This week I had the opportunity to sit with some friends outside on the patio of a little local pub. One of my friends, a retired gentleman who has become a very dear friend of mine over the last three years, has literally traveled the world and really enjoys captivating everyone’s attention with all kinds of stories from his travels. Another one of our friends at the table was a younger guy who grew up in Las Vegas and graduated with a degree in political science. He is exceedingly outgoing, friendly, and jovial, and has a genuine talent for keeping the conversation moving at a friendly and welcoming tempo; a true conversationalist. And rounding out the table was another older gentleman from the States, with whom I am less well acquainted, who has his PhD in Philosophy (among other various credentials), who seems to really enjoy deeper conversations.
We sat in the cool of the afternoon and discussed a variety of topics, ranging from the raging pandemic, to visa issues for expats like us, how long we think the borders will remain closed, the geopolitical ramifications of the pandemic, and so on. Some at the table feel like the pandemic is the great governance failure of our times that will fundamentally reshape the world and bring about a new social contract, others looked at the borders closing as a sign of the end for globalism as we know it. But in the middle of these conversations we began to discuss the divinity of Christ.
My friend from Las Vegas invited me to begin working through Bart Ehrman’s “How Jesus Became God” with him, so, an important question came up that I think is worth exploring here. I don’t remember the catalyst for this conversation, whether it was how people’s worldviews impact how they view and think about the pandemic on a political and socioeconomic level, or if it was related to how pandemics are or are not consistent with a theistic worldview of life, but my friend from Las Vegas brought up one of Bart Ehrman’s chief arguments against the divinity of Christ, namely that the synoptics (i.e. Matthew, Mark, and Luke) only characterize Jesus as human and never explicitly attribute divinity to him. Only in the gospel of John – the last gospel written – does any gospel writer explicitly attribute divinity to Christ.
The conversation that ensued was one that I think every Christian needs to think through and be prepared to answer because, after all, if Christ never claimed to be God and was only later deified by his disciples as Bart Ehrman says Apollonius’ followers did to him, then not only is the Christian faith empty, it is also idolatry! We would be found to be liars about God, and would be guilty of attributing deity to one that was not God.
In light of the importance of this topic, I want to take some time to survey some of the claims made by Matthew, Mark, and Luke about the deity of Christ. Were Matthew, Mark, and Luke convinced of the deity of Christ? Or did they believe that Jesus was only a man, some kind of messianic prophet who had come to restore tribal glory to the nation of Israel?
THE SHARED WITNESS
Matthew 9:1-8 (CSB) 9 So he got into a boat, crossed over, and came to his own town. 2 Just then some men brought to him a paralytic lying on a stretcher. Seeing their faith, Jesus told the paralytic, “Have courage, son, your sins are forgiven.” 3 At this, some of the scribes said to themselves, “He’s blaspheming!” 4 Perceiving their thoughts, Jesus said, “Why are you thinking evil things in your hearts? 5 For which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? 6 But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—then he told the paralytic, “Get up, take your stretcher, and go home.” 7 So he got up and went home. 8 When the crowds saw this, they were awestruck and gave glory to God, who had given such authority to men.
Mark 2:1-12 (CSB) 2 When he entered Capernaum again after some days, it was reported that he was at home. 2 So many people gathered together that there was no more room, not even in the doorway, and he was speaking the word to them. 3 They came to him bringing a paralytic, carried by four of them. 4 Since they were not able to bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him, and after digging through it, they lowered the mat on which the paralytic was lying. 5 Seeing their faith, Jesus told the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” 6 But some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts: 7 “Why does he speak like this? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” 8 Right away Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were thinking like this within themselves and said to them, “Why are you thinking these things in your hearts? 9 Which is easier: to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up, take your mat, and walk’? 10 But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he told the paralytic— 11 “I tell you: get up, take your mat, and go home.” 12 Immediately he got up, took the mat, and went out in front of everyone. As a result, they were all astounded and gave glory to God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!”
