A few years ago, I was in a used book store and got into a discussion with the owner. He told me he was a “Christian atheist”. He let me know that he didn’t believe in a God, but he thought Jesus was a really wise man and he followed the things he taught. In fact, he told me that he only read the words of Jesus. All the other stuff he didn’t pay attention to because Jesus didn’t say it. “And he never said he was God,” was the implication.
Unfortunately, our conversation didn’t get much further than that. We got off on some moral issue rabbit trail that ended up getting us side-tracked (I wasn’t using good Tactics). And, customers started coming in that he had to deal with.
All the way home, I kept replaying the conversation in my mind. On the one hand, he was right; the words “I am God” never appear in any of the quoted words of Jesus. But, Jesus clearly thought he was more than just a wise teacher. Right?
Red Letter Reasoning
If you’ve been a Christian for very long, you’ve no doubt come across Bibles that have the quotes from Jesus all in red. This is a practice that started in 1899. And, like the addition of chapters and verses hundreds of years before, it was meant to help people navigate to certain things quickly. The guy who started the practice though “man, Jesus’ words are really important! We should make those stand out”. The idea is well-intended. But, if someone is only a casual Bible reader (like the shop owner likely was), it causes a lot of problems. Like “these red letters must be the most important thing in the Bible. I only have a little time, so that’s all I will read. It’s Jesus’ words after all. That’s all I need to know”.
One major issue with this line of reasoning is that Jesus was more than just a teacher – a speaker of wisdom. He didn’t “speak” the miracles he performed. Those were actions he did. And they aren’t in red letters. Also, if the only words you are reading are the red words, you’re missing half of the conversation. Many of the things Jesus said were parts of conversations. Just picture sitting in a room while someone is on the phone. All you hear is one side of what’s being said. You don’t get to hear the party on the other end. But, if we read the entire section (including the non-red words), we can get the whole picture.
Finally, if we only read the red words, we don’t get to see the reactions of the people Jesus was speaking to. This is really important as we’ll see later. It wasn’t as if Jesus spouted off some lesson or wisdom and everyone around him immediately said “oohhhh! Now I get it! Jesus, you are so wise”. No, there were certainly reactions to what Jesus said. And you won’t understand what ultimately happened to him or why if you stay in the red letters.
With that said, the good news for this particular challenge is we don’t need to look any further than the words of Jesus to see if he claimed to be more than just a wise teacher. So, while just sticking to the red letters is a terrible Bible study tactic, it isn’t an issue for us right now.
21st Century Reading
As we previously discussed concerning the term “Lord”, our 21st Century reading of texts can get in the way of understanding what the authors originally meant with the words they chose. If we want to really get the meaning behind the words, we have to think of them in the way a 1st Century Jew or Greek/Roman citizen would have. The words and phrasings would be different than what we use now. This will be no different for people who read the things we have written if they come across them in 200 years. For example, if in the year 2221, someone reads “man, that concert was cool”, they will have to understand that “cool” means “really good” or “excellent” and has nothing to do with the actual temperature of the environment the concert was in (to make things even more confusing, now my son and his friends would say that the concert ‘was fire’ – which means the same thing as when we used to say ‘cool’). So, as we study the words Jesus said, keep in mind he was speaking to a mostly 1st Century Jewish audience and not a bunch of 21st Century English speakers.
“I’m Not From Around Here”
The first thing we will look at is where Jesus said he was from. Jesus discusses this on a few different occasions. One such place is in a confrontation with the Jewish religious leaders.
23 He said to them, “You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world. 24 I told you that you would die in your sins, for unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins.”English Standard Version. (2016). (John 8:23–24)
This is kind of a strange response for someone who thinks of himself as just a man. “From above”?
Jesus makes a similar declaration when he is being questioned by Pilate.
36 Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” 37 Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.”English Standard Version. (2016). (John 18:36–37)
In this passage, Jesus tells Pilate that he is a king. But, his kingdom isn’t local. It isn’t even in a distant land. Actually, it isn’t even in this world. Clearly, Jesus didn’t think of himself as being from around here. And by “here” I don’t mean Jerusalem. Or Judea. Or Earth, even. He saw himself as being from a whole different realm.
Jesus Thought Pretty Highly Of Himself
Jesus had a lot to say about where he fell in the Grand Scheme of things. too.
8 “And I tell you, everyone who acknowledges me before men, the Son of Man also will acknowledge before the angels of God, 9 but the one who denies me before men will be denied before the angels of God.English Standard Version. (2016). (Luke 12:8–9).
In this passage, Jesus is telling his disciples that if they tell the world about him, when judgement day comes, they don’t have anything to worry about. He’s got their back. He will make the case for them before God. I mean, can you imagine? As a human being, having the confidence to stand before God and plead a case for others?
Similarly, in John 14:6, Jesus says
6 Jesus said to him [Thomas], “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.English Standard Version. (2016). (John 14:6).
This passage has become somewhat controversial in our modern age because of the increase in pluralistic thought; that all ideas are equally valid and there are many ways to get to God. But, Jesus didn’t appear to think so. He told his followers there is only one way to God and he is it.
In the next few verses the claims get stronger.
7 If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”English Standard Version. (2016). (John 14:7–9).
8 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’?
In verse 7, Jesus tells the disciples “look, if you guys had been paying attention to who I am, you would know God. You’d know who he is, how he thinks, how he feels, and what he wants.”
