Evidence for the deity of Christ
by Ian Robinson
Bible Readings: Acts 8:14-17. Luke 3:15-22
It is very cloudy outside this morning. The colours are muted, the blue sky is gone, and the sun is so covered that it may even be harder to know which direction is which. By the end of the morning, the sky should be clear and bright, and you will need to put on your sunglasses. Many global religions offer some light about God, but , with respect, this talk claims to offer the bright and clear skies that come from a clear grasp of the deity of Jesus Christ.
We came here today because Jesus teaches us how to live life in all its fullness. Hallelujah, we sing. The promise is huge and the demands are commands are difficult. Why follow Jesus? He says “He who has seen me has seen the Father”. To see Jesus is to see God.
We came here today because Jesus teaches us how to love, both love in divine dimensions and love in human dimensions. Wonderful, we say. He says his brand of love is the greatest thing in all the world, and when we wonder if we sometimes wonder if this is a wise investment, we overhear his prayer in John’s gospel: ”I pray for them, Father, that the love you have for me since the beginning will be in them. I in them and you in them. “ Yes, to love God is to love his Son.
Not just us, Christians gather the world over today because we believe that it is Jesus who saves us in all eternity and sends us into this world to enact the very Kingdom of God. When he started his public ministry, he said of that moment: “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is now at hand”.
With so much riding on it – our life, our love, our promise and purpose, the power to address whatever stops us from fulfilling them – no wonder that the church has debated in every generation what it means for this Jesus to be both human and divine. The Incarnation – it means ‘God took flesh’, not about the carnation flower, not about how a nation gets about in cars. It is not enough to say the usual ‘proof’: ‘ the miracles show Jesus is divine’ because in practise this falls way short of being convincing. Last week, someone asked me to preach on this because it is a live question still. If you want to know what you believe, this talk is basic.
It is not a question with a merely intellectual answer. There are those who are suspicious of church and creed, to the point where no reasonable explanation ever satisfies. There are those who claim, before examination, that all the evidence is a forgery, that the church has manipulated its own message to become more powerful, that the resurrection proves nothing, that miracles are magic tricks, that Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem is a fiction and that the New Testament was a slowly evolving set of bigger and bigger fabrications. Some of you may believe this. Among them are those who say that only things that are scientifically proveable are true, the only facts are material facts, and all else is just nonsense. They are called Positivists (a school of thought made famous by AJ Ayer in mid twentieth century) and the recent rush of atheistic writings are a reprise of this philosophy(even though AJ Ayer later moved away from this idea). It is all a case of “I have my theory do not disturb me with unwanted facts.”
On the other hand, perhaps you might like to know where the idea comes from and what is based upon.
The deity of Christ is the most logical, coherent and congruent explanation for a vast array of evidence, no matter how incomplete our understanding of how it works. So let us look briefly, to respect your attention span, from different points of view including twenty lines of enquiry.
The first point of view is the Observer of Jesus’ words and deeds. They would have heard those sublime teachings that floored people in their tracks, those crowds that gathered wherever they could to hear of life, love, human purpose and the fundamental sin-problem. What’s going on here? Why is it that his words stirred them so deeply, still reach so widely, still challenge so thoroughly, uproot hypocrisy so forcefully, and still people come from far away and stay too long and even his enemies said: “no one ever spoke like this man?”
But more, among his teachings are his foundational claims, of which I have said one or two already. Who would trust a man who said “before Abraham was, I am”, which was the most sacred name of God for Jews, and ‘I am the light of the world. I am the bread of life’, and so on. They tried to stone him for such utter blasphemies. They heard what he was saying.
There are some who deny these claims because Jesus also spoke with habitual humility, preferring to call himself ‘Son of Man’. But what’s the big deal about that title – everyone was a son or daughter of man – unless there was a sting in the tale, a biblical reference from the book of Daniel on the one who comes from God to judge the empires. Yes, Jesus spoke about himself as the Judge of all the world in this and many other ways. And also as Saviour! and as Messiah! And this Galilean from an obscure village looked across the whole world as his patch, setting up an organism (more than an organisation) which was the seed for a global movement with instructions to “go into all the world”. He was sure right about that!
So, here is a man who claims to be Global Judge Messiah Son of God, the pre-eminent and pre-existent ‘I am’. Why would a Jew in a Galilean paddock listen to these five ridiculously grandiose, even arrogant claims? How could you trust such a looney?
Just a minute. I am saying that it is quite sensible if you unsure that these claims are about deity. Then as now. So let us look at six more kinds of evidence which do not rely so heavily on textual quotes but reflect historic mainstream issues in Jewish culture of the time. This is evidence that is more widely arguable. These will establish the amazing conclusion that Jesus claimed and was regarded as divine by a fiercely monotheistic bunch.
