This essay is written in response to readers who have asked me to write some more about the identity of Jesus, and the relationship between Jesus and God.
It is understandable that there is confusion about this. In trinitarian Christian churches, the name “Jesus” is used interchangeably with the terms “Son of God” and “God” in sermons and hymns. Trinitarians worship Jesus as divine.
The idea that Jesus is the only divine Son of God came originally from Paul of Tarsus, who called himself an “apostle” (messenger) of Jesus. Paul wrote, “. . . . Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped (sought), but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:5-11).
Although Paul viewed Jesus as the divine Son of God, Paul did not view Jesus as equal to “God.” Paul wrote, “Yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist” (I Corinthians 8:6). “When all things are subjected to him (Jesus), then the Son himself will also be subjected to Him (God the Father) who put all things under him (Jesus), that God may be everything to everyone” (I Corinthians 15:28).
Paul believed that God the Father had chosen Jesus to be the “messiah” or “lord” (ruler) of the world, but that Jesus is subordinate to God the Father. Paul also believed that God the Father used Jesus to create the world and humankind. This latter belief reflects the influence of Greek philosophy. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus, six centuries before the Christian Era, believed that a “logos” (a creative intelligence, or “mind”) created the order of the world. Paul was from the city of Tarsus where Greek ideas were well-known. This idea of the “logos” is also seen in the Gospel of John where the unknown writer claimed that the “logos” that created the world was incarnated (became flesh) in Jesus (John 1:1-14).
The idea that the “Son of God” existed before being born as a man (Jesus) posed a problem for the early Christian church. It appeared that Christians worshipped two Gods, although one ranked higher than the other. This is called “polytheism” (worship of more than one God). The relationship of Jesus to God the Father became a matter of debate among Christians during the first three centuries of Christianity.
A Christian priest, named Arius, in Alexandria, Egypt, taught that God the Father had “created” Jesus as the Son of God before the world was created, and that Jesus was subordinate to God the Father. A church council was convened in Nicaea, in 325 C.E., to settle the controversy about Jesus and his relationship to God the Father.
Arius’ view, called Arianism, was condemned by the Council of Nicaea, and the Council produced the “Creed of Nicaea” which declared that Jesus was the “Son of God” who was “only-begotten, that is, of the substance of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten and not made, of one substance with the Father, through whom all things were made, things in heaven and on earth.”
The Creed of Nicaea declared that the Son of God had always existed and was the creator of the world: “But those who say, ‘There was (a time) when he (the Son of God) was not (in existence)’ and ‘Before he (the Son of God) was begotten, he was not (in existence)’ . . . . the Catholic and Apostolic Church anathematizes (condemns).”
The Creed of Nicaea did not say that the Son of God was subordinate to God the Father. The creed claimed that the Son of God was begotten “of one substance with the Father,” suggesting that the Son of God existed within God the Father even before the Son was “begotten.” This was apparently an effort to refute the charge that Christians believed in two Gods, or “polytheism.”
So when did God the Father “beget” (i.e., “become the father of”) the “only begotten Son of God?” A church council in Chalcedon, in 451 C.E., affirmed in a creed known as the “Nicene Creed” that the “Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God” was “begotten before all ages” and “for us men and for our salvation came down from the heavens, and was made flesh of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and became man and was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried, and rose again on the third day according to the Scriptures, and ascended to the heavens, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father, and cometh again with glory to judge living and dead, of whose kingdom there shall be no end; . . . .”
According to the creeds of 325 C.E. and 451 C.E., the Son of God had always existed as “one substance with the Father” and was “begotten before all ages” before coming “down from the heavens” to be “made flesh of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary” and become known as Jesus.
The Nicene Creed, in 451 C.E., also declared a belief in “the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Life-giver, who proceeded from the Father, who with the Father and the Son is worshipped together and glorified together . . . .” Thus the doctrine of the “Trinity of God” (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) was affirmed as the “orthodox” trinitarian view of God. It should be noted that the Holy Spirit “proceeded” from God the Father, and the Son of God was “begotten” from “one substance with the Father” indicating that the Holy Spirit and the Son of God were part of God, and were to be worshipped “together” with God the Father. This has led trinitarian Christians to worship Jesus, and to equate Jesus with God the Father in trinitarian Christian churches.
