Did Jesus know he was God?

Did Jesus know he was God? My friend Kay Paris asked this very good question the other day and, given how much I would like to say on this, I thought I’d write my reply as a dedicated blog post.

Personally I like what N T Wright has to say on the topic and in “The Challenge of Jesus” he devotes a whole chapter to it. He starts by noting:

“The problem is that the word god or God simply does not mean the same thing to all people who use it; and, what is more, most people in Western culture today, when they use the word, do not have in mind what mainstream, well-thought-out Christianity has meant by it. The result is quite drastic: if I were simply to answer yes … the majority of my hearers would here me affirming something I do not believe to be true. I do not think Jesus though he was identified with the being that most people in our culture think is denoted by the word god. What most people mean by god in late-modern Western culture is the god of Enlightenment Deism.”

Okay, I know this might be unsettling for some of you, this refusal to say “yes” upfront, but where N T Wright is going with this is that, before we answer the question “Did Jesus know he was God?”, we must first ask the question “What did a first century Galilean Jew understand that word god to mean?”

“The Jews believed in a specific God, of whom there was only one, who made the world and who was present to it and active within it while remaining sovereign over it and mysteriously other than it … [God] was not remote or detached. Nor was he simply a generalized sense of a sacred dimension within the world or for that matter the objectification or personification of forces and drives within the world.”

So, to think Pantheism is a valid interpretive lens is just as anachronistic as the Deist one. We need to understand the ancient Jews on their own terms. N T Wright then goes on to talk about how the ancient Jews perceived God acting in the world. He then goes on to develop how Jesus saw his own actions and vocation in relation to God’s actions and agenda.

“Central to all that follows is the argument that Jesus, at the very center of his vocation, believed himself called to do and be in relation to Israel what, in Scripture and Jewish belief, the Temple was and did. If, therefore, Judaism did indeed have a great incarnational symbol at its very heart, named the Temple, then for Jesus to upstage the Temple, to take on its role and function and to legitimate this with Davidic claims, meant that Jesus was claiming that he rather than the Temple was the place where and the means by which the living God was present with Israel.”

Kay, this is a heads up just for you, note the Temple was the Jewish equivalent of the omphalos stone, world tree, etc.

“My conclusion from this brief survey of the evidence is that Jesus believed himself to act as the new Temple. When people were in his presence, it was if they were in the Temple … Jesus was taking a huge risk of acting as if he were the Shekinah in person, the presence of YHWH tabernacling with his people.”

N T Wright then goes on to talk of the other incarnational symbols of Judaism, such as the Torah, then says this:

“Jesus was not content to announce that YHWH was returning to Zion. He intended to enact, symbolize and personify that climactic event.”

And note this was a one off event, which for the Jews was the climax of history. He is not saying this is just one of many ways of embodying God.

“The return of YHWH to Zion, and the Temple-theology which it brings into focus, are the deepest keys and clues to gospel Christology. Forget the “titles” of Jesus, at least for a moment; forget the attempts of some well meaning Christians to make Jesus of Nazareth conscious of being the second person of the Trinity; forget the arid reductionism that some earnest liberal theologians have produced by way of reaction. Focus, instead, on a young Jewish prophet telling a story about YHWH returning to Zion as judge and redeemer, and then embodying it by riding into the city in tears, symbolizing the Temple’s destruction and celebrating the final exodus. I propose, as a matter of history, that Jesus of Nazareth was conscious of vocation: a vocation, given him by the one he knew as “father”, to enact in himself what, in Israel’s scriptures, God has promised to accomplish all by himself. He would be the pillar of cloud and fire for the people of the new exodus. He would embody in himself the returning and redeeming action of the covenant God.”

Now there is a lot more to this line of argument but I will finish with this.

“Western orthodoxy, not least within what calls itself “evangelicalism”, has had for too long an overly lofty and detached view of God. It has always tended to approach the Christological question by assuming this view of God and then by fitting Jesus into it. Hardly surprising, the result has been a docetic Jesus … My proposal is not that we know what the word god means and somehow manage to fit Jesus into that. Instead, I suggest that we think historically about a young Jew possessed of a desperately risky, indeed apparently crazy vocation, riding into Jerusalem in tears, denouncing the Temple and dying on a Roman cross – and that we somehow allow our meaning for the word god to be recentered around that point.”