Firstly, Jews believed for centuries that God physically inhabited the Temple at Jerusalem. Jesus said about his own self: Destroy this temple in three days and I will raise it up again.” In historic terms, that is a clear god-claim. Jesus is the man God inhabits.
Secondly, it is clear that many considered Jesus to be a spirit–filled prophet very much in the ancient tradition of Israel’s prophets, but even more, they got caught in the unfolding way that his life fulfilled hundreds of particular prophecies about God’s action to restore Israel. Jesus is the focal point of redemption-history.
Thirdly, he defines Israel. At all the definitive Jewish Festivals which he attended, which all faithful Jews had to attend annually , Jesus pointed to himself as the fulfiller of that definitive event: at Passover (Christian Easter)he is the Lamb of God, at the Feast of Hannukah has said:’ I give eternal life. I an dt Father are one.’ At the Feast of Tabernacles he is the one who gives water to ‘anyone who thirsts’. His new Israel (the church) has twelve new leaders, his twelve disciples. Unmistakeable at the time, only missed by our over-familiarity. Further, Jesus models complete obedience in the desert that his people did not manage, and his name is Joshua, like the leader of those who have learned in the desert and therefore enter the Promised Land. Jesus represents the pillars of Israel.
Fourthly, immediately after the Resurrection on the Sunday, his followers change Sabbaths. Instead of Saturday observance being the hallmark of the faithful , which was a statement about the rest day on the seventh day of Creation, the followers of Jesus begin to worship on a Sunday, the first day of the week, and the first day of new creation. There can’t be higher claim for the change of practice but that Jesus inaugurated something as significant as the first Creation. Jesus is a new Creator.
Fifth and Sixth are similar. Historically the Jews of Jesus time found their identity in God in two elements of their history. One was the gift of Torah, the Law of Moses. Yet Jesus said : “You have heard that Moses said… but I say unto you”. The Jewish feast of Weeks, (Christian Pentecost) was the feast remembering the day God gave his people the Torah. Pentecost , the birthday of the worldwide church, is therefore a Spirit-born new Torah. Matthew even organises his gospel narrative to replicate the five-fold structure of the Torah. Jesus gives a new Torah.
The other foundation was that they were people of the Covenant – the Covenant with Noah, with Abraham, with Moses, with David, and the many covenant renewal ceremonies that (we note )were held at the feasts of Tabernacles throughout the centuries. Yet Jesus says: “this is my blood of the new covenant”. We know that Christians are immediately found to be enacting a “blood meal” to the ridicule of their neighbours, who mistakenly call them “cannibals”. Jesus gives a new Covenant.
These six evidences from the pillars of Jewish history all identify the role of deity with Jesus. He personifies Israel, Torah, Covenant, Prophecy, Sabbath and Temple. It is not possible in his time to conceive of a more complete identification of a person with Israel’s God. His actions and words claimed deity in ten different ways. Why did they actually adopt these unique and unsurpassed claims?
We can look even more widely. These are not just Jewish arguments which are optional for Gentiles. In the wider context of the Greco-Roman world there are further evidences that Jesus was regarded as divine from the very beginning and by all believers. I can find five such evidences.
First the Christians proclaimed Jesus as Lord. This enquiry by itself would be incredibly revealing. In Roman times, as many commentators have observed, it was compulsory to worship Caesar as Lord. Christians say that Jesus reigns over a different yet present Kingdom. He is the historic Lord, ruling in the present, and many were thrown to the lions for saying “Jesus is Lord”. He is a personal Lord – in their own lives to be worshipped and obeyed. And He is the Lord of the Cosmos, the Creator about whom Paul says in one of our pre-gospel texts: “Colossians 1.15-20: all things were made through him and for him”. In Ephesus, the quintessential Greco-Roman colony, John says (1 Jn 2.20-25): ‘That which we have seen, heard..touched..this we proclaim’. These simple confessions, even by themselves, made under personal physical risk that we find hard to imagine, claim for Jesus an authority beyond land and empire.
But there is still more.
Secondly, Greco Roman culture was dominated by the worship of many idols and there were many schools of philosophy and kabala exploring what they called ‘the mysteries’. In Ephesians Paul uses that same expression about Jesus: ‘the mystery now revealed’. In Acts 17 at Athens , Paul claimed that the unknown gods (fulfilling every cultural tradition) was now revealed, namely, it says, ‘Jesus and the Resurrection’. No wonder his Messianic title quickly became the Greek word for fulfilment, ‘Christ’. That was not a name – Jesus was the fulfilment of the Greco Roman mysteries.
Thirdly, Greek philosophy valued Wisdom highly. John’s gospel calls Jesus by the widely accepted and broad concept of the Logos, usually translated the Word (Jn 1.1), which was the organising principle of the universe.
