by Luke Wayne
A common challenge offered by Muslims (and others who deny the deity of Christ) is that Jesus never claimed to be God. While there are numerous places that the Bible explicitly refers to Jesus as "God" and identifies Him as Yahweh, they accuse the biblical writers of forcing these titles on Jesus. Though the Bible is, in fact, the inerrant word of God and everything it says about Jesus can be trusted, it can be helpful in reaching our Muslim friends to be able to show them in Jesus' own words that He did, in fact, claim to be God.
This is further complicated by the fact that many Muslim's today have been taught to distrust the Gospel of John, thus making them less open to accepting Jesus' clear self-identification as the "I AM" of Exodus 3:14 or Jesus' affirmation of Thomas calling Him "my God"1 in that Gospel. While we should in no way acquiesce to their dismissal of John,2 there are several other places we can point to first in the other three Gospels to avoid unnecessary side debates.
It is also important to note up front that Jesus did not say the exact words, "I am God, worship me." First of all, this would be contrary to His purpose (remember, Jesus often told people to keep quiet even about His being the Messiah or working great miracles). Secondly, this also would have misrepresented the nature of Jesus' divinity. For Jesus to simply say, "I am God," could imply to His listeners that Jesus was all that God is to the exclusion of the Father or Spirit. God had not left His throne in heaven or ceased to omnipresently fill the universe. This wasn't at all like a finite, mythological pagan god leaving Olympus (or some such place) and taking a trip to earth in human form. What's more, God is triune in nature, and all of Jesus' references to His own deity are framed carefully so as not to exclude the fact that the one true God is the Father and the Spirit as well as the Son. Jesus is fully God, but Jesus does not exhaust all that God is. Still, this does not take away from the fact that Jesus plainly and directly claimed to be God in ways that anyone familiar with the Old Testament Scriptures can understand.
The Son of Man at the Right Hand of Power
When Jesus was arrested and brought before the Jewish authorities, they asked Him "Are You the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?" Jesus response was powerful and very telling:
"And Jesus said, 'I am; and you shall see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven,'” (Mark 14:62, see also Matthew 26:64, Luke 22:69).
Jesus affirms that He is, indeed, the "Son of the Blessed One," which is already on its face a direct contradiction of Islam. However, His answer explains this in a way that caused the High Priest to find Him guilty of blasphemy and declare that He should be put to death. He was not merely claiming to be a purely human Messiah. He was claiming to be divine and to share the heavenly throne of God the Father. Jesus is pointing to two Old Testament passages. The first is from the Prophet Daniel:3
"I kept looking in the night visions, And behold, with the clouds of heaven One like a Son of Man was coming, And He came up to the Ancient of Days And was presented before Him. And to Him was given dominion, Glory and a kingdom, That all the peoples, nations and men of every language Might serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion Which will not pass away; And His kingdom is one Which will not be destroyed," (Daniel 7:13-14).
This "Son of Man" not only possesses eternal dominion and glory, but the passage also says that all the peoples throughout all the world will "serve" Him. The word for "serve" here is a common Hebrew word for "worship" and is translated that way in the Septuagint (the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament) and in modern translations such as the NIV. Indeed, throughout Daniel, this word for "serve" is used only for worship given to God or worship that Daniel and His companions refuse to offer to other gods. The Son of Man rightly receives worship as a glorious and eternal ruler of all men.
That the text implies the "Son of Man" to be divine and worthy of worship is also evidenced in the lofty traditions about Him that are preserved in Jewish apocryphal works like 1 Enoch and 4 Esdras. It is also noteworthy that, earlier in the chapter, Daniel wrote:
"I kept looking until thrones were set up, and the Ancient of Days took His seat; His vesture was like white snow and the hair of His head like pure wool. His throne was ablaze with flames, its wheels were a burning fire," (Daniel 7:9)
Why were multiple thrones set up for the Ancient of Days to take His seat? The Talmud actually raises this question and records that one acclaimed Rabbi answered that the thrones were for the Ancient of Days and for "David" (presumably referring to the Messiah, Son of David). He was rebuked by another Rabbi for blaspheming God by claiming that another could reign beside God as His equal on God's own throne. The first Rabbi recanted, and instead, they concluded that God sits on one throne to pronounce judgment and the other to pronounce mercy.4 This shows us what it meant to sit at the right hand of God, especially in connection to Daniel 7, and what was at stake. The thrones were the thrones of God, and only God could sit on them. No one could sit with Him. Yet Jesus claimed the right as the Son of Man to sit on such a throne at the right hand of God. He emphasized this by blending with Daniel 7 the words of Psalm 110:1:
"The LORD says to my Lord: 'Sit at My right hand Until I make Your enemies a footstool for Your feet.'”
