A Divine Messiah

by Ray Pritz

“You are my witnesses,” says the lord, “and my servant whom I have chosen, that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he. Before me no god was formed, nor shall there be any after me. I, I am the lord, and besides me there is no savior. (Isa 43.10-11)

It is a basic tenet – some would say the most important tenet – of the Hebrew Bible that God is one. What exactly that means is a matter of varying interpretations. It comes as a surprise to some to learn that the New Testament affirms the oneness of God on many occasions. In fact, on a per-verse basis the New Testament may actually speak of the unity of God more frequently than the Old Testament. The following list is probably incomplete, but it gives some indication of the importance of the doctrine to at least five New Testament writers: Mark 12:29; John 5:44; 17:3; Romans 3:30; 1 Corinthians 8:4, 6; Galatians 3:20; Ephesians 4:6; 1 Timothy 1:17; 2:5; 6:15; James 2:19; Jude 25.

The earliest generations of Church history (as all subsequent generations) were characterized by sharp differences of opinion on theological matters. The letters of Paul are replete with references to those whom he considered to be in error, fellow believers who opposed him on questions of doctrine. It is surely significant, then, that there is no hint in his letters that there were those in the “Jewish period” of Church development who were denying that Jesus the Messiah is God. As we shall see below, Paul himself believed and taught the divinity of Jesus, so we might expect him to correct any who, in his opinion, were erring on such a foundational doctrine.[1]

It was not long, of course, until there arose those who did want to deny that Jesus is God. Groups like the Ebionites were ready to see Jesus as a good man, even the best man who ever lived, but just a man. This doctrine may have derived from their desire to preserve what they saw as a Jewish doctrine of God’s oneness (although this is a supposition and not demonstrable from available evidence).

It is the purpose of this paper to investigate certain aspects of the doctrine that Jesus the Messiah is God. Obviously, in a short paper it is impossible to give a comprehensive treatment to such a broad subject. For example, we will leave aside such things as so-called christophanies in the Old Testament. We will limit our discussion to three tracks: Jesus’ own words and actions, what others said about him, and the atonement imperative that the Messiah be God himself.

Jesus’ Words and Actions

He took him to Jerusalem, and set him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here; for it is written, ’He will give his angels charge of you, to guard you,’ and ’On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’” And Jesus answered him, “It is said, ’You shall not tempt [test] the Lord your God.’’ (Luke 4:9-12)

Most commentators agree that Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 6:16 with the same sense in which it is used there, i.e., that Jesus himself will not test God (unlike Israel in the wilderness). Some have recognized the possibility of a double meaning, where Satan is being warned that he should not be testing Jesus. Nevertheless, in this case it actually seems unlikely that this is a claim by Jesus to divinity. This example is brought to illustrate that many scriptures can be given more than one interpretation. That will be the case for almost all of those which we will consider below. We must not suppose that any single scripture is going to settle an argument that has had a long life. Instead, it is the cumulative effect of these scriptures that should be given weight.

Jesus forgave sins

In Mark 2:1-12 and parallels (see also Luke 7:48) we read that Jesus forgave sins. The people standing around were shocked at this action, but why? The phrase that Jesus used would have included a word based on the Hebrew root “s – l – ch” meaning “to forgive.” In the Hebrew scriptures this root is always and only used of an action performed by God (see, for example, Jer 31:34; Mic 7:18). It is never something one human being does for another. The people quite rightly asked, “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” Jesus does not back down. Instead he confirms that they have heard him correctly by healing the man, another act reserved for God. “Bless the lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits, who forgives all your sins, who heals all your diseases” (Ps 103:3).

My Father

Jesus answered them, ”My Father is working still, and I am working.“ This was why the Jews sought all the more to kill him, because he not only broke the Sabbath but also called God his Father, making himself equal with God. Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever he does, that the Son does likewise. For the Father loves the Son, and shows him all that he himself is doing; and greater works than these will he show him, that you may marvel. For as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom he will. The Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son, that all may honor the Son, even as they honor the Father. He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him.“ (John 5:17-23)This passage gives us two matters for consideration. First of all, when Jesus calls God “my own Father,” he is saying another thing that people were not accustomed to hearing. It was common to refer to God collectively as “our Father,” but the singular, personal claiming of God as Father was not done. The possible basis for this is Psalms 89:26[27] (which in turn goes back to 2 Sam 7:14): “He [David] will cry to me, ‘You are my Father, my God, and the Rock of my salvation.’”

Here again, Jesus does not back down but rather reinforces the impression they have gotten (and were not comfortable with) by extending the application of his equality with God. Not only is he Lord of the Sabbath, he also raises the dead and has the authority to exercise God’s judgment.

The second matter to be considered in this passage is Jesus’ assertion that he, the Son, is to receive the same honor as the Father. The Greek word timan/timē frequently translates the Hebrew word kavod (usually rendered in English as “glory”). Whether we choose to understand this word as honor, respect, or glory, the statement of Jesus is not one we would expect to hear from any human being. In John 17:5 Jesus asks God to “glorify me … with the glory [doxa, the most common translation of kavod] I had with you before the world was.”

