Knowing Jesus is God tells us why he matters
April 18, 2019
If Jesus matters, then we must figure out who he is. This will tell us why he matters. And the most pressing question about Jesus’ identity is whether he is really God. For if he is not God, he has no power to save us.
And it seems that Jesus was not God; rather, he was a creature. Like all creatures, his existence had a starting point. For the angel told his mother, "Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus" (Lk 1:31). To be conceived is to have a beginning. But God has no beginning, since he is eternal. Therefore Jesus is not God.
Second, Jesus tells us that "my Father is greater than I" (Jn 14:28). When he talks about his Father, he is clearly talking about God the Father. But one cannot be greater than oneself. Therefore Jesus is not God.
Third, the doctrine that Jesus is God, that is, that he is "consubstantial with the Father," was formulated at the First Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. Prior to that, Christians did not have this understanding. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, the council was deemed necessary to define this doctrine well after the New Testament was written because the Bible is unclear about it. Therefore, we do not have enough evidence that Jesus is God. We must therefore conclude that he is not God, because the burden of proof rests with those making the claim.
However, Jesus identifies himself with the God of the Old Testament when he tells the Jews, "Amen, amen, I say to you, before Abraham came to be, I AM" (Jn 8:58). "I AM" was the name Yahweh gave himself and revealed to Moses in the burning bush (Ex 3:14). The Jews in John’s Gospel understood Jesus’ meaning, for they wanted to stone him for blasphemy. Therefore Jesus must be God.
How we know Jesus is God
We know Jesus is God both from Scripture and sacred tradition. In Scripture, Christ tells us that he is God. The apostles and others also testify to the divinity of Christ. In tradition, the divinity of Christ was definitively taught at the First Council of Nicea.
Bishop Robert Barron’s YouTube video, "Who Do You Say That I Am?" offers many scriptural references attesting to Jesus’ divinity. Perhaps the most poignant is the start of John’s Gospel: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God" (1:1, emphasis added).
Here John is talking about Jesus, for "the Word became flesh, and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth" (1:14). His glory, fullness of grace and fullness of truth all reveal his divinity.
In other passages, Jesus himself points to his divine identity. In the Sermon on the Mount, he begins several teachings by saying, "You have heard it said …" and then goes on to say, "But I say to you …" (See especially Mt 5:21-34.)
Here Jesus is referring to the Torah, the law of God as revealed to Moses. He implicitly claims authority over it. But who could claim authority over a law given by God except God himself? The implication was not lost on his listeners.
Neither was the implication of Jesus’ words to the paralytic in Mark’s Gospel. "Child, your sins are forgiven," he says to him as he heals him. "Why does this man speak this way?" the scribes, who witnessed the act, ask themselves. "Who but God alone can forgive sins?" (2:5-7)
In addition to the Gospel writers, other apostles of Jesus also understood him to be God. Peter begins his second letter: "Simon Peter, a slave and apostle of Jesus Christ, to those who have received a faith of equal value to ours through the righteousness of our God and savior Jesus Christ" (2 Pt 1, emphasis added).
When Jesus tells Thomas to touch his hands and side, so that he believe that he has risen from the dead, Thomas responds, "My Lord and my God!" (Jn 20:28, emphasis added).
Teaching of Nicea
Early Christians, following the teaching of Christ, the apostles and Fathers of the Church, also affirmed that Jesus was God. Yet the understanding of his divinity had not been fully explored and expressed in theological terms. That came as a result of the Arian crisis, which began in 318 A.D. when Arius, a priest of Alexandria, Egypt, began teaching that Jesus was not God.
Arius reasoned that since Christ was the Son of God, and begotten of the Father, there must be a beginning to his existence. Jesus, then, is not eternal, but the first-born of all creatures, and the creator of all other things.
Convened in 325 A.D., the First Council of Nicea resoundingly rejected Arius’s doctrine. The bishops of the church affirmed almost unanimously that Christ shares the same essence and substance as God the Father. Though a distinct person, the Son of God is co-eternal with God the Father and possesses with him all the divine perfections.
The Nicene Creed, which we recite at Mass today, was the work of the council. It encapsulates the church’s development of doctrine on the nature of Christ: "We believe … in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all ages, God from God, Light from Light, true God of true God, begotten not made, consubstantial (of the same substance) with the Father, through him all things were made."
Responses to objections
The teaching of Nicea provides the crucial distinction needed to answer the first objection: With respect to his human nature, Jesus was conceived in the womb of his mother, Mary. With respect to his divine nature, he is co-eternal with God the Father. Jesus unites both a human nature and a divine nature in the same divine person.
This helps us also to answer the second objection. When Jesus says that the Father is greater than he is, he is speaking as a man. The Father is greater because he has given Jesus a mission, to tell the truth that he has heard from God (cf. Jn 8:40). And many other passages from the Gospels that attest to Christ’s humanity also seem to deny his divinity. In these cases, we must understand that this unique person is both God and man.
And to the third, we should say that the teaching that Jesus is God goes back to the very foundations of Christianity, as we have seen. The apostles taught it, and the belief shows up explicitly in the writings of many Fathers of the Church, such as Polycarp, Ignatius of Antioch and Justin Martyr. So it is not true to say that the doctrine first appeared at the First Council of Nicea, even though that council enhanced our understanding of it.
And so we must conclude that there is an abundance of evidence that Jesus is God. Christ himself provides the foundational witness, and the Holy Spirit testifies to it too, through the Scriptures and the constant teaching of the church through the ages.
Dan Rossini is editor and general manager of the Catholic Voice. Contact him at email@example.com.