The claim that Christianity provides the way back to God and is the way to overcome the evil and suffering in this world is really contingent on the idea that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, the God who has come in the flesh to bring us back to God. Therefore, a key question to ask is if Jesus is really God, which is the fifth question in the Explore God sermon series.
Objections to the Idea of Jesus Being God
In my experience, it is tough to find a person who does not like and respect the person of Jesus of Nazareth. In fact, many will claim Jesus supports their views or ideas. While people like Jesus and think he was a good teacher and example, many do not think that he is divine.
For a number of years, there were scholars who claimed the idea of Jesus being God was a development in Christianity when it spread into the Gentile (non-Jewish) world, and just as there were many gods at the time, so the Gentiles started to worship Jesus as God. This then led to the elevation of Jesus from a prophet to being seen as divine, with some even saying that this belief was not made official until after the Council of Nicaea and the production of the Nicene Creed. In some ways, these scholars were trying to give a foundation to those who might have liked elements of Jesus’s teaching, but not the claims of the church about who he is.
Recent Developments Show the Early Church Believed Jesus Was God
A number of recent scholars (such as Larry Hurtado and Richard Bauckham) have pointed out that this narrative concerning the origin of the belief that Jesus is God is incorrect. They have shown the belief that Jesus was God in the flesh was deeply rooted in the early church. One thing to remember when you are reading the New Testament is that “Lord” is the title given to God in the Old Testament. Therefore, when people in the New Testament say Jesus is Lord, it is identifying him as “master” (another meaning of the term), but even more than that, as God. This is seen in particular passages like Romans 10:9, Philippians 2:11, and 1 Corinthians 12:3. Most scholars believe the letters of Paul are some of the earliest documents of the church, and some of these passages describing Jesus feature the Apostle Paul drawing upon common sayings in the church that were used in worship, proving that early Christians were worshipping Jesus as God. Paul makes these sorts of claims about Jesus in places like Colossians 1:15, Colossians 2:9, and 1 Timothy 3:16, and in 1 Peter 3:15, Peter says to revere Christ as Lord. Therefore, this belief was established early on — Christians were worshipping Jesus as divine after he rose from the dead.
The Shocking Belief that Jesus Is God
Something that should also be noted in discussions of the early church worshipping Jesus as God is that most of the early church came from a Jewish background. This is important because Judaism is a deeply monotheistic belief system.This belief system is reflected in what is known as the Great Shema, a passage recited by Jews that in many ways contains the essence of Jewish thought: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4). Jews would not tolerate worship of anyone or anything other than God.
There is an interesting connection between 1 Corinthians 8:6 and Deuteronomy 6:4 with Jesus being brought into the conversation about there being one God. Early Christians maintained that there is one God and worshipped Jesus as God, seeing Jesus as distinct but equal to the Father. This belief and practice is what leads to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity — one God in three persons (see Matthew 28:19 and 2 Corinthians 13:14 for the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit being brought together and discussed in unity). Early Christians were struggling with how to make sense of the fact there is one God in three persons, but this was because they had a firm belief they should be worshipping Jesus. People of a Jewish background worshipping Jesus as God would be a shocking development. Something had to rock the world of these Jews that led them to worship Jesus.
Why Believe Jesus Was God?
The reason Christians believe that Jesus is God is because of what he taught and how he acted. He did things that only God had the power and prerogative to do, such as forgive sins (Mark 2:1-12). He showed control over nature, demons, diseases, and death. He spoke of himself as divine, as noted in John 5:17-18: “But Jesus answered them, My Father is working until now, and I am working. This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.”
It seems that Jesus’s opponents understood what his intentions were with his actions; at times, his followers seemed a bit slower to understand this, with the resurrection being the event that really caused them to understand who Jesus was. People interpreted these activities as claims of divinity, and Jesus did nothing to correct them. In fact, when the Apostle Thomas says, “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28), Jesus does not tell him to get away like the angels do when people try to worship them; instead, he embraces this statement and then speaks of others being blessed for believing it without seeing him (John 20:29). Jesus’s early followers thought he was divine. Even a couple of his siblings – James and Jude – become leaders in the early church, and they proclaim his divinity.
C.S. Lewis noted that when you see what Jesus says and does, one either has to conclude that he is indeed the Lord (the Son of God), or a liar (thus a deceiver and manipulator), or a lunatic on par with someone who thinks he is a poached egg (love that example!). It is interesting that so many people like Jesus and what he teaches, but if you like his teachings about life, you also need to like his teachings about himself, that he is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. In the first centuries of the church, it seemed like people understood these options – people did not like Jesus but saw him as a dangerous deceiver — the same spirit that led to his crucifixion led to opposition to the early church.
Of course, one could still argue that the New Testament gospels do not faithfully record the teachings and actions of Jesus, and thus these claims are legendary. That leads to the question we will explore next in Explore God and on the blog – Is the Bible Reliable?
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