At a crucial point in his ministry, Jesus asked his disciples,“Who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15). The answer to this question is more important than anything else. Nevertheless, today, just as in Jesus’ day, when Christians ask people the question “who do you say Jesus is?” there are various answers given concerning his identity. But what does the New Testament tell us about who Jesus is?
Understanding the deity of Jesus is fundamental in defending the truth of the Christian faith.
All major religions1 and cultic groups2 reject the doctrine of deity of Christ. Some of these objections are a result of rationalism (“reason” is supreme, not God) over revelation or a misunderstanding of what the doctrine teaches. Another more common objection results from revisionist history, which claims that Christ’s deity was invented at the Council of Nicaea in the 4th century3 and not something believed by the early church.4
The reason Christians believe in the deity of Jesus is that we are forced to come to this conclusion by the clear teaching of Scripture. It is important to get Jesus’ identity because if we deny the deity of Jesus then we do not have the Father (1 John 2:23; cf. John 5:23). Here are 10 Scriptural reasons for the deity of Jesus.
Jesus’ divinity is part of the doctrine of the Trinity.
This is important to understand because many objectors to the deity of Jesus misunderstand what Christians believe about the Trinity. Christians believe what the Bible teaches—that there is only one true and living God (Deuteronomy 6:4; cf. 1 Corinthians 8:6). However, we must not confuse monotheism (belief in one God) with Unitarianism (the belief that the being of God is shared by one person). Jesus’ divinity is part of the doctrine of the Trinity, which states that within the one Being that is God, there exists eternally three co-equal and co-eternal persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Each is a distinct person, yet each is identified as God: the Father (1 Corinthians 8:6), the Son (John 1:1–3; Romans 9:5), and the Spirit (Acts 5:3–4). We must also remember that it wasn’t the Father or the Spirit who became incarnate; it was the Son (John 1:14) and he was born under the Law (Galatians 4:4). This is why, in his humanity, Jesus prays to the Father (Matthew 26:39, 42).5
The doctrine of the Trinity is revealed between the Old and New Testaments through the incarnation of Jesus and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.6 God did not change between the Old and New Testaments, being a Unitarian God in the Old and a Trinitarian God in the New. God has always been Triune, but the specific revelation of the divinity of Jesus takes place in the New Testament.7
The New Testament in several passages clearly teaches that Jesus existed in eternity past before his birth in Bethlehem.
Genesis 1:1 tells us, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” In John 1:1 we read the same words, “In the beginning.”8 John informs us in John 1:1 that in the beginning was the Word (logos) and that the Word was not only with God but was God. This Word is the one who brought all things into being at creation (John 1:3). John 1:1 teaches that the Word is eternal, the Word has had an eternal relationship with the Father, and the Word as to His nature is deity.
In his prayer in John 17:3–5 Jesus both refers to his pre-existence and uses terminology that can only be used about deity:
And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do. And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.
To have eternal life is to know two persons: both the Father and Jesus (see John 14:6-7; 16:3). But notice, Jesus is distinguished from the Father because Jesus is the one speaking to the Father. The personal pronouns (me, your, you) clearly show that this is one person speaking to another. In this conversation, the Son is speaking of the glory he has shared with the Father before the world was; the words “in your own presence” refer to their sharing of divine glory.9 John 17:3–5 is not an example of the “human side” praying to the “divine side” but of a divine, yet incarnate (John 1:14) person, the Son, communicating with a divine, but non-incarnate person, the Father in heaven.
Paul’s words in Philippians 2:5–8 teach not only the deity of Jesus but also the distinct personhood of the Son prior to his incarnation.10 In this passage, Paul exhorts the Philippians to have the same attitude as Christ Jesus who “existed in the form of God.”11 These words come before the verbs emptied, taking, and becoming and point to the pre-existence of the one “existing in the form of God.”12 Moreover, Jesus did not regard13 the equality he had with God the Father, in eternity past, something to be held on to. Instead he “made himself nothing”14 by doing two things: taking the form of a bond-servant and being made in the likeness of men.15 Having entered into human existence he humbled himself to death on the Cross. Because of this, every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord (Philippians 2:10–11); it is only God who is to be worshipped as Lord (see Isaiah 45:23).
Jehovah’s Witnesses believe Paul’s statement in Colossians 1:15 that the “firstborn of all creation” teaches that Jesus was a created being. However, the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ teaching resembles the view of the ancient Colossian heresy that Paul had to combat.
