Conspiracy theories about Christianity: #3: Did Jesus claim to be God?

C.S. Lewis observed that a person has only three choices when it comes to identifying Jesus: he is a liar, he is a lunatic, or he is the Lord. There’s no room for calling Jesus a great teacher, a prophet, a good man, when one must add, “but he has one small problem—he thinks that he’s God.” Consideration must be given to the identity of Jesus before one evaluates his teachings. Either he is God, or he is not God—in which case, he must be either a liar or a lunatic.

The easiest escape from this challenge is to say that Jesus never claimed to be God. Most Muslims, and even some people who call themselves Christian, use this argument. They say that Jesus was a great teacher, even a prophet, but that the Church later added to his resume the statement that he is God. Their go-to verse for this argument is Mark 10:18. When a man said to Jesus, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus responded, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.”

Notice that Jesus does not say in this verse, “I am not God.” Instead, he asks the other man why he calls Jesus good. Jesus knew what was in the mind of that man. He was not approaching Jesus with the belief that Jesus is God; he was flattering Jesus in order to get a favorable answer—to be assured that he was good enough to inherit eternal life. The words of Jesus were a challenge to that man’s beliefs, not evidence that Jesus did not consider himself God.

How do we know this? We see throughout the Gospels that Jesus regarded himself as God. When tempted by the devil, Jesus quoted Deuteronomy: “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.” Yet on several occasions Jesus allowed himself to be worshiped. In Revelation, when John began to worship an angel, the angel said, “You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your brothers the prophets, and with those who keep the words of this book. Worship God” (Revelation 22:9). We do not hear Jesus speak such words to those who bowed down to worship him.

When Jesus challenged his disciples with the question, “Who do you say I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). Jesus did not correct Peter, but he affirmed the truth of Peter’s words. In the Greek and Roman culture, people believed in many gods, and those gods had many sons. But the Jews believed in only one God. Calling someone the Son of God was the equivalent of saying that person was God. The leaders of the Jews said as much themselves when they told Governor Pontius Pilate, “We have a law, and according that law he ought to die, because he has made himself the Son of God” (John 19:7).

In fact, the entire question of the trial of Jesus before the Sanhedrin hinges upon his identity. They accused him of blasphemy, of insulting God. If Jesus never said (or thought) that he was God, this would have been the time to set the record straight. Instead, when Caiaphas put Jesus under oath and asked him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” Jesus said, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven” (Mark 14:61-62). Jesus was convicted by the Sanhedrin and condemned to die on the basis of these words.

“I am” is the meaning of the name Yahweh (or Jehovah) that is used of God in the Old Testament. In Exodus 3 God stresses to Moses that his name does in fact mean “I am.” By the time of Jesus, observant Jews were so concerned about not misusing the name of the Lord that they refused even to pronounce it, substituting “Adonai” (meaning the Lord) whenever they encountered it. Jesus firmly associated himself with that name of God. Not only did he say “I am” at his trial; he also said “I am the Bread of Life” (John 6:35), and “I am the Light of the world” (John 8:12), and “before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58). These statements firmly associate Jesus with the God of the Old Testament, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Skeptics question the reliability of these quotes in the four Gospels. They suggest that these words were invented by the Church long after Jesus died. In the coming days I will address conspiracy theories about the four Gospels and their message. J.

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Maundy Thursday

On Thursday of Holy Week, Jesus sent Peter and John into Jerusalem to make preparations for their Passover Seder. When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, there had been no room for him and his family in the inn. Now a borrowed room was available for Jesus and his followers. (The same Greek word is used in the Bible for the Bethlehem inn and the borrowed room in Jerusalem.)

That night Jesus washed the feet of his disciples and told them that they were to be humble servants to one another. He gave them a new commandment, telling them to love one another. (Of course that commandment had been given before. It is new in the sense that his people are new every day through the work of their Savior. Therefore, every day this commandment is new to his people.) Jesus prayed for his disciples and for all who would believe in Jesus because of their testimony. That same night Jesus predicted that Peter would deny him, that Judas would betray him, and that all the disciples would abandon him.

Jesus took the bread of the Passover meal—bread made without yeast—gave thanks, broke it, and distributed it to his disciples. “Take, eat,” he said, “this is my body, given for you.” He took the cup of thanksgiving—the third cup of wine in the Seder meal—and said, “Drink of it, all of you. This is the cup of the New Testament, shed for you for the forgiveness of sin.” He also said, “Do this often, remembering me.” Christians continue to obey this command of grace, remembering Jesus and rejoicing in his gift of forgiveness and eternal life, promised through his sacrifice and through this act of remembrance.

After the Seder, Jesus took his disciples and went to a garden called Gethsemane (which means “olive press”) to pray. While he prayed, they fell asleep. Jesus prayed that a cup would be taken away from him—the cup of God’s wrath, the anger deserved by sinners. Jesus had already given his followers a cup, the cup of the New Testament. Now he was taking the poisonous cup deserved by sinners and drinking it dry for the rescue of sinners. While Jesus prayed, his disciples slept. It was late at night. They had eaten a large meal with a lengthy ceremony of prayers and Bible readings. Jesus had added many new thoughts to the ancient ceremony. Each of them had drunk four cups of wine during the meal. Now they were tired. Already, as Jesus prayed, they were abandoning him.

Judas Iscariot brought guards from the Temple to arrest Jesus secretly in Gethsemane. Trying to defend his Lord, Peter swung a sword wildly, slicing off a man’s ear. Jesus healed the man, his last show of divine power before being led to the cross. The disciples fled. Jesus was taken to a series of hearings in Jerusalem. During those hearings, outside the building, Peter denied three times that he even knew Jesus.

Jesus was put on trial for blasphemy. The Law of God required that no one be condemned to death without identical testimony of a crime by two witnesses. The prosecution failed to find two witnesses who agreed about Jesus, even as they tried to recall what he had said about destroying the Temple. In frustration, the chief priest put Jesus under oath and asked him if he was the Christ, the Son of God. If Jesus did not claim to be the Son of God, he could have escaped condemnation and punishment. Instead, he affirmed under oath that he is the Son of God, and the authorities condemned him for blasphemy, saying that he insulted God by claiming to be his Son. They began to beat him and insult him.

According to God’s Law, because he was convicted of blasphemy, Jesus should have been taken to the gate of Jerusalem and stoned to death. Stoning was the “firing squad” of ancient times. When a criminal was stoned, the entire community participated, rejecting his crime and cooperating in his death; yet no one person could be said to have thrown the one fatal stone.

According to Roman law, though, no criminal could be executed in the provinces until a Roman official had reviewed the case and the evidence. Evidently, this law prevented a community from rising against the Romans by first convicting and executing supporters of Rome. Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, happened to be in Jerusalem because of the Passover celebration. (His presence gave him an excuse to bring extra Roman soldiers into the city while it was crowded with Jewish believers from all over the known world because of the holiday.) When the sun rose on Friday, the authorities intended to bring Jesus to the governor and to seek permission to stone him to death according to God’s law. J.