The New Testament contribution to our understanding of the Person of Christ can (and has) filled volumes of works. It has been the source of rich and deep theological meditation for centuries. Here we can merely scratch the surface. In this brief blog post, we will look at the answers to two questions: Who does Jesus claim to be and who do His disciples say He is?
There is no question that Jesus understood himself to be the Messiah prophesied in the Old Testament. He uses the title "Christ" (which is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word "Messiah") of Himself (e.g. John 4:25–26; 17:3), and He accepts the use of that title by others to name Him (e.g. Matt. 16:16; John 11:25–27). That which the Old Testament promised, Jesus claimed to fulfill.
Although Jesus used the title "Christ" of Himself, His favorite self-designation was the title "Son of Man." This title occurs some 69 times in the Synoptic Gospels and 13 more times in the Gospel of John. Almost every time the title occurs, Jesus is using it in reference to Himself. "Son of Man" is itself a Messianic title, whose full meaning can only be appreciated by examining its background in Daniel 7, where it describes a figure who ascends to the Ancient of Days and is given dominion over all things. By referring to Himself as the "Son of Man," Jesus is saying, in effect, " I am the one of whom Daniel spoke."
Jesus not only understood Himself to be the promised Messiah, He also says and does things throughout the Gospels that make it clear He understood Himself to be God incarnate. In numerous places, Jesus makes claims that imply His eternal divine existence prior to His incarnation (e.g., John 3:13; 6:62; 8:42). His statement in Matthew 11:27 implies the mutual sovereignty He shares with the Father. Several of the well-known "I Am" sayings in the Gospel of John claim or imply deity (John 8:58; 13:19). His teaching and works also imply that He is God incarnate. He taught the law as only God can (Matt. 5:22, 28, 32, 34, 39, 44). He forgave sins (Matt. 9:6; Mark 2:10; Luke 5:24), an act only God can do. He hears and answers prayer (John 14:13–14) and receives worship and praise (Matt. 21:16). One simply cannot read the Gospels honestly without recognizing that Jesus understands Himself to be the Messiah, the Son of God incarnate.
Jesus understands Himself to be the divine Son of God and Messiah, but who do the disciples say He is? While it takes the disciples time to fully grasp who Jesus is, when they do recognize the truth, they do not hesitate to declare it boldly. Nathanael calls Jesus the Son of God and the King of Israel (John 1:49). Peter calls Him "Lord" (Luke 5:8) and the "Holy One of God" (John 6:69). Later, Peter declares Jesus to be "the Christ, the Son of the living God" (Matt. 16:16). Paul also proclaims that Jesus is the Christ (Acts 17:2–3) and Lord (1 Cor. 1:2–3) and confesses the deity of Christ (Col. 1:15–20; 2:9; Phil. 2:6–11). When we recall the basic confession of Old Testament Jews that the Lord is one, these statements about Jesus coming from the mouth of Jews are all the more striking.
Several passages in the New Testament explicitly refer to Jesus as God. The Gospel of John, for example, opens with a declaration of the deity of Christ:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it . . . But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. 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. (John 1:1–5, 12–14)
Here the Word, who is identified with Jesus (v. 14), is said to be "God" (v. 1). The exegetical contortions of Jehovah's Witnesses notwithstanding, this passage is unambiguous in its declaration of the deity of Christ.
The Apostle Paul also explicitly calls Jesus God in several places. In Romans 9:5, he writes: "To them [the Jews] belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever." Jesus Christ, he says, is God over all. In Titus 2:13, Paul speaks of the appearing of "the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ." The words "God" and "Savior" modify "Jesus Christ." That is, Jesus Christ is God and Savior. Peter, too, confesses that Jesus is God and Savior in the first verse of his second epistle. To think about the implications of these statements for even a moment is mind-boggling.
The Old Testament clearly declared that the Lord our God is one (Deut. 6:4). The New Testament continues to emphasize that God is one (Mark 12:29). Yet, at the same time, the New Testament also declares that Jesus is God. Is the New Testament contradicting the Old Testament? How were Christians to understand these claims? How could the Church confess that God is "one" and at the same time confess that Jesus Christ is God? It took the church several centuries to work through these issues and explain the teaching of the New Testament in a way that took into account all of the evidence. In our next post, we will begin to look at the teaching of the early church on the Person of Christ.
This article is part of the Introduction to Orthodox Christology collection.