By Clinton Arnold
A few years ago, a handful of students from our church asked people on a local university campus, “Who do you think Jesus is?” Most supposed that Jesus was a great moral teacher or a famous prophet. In contrast, from the very beginning of its existence, the Christian church has confidently proclaimed that Jesus is far greater than a wandering teacher or a human prophet sent from God: He is God Himself, in human flesh.
How essential is it for us as Christians to agree with that claim? So much rests on this foundational truth that every aspect of our lives would change without it. Worshiping Jesus, obeying Him, and praying to Him would be foolish at best and heretical at worst. If Jesus is not God, we have believed in vain. We may as well sell off our church buildings, close down our ministries, call home our missionaries, and go follow whatever spiritual path is more to our liking. Were Jesus a mere man, we would be left with a set of nice sayings (and a lot of antiquated stories) rather than a dynamic relationship with the personal God of the universe, made possible through the eternal sacrifice of an eternal Being. However, the testimony of Scripture is unmistakable: Jesus is God, eternal and holy, worthy of all praise and glory and honor. He is worth all that I can give to him—and more.
The Testimony of Scripture
The Old Testament foretold that the Messiah would be God. The prophet Isaiah declared: Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel [“God with us”]. —Is. 7:14 Similarly, Isaiah prophesied some 900 years before the coming of Jesus that a child would be born who would carry the government on His shoulders, and His name would be “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God” (Is. 9:6, emphasis mine). The first verse of John’s gospel explicitly says that Jesus is God: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (1:1, emphasis mine). Jesus is here referred to as “the Word” because He came to explain and reveal God to us (v. 18). The language of this text could not be more plain and straightforward.
Perhaps one of the most important statements of all is what Jesus said about Himself to the Jewish leaders when they probed Him about His identity. They had falsely accused Jesus of being a Samaritan and demon-possessed (Jn. 8:48), which Jesus flatly denied. He then told them, “I tell you the truth, before Abraham was born, I am” (v. 58, emphasis mine). At first glance, Jesus’ statement appears incomplete: “I am what or who?” But the Jewish leaders, who knew the Old Testament inside and out, immediately connected Jesus’ claim to God’s revelation of Himself to Moses in the burning bush: “I AM WHO I AM” (Ex. 3:14). Jesus was saying, in words He knew the religious leaders would grasp, “I am God.” No wonder the leaders immediately picked up stones to kill Him. On another occasion, Jesus told the Jewish leaders, “I and the Father are one” (Jn. 10:30). Again, they understood the gravity of His astounding claim and attempted to stone Him “for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God” (v. 33). To religious leaders committed to the existence of one true God, Jesus’ statements were hideous in their perceived heresy. A variety of other passages in the New Testament give clear indication that Jesus is God. Romans 9:5 refers to Christ as “God over all.” The Apostle Paul speaks of Jesus as “our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13). Similarly, the Apostle Peter calls Him “our God and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 1:1).
Scripture also points to many things that are true of Jesus that can only be true of one who is God. First, Scripture tells us that Jesus did not come into existence when He was born in the manger in Bethlehem; He existed prior to that. In fact, He existed before earth was created, for He was involved in creating it. John states emphatically that “through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made” (Jn. 1:3). Paul concurs and adds that Jesus also upholds and maintains His creation (Col. 1:16-17). This is consistent with the testimony of the book of Revelation about Jesus as “the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End” (Rev. 22:13).
The clear testimony of Scripture is that Jesus is God in every way.
The Church’s Confession
Though the Christian church has found much to disagree on through the centuries, every segment—Protestant, Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox—confesses that Jesus is God. This confession has faced its share of challenges, however. In the early years of the church, this truth prevented many Jews from turning to Jesus, especially since it seemed difficult to reconcile with their belief that God is one. Some Jews who became Christians could never completely accept Jesus as God. These Jewish Christians, known as Ebionites, denied the deity of Christ and held on to many of their culturally distinct practices. There also emerged in the early church an influential Egyptian teacher named Arius (A.D. 250-336) who denied the deity of Christ. Arius taught that Jesus was a spirit being created by God the Father and was not truly God. Christians took a united stand against Arianism (and all other teachings denying that Jesus is God) when church leaders from Italy, Greece, North Africa, Egypt, Asia Minor, Syria, Palestine, and Gaul met at Nicene in Asia Minor in the fourth century. This group forged a statement reflecting the common belief of the church since its inception that Jesus is not only fully human but also truly God. In this famous statement, known as the Nicene Creed, the church fathers described Jesus as sharing the same substance or essence with the Father:
We believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten from the Father before all time, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not created, of the same essence as the Father, through whom all things came into being, who for us men and because of our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became human. He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried, and rose on the third day, according to the Scriptures, and ascended to heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father, and will come again with glory to judge the living and dead. His Kingdom shall have no end.—A.D. 325; revised at Constantinople A.D. 3811
As we enter into a relationship with Jesus Christ and grow in our knowledge of Him, it is vital that we have an accurate and informed understanding of precisely who He is. Jesus is God—every bit as much as the Father is God. To believe anything less is not only unscriptural; it also removes all meaning and power from the infinite sacrifice Jesus made to take away our sins and from the close relationship the God of the universe wants to have with His people.
CLINTON E. ARNOLD is chairman of the Department of the New Testament at the Talbot School of Theology, Biola University. 1Creeds of the Churches, edited by John H. Leith (John Knox Press)
Used by permission of Discipleship Journal. Copyright © May/June 2006, Issue 147, The Navigators. Used by permission of NavPress. All rights reserved. www.navpress.com