The Deity of Jesus
by Andrew Lansdown
Christians believe in the Trinity. We believe that there is one God who exists eternally as three Persons—Father, Son and Holy Spirit. These three Persons are distinct from one another, yet they share without distinction the same divine nature and status. This three-in-oneness is what we mean by the Trinity of God.
An essential part of our belief in the Trinity is our belief in the deity of the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus is not just a man: he is also God. He is as truly divine as he is truly human. Being fully God and fully man, he is, quite literally and uniquely, the God-Man.
Sadly, the truth that Jesus is the Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, is under fierce attack today. Mormons hate it. Jehovah’s Witnesses hate it. Muslims hate it. Islam, the Watch Tower Society and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints all have a connection to Christianity and all claim to revere both the Bible and the Lord Jesus. Yet all strike at the heart of the Christian faith by denying the deity of Jesus.
Some time ago, for example, I visited the Islamic Centre of WA, where I found and bought a book by Muhammad Ali Alkhuli titled The Truth About Jesus Christ. The first three chapters of the book are titled: “The Falsehood of the Divinity of Jesus”; “The Falsehood of the Trinity”; and “The Falsehood of the Sonship of Jesus to God”.
As Alkhuli’s book illustrates, Muslims can’t abide the truth that Jesus is the Son of God, sharing the very nature of God. This is because The Koran makes statements such as these: “In blasphemy indeed are those that say that God is Christ the son of Mary” (5:17). “Christ the son of Mary was no more than an Apostle” (5:75). “The Christians call Christ the Son of God. … God’s curse be on them: how they are deluded away from the Truth!” (9:30). “And (they take as their Lord) Christ the son of Mary; Yet they were commanded to worship but one God” (9:30).
Christians need to be clear on the biblical teaching about the divine nature of Jesus so that we will not be deceived by Muslims, Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, but will rather be able to make a defence of what we believe. To that end, I offer the following thoughts, focused on the first eighteen verses (the Prologue) of the Gospel of John. (NB. These verses from John chapter 1 are printed at the end of this essay.)
At the outset of his Gospel, the Apostle John presents us with an unusual name—“the Word”. Who is he speaking about? Who is “the Word”?
We learn from verse 14 that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Verses 14 and 18 indicate that he is the only, the unique, Son of God. And verse 17 identifies this Word-become-flesh as “Jesus Christ”. So, “the Word” is a name John uses for the Son of God, who at his incarnation became known as Jesus Christ.
That being the case, why didn’t John simply say, “Jesus”? Why did he complicate matters by using a seemingly abstract title instead of a personal name?
One of several possible reasons is that John was compelled to do this for the sake of clarity and accuracy. He would have created the wrong impression if he had said, “In the beginning was Jesus”, because “Jesus” is the name given to the Second Person of the Trinity at his incarnation. It is associated with the humanity of the Son of God. This explains why John does not use the name “Jesus” until verse 17, after he has written, “the Word became flesh”. Jesus Christ in his deity is eternally pre-existent. But in his humanity he is barely 2,000 years old. How fascinating! When John says, “the Word became flesh”, he is saying that a change took place in the changeless Godhead. Without forfeiting his deity, the Word added to himself our humanity.
John commences his gospel with the statement, “In the beginning was the Word”. This presents a striking parallel with the opening statement of Genesis: “In the beginning, God”. This parallel automatically associates the Word with God, and thereby alludes to the Word’s deity. In the beginning, God: In the beginning, the Word.
However, the primary significance of John’s statement has to do with the eternal pre-existence of the Word. “In the beginning” the Word already existed. Note that John says, “In the beginning.” He does not say from the beginning, which could imply that first there was nothing and then there was a beginning in which the Word participated. John does not say “at the beginning”, either, which could imply that the Word began when the beginning began. In the beginning—outside and independent of time—the Word was already there. Before creation, before time itself, in the beginning, the Word was. He simply was. He always existed.
John the Baptist also proclaims the pre-existence of the Word in verse 15 of the Prologue, when he declares, “He who comes after me ranks before me, for he was before me.”
The Lord Jesus himself refers to his eternal pre-existence several times in the gospel of John. He implies it when he says to Nicodemus, “No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man” (3:13). He states it plainly in his prayer before his crucifixion: “Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began” (17:5, NIV; cf 17:24).
When debating with the Jews in John 8, Jesus declares, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am” (v. 58). Jesus does two things here to establish his deity. Firstly, he proclaims his eternal nature by revealing that he continually existed before Abraham. Secondly, he defines himself as God by attributing to himself one of the names of God. “I Am” is the name God chose for himself when speaking to Moses from the burning bush (Exodus 3:14-15). The Jews understood the significance of Christ’s statement, which is why they immediately took up stones to kill him. They thought he had committed blasphemy.
