As we look into Jesus’ own words, a pattern seems to emerge. Jesus made radical assertions about himself that, if true, unmistakably point to his deity.
One day Jesus was debating some Pharisees at the Temple, when suddenly he told them he is “the light of the world.” It is almost bizarre to picture this scene, where a traveling carpenter from the lowlands of Galilee tells these PhDs in religion that he is “the light of the world?” Believing that Yahweh is the light of the world, they replied indignantly:
“You are making false claims about yourself” (John 8:13 NLT).
Then Jesus told them that 2,000 years earlier, Abraham had foreseen him. Their response was incredulous:
“You aren’t even fifty years old. How can you say you have seen Abraham?” (John 8:57 NLT)
Then Jesus shocked them even more:
“The truth is, before Abraham was, I AM.” (John 8:58 NLT)
Out of the blue, this maverick carpenter with no degree in religion claimed to eternal existence. Furthermore, he had used the I AM title (ego eimi),¹ the sacred Name of God for Himself! These religious experts lived and breathed the Old Testament Scriptures declaring Yahweh alone as God. They knew the Scripture spoken through Isaiah:
“I alone am God. There is no other God; there never has been and never will be. I am the Lord, and there is no other Savior.” (Isaiah 43:10, 11 NLT)
Since the penalty for blasphemy was death by stoning, the Jewish leaders angrily picked up stones to kill Jesus. They thought Jesus was calling himself, “God.” At that point Jesus could have said, “Wait! You misunderstood me—I am not Yahweh.” But Jesus didn’t alter his statement, even at the risk of being killed.
Oxford scholar C.S. Lewis explains their anger:
“He says … ‘I am begotten of the One God, before Abraham was, I am,’ and remember what the words ‘I am’ were in Hebrew. They were the name of God, which must not be spoken by any human being, the name which it was death to utter.”²
Some may argue that this was an isolated instance. But Jesus also used “I AM” for himself on several other occasions. Let’s look at some of these, trying to imagine our reactions upon hearing Jesus’ radical claims:
“I am the light of the world” (John 8:12)
“I am the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6)
“I am the only way to the Father” (John 14:6)
“I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25)
“I am the Good Shepherd” (John 10:11)
“I am the door” (John 10:9)
“I am the living bread” (John 6:51)
“I am the true vine” (John 15:1)
“I am the Alpha and Omega” (Rev. 1:7,8)
Once again, we must go back to context. In the Hebrew Scriptures, when Moses asked God his name at the burning bush, God answered, “I AM.” He was telling Moses that He is the only Creator, eternal and transcendent of time.
Since the time of Moses, no practicing Jew would ever refer to himself or anyone else by “I AM.” As a result, Jesus’ “I AM” claims infuriated the Jewish leaders. One time, for example, some leaders explained to Jesus why they were trying to kill him: “Because you, a mere man, have made yourself God” (John 10:33, NLT).
But the point here is not simply that such a phrase fumed the religious leaders. The point is that they know exactly what he was saying–he was claiming to be God, the Creator of the universe. It is only this claim that would have brought the accusation of blasphemy. To read into the text that Jesus claimed to be God is clearly warranted, not simply by his words, but also by their reaction to those words.
Some who teach that we are all gods might accept Jesus’ claims, as long as they weren’t exclusive. The idea that we are all part of God, and that within us is the seed of divinity, is simply not a possible meaning for Jesus’ words and actions. Such thoughts are revisionist, foreign to his teaching, foreign to his stated beliefs, and foreign to his disciples’ understanding of his teaching. Jesus taught that he is God in the way the Jews understood God and the way the Hebrew Scriptures portrayed God, not in the way the New Age movement understands God. Neither Jesus nor his audience had been weaned on Star Wars, and so when they spoke of God, they were not speaking of cosmic forces. It’s simply bad history to redefine what Jesus meant by the concept of God.
There are many who just aren’t able to accept Jesus as God, and want to call him a great moral teacher. But if Jesus wasn’t God, are we still okay by calling him a great moral teacher? Lewis argued, “I am trying here to prevent anyone from saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God.’ That is the one thing we must not say.”³
In his quest for truth, Lewis knew that he could not have it both ways with the identity of Jesus. Either Jesus was who he calimed to be–God in the flesh–or his claims were false. And if they were false, Jesus could not be a great moral teacher. He would either be lying intentionally or he would be a lunatic with a God complex.
So the options we must choose from for Jesus’ true identity are:
• Jesus was a liar who knowingly deceived us.
• Jesus was a lunatic who was self-deceived.
• Jesus was who he claimed to be–God.
¹ Ego eimi is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew name Isaiah used to describe God in Isaiah 43:10, 11. Dr. James White notes, “The closest and most logical connection between John’s usage of ego eimi and the Old Testament is to be found in the Septuagint rendering of a particular Hebrew phrase, ani hu in the writings (primarily) of Isaiah. The Septuagint translates the Hebrew phrase ani hu as ego eimi in Isaiah 41:4, 43:10 and 46:4” (http://www.aomin.org/EGO.html).
² C. S. Lewis, God in the Dock (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2,000), 157.
³ C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1972), 52.