There’s some food for thought I hope.

17 thoughts on “Did Jesus know he was God?

  1. Thanks Matt for bringing NT Wright into my question. I really need to get around to reading his stuff.
    As I mentioned in the follow up comments to my post, I think my question was too vague to be of any use. I wanted to keep it vague so as not to influence any of the answers I might get, but I think I did too good a job. Hehe.
    My question was prompted by something I read lately that I hadn’t thought of before. Rathr than detail that here, I’ll probably make it a post on my blog.
    You answered the gist of my question though. Thank you. 🙂


  2. Good thoughts here Matt, I believe thjat NT Wright challenges us to review our rather broad and often remote concepts of an immutable God, and to bring into focus the intimate relationship Jesus had with a thoroughly active and relational God- a God who was involved. For many today saying that Jesus accepted that he was God simply stands to make Jesus immutable and remote also.
    We need to get back to relational being and embrace the ministry of reconciliation offered by the real gospel news!


  3. Sally, your comment that “For many today saying that Jesus accepted that he was God simply stands to make Jesus immutable and remote also” reasonates strongly with me and I see the fingerprint of that both in Ancient art and also within the Mariology of the Catholic church. Jesus becomes remote so Mary has to be the passionate one we identify with (and I say this as one who grew up in the Catholic church, I am not simply Catholic bashing). I found this was particularly acute in Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” where Christ was not particularly passionate at all but little more than a whipping boy for atonement theology. Protestant versions of the gospel that turn Jesus as the means of transaction in a celestial account balancing exercise aren’t any better. I find it historically and psychologically implausible to think Jesus thought of himself that way. N T Wright’s approach seems much more psychologically and historically grounded to me and I like the way he exegetes the symbols and actions of Jesus in the gospels as much as the sayings. I also consider this approach more theologically grounded in that “fully god” is not at the expense of “fully human” in this line of interpretation.


  4. What struck me about this was the difference between the Diest view and the Jewish view of God and how important that issue is in this discussion. I know there was a definite difference between the two views, but commonally the difference boils down only to miracles. It seems that from my light reading on the topics that I developed the mindset that the two views of God were essentially the same, with the only difference being one god involved himself in miracles the other did not. I think we need to really explore more the difference between the two views, but that’s were I am coming from.
    Another thing that goes along with this question (but is separate from my first point) is the Nestorianism. Now I don’t know everything about this, but it was the view the Jesus was God and Man but not in a unified way. From reading over it a bit on Wikipedia I concluded out of some confusion that it was a frivolous topic. But I’m pretty sure that Nestorianism helped to contribute a side to this debate.


  5. Sally, the book I’ve been quoting from is “The Challenge of Jesus”. It’s short but sweet. One of my favourites. I have added an Amazon link above for anyone who wants to purchase it.


  6. Isaiah, yes, these differing views of what is meant by the word ‘god’ are very important to the discussion.
    In this pluralistic age however I think we need to explore far more than just those two views, that of modern Diests and ancient Jewish monotheists. For me personally exploring the differences between pantheist views and Jewish views has been far more important given my New Age background. And I regularly converse with others who come from a polytheistic direction, viewing the word ‘god’ as representing one half of a god-goddess duality. That makes the discussion even more ‘interesting’. To the question, did Jesus think he was the incarnation of a sky god, the Jewish equivalent to Zeus, my answer would be “Definately no, YHWH was not a sky god as you think of it”.
    And yes, when we get down to the nuances there is a whole spectrum of options between full blown Deism and Jewish monotheism. Many today I feel sit somewhere in the middle of this, with Deistic shaded views of monotheism where YHWH does miracles, but in the manner of an interloper.
    This takes us down to the issue of worldview. For moderns the primary cosmological duality is between ‘natural’ and ‘supernatural’. For ancient Jews the primary cosmological duality was between ‘creation’ and ‘Creator’. Butt these views together and what emerges is a three tiered system consisting of God (unseen-uncreated), the spirit world (unseen-created) and the material world (seen-created). In modernity Westerners lost site of that middle realm and that’s what missiologists mean by ‘the flaw of the excluded middle’. Google it.
    Now, here is the interesting thing. If you start defining miracles as ‘supernatural events’ you have already bought into modern Deism to a large extent, even more so if you exclude the middle from your worldview. The ancient Jews would never have defined miracles in this manner. For them, creation was radically dependant on God. If the Creator would have withdrawn his attention from creation for a moment all things would cease to exist.
    What made an event a ‘miracle’ or not for ancient Jews was not the question of whether God was present or not, for he was present to everything, but whether the event had prophetic significance. So some pretty mundane events, such as plagues, could take on ‘miraculous’ significance if they prophecied. Conversely, some pretty extraordinary events, such as Egyptian magicians turning water into blood in Exodus 7, were not declared ‘miraculous’ as prophetic significance was absent.
    So when a Westerner talks of ‘miraculous’ healing, and means nothing more that it was medically unexplained, we must be very, very cautious. Because for ancient Jews the essense of a miracle was precisely that it WAS explained and revealed truths about God. They were events that functioned as ‘signs’ pointing to YHWH.
    As for Nestorianism, you are dead right. The question of, “in what sense is Jesus God”, is arguably the most central in all Christian theology and behind all the debates of the first few centuries of Christianity in one way or another. How you understand Christ shapes how you understand Christianity at the deepest level.


