Who Was Jesus Christ?
Dr. S. Lewis Johnson, Jr. is a Bible teacher at Believers Chapel, Dallas, Texas. A well-known conference speaker, he is also a visiting lecturer at Tyndale Theological Seminary, Amsterdam, Holland.
This article is the first of four studies on “Who Was Jesus Christ?”
In the question itself, “Who was Jesus Christ?,” one faces a dilemma. Shall we phrase it, “Who was Jesus Christ?,” or “Who is Jesus Christ?” As a believing Christian I must say that what Jesus Christ was, He is, and what He is, He was. The unknown author of the Epistle to the Hebrews reminds us that He is “Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and today, and for ever” (Heb. 13:8).
However, for our study I shall phrase it, “Who was Jesus Christ?”
Christians believe that it may be the most important question that a mere man could frame, for ultimately the destiny of every living person, and dead person for that matter, hangs upon the answer given to it. The answer the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament give is one that leads to eternal life, while answers that deny the conviction of the prophets and apostles are answers that lead one along the broad way that terminates in destruction.
The question is by no means a new question. It was asked by the Lord Himself. At Caesara Phillipi, when it had become quite evident that the nation would not receive His message, as part of the preparation of the disciples for the message of His coming death He asked, “Who do men say that I, the Son of man, am?” (Matt. 16:31). At this juncture in His earthly career the Apostle Peter, answering for the disciples by divine illumination, exclaimed, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:18). It was a memorable statement, striking in the fact that it was made just at the point when it seemed that everything was going wrong, and disaster must soon follow. In his words Peter has spoken for Christ’s men and women down through the centuries.
And again, at a later point in His ministry He threw out the biblical challenge, “What think ye of the Christ? whose son is He?” (Matt. 22:42). And when the Jewish leaders answered correctly, “The son of David,” He asked a further question, “How then doth David in spirit call him Lord, saying, The Lord said unto my Lord, Sit thou on my right hand, till I make thine enemies thy footstool? If David then call him Lord, how is he his son?” (vv. 43-45). The question is unanswerable except by an affirmation of a divine-human Son of David, the Messiah.
Answers to the question are still being offered, and they are remarkable largely in their diversity. Papini saw him as the Poet, while Bruce Parton saw Him as the Man of Action. Lord Beaverbrook saw Him as “the Divine Propagandist,” not surprising for a newspaperman. Middleton Murray marvelled at His imagination and portrayed Him as “the man of the future,” possessed of the imagination of a genius.
Philip Schaaf, the well-known church historian, said, “The life and character of Jesus Christ is the holy of holies in the history of the world.” H. G. Wells said that, judged by a historian’s standards, “Jesus stands first” in history. Why, then, do history texts devote only passing references to a humanistic Jesus whose life could never seriously affect, much less change, the course of history? Perhaps part of the answer is that modern theologians, dominated by anti-supernaturalism, have a generally lower view of Him. For example, in the major article, entitled “Jesus Christ,” in the latest edition of the major German reference work on religion, Professor Hans Conzelmann comes to the conclusion that Jesus never called Himself Son of God or Son of man. He was only a great teacher and miracle-worker.
On the other hand, it is surely remarkable that in Judaism today there is much interest in Jesus of Nazareth, in fact, much interest in claiming Jesus for the Jews. We shall deal with this later in these studies, but listen to the words of Rabbi Maurice Nathan Eisendrath, “Who can compute what Jesus has meant to humanity; what he might yet mean for our sorely distracted and desperate day?”
If one wishes to really come to know a person, is it not best to hear those who have the closest access to him? If this is only partially so, then it is of great importance to listen to those who knew Jesus Christ. And, if we may assume that His apostles wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, then from them we may have an authoritative interpretation of the person of Christ, one that we can rely upon. So, let us listen to them.
