Who Did Jesus Think He was Anyway?

Written by Michael Horner

There are only four options for the identity of Jesus Christ. He was a legend, a liar, a lunatic—or Lord and God.

Legend?

Those who support the legend hypothesis say that the claim to be God was a result of the religious imagination of the early church, and as such, was written back into the mouth of Jesus. The real Jesus, they say, said no such thing.

First of all, this view fails to take into account the fact that it takes more than two full generations for legendary traces to wipe out the hard core of historical fact (A.N. Sherwin White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament, Oxford U. Press, 1963, pp. 189-191). There is good evidence that Matthew, Mark, Luke and Acts were written within one generation after Christ, but even if all the Gospels were written after 70 AD, as proponents of the legend theory suggest, this is still within the two generations that are needed before mystical tendencies can prevail over the historic core.

Second there is no question that the earliest Christians believed in and worshipped one of their own countrymen as Lord and God. How does one explain this worship by monotheistic Jews of one of their own countrymen apart from some divine claims or behaviour? If the real Jesus never made any such claims, this early belief in a divine Christ is inexplicable.

C.S. Lewis, one of the great literary experts on ancient myths, says of the Gospel accounts: “I have been reading poems, romances, vision literature, legends, myths all my life. I know what they are like. I know that not one of them is like this” (C.S. Lewis, Christian Reflections, Walter Hooper, ed., Eerdmans, 1967, p. 155).

Claims to be God

Since, therefore, there is little likelihood that Jesus’ claim to deity is legend or myth, we should expect to find something in His words and actions that suggest He thought of Himself as divine. Jesus’ self-perception as God is clearly seen in the various Gospel accounts.

  • He believed He had the power to perform miracles and cast out demons (Matthew 11:2-5Luke 11:20).
  • Jesus claimed to determine people’s eternal destiny (Luke 12:8-9).
  • Jesus placed His personal authority over the Law of God (Matthew 5).
  • In Mark 2:5-7, Jesus shows He believed He had the power to forgive sins. The scribes reacted by saying, “Who can forgive sins but God alone?”
  • Jesus thought himself to be the Son of God in a unique and absolute sense in his use of the term ‘ABBA’ (daddy) to refer to God (Matthew 11:27Luke 10:22Luke 20:9-18).
  • Jesus claimed to be “The Son of Man” – a divine figure  (Daniel 7:13-14)
  • Jesus claimed to be the “I AM” of the Old Testament (Matthew 14:22-23Mark 6:45-52Exodus 3:14).
  • Jesus formed the ‘Twelve’, but was distinct from them.
  • The most explicit claims to deity are found in John’s gospel where Jesus claims, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30); “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9); “Before Abraham was born, I AM” (John 8:58); and Jesus accepts worship as God (John 20:23). There is no reason to hold that these passages are merely the result of the over-developed imagination of John, since Jesus’ self-conception as God is already evident in the earlier three gospels.

Liar or lunatic?

Therefore, since Jesus claimed to be God, His claims are either true or false. If false, He must have been a liar, deliberately misleading the multitudes. Or, He was a lunatic, sincerely believing Himself to be God, when in reality He was just a man.

Jesus’ brilliant moral character and His willingness to die for His claim to be God have convinced most people that He was not lying. Jesus’ humility, warmth and unselfish love, His quick and skilful thinking in dealing with His opponents, His intelligent communication with the multitudes, and His amazing self-control and composure in the midst of the tremendous physical and emotional stress of His betrayal and crucifixion, all point to His contact with reality. Jesus was no lunatic.

Lord

If Jesus was not a legend and He claimed to be God, then, as we’ve said, His claim is either true or false. If it is false, He must have been a liar or a lunatic. Since the evidence shows He is neither a liar nor a lunatic, then the only other alternative left is that His claim is true. Jesus is Lord and God.

Next steps: Tour Jesus’ Life: What was Jesus’ Life All About?

Revised October 03

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