Who Does Jesus Think He Is?
We started with natural revelation, looking at cosmological arguments, design arguments, and moral arguments for the existence of God. We have established that God (a powerful, intelligent, spiritual person who is not bound by time and space) exists and probably has some sort of goal, even though we may not have a clue what it is. We’ve also looked at the Bible and made the argument that it is historically reliable. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s the revealed word of God, but it at least could be. For now, all we need to agree on is that in terms of historical events, it is an accurate rendering of what happened. For our purposes now, the historical events we will be focusing on are the words and actions of Jesus. Did Jesus say the things the Bible says He said and did Jesus do the things the Bible says He did?
Why Should We Believe the Bible Got It Right?
There are three reasons to think that we can trust the Bible in terms of being historically reliable about the events surrounding Jesus. First, the picture that is presented about Jesus is internally cohesive. We don’t see Jesus saying and doing things that are inconsistent within the given context. Jesus regularly hurls judgment on the Pharisees for not acting right in light of what they know and offering mercy to those that know they come up short. We don’t see him picking on the oppressed or seeking the approval of the authorities. When offered authority, He regularly refused to grasp it rather than pursue it. It could be argued that the authors only included the elements that fit their purposes, but that leads to the second point. Second, we ought to give the texts the benefit of the doubt unless we have a compelling reason not to. Why might someone think that the Gospels are historically inaccurate? Typically, they do so out of ignorance. However, the other reason is because they don’t accept miracles as real events. We’ll cover that later on, but ignorance and naturalism aren’t legitimate reasons to assume something is not historical. Those are philosophical assumptions rather than historical conclusions. Third, there are elements within the Gospels that, if they aren’t historically accurate, would have been left out because they damage the credibility of the authors and the early church. Admitting that Jesus didn’t know when He would return (Mark 13:32) makes it seem like He would be less than God since God knows everything. Jesus’ problem performing miracles in some circumstances (Matthew 13:58) suggests that God can’t do anything God wants. If the apostles squabbled over position (Mark 9:34), were clueless about teaching (Mark 9:32), and cowardly (Mark 14:31), what would make anyone think they don’t have those same shortcomings later? The huge failures of church leaders, Jesus’ disciples, could give others good reason to question their authority. The presence of miracles and embarrassing material is no reason to reject the historical events of the Gospels. Rather, we should give a text the benefit of the doubt unless we have a good reason not to.
Jesus saw Himself as unique
That’s a long prelude to this: What is it about Jesus that makes Him so special? After all, Christianity is based upon Jesus as its central figure, and from what the Bible says about Him, He doesn’t seem to be like any mere teacher. In a fictional conversation between C.S. Lewis and John F. Kennedy (thank you, Peter Kreeft), it was pointed out that humanity can be divided among a couple categories: those that have claimed to be God and those that show wisdom (Kreeft used the term sagacious, but I think you’ll get the point with the term wisdom).
Simply put, Jesus is conspicuous in that if He claimed to be God and displayed amazing wisdom, He’s the only person that falls into the DIVINE/WISE box. Go ahead and check – no other religious leader claims to be divine in the way we have described God so far and shown such wisdom. That doesn’t mean that Jesus was God, but it does make His claims unique.
Jesus claimed unique authority
Jesus spoke with a unique authority. By unique, I mean above and beyond that of any established authorities (like the government or the priesthood). In Israel, that would be God. For example, it was typical for rabbis to comment on Judaic law. Considering that they believed they were communicating the truth of God’s word, they took this very seriously and weren’t about to speak too presumptuously, as if their own words carried the same weight as the revealed oracles of Yahweh. Instead, they carefully thought things through and referenced those they respected, highlighting the strengths and weaknesses of each side of any given topic and ultimately weighing in on it, citing the Old Testament law and prophets to make their case. That was the standard teaching model. Jesus, on the other hand, would present the common understanding of a topic and then simply weigh in on His own. “You have heard that it was said . . . but I say to you,” is uttered by Jesus six times in Matthew 5. In Matthew 6 and 7, Jesus simply tells everyone how they should pray, fast, and live without referencing anyone or anything else as a supporting authority. Jesus says that anyone who does what He tells them is “sensible”, and the consensus was that Jesus was “teaching them like one who had authority, and not like one of their scribes,” (Matthew 7:29).
