nature. The disciples would have been reminded of Psalm 107:28-32 and Job 38:8-11. Furthermore, Jesus healed without appealing to another. This was nowhere more staggering than in his healing of lepers (Matt. 8:1-4; Mark 1:40-45; Luke 17:11-19). The significance here is that the healing of a leper was widely understood to be a feat only God could perform (2 Kings 5:7). This is why they asked the pregnant question, “What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?” (Matt. 8:27). It is rhetorical. He is no mere man at all.

Jesus came from heaven.

Gathercole is again helpful in pointing out the “I have come + purpose” formula used by Jesus. These are similar to angelic sayings, with the clear indication being that they have come, and hail from, a different realm. The demons recognize that Jesus had come from elsewhere (Mark 1:24, Matt. 8:29). Jesus mentioned the reasons he has come or was sent (Mark 1:27; Matt. 5:17; Luke 4:43, 12:49) and that it is the Father who sent him (Mark 9:37, Matt. 10:40; Luke 10:16).

Gathercole’s point about the historical usage of that phrase in angelic utterances should make it clear that “heaven” is the reference point for where Jesus has come from. But if it is not, Jesus makes it clear in Luke 10:18 when he said that he saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. This speaks not only of a heavenly vantage point but of a life span that could not be purely human, since this fall presumably took place sometime before the creation of, or during the lifetime of, Adam and Eve.

Did Jesus Consider Himself God in the Early Gospels?

There are many clues to Jesus’s divine self-understanding in the Synoptic Gospels.

Jesus’s favorite self-designation was “The Son of Man”.

Jesus refers to himself several times as the Son of Man(Matthew 9:1-8, 12:40, 16:13-17). The Son of Man was prophesied in Daniel 7 and other Jewish literature. He was considered something other than human. He was from ancient times, and he would come to judge the world and establish his kingdom. Even Bart Ehrman admits that the Son of Man was considered, at the very least, a semi-divine figure.

Jesus did many things without appealing to the authority of God.

For instance, he often taught by first announcing “I tell you” rather than saying what the Scriptures said, what the Lord had told him, or what he learned from another teacher (Matt. 3:9, 5:18; Mark 3:28, 10:15; Luke 13:3, 5). Crowds were “amazed” because “he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law” (Matt. 7:28-29).

He also forgave sins without saying God had forgiven their sins through him or any other priestly formula. For this he was accused of blasphemy (Matt. 9:1-8). Perhaps that was also because he identified as the Son of Man forgiving sins in that instance. Some critics will say that Jesus was merely proclaiming God’s forgiveness over them rather than forgiving them himself, and that this is something priests did all the time. The problem is that there is no evidence of priests doing that like Jesus did. Some will try to demean the authority by saying that Jesus was “given” authority to do so. Interestingly, the Synoptics do not say that Jesus was “given” authority in this particular instance. Rather, the only Gospel that explicitly says Jesus was “given” authority during a similar exchange is the Gospel of John (John 5:27), which the same critics attempt to discredit due to its author’s rather emphatic focus on Jesus as God!

The point is, would God give a mere man the authority of ultimate judge of all humankind? Would he give him “all authority on heaven and on earth” (Matthew 28:18)? Once again, we must ask with the disciples, “What sort of man is this?” Before Jesus, human beings weren’t intended to be the ultimate judge of humankind. And it’s easy to see why: we are biased, we don’t know the beginning from the end, and we don’t have exhaustive knowledge of others’ deeds. But perhaps most importantly, we don’t know the hearts of others.

As biblical scholar Dan Doriani highlighted in his 1994 article “The Deity of Christ in the Synoptic Gospels” (JETS), Jesus does know the inner thoughts and hearts of humankind (Matt. 9:4; 12:25, 34; 22:18). The prophet Samuel once said that only God can ultimately judge because he alone knows the hearts of men (1 Samuel 16:7). Therefore, we see what kind of a man may be allowed to judge: the God-man.

Jesus identified himself with the God of the Old Testament.

After John the Baptist was thrown into prison, he sent word to Jesus asking, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” Jesus replied by telling one of John’s messengers, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me” (Matt. 11:3-6; Luke 7:20-23). As New Testament scholars Rob Bowman and Ed Komoszewski point out, Jesus is here quoting from the Old Testament, Isaiah 35:4-6 and 61:1-3, which identify Jesus with both the Messiah and God himself.[i]

Furthermore, Jesus claimed Lordship for himself. And not just your run-of-the-mill “lord of the manor” remark or something like that. He said he was “Lord of the Sabbath” (Matt. 12:8; Mark 2:28; Luke 6:5). He said this to show his authority over the holiest weekday of the Jewish people which God had established on the seventh day of creation (Genesis 2:2). Previously, the Sabbath day had belonged to the Lord YHWH (Exodus 20:10; Leviticus 19:3, 30; 23:38).

