The Deity of Christ
I recently received a letter from someone who argues that there is only
one God, and that He is called many names and worshiped by many
different people who hold to many different faiths. This kind of
thinking about God is common today, but its popularity does not reduce
the intellectual problems that may accompany it. For instance, does this
notion of god include the god of the Aztecs who required child
sacrifice? What about the warrior gods of Norse mythology: Odin, Thor,
and Loki? How does the Mormon belief that we can all become Gods if we
join their organization and conform to their system of good works fit
into this theological framework? Even John Hick, an influential
religious pluralist, believes that only some of the world's great
religions qualify as having a valid view of God. Islam, Christianity,
Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism are valid, but Satanism and the
religions of the Waco, Texas, variety are not. Belief that all religious
systems worship one God raises difficult questions when we see how
different groups portray God and seek to describe how we are to relate
The issue becomes even more acute when one religious tradition claims
that God took on flesh becoming a man and walked on the earth. The
Christian tradition has claimed for almost two thousand years that God
did just that. The Gospel of John proclaims that, "The Word became
flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory
of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and
truth." John is, of course, talking about Jesus, and this claim
presents an interesting challenge for a religious pluralist. If what
John and the rest of the New Testament writers claim about Jesus is
true, then we literally have God in the flesh walking with and teaching
a small band of disciples. If Jesus was God incarnate as He walked the
earth, we have a first hand account of what God is like in the biblical
record. Truth claims about God that counter those given in the Bible
must then be discounted. In other words, if Jesus was God in the flesh
during His time on earth, other religious texts or traditions are wrong
when they teach about God or about knowing God in ways that contradict
the biblical record.
In this essay we will consider the evidence for the deity of Christ.
Christianity's truth claims are dependent on this central teaching, and
once accepted, this claim reduces greatly the viability of religious
pluralism, of treating all religious beliefs as equally true. For if God
truly became flesh and spoke directly to His disciples about such things
as sin, redemption, a final judgment, false religions and true worship,
then we have the God of the universe expressing intolerance towards
other religious claims- -specifically claims that discount the reality
of sin and remove the need for redemption or the reality of a final
judgment. Some might not agree with God's religious intolerance, but
then again, disagreeing with God is what the Bible calls sin.
Rather than begin with a response to attacks on Christ's deity by
modern critics like the Jesus Seminar or New Age gnostics, our
discussion will begin with Jesus' own self-consciousness, in other
words, what did Jesus say and think about himself. From there we will
consider the teachings of the Apostles and the early church. My goal is
to establish that from its inception, Christianity has taught and
believed that Jesus was God in the flesh, and that this belief was the
result of the very words that Jesus spoke concerning His own essence.
As we begin to examine evidence that supports the claim that Jesus
Christ is God in the flesh or God incarnate, a good starting point is
Jesus' own self concept. It must first be admitted that Jesus never
defines His place in the Trinity in theological language. However, He
made many statements about himself that would be not only inappropriate,
but blasphemous if He was not God in the flesh. It is important to
remember that Jesus' life was not spent doing theology or thinking and
writing about theological issues. Instead, His life was focused on
relationships, first with His disciples, and then with the Jewish
people. The purpose of these relationships was to engender in these
people a belief in Jesus as their savior or Messiah, as their only
source of salvation. Jesus told the Pharisees, the Jewish religious
leaders of His day, that they would die in their sins if they did not
believe that He was who He claimed to be (John 8:24). And to one
Pharisee, Nicodemus, Jesus said, "For God so loved the world, that
He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not
perish, but have eternal life" (John 3:16).
Millard Erickson, in his book Christian Theology, does a nice
job of laying out evidence that Jesus considered himself equal in
essence with God.(1) Unless He was God, it would have been highly
inappropriate for Jesus to say, as He does in Matthew 13:41, that both
the angels and the kingdom are His. Elsewhere, angels are called
"the angels of God" (Luke 12:8 9; 15:10) and the phrase
Kingdom of God is found throughout the Scriptures. But Jesus says,
"The Son of man will send His angels, and they will gather
out of His kingdom all causes of sin and evildoers" (Matt.
When the paralytic in Mark 2:5 was lowered through the roof by his
friends, Jesus' first response was to say that the man's sins were
forgiven. The scribes knew the implications of this statement, for only
God could forgive sin. Their remarks clearly show that they understood
Jesus to be exercising a divine privilege. Jesus had a wonderful
opportunity to set the record straight here by denying that He had the
authority to do what only God can do. Instead, His response only
reinforces His claim to divinity. Jesus says, "Why do you question
thus in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, Your sins
are forgiven,' or to say, Rise, take up your pallet and walk'?" To
confirm His authority to forgive sins, Jesus enabled the man to pick up
his pallet and go home.
