Jesus is God: one of the biggest emphases in the evangelical teaching I’ve heard over the years. Especially teaching on the Gospels. It’s their main message, right? It’s the point of all those miracles, etc: as the kids’ song says, “Only God could do that!” The focus is firmly on Jesus’ identity.
Jesus is God is a powerful statement. It tells us something historical: that in first century Palestine God came down and entered into our world in a special way. It tells us that Jesus is worth paying attention to, he has a special status. We should listen to what he has to say.
But it’s a limited statement. For one thing, it’s not exclusive. Dogs have four legs, but that doesn’t mean that only dogs have four legs. Jesus is God – but that doesn’t exclude other people from being God. God could manifest himself differently at different times and places. Maybe Jesus was the manifestation for the first century? Jesus is God doesn’t assert uniqueness and challenge the relativism of our pluralist age.
Jesus is God also doesn’t in itself involve us. We are not necessarily implicated. It might be a deeply interesting fact, but it’s removed from us by 2000 years. In fact, someone might believe this message and still ask, “So what?” Nice to know God visited some people back then, now can I get on with my life – or with my buddhism?
Jesus is God tells me about Jesus. It’s the answer to the question, “Who is Jesus?” Jesus is God. What it doesn’t do is tell us which god. Where I live there are many gods. If I tell people Jesus is God they may well ask, “Which god is he?” The message assumes a shared view of God’s identity and character – we already know who God is, but now he’s become Jesus. But that shared view doesn’t exist in my part of the world. And does it exist anywhere?
Of course we can surround Jesus is God with extra details, which boost its impact. “Jesus makes exclusive claims” “Jesus is alive” etc. But the basic structure of the thought, the core message which we so often revert to – a message about the divine identity of Jesus – remains unchanged, and remains fairly weak.
If the message of the Gospels is Jesus is God, that doesn’t give me a very good reason to read them carefully or repeatedly. Once I’ve got the message – job done. I’ve mastered the Gospels, discovered the secret, and I can move on, right? Maybe leave the ministry years, and just focus on the passion and resurrection. Or more likely, leave the Gospels and focus on the doctrine in Paul’s epistles? Or maybe Jesus’ teaching is still worth studying – but his ministry more generally? If its point is to identify Jesus as God, then it probably doesn’t need ongoing attention. Nothing more boring than preaching to the converted. No wonder our people don’t keep reading the Gospels!
As I have read the Gospels over the years, I have gradually noticed that they actually have very little interest in saying “Jesus is God”. It just doesn’t seem to be in the top five of things they’re trying to communicate. Especially the synoptics, Matthew Mark and Luke. So it seems strange to me that we keep finding this as the core message there.
I do think the Gospel writers, like us evangelicals, are interested in Jesus’ identity. “Who is Jesus?” is an important question to ask. But I think we’re giving the wrong answer. The Gospels’ answer is usually: Jesus is Messiah. That’s definitely in the top five.
And I do think the Gospels have something to say about Jesus and God and identity, but I think it’s something different. That’s for tomorrow.