Fourthly, some of the Roman Caesars were regarded as being born of a virgin. I don’t think any one actually believed it. What did they mean? A bigger study is currently being undertaken by Prof Bill Loader, but an illustration may help us. The “Vestal Virgins” were not virgins like nuns in service of the Temple of the Goddess Vesta. They were temple prostitutes, whose gave service to ‘worshippers’. Here is a publically acknowledged ‘virgin’ a form of double-talk which you are not supposed to talk about as though it is real. Jesus’ virgin birth was not in any point like a sanctioned temple ritual. Some scholars maintain that the virgin birth of Jesus was a later historical development designed to bolster the church’s claims that Jesus had equal status with the Caesar. Then as now, quite simply, there was nothing to gain from manufacturing such a story. It is inherently difficult, and if there was to be a bolstering process in later writings, the story should have been omitted. Instead, Mary is interviewed by Luke. Joseph is interviewed by Matthew. No, though it is awkward, God wanted to say directly and honestly that this humble Jesus man really is equal with the pretentious Caesar. Jesus Christ born of a virgin plus God.
Fifthly, Greco Roman civilisation was about city-states, not national boundaries like today. And while King Herod made a name for himself as the builder of several classical cities all over the area of present day Israel Palestine, including making Jerusalem the largest Temple in the Roman Empire, and Caesarea its largest man-made port. The city-state was big news in Jesus area. Jesus predicted in a more or less generic fashion that Jerusalem will fall, not one stone left on another. As already stated he named himself as the Temple that lasts. He and not Herod had a kingdom that lasts, a claim that was considered dangerous enough that it was this charge for which he was crucified. John also records that they await a ‘new Jerusalem’ of which Jesus is the King. Jesus represents a new civilisation.
In short, in the Greco Roman world, which stretched at the time from Spain to Persia, the evidence of the broader historical context is that Jesus as a person started a new society, was equal to the caesars in the political system, fulfilled the beliefs in the mysteries and the underlying philosophy in the schools. (The only other institution with which Jesus is NOT compared is the military.) How much more pervasive and persuasive can one person become ? The language is all about ultimate key concepts and institutions in every direction. The life and love that he taught was based on his authority as God. The movement that he started arose from the desert at a unique time for a unique redemption.
So far, to understand the nature of Jesus’ deity in Christianity, going back to the very beginning, we have five kinds of claim by Jesus , six kinds of further evidence from Jewish culture and five from even wider Greco Roman civilisation.
Notice there are four more evidences that I have not yet mentioned.The usual suspects.These are the very things that are usually mentioned in this question, when seeking to prove that Jesus is divine –
1. The many miracles of Jesus over physical mental and spiritual illnesses, control over nature like the calming of a storm, walking in water and multiplying the food
2. The Resurrection of Jesus,
3. The Transfiguration of Jesus on the high mountain in th eoresence of three disciples and two heavenly beings, and
4. His baptism in the River Jordan where he is visited by Father and Holy Spirit.
Precisely because they are most spoken about, I am not going in to these today. I assume you know these events, so let me just say this about them.
1.Something must have happened. Something must have happened to provide sufficient reinforcement of the truth of Jesus’ grandiose claims. These were people who lived with him, not distant recipients of public media. Fierce monotheists do not easily subscribe to a man being divine, especially when you know when he goes to the toilet. So they say: 1 Jn 1.1-4.
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We write this to make our joy complete.
2. This Something had to be BOTH comprehensively right there in front of them AND YET so cosmic in its significance that that the early Christians would successfully undo the entire culture around them, as I have detailed above.
3. Something was compellingly convincing, could not be denied, yet not fully grasped intellectually. We know from all our sources that they found it hard to grasp, and they spent four hundred years coming to terms with this intellectually.
4. We know they held on to these convictions when they met even brutal opposition and softer denial from those whose interests were confronted. Even so, we know that some of them, like Judas, succumbed to the world’s agenda. But the ongoing group had seen God’s power at work in particular ways in concert with the words and deeds of Jesus. There is some act of volition, of choosing to see this, to trust what we can intuitively recognise.
I call this point of view God’s point of view. My conclusion must only be that Godself had come and confirmed the words and works of Jesus. And what is more, the followers had received this same Spirit-power on the day of Pentecost and saw it spread throughout the known world. Still they struggled to understand it mentally, as you can see in the New Testament with the variety of ways they had of expressing this. It was not a struggle with the apparent divinity or the apparent humanity of Jesus, but how exactly they fitted together. Mostly their struggle was with how to rethink their own cultural assumptions, just as it is the thing that confronts you and I today.