“In the beginning was the Word”: this proclaims the eternal pre-existence of the Word. There has never been a time when he was not. He existed in the beginning. He is eternal. And as eternity is one of the unique characteristics of God, the Word must be God.
In the second part of the first verse John states: “the Word was with God”. The Word did not exist in isolation. He existed in relationship with God.
What is the nature of the relationship between God and the Word? In verse 18, John declares that the Word, the only Son, “is in the bosom of the Father”. “In the bosom of” is a Hebrew expression that conveys a sense of deep intimacy and love. We see from verse 18, then, that the Word was in close fellowship with God. Indeed, such is the intimacy between the Son and the Father that the Son manifests the Father’s glory and is able to make him known. In fact, the Son is the only one who is able to do this, for he is the only one who has ever seen God (v.18).
The second verse of the Prologue explicitly states something about the relationship that is only inferred in the first verse: The Word “was in the beginning with God”. From this we learn that the relationship between the Father and the Word is not only intimate, but also eternal.
The third part of the first verse states: “and the Word was God.” Here is a plain affirmation of the full deity of the Word. He was and is God.
By linking the claim that “the Word was God” with the claim that “the Word was with God”, John reveals something of the triune nature of the Godhead. There is a perfect unity and equality between the Father and the Son—which is why it is true to say that “the Word was God”—and yet there is a distinction between them—which is why it is important to say that “the Word was with God”.
Throughout the Gospel of John, Jesus alludes to the unity and equality he shares with God every time he refers to God as his Father. John highlights this fact in 5:17-18. After recording Jesus’ statement to his countrymen, “My Father is working still, and I am working”, John explains, “This was why the Jews sought all the more to kill him, because he not only broke the Sabbath but also called God his Father, making himself equal with God.”
When Jesus claimed in John 10:30 that “I and my Father are one”, “The Jews took up stones again to stone him. Jesus answered them, ‘I have shown you many good works from the Father; for which of these do you stone me?’ The Jews answered him, ‘We stone you for no good work but for blasphemy; because you, being a man, make yourself God’” (vv. 31-33). During the trial of Jesus, the Jews told Pilate, “We have a law, and by that law he ought to die, because he has made himself the Son of God” (19:7). Jesus’ countrymen understood perfectly what he meant when he referred to God as his Father and to himself as God’s Son: He was claiming a unity of nature with God, thus making himself equal with God.
There can be no doubt that the Jews were correct in their perception of what Jesus was claiming concerning himself. During the Last Supper, when Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we shall be satisfied”, Jesus said, “Have I been with you so long, and yet you do not know me, Philip? He who has seen me has seen the Father; how can you say, ‘Show us the Father?’ Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father in me?” (John 14:8-11; cf 12:45). Jesus’ words to Philip re-state John’s claim in the Prologue: “the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” There is unity and yet there is distinction.
Verse three strengthens the case for the deity of the Word by portraying him as the one through whom everything was created. This verse helps us to appreciate more fully the parallel between John 1:1 and Genesis 1:1: “In the beginning, God created”.
John says in the first part of verse 3, “all things were made through him”. According to this statement, the Word was the agent of creation. Paul makes the same claim in Colossians 1:16, where he says, “all things were created through him and for him” (cf 1 Corinthians 8:6; Hebrews 1:2). The fact that the Father created through the Word certainly points to the Word’s deity, but it is not conclusive proof. For after all, someone might argue that the Word could have been a sub-creator or merely an angelic agent.
The decisive proof of the Word’s deity lies in the second part of verse 3, “and without him was not anything made that was made”. This statement places the Word outside creation. John is stressing that Jesus was not a part of creation: he was not created. First, he tells us in the positive that “all things were created through him”. Then, to bring the point home, he tells us in the negative that “without him was not anything made that was made.” John is constructing a watertight case: positively, all things came into existence through him; negatively, not even one thing came into existence apart from him. So, the Word cannot be a creature because he was involved in the creation of every single thing. To say that he created every thing is to exclude him without qualification from all creation. If not one thing came into existence apart from him, he must have always existed for anything to have come into existence at all. Or to put it another way: if all things came to exist through him, he must be separate from and before all created things. His eternal, prior existence is the condition for all existence.
The first part of verse four also implies the deity of the Word. John says, “In him was life”. Clearly, this is a reference to the Word’s work as the giver and sustainer of both natural and spiritual life. But I think there is more. When John says, “In him was life,” he also means that the Word possesses, or owns, his own life.
God is set apart from all other living things by virtue of the fact that he possesses and sustains his own life, whereas all other living things are dependent upon him for the maintenance of their lives. An essential quality of God is that he is self-existent and self-existing: in him is life. And John makes this claim here on behalf of the Word, who became flesh as the man Jesus.