The Colossian false teachers advocated the idea that Jesus was the first of many other created mediators between God and men. By using the specific Greek word prōtotokos, “firstborn,” Paul rules out the idea of Jesus as a created being. “Firstborn” does not mean “first created.” Rather, Paul uses a term that was based on the ancient designation of the authority, or pre-eminence, metaphorically given to the firstborn (Genesis. 49:3–4; Exodus 4:22). In the same way, David, the youngest of Jesse, was named “firstborn” (Psalm 89:20–27) who ruled Israel. Manasseh was born to Joseph first, but Ephraim, his younger brother, was “firstborn” due to his position as given by Jacob/Israel (Genesis 48:13–20, Jeremiah 31:9).
By describing Jesus as the “firstborn over all creation,” Paul is saying that he is the absolute ruler over all creation.
Furthermore, if Paul had wanted to describe Jesus as a created being, he could have used the Greek word protoktistos, which means “first created.”16 So why didn’t he use it? Because Paul did not believe Jesus was created. By describing Jesus as the “firstborn over all creation,” Paul is saying that he is the absolute ruler over all creation.
In fact, the evidence that Jesus is supreme over all creation comes in Colossians 1:16. Here, Paul absolutely rules out the idea that Jesus is a created being because he presents Jesus as the Creator of the entire universe which exists by his creative power (John 1:1–3; Hebrews 1:2, 8–10). The reason Jesus can “create all things” is that “in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily” (Colossians 2:9). The Greek word for “Godhead,” theotēs, refers to “the state of being God.”17 It is only God who can create (Isaiah 42:5, 44:24, 45:18).
At the Feast of Tabernacles/Booths in his encounter with the Pharisees (John 8:13), Jesus told them, “I told you that you would die in your sins, for unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins” (John 8:24). The Jewish people reacted to Jesus’ statement by asking him, “Who are you?” (John 8:25).
Jesus told the Jews exactly who he is: “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58). This “I am” (ego eimi) statement was Jesus’ clearest example of His proclamation, “I am Yahweh,” from its background in the book of Isaiah (Isaiah 41:4; 43:10–13, 25; 46:4; 48:12; cf. John 13:19).
These are the very words (ego eimi) ) that caused the Roman soldiers to fall to the ground after they came to arrest Jesus (John 18:6). Jesus’ explicit identification of himself with Yahweh of the Old Testament is why the Jewish leaders wanted to stone him for blasphemy (see John 5:18; 10:33).
Both Jesus and his apostles identified him as divine. The Apostle Peter described Jesus as “our God and Savior” (2 Peter 1:1; cf. Titus 2:13) and called on believers to “honor Christ the Lord as holy” (1 Peter 3:15).18 Jesus’ own half-brother James, who was an unbeliever at first (John 7:5), described him as “the Lord of glory” (James 2:1; cf. 1 Corinthians 2:8; Psalm 24:7–8). What man or prophet could be described in this way? The Apostle John also attributed titles to Jesus that were used only of God by describing him as the “Alpha and Omega” and the “first and the last” (Revelation 22:13; 1:8, 17–18; cf. Isaiah 44:6). The writer of the book of Hebrews also has insight into the identity of Jesus In Hebrews 1, the author identifies Jesus (the Son) as superior to any prophet (vv. 1–2), above the angels (v. 5), worthy of our worship (vv. 6–8; cf. Psalm 45:6–7), and the creator of all things who is unchangeable (vv. 2–3, 10; cf. Psalm 102:25). The author of Hebrews further states that Jesus is “seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2; cf. Acts 2:30).
One of the clearest evidences of the deity of Jesus is the Jewish leaders’ reaction to Jesus’ words and actions. In Mark 2, Jesus not only heals a paralytic but also forgives his sins (Mark 2:5). This is the reason that the scribes cry blasphemy, for it is God alone who can forgive sins (Mark 2:7).19
In his trial before the Sanhedrin Jesus is once again charged with blasphemy because of his response to the high priest’s question: “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” (Mark 14:61) Jesus responded, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven” (Mark 14:62). Then the high priest tore his clothes, charged Jesus with blasphemy, and condemned him to death (Mark 14:64). Why did the high priest respond that way? Because Jesus quoted from Psalm 110:1 and Daniel 7:13–14 and applied the words to himself. In Daniel 7 the divine Son of Man comes before the Ancient of Days, and all peoples and nations serve20 him. The Pharisees recognize Jesus’ divine claim here and charge him with blasphemy, intending to put him to death.
