Who is this Jesus?

In Mark 4:35-41 we find this story of Jesus being awakened by his terrified disciples while he is asleep on a boat in the midst of a life-threatening storm. After he is awakened Jesus “rebuked the wind and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm” (v. 39). Afterwards Jesus chastises his disciples for their lack of faith, and leaves them wondering among themselves, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (v. 41)

As Richard Hays so astutely observes in his book, “Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels” (2016, pp. 66-69), one immersed in the Scriptures of Israel would readily pick up on the clues embedded in Mark’s story, that is the echoes of specific passages in the Old Testament (see Ps 107:23-32; Job 38:8-11; Ps 89:9; Ps 106:8-12; Is 51:9-11; Ps 44:23). These echoes are especially resonant when you look to the Greek translation of the Old

Rembrandt_Christ_in_the_Storm_on_the_Lake_of_Galilee
“The Storm on the Sea of Galilee” by Rembrandt – 1632

Testament (the Septuagint) which is what the New Testament writers quote much of the time. These same echoes are present in Matthew’s account too, but there he leaves us with the question, “What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him? (Matt 8:27).

The answer from Israel’s sacred Scriptures indicates that it was the Lord (Yahweh) God himself who commanded the wind and the sea (see also the story of Jonah). So this man Jesus wasn’t just another ordinary man! He was indeed a man, as the New Testament makes clear in many ways (i.e. he ate, slept, prayed, learned, laughed, loved, cried, suffered, and even died). Yet he was more than just a man. Mark and Matthew both indicate that Jesus controlled the forces of nature just as God is described as controlling the forces of nature. Hence, Jesus doesn’t here pray to God the Father to rebuke the winds and the sea, he rebukes them himself as Yahweh (the Lord) is described rebuking the Red Sea for the sake of the terrified Israelites in the exodus (Ps 106:8-12).

This question of Jesus full identity posed by his disciples in Mark 4 follows a similar question posed by some of the scribes in Mark 2. There, after Jesus declares to a paralytic man that his sins are forgiven, some of the scribes saw this as blasphemy as they rightly asked, “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (v. 7). Jesus, discerning their thoughts, insisted that as “the Son of Man” he shared God’s authority to forgive sins (v. 10).  So by the time we reach Mark chapter 4 – the gospel supposedly with the “lowest” Christology – we know that Jesus possesses God’s authority to forgive sins and to control the forces of nature.

Most of the debate regarding Jesus’ identity often centers around several proof-texts, much of the time without regard to the wider context. There are a few places in the Bible where Jesus is specifically referred to as God. Because they are few, those who are opposed to the doctrine of the Trinity often discount them because they are few in number. This is fallacious thinking. Just because something is only mentioned explicitly a few times in the Bible does not diminish its significance. Sometimes those opposed to the teaching of Jesus’ divinity also attempt to downplay the significance of Jesus being referred to as the Son of God. Some will say, for instance, that all believers are referred to as God’s children, as are angels and that doesn’t make all believers and every angel God. But this line of reasoning neglects to do justice to the fact that Jesus is described as the Son of God in a singularly unique sense. John 3:16 of course calls him the “only begotten Son” (KJV). And Hebrews 1 clearly distinguishes him from angels who are said to worship him (v. 6). Matthew 11:27 testifies to the unique relationship between Jesus the Son and the Father, as does Luke 10:22.

 “All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows who the Son is except the Father, or who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” Luke 10:22

John’s gospel reveals this unique relationship much more explicitly throughout culminating in Thomas’ confession of Jesus as “My Lord and my God!” (Jn 20:28). At any rate, limiting the “proof” for Jesus’ divinity to specific verses where he is referred to as God is misleading. It is prudent to consider all that Jesus shares with God the Father.

Jesus shares so much more than the authority to forgive sins and authority over natural forces. He also shares divine titles including but not limited to God and Lord, as we have already seen. The most common title that Jesus shares with Yahweh of Israel’s Scriptures is “Lord” (Greek – kurios). Kurios is the Greek translation of Yahweh, the name of the God of Israel, in the Septuagint. Some argue that this is just a title of respect offered to Jesus because of his role as the messiah-king. Kurios is used for human authority figures like Abraham and David as well. But, as with any word, context determines the meaning of any given use.