The apostle Paul probably did not recognize the problem created by his view that Jesus was divine but subordinate to God the Father. Paul believed that Jesus was the “messiah” (anointed one) who would return to the earth during Paul’s lifetime to rule all humankind in the “Kingdom of God” (First Corinthians 7:29-31; First Thessalonians 4:16-17; First Corinthians 15:24-28).
Paul sometimes referred to Jesus as “lord” meaning “ruler” of the Kingdom of God. Since the term “Lord” is also used in the “Old Testament” to refer to God as the “ruler” of the universe, trinitarian Christians often refer to Jesus as “Lord,” meaning “God” without distinguishing between Jesus and “God the Father” as Paul did (Philippians 2:9-11).
The Gospel of John also depicts Jesus as the divine Son of God but separate from and subordinate to God the Father:
In John 12:49, Jesus said, “For I have not spoken on my own authority; the Father who sent me has Himself given me commandment what to say and what to speak.” Jesus did not claim to have the same authority as God the Father.
In John 14:28, Jesus told his disciples, “You heard me say to you, ‘I go away, and I will come to you.’ If you loved me, you would have rejoiced, because I go to the Father, for the Father is greater than I.” Jesus did not claim equal status or rank with God the Father.
In John 14:1, Jesus said, “Let not your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me.” Again, Jesus was not identical with God the Father.
In John 14:24, Jesus said, “. . . . the word which you hear is not mine but the Father’s who sent me.” Jesus believed that he had been sent by God the Father.
In John 14:31, Jesus said, “I do as the Father has commanded me, so the world may know that I love the Father.” Jesus was not talking about loving himself.
In John 15:15, Jesus said, “. . . . all that I have heard from the Father, I have made known to you.” Again, the Father is someone separate from Jesus.
Jesus certainly did not view himself as being identical with God the Father. This is clearly seen in the fact that Jesus frequently prayed to God the Father.
In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus “fell on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. And he said, ‘Abba, Father, all things are possible to Thee; remove this cup (death) from me, yet not what I will, but what Thou wilt'” (Mark 14:35-36). Here, Jesus’ “will” is certainly separate from God’s “will.”
Incidentally, this scripture also shows that Jesus did not believe that God had sent him to die as a sacrifice to God to save humankind from the “death penalty” for sin. If Jesus had believed that God had sent Jesus for the purpose of dying, it would have been nonsense for Jesus to ask God to “remove this cup (death) from me.”
Also, when Jesus was being crucified, Jesus “cried with a loud voice, ‘Eli, Eli, lama sabschthani,’ that is, “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34). Again, this scripture shows that Jesus did not view himself as identical with God. Here, Jesus felt “forsaken” by God. Also, this scripture shows that Jesus did not see his crucifixion as the intended purpose of his life. The so-called “substitutionary theory of the atonement by the death of Jesus” collapses if we take the words of Jesus seriously.
Trinitarian Christians often quote Jesus saying, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30) to support their belief that “Jesus” and “God the Father” are simply different terms for referring to the same God. But trinitarian Christians should continue reading John 10:31-38 and the 17th chapter of John.
Here is John 10:31-38: “The Jews took up stones 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.'”
“Jesus answered them, ‘Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, you are gods?'” (Note: Jesus is referring to Psalms 82:6, “I say, You are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you.”)
“(Then Jesus said,) ‘If he (the psalmist) called them gods to whom the word of God came (i.e., the Jewish people), do you say of him whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming’ because I say that I am son of God?'” (Note: some English translations say “the” son of God, but Greek manuscripts do not have the article “the” before “son of God.”)
“(Then Jesus said,) ‘If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me; but if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.'”
The “oneness” that Jesus claimed with God the Father did not mean that Jesus was identical with God the Father because Jesus also prayed that his disciples “may be one even as we (Jesus and God the Father) are one” (John 17:11).