Speaking through the prophet Isaiah (42:8) God says “my glory [kavod] I will not give to another” (also Isa 43:10-13; 44:6-8; 45:5-6, 21; 46:9; 48:11). Is Jesus claiming for himself that which God says is reserved for himself alone? Surely the people listening to him on this occasion would have been scandalized by such a way of speaking.

The Gospel of John provides several additional strong indicators that Jesus had a divine self-image. For the most part these passages are a very familiar part of the discussion, and it will suffice simply to list them:

  • John 14:8-10, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father”
  • John 10:30-39, “I and the father are one”
  • John 8:56-59, “before Abraham was I AM”

Jesus, prophets, and rabbis

The prophets always said “this is what the Lord says”; they never said “I say to you.” But Jesus never talked like the rabbis or the prophets. He always said “I say to you.” This was especially significant, because for Jews there was only one authoritative “I” – God himself. The prophets called the people to return to God. Jesus says “come to me.” It would never have occurred to a prophet to call the people to himself. Of course, this saying of Jesus in Matthew 11:28-29 is based on sayings of God himself (Exod 33:14; Jer 6:16), all the more remarkable since Jesus substitutes himself for “my Father” as the one who calls to himself and gives rest. R. Hananiah b. Teradion said: If two sit together and no words of the Torah are spoken between them, there is the seat of the scornful, as it is written, “Nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful” [Ps 1.1]. But if two sit together and the words of the Torah are spoken between them, the Divine Presence rests between them, as it is written [Mal 3.16]. (mAvot 3:2)

We may contrast this saying of R. Hananiah with the words of Jesus in Matthew 18:20. “If two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” The parallels are evident and instructive: Where the rabbinic saying has “words of the Torah,” Jesus says “in my name,” and where R. Hananiah says “the Divine Presence [shechinah] rests between them” Jesus says “I am there among them.” The rabbis spoke of taking on oneself the “yoke of the Torah” (see mAvot 3:5; cf. also Acts 15.10; Avot de R. Natan 20). Jesus encourages his hearers to “take my yoke on you” (Matt 11:29)[2].

The rabbis taught by quoting other teachers from earlier generations to show what the Torah meant. Jesus never cites any prior authority, implying that he himself is sufficient authority (cf. Matt 7:28-29), possessing in fact the full authority of the Torah.

Finally, Jews were taught by their religious leaders to be prepared to die to sanctify the name of God. Jesus calls on those who follow him to be prepared to lose their lives “for my sake” (Mark 8:35 par.). These are not proper words for prophet or rabbi, and it is no wonder that some were scandalized by them.

What Others Wrote about Jesus

Here again we will not be able to discuss in detail many scriptures that, taken together, add up to an impressive weight of proof that the writers of the New Testament were comfortable with the idea that the Messiah was God, the God of Israel. Only in passing can we note that the Lamb of God receives all the same glory and worship as God (Rev 5:8-13). Jesus is described as receiving (and accepting) worship (Matt 14:33; John 20:28f), even though elsewhere (Acts 10:25f; Rev 19:10; 22:8f) we are told that neither human beings or angels should be worshipped, only God.

Jesus also is prayed to in the New Testament. In Acts 7:54-60 Stephen addresses him directly in prayer. Almost every letter of Paul opens with a kind of short prayer, addressed to “God the Father and our Lord Jesus the Messiah,” asking grace and peace for the recipients. Indeed, the closing words of the New Testament are a prayer addressed to Jesus: “‘Surely I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” These tend to confirm the words of the Messiah himself (John 14:12-14), “if you ask me[3] anything in my name, I will do it.”

Well known too are such passages as the following:

  • John 1:1-3, “the word was God” (and verse 18 speaks of “the only begotten God”);
  • Romans 9:5, “Messiah over all, God blessed forever”;
  • 2 Corinthians 5:19, “God was in the Messiah, reconciling the world to himself”;
  • Titus 2:13, “the appearing of the glory of our great God and savior Jesus the Messiah”;
  • Acts 20:28, “the church of God which he obtained with his own blood.”
  • When Paul, in Philippians, speaks of “the name that is above all names” that has been given to Jesus, that name is in fact the supreme title “lord,” which belongs exclusively to the God of Israel.
  • Two familiar passages in Colossians are especially uncompromising: “in him [the Son] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (1:19), and “in him [Messiah] all the fullness of deity dwells bodily” (2:9).
  • The writer of the letter to the Hebrews adds his voice to the chorus, not only in the oft-quoted first three verses, as they affirm that the Son is what we see of God, but also more subtly in 3:3-4: “Jesus has been counted worthy of as much more glory than Moses as the builder of a house has more honor than the house. For every house is built by someone, but the builder of all things is God.” Jesus is the builder of the house, God is the builder of all things. Jesus, then, must be God.

We may conclude this section with the closing words of the first epistle of John (5:20): “We know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, to know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God and eternal life.”