When Thomas referred to Jesus as Lord as cited above, he obviously paired that title with the title of God (Greek – theos) applying both to Jesus. Some still might argue that he applied those to Jesus in a lesser sense, although what is said of Jesus in John 1 and elsewhere in John (see 8:58; 10:30 and the context of each) would work against that line of reasoning. Nevertheless, Hebrews 1 also applies both the title God and Lord to Jesus. In Hebrews though those titles are applied to Jesus in a context where the entirety of Psalm 102:25-27, which refers to the “Lord” as the unchanging Creator (cf. Heb 13:8), is applied to him as well.

Jesus also shares other divine titles such as “the first and the last” (Rev 1:17; 22:13), which is how Yahweh refers to himself in Isaiah 44:6. In Isaiah 45:23 Yahweh says “To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear allegiance.” The apostle Paul readily applies very similar language to Jesus in Philippians 2:10-11, after saying that Jesus has been given “the name that is above every name” (v. 9). Paul says that not only will every knee bow at the name of Jesus, but every tongue will “confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” The way Paul attributes the title/name Lord to Jesus in 1 Corinthians 8:6, which echoes Deuteronomy 6:4, indicates that he means much more than Jesus is a lord. He means Jesus is the Lord, who shares in much more than the titles and name of God. Jesus receives the same allegiance that Yahweh in the context of the Isaiah passages cited above reserves exclusively for himself.

“yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.”  1 Corinthians 8:6

This level of allegiance for Jesus would be idolatry unless Jesus is more than a mere mortal creature. See how that same verse also indicates that Jesus shares in the creative power of God the Father. Jesus work in creating the cosmos is indicated in other places in the New Testament too (Jn 1:1-3; Col 1:15-17; Heb 1:1-3, 10). Yet Jesus shares even more with God the Father.

Jesus shares the role of God as the Shepherd of God’s people who seeks after the lost and heals the wounded (Ezk 34:11-12). He shares in God’s role as the Savior of his people (Is 43:11). Jesus also shares God’s role as the final judge of the nations (Mth 25). Moreover, he shares God’s role as the one who sends the Holy Spirit to empower his people. Like God the Father, Jesus receives the prayers and the praises of God’s people (Acts 7:59-60; Rev 5). Additionally, Jesus declares that he along with God the Father is to be the object of the faith of God’s people (Jn 14:1), and he, without hesitation, receives worship that belongs to God alone (Mth 28:17; cf. Mth 4:8-10) and likewise shares in the glory that belongs to God alone (Jn 17:1-5; cf. Rev 4-5). As with the word of Yahweh, Jesus boldly claims that his words likewise will never pass away (Is 40:8; Mth 24:35). Moreover, Jesus says to his disciples, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (Jn 14:15 which clearly echoes Dt 6:5ff). Like Yahweh promised his abiding presence to Israel, so too Jesus promises his abiding presence to his disciples (Dt 31:6; Matt 28:20).

The problem really isn’t that the New Testament is murky in terms of Jesus’ divine identity. Even the Old Testament hinted that God himself would come to save his people. See Ezekiel 34 where God says emphatically, “Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out”(v. 11) in contrast with the corrupt human leaders whom he had appointed to shepherd his people (cf. Jn 10; Matt 15:24, 18:11; Lk 19:10). Ezekiel 34:23-24 does indicate that God would does this through the coming messiah figure, there referred to as his “servant David.” Would this figure, though, be merely a man through whom God would work like the kings and prophets before? Or would this figure be more than a mere mortal, in some way sharing God’s divine identity?

Malachi, echoing Isaiah says, “Behold I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me (God). And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; …” Isaiah 35:4 says, “Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you.” Isaiah 40:3-5, which Matthew, Mark, and Luke all partially quote and apply to John the Baptist as the forerunner who was preparing the way for Jesus. Take a look at the full quote from Isaiah.

 “A voice cries:
‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord;
    make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
 Every valley shall be lifted up,
    and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
    and the rough places a plain.
 And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
    and all flesh shall see it together,
    for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’” Isaiah 40:3-5

There were hints throughout the prophets that in some way God himself was going to come to save his people, shepherd them, and reign as king over them (see Zech 14). How exactly would he do this? The New Testament indicates that God did this in Jesus, not by indwelling the body of a mere man, but by becoming human himself. God didn’t do this through simply indwelling the body of another, but by creating his own human body, soul, and spirit. As John put it, the divine eternal word who shared in the work of creation became flesh and dwelt among us (Jn 1:1-14). As Matthew (1:20) and Luke (1:35) put it, the human Jesus was not the byproduct of the ordinary sexual union of a man and a woman, but the creative work of the Holy Spirit in the womb of  the virgin, Mary.