Prayer is something that should be addressed to God alone, but Jesus calls his disciples to pray to him (John 14:13–14; 16:26). In the book of Acts when Stephen is being stoned to death, he calls out to the Lord Jesus to receive his sprit (Acts 7:59). Interestingly, the term for “calling on” (epikaloumenon) recalls the appeal of Peter to the people in Acts 2:21 to “call on” (epikaleshtai) the Lord to be saved. Paul also describes the Corinthians as those who “call upon [epikaleo] the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:2). In the Old Testament, people “called on” on the name of Yahweh (Joel 2:32). The Corinthians were people who addressed Jesus as Lord in prayer.
Jesus accepted worship from people (Matthew 2:2, 14:33, 28:9). One of the greatest examples of this comes from the lips of Thomas when he exclaimed, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28). If Jesus was not divine, then Thomas made a serious error; but Jesus made no effort to correct Thomas in his worship. Yet Peter (Acts 10:25–26), Paul (Acts 14:14–15), and the angel in Revelation (Revelation 22:8,9) all corrected others for trying to worship them. The confession of deity here is unmistakable, clearly demonstrating that worship belongs only to God (Revelation 22:9) because Jesus accepted Thomas’s worship of him (John 20:29).
What’s more, in the book of Revelation, the elders and every creature in heaven and upon earth ascribe universal worship to “him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb” (Revelation 5:11–14; cf. John 1:29).
Jesus not only identified as God, but he also indicated his deity through his words and actions. Jesus said that to enter the Kingdom of Heaven we must call him Lord (kurios, Romans 10:9; cf. Matthew 7:21). Just saying that Jesus is Lord does not get you into the Kingdom, but to enter the Kingdom you must confess Him as Lord.21 The entrance into God’s Kingdom, according to Jesus, is dependent upon a person’s knowledge of him and his reciprocal knowledge of the person (Matthew 7:23).
Jesus even promised rest to all those who come to Him (Matthew 11:28). Could Moses have ever made a claim like this? No! How could a human being give anyone rest from the Law?22 Jesus also claimed, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18). God never gave any man or prophet all authority in heaven and on earth, but this same authority was given to the Son of Man in Daniel 7:13–14 (see also Matthew 26:64).
It is often pointed out that the words “Son of God” are not an exclusive title for Jesus. For example, in the Old Testament Israel was called God’s son (Exodus 4:22–23; Hosea 11:1), the king was called God’s son (Psalm 2:7), and the angels were called God’s sons (Job 38:7). Even in the New Testament, Adam and believers are referred to as son/s of God (Luke 3:38; Romans 8:14).
There is, however, a difference between an adopted son and a relational Son of God, the latter being a deity by nature. More than anyone else who has walked this earth, Jesus the Messiah is uniquely entitled to be called the Son of God (John 1:49, 11:27) – “the unique One, who is himself God” (monogenēs theos – see John 1:18 NLT).23
Whatever Jesus said about himself must have been sufficiently provocative enough for the Jewish leaders to call for capital punishment on that charge of blasphemy.
In Jesus’ trial before Pilate, the Jewish leaders clearly understood that Jesus’ use of this term was not just generic, for they wanted him put to death: “We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has made himself the Son of God” (John 19:7; cf. John 10:36). According to the Law, it was blasphemy to use God’s name (Leviticus 24:16). Therefore, by referring to himself as the Son of God, Jesus was claiming to share “the rights and authority of God himself (cf. [John] 1:34; 5:19–30).”24 People who say that Jesus never claimed to be God must answer why he was crucified on the charge of blasphemy. Whatever Jesus said about himself must have been sufficiently provocative enough for the Jewish leaders to call for capital punishment on that charge of blasphemy.
The significance of this is that failure to believe in Jesus as the Son of God brings judgement because we are already dead in our sins (see John 3:18, Ephesians 2:1), but believing in Jesus as the Son of God brings eternal life (see John 3:15–17, 6:40, 20:31).
Although there may be many objections to Jesus’ deity, the New Testament clearly provides eye-witness testimony to the words, actions, and teachings of Jesus that prove his deity. A false Jesus cannot save you. If we do not get the identity of Jesus right, we will die in our sin (John 8:24).