Later in John’s Gospel, Jesus makes the same claim on his own behalf. In 5:26, he says, “as the Father has life in himself, so has he granted the Son also to have life in himself”. Jesus further claims that his power to “have life in himself” means that he is able to lay his life down and to take it up again (10:17-18). Talking about his body, Jesus says to the Jews, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (2:19). Who will raise it up? I—I, Jesus—will raise it up. Jesus is claiming for himself power that belongs to God alone. If his claim is true, then he is truly God incarnate.
In addition to having power over his own life, Jesus has power to give life to others. He claims in John 5:21: “For as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom he will.” Note the parallel: as the Father … so also the Son. This is a staggering claim to equality with God.
It is essential for Christians to believe in the full deity of the Lord Jesus Christ for at least two reasons.
Firstly, to believe in a Jesus who is not fully God is to believe in a Jesus who is no Jesus at all. The Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Mormons are in this category. They have stolen the precious name of Jesus and put it on a being of their own making and imagining. The Jesus of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Mormons does not exist. He never has and he never will. The only Jesus who exists is the Jesus who is both God and man. To believe in any other “Jesus” is to believe in a myth, a lie, a fabrication. And such a belief will not save anyone. On the contrary, by blinding a person to the true Jesus, a steadfast belief in a false Jesus will result in damnation.
Secondly, it is essential to believe in the deity of Jesus because his saving work on the cross is dependent upon it. Had he not been God, and thereby infinite in both Person and power, he would not have had the capacity to bear all the past, present and future sins of the whole world. His sacrifice was sufficient not simply because he was sinless, but because as God his sinlessness knew no bounds. His sacrifice was sufficient not simply because he suffered, but because as God his capacity to suffer knew no bounds. His sacrifice was sufficient not simply because he went to the Cross, but because as God he was omnipresent on the cross, encompassing every time and every place.
What ought to be our response to this astonishing truth that Jesus Christ is God incarnate, the One in whom all the fullness of the Godhead dwells bodily (Colossians 2:9), the One from whose face shines “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God” (2 Corinthians 4:6)? What does this mean for us? It means that we should respond to Jesus as Thomas did. We should cry in repentance, humility, gratitude and adoration, “Jesus! My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28).
The middle verses of the Prologue record a tragedy. The first verses record the glory of who Jesus is and the final verses record the glory of what he has done. But the middle verses record the tragedy of how humans, in the main, responded to the Word when he became flesh and dwelt among us as Jesus Christ. John writes in verses 10 and 11: “He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not. He came to his own home, and his own people received him not.” What a terrible thing—that the One who created us should be rejected by us when he came to save us!
In verse 12, John says, “to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become the children of God.” This claim further confirms the deity of Jesus. Throughout the Old Testament, the Jews had been told that “whoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Joel 2:32; cf Acts 2:21; Romans 10:9-13). In God, and God alone, lay salvation. In God, and God alone, could mankind’s deepest needs be met. Now John reveals that whoever believes in the name of Jesus will be saved (cf 3:16), and will be given the right to become a child of God. How can this be, unless Jesus is himself God?
In verse 12, John prepares us for similar claims by Jesus himself. For Jesus declares elsewhere in John’s Gospel that those who believe in him will have eternal life, and will not remain in darkness, nor remain under the wrath of God (3:15-16; 6:47; 10:28; 12:46). Jesus also claims that he can satisfy every person’s deepest needs: “I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst” (6:35). These are the claims of no ordinary man. They are the claims of the Son of God. And as such they are true claims.
And these claims become personally true for each of us when we receive Jesus by faith as our Lord and our God.
To all who receive him by faith, who believe in his name, he gives power—he gives authority, he gives the right—to become the sons of God. How do we know he has the power to give us this power? We know it because we know that he shares both the nature of God and the powers of God. He can make us the sons of God because he is God the Son.
Jesus alone has seen the Father and he alone can reveal the Father to us. If we want to see God, we must look at the character of Jesus. If we want to know the mind of God, we must listen to the teaching of Jesus. For as words utter thought, so the Word utters God.
Jesus came to earth to make the Father known to us. And the wonder is, when we trust in him, he makes us known to the Father!
Copyright © Andrew Lansdown, 2015
John 1:1-18 (The Holy Bible, Revised Standard Version, 1971)
1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God; 3 all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. 4 In him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came for testimony, to bear witness to the light, that all might believe through him. 8 He was not the light, but came to bear witness to the light.
9 The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not. 11 He came to his own home, and his own people received him not. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.
14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father. 15 (John bore witness to him, and cried, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, for he was before me.’”) 16 And from his fullness have we all received, grace upon grace. 17 For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.