“But Jesus never directly said he’s God”, says our Muslim friend. How would you answer?
Part 1 of this series had us step forward on the front foot against this specific challenge by rejecting the premise and reframing the issue.
But if we did work within the boundaries imposed by our Muslim friends, how would we defend the deity of Jesus from his own words in the Gospels?
Before taking our Muslim friends to the much bigger ‘why’ question behind all of this (which we’ll address at the end of the article), we might offer two points in defence of Jesus’ divine identity that come from looking at the biblical context of Jesus’ ministry.
1. The claims of Jesus must be understood in the context of the Old Testament Scriptures
Many people don’t understand what Jesus says about himself because of how they read—or don’t read—the Bible. Context is so important for understanding Christian Scripture.
For us to properly understand Jesus’ claims, we need to understand that he doesn’t arrive in a bubble outside of history. The context is the Old Testament. And so, as Jesus goes about teaching and preaching, he uses titles and images from the Old Testament to show that he is the ‘yes’ to all of the Hebrew Bible’s promises. Jesus himself makes this claim in Luke 24:44 (cf John 5:39-40; 46-47 and Luke 24:25-27).
An example of this is Jesus’ use of the title ‘the Son of Man’. This is a title Jesus frequently used of himself (over 80 times, in fact). Muslims often argue that this proves Jesus cannot be God—he is just a son of man, and aren’t we all sons (or daughters) of men? But the background to this title is Daniel 7:13-15 where we find out that it’s “one like a son of man” who gets to waltz into God’s presence. This “son of man” is also given authority and glory and sovereign power—all things that properly belong to God.
As he uses this title, Jesus forces people to grapple with how the Son of Man and the Ancient of Days relate. Read Mark 2:1-11 and 2:23-3:6 yourself to see how the Son of Man claims God-like authority to forgive sins, and to be the Lord of the Sabbath. No mere prophet would dare to do this.
Jesus does claim to be God. But his claims come in the context of the Old Testament and for anyone with ears to hear, they are there. The Old and New Testament are two parts to a single story, and to understand part two of the Bible you should refer to part one. Our Muslims friends may want a direct sentence from Jesus, but God is saying he has given us the entire Bible. All of it proclaims that Jesus is God.
2. The people in Jesus’ immediate 1st century context understood Jesus’ claims to be God
As Jesus made such monumental claims, it’s important to look at how people understood them at the time, and how Jesus responded to their understanding.
The enemies of Jesus
There are plenty of examples of Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries hearing his claim to be God and their response is anger, because of course it was an offence for a mere man to make such a claim. Look up, for example, John 5:16-18, John 8:57-59 and John 10:30-33. In all three passages it is clear from people’s response that they understood Jesus’ claim to be God.
According to ancient historians you could be crucified for blasphemy if you uttered the divine name or claimed to be divine or possess power only properly belonging to God. In Mark 14 the Jewish authorities are looking for reasons to kill Jesus, and here they finally have what they need. In verse 62, Jesus quotes and applies both Daniel 7 and Psalm 110 to himself. The Jewish high priest who reverently (and possibly anxiously) entered the inner most part of the Jewish temple once a year would have heard Jesus claim his right to sit down in the holiest place of heaven, like he was God himself. No wonder the high priest tore his robes and declares “blasphemy” (v. 64).
Never once does Jesus deny it. We never hear “Guys, there’s been a giant mistake. I’m just a dude.” Wouldn’t a good prophet do that? Instead Jesus calmly accepts their understanding of his claim that he is God. The very reason Jesus was killed was because he claimed to be God.
The friends of Jesus
The disciples are slow to recognize the true identity of Jesus—sometimes it takes longer to believe than to reject. But in that process they have moments when they ask the right questions. For instance at end of Mark 4, when they’re out in a boat in the midst of a storm, the disciples go from terrified about the storm to terrified about Jesus. They ask in verse 41 “Who is this, that even the wind and waves obey him?” At this stage, Jesus leaves the question hanging: who is this man?
It’s only after Jesus’ death and resurrection that his identity is set in stone for his disciples. John 20:28-29 is the classic text where the biggest doubter exclaims in response to Jesus “My Lord and my God!”. It is extraordinary that a Jewish man would be willing to call another man God. Remember the context: both Muslims and Jews are revolted at ascribing deity to a mere human. In Matthew 4:10 Jesus himself acknowledges that no-one is worthy of worship but God alone. Even angels shun worship that’s directed at themselves rather than God, and so did the apostles. Yet we have no “Please, please don’t worship me” from Jesus here in John 20. Instead he responds with these words:
“Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet believed.” (John 20:29, NIV)
Believed what? That Jesus is Lord and God. Jesus doesn’t reject worship of himself; he accepts and encourages it. Would a good prophet do that?
The men who knew Jesus best became convinced by his words and actions that he was God—the God of the Old Testament.
As we close, there is a much larger ‘why’ question that is worth joyfully telling our Muslim friends:
Why did God the Son become a man?
Here is the scandal of God’s love. Every other religion offers laws and principles and pointers for us to reach up to God. Only Christianity offers God reaching down to us. God the Father ordained that in the power of God the Spirit, God the Son would come down to us to fix what only God can fix. God the Son got dirty in order to rescue us. He would do it as he took on our humanity in order to rescue us from within our humanity and this creation, both of which he is committed to restoring.
This simply matches the character of the God of the Bible. He is not aloof or detached from us and our problems. He always stoops to save his people. Our Muslim friends may not think it God-like; they may think it unbecoming. But God would say that by this you can know his love: Jesus willingly entered into our condition in order to restore our relationship with the triune God—the God who overflows with love.