The Testimony of Matthew
In Matthew the tax-gatherer’s account of Jesus’ birth there occur these words, “And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name Jesus: for he shall save his people from their sins. Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us” (Matt. 1:21-23).
It is the angel of the Lord who has announced the birth of Jesus to Joseph, but it is the evangelist Matthew who has interpreted what has happened as the fulfilment of the prophecy of a virgin birth in Isaiah 7:14.
Now differences of opinion exist among the interpreters over the precise sense of Isaiah 7:14. Some see the prophecy as a typical prophecy, referring first to Isaiah’s family, God providing the prophet with a sign for the nation. The birth would be a sign of God’s undergirding of the nation in its time of crisis. Only ultimately does the sign point on to the coming of the Son of God, the paramount source of support for Israel.
Others see the prophecy as directly prophetic of the Son of Mary, the virgin. The supernatural sign of the virgin birth of the Messiah, who would be called Emmanuel, or God with you, would assure Israel of the faithfulness of the Lord God of the Abrahamic promises.
We shall not attempt to settle the question of interpretation here, and it is doubtful if anyone can settle it, but we simply note that by either view the full sense of the words relates ultimately to Jesus Christ. And, if so, then the word Emmanuel explains the nature of the Messiah, Jesus Christ. He is very God of very God. In other words, Matthew the Jew stands on the side of those who affirm the full diety of Jesus of Nazareth.
There is sound evidence that Matthew was a competent student of Isaiah, for in chapters seven through twelve of the book, which scholars have called the Book of Emmanuel, there are further indications of the full deity of the virgin’s Son (cf. 8:8; 11:1-5). This is particularly evident in the famous prophecy of 9:6, “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon His shoulder: and His name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.” The full deity of the figure to whom Isaiah refers is patent.
The Testimony of John
In John’s Gospel there are several texts that bear on the question, “Who was Jesus Christ?” And they provide an answer to another related question that has interested scholars, namely, “Can we call Jesus God?”
(1) The first of the texts is that magnificent statement that opens John’s Gospel, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). This is without doubt one of the most majestic statements in all of Scripture. The opening phrase, “in the beginning,” is an allusion to Genesis 1:1, but the “was” of the text in John takes the reader back beyond the creation. It says, in effect, at the tie of the creation the Word was already in existence. John, as Calvin says, takes his readers back to “the eternal sanctuary of God” in thought. The opening clause, then, “In the beginning was the Word,” stresses the eternity of the Word. Arius, the fourth century Alexandrian heretic, whose views were condemned at the Council of Nicea in 325, said of Christ, “there was a time when he was not.” The council followed the apostolic teaching, denying Arius’ views, which have lingered on in many cultic groups, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Mormons, who deny the eternity of the Son and the divine Trinity.
The second clause, “and the Word was with God,” stresses the Son’s community of interest with the Father. The words describe in brief the eternal communion of the Son and the Father, suggestively referred to in verse eighteen where John says that the Son is “in the bosom of the Father.”
The final clause declares the deity of the Word, “and the Word was God.” Many attempts have been made by the heretics to deny that John affirms our Lord’s deity here. A few, from ignorance of the Greek language, have contended that, because the definite article is missing before the word “God,” the clause should be translated, and the Word was a God. But the article is missing simply because John wished to make it plain that the Word was not the only one to whom the word God was applicable. If John had said, “the word was the God,” then he would have implied that the term God applied only to the second person of the Trinity, manifestly false teaching. The term, of course, refers also to the Father and the Spirit.
John’s purpose in the omission of the article, then, is to lay stress on the nature of the being of the Word. And the Word was such a being as God is not an incorrect paraphrase of his thought. If I were to say, “Men must be redeemed by a man, and Jesus is the man,” I would be identifying Jesus with the requirement. If, however, I were to say, “By man came death, and by man also must come the resurrection of the dead, and Jesus was man,” then I am classifying Jesus as a man. That is the force of “and the Word was God.” The second Person is properly classified as a divine being.