Luke 5:17-26 (CSB) 17 On one of those days while he was teaching, Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting there who had come from every village of Galilee and Judea, and also from Jerusalem. And the Lord’s power to heal was in him. 18 Just then some men came, carrying on a stretcher a man who was paralyzed. They tried to bring him in and set him down before him. 19 Since they could not find a way to bring him in because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and lowered him on the stretcher through the roof tiles into the middle of the crowd before Jesus. 20 Seeing their faith he said, “Friend, your sins are forgiven.” 21 Then the scribes and the Pharisees began to think to themselves: “Who is this man who speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” 22 But perceiving their thoughts, Jesus replied to them, “Why are you thinking this in your hearts? 23 Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? 24 But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he told the paralyzed man, “I tell you: Get up, take your stretcher, and go home.” 25 Immediately he got up before them, picked up what he had been lying on, and went home glorifying God. 26 Then everyone was astounded, and they were giving glory to God. And they were filled with awe and said, “We have seen incredible things today.”
One of the criticisms that skeptics often make about the Bible is that Matthew, Mark, and Luke present Jesus in categorically different ways to such an extent that they have three different views about Jesus. They make this criticism as if the synoptics share no points of agreement. So, what better place to begin looking at the divine claims made by Matthew, Mark, and Luke than to begin with one account that is shared by all three?
The healing of the paralytic is told in Matthew 9:1-8, Mark 2:1-12, Luke 5:17-26.
We can see the authenticity of these accounts as being three genuinely distinct accounts of the story from the differences that exist between these three different perspectives. For example, if these three accounts agreed in every single detail, we would suspect that they either copied their material from the same source, or collaborated together. This wouldn’t necessarily mean they were “wrong”, but it would mean that we only had three copies of the same source material. Instead, we have three genuinely distinct perspectives of the same event.
The key that we are looking for in these accounts is what they say about how Christ viewed himself, or, more specifically, how Christ’s disciples interpreted and understood Jesus’ nature.
The first detail shared by all three accounts is that some people brought a paralyzed man to Jesus, who then told the man, “Your sins are forgiven.” When the scribes who were standing by heard this, they were outraged because “only God can forgive sins.” They accused Jesus of blasphemy because they recognized that Jesus was acting in the place of God since only God can forgive human sin.
This first detail is important for two reasons: first, if Bart Ehrman’s primary hypothesis about Jesus was correct and he himself never claimed divinity – but was only later deified by his disciples – then Jesus would have taken this opportunity to correct the misunderstanding and deny the charge of blasphemy by clarifying that God had simply granted the power to heal to him; second, if Bart Ehrman’s secondary hypothesis about Matthew, Mark, and Luke were correct and they did not believe that he was God, then they would undoubtedly have taken this opportunity to correct this misunderstanding.
Jesus’ response is very telling about how Matthew, Mark, and Luke interpreted and understood Jesus: they don’t record him arguing with the Scribes by saying that he was not usurping the place of God, or that they misunderstood his intentions, or by dispelling their misunderstandings with some kind of additional theological context for his proclamation of forgiveness. Jesus responds by using what they just said to prove his divine authority by healing the paralytic. And here is the key point that Jesus is making: the reason that this proves Jesus’ divine authority to forgive sins is because God would not validate a blasphemer by giving him the power to heal sickness.
Each of the gospel writers proclaim different harmonious realities about Jesus. For example, Matthew was moved by the Holy Spirit to primarily present Jesus as the Messianic King, Mark as the prophetic fulfillment of the suffering Servant, Luke as the promised Son of Man, and John as God-incarnate. Each of these gospels addresses four different but equally true aspects of Jesus’ identity.
We may safely say that Jesus and his disciples had an opportunity to dispel this accusation, but instead, they made a very clear statement that Jesus possessed the divine authority to forgive sin and accepted the responsibility and consequences that came with “making himself equal to God”.
THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Matthew 28:19-20 (CSB) 19 Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
The gospel of Matthew makes a number of statements about the divinity of Christ, but one of the most significant and direct claims to divinity that Jesus makes comes after his resurrection when he takes his place with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit. Jesus stands himself up with God and commands his disciples to go out into the world, to face starvation, persecution, and death, and preach the gospel throughout the whole world.
One might be tempted to dismiss this point at first glance, but if we look at it more closely, specifically with its Old Testament background in mind, we can see that Jesus is making a direct claim to deity in the eyes of first century Jews because in the Old Testament, when God commissioned people for special tasks, he often promised to be with them to help them fulfill their missions. For example, he promised to be with Joshua, the successor of Moses, as he led the people of Israel into the Promised Land (Joshua 1:1-5, 9), and he said he would be with the prophet Jeremiah as he relayed God’s messages to his people (Jeremiah 1:4-10). Even more interestingly, when God did this, he would also sometimes command these people to hold fast to his commands. For instance, he told Joshua to obey the entire Law of Moses (Joshua 1:7), and he instructed Jeremiah to relay every word that he gave him to say (Jeremiah 1:7).
