When we talk about Jesus and divinity, I think we often make a serious category error. We frame our talk with the question, “Who is Jesus?”. That’s the wrong question. Here’s why.
As we read the Gospels, we find again and again that Jesus is doing the things Yahweh was supposed to do. The prophets foresaw a time when Israel’s god would return and gather his people. He himself would be their shepherd, binding up their wounds and leading them into good pastures. He would renew and re-establish Israel by pouring out his Spirit on them. His word would go out and be fruitful, bringing justice and peace to the peoples.
Time and again we see Jesus doing these things, playing this role: Yahweh’s role. When Jesus is born, we are told, ‘Yahweh has come and visited his people at last’ (Luke 1). When the demoniac is sent to tell people how much God has done for him, he tells them how much Jesus has done for him. Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem is dripping with the symbolism of Yahweh’s return and the day of the Lord (Matt. 21). It was Yahweh who was to clear the temple: Jesus does it. God was ultimately to be enthroned as king over the world. And when that enthroning takes place, when we look at the one on the throne, there sits…Jesus.
Have you ever noticed that the Gospel writers (especially the synoptics) don’t talk much about Jesus’ divine identity? Not directly, they don’t. What they do talk about is divine action. And that talk is all centred on Jesus. The things Jesus does, God does. What does it look like for Yahweh to visit? It looks like Jesus.
All-in-all, Jesus comes across as the prophetic vision with flesh on. What was only seen dimly and distantly, what the prophets could only point forward to, Jesus reveals fully. He is the splendid, full-colour, 3-D reality, the embodiment of Yahweh. This is how Paul understands Jesus: “in him the whole fulness of Yahweh dwells bodily”. “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Colossians 2, 1).
And what a surprise it is for Israel when Yahweh turns up and he isn’t what they thought. He doesn’t care about fine details of rule-keeping. He doesn’t care about clean. He doesn’t keep the Sabbath traditions. He washes people’s dirty feet. He rebukes the Jerusalem priesthood and tears shreds off the spiritual heroes in the Pharisees party. He hangs with the lowlife and the prostitutes. He hangs on a cross. He’s like a nightmare for the establishment. This is not the Yahweh they’ve been teaching all these years.
When the Jerusalem leaders fight against Jesus and kill him, they’re making a theological statement. Yahweh is not like this. But Jesus comes back. He wins. His view of things is vindicated completely, while Israel’s leaders are disgraced. Yahweh is fully embodied in Jesus after all.
If we can try to sum all this up, we would have to say that the Gospels are constantly hitting on one massive theme. It’s not ‘Jesus is God’. It’s God is Jesus.
What sort of god is Israel’s god? What is the true God really like? Who is he? Different people, different sects and parties, different nations have their own version. And now we find out.
God is Jesus.
Jesus is the definitive and complete expression of the deity.
This is a much bigger and more far-reaching statement than the one we normally like to make: ‘Jesus is God.’
Think about it. God is Jesus. It’s the answer to a question: who or where is God? What is he like? The answer: here is God. He is Jesus.
This is a claim about God, it limits what we can say about him. Who is God? Not Caesar, not Zeus or Jupiter, not Moses or John the B: Jesus. If God is Jesus, he is not someone else. It’s a claim to uniqueness.
It’s a claim about God, and so is good for all times and all places. If God is Jesus in Roman Palestine, if God’s identity is stable, then he is Jesus always, including today. We cannot say, God is Mohammed or Buddha, or god is an Indian guru, or the Dalai Lama, or god is the statues in my neighbours’ homes, or you are God, or I am. No. God was Jesus. God is Jesus.
The message reaches out to us across the centuries, challenging us to respond. Do we want to know God? God is Jesus. So Jesus is the one to go to.
God is Jesus tells us more than just who Jesus is. It tells us about God. It’s bigger than Christology: it’s theology. Like first century Israel, we didn’t really know God, we didn’t have right content to fill that name with meaning. When we said ‘God’ we had little idea what we were saying. None of us could agree either. But now we know what ‘God’ means. It means everything we find in Jesus. Now we know who He is: he is the God and Father of that man. We know what God is like. He is like Jesus.
This makes the Gospels the heart, the most vital and interesting part of our Scriptures. For there God is finally revealed in flesh. If we want to know God, we can look and listen and learn from Jesus. In fact, if Jesus is God functions as a final word, God is Jesus is a conversation opener, an invitation to come close and explore. Everything Jesus does, everything he doesn’t do, everything he says and doesn’t say, all the surprises – every detail becomes intensely important and meaningful for us, worth pondering and discussing. For this life is revelatory. Here in the Gospels, at last, we come face to face with Yahweh himself; we can find out the truth about God.
And what we find out is pretty hard to take. How can God be like that? How can he be a crucified Galilean? Jesus kind of makes us tear up our model of God and start again. We may not like it, but it’s in our faces and we can’t escape the truth.
Who is God? God is…Jesus.