The Atonement Imperative

At some point in the discussion, someone may well ask, “But is this really important? What difference does it make if I do not accept the doctrine of the divinity of the Messiah, as long as I believe that he died for my sins and that God raised him from the dead.” The answering of this question takes us away from considering specific scriptures that affirm Messiah’s divinity and into a consideration of the essence of the message of the Gospel. When Jesus came to this earth, died, and rose again, what exactly was going on?

Messiah as man

When the king of Moab saw that the battle was going against him, he took with him seven hundred swordsmen to break through, opposite the king of Edom; but they could not. Then he took his eldest son who was to reign in his stead, and offered him for a burnt offering upon the wall. And there came great wrath upon Israel; and they withdrew from him and returned to their own land. (2 Kgs 3:26-27)

The act of the king of Moab disgusts us, just as it did the Israelite soldiers who witnessed it. Human sacrifice, such as that done by those who offered their children to Molech, seems to us the farthest thing from the true religion of the God of love. Some of us may even feel uncomfortable when we read in Genesis 22 that God commanded Abraham to slit his son’s throat and then burn the body.

And yet have we stopped to consider that the central, definitive act of the faith we hold is based on a human sacrifice? Indeed, scripture seems to teach that only a human sacrifice would do. Israelite religion is all animal sacrifice; why suddenly a human?

“By one man sin came into the world” (Rom 5:12-19), and all were made sinners. There is a balance here. Because man brought sin into the world, it must be a man who will pay for its removal. It may seem the wrong place to start, but it is important for us to see first of all that the sacrificial victim in God’s ultimate atonement must be a human being. Neither animals nor angels would suffice.

This principle is expressed in 1 Corinthians 15:21: “By a man came death, so also by a man came the resurrection of the dead.” “Death” as Paul uses it here stands for the culmination of the coming of sin, its final outcome. “Resurrection” stands for the whole atonement process, of which resurrection is the seal, the consummation. Man (Adam) brought the need for atonement, and Man must pay for the atonement.

First of all, then, the big picture shows us that the agent God will use to accomplish atonement for mankind must be a human being, one of the race that caused the problem in the first place. If Jesus was not a man, the atonement was not done properly.

The typology of the Torah teaches us that God requires that a sacrificial victim be perfect. Otherwise the sacrifice will not be accepted, atonement will not be accomplished. That was on the physical level; the spiritual counterpart will require moral perfection. The difficulty is immediately and painfully obvious: no human can meet that standard, because all are themselves sinners and required to die for their own sins (Ps 14:1-3; Eccl 7:20, etc.).

The divine solution to the problem is beautifully described in Isaiah 59:1-20. The first eight verses tell how bad the sin looks to God. The following verses (9-15a) portray the bad situation that results from the sin. Verses 15b-16a then pose the dilemma poignantly: “The lord saw it, and it displeased him that there was no justice. He saw that there was no man, and wondered that there was no one to intervene.”

Man sinned. Man must atone. No man is eligible to do it. What is the way out of this impasse? There is only one possible answer (vss. 16b-20):

Then his own arm brought him salvation, and his righteousness upheld him. He put on righteousness as a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation upon his head; he put on garments of vengeance for clothing, and wrapped himself in fury as a mantle. According to their deeds, so will he repay, wrath to his adversaries, requital to his enemies; to the coastlands he will render requital. So they shall fear the name of the lord from the west, and his glory from the rising of the sun; for he will come like a rushing stream, which the wind of the lord drives. And he will come to Zion as Redeemer, to those in Jacob who turn from transgression, says the lord.

God himself will do it. The redeemer who “comes to Zion” must be God, because there was no human to fill the role. This solution was inevitable. For the atonement to be accomplished as required, “God will provide himself a lamb.” Only God will do. If Jesus was not God, the atonement was not done properly.

One cannot refrain from quoting the Passover Haggadah: “’And the Lord brought us forth out of Egypt,’ not by an angel, not by a seraph, not by a messenger, but the Holy One, blessed be he, himself, in his own glory and in his own person.”

Is the doctrine of Messiah’s divinity important? It is foundational.

Is a proper understanding of the doctrine and belief in it essential for salvation? Let those among us who are perfect in understanding and faith be the ones to make that judgment.

Ray Pritz has his Ph.D. on Nazarene Jewish Christianity from the Hebrew University, Jerusalem. He works for the United Bible Societies and the Caspari Center for Jewish and Biblical Studies in Jerusalem.

[1] It has long been a stock claim in New Testament scholarship that the idea that God became man reflects Hellenistic thinking. Oskar Skarsaune has recently shown (In the Shadow of the TempleDowners Grove: IVP, 2002, 319-338) that Hellenists in fact found the Christian doctrine of the incarnation to be absurd and could not, therefore, have supplied the source for that doctrine.

[2] It is likely that Jesus is referring in this passage to an even earlier antecedent: wisdom. On the interrelationship between Wisdom and Torah as agents in creation, see Skarsaune, Shadow, 330-333.

[3] This is the reading accepted by the Greek New Testament texts of Nestle-Aland and UBS.