Later, Jesus prayed that his followers would “all be one as Thou, Father are in me and I in Thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that Thou has sent me. The glory which Thou has given me, I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and Thou in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that Thou has sent me and hast loved them even as Thou has loved me” (John 17:21-23).
The “oneness” that Jesus had with God, the Father, was a “oneness,” or unity, that Jesus wanted his followers to have with each other, with Jesus, and with God. According to Jesus, it is through this experience of “oneness” with each other that we can know that God loves us. God’s love is experienced through our love for each other, as evidenced by works of love, just as Jesus’ works of love evidenced his “oneness” with God.
In his prayer for his disciples, Jesus repeatedly referred to his making God’s “word” known to them. Jesus prayed, “I have given them the words which Thou gavest me” (John 17:8). “Sanctify them in the truth, Thy word is truth. As Thou did send me into the world, so I have sent them into the world” (John 17:17-18). “I do not pray for these only, but also for those who are to believe in me through their word, that they may all be one; even as Thou, Father art in me, and I in Thee, that they may be in us . . . .” (John 17:20-21).
Jesus said, “By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in His love. These things I have spoken to you, that your joy may be full. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:8-13).
Jesus uses the term “God’s word” to refer to God’s commandments to “love God and love your neighbor as yourself” and Jesus emphasized “that you love one another.” It is through love for each other that individuals experience the “oneness” that Jesus claimed with God the Father.
It should be noted that Jesus said that it is through keeping God’s commandments that our “joy may be full.” Our personal happiness, or joy, comes from living by love for God and each other.
Jesus was eventually crucified by the Romans who viewed Jesus as a Jewish revolutionary calling for new Jewish “Kingdom.” There is no doubt that originally Jesus was a Jewish revolutionary, and follower of John the Baptist who referred to the Kingdom of Israel as the “Kingdom of heaven.”
When Jesus began preaching the message of John the Baptist, “Repent, for the kindom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17), Jesus was referring to a political kingdom of Israel. When Jesus sent his disciples out to preach the coming of the kingdom, Jesus told them, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles (non-Jews), and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (the Jews), and preach as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand’ ” (Matthew 10:5-7).
As Jesus traveled through the countryside, preaching “the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the gospel (good news)” (Mark 1:15), something remarkable happened. As Jesus encountered non-Jews, Jesus’ concept of the “kingdom of God” began to change.
When Jesus encountered a Caananite (non-Jewish) woman from the district of Tyre and Sidon, the woman asked Jesus to heal the woman’s daughter.
Jesus said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But the woman came and knelt before him, saying “Lord (sir), help me.”
Jesus replied, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” (Note: Here Jesus was expressing a prejudice that was common among Jews at that time. Jesus referred to the Jews as the “children” of God and referred to non-Jews as “dogs,” implying that non-Jews were inferior to Jews.)
The Caananite woman replied, “Yes, lord (sir), yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
Evidently, Jesus was impressed that this woman was even willing to endure insult in order to get help for her daughter whom she loved. Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith. Be it done for you as you desire.” According to the book of Matthew, the woman’s daughter was healed (Matthew 15:22-28). And Jesus learned a lesson in humility and love from this woman.
When Jesus encountered a Roman centurion (commander of 100 soldiers) in Capernaum, the Roman officer asked Jesus to heal the officer’s servant who was “lying paralyzed at home, in terrible distress.” The officer believed that his servant would be healed if Jesus would “say the word.” Jesus “marveled, and said to those who followed him, ‘Truly, I say to you, not even in Israel have I found such faith’ ” (Matthew 8:5-13).
Jesus encountered a Samaritan woman who asked how to worship God, whether by the religious tradition of the Jews or by the religious tradition of the Samaritans. Jesus replied that “true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth . . . .” regardless of religious tradition (John 4:21-24).
From his encounters with persons of other nationalities and religions (Canaanites, Romans, and Samaritans), Jesus came to recognize that all people have the same concerns and needs. Jesus revised his concept of the “kingdom of God” to include everyone who was willing to follow God’s commandments “to love God and neighbor (everyone).” Jesus ended his days on earth telling his disciples to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). And Jesus used a Samaritan (non-Jew) as an example of a “good neighbor” in the parable of “the good Samaritan” (Luke 10:29-37).
