The Jews of Jesus’s day believed that the God of Israel was unique, unlike any other thing. There was an infinite, impassable gulf between God and His creation. “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and wit all your understanding” (Deut 6v4, or the Shema). The faithful Jew recited this daily, promising to serve YHWH him with everything they were and had. They also recited the ten commandments, which viewed God as the only object worthy of worship, and insisted that no human image or creation could reflect who he was. The God of Israel was different from all other gods, in that he and he alone, was the sole creator and ruler of all things.
Isaiah 48 v 12 “Listen to me, O Jacob, Israel, whom I have called: I am he; I am the first and I am the last. 13 My own hand laid the foundations of the earth, and my right hand spread out the heavens; when I summon them, they all stand up together
The Lord is God and there is no one like him, is the constant refrain of the Hebrew Bible. Yet, read against the background of the Hebrew bible it is clear that the Gospel’s identify Jesus with Israel’s unique God.
Jesus taught in parables and allusions, he made hints and gave clues about his mission. He never gave a point by point sermon that explained exactly what he meant by the Kingdom of God. Rather he taught in a series of parables, a performed a number of miracles that explained what he meant by the Kingdom. He expected his followers to reflect on who he was and what he was saying and doing; if they were open to Gods guidance, they would form the correct conclusions. In short, he expected his followers to think, and think hard. He demanded effort, and humility. “He that has an ear let him hear”. It is not surprising that Jesus never straight-forwardly claims to share YHWH’s identity. He never came straight out with a claim to anything else of importance.
So, how does Jesus claim to be God in the synoptic gospels? First, we will look at a series of miracles in which Jesus acts in a way that only God can act. It is important to notice that he does not ask God to perform these miracles on his behalf (like Elijah or Elishah, nor does God talk to him to tell him how to perform these miracles (as he did with Moses). Rather, Jesus performs his miracles on his own authority on every occasion. It is what Jesus did, rather than how he did it that demonstrates who he is. We will focus on just two examples.
Mark Chapter 4-
Jesus Calms the Storm 35That day when evening came, he said to his disciples, “Let us go over to the other side.” 36Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with him. 37A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. 38Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”
39He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm.
40He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”
41They were terrified and asked each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!”
Why would the disciples be terrified after being saved from certain death? Were the Israelites described as terrified after being led through the Red Sea? The disciples were terrified as they had just seen Jesus do what the Old Testament do what only God could do. Apart from the other quotations we will look at, Jesus has just re-enacted a scenario described in Psalm 107.
23 Others went out on the sea in ships;
they were merchants on the mighty waters.
24 They saw the works of the LORD,
his wonderful deeds in the deep.
25 For he spoke and stirred up a tempest
that lifted high the waves.
26 They mounted up to the heavens and went down to the depths;
in their peril their courage melted away.
27 They reeled and staggered like drunken men;
they were at their wits’ end.
28 Then they cried out to the LORD in their trouble,
and he brought them out of their distress.
29 He stilled the storm to a whisper;
the waves of the sea were hushed.
30 They were glad when it grew calm,
and he guided them to their desired haven.
31 Let them give thanks to the LORD for his unfailing love
and his wonderful deeds for men.
Only God could save the sailors caught in the storm. And yet the disciples had just been saved by crying out to Jesus, and he had just calmed the storm on his own authority, without praying to God himself, or seeking Gods help (“Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!”). A few other Old Testament texts should show that Jesus was clearly demonstrating an authority that only the creator possessed. No angel or other divine being could share this authority according to the Old Testament, and the Gospels portray this authority as properly belonging to Jesus.
8 O LORD God Almighty, who is like you?
You are mighty, O LORD, and your faithfulness surrounds you.
9 You rule over the surging sea;
when its waves mount up, you still them.
6 who formed the mountains by your power,
having armed yourself with strength,
7 who stilled the roaring of the seas,
the roaring of their waves,
and the turmoil of the nations.