By opening his gospel in this fashion John wants us to read his gospel in the light of the deity of the Son. His mighty signs and words, as recorded in this gospel, are the miracles and words of God. If this is not so, then the book is blasphemous.
The Son, then, is the eternal God, yet distinct from the Father in personality.
(2) Second, there is another passage in John’s prologue, which bears on the matter of Christ’s deity. Some of the oldest manuscripts of John 1:18 read, “No one has ever seen God, but God the only (Son), who is at the Father’s side, has made him known” (NIV). If we could be sure that John wrote this, then we could be sure that John taught Christ’s deity plainly from this passage. The text, however, is uncertain in the manuscript tradition, and it is not possible to be sure it means anything other than the Son-ship of Christ.
(3) Third, in the midst of our Lord’s final public testimony at the Feast of Dedication there is an interesting statement bearing upon the essential unity of the Father and the Son. It is found in the statement of verse thirty of chapter ten. In the context Jesus says, “I and the Father are one.” The word “one” here is neuter in gender, or literally one thing. While it may not be John’s intention to assert oneness of essence between the Father and the Son, a deep unity is meant. And it certainly seems to mean more than oneness of will, for would the Jews have thought such a claim was blasphemy (cf. 10:33)? What our Lord means, it seems, is an absolute unity. And if that is meant, then His deity is involved, for it is impossible to think of any person being perfectly at one with God in the exercise of the divine prerogatives, which are infinite, if he were not one with Him in essence.
That this is the correct sense of the text is plain, when we look at the marvelous promises of verses twenty-seven through thirty. Only God could say and guarantee these claims, “And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my Father’s hand. I and my Father are one.”
(4) Fourth, there is one text over which there is no doubt that it asserts the deity of Christ. It concerns Thomas, the disciple to whom less than full justice has usually been done by the commentators. He is known as Doubting Thomas, or even Thomas the Skeptic. It is he who bravely said, when the other disciples protested that it was foolish to go up to Jerusalem, “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (John 11:16). If he doubted, it was not the doubt of rebellious skepticism. In fact, it is striking that “Doubting” Thomas is the apostle who uttered the finest confession of faith in the New Testament. At the climax of this gospel he, as one of my old teachers said, fought his way through the mists to the light of truth, sweeping the midnight of doubt from his soul, crying out triumphantly, with his hands at Jesus’ side, “My Lord and my God!”
About this confession of Christ’s deity there can be no doubt, although one commentator reminds us, “that this is not the verdict of a theologian but the reaction of the loving heart.” The fact that John not only cites Thomas’ confession, but makes it the climax of the argument of the gospel, is the strongest indication that the apostle who wrote the book sided with Thomas. To the theologian who could argue that John did not think Thomas was uttering truth we can only offer our Lord’s words to Thomas, “be not faithless, but believing” (v. 27).
Those who, like Thomas, are convinced of His godhood, sing,
“O that, with yonder sacred throng, We at His feet may fall,
Join in the everlasting song, And crown Him Lord of all.”
The Testimony of Paul
It is clear that Paul thought that Jesus was God. We look at two texts, although there are many other references that might be turned up.
(1) First, there is the statement in the great “Kenosis” passage, which gives important insight into the union of the two natures in the one person, or the hypostatic union, to use the common theological term. There Paul says that Jesus was “in the form of God” (Phil. 2:6). The term form refers to the unchangeable essential nature of a thing. If one says that a person is in the form of man, then what is meant is that he has the essential nature of manhood. A robin, a sparrow, a mockingbird, and a woodpecker have the same form; they are all birds. They have different outward characteristics (the Greeks had another word to express these things), but they each have the same form. Thus, if Jesus is “in the form of God,” then He has all the essential attributes of deity, or all those characterizing qualities that make God God. He who is “in the form of God” is God.