When Jesus commissioned his disciples to evangelize the world, requiring them to teach everyone to keep his word and promising to be with them to the very end of the age, it would have been immediately evident to any first century Jew that Jesus was standing in the place of God.
THE GOSPEL OF MARK
Mark 1:2-3 (CSB) 2 As it is written in Isaiah the prophet: See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you; he will prepare your way. 3 A voice of one crying out in the wilderness: Prepare the way for the Lord; make his paths straight!
The gospel of Mark begins by telling us about Jesus’ forerunner, whose ministry was predicted in the Old Testament. Mark attributes this prophecy to the prophet Isaiah, although these words are actually a compilation of two different prophecies, one being from Malachi and the other being from Isaiah. Writers of this time period frequently attributed compositions like this to the to the most prominent figure that they were quoting from, but our primary interest here is in the original wording of Malachi’s prophecy:
Malachi 3:1 (CSB) 3 “See, I am going to send my messenger, and he will clear the way before me. Then the Lord you seek will suddenly come to his temple, the Messenger of the covenant you delight in—see, he is coming,” says the Lord of Armies.
Malachi’s prophecy predicts that God would one day come to them, sending his messenger to prepare his way. When we read this composite quotation as a whole, the Lord’s messenger prepares the way for the coming of God himself, the one that Mark names Jesus. The first two verses of the Gospel tell us that these prophecies refer to Jesus’ ministry (Mark 1:1-2), and Mark’s description of John and his preaching shows us that he was the promised messenger. According to Mark, John “appeared in the wilderness” (Mark 1:4) and that he preached the coming of someone greater than himself (Mark 1:7-8).
There is no mistake that Mark’s gospel very clearly intends to suggest that Jesus is the one to whom Malachi referred to as the coming of God himself. Mark is saying that God came to his people in Jesus and, more specifically, as Jesus.
THE GOSPEL OF LUKE
Luke 24:52 (CSB) 52 After worshiping him, they returned to Jerusalem with great joy.
Luke’s conclusion to his gospel – the first part of a two part work – records the disciples worshiping Jesus. Christians may be tempted to settle for this as conclusive proof of Jesus’ divinity, but we must be careful to do a little bit of extra work before we start celebrating the point.
The Greek verb used here is proskuneo, and it does not necessarily refer to the worship due to God alone. In some contexts, it refers simply to bowing down in reverence rather than full-blown worship (for example, Revelation 3:9), so the word by itself does not prove that Luke believed Jesus to be divine.
Instead, we need to delve deeper into Luke’s Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles to see how Luke used this word in his writings. Fortunately, Luke only uses this word one other time in the beginning of his gospel, when Jesus was tempted by Satan in the wilderness:
Luke 4:7-8 (CSB) 7 If you, then, will worship me, all will be yours.” 8 And Jesus answered him, “It is written: Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.”
Luke clearly uses this word to refer to the worship due God alone. Satan wanted Jesus’ worship, but Jesus refused because one can only worship God.
To gain even more clarity on how Luke uses this word, we can also examine Acts. Luke uses this word four times in Acts (Acts 7:43, 8:27, 10:25, 24:11), and each instance refers to the worship due only to God. However, there is one particular instance that further illuminates Luke’s usage of this word:
Acts 10:25-26 (CSB) 25 When Peter entered, Cornelius met him, fell at his feet, and worshiped him. 26 But Peter lifted him up and said, “Stand up. I myself am also a man.”
You may immediately notice that this text mirrors Luke’s opening account of Satan’s tempting Jesus to worship him. Luke again uses the word previously used to describe the kind of worship that Jesus’ disciples gave to him. In this instance, however, Peter refuses worship and quickly acknowledged that he also is only “a man”.
Assuming that Bart Ehrman’s hypothesis were correct, Luke’s two accounts have a very strange way of showing it since it would be very easy for him to offer this very same correction at the conclusion of his gospel. If Luke took such paigns to be so clear in both volumes of his two-part work that we