SAY HE WAS?
By Doug Ward
Today, some two thousand years after the coming of Jesus, interest in the meaning of His life and teachings remains high. One indicator of this interest is the publication of an increasing number of books about Jesus. For example, on a recent trip to a local bookstore, I noticed the following titles:
o When Jesus Became God
o The Hidden Jesus
o The Jesus Controversy
o The Meaning of Jesus
o Jesus Through the Centuries
o Teachings of the Master: the Collected Sayings of Jesus Christ
o Jesus-One Hundred Years Before Christ
o Saving Jesus from Those Who are Right
The current fascination with Jesus provides both a challenge and an opportunity for Christians. On one hand, the discussions of Jesus that tend to generate the most publicity are those which call into question the foundational Christian beliefs that Jesus came as the prophesied Messiah and the incarnate Son of God. As a result, Christians face the challenge of refuting the attacks of the critics and skeptics. On the other hand, Christians have the opportunity to capitalize on the public attention that has been generated by the scholarly debates about Jesus. Given the current level of interest in the subject, compelling presentations of the Gospel may find a receptive audience. To meet the challenge of the critics and take advantage of opportunities to make the truth known, we should be well-grounded in the foundations of our faith.
WDJS (What Did Jesus Say?)
Christians through the centuries, beginning with Jesus' original disciples, have believed in the messiahship and divinity of Jesus (see e.g., Matt. ; John 1:1-14). Surprisingly, though, a number of scholars now assert that Jesus Himself never made such claims and would, in fact, be shocked to hear about them. According to these scholars, it was the followers of Jesus who originated the idea that He was the divine Messiah.
What did Jesus say about Himself? Certainly we have no record of Him saying, ``Hi, I'm the Christ.'' However, a study of the words of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels reveals that He repeatedly implied that He was both the promised Messiah and a Divine Being. This becomes especially clear when one learns more about the historical and cultural context of the Gospels. The people with whom Jesus came in contact were often very familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures, and Jesus could communicate a great deal to them by quoting a few words from a familiar biblical passage. A brief scriptural allusion could impart a powerful message by reminding the listeners of the entire passage from which it came. In Hebrew, the art of making such allusions was called remez. Remez was a common teaching technique used by the Jewish sages of that time, one of four teaching methods mentioned by Hillel, a famous Jewish teacher of the early first century . As we will see below, Jesus often used this method to affirm His identity as the Messiah and Son of God.
The First Example
The first of Jesus' Messianic claims is recorded in the second
chapter of Luke's gospel. Recall that at age twelve, Jesus had accompanied His
``Why were you searching for me? Didn't you know I had to be in my Father's house?'' (v. 49, NIV)
This incident gave Mary much to think about (v. 51), and no wonder! The temple was the house of God, and so Jesus was saying, in effect, that God was His Father. Then, as today, people prayed to ``our father in heaven,'' but it was not customary to refer to God as ``my father.'' It was believed, however, that the Messiah would have such an intimate relationship with God that he would call God his Father. This belief was based on Psalm 89:26-27, part of a passage praising God for the wonderful promises He had made to David. Speaking of David-and also of David's future descendant, the Messiah-God proclaims in these verses that
``He will call out to me, `You are my Father, my God, the Rock my Savior.' I will also appoint him my firstborn, the most exalted of the kings of the earth.'' (NIV)
Two other texts that were understood as references to the coming Messiah as God's son were 2 Sam. 7:14 and Ps. 2:7. According to the latter verse,
``I will proclaim the decree of the Lord: He said to me, `You are my Son; today I have become your Father.''' (NIV)
The voice that came from heaven at Jesus' baptism saying, ``You are my son, whom I love;...'' (Luke 3:22) may have been alluding to Ps. 2:7.
When we take into account these scriptures and the tradition surrounding them, we can see that Jesus was implying that He was the Messiah when He called God His Father in Luke . Later, during His public ministry, He continued to affirm that God was His Father (see e.g. Mark 14:61-62, John -38; chapters 14-17). Those who heard Him understood the magnitude of His statements and sometimes accused Him of blasphemy.