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  8. interesting. I guess that linked to this is that Jesus is only one part of the trinity – so asking if he knew he was God is like asking does he think he’s the Father and the answer has to be a resounding no. I like it that it’s a mystery and I find it helpful to remind myself that while on earth Jesus had to rely on the spirit and spiritual gifts in the same way as you and I do. He was tempted like us, and he struggled like us – but he didn’t fall into sin. I wonder how He managed that. No wonder that heretics wondered if he was really human or not. The ‘pat’ answer that he didn’t have a sinful nature. but it’s an interesting question isn’t it?


  9. Matt, I’ve been running into lots of things lately that remind me of Bishop Berkeley’s belief that “to be is to be perceived…and the ultimate Perceiver is God.” Indeed, we exist because we are perceived by God…and it is Christ who holds all things together.
    Some day I will have an opportunity to read NT Wright’s books…I’ve read some of his on-line stuff. I appreciate his perspective.
    So, where does this leave miracles today? Very interesting, indeed….


  10. Feed the perceiver stuff back into quantum mechanics and I’m sure interesting ideas would flow!
    N T Wright is one of my favourite authors. I highly recommend him. Though his books are atrociously expensive they are extraordinarily deep.
    On miracles, I think we have to deconstruct the ‘god of the gaps’ the enlightenment left us with and proclaim him an idol.


  11. Lorna
    Your comment, “He was tempted like us, and he struggled like us – but he didn’t fall into sin. I wonder how He managed that.” raises some interesting issues. I have actually been reflecting this week on how Protestants generally focus on past sin and have much less to say on future sin. I’d like to know how to managed that better!


  12. “[F]orget the attempts of some well meaning Christians to make Jesus of Nazareth conscious of being the second person of the Trinity.”
    I don’t know if this was a good thing to say. While the language of “I am the Second Person of the Trinity” would be anachronistic, other aspects of that idea would not be. When I have read Charles Hodge’s account of where the doctrine comes from, much of it comes from how these Persons are speaking to each other.
    The baptism of Jesus comes to mind. In Luke we have “and the Holy Spirit descended upon Him in bodily form like a dove, and a voice came out of heaven, ‘You are My beloved Son, in You I am well-pleased'” (Luke 4:22).
    Now there may be some distance between that and a full-blown doctrine of the Trinity, but if the Trinity is the right interpretation of this, I can hardly imagine Jesus being ignorant of his identity. It seems to me that descending doves and voices from heaven might alter a situation from one where all development of identity is internally motivated.
    The rest of the Wright passage was helpful. My own musings are partly inspired by The Last Temptation of Christ. That movie begins with a confused questioning of identity but ends with a high Christology. I can imagine a human nature of very limited knowledge. But it does seem to me that there is a growth in knowledge, in part coming through increasing familiarity with the Scriptures, and in part coming through some supernatural intrusion. It does not help to make the human nature naturally omniscient. But we are not wrestling in a vacuum with the idea of what his limited human nature did know.


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