They still didn’t get it. Philip asks Jesus to show them the Father. And Jesus says “you’re looking at Him.”
Further on in the passage, Jesus shows again how he and the Father are the same being.
23 Jesus answered him, “If anyone 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. (emphasis mine)English Standard Version. (2016). (John 14:23).
Notice the words Jesus uses here. “We” and “our” imply more than one. Or, unity of some kind. He doesn’t say “the father is coming back to you”. He says “we” are coming back.
We Are One
OK, maybe saying you are imitating God doesn’t mean you are God. Maybe Jesus just meant he was living out God’s commandments as best someone could. I could say that I live out every lesson my Dad taught me. And, if you want to know what my Dad was like, you could just observe how I do things and what I say. That still doesn’t make me my Dad.
If that were the only way Jesus told us who he was, then you might have a case. A very shaky one, but one none the less. But, that wasn’t the only way he declared his deity. To se, it, though, you have to read and listen like a 1st Century Jew and not like a 21st Century English speaker. Here’s what I mean.
In one encounter with the Jews, they ask him straight out “look, Jesus, if you are the Messiah, then just say it”. Here is Jesus response:
25 Jesus answered them, “I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me, 26 but you do not believe because you are not among my sheep. 27 My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. 29 My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. 30 I and the Father are one.” (emphasis mine)English Standard Version. (2016). (John 10:25–30)
In verse 30, Jesus tells the Jews who have surrounded him that he and God are the same person. We as 21st Century readers may not see the true weight of that statement, but the good news is we can see how the 1st Century Jews took it. When he said that, they tried to stone him (John 10:31). Why? For blasphemy. For making himself God (John 10:33)
Another way Jesus expressed to others his identity was in saying where his instructions were coming from. When the Old Testament prophets would speak on behalf of God, they would use words like “thus sayeth the Lord” or “this is what the Lord Almighty says”. The teachers of the day would say “so it is written”. These phrases identify to the listener where the source of the knowledge comes from that the prophet or teacher are sharing. God.
Now, let’s look at how Jesus taught. If you read through what is known as the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7, you will see Jesus teaching the Jews and taking the laws of Moses to a different level. And each time he expands on one of the 10 commandments, he starts of with “you have heard it said but truly, I say to you”. Here are some examples.
21 “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. (emphasis mine)English Standard Version. (2016). (Matthew 5:21–22)
27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (emphasis mine)English Standard Version. (2016). (Matthew 5:27–28)
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,English Standard Version. (2016). (Mt 5:43–44)
You get the idea. These three chapters have Jesus using this wording 11 times. He uses it in lots of other places, too. This just happens to be one of the highest concentrations of him proclaiming his authority.
Speaking of authority. For us, Jesus using this phrase may not seem like a big deal. But, Matthew documents the Jewish crowds reaction to Jesus teaching this way. In Matthew 7:28-29 Matthew tells us that the audience looked on in astonishment because he was teaching them as someone who has authority. And not just someone who has a lot of knowledge about a given topic. He had knowledge that was unlike the scribes and teachers of the day. When he would say “truly, I say to you”, Jesus wasn’t speaking on behalf of God. Jesus was speaking as God.
“I Am Who I Am”
So far, we’ve highlighted the areas where Jesus spoke of himself… differently. And, while my bookstore owner friend may not have seen it (I know I didn’t when I was a young Christian, either), Jesus actually does call himself God. And he does it in a way that is so direct, it almost causes a riot, causes him to be arrested, tried and ultimately executed.
In John 8, Jesus gets into a heated discussion with the Pharisees (the Jewish religious leaders) and they start talking about Abraham. Towards the end of the conversation, there is this exchange:
56 Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.” 57 So the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” 58 Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” (emphasis mine)English Standard Version. (2016). (John 8:56–58)
Those two words (I am) have a very special meaning to Jews. “I am” is the name God uses for himself when talking to Moses in the burning bush 1500 years or so earlier (Exodus 3:14). When Jesus said this, he was claiming to be the eternal, all-powerful creator of the universe. Yahweh. In other words, he told the Pharisees that he was God.
We may not get it, but the people listening to Jesus certainly did. We can tell by what happened next. Right after he told them who he was, they tried to stone him (John 8:59). Being a false teacher was one thing. But, calling yourself God was a capital offense
Who Did Jesus Think That He Was?
When questions come up about what Jesus said (or didn’t say), the good news is we have well preserved eyewitness testimony that we can review. After looking at the things Jesus said, it’s clear that he was trying to convince people that he was God. And, he did, in fact, call himself God.
After looking at what Jesus said, we can walk away with one of three stances on who he was. Some of the things Jesus said were pretty outlandish. If Jesus believed these things, but wasn’t these things, then he was a crazy man – like someone who says he is Napoleon reincarnated as a giraffe. If he said these things, but didn’t believe them, then he was a con man – lying to people and trying to get them to follow him for some nefarious reason. If Jesus was crazy or a con man, then he certainly shouldn’t be thought of as a great moral teacher. Many people want to think of him as only that and nothing more. But, would you follow someone who was so detached from reality? Or someone who was a liar?
The third option is one that can be hard for us to accept. For a variety of reasons. But, if you are being honest with yourself, you have to consider it. Maybe Jesus was telling the truth. He really was the Son of God. And, if this is the case, he needs to be thought of on a whole different level than just a “really wise man”.
In his book, Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis sums it up this way:
You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. … Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God.