Jesus had already applied this Psalm to Himself not long before this (Mark 12:36, Matthew 22:44, Luke 20:41-44) and used it to say that He was not merely a son of David and was rightly called David's Lord. When Jesus claimed to be the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven and sitting at the right hand of power, He did not leave any room for doubt what He was claiming about Himself. He claimed to share in the throne and heavenly authority of God the Father and to be worthy of universal worship. By identifying Himself as the "Son of Man" in a glorified and lofty sense, Jesus was declaring Himself to be God while still maintaining the proper personal distinction between Himself and the Father. In this way, Jesus explained that He was God in a manner that did not conflate the persons of the Trinity or otherwise misrepresent what He meant.
The Old Testament Prophets frequently used the analogy of marriage to represent God's covenantal bond with His people, to rebuke their unfaithfulness to Him, and to promise a new and better covenant between God and man in the future. For example, God through Jeremiah rebukes Israel by saying:
"And I saw that for all the adulteries of faithless Israel, I had sent her away and given her a writ of divorce," (Jeremiah 3:8).
But He later promises:
"'Behold, days are coming,' declares the Lord, 'when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,' declares the Lord. 'But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,' declares the Lord, 'I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people," (Jeremiah 31:31-33).
Just as Israel's sin was compared to adultery and her judgment to divorce, the promise of the New Covenant was also connected to the analogy of God as a husband to Israel. The Prophet Hosea likewise writes:
"Then the Lord said to me, 'Go again, love a woman who is loved by her husband, yet an adulteress, even as the Lord loves the sons of Israel, though they turn to other gods and love raisin cakes,'” (Hosea 3:1).
"Afterward the sons of Israel will return and seek the Lord their God and David their king; and they will come trembling to the Lord and to His goodness in the last days," (Hosea 3:5).
In Ezekiel, after an extended analogy of God comparing Israel to a destitute woman whom God raised up and took to Himself as His own, God indicts her:
"You adulteress wife, who takes strangers instead of her husband!" (Ezekiel 16:32).
In the same context, He goes on to promise:
"Nevertheless, I will remember My covenant with you in the days of your youth, and I will establish an everlasting covenant with you...Thus I will establish My covenant with you, and you shall know that I am the Lord," (Ezekiel 16:60, 62).
Likewise, the prophet Isaiah foretold this great promise in words like:
"as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, So your God will rejoice over you," (Isaiah 62:5).
"For your husband is your Maker, Whose name is the Lord of hosts; And your Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel, Who is called the God of all the earth," (Isaiah 54:5).
The covenantal bridegroom of Israel who would usher in the New Covenant is God Himself. It is thus rather striking that, when asked why His disciples did not fast like the Pharisees did, Jesus answered:
"And Jesus said to them, 'While the bridegroom is with them, the attendants of the bridegroom cannot fast, can they? So long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day. No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; otherwise the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear results,'" (Mark 2:19-21, see also Matthew 9:15-17, Luke 5:34-39).
Jesus' striking analogy about what is fitting of the old versus what is fitting in the new has always been understood as a reference to the dawning of the New Covenant and the passing away of old things. This makes it even more striking, then, that Jesus would explain the lack of fasting among His disciples by saying that they did not fast because the bridegroom was with them. This reference to the bridegroom being "taken away" from them makes it even more obvious that Jesus was calling himself the bridegroom. Jesus is claiming for Himself a title that, in this context, applies only to the one true God of Abraham and Moses. This is not an isolated incident. Jesus also refers to Himself as the bridegroom in a parable, where those who enter His wedding feast have eternal life and those who do not are cast out into eternal torment, (Matthew 25:1-13). Later in the chapter, He plainly explains:
"But when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats," (Matthew 25:31-32).