Jesus’ new vision of the “kingdom of God” is defined in his parables. About two-thirds of his parables define the “kingdom of God.” These include the parables of the sower, the hidden treasure, the pearl, the mustard seed, the leaven, and many more (See my essay on “The Kingdom of God”). These parables do not describe the “Kingdom of God” as a restored political kingdom of Israel.
Jesus’ concept of the “kingdom of God” is seen in his conversation with a Jewish scribe. “The scribe said to Jesus, ‘You are right, teacher, you have truly said that He (God) is one and there is no other (God) but Him; and to love Him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than burnt offerings and sacrifices.’ And when Jesus saw that he (the scribe) answered wisely, he (Jesus) said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’ ” (Mark 12:32-34). Clearly, Jesus was not referring to a political “kingdom.”
The scribe was “not far from the kingdom of God” because he recognized that God’s basic laws for humankind are “love for God” and “love for neighbor as oneself.” The discovery, or recognition, of God’s natural laws is the first step toward the reign of God’s laws in an individual’s life. The next step would be for the scribe to “enter” the kingdom of God by obeying these natural laws.
The central theme of the “gospel” according to Jesus is the “kingdom of God” in which love rules. Connected with this theme is the necessity of repentance and forgiveness. If a person chooses to follow the way of love for others, that person will repent of any failure to love, and seek forgiveneess from God and from any person hurt by the failure to love.
Repentance is evidence that a person is committed to trying to live by love. The meaning of repentance is seen in Jesus’ parable of the “prodigal son” (Luke 15:11-24). (See my essay on “Repentance and Forgiveness.”)
Jesus said, “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him; and if he sins against you seven times a day and turns to you seven times, and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him” (Luke 17:3-4). And Jesus said, “If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14-15).
Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “And forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us” (Luke 11:4). The idea that God cannot forgive us unless Jesus “died to pay the penalty for our sins” is contrary to the teachings of Jesus. Repentance and a willingness to forgive others are the prerequisites for obtaining God’s forgiveness of our failures to love.
Now we come back to the question, “Who was Jesus?” The Apostle Paul and the unknown writer of the Gospel of John believed that Jesus was the divine “Son of God” who existed with God the Father in heaven before coming to earth as a human being, but they also believed that Jesus was not identical with God the Father nor equal with God the Father in rank. In effect, they believed in two Gods.
The writers of the books of Matthew, Mark, and Luke make no mention of this so-called “pre-existence” of Jesus before his birth on earth. These gospel writers describe Jesus as a human being, a Jew, who was the “messiah” whom Jesus’ disciples expected to reestablish the political Kingdom of Israel on earth. Even after his crucifixion, when Jesus, (wounded but physically alive) met with his disciples, they asked him, “Lord (sir), will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6).
History has proven that Jesus was not the Jewish “messiah” who would reestablish the “kingdom of Israel,” and there is no reason to believe that Jesus was the incarnation of the “logos” of Greek philosophy. To believe that Jesus was divine but subordinate to another “God” would only mean that Christianity is a polytheistic religion, akin to that found in Greek mythology.
I believe that the best answer to the question, “Who was Jesus?” is found in John 8:40, where Jesus described himself as “a man who has told you the truth which I heard from God.” And Jesus made no exclusive claim to “hearing” God’s truth. Jesus said, “It is written in the prophets, ‘They shall all be taught by God.’ Every one who has heard and learned from the Father will come to me” (John 6:45).
Jesus also said, “My teaching is not mine, but His who sent me; if any man’s will is to do His (God’s) will, he will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority” (John 7:17). God’s truth, or will, that we should “love God and love our neighbor as oneself” is known naturally by everyone. Any person who “wills (chooses) to do His (God’s) will” can recognize that Jesus taught God’s truth.
What a person believes about “who Jesus was” is not essential in following Jesus. Jesus said, simply, “you are my disciples if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).