Why Didn’t Jesus Claim to Be God?
Although the evidence from the New Testament for the deity of Christ is abundant, many people wonder why Jesus didn’t come out and say explicitly, “I am God.” Opponents of the doctrine of the Trinity often claim that Jesus’ failure to make such an explicit statement is proof that the Trinity is false. Some go further, insisting that the only statement that would satisfy them is if Jesus had said, “I am Almighty God, God the Son, second person of the Trinity.” Of course, since everyone knows there is no such statement by Jesus in the Bible, this objection is a simple way of dismissing the case for the Trinity.
There are several important responses to be made to this objection.
1. Anti-Trinitarians are unwilling to shoulder a similar burden of proof. There is no statement in the Bible, for example, in which Jesus asserts, “I am not God, but only his firstborn created son” (as Jehovah’s Witnesses maintain), or “I am only a human being whom God has appointed as his representative” (as Unitarians traditionally claim). For some reason, anti-Trinitarians impose a different set of rules on Trinitarians than they are willing to follow themselves.
2. Anti-Trinitarians usually have developed interpretive strategies that allow them to slough off even the most explicit assertions in the Bible of the identity of Jesus Christ as God. Thus, when the Bible says that the preincarnate Christ “in the beginning…was God” (John 1:1), or quotes Thomas referring to Jesus as “my Lord and my God” (John 20:28), many anti-Trinitarians will admit that Jesus is called “God” in these texts but offer some end-run interpretation around them. For example, they will often claim that Jesus is called “God” only in the sense that he acts as God’s agent or representative. This means that even if Jesus had said “I am God Almighty” these anti-Trinitarians would explain away such a statement as meaning only that Jesus represents God Almighty. Apparently, Jesus was supposed to anticipate and ward off modern anti-Trinitarian views and say, “I am not merely an agent of God Almighty, but am literally and truly God Almighty in the flesh, the second person of the Trinity incarnate.” Again, anti-Trinitarians are operating by a double standard at this point, since of course Jesus does not make such elaborate statements supporting their theology, either.
3. The evidence from the Gospels is that Jesus viewed his mission as primarily that of revealing and glorifying the Father and reconciling his followers to the Father (e.g., Matt. 11:27; John 14:6; 17:4). This is consistent with Paul’s teaching that in becoming a man Christ humbled himself as a servant, rather than seeking to glorify himself (Phil. 2:6-7). Furthermore, the very notion that Jesus was God incarnate was such a radical one for first-century Jews that it is not surprising that Jesus would speak about his identity in veiled or indirect ways. Some people might be surprised that Jesus rarely stated in so many words, “I am the Son of God” (John 10:36 is the only such explicit recorded statement; see also Matt. 27:43). Evidently, Jesus’ intention was that his followers would come to grasp his identity over time, as the full significance of his words and actions became clear.
4. Once we set aside unreasonable, anachronistic expectations of how Jesus should have spoken about himself, the evidence that Jesus thought of himself as God (though as distinct from God the Father) is abundant and striking:
- Jesus claimed divine honors. He expected people to honor him just as they honor the Father (John 5:23). He accepted worship in contexts that connoted religious devotion (Matt. 14:33; 28:17). He invited his followers to pray to him and expect him to answer their prayers (John 14:14). He encouraged them to place their faith or trust in him just as they had faith in God (Matt. 9:28; John 14:1). He demanded that they love him even more than their blood relatives (Matt. 10:37; Luke 14:26; John 14:15, 21; 15:10).
- Jesus claimed divine attributes. He claimed to be so like the Father that if you saw him you had seen the Father (John 14:7-10). He claimed to be omnipresent when he asserted that he would be present with his disciples wherever they gathered in his name (Matt. 18:20; see also Matt. 28:20). He claimed to be preexistent even before creation, implying that he was eternal or without beginning (John 8:58-59; 17:5). His “I am” statements frequently echoed the “I am” statements of Jehovah, the Lord God in the Old Testament (John 4:26; 6:20; 8:24, 28, 58; 13:18-19; 18:5-8; see Deut. 32:39; Is. 41:4; 43:2, 5, 10-11, 25; 46:4; 52:6).
- Jesus claimed to perform divine deeds. He demonstrated mastery over the forces of nature in ways that recall Old Testament descriptions of God’s lordship over nature (e.g., Matt. 8:23-27; 14:13-33; see Ps. 77:16-20; 104:4-9; 107:23-30). He spoke as if his every word was God’s word, yet never used the language of prophets (“Thus says the Lord”), but instead often prefaced his remarks with “Amen I tell you” (Matt. 5:18, 26; Mark 3:28; Luke 4:24; John 1:51; etc.). He claimed the right to forgive people of all their sins (Matt. 9:1-8; Mark 2:1-12; Luke 5:17-26), to raise the dead (John 5:28-29; 11:25026), to give life to whomever he chooses (John 5:21-26), and to be the final judge of all humanity (Matt. 16:27; 25:31-46; John 5:22-23). He claimed the prerogative of sending the divine Holy Spirit from heaven (John 15:26; 16:7-14).
- Jesus claimed divine status. He asserted that he had all authority in the entire universe (Matt. 28:18), that he would sit on God’s highest possible throne (Matt. 25:31; Mark 12:36; Luke 20:42-43), ruling over absolutely everything (Matt. 11:25-27; Luke 10:21-22; John 3:35; 13:3; 16:15). Not surprisingly, Jesus’ opponents consistently argued that in his actions and his claims to be God’s Son he was claiming to be equal to God (Matt. 9:3; Mark 2:7; 14:61-64; John 5:17-18; 8:58-59; 10:27-33; 19:7)—a criticism Jesus, certainly an effective communicator, never managed to refute. Jesus even claimed that he had the ability to raise himself from the dead (John 2:19-22; 10:17-18).
- Jesus accepted divine names. He accepted the designation “my Lord and my God” from Thomas (John 20:28), a confession that came only after Thomas had become convinced that Jesus had indeed raised himself from the dead. The fact that such an explicit confession came only after Jesus’ resurrection confirms our view that Jesus sought to glorify and reveal the Father and waited for the Father to exalt him.
This evidence is developed in great detail in my book Putting Jesus in His Place: The Case for the Deity of Christ (Kregel, 2007), co-authored with J. Ed Komoszewski. As we show in that book, the rest of the New Testament develops and confirms what is largely implicit in Jesus’ own statements, that he was indeed the divine Son, God incarnate.