What Paul says in the paragraph is that Jesus did not surrender His divine attributes, but the voluntary use of them. He surrendered the glories of deity, the prerogatives of deity, but not the deity itself. The reasons for the laying aside of what Milton called, “the blaze of majesty,” lie in the necessity of performing the Messianic mediatorial work in the power of the Holy Spirit as the God-man. It was a necessary part of His humiliation.
(2) Second, another of Paul’s texts that indicate that he thought of Christ as God is Titus 2:13, where we read of the believer’s hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ.” The rendering of the Authorized Version obscures the sense of the Greek text, but it is caught clearly in the New International Version, “while we wait for the blessed hope — the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.” That is as clear and definite as it can be put.
There are other passages to which we might turn, such as Hebrews 1:8 and 2 Peter 1:1, in both of which the deity of the Lord Jesus Christ is plainly affirmed.
Nathaniel Micklem in a book called Ultimate Questions made the astonishing claim that the assertion, “Jesus is God,” is a shocking heresy. On the contrary, it is shocking heresy to deny it, and it is shocking to read such things from professing Christians. In the Nicene Creed, accepted as Christian doctrine by Christian churches, the church has confessed its faith “In one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten from the Father, only-begotten, that is, FROM THE SUBSTANCE OF THE FATHER, GOD FROM GOD, LIGHT FROM LIGHT, TRUE GOD FROM TRUE GOD, BEGOTTEN NOT MADE, OF ONE SUBSTANCE WITH THE FATHER, through whom all things came into being, things in heaven and things on earth, who because of our salvation came down and became incarnate, becoming man, suffered and rose again on the third day, ascended to the heavens, will come to judge the living and the dead.”
Summary. The evidence of the Scriptures is that the Son possesses undiminished deity. Otherwise, we can only conclude with many that He was either deceived, a meglomaniac afflicted with folie de grandeur, as J. B. Phillips put it, or a wicked deceiver. Those who have believed in Him and enjoy the salvation He gives have never been in doubt over this trilemma.
There is a marvelous statement from P. T. Forsyth that bears repeating. “Is it not equally true,” he wrote, “that he thought of himself as in a category distinct from other men, whether we regard his relation to God or to the world? Where he came salvation came — as to Zacchaeus by his very presence. He stood between men and God, not with men before God. A word spoken against him was comparable, however different, to a sin against God’s Holy Spirit. For both were against God. They are not like sins against men. That is to say, he has to make his historic personality parallel with the Holy Spirit before he can set up the contrast, which is only effectual between beings ejusdem generis. He was greater than the temple, he said — as no prophet could be. In the parable of the vineyard he is the only son, the beloved, distinct from the messengers besides. He never prays with his disciples, much as he prays for them; and the Lord’s prayer was given by him but not used by him. There is a line between him and them, delicate but firm, ‘often as fine as a hair but always as hard as a diamond.’”
So, from Ignatius of Antioch, who wrote just after the New Testament was concluded and spoke of “one Physician, who is both flesh and spirit, born yet not born, who is God in man,” to Charles Wesley, who taught us to sing,
“Amazing love! how can it be
That Thou MY GOD, shouldst die for me?”
we preach Him as Thomas confessed Him, “my Lord and my God,” unique, supreme, and sufficient.
Dr. John Mott, commenting upon an exhaustive survey of the great non-Christian faiths done just before the World Missionary Conference in Jerusalem in 1928, said, “It was overwhelmingly proved that the more open-minded, honest, just, and generous we were in dealing with the non-Christian faiths, the higher Christ loomed in His absolute uniqueness, supremacy, and universality.”
“There is no one else,” a prominent Hindu said to E. Stanley Jones, “who is seriously bidding for the heart of the world except Jesus Christ. There is no one else on the field.”
So, we close with the challenge, “What think YE of Christ?” And, echoing the words of the Roman procurator, we add, “What shall I do then with Jesus which is called Christ?” The two questions hound and haunt us until we respond.