Two other areas that Jesus claimed authority over was the judging of
sin and the observance of the Sabbath. Both were considered God's
prerogative by the Jews. In John 5:22-23 Jesus says, "The Father
judges no one, but has entrusted all judgment to the Son, that all may
honor the Son just as they honor the Father." Jesus also claimed
authority to change man's relationship to the Sabbath. Honoring the
Sabbath is one of the Ten Commandments, and the Jews had been given
strict instructions on how to observe it. In the book of Numbers, Moses
is told by God to stone to death a man who collects wood on the Sabbath.
However, in Matthew 12:8 Jesus says that "the Son of Man is Lord of
These examples show that Jesus made claims and performed miracles
that reveal a self awareness of His own divinity. In our next section,
we will continue in this vein.
Christ's Self-Perception, Part 2
At this point in our discussion we will offer even more examples of
Jesus' self knowledge of His essential equality with God.
A number of comments that Jesus made about His relationship with the
Father would be unusual if Jesus did not consider himself equal in
essence with God. In John 10:30 He says that to see Him is to see the
Father. Later in John 14:7-9 He adds that to know Him is to know the
Father. Jesus also claimed to have existed prior to His incarnation on
earth. In John 8:58 He says, "Truly, truly, I say to you, before
Abraham was, I am." Some believe that the words used here by Jesus
constitute His strongest claim to deity. According to the Expositors
Bible Commentary this passage might more literally be translated,
"Before Abraham came into being, I continuously existed." The
Jews recognized the phrase "I am" as one referring to God
because God used it (1) to describe himself when He commissioned Moses
to demand the release of His people from Pharaoh (Exodus 3:14), and (2)
to identifyhimself in the theistic proclamations in the second half of
Isaiah. Jesus also declares that His work is coterminous with the
Father. He proclaims that "If a man loves me, he will keep my word,
and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home
with him" (John 14:23). The Jews hearing Jesus understood the
nature of these claims. After His comment about pre-existing Abraham,
they immediately picked up stones to kill Him for blasphemy because they
understood that He had declared himself God.
In Jesus' trial He makes a clear declaration of who He is. The Jews
argued before Pilate in John 19:7, "We have a law, and according to
that law he must die, because he claimed to be the Son of God."
Matthew 26 records that at Jesus' trial, the high priest tells Jesus,
"I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the
Christ, the Son of God."Jesus replies, "You have said it
yourself, . . . But I say to all of you: In the future you will see the
Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the
clouds of heaven." This would have been a wonderful opportunity for
Jesus to save himself by clearing up any misconceptions concerning His
relationship with the Father. Instead, He places himself in a position
of equality and of unique power and authority. Again, the Jews
understand what Jesus is saying. The high priest proclaims, "He has
uttered blasphemy. Why do we still need witnesses? You have now heard
his blasphemy." He calls for a vote of the council, and they demand
His death (Matt. 26:65-66).
Another indicator of how Jesus perceived himself is in His use of Old
Testament Scripture and the way He made His own proclamations of truth.
In a number of cases, Jesus began a sentence with "You have heard
that it was said, . . . but I say to you. . . ." (Matt. 5:21-22,
27-28). Jesus was giving His words the same authority as the Scriptures.
Even the prophets, when speaking for God, would begin their statements
with: "The word of the Lord came to me," but Jesus begins
with: "I say to you."
There are other indications of how Jesus saw himself. For example,
Christ's claim to have authority over life itself in John 5:21 and
11:25, and His use of the self referential "Son of God" title
point to unique power and authority and His essential equality with God.
The Apostles' Teaching
We will turn now to look at what Jesus' followers said of Him. The
Gospel of John begins with a remarkable declaration of both Christ's
deity and full humanity. "In the beginning was the Word, and the
Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the
beginning." Later in verse fourteen John remarks that this
"Word" became flesh and walked among them and points to Jesus
as this "Word" become flesh. What did John mean by this
The first phrase might literally be translated: "When the
beginning began, the Word was already there." In other words, the
"Word" co- existed with God and predates time and creation.
The second phrase "The Word was with God" indicates both
equality and distinction of identity. A more literal translation might
be "face to face with God," implying personality and
relational coexistence. Some groups, like the Jehovah's Witnesses, make
a great deal of the fact that the word "God" in the third
phrase "The Word was God" lacks an article. This, they argue,
allows the noun God to be translated as an indefinite noun, perhaps
referring to "a God" but not "the" almighty God.
Actually, the lack of an article for the noun makes the case for the
deity of the "Word" more clearly. The Greek phrase, theos
en ho logos describes the nature of the "Word," not the
nature of God. The article ho before the word logos shows
that the sentence describes the nature of the Word; He is of the same
nature and essence as the noun in the predicate; that is, the Word is
divine. It is interesting to note that verses 6, 12, 13, and 18 of the
same chapter refer unambiguously to God the Father and use an anarthrous
noun, i.e., a noun without the article.(2) Yet strangely the Jehovah's
Witnesses do not dispute the meaning of these passages.