3 The seas have lifted up, O LORD,
the seas have lifted up their voice;
the seas have lifted up their pounding waves.
4 Mightier than the thunder of the great waters,
mightier than the breakers of the sea-
the LORD on high is mighty.
“Who shut up the sea behind doors
when it burst forth from the womb,
9 when I made the clouds its garment
and wrapped it in thick darkness,
10 when I fixed limits for it
and set its doors and bars in place,
11 when I said, ‘This far you may come and no farther;
here is where your proud waves halt’?
It is clear from these passages that God alone has control of the sea, and the authority over the waves. This is part and parcel of Gods rights as creator of the sea. Such authority can be shared with no other. Jesus, by calming the storm, put himself on an equal footing with the creator.
Another miracle, which appears in all four Gospels, that clearly demonstrates Jesus identity with the God of Israel, is Jesus walking on the water. Compare the description in Marks gospel with the two Old Testament texts that follow.
Mark 4 -
Jesus Walks on the Water 47When evening came, the boat was in the middle of the lake, and he was alone on land. 48He saw the disciples straining at the oars, because the wind was against them. About the fourth watch of the night he went out to them, walking on the lake. He was about to pass by them, 49but when they saw him walking on the lake, they thought he was a ghost. They cried out, 50because they all saw him and were terrified. 51Immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” Then he climbed into the boat with them, and the wind died down. They were completely amazed.
7 He speaks to the sun and it does not shine;
he seals off the light of the stars.
8 He alone stretches out the heavens
and treads on the waves of the sea.
18 Your thunder was heard in the whirlwind,
your lightning lit up the world;
the earth trembled and quaked.
19 Your path led through the sea,
your way through the mighty waters,
though your footprints were not seen.
The miracle of “Treading the Waves” identifies Jesus with the God who led Israel through the Red Sea to freedom with Egypt. (Both Old Testament texts allude to this incident). Furthermore, the quotation from Job clearly establishes that Jesus was doing as a man what only God could do as creator.
Jesus parables also teach that Jesus was identical with the God of Israel. For example, Jesus told the parable of the Lost Sheep to explain why he fellowshipped with the sinful and not the righteous. Jesus clearly plays the part of the shepherd in the parable.. In the Old Testament God describes himself to the prophets in many occasions as Israel’s true Shepherd (Psalm 23 being the obvious example). In his parables Jesus not only identifies himself as a good shepherd, but the “Good Shepherd”. By comparing his parables with relevant Old Testament texts, we can see quite clearly that Jesus is identifying himself with Israel’s unique God.
The Parable of the Lost Sheep
1Now the tax collectors and “sinners” were all gathering around to hear him. 2But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
3Then Jesus told them this parable: 4″Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? 5And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders 6and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbours together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ 7I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.
Now as we have said, Jesus is defending his own actions in welcoming sinners, so he is comparing himself to a trustworthy shepherd. Compare the actions of Jesus in this parable with Gods actions in the two texts following.
8 The LORD is the strength of his people,
a fortress of salvation for his anointed one.
9 Save your people and bless your inheritance;
be their shepherd and carry them forever.
10 See, the Sovereign LORD comes with power,
and his arm rules for him.
See, his reward is with him,
and his recompense accompanies him.
11 He tends his flock like a shepherd:
He gathers the lambs in his arms
and carries them close to his heart;
he gently leads those that have young.
Jesus tells a similar parable in Matthew 18.
Matthew 18 – The Parable of the Lost Sheep
12″What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? 13And if he finds it, I tell you the truth, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. 14In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost.
John 10 – The Shepherd and His Flock
1″I tell you the truth, the man who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. 2The man who enters by the gate is the shepherd of his sheep. 3The watchman opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.”
What becomes clear is that Jesus describes himself as a Shepherd who performs the same role as God the Shepherd, by searching for the lost sheep of Israel, bearing them in his arms, carrying them home, or leading them along the way. Especially compare Gods words in Ezekiel 34 v11, and Ezekiel 34 v 16 with Jesus words about himself in Luke 19v10, which is also quoted below.