Jesus claimed, as the Son of Man, to be the bridegroom of the new covenant who will come in glory, be attended by all the angels, and sit on a throne over all humanity deciding who is cast into hellfire. If that is not claiming to be God, nothing is claiming to be God.
The Lord of the Sabbath
God established the Sabbath by the seven-day pattern of creation itself, and God claimed the day as His own. The Scriptures declare things like:
"You shall keep My sabbaths and reverence My sanctuary; I am the Lord," (Leviticus 26:2).
"the seventh day is a sabbath of the Lord your God..." (Exodus 20:10, see also Deuteronomy 5:14).
"You shall surely observe My sabbaths; for this is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am the Lord who sanctifies you," (Exodus 31:13).
"Sanctify My sabbaths; and they shall be a sign between Me and you, that you may know that I am the Lord your God," (Ezekiel 20:20).
It is easy to multiply such passages, but the point is clear. The Sabbath is "unto the LORD," and God calls it, "My Sabbath." It is a day that God set aside wholly for Himself. God defined what could be done and what could not be done on this holy day that God appointed for the honor of His own name. God is the Lord of the Sabbath. Jesus, again, takes this title for Himself as His right as the Son of Man, declaring:
"For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath," (Matthew 12:8, see also Mark 2:28, Luke 6:1).
In fact, just before this, Matthew records for us Jesus' provocative words:
"Or have you not read in the Law, that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple break the Sabbath and are innocent? But I say to you that something greater than the temple is here," (Matthew 12:5-6).
The Temple was great because it represented the presence of God. While God fills the universe and is enthroned in the heavens, God was also uniquely present in the Holy place. For this reason, the priests labor of worship, sacrifices, and upkeep of the temple was permitted even on Sabbath days. Jesus claimed that if the presence of God in the Holy of Holies and His name upon that place justified certain work on the Sabbath, then the presence of the Son of Man justified it even more! Jesus was greater than the Holy of Holies, the place of God's personal presence where only the priests could enter. The Son of Man is the Lord of the Sabbath and is greater than the temple! Jesus was not claiming to be the Father. He is careful in His words. He was, however, claiming to be the personal presence of God!
The Name and the Prophets
Jesus also said to His disciples:
"Blessed are you when men hate you, and ostracize you, and insult you, and scorn your name as evil, for the sake of the Son of Man. Be glad in that day and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven. For in the same way their fathers used to treat the prophets," (Luke 6:22-23, see also Matthew 5:11-12).
In other words, when you suffer for the sake of the Son of Man, you are doing the same thing that the prophets did. But for whose sake did the prophets suffer? For God, obviously. They did not suffer in the name of another future prophet or a merely human Messiah. They suffered in the name of Yahweh, Jehovah, the one true God. Jesus said that when you suffer in the name of the Son of Man, you are doing the same thing. Jesus is not, therefore, claiming that He is like the other prophets. He is claiming that you are like the other prophets when you suffer for His sake because that is what the other prophets did! Thus, once again, Jesus is claiming that He, the Son of Man, is God.
Trampling the Water
Jesus also testified powerfully to His deity during one of His most striking miracles. We read:
"Immediately Jesus made His disciples get into the boat and go ahead of Him to the other side to Bethsaida, while He Himself was sending the crowd away. After bidding them farewell, He left for the mountain to pray. When it was evening, the boat was in the middle of the sea, and He was alone on the land. Seeing them straining at the oars, for the wind was against them, at about the fourth watch of the night He came to them, walking on the sea; and He intended to pass by them. But when they saw Him walking on the sea, they supposed that it was a ghost, and cried out; for they all saw Him and were terrified. But immediately He spoke with them and said to them, 'Take courage; it is I, do not be afraid.' Then He got into the boat with them, and the wind stopped; and they were utterly astonished," (Mark 6:45-51, see also Matthew 14:22-31, John 6:16-21).
