Biblical Approaches to the Trinity 2: What Jesus Said

This is the second post in a series.  Read the first post here.

Is the Trinity in the Bible?  The Christian doctrine of the Trinity asserts that Jesus Christ is the second divine person, God the Son.  So if the idea of the Trinity is anywhere, we should find it in the words and actions of Jesus.  What did Jesus say about the whether or not he was God?

Jesus on God’s Oneness

Jesus never explicitly said, “I am God.”  Had he done so, his listeners might well have thought he was engaging in some Greek or Roman paganism, claiming to be a being like Zeus, or divinized like the slightly later emperors.  In other words, if Jesus had said, “I am God,” others might have thought he was offering himself as an alternative to the one only God of the Old Testament.  Jews might well have interpreted such a claim as blasphemy, as if Jesus were claiming to be a different God.  Jesus was, after all, a Jew, and a reasonably devout one at that.  He quoted Deuteronomy’s great affirmation of unity: “The most important [command],” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength'” (Mark 12:29-30).  He was clear that there was only one God.

What Else Jesus Said

But that is not the only thing that Jesus said.  A number of the things he said associated himself very closely with God, very closely indeed.  I am thinking not only of his referring to God as his Father, and himself as God’s Son (Matthew 7:21; 10:32; 11:25-27; among many others).  This had been used as a metaphor in the Old Testament (e.g. Hosea 11:1), so while Jesus may have intended this to be an indication of what he shares with God, it is not indisputably so.  Let us then turn to other passages which indicate specific aspects of his association with God.

One Saturday, as Jesus was walking with his friends in some fields, the disciples were snacking on the ripe heads of grain.  The Pharisees were indignant at (what they perceived to be) this violation of the Sabbath law, and called Jesus out over his close followers’ behavior.  Jesus responded, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.  So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27-28).  The first part criticizes the Pharisees for missing the point, losing sight of the Sabbath’s purpose in their desire to make others follow all their rules.  It’s easy to read over the second part, but that is the real punchline.  “The Son of Man” is one of the ways Jesus referred to himself.  So Jesus here said that he himself was the Lord, of the Sabbath too.  Now, the Sabbath ordinance was set up by God (Genesis 2:3; Exodus 20:8-11).  So who, other than God, could claim to have authority over it?  At very least, Jesus claimed his full personal authority over God’s institution.

In the famous Sermon on the Mount, Jesus affirmed the Law of God (Matthew 5:17-19), but then he repeatedly quoted God’s words (5:21, 27, 31, 38, 43) and contrasted his own words (“But I tell you…”: 5:22, 28, 32, 39, 44) as of equal authority.  His original audience marveled that “he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law” (Matthew 7:29).  Thus the teaching authority of Jesus was not based on knowing the scriptures well, or an accreditation by an examiner.  He simply said, “But I tell you…”  Normally, we would presume that someone who said, “God said X, but I tell you Y,” was downplaying the importance of God’s word, but that is why it’s so important that Jesus had affirmed God’s Law immediately beforehand.  He was not disrespecting the Word of God, but he presented his own words as having at least equal standing.

Towards the end of the Sermon on the Mount, just before Jesus said that it would be foolish to ignore what he is saying, he made an enigmatic contrast:

 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ (Matthew 7:21-23)

Here he refers to the Day of Judgment, and on that day, some people will call him “Lord, Lord!” but even so they will not enter the kingdom of heaven, i.e. will not experience eternal life in God’s presence.  They appeal to miraculous spiritual powers they exercised “in your name,” i.e. in the name of Jesus, and Jesus will tell them to go away because they were not doing God’s will but instead doing evil.  This short description portrays Jesus as the Judge on the Day of Judgment.  In the Old Testament, it was clearly understood that God himself would be the final Judge (Ecclesiastes 12:14; Isaiah 13:9-13; 66:16; Jeremiah 25:30-31).  So when Jesus said, “The Father judges no one, but has entrusted all judgment to the Son” (John 5:22, c.f. 5:27), it would have been understood that he was claiming a divine role.

In case the unity of Jesus with God his Father might be overlooked, on another occasion Jesus explicitly stated, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30).  He had spelled out what this meant in terms of his own longevity, comparing his age to that of Abraham who had lived around two millennia earlier, and whom the Jews claimed as their forefather: “Before Abraham was born, I am!” (John 8:58).  In both cases, his original audience understood these as claims to be God, and moved to stone Jesus “for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God” (John 10:33).

Some critics might mistakenly assume that such claims are unique to John’s gospel, but they are not.  The three so-called Synoptic gospels all report a story of a paralyzed man being brought to Jesus for healing, but Jesus took that request in a very different direction.  What he said to the man first was, “Your sins are forgiven” (Matthew 9:2; Mark 2:5; Luke 5:20).  This may seem unremarkable to us, but in the cultural context in which it was uttered, it was anything but that; the people present who were experts in God’s Law responded to this statement, “Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mark 9:7).  Forgiveness of sins is a divine prerogative, because all sin is against God (Psalm 51:4).  Now there was an easy way out for Jesus at this point: he could simply have said, “No, you misunderstand me!  I am not the one forgiving the sins.  I am merely pronouncing forgiveness on behalf of God” (something like the Roman Catholic doctrine of absolution).  But Jesus did not do that.  Nor did he disagree with the lawyers, asserting instead that someone other than God could forgive sins.  The lawyers were right, and Jesus knew it.  Instead, Jesus responded by claiming miraculous power, and healing the paralyzed man, because, he said, “I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” (Luke 5:24).  Jesus claimed to exercise the divine prerogative to forgive sins, and the religious experts understood what this implied.

Unity Without Singleness

Jesus did not say, “I am God.”  Doing so would have opened him up to being misunderstood, and he did not need to say that in order to make his point.  Instead, he claimed to be the unique Son of God who alone could make God the Father known to others (Matthew 11:27).  In the unique relationship that Jesus had with God the Father, he claimed divine authority over God’s institutions (the Sabbath) and words (the Law), he claimed the divine role as final Judge at the Day of Judgment, he claimed unity with the One God, he claimed divine attributes (such as existing before Abraham was born), and he claimed the divine prerogative of forgiving sins.  Only God could claim these things truly.  The original audience understood what these claims implied about who Jesus claimed to be, but many of them assumed that Jesus was lying, so they charged him with blasphemy and killed him for it (Mark 14:64).  They got the point, but missed the boat.

Those who followed Jesus, however, accepted his claims.  But then they were left with a puzzle.  God was one; on that Moses, the prophets, and Jesus had all agreed.  But Jesus claimed that God was his Father, and that he himself had divine authority, roles, attributes, and prerogatives.  How could these claims be reconciled?  That took some figuring out, and that process, from the first followers of Jesus, the apostles, through the early centuries of Christianity will be the subject of the next post in this series.

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