Multiple Messianic Monikers
The Hebrew Scriptures employ many different names and images in describing the qualities and attributes of God and the Messiah. Jesus, in His statements quoted in the Gospels, made use of a number of them in references to Himself. For example, in the miracle of walking on water (Matt. -33; Mark -51; John -21), Jesus greeted His disciples by saying, ``It is I; be not afraid.'' In these passages, the Greek literally says, ``I am; be not afraid.'' [4, p. 29] Here Jesus applied to Himself the name revealed by God to Moses in the burning bush (Ex. ). He is ``I AM,'' the ever-living, self-existent One. This is made more explicit in John 8:58. (``Before Abraham was, I am.'')
There are instances in which Jesus made more than one divine or messianic allusion in the course of a single sentence. On the eve of His crucifixion, Jesus responded to the high priest, who had asked if He was the Messiah, by saying,
``I am: and ye shall see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven'' (Mark 14:62, KJV).
Jesus often called Himself ``the Son of man,'' a reference to Daniel -14, which describes a supernatural figure who comes into God's presence and is given authority over a universal, eternal kingdom:
``I saw in the night visions, and, behold, one like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days, and they brought him near before him. And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages, should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed '' (KJV).
In addition, Jesus said that He would be ``sitting on the right hand of power''-i.e., the right hand of God. 1 This phrase brings to mind Ps. 110:1, which says that one whom David calls ``my Lord'' would sit at God's right hand and be given dominion over his enemies. Jesus elsewhere described Ps. 110:1 as a messianic prophecy (Matt. 22:41-46; Mark 12:35-37; Luke 20:41-44). Thus Mark 14:62 includes a combination of two messianic references.
Another verse that makes a double messianic claim is Luke 19:10, where Jesus explained His motivation for befriending Zaccheus, a wealthy chief tax collector who was despised by the people:
``For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost'' (KJV).
Here again Jesus identified Himself as the ``Son of man'' of Dan. -14. In addition, He placed Himself in the divine role of the Shepherd of Israel as described in Ezekiel 34. Notice in particular Ezekiel 34:11, where God says, ``I myself will search for my sheep and look after them'' (NIV). Similarly, in verse 16, God repeats, ``I will search for the lost and bring back the strays.''
God goes on to make the following promise in vv. 23-24:
``I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd. I the Lord will be their God, and my servant David will be prince among them.''
This is a prophecy of the Messiah, a new David who would protect the flock
Intimations of Jesus' Deity
Luke is just one of a number of passages in which Jesus attributed to Himself some characteristics of God. A similar example is given in Luke 13:34, where Jesus said,
In the Hebrew scriptures, God is pictured as the Gatherer-One who would ultimately gather the children of Israel from the four corners of the earth and bring them back together as one people (Deut. 30:3; Ps. 107:3; 147:2-3; Isa. 40:10-11; 56:8). By expressing His ability and His longing to gather the Israelites together, Jesus implied that He would carry out this role. In doing so, He suggested His own divinity.
Yet another example is recorded in Luke 19:41-44, where Jesus foretold the
coming destruction of
``they shall not leave in thee one stone upon another; because thou knewest not the time of thy visitation'' (v. 44, KJV).
In the Bible, a ``time of visitation'' is an intervention by God in human
affairs, either to bring blessing or to bring judgment. God has visited His
people to redeem them from slavery in
Jesus may well have had Jeremiah's words in mind in Luke 19:41-46. Like
Jeremiah, He was predicting the destruction of
In Luke 19:44, Jesus spoke of His own coming as a time of visitation. For those who accepted Him as Messiah and followed Him, it was a time of salvation; but for those who refused to recognize who He was, it was a time of judgment and condemnation. Either way, the implication is that God was visiting through Jesus' coming. Jesus was indirectly asserting His deity in this verse .
The Green Tree
As we have seen, Jesus continually made allusions to the Hebrew Scriptures in His teaching. By becoming more aware of these allusions, we can enhance our understanding of the Gospels and discover even more ways in which Jesus affirmed His identity as our divine Messiah.
