Sage, Madman, Neither, or God
Professor Peter Kreeft of Boston College has set forth what has come to be known as “the sages argument.” I think we’d agree with Dr. Kreeft that most human beings would never claim to be sages—masters of extraordinary wisdom gained through exceptional powers of reflection, contemplation, or enlightenment. Professor Kreeft singles out, however, some of those rare persons who have come to be almost universally regarded as sages—Moses, Socrates, Confucius.
As great as they were, though, none of those sages claimed to be God. Thankfully, almost all humans realize that we are not God, at least not in the Judeo-Christian sense of God. Most of us would write off as insane anyone claiming to be THE Supreme Being. Yet Professor Kreeft singles out one remarkable human being as noteworthy for having been long-accepted and widely recognized as a sage—not a madman—even though he did claim to be God in the flesh. That person, of course, was Jesus of Nazareth.
Did Jesus Really Claim to Be God?
Jesus of Nazareth’s claim to deity must be examined in light of the culture in which he lived. He lived and taught mostly among strict, powerful, sometimes even militant, monotheistic Jews. And of course, these Jews were under the heel of a Roman Empire that was largely polytheistic and pagan. How does a man claim to be God without insult to firm monotheists, and at the same time, without being counted as just another demi-god among the pagan pantheon? A very sticky proposition indeed! But not too big if the person making the claim is indeed the Most High himself.
Jesus of Nazareth presented himself as God in three primary ways. He claimed to do things that only God could do. He claimed characteristics that only God could have. And he claimed a divine relationship that humans cannot claim. Let’s have a look at examples of each.
Things That Only God Can Do
On one occasion, when Jesus was preaching indoors, four men brought a paralyzed friend on a stretcher to Jesus. Mark 2:5 says, “When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’” The experts in Jewish law rightly responded, “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mk. 2:7) You and I can forgive a person if he has wronged us or if he has wronged someone we particularly care about, but what power do you or I have to take away all of another’s sins, especially those not perpetrated against us? Why, none, of course. But Jesus claimed to be able to do what only God can do—absolve a person of all his sins.
The critic would rightly challenge us here, “You can say what you want about forgiving sins, but how do we know that you actually removed the man’s sins? That’s an internal things that we can’t see.” So what did Jesus do?
Jesus responded, “‘But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins,’ – he said to the paralytic ‘I tell you, stand up, take your stretcher, and go home.’” And what happened next? According to Mark 2:12, “And immediately the man stood up, took his stretcher, and went out in front of them all.” The physical healing of the paralytic served to prove Jesus’ spiritual healing of the same man’s soul.
On another occasion, Jesus did something that would be morally reprehensible, perhaps downright blasphemous, unless he is, in fact, God. In John 20:28, the apostle Thomas, upon seeing the resurrected Jesus fell down and exclaimed, “My Lord and my God!” Instead of rebuking Thomas for worshiping a mere human, Jesus accepted Thomas’ worship replying, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are the people who have not seen and yet have believed.” (Jn. 20:29) He had already accepted the worship of some of the women in Matthew 28:9, and would later accept the worship of a larger group of followers in Luke 24:52. The resurrection demonstrated Jesus’ right to receive worship.
In his actions, Jesus’ claimed the power and the right to do what only God can do, including the power and right to judge all mankind. (Jn. 5:21-23) Thus, he claimed deity.
Characteristics That Only God Has
Jesus’ actions were in harmony with the divine characteristics that he claimed. In addition to actions, he claimed attributes that can only belong to God. For example, when Jesus told the Jewish people in Jerusalem, “Before Abraham came into existence, I AM,” (Jn. 8:58) he claimed to have been living forever. Furthermore, and perhaps more stunningly, Jesus used the very name of God (“I AM”; see Ex. 3:13-14) for himself in making the claim of being an eternal being.
Jesus claimed to have glory equal to the Father (Jn. 17:5) knowing full well that God had already expressly stated that he would not share his glory with anyone else (Isa. 42:8; 48:11).
Unique Relationship with God the Father
Some of us might declare that, in a sense, God is our Father, too. If we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we do make that assertion (Matt. 6:9). But that’s not the same claim that Jesus was making. He claimed God as his Father in a different sense. In John 5:17-18, Jesus made himself equal with God when he stated that his work was his Father’s work. He reserved for himself a unique, divine relationship that no one else has.
Whereas God made each of us at a certain point in time, Jesus announced that he had “come from” God the Father in a different way. Even the Jews noted that there had been something different from the norm going when Jesus was born. In John 8:41, the Jewish people in Jerusalem wrongly assumed that Jesus had been born as the result of his mother’s immoral behavior. Jesus responded in 8:42 that it wasn’t anything like that—he had “come from” (left or departed from the presence of) the Father to arrive among them. His relationship with the Father was not anything like their relationship with their human fathers or like their relationships with the Father.
Jesus would go on to later explain (Jn. 10:30) that, unlike any other human, he and the Father are one. How did the Jews understand Jesus’ the oneness claim? They picked up rocks to stone him to death for “claiming to be God.” (Jn. 10:33)
So it is quite clear. Based on his actions, on the attributes he claimed for himself, and the unique relationship he claimed with the Father, the people of Jesus’ time and culture clearly understood that he claimed to be God—the God! We can accept his claim or reject it, but he did make it. I, for one, accept it since he backed it up by rising from the dead.