A common objection we hear from our Muslim friends regarding the deity of Jesus is this: Jesus never directly said “I’m God”.
How would you defend the deity of Jesus using his own words?
Passages from John’s Gospel may readily spring to mind—for example the ‘I am’ statements of John 6:20 or 8:58. Yet many Muslims will respond by saying those are not direct enough, or might even reject the authority of John’s Gospel altogether.
So here are some steps to follow so that we can be on the front foot in answering our Muslim friends. In part 2 of this series we’ll offer a defence of Jesus’ divinity from his own words.
1. Reject the premise
The challenge of “Jesus never said he was God” seeks to limit proof of Jesus’ deity only to his direct speech. But that’s not how God’s revelation in Scripture works. Christians are not red-letter-only believers but all-of-the-Bible believers. For no good reason, this objection rejects the testimony of the rest of the Gospels and the letters of the New Testament, as well as the testimony of the Old Testament, which also points to the Trinitarian nature of God.
Furthermore, demanding specific words from Jesus is also rather silly because it gets us nowhere in a discussion. If a Muslim friend objects that Jesus never directly said “I’m God”, you could say in response: “Show me where Jesus directly says, ‘I’m not God; please don’t worship me’, or even ‘I’m only a prophet; please don’t worship me’”.
Or even consider the positive side: both Christians and Muslims believe in the virgin birth of Jesus, as well as Jesus’ identity as the Messiah. But where does Jesus directly say, “I am the virgin-born Son of Mary” or even “I am the Messiah”? Should both the Muslim and Christian disbelieve those things because there are no direct words from Jesus on the issue? Again, that’s not how God’s revelation in the Bible operates.
2. Reframe the issue
If the first move is to gently reject the premise, then the second should be to reframe the issue. Why? Read the Gospels and you will see that when enemies and sceptics confronted Jesus, he hardly ever allowed them to set the agenda. For example, in Mark 7 the Pharisees and scribes come to Jesus with a challenge about why Jesus’ disciples don’t wash their hands before eating, as per the traditions of the elders. Instead of taking the bait, Jesus reframes the issue: the heart of the matter isn’t about being ritualistically clean on the outside but about how terribly unclean we are on the inside.
So, following the wisdom of Jesus, how should we reframe this particular challenge?
We may like to gently ask our Muslim friends how they’re responding to what Jesus did already directly say and do. We miss the much larger issue when we unnecessarily limit matters to Jesus giving us a direct statement about his deity. Here are two threads you could raise as examples:
Jesus repeatedly said that he would die and rise again
Muslims reject Jesus’ death yet Jesus spoke about the reality and certainty of his death directly. For example, read Mark 9:31 and Mark 10:33-34, 45. And not only does Jesus’ death fit consistently with the ancient Old Testament prophecies, but the Gospel accounts and the rest of the New Testament don’t make sense without Jesus’ death. Even the ancient non-Christian accounts record Jesus’ death as historical! What will our Muslim friends do with Jesus’ words regarding his death and resurrection?
If not true, Jesus’ words and teaching smack of sinful egotism
Jesus teaches as though he has ultimate and divine authority to interpret God’s commands in the Old Testament: “You have heard it said… but I say to you…” (Matt 5:21, 27, 31, 33, 38, 43). Jesus words show that he thinks the Old Testament is all about himself (Luke 24:44, cf. John 5:39). And again and again Jesus draws attention to himself in a way that is blasphemous if he isn’t God. For example, he claimed to be the final judge of all men (Matt 25:31-32), the one who raises the dead (John 5:25-29, John 11:25) and the forgiver of sins (Mark 2:5-12). These are all roles that belong to God in the Bible, and Allah in the Qur’an.
Many who claim to accept Jesus as a good teacher (or prophet in the case of our Muslim friends) often have never actually stopped to read what Jesus taught and said. It’s difficult to imagine someone reading any of the four accounts of Jesus’ life and concluding that Jesus viewed himself as merely a good man or even only as a prophet. He either has an overly elevated view of himself, or else it’s true.
The challenges around Jesus’ deity are the tip of a much larger issue about what we’re going to do with Jesus as a whole. What are we going to do with the many other things that Jesus did directly say and do?
In part 2 we will show how Jesus’ own words clearly pointed to his identity as God, even if he never used the exact phrase “I am God”. But for now let’s end by answering why Jesus never did use those exact words our Muslims friends ask for.
3. Why didn’t Jesus directly say “I’m God”?
Even if you reject the premise and reframe the issue, your friend may well come back to the question at hand: why didn’t Jesus just say outright that he is God? We might like to answer with two linked reasons.
Jesus controlled his self-revelation
Early on in his ministry, Jesus commanded the demons to be silent regarding his identity (e.g. Mark 3:12). The time wasn’t yet right. Instead Jesus wanted to lead people to a full revelation of his identity himself. He would feed his disciples like little children, weaning them onto the solids of his identity piece by piece. And he knew how easy it was for people to misunderstand categories and titles. For example, Jesus was God’s chosen king—yet he would not rule from a golden throne in Jerusalem like many imagined, but instead from a harsh wooden cross outside the city. Jesus had to teach the disciples what these Old Testament titles and categories really meant as he fulfilled them. Before he could ever say “I am God”, he had to show them what that really meant for him to be God in true and biblical terms.
Jesus invites people to seek more
A classic example is Jesus’ use of parables. We use stories to make thing clearer; Jesus used parables to hide things. Why? Because Jesus invites the kind of hearing that doesn’t end with people remarking, “I must say, Jesus is quite the story-teller!”. Instead he invites the kind of hearing that leads people to think: “Hold on! There’s something more here, and I need to go to Jesus to work it out”. As Mark 4:10-12 tells us, those who seek more and go to Jesus are given the secret of the kingdom of God; but those who don’t go to Jesus stand outside judged.
Jesus invites people to seek more from him and he pronounces judgement on those who don’t, and those who perhaps have already fitted Jesus into another framework. We don’t get to set the agenda with Jesus by demanding certain signs or miracles, or even by demanding a certain set of words.
As much as possible, we must keep pointing our Muslims friends to the testimony of the whole Bible, and we must also specifically invite them to grapple with all Jesus said and did. And as we present Jesus to them, let’s pray that the Father by his Spirit will draw their affections to the Son who brings life.