Jesus’ authority even extended to the Sabbath. Following the Babylonian exile, the Israelite leadership outlined what was involved in keeping the Sabbath holy with a specificity that would make a lawyer proud. There was no question as to what needed to be done to keep the Sabbath holy, it was a question of specifics. Jesus, however, pretty much ignored everything they had to say on the matter. If you’re hungry, do what you need to feed yourself (Matthew 12:4-5). Rules aren’t as important as attitude (Matthew 12:6-7). While working on the Sabbath is discouraged, showing mercy is more important, even if you have to work (Luke 6:6-10; 13:10-17). Of course, when Jesus is in the synagogue and performs a miracle on the Sabbath, it implies that God approves of what He’s doing. Claiming to be the Lord of the Sabbath, of course, would definitely be claiming authority that in Israelite culture is reserved for God alone (Matthew 12:8).
Authority over something like doctrine and practices might be man-made, Jesus’ authority extended beyond human conventions. He was recognized by many as an effective exorcist. That means Jesus had authority over the demon-possessed. Numerous times throughout the Gospels Jesus is portrayed as commanding demons (Matthew 8:28-32, 9:32-33, 10:8, 12:22-28; Mark 1:34, 39, 3:14-15, 6:7 13; John 7:21-24, 9:16). Even if we grant that Jesus was merely able to alleviate the conditions that cause possession behavior, the fact was he had developed a reputation to the point that his detractors didn’t deny his ability, only its source (Matthew 12:24). When it comes to the point where Jesus’ enemies are conceding the point that he’s casting out demons, it seems safe to say that the effects are conclusive, even if we disagree about how Jesus did it.
Jesus claimed unique power
Jesus also said some things that were very weird unless He was in a privileged position. When Jesus would say, “I forgive you,” that seems pretty weird if He was just another teacher. Who has the authority to forgive someone? If a man kills someone, there are two people who could forgive him, either the family of the victim or the government. The family can forgive because they are the most wronged and the government can forgive because it was the government’s law that was violated. The forgiveness of anyone else to the perpetrator is absolutely irrelevant. But when Jesus comes along and forgives someone for ALL their sins, He acts as the primary person offended, the person whose laws were violated. In 1st century Israel, that would be God. The Israelites were very attentive to this and caught what He was implying (Matthew 9:1-8; Mark 2:1-12; Luke 5:17-26, 7:47-49). If Jesus wasn’t trying to imply this authority, He could have cleared things up. Instead, He verified this was exactly what He was saying (Matthew 9:6; Mark 2:10; Luke 5:24). This wasn’t Jesus misspeaking or the audience misunderstanding. This was Jesus making a statement about who He is. If Jesus had the authority to forgive, that implies He had the authority to judge. Jesus made Himself out to be the authority which would judge all men at the end of time (John 5:22-30; 12:48; 17:2). Considering the authority Jesus had already demonstrated by casting out demons and curing those whose sins He had forgiven, His claim to judge by divine right wasn’t taken lightly.
However, Jesus clearly made Himself out to be something other than merely human. He claimed to be the difference between salvation and condemnation (Luke 10:16; John 3:18, 36, 8:24, 14:6, 16:8-11). He considered Himself to be the difference between life and death (John 3:14-16, 36, 6:40, 51-54, 8:51). He claimed to be in a unique relationship with God (Matthew 11:27; Luke 10:22, 12:8-9, 20:9-19; John 8:54-55, 10:30-39, 12:48-50, 14:6-7, 15:22-24). Jesus even accepted sincere worship from others (Matthew 14:33; John 9:38), something that simply is not portrayed in the bible as appropriate for anyone but God.
What explains Jesus’ uniqueness?
However, all these claims on the part of Jesus could be explained away in some sense. Let’s face it, even if there are good cultural and psychological reasons why people don’t normally say the things Jesus said, there’s no naturalistic or logical reason why they couldn’t. However, when you add in the context, the fact that Jesus knew things He shouldn’t have known, that He could do things that human beings cannot do, His claims take on additional weight. Healing a paralytic to demonstrate that Jesus had forgiven his sins is extraordinary. Healing a man born blind on the Sabbath was unheard of. Healing a leper by touching him was something that only Jesus did. Raising the dead was not claimed nearly as often as many think until Jesus showed up and started doing it. Defying chemistry and physics by changing water into wine, walking on water, and stopping storms is not the sort of thing that people argue about when they see it happen. But predicting one’s own death and resurrection takes chutzpah. When you’ve said the things Jesus said and done the things Jesus did, it’s the next big step. If Jesus never rose from the dead, then we could write off everything He had said and done as really extraordinary, maybe supernatural, but He wasn’t who He claimed to be. But if Jesus claimed to be God, then predicting His own resurrection makes everything about Him ride on one critical event. Did Jesus rise from the dead?