This is Part I of another N part series in which N > 1 and probably N < 5
Two weeks or so ago, I got a text from my sister. A Jehovah’s Witness was at the door. What was she to do? What was she to say? Knowing that, on the doctrine of Christ, she diverges markedly from standard Kingdom Hall dogma, how is the conversation to advance, especially when our visitor asks for a verse from the Gospels of Jesus saying that He, Himself, is the God of Israel? Despite the shot of special pleading here, how is the Christian host still to kick the ball through ever-moving goalposts in order to prove that Jesus of Nazareth is, in fact, both God and man, not just an ethereal (g)od with a drop of deity in his human coffee, but very God from very God, Light from Light, and begotten not made?
I’ve thought a fair amount about this question over the last several days. I don’t know how useful it would’ve been (or would be) to slog through the Greek text of the New Testament with someone who, chances are, doesn’t understand the way Greek syntax works (a group to which I certainly belong, as well). Also, something that makes thinking about Jesus as God not the most straightforward enterprise for the post-Enlightenment mind is the nature of Scripture’s own voice on the subject. If you pore through all 66 books of the Bible, and especially those 27 in the New Testament, you’ll never quite find what you’re looking for if you’re looking for Jesus to recite the Nicene Creed to someone in reference to Himself. In fact, even if that statement was lurking somewhere in the annals of 3 John, out would come the special pleading again, lest we blink to find the goalposts on the other side of the field.
I think that maybe what’s most helpful in thinking about Jesus’ identity as both God and man is looking carefully at what Jesus does, and less at what Jesus says (though what Jesus says certainly alerts readers of the New Testament to His identity of the God-man). First, it’s worth noting that Jesus Himself inaugurates the Kingdom of God. In both Mt. 4:23 and 9:35, He walks around Galilee pronouncing that He, a Nazarene Carpenter, has brought God’s Kingdom to bear on the Earth. Now, up to this point in biblical history, we’ve seen many healers and wonder workers, but none who have claimed to bring God’s Kingdom to Earth. Jesus is in a different class than these earlier prophets. As the one who has authority to inaugurate God’s Kingdom on Earth, He is also the One who is able to speak of God on His own authority (Mt. 7:29) and is able to send the disciples out into the world on that same authority (Mt. 28). Thus, at the very least we see a Jesus who is not simply quantitatively better than Moses, Elijah, and Elisha, but rather he is qualitatively better. Jesus occupies a strata of biblical history all by Himself.
What’s more, when Jesus notes that He’s come to fulfill the Law (Mt. 5:17-20), He’s effectively saying that He is the One to which the entire Old Testament points. This is especially noteworthy because of the role the Law plays in the Old Testament. Suffice it to say that Joey from Bethlehem couldn’t simply call into the first-century equivalent of the Paul Finebaum Show handling the Law just however he wanted to. The Law must be handled with care, which makes Jesus’ statements that much more striking. Stephen Wellum says this about the significance of Jesus’ remarks about the Law: “Jesus understood himself to be the eschatological goal of the entire Old Testament and the sole authoritative interpreter of its teaching. In other words, Jesus self-identified as a man who shared authority with God, the author of the Law under his covenant with Israel.” Now, Wellum is an orthodox Christian, so let’s not miss what he’s saying here. Even though Jesus self identifies as a “man,” in Wellum’s words, He also identifies as God. For how else could he have God’s authority in and of Himself? How else could he say with any legitimacy, “I say to you…” instead of “Thus saith the Lord…”? For Jesus, those two things are exactly the same. When Jesus says, “I say to you…” it is in fact the God of Israel Himself saying to the people that which is being said.
In the coming weeks, we’ll look at some more of Jesus’ actions, and think about what they say about His own self-identification.