One fascinating example, discussed in detail by New Testament scholar David
Bivin in the appendix of , is found in Luke 23:27-31. Here Jesus told those
who were mourning about His crucifixion that they should weep for themselves,
since great suffering was ahead for the inhabitants of
``For if they do these things in a green tree, what shall be done in the dry?'' (v. 31, KJV)
This verse seems rather puzzling at first glance, but it becomes clearer when we learn about its connection-pointed out by a number of commentators-with the prophecy of Ezekiel 20:45-48. Some six hundred years before, God had instructed Ezekiel to deliver the following prophecy against ``the forest of the south field'':
`` Hear the word of the Lord; Thus saith the Lord God; Behold, I will kindle a fire in thee, and it shall devour every green tree in thee, and every dry tree: the flaming flame shall not be quenched, and all faces from the south to the north shall be burned therein. And all flesh shall see that I the Lord have kindled it: it shall not be quenched'' (vv. 47-48).
After being asked by Ezekiel for an explanation (v. 49), God gave one in
Ezekiel 21:1-7. Ezekiel 21:2, which parallels verse 46 of chapter 20, shows
that the ``forest of the south field'' is the
With this background, Jesus' words in Luke
become easier to comprehend. If Jesus, a righteous person or ``green tree,''
was being put to death, what would happen to the flammable ``dry trees,'' the
sinful inhabitants of
The prophecy of Ezekiel 20:45-48 is not one that has generally been associated with the Messiah, but a good case can be made for the assertion that the ``green tree'' is a messianic title. For one thing, it is similar to messianic names like the familiar `` branch'' of Isa. 4:2; 11:1 and Jer. 23:5 or the ``goodly cedar'' of Ezekiel . Moreover, it is interesting that the Hebrew word for ``the righteous'' in Ezekiel 21:3-4 is singular . In the context of Ezekiel 21:3-4, this word has a plural sense and is rendered in the plural by translators. However, the fact that the word is singular leaves open the possibility that it could refer, in part, to a particular righteous individual who would suffer unjustly. After all, certain messianic titles--most notably the ``seed'' of Gen. 3:15; -are understood to refer both to a group of people and to a special individual representing that group. It is also worth noting that the Messiah is designated as ``the Lord our righteousness'' in Jer. 23:6; 33:16, and Jesus is called ``the Righteous One'' in Acts (NIV). In Luke , then, Jesus may be implying that He is the Righteous One, a special Green Tree which would be burned for the sake of the forest of mankind.
In this article, we have considered just some of the ways in which Jesus implied His messiahship and divinity. Jesus is I AM, Son of God and the Son of Man, the Lord at God's right hand, the Shepherd and Gatherer of Israel who visits His people, and the righteous Green Tree. He also exercised the divine prerogative to forgive sins (Mark 2:5), declared Himself to be Lord of the Sabbath (Mark ), and announced that He was a prophet and a fulfiller of prophecy (Luke -24). In one of His parables, He claimed to be a King who would return to judge the world (Matt. 25:31-46).
The more closely one examines the Gospels, the more examples one finds of such claims. If one were to remove all of them from the text, very little of the text would actually remain. Jesus' first-century disciples correctly understood that He came as the Messiah and Son of God. Today wise men still worship Him.
1. David Bivin, ``Understanding `More' of the
Difficult Words of Jesus,'' seminar held at the Church of the Messiah,
2. David Bivin and Roy Blizzard, Jr., Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus , Destiny Image Publishers, Shippensburg, Pennsylvania, 1994.
3. Dwight A. Pryor, ``Our Hebrew Lord,'' tape series
available from the Center for Judaic-Christian Studies,
4. Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1998.
1The original Greek for this phrase includes a definite article (``the power''). For Jews in Jesus' time, ``the Power'' ( Ha-G'vrah in Hebrew) was a way to refer to God without mentioning His name directly (see The Jewish New Testament).
File translated from