1 Hear us, O Shepherd of Israel,
you who lead Joseph like a flock;
you who sit enthroned between the cherubim, shine forth
2 before Ephraim, Benjamin and Manasseh.
Awaken your might;
come and save us.
11 ” ‘For this is what the Sovereign LORD says: I myself will search for my sheep and look after them. 12 As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness 16 I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice.
Luke 19 v 9+10
Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. 10For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.”
The Old Testament prophets believed that God himself was coming to rescue his people, that he personally would be their shepherd, a better shepherd than the religious leaders who had led his people astray in the past. He would then establish David’s heir, the Son of David, to keep his people safe. What seems amazing about these texts is that Jesus was not only identifying himself with the Davidic figure. Jesus was clearly identifying himself with God in his saving role as Israel’s shepherd. He viewed himself as the one who fulfilled the prophets promise that one day God himself would come like a shepherd and rescue his people Israel. Jesus was fulfilling Israel’s expectations and Gods promises in a way that no-one could have expected.
It is also instructive to compare the passage in Ezekiel reproduced below, with Jesus parable of the sheep and the goats. There Jesus not only compares himself to God the Shepherd, but also claims to be able to do what only God will do in the last day Judge the world. In fact Jesus uses precisely the same imagery for himself that God uses for himself.
Matthew 25The Sheep and the Goats
31″When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
17 And as for you, O my flock, thus saith the Lord GOD; Behold, I judge between cattle and cattle, between the rams and the he goats.
If there is any further doubt about Jesus’ identity in the Gospels, compare Ezekiel 36 8-9, Jeremiah 24 v 6-7, or Hosea 2v21-21 with the parables which compare Jesus to a sower. Compare Ezekiel 16v8-14, or Hosea 2 to the parables were Jesus describes himself as a bride groom. Compare Zephaniah 1v3 with Matthew 13v41. Read Joel 4 and then read Matthew 25.
Ask why Jesus can forgive Sins in Mark 2. Ask why he never once says “Thus says the Lord”, or goes up a mountain like Moses to receive commandments, but rather teaches on his own authority. Ask why Jesus can describe himself as greater than Solomon and David, Lord of the Sabbath, and to be more significant than YHWH’s temple in Jerusalem.
Now, from a purely historical point of view, if every gospel contains passages that strongly imply that Jesus is to be with God, and if every gospel uses images both in common with others, and unique to themselves – then isn’t it highly probable that in every source that was used to prepare the gospels Jesus spoke of himself as one equal with God? And, if that is the case, surely Jesus did speak of himself as one equal with and identified with God? This is hardly the sort of teaching Jews would invent if they wanted to make their Rabbi popular among other Jews. And, finally, ask yourself, what sort of man makes this sort of claim? A mad man (for a while his own family thought so)? A charlatan and blasphemer (nearly every credible Jewish religious authority said so)? Or some-one who is telling the truth.
It is plain, in any case, that the gospels portray a Jesus who considers himself as owning the rights and prerogatives of God, and whose identity is an essential part of the identity of the God of Israel. And we have only scratched the surface of the evidence for example we have not looked at the teaching of Paul, or of the book of Revelation. The New Testament is clear on the identity of Jesus, so long as you are prepared to read it with knowledge of the Old Testament and this is always how it was meant to be read. How did Orthodox First Century Jews, with their firm belief in the uniqueness of God and his superiority to all creation (especially human beings) come to believe that a crucified and shamed man was not only Messiah, but equal to and identified with God? I will leave that question to the reader to decide for themselves. Those who knew Jesus, who memorised his teachings, and passed on the traditions that he had given to them were in no doubt however. That in Jesus Christ God was not only at work God had come down from heaven to be fully human, and take up his place as Israel’s true king.