This struggle continued under great pressure across the regions , cultures and personalities for centuries, as they tried to grasp how one person could be both fully human and fully divine. Four different ideas arose that were rejected because they were inadequate to represent the evidence of what happened. Meeting in the Council of Chalcedon in 461AD, Jesus was “acknowledged in two natures [a very loaded concept] without confusion, without change, without division, without separation”. Later they affirmed he had both a human will and a divine will. In all the succeeding centuries it has been hard to grasp a fourth and fifth century set of cultural assumptions about a ‘person’, a ‘nature’, a ‘will’. In all these debates, we see that they were prepared to change their fundamental assumptions and way of thinking, in order to bear witness to the reality of what they continued to experience in line with what had been revealed at origin in the events about Jesus Christ.
The problem is this: We can all admit that God is a mystery. We also can admit that the nature of a human is also a mystery. Especially those of us who are married! Every generation sees it slightly differently. So, we can never grasp how it works exactly, this God-man thing. Rationalists and mechanics, engineers and materialists, positivists, atheists and modernists think they can wrestle this question to the ground. But that is, with respect, I suspect the arrogance that comes from little knowledge. Christians simply hold true to that which we do know, try to interpret it both adequately and imaginatively for each new cultural world, and all else is speculation. The healthiest intellects should preserve some mystery, for God is not in a box. The mystery is revealed in all those twenty evidences but there is still a mystery. The evidence is in, in volumes, from all directions. What is required is for us to begin by trusting what we can never fully explain.
The raw word of witness is what was so persuasive that the Way was something to be taken not watched and analysed further: e.g. “Once I was blind but now I see”. “That which we have seen with our own eyes this we proclaim to you”. Or at Jesus’ baptism – “I saw heaven opened and the Spirit like a dove descending and a voice from heaven saying ’this is my beloved son with whom I am well pleased.’ Father Son and Spirit have been caught in the frame, but even more, caught in the act of broadcasting the divine love that Jesus says defines a people, a nation, an empire and a person. ‘We saw it’, they said. ‘We lived it’. ‘The same Spirit came to us too’. As then, so now.
One contemporary theologian said: “Grenz p 311 In this one historical personal life we find revealed who God is and who we are to be – true deity and true humanity. As this human being, Jesus was divine… All of his life, including his resurrection as the confirmation of his claims concerning himself, indicates that in Jesus the Word has come in the flesh. In short, we do not celebrate the Incarnation merely at Christmas, but throughout the church year, climaxing at Easter.”
So, somehow the cosmic Spirit-God can fit in a human frame. It shows that flesh and spirit are not opposites. So, let’s get over this strange and immoderate language of omnipotent and omnipresent and all knowing all loving and other concepts that can never be grasped, still less worked with. These are not the most accurate words to use in understanding God. The most sophisticated language about God is ….”Jesus”. Let us return to our witness to the things that we saw. Realise that the miracles and resurrection and baptism are God’s best efforts to authenticate the person and work of Jesus. This is what we believe and therefore we take the risk to pattern our whole lives on this God-man – so this is how we live and love.
Jesus was God in human flesh. It is not something we made up to win the race of religious marketing. The eye witnesses simply encountered that the Nazarene is what God is and what humans are. it is the strength in our salvation, it is the intimacy with our Abba Father, it is the sacrifice in our compassion for the broken, it is the assurance in our sufferings that God suffers with us, it is the hope that our love is stronger than fear, that forgiveness is stronger than pain, that life is longer than death and that you and I are loved to the most enormous lengths by the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
All this, all this and more from the God-Man Jesus Christ. What a salvation. What a Lord. No wonder I am so excited to be counted among his servants. If you have not begun this wondrous journey, start today. Ask me how. Or join me in this prayer.
We see in Jesus that we can be at one with you,
We see in Jesus that the barriers are down now,
Saviour and Spirit.
We see that we can think with more reality than our education provided,
Word and Wisdom.
Miracle-giver, you are the
Life-force, the Cosmic Mind, the Eternal Word.
So let us live like Jesus,
And incarnate the gospel in our own human frame,
as a people who are saved and sent,
as fully human beings.
So, let us love like Jesus,
love Abba God with all our hearts and souls and minds and strength,
and love our neighbours as ourselves,
and love one another, and love our enemies.
And let us welcome the Spirit
whom the risen Lord has sent forth
to any of us who welcome him.
We confess and sing that all eternity,
all history and all of the vast cosmos,
are framed by this simple confession –
a Something that is not too far from any child,
a Something that no fashion of science can supplant –
Jesus Christ is Lord,
To the Glory of God the Father.
Yes, Jesus Christ is Lord,
To the Glory of God the Father.
Yes! Jesus Christ is Lord,
To the Glory of God the Father.