It is important to note that, in every version of this story, when Jesus says "fear not, it is I," the Greek words translated here "it is I" are "ego eimi" or literally "I am." The disciples see a figure walking to them on the water in the midst of a violent storm. They are afraid that it is a ghost. Jesus corrects them, saying, "fear not, I AM." Now, the meaning of the phrase "ego eimi" is determined by the context. If people are trying to figure out if you are the Messiah and you say "ego eimi," you clearly mean "I am the Messiah." If, as in John chapter 9, people are trying to figure out if the man who can now see is the same man who was born blind and the man says "ego eimi," then the man is saying "I am the man who was born blind." The person need only say "I am." Context provides the rest of the sentence.
The story of Jesus walking on water is peculiar, however. The disciples think Jesus is a ghost, and Jesus responds by saying "ego eimi." He responds by saying "I am." He is clearly not trying to say "I am a ghost." He is, in fact, saying that He is not a ghost. What, then, is He saying that He is? The grammatical context does not supply any other answer. How are we to understand Jesus' assertion then? What is He saying? Fear not, I am...what? Once again, the Old Testament Scriptures provide us with a remarkable answer. In Exodus, Moses asks God who he is supposed to tell the people of Israel has sent him:
"God said to Moses, 'I AM WHO I AM;' and He said, 'Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you,’” (Exodus 3:14).
Many are quick to point out that, in the Greek Septuagint, "I AM" in Exodus 3 is not merely translated as "Ego Eimi" but rather as "Ego Eimi Ho-Ohn" which means "I am the being one," or "I am the one who is." This is true; however, it is not the whole story. In the ancient Septuagint translation of Isaiah, the simple form "Ego Eimi" or "I AM" is used as a title for God on multiple occasions,5 so the simple form of "Ego Eimi" can certainly be used as a reference to God's name. The question here is not if "ego eimi" can be a title for God, the question is whether or not Jesus meant it that way. Again, the disciples thought He was a ghost, and He corrected them by saying "I AM." Why would he do that? The Old Testament book of Job gives us a possible answer. In describing the one true God, it says:
"Who alone stretches out the heavens and tramples down the waves of the sea," (Job 9:8).
The Septuagint renders this phrase:
"Who alone stretched out the sky and walks on the sea as on dry ground."6
If God alone "walks on the sea as on dry ground," then a figure walking on the sea as on dry ground could not be a ghost. Jesus may have been refuting their superstition by reminding them that only God, only the "I AM," could do what He was doing. This is certainly what early Christians thought Jesus was doing by appropriating the title "I AM." For example, in the words of the prominent ancient Greek pastor, John Chrysostom, we read:
"As the Father used this expression, `I Am,' so also doth Christ;"7
At any rate, even if one remains convinced that this is making too much of Jesus' words, the fact remains that the disciples saw, either in the words or in the miracle itself, something powerful that testified that He was divine and worthy of worship, for right afterward we read:
"When they got into the boat, the wind stopped. And those who were in the boat worshiped Him, saying, 'You are certainly God’s Son!'" (Matthew 14:32).
Jesus did not rebuke or correct this reaction. It was the appropriate response.
Jesus did not ever use the overly simplistic phrase, "I am God, worship me." He did, however, repeatedly make it clear that He, as the glorious Son of Man, was indeed divine and worthy of worship. He distinguished Himself from the Father and the Spirit, but did so in the context of strict monotheism. Jesus claimed to be God, affirmed His Father as God, and insisted that there was only one God. In other words, Jesus claimed to be God in a Trinitarian fashion and in a way that was careful to be consistent with all the revelation that had come before.
- 1. John 20:28-29
- 2. Especially since many of the same Muslims will appeal to John as an accurate record of Jesus' words when attempting to twist those words to argue that Jesus prophesied the coming of Muhammad.
- 3. This passage is discussed in more detail HERE
- 4. Chagigah 14a
- 5. Dr. James White, The Forgotten Trinity (Bethany House Publishers, 1998) 98
- 6. A New English Translation of the Septuagint (Oxford University Press, 2007) 675
- 7. From John Chrysostom's "Homilies in John" as cited in Dr. James White, The Forgotten Trinity (Bethany House Publishers, 1998) 97