The author of Hebrews writes plainly of Christ's deity. The first
chapter states that, "The Son is the radiance of God's glory and
the exact representation of His being, sustaining all things by His
powerful word." The passage also states that Jesus is not an angel
nor is He just a priest. In Colossians 1:15 Paul adds that, "He is
the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by
Him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and
invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all
things were created by Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in
Him all things hold together." Although Paul clearly attributes
godlike qualities to Jesus, the use of the word firstborn often causes
confusion. The word can be a reference to priority in time or supremacy
in rank. Since Jesus is described as the Creator of all things, the
notion of supremacy seems more appropriate. Philippians 2:5-11 also
talks of Jesus existing in the form of God. The Greek term used for form
is morphe, denoting an outward manifestation of an inner essence.
Mention should also be made of the use by New Testament writers of
the word Lord for Jesus. The same Greek word was used in the
Greek Old Testament, the Septuagint, as the translated word for the
Hebrew words Yahweh and Adonai, two special names given to God the
Father. The Apostles meant to apply the highest sense of this term when
referring to Jesus.
The Early Church
Thus far we have been examining the Christian claim of Christ's
divinity, first considering Jesus' own self-concept and then the
thoughts of those who wrote the New Testament. It is not within the
scope of this essay to argue that the words attributed to Jesus by the
writers of the New Testament are indeed His. Instead, we have argued
that the words attributed to Jesus do claim an essential equality with
God the Father. The traditional view of the Christian faith has been
that God has revealed himself to us as three separate persons--Father,
Son, and Holy Spirit--who shared a common essence.
Belief in Jesus' essential equality with God the Father was
communicated by the Apostles to the church fathers to whom they handed
the task of leading the church. Even though these early leaders often
struggled with how to describe the notion of the Trinity with
theological accuracy, they knew that their faith was in a person who was
both man and God.
Clement of Rome is a good example of this faith. Writing to the
church at Corinth Clement implies Jesus' equality with God the Father
when he says "Have we not one God, and one Christ and one Spirit of
grace poured upon us." Later, in his second letter, Clement tells
his readers to "think of Jesus as of God , as the judge of the
living and dead." Clement also wrote of Jesus as the preexistent
Son of God; in other words, Christ existed before He took on human
flesh. Ignatius of Antioch spoke of Christ's nature in his letter to the
Ephesians, "There is only one physician, of flesh and of spirit,
generate and ingenerate, God in man, life in death, Son of Mary and Son
of God." A little later, Irenaeus of Lyons (ca. A.D. 140-202.) had
to stress the humanity of Christ because of Gnostic heresy that argued
that Jesus was only a divine emanation. Irenaeus wrote, "There is
therefore . . . one God the Father, and one Christ Jesus our Lord, who .
. . gathered together all things in himself. But in every respect, too,
he is man, the formation of God: and thus he took up man into himself,
the invisible becoming visible, the incomprehensible being made
comprehensible, the impassible becoming capable of suffering, and the
Word being made man, thus summing up all things in himself" (Against
Heresies III, 16). During the same time period, Tertullian of
Carthage (ca. A.D. 155-240) wrote of Christ's nature that "what is
born in the flesh is flesh and what is born in the Spirit is spirit.
Flesh does not become spirit nor spirit flesh. Evidently they can (both)
be in one (person). Of these Jesus is composed, of flesh as man and of
spirit as God" (Against Praxeas, 14). Later he added,
"We see His double state, not intermixed but conjoined in one
person, Jesus, God and man" (Against Praxeas, 27).
By A.D. 325 the church had begun to systematize Christianity's
response to various heretical views of Christ. The Nicene Creed stated,
"We believe in God the Father All-sovereign, maker of heaven and
earth, of all things visible and invisible; And in one Lord Jesus
Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all
the ages, Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten not created, of
one substance with the Father, through whom all things came into
The belief in Jesus Christ being of the same essence as God the
Father began with Jesus himself, was taught to His Apostles, who in turn
handed down this belief to the early church Fathers and apologists.
Christ's deity is the foundation upon which the Christian faith rests.
©1997 Probe Ministries International
1. Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids,
Mich.: Baker Book House, 1985), pp. 684-90.
2. Merrill C. Tenney, The Expositors Bible Commentary, vol. 9
(Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Publishing House, 1981), pp. 28-29.
3. Henry Bettenson, ed., Documents of the Christian Church
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1967), p. 26.
About the Author
Don Closson received the B.S. in education from
Southern Illinois University, the M.S. in educational administration
from Illinois State University, and the M.A. in Biblical Studies from
Dallas Theological Seminary. He served as a public school teacher and
administrator before joining Probe Ministries as a research associate in
the field of education. He is the general editor of Kids, Classrooms,
and Contemporary Education. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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