Who Did Jesus Say That He Was?
On the internet, it’s easy to forget that most skeptics are not actually the hyperskeptics who are the poster-boys at skeptical forums – you know, the ones who deny the existence of the only person in the ancient world to have four biographies written of him within a century of his life, or who deny the obvious goodness of Jesus’ teachings, or deny the obvious fact that when Christianity has gone astray it has been for ignoring Jesus’ teachings, not for following them. For such hyperskeptics, their overreaching exaggerations and determined ill-will probably cost them more credibility than they suspect.
Most skeptics are of a more realistic variety: they can see and know that, in Jesus, there is something holy, something great, possibly even someone actually deserving of having more followers than any other religious leader in the history of the planet. The question for them becomes, Who is Jesus? And the answer hinges very much on the answer to one question: Who did Jesus say that he was?
Enough ink and electrons have been spilt on this topic to satisfy many readers. Still, some points have not been well-explored in light of their Jewish background. Here I’ll make mention of three such points:
- We can see that Jesus considered himself to be “the Messiah” (being translated, the Anointed), a figure expected in Jewish prophecy. Not just “a messiah” – various other figures were anointed – but the Messiah. A messiah was anyone who was anointed to have a measure of God’s authority. Kings were anointed (see, for example, 1 Samuel 10:1, 1 Samuel 16:12). Priests were anointed (e.g. Exodus 29:7). The Bible also uses the word occasionally of prophets (see 1 Kings 19:16). After being anointed, it is sometimes recorded that the Holy Spirit came on the anointed one with power (see 1 Samuel 10:9-10 and 1 Samuel 16:13). The office of “the Messiah” was more than that of the other messiahs in at least two ways: the Messiah was not just for Israel but for the whole world, and not just for the duration of a mortal life but for the rest of time. This Messiah was to be king of the world for eternity.
- In Jesus’ famous teaching of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25), he gives a vivid picture of the Last Judgment, with himself as the judge. Plainly enough, claiming to be the one who, at the end of history, will judge the world is a claim to uniqueness. Also, the image of the sheep and the goats itself refers to a prophecy that would have been well-known to his hearers: “As for you, my flock, this is what the Sovereign LORD says: ‘I will judge between one sheep and another, and between rams and goats.’” (Ezekiel 34:17). Ezekiel’s prophecy is lengthy; it is well worth reading all of Ezekiel 34 in this context. It ends with “David” (King Messiah) ruling over the people. Not to overstate the case, Ezekiel’s prophecy is compatible with Messiah being simply “God’s right hand” – the one who, when God says “I do this”, is actually the one through whom God works.
- “Destroy this Temple”, Jesus said, “and in three days I will rebuild it.” There are all kinds of ways Jesus could have prophesied his resurrection. We often fail to mention that Jesus is also transferring the title of the Temple from a building in Jerusalem to himself. The Temple was the place of sacrifice, the place where atonement with God was made, the place where the covenant was kept, the place towards which prayers were directed, the place where the Name of God rested, and of the Holy of Holies where the Presence of God rested. There were no restrictions on how many synagogues there might be, but there were restrictions in the Torah against having more than one Temple (see Deuteronomy 12 which speaks of this at length). The Torah’s command to “appear before the LORD” (Deuteronomy 16:16) was satisfied by going to the Temple. So it was no small thing when Jesus transferred the title of Temple from the building in Jerusalem to himself.
These points are not intended to settle any Trinitarian debates; in this short space I don’t even pretend to address most of the Christological ones. My hope is that these points are simply registered in the log of evidence: Jesus did not simply consider himself “another great moral teacher”; he considered himself unique in the history of the world. So far, the history of the world has borne him out. If the skeptics aren’t quite ready to say “My Lord and my God” with Thomas the patron saint of internet skeptics (kidding!), then perhaps they can begin with what they are sure Jesus claimed, a first step that is more obvious in what Jesus has said. Considering him the Messiah, the judge of the Last Day, and the Temple where we appear before the LORD – these are not too mean a start.