What was murky in the Old Testament becomes clear in the light of the revelation of Jesus in the New Testament. In Christ God really did show up to save and shepherd his people. The promised human messiah king was in the same person the Lord of all.

The issue really isn’t that the Bible is unclear on the divine identity of Christ, although, indeed, the incarnation and the revelation of God in Scripture presents us with mind-boggling paradoxes. One God in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? Two natures, divine and human, in one person? These are certainly things beyond full human comprehension. But the Bible does declare that there is but one God, and that the Father, the Son (the Word) and the Holy Spirit are each distinct persons with subject/object relationships who are each God by nature. The Trinity is the Church’s best effort to faithfully hold together all of these things revealed about the One True God in Scripture. And what I’ve shared here barely even scratches the surface of the multitudinous, often subtle, sometimes overt, ways that Scripture reveals the divine identity of Jesus, especially as the New Testament is properly read with the Old Testament background firmly in mind. After all, Jesus insisted that Israel’s Scriptures were all about him (Jn 5:39). As Richard Hays put it:

“The more deeply we probe the Jewish and Old Testament roots of the Gospel narratives, the more clearly we see that each of the four Evangelists, in their diverse portrayals, identifies Jesus as the embodiment of the God of Israel.” Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels p. 363

Still there will be many who will object. In some cases there are unitarians who insist that the church has really just misinterpreted the Bible. I used to be one of them. In reality they start with what seems more reasonable to them, and then bend Scripture to fit a unitarian framework. In most cases they make arguments against a docetic modalism while thinking they are making arguments against the Trinity. They do this by pitting Jesus’ human nature against his divine nature in an either/or fashion. They also conflate the person of the Son with the person of the Father. If Jesus was God, they ask, then who did he pray to? This is an honest question. I just had a 7th grade confirmation student ask the same thing because he was genuinely confused. But as a human Jesus certainly prayed to God the Father. Again he was both human and divine. Moreover, as the divine Son who is a distinct person from the Father, he could also direct communication and love to the Father, as also the Father communicated and expressed love to the Son (Mk 1:11). Admittedly these are difficult things to grasp. Ultimately, it requires humility and faith to believe what we can’t fully comprehend.

In other cases, there have been rationalists like the deist Thomas Jefferson, who recognize that the Bible really does teach that Jesus is God. They just reject these claims as legend. They accept Jesus as a great moral, very mortal teacher, perhaps, but nothing more. They know the Bible teaches these things, they just don’t believe they are true. There are many progressive Christians today who usually accept that the Bible teaches the divinity of Christ, but would interpret those teachings as a metaphor for Jesus’ attainment of the highest level of God-consciousness or something of that sort, probably conceived of within the framework of a deistic, pantheistic, or possibly even an atheistic worldview.

In the case of Islam, which is staunchly unitarian, the Quran presents mixed messages. On the one hand there are passages in the Quran that indicate that Christians have simply misinterpreted the Bible (Surah 3:78). There are appeals for Christians to just read the Gospel to see the truth that Jesus is not the divine Son of God (Surah 5:46-47). On the other hand, there are Muslim apologists who insist that the text of the Bible itself has been changed to be misleading, based on other verses in the Quran (there is no evidence of this, by the way). In either case there is a flat out rejection of the belief that Jesus is the divine Son of God or that God is a Trinity. In case of the later, however, the author of the Quran seemed to think the Christian Trinity consisted of Jesus, Mary, and God (Surah 5:116).

 Who is this Jesus? As hard as it may be to believe, the Bible reveals Jesus to be the fully human embodiment of the God revealed in the Old Testament – fully human and fully divine. Therefore Jesus deserves all the glory and honor that he rightfully shares with God the Father and the Holy Spirit, a glory that Yahweh declared he would never share with any other (Is 42:8; cf. Jn 5:23; Jn 17:1-5; Rev 4-5).

2 thoughts on “Who is this Jesus?

  1. How many people in the boat 15 hint Rembrandt and one more down below deck. Get in the boat it’s a good place to be in the midst of storms

    Like

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