Did Jesus ever claim to be God, or was this something his followers made up after his death? In response, Christians typically point to examples in the Gospel of John as evidence of Jesus’ divinity, such as Jesus claiming “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). Christians choose these examples in John because they are the most explicit.
Critics, however, are not usually satisfied with this answer. They will sometimes respond by arguing that since the Gospel of John was written last, and that these explicit claims do not appear in Matthew, Mark and Luke (Synoptics), John must have exaggerated Jesus’ claims to deity.
It’s true that Jesus’ claims to deity are more explicit in John than in the Synoptics, but does this mean that the Synoptics portray Jesus as someone less than divine? Clearly not. I believe that there are numerous examples in the Synoptics of things Jesus said and did which together make a strong cumulative case for his claims to divinity.
In the Sermon on the Mount (ch. 5-7), Jesus speaks with unparalleled authority. He says things like “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (5:17). How can a mere man bear such a responsibility? Jesus also “adjusts” the Old Testament law when he says “You have heard that it was said…but I say to you…” These passages are usually considered to be claims to divine authority. At the end of his sermon, Jesus claims that he has the final word when it comes to people’s eternal destinies (7:21-23).
Perhaps Jesus’ strongest claim to divinity in Matthew is where he mentions his exclusive relationship to the Father:
“All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (11:27).
Here Jesus shows his divine self-awareness. He claims that the Father has given him “all things,” that he alone knows the Father, and that it is his prerogative to reveal the Father to whomever he chooses!
The final passage (28:16-20) also contains several signs of divinity. Jesus is worshipped after his resurrection by his disciples. Jesus says that “all authority” has been given to him. Jesus makes himself equal to God by commanding his disciples to baptize “in the name [singular] of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” And Jesus closes with affirmation of his omnipresence when he says “I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Truly in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus sees himself as Immanuel, “God with us” (1:23).
The Gospel of Mark is often accused of having a low view of Jesus, and yet in the first three verses Jesus is called “the Son of God” and he is linked to Isaiah’s prophecy about Yahweh’s coming (“prepare the way of the Lord”). A few stories later, Mark recounts the story of Jesus healing a paralytic (2:1-12). In this story, Jesus audaciously declares to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” The scribes that are present think to themselves “He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” Mark says that Jesus read their minds and then responded, “The Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.”
The title “Son of Man” is Jesus’ most-used title and originates in the Old Testament:
“I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed” (Daniel 7:13-14).
This figure in the book of Daniel appears before the Ancient of Days (God) and receives dominion, glory and an everlasting kingdom over all people. Towards the end of Mark, Jesus’ use of this title is perhaps his most explicit claim to deity in the book:
“Again the high priest asked him, ‘Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?’ And Jesus said, ‘I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.’ And the high priest tore his garments and said, ‘What further witnesses do we need? You have heard his blasphemy. What is your decision?’ And they all condemned him as deserving death” (Mark 14:61-64).
Here Jesus affirms that he is the Christ and the Son of God. In addition, Jesus claims that as the Son of Man he will be seated at God’s right hand and will come again with the clouds of heaven. Once again the people’s reaction is to say that Jesus has spoken blasphemy and that he deserves to die for claiming to be equal with God.
Parallels from Matthew and Mark abound in the Gospel of Luke, including Jesus having the titles Son of Man (5:24) and Son of God (22:70). In Luke 6:5 Jesus claims that he is able to redefine the Sabbath because he is the “lord of the Sabbath.” This is something that only a person virtually equal to God would have the authority to do. In Luke 7:36-49, Jesus again claims to be able to forgive sins. In Luke 22:28-30, Jesus claims that he received a kingdom from the Father and has the power to assign that kingdom to his disciples. Jesus also hints at his preexistence by pointing out the fact that the Messiah could not have been David’s son since David calls the Messiah “Lord” (20:41-44).
In the Parable of the Wicked Tenants (20:9-19), Jesus tells a story of a man who planted a vineyard and left it to some tenants while he was away. The owner then sent three of his servants separately to the vineyard to collect some fruit. Each servant was beaten by the tenants and was sent away empty-handed. The owner then sent his beloved son, thinking that the tenants would respect him. The tenants recognize that the son is the heir to the vineyard, so they kill him for the inheritance. Jesus says that eventually the owner will come to destroy the tenants and to give the vineyard to others.
In the parable, the owner is God, the vineyard is Israel, the tenants are the Jewish religious leaders, the servants are the prophets that were sent to Israel, and Jesus is the heir and beloved son of God. Thus Jesus thought of himself as God’s unique Son, as one who was higher than the prophets, as the heir of Israel, and as the final messenger sent from God.
These examples from the Synoptics clearly show that Jesus thought of himself as divine. In the Synoptics, Jesus said and did things that only God could have said and done. In fact, even skeptical scholar Bart Ehrman eventually came to see that all of four Gospels portray Jesus as divine, albeit in different ways:
“These Gospels do indeed think of Jesus as divine. Being made the very Son of God who can heal, cast out demons, raise the dead, pronounce divine forgiveness, receive worship together suggests that even for these Gospels Jesus was a divine being, not merely a human…So yes, now I agree that Jesus is portrayed as a divine being, a God-man, in all the Gospels. But in very different ways, depending on which Gospel you read.”
Four Points to Remember:
- The Gospel of Matthew presents Jesus as one with divine authority, as having an exclusive relationship with God the Father, and as one equal with the Father and the Holy Spirit.
- The Gospel of Mark presents Jesus as one with the divine authority to forgive sins, and as one who blasphemously considered himself to be the Christ, the Son of God, and the Son of Man.
- The Gospel of Luke presents Jesus as the unique Son of God, who has the divine authority to redefine the Sabbath, to forgive sins and to transfer his kingdom to others.
- Events and sayings from all three Synoptics make a strong case for Jesus’ claims to divinity.
Ehrman, Bart D. “Jesus as God in the Synoptics.” The Bart Ehrman Blog. N.p., 13 Apr. 2014. Web. 07 Oct. 2016.