Jesus is making an even grander claim than authority over a holy day, however. The context makes clear that Jesus is proclaiming himself greater than, and Lord over, the Law. This can be seen in the many ways Jesus taught about the Law, correcting bad interpretations of it using the “I tell you” formula described above. In criticizing those who wrongly interpret the Law and make a mockery of the temple, Jesus says that he will destroy the temple and raise up another, himself (Mark 13:2, 14:58; cf. John 2:19).

Of course, the temple is where God dwells with his people, where heaven meets earth. At the end of his prophecy about the doomed Jerusalem temple, Jesus proclaims of his words: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my worlds will never pass away” (Mark 13:31). One cannot help but to hear whispers of Isaiah’s words of hope to Israel: “The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God endures forever” (Isaiah 40:8). Even when Jesus doesn’t say “I am God,” he sure does sound like him.

Lastly, Jesus establishes a new covenant in his name by his blood (Matthew 26:27-28; Luke 22:20). Old Testament scholar Sandra Richter reminds us that God had made a covenant with Abram all the way back in Genesis 15, thousands of years prior. Usually, when the weaker party of a covenant betrayed the partnership, certain covenant “curses” came upon them. This potentiality was acted out in the covenant ceremony. One particular practice saw the weaker party pass through halves of a sacrificed animal with the acknowledgment that if they betrayed the stronger party, they would end up like the sacrificed animal.

But in Abram’s vision, it is the Lord himself who passed through the bloodied sacrifice, thus saying that God himself would take the punishment for his people’s abandonment if it happened. Spoiler: It happened. This is the drama of the Old Testament. But now, in Jesus, God has made good on his promise. The Son of God becomes a human being, he takes the curse with his blood, and by his blood the covenant of forgiveness is inaugurated.

This is not an exhaustive list of references to Jesus’s divinity. The Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke speak to Jesus’s divinity in other ways as well. And beyond that, there is the rest of the New Testament, which includes Jesus’s divine self-references (compare John 8:58 to Exodus 3:13-14, LXX Isaiah 43:10-11, 25; 45:18), verses that put Jesus’s name in Old Testament passages that referred to YHWH or otherwise identified Jesus with YHWH (Philippians 2:10-11, Isaiah 45:23; Jude 5; Revelation 5:13-14), passages that just plain call Jesus God (John 20:28; Romans 9:5; Philippians 2:6; Colossians 1:15; Titus 2:13; Hebrews 1:3; 2 Peter 1:1), passages about Jesus as creator (John 1:3; 1 Corinthians 8:6; Colossians 1:16; Hebrews 1:2), and passages that speak to his pre-existence in a heavenly realm (John 1:1, 3:13, 6:33, 8:58, 16:28, 17:5), to mention just a few. A critic may say that some of these verses could have other interpretations. Fair enough. But the preponderance and variety of evidence in this case forces us to accept the fact that the Bible overwhelmingly portrays Jesus as God. 

The Heart of the Matter

The point is not just that Jesus is God, but that he is God for you, who came to give himself “for the life of the world” (John 6:51). This is a true story not about the development of a theological doctrine, but about a divine rescue mission for all those hurt and suffering by sin in the world, both theirs and others.

Today God extends his hand to all of us and shows us what he has already done for us. He was lifted above the earth with his arms outstretched on a cross, or rather, with his arms outstretched to the whole world. He has invited you to his covenant of grace and forgiveness. All you need to do for now is take his outstretched hand.

Want to go deeper? Check out my recommendations for the top 10 books on the divinity of Jesus.

Get insights from Abdu and Embrace the Truth regularly by signing up for our free newsletter!

[i] It is not the first time that these two figures, God and Messiah, have been linked as one. Ezekiel 34 teaches that God will send his servant David as his people’s shepherd, and that he will be their God and David their prince (34:23-24). Of course, by this point in time King David has died, so it is a Davidic figure, a “son of David” from the line of David, who will be this shepherd. Jesus is called “son of David” several times in the New Testament (Matt. 1:1; Mark 10:47; Luke 18:38). Interestingly, God also says in Ezekiel 34 that he will be their shepherd (34:12, 16). How will there be one shepherd who is both the son of David and God?

Tags :
bart ehrman,deity of jesus,divinity of Jesus,incarnation,is jesus god