If you’ve succeeded in convincing a non-believer (using undeniable facts and concrete evidence plus common-sense logic) that the Gospels and New Testament writings are as trustworthy as anything in existence you’ve brought them a long way towards “seeing the light.” However, don’t get the big head and think you’ve converted them because more questions are likely still to come. (Note: Our job as Christians is to inform and educate. The Holy Spirit takes care of the conversion part. Just sayin’…) While a person might concede the Bible hasn’t been radically tampered with and has remained remarkably intact over the centuries it doesn’t mean they’ll automatically become a follower of Jesus. They might say something like “Just because the authors considered Him God doesn’t mean He was. How can we know what was inside Jesus’ mind or what His motivation was for going about His Father’s business the way He did? If Christ knew He was the Son of God why didn’t He make it so obvious (say, by making the Roman occupiers vanish into thin air or something equally spectacular) it’d leave no room for the slightest doubt?” These are legitimate questions and Christians must be ready to answer them. Especially in this era when too many know-it-alls say that, because He didn’t emphasize His deity above everything else, Jesus never thought He was God and certainly never aspired to be worshipped.
As always, we must restrain from taking the societal norms of 2,000 years ago and cramming them into a modern day context. Things were profoundly different back then and that must be taken into account. For example, if Jesus had stood up at the temple gate in Jerusalem and shouted to the crowd, “Hey, y’all! Allow me to introduce myself. I’m God!” they would’ve heard it as “I’m Yahweh” and that wouldn’t have made any sense to them whatsoever. Remember, the Jews had no concept of a Holy Trinity that included a Son and a Spirit. To them there was only God the Father permanently situated in heaven. Therefore He couldn’t be ruling over the vast universe and, at the same time, be physically here in human form. They would’ve either dismissed Jesus as a nut to be ignored or a shameless blasphemer worthy of stoning on the spot. Say what you will about Christ but He never came off as a foolhardy or reckless extremist. He knew the Scriptures better than anyone and was acutely aware of what the populace of Israel expected the promised Messiah to look and act like. Thus He exercised tact in what He preached and did outside the exclusive circle of His twelve disciples. Yet it was His reluctance to be blatantly outspoken about being the only begotten Son of God that’s spurred the mistaken (but nonetheless controversial) notion that Jesus only thought of Himself as a common, ordinary guy who wanted to teach what He perceived to be the truth. To combat that falsehood one can start with Christ’s relationships with other people.
Take His estimation of John the Baptist, for instance. In Matthew 11:11 He said of him, “I tell you the truth, among those born of women, no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist.” That’s high praise, no? Yet Jesus repeatedly topped John by performing unprecedented miracles in His ministry that included healing hundreds afflicted with incurable ailments. By doing such things without uttering a single word of self-praise He was conveying a lot about what He thought of Himself. His relationship with the antagonistic religious leaders shows even more. He told them, “What defiles a person is not what goes into the mouth; it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles a person” (Matthew 15:11). In essence, by implying that the true spiritual state of one’s heart is revealed by one’s speech, He was setting aside large portions of Leviticus, the book filled with meticulous rules about keeping oneself pure. The Pharisees were mightily offended because they were quite happy with the status quo and changing it wasn’t on their “to do” list. But Jesus wouldn’t back down. He said God the Father had sent Him to usher in a new covenant. Now, what sort of man would think he’s got the authority to override the divinely-inspired Jewish Scriptures and replace them with his own teaching? Think about it. Then there’s Jesus’ relationship with the conceited, unsympathetic Roman authorities who went to the unusual trouble of tacking a sign on His cross that read, “This is the King of the Jews.” Concerning this Dr. Ben Witherington mused, “Either Jesus had made that verbal claim or someone clearly thought he did.”
But to me those things are subjective at best. I prefer to base the issue of Jesus’ deity on more substantial evidence like His referring to Himself as the “Son of Man.” He did that almost 50 times. Why’s that important? Because in Daniel 7:13-14 the Son of Man is the one escorted into the very presence of the Almighty, is “given ruling authority, honor, and sovereignty,” is served by “all peoples, nations, and language groups,” and whose reign is “eternal and will not pass away” or “be destroyed.” Seeing that the Son of Man was the divine figure in the book of Daniel who’d arrive at the end of the world to judge mankind and rule forevermore, Jesus’ frequent claim of being the Son of Man was an undisguised claim of Godliness. The same can be said about His applying the “I AM” tag to Himself. In John 8:58 He addressed a group of Jerusalem’s effete snobs (who’d sarcastically asked Him if He’d ever hung out with Abraham) with, “I tell you the solemn truth, before Abraham came into existence, I AM!” Predictably, they reacted by putting a contract out on Him. Jesus also alluded to his being God when, in Mark 2:5, He said to the paralyzed man (to the chagrin of the “experts in the law” standing by), “Son, your sins are forgiven.” As theologian D.A. Carson commented, “The only person who can say that sort of thing meaningfully is God Himself, because sin, even if it’s against other people, is first and foremost a defiance of God and His laws.”
Christ often called His Heavenly Father Abba, an Aramaic term that meant “Father dearest.” In modern lingo we’d say Daddy. For Jesus to use that expression reflected an intimacy that was positively alien in the ancient Jewish culture. In fact, devout Jews would avoid even whispering God’s name out of fear they might accidentally mispronounce it and suffer His wrath. Once again this begs the question of who’d dare to change the traditional way of relating to God except one who knew the Father personally. Dr. Witherington said, “Jesus is saying that only through having a relationship with Him does this kind of prayer language – this kind of “Abba” relationship with God – become possible. That says volumes about how He regarded Himself.” Next consider the implications of Thomas’ encounter with the resurrected Christ. Jesus invited His brooding disciple to dispel his lingering doubts by touching His authentic wounds. Thomas did so and then declared, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28). Lee Strobel opined, “It would’ve been the height of blasphemy for Him to have knowingly received Thomas’ worship unless Jesus really was God.” Jesus didn’t chastise Thomas but spoke to him gently in verse 29, “…Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are the people who have not seen and yet have believed.” Likewise, when Jesus asked His disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” and Simon Peter answered with “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” the Lord didn’t correct him or infer he was bonkers. On the contrary, Jesus said “You are blessed, Simon son of Jonah, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but my Father in heaven!” (Matthew 16:15-17)
Jesus also didn’t hide the fact that the eternal destination of every individual would henceforth be determined by whether they chose to believe in Him or not. In John 8:23-24 He told the Jewish leaders (who’d just heard Him say He was the “Light of the world” and promptly labeled him a liar) to their astonished faces, “You people are from below; I am from above. You people are from this world; I am not from this world. Thus I told you that you will die in your sins. For unless you believe that I am he, you will die in your sins.” During the feast of the Dedication the same Jewish honchos cornered Jesus while He was strolling about the temple area in Solomon’s Portico and snarkily pestered Him with “’How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ then tell us plainly.’ Jesus replied, ‘I told you and you do not believe. The deeds I do in my Father’s name testify about me. But you refuse to believe because you are not my sheep. My sheep listen to my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish; no one will snatch them from my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one can snatch them from my Father’s hand. The Father and I are one” (John 10:24-30). Of course, this sent them erupting into a frothing-at-the-mouth hissy fit. Incensed beyond measure, they tried to grab Him and beat Him to a pulp but it wasn’t in God’s plan and He slipped away. And, in Luke 12:8 we find Jesus preaching to a crowd, saying “I tell you, whoever acknowledges me before men, the Son of Man will also acknowledge before God’s angels.”
It seems that Christ made it crystal clear on several occasions who He was via bold statements like that. As Bob Dylan sang, “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” William Lane Craig wrote, “Make no mistake: if Jesus were not the divine Son of God, then this claim could only be regarded as the most narrow and objectionable dogmatism. For Jesus is saying that people’s salvation depends on their confession to Jesus himself.” The abundant evidence in the Gospels alone proves conclusively that Jesus knew who He was. Dr. Kevin Vanhoozer said, “Jesus understood himself to be the beloved Son of God, chosen by God to bring about the kingdom of God and the forgiveness of sins. Our understanding of who Jesus was must correspond to Jesus’ own self-understanding. If we do not confess Jesus as the Christ, then either he was deluded about His identity or we are.” The opening verses of John’s magnificent Gospel provide us with a thorough portrait of Jesus: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was fully God. The Word was with God in the beginning. All things were created by him, and apart from him not one thing was created that has been created. In him was life, and the life was the light of mankind. And the light shines on in the darkness, but the darkness has not mastered it” (John 1:1-5). I surmise that, taking into consideration what He said about Himself, Jesus wouldn’t alter a single word in that striking passage. Raymond Brown said, “I have no difficulty with the thesis that if Jesus… could have read John He would have found that gospel a suitable expression of His identity.”
One also can’t discount the fundamental belief that Jesus was Emmanuel (literally, “God with us”) that permeated the opinion of the body of Christ’s church from the start. Church historian Jaroslav Pelikan demonstrated through his research that the oldest Christian sermon, the oldest account of a Christian martyr, the oldest pagan report of the church and the oldest liturgical prayer all refer to Jesus as God. Pelikan summed it up with this statement: “Clearly, it was the message of what the church believed and taught that ‘God’ was an appropriate name for Jesus Christ.” That bedrock belief had to have been fostered and confirmed as true by the disciples who’d walked alongside the Messiah for three years. Otherwise they themselves would’ve discouraged that notion. Keep in mind these were the same fellows who’d denied, disobeyed and deserted their Master when push came to shove. Something radical happened to them after the crucifixion that affected them so deeply they were never confused about Jesus’ identity again and spurred them to openly defy the powers of Rome and the Jewish leadership in order to spread the Good News. Dr. Witherington conjectures the disciples’ view of Christ from that moment on was “Jesus thought He was the person appointed by God to bring in the climactic saving act of God in human history. He believed He was the agent of God to carry that out – that He had been authorized by God, empowered by God, He spoke for God, and He was directed by God to do this task. So what Jesus said, God said. What Jesus did was the work of God.”
I believe with all my heart that Christ knew exactly who He was and why He was here on earth. The inhabitants of this fallen planet needed a Savior then and they still need one today. We all live under the curse brought upon mankind by Adam and Eve’s deliberate sin against the Heavenly Father. Thus we all owe a debt we can’t possibly pay. In Mark 10:45 Jesus said, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Jesus knew what His core mission was and it wasn’t to leave behind quotes to inspire generations yet to come. Don’t misunderstand me. What He taught is of the utmost importance and we who follow Him should strive to absorb every word He said in order to live a life that pleases and glorifies Him. But nothing compares to “The meaning of the cross…” (See 1 Corinthians 1:18). For it was upon Calvary hill that everything changed forevermore.
Look, the authorities had tried to thwart Him at every juncture. They’d tried to entrap Him with tricky “gotcha” questions over and over again until they realized He was smarter than all of them put together. They’d plotted repeatedly to capture Him and remove Him from the public arena but He always evaded their clutches. Finally they resorted to paying off one of His closest companions who’d decided to sell Him out. They held an illegal trial, declared Him a dangerous heretic and then used the threat of insurrection to get a paranoid Pilate to sentence Him to the most torturous death ever devised. They proceeded to nearly skin Him alive with serrated whips and then forced Him to lug a heavy wooden beam up to Golgotha. They nailed Him to a cross and waited for Him to die while He writhed in agony. Yet despite all the inhuman ugliness He was being unfairly subjected to He never for a second stopped loving us. Luke 23:24 records that in the very midst of excruciating pain He prayed aloud, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” It dawned on me recently that, out of all the people living on terra firma at that time, Jesus was the only one who did know what He was doing. He knew that God had previously destroyed the entire world with a flood and given mankind a brand new start but we’d botched it. He knew God had then established a chosen race that, because of a mutually-agreed upon covenant, could securely set an example for the rest of civilization to copy but we’d blown that golden opportunity, too. He knew the only hope we had of redemption was for Him, the Son of God, to be born into a flesh-and-bone body, shoulder all the sins of humanity alone and pay the horrible penalty that unimpeachable, divine justice demands be paid.
I think it’s fair to say that today we still don’t know what we’re doing. But those of us who’ve surrendered our life to Christ do know we’re forgiven of our sins even as we commit them constantly because Jesus was fully aware of what He was doing. According to the respected theologian Royce Gordon Gruenler, the evidence Christ was cognizant from childhood forward that He intended to stand in the place of God and reconcile His children to their Heavenly Father by the love-drenched power of His unfathomable grace is “absolutely convincing.” We didn’t know what we were doing, much less what Christ was doing as He bled out on that rugged cross – but Jesus knew.