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The Divinity of Jesus in the Gospels

September 14, AD2017 4 Comments

Just about everybody agrees that Jesus is presented as divine in the Gospel of John. In the very first verse, John says that “the Word was God” (John 1:1), and towards the end of this Gospel, the Apostle Thomas confesses Jesus to be “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28). However, the divinity of Jesus is not so easy to see in the other Gospels. Nowhere in Matthew, Mark, or Luke do we ever find Jesus explicitly called “God” like he is in John, so many people today think that these first three present him as a mere man. As a result, they contend that belief in his divinity developed slowly, and they claim that we can see this development in the Gospels themselves. (All bible quotations in this post are from the NRSVCE)

If this is true, then the entire edifice of Christian belief crumbles. If neither Jesus nor his first disciples believed him to be God, then it is difficult to see how our faith could be true. However, the case isn’t closed just yet. While the first three Gospels do not explicitly call Jesus “God,” they nevertheless still present him as divine. This belief is not laid out explicitly as it is in John, but it is still there. Let’s take a look now at some of the ways that Matthew, Mark, and Luke implicitly, but clearly, teach us that Jesus is in fact God.

A Shared Story Implies Divinity

We can begin by looking at a story related by each of the first three evangelists: the healing of a paralytic (Matthew 9:1-8, Mark 2:1-12, Luke 5:17-26). While each Gospel tells this story a bit differently, the substance of the account and the general flow of the plot is the same in all three. First, some people brought a paralyzed man to Jesus, and he told the man, “[Y]our sins are forgiven.” When Jesus said this, there were some scribes nearby, and they took issue with these words because only God can forgive sins. As a result, they recognized that Jesus was acting in the place of God, so they accused him of blasphemy.

In response, Jesus didn’t try to argue that he was not in fact usurping the place of God. Instead, he simply said that he would heal the man in order to prove that he really could forgive sins, and then he did just that. With this reply, Jesus showed that he accepted the basis of the scribes’ argument. He did something that only God can do. He didn’t challenge the premise that only God can do it.

Consequently, we have to conclude that he was subtly claiming to be divine. He did not come out and say “I am God,” but he did not need to. His actions here speak just as loudly as any words could. It is clear that by forgiving the paralytic’s sins, he was in fact taking the place of God and implicitly claiming to be divine.

The Presence of God

In addition to the story about the healing of the paralyzed man, each of the first three Gospels shows Jesus’ divinity in other ways as well. Let’s now look at some of the ways they do this, starting with Matthew. At the very end of the first Gospel, Jesus commissions his disciples to go and spread the good news to the corners of the earth:

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20)

At first glance, this passage doesn’t seem to say much about Jesus’ identity, but if we look at it more closely, and specifically at its Old Testament background, we can see that Jesus was doing the exact same thing he did when he forgave the paralytic’s sins: he was taking the place of God himself. In the Old Testament, when God commissioned people for special tasks, he often promised to be with them to help them fulfill their missions. For example, he promised to be with Joshua, the successor of Moses, as he led the people of Israel into the Promised Land (Joshua 1:1-5, 9), and he said he would be with the prophet Jeremiah as he relayed God’s messages to his people (Jeremiah 1:4-10).

Interestingly, when God did this, he would also sometimes command these people to hold fast to everything he said. For instance, he told Joshua to obey the entire Law of Moses (Joshua 1:7), and he instructed Jeremiah to say everything he would tell him to say (Jeremiah 1:7). Consequently, when we see Jesus commissioning his disciples for a special mission (to evangelize the world), promising to be with them, and charging them to pass on everything he taught, it is clear that he was standing in the place of God. Jesus was to his disciples what God was to men, like Joshua and Jeremiah in the Old Testament, which makes sense only if Jesus is in fact God.

The Arrival of God

Next, let’s look at the Gospel of Mark, which begins by telling us about Jesus’ forerunner, John the Baptist, whose ministry was prophesied in the Old Testament:

“As it is written in Isaiah the prophet,

‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face,

who shall prepare your way;

the voice of one crying in the wilderness:

Prepare the way of the Lord,

make his paths straight.’” (Mark 1:2-3)

Mark says that this prophecy is from the book of Isaiah, but it’s actually a combination of two different Old Testament texts, with only the last three lines coming from Isaiah. The first two are found in the book of Malachi, and its original wording is the key to understanding its significance for our purposes here:

“Behold, I send my messenger to prepare the way before me.” (Malachi 3:1)

In this prophecy, God was telling his people that he himself would one day come to them and that he would send a messenger before him to prepare his way. Mark changed the wording from the first to the second person in order to highlight the distinction between the Father and the Son, but he didn’t change its meaning so completely that it ceased to refer to God. Rather, when we read this composite quotation as a whole, the messenger prepares for and preaches the coming of the Lord, so the one who comes after him must still be God.

Now, it’s clear from the context that God’s promise of coming to his people was fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ. The first two verses of the Gospel tell us that these prophecies refer to his ministry (Mark 1:1-2), and Mark’s description of John and his preaching shows us that he was the promised messenger. Specifically, we read that John “appeared in the wilderness” (Mark 1:4) and that he preached the coming of someone greater than himself (Mark 1:7-8). As a result, we can see that these texts from Malachi and Isaiah were prophesying the messenger who would prepare the way for Jesus and his ministry.

From all this, we can safely conclude that by quoting this prophecy from Malachi, Mark was telling us that God came to his people in Jesus and, more specifically, as Jesus. In other words, the coming of Jesus to the Jews was the promised coming of God to his people, which implies that Jesus is in fact God.

Worship in Luke

Finally, let’s turn now to the third Gospel, Luke, and see one of the ways that it teaches the divinity of Jesus. At the very end of the Gospel, as Jesus ascends into heaven, we read that his disciples “worshipped him” (Luke 24:52). Now, on the surface, this seems to be pretty clear proof of his divinity (since only God is to be worshipped), but it’s actually not quite so simple. The Greek verb used here is proskuneo, and it does not necessarily refer to the worship due to God alone. In some contexts, it refers simply to bowing down in reverence rather than full-blown worship (for example, Revelation 3:9), so the word by itself does not prove that Luke believed Jesus to be divine.

Instead, we need to delve deeper into Luke’s Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles (which was also written by Luke) to see how he used this word in his writings. Luckily for us, he used it in only one other instance. Luke used it toward the beginning of his Gospel, when Jesus was tempted by Satan in the wilderness:

“’If you, then, will worship me, it shall all be yours.’ And Jesus answered him, ‘It is written,

‘You shall worship the Lord your God,

and him only shall you serve.’” (Luke 4:7-8)

Here, the word clearly refers to the worship due to God alone. Satan wanted Jesus to worship him, but Jesus refused because only God is worthy of worship.

Worship in Acts

In Acts, Luke used the word only four times, and in all four instances, it refers to the worship due to God alone (Acts 7:43, 8:27, 10:25, 24:11). While these passages aren’t too remarkable, I do want to look at one of them more closely:

“When Peter entered, Cornelius met him and fell down at his feet and worshiped him. But Peter lifted him up, saying, ‘Stand up; I too am a man.’” (Acts 10:25-26)

This text is significant because it mirrors the one about Satan’s temptation of Jesus. Both of them are very clear that we should worship God alone, and they both use the same Greek word, proskuneo, that the Gospel of Luke uses to describe the kind of worship that Jesus’ disciples gave him. This then raises a question for us: if Luke was very clear in both volumes of his two-part work that we should give this kind of worship to God alone, why would he show the disciples giving it to Jesus if he isn’t God?

The obvious answer is that Jesus is in fact divine. For Luke, Jesus’ disciples gave him the worship due to God alone, and the fact that they were never reprimanded for their actions (unlike Satan and Cornelius) shows that Luke believed it was legitimate. Simply put, Luke showed the disciples worshipping Jesus because he believed Jesus to be God.

The Final Verdict

When we look at the evidence closely, it’s clear that all four evangelists, not just John, believed that Jesus was in fact divine. While the first three Gospels never explicitly call him “God,” the belief is clearly there. They show Jesus (1) saying and doing things that only God can say and do, (2) the evangelists understood Old Testament prophecies about God to be speaking about Jesus, and (3) Jesus received the worship due to God alone. From all this, it is clear that belief in his divinity didn’t develop after the earliest Gospels were written. Rather, from the beginning, from the time the evangelists first put pen to paper, they already believed that Jesus Christ was more than a man; they believed him to be God himself.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

JP Nunez has been a theology nerd since high school. He has master's degrees in both theology and philosophy (with a concentration in bioethics) from Franciscan University of Steubenville, and he spent three years in Catholic University of America's doctoral program in biblical studies before realizing that academia isn't where he wants to be. During his time in Steubenville, he worked for two years as an intern at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, where his responsibilities included answering theological questions and helping to format and edit their Journey Through Scripture Bible studies. He blogs at JP Nunez: Understanding the Faith Through Scripture.

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