How do we know Jesus is God?
On the one hand, the Gospel of John is very clear regarding the divinity of Jesus:
- John 1:1-4
- John 1:14
- John 5:17-18
- John 8:58-59 (compare with the Greek Old Testament Exodus 3:14)
- John 10:30-31
- John 20:28 (compare with Revelation 19:9-11)
On the other hand, there are other passages in the New Testament we sometimes miss, but which in their first-century Jewish context are just as clear regarding Jesus’ divine identity.
First, in Matthew 12:6, Jesus says of himself, “something greater than the temple is here” (see also John 2:19-21). To the ancient Jew, the Temple was the dwelling place of God (see 1 Kings 8:10; Exodus 40:35). In first-century Judaism, the only thing that could possibly be greater than the Temple would be God himself!
Further, in Matthew 12 Jesus describes himself as “Lord of the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:8); God’s rest on the seventh day (Genesis 2:2-3) is the foundation of the Sabbath. Who could be Lord of the Sabbath, except God himself?
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus places his own teaching on the same level as the Torah—which to an ancient Jew, is the very Revelation of God. Jesus gives six “antitheses” where he says, “You have heard that it was said …. But I say to you” (Matthew 5:21, 27, 31, 33, 38, 43), supplementing and enhancing the Law, as for example here: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’. But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28). Accordingly, the crowds are “astonished” because Jesus taught them “as one who had authority, and not as their scribes” (Matthew 7:28). Usually, the scribes would attempt to explain God’s revelation; but Jesus’ teaching is revelation.
The way in which Jesus offers forgiveness of sin—through himself—left no doubt in the minds of his hearers that he was assuming the prerogatives of God. In Mk 2:5, Jesus heals a paralytic and says, “Child, your sins are forgiven.” Immediately, the scribes witnessing the event express their disgust: “Why does this man speak like this. It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mk 2:7).
Just “Passing by”
When Jesus walks on water, the text curiously describes Jesus as intending to “pass by” the Apostles (Mark 6:48-49). It’s a strange phrase—where could he be going?
This cryptic reference is an allusion to Old Testament scenes where YHWH appeared and “passed by.” Consider these two episodes dealing with Moses and Elijah, respectively: “[The Lord said to Moses]: ‘I will make my goodness pass before you …. While my glory passes by … I will cover you … until I have passed by’ …. The Lord passed before him” (Exodus 33:19, 22; 34:6). And with Elijah: “And behold, the Lord passed by” (1 Kings 19:11). Both the Septuagint (the Greek Old Testament) in these passages and Mark’s Gospel use the verb parerchomai to describe this “passing by” of the Lord. The point is clear: Jesus is the God of Israel come in the flesh (see Brant Pitre’s The Case for Jesus, ch. 9).
At the Name of Jesus, Every Knee Shall Bend
Philippians 2:6-11 describes Jesus’ self-emptying and suffering unto death, which then leads to his exaltation. At the conclusion of this passage, we read: “Therefore … at the name of Jesus, every knee should bow … and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Philippians 2:9-11). This passage is well known, but what is often missed is how St. Paul is appropriating to Jesus exactly what was said of YHWH: “To me [YHWH] every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear” (Isaiah 45:23). Paul is saying that YHWH has become incarnate in and through Jesus.
We don’t say “Jesus was,” but that “Jesus is”—because Jesus lives; Jesus conquered death because he is the God-man; Jesus remains present with us because he is God; Jesus is ever-present in the Blessed Sacrament because he is God in the flesh and continues to encounter us in the ever present.
Jesus promised to be with us always (see Matthew 28:20). How can we encounter Jesus personally this very day?
This article was first published on the Great Adventure Blog January 14, 2016.
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About Dr. Andrew Swafford
Andrew Swafford is Associate Professor of Theology at Benedictine College. He is general editor and contributor to The Great Adventure Catholic Bible, published by Ascension Press. He is author of Nature and Grace, John Paul II to Aristotle and Back Again, and Spiritual Survival in the Modern World. He holds a doctorate in Sacred Theology from the University of St. Mary of the Lake and a master’s degree in Old Testament & Semitic Languages from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is a member of the Society of Biblical Literature, Academy of Catholic Theology, and a senior fellow at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology. He lives with his wife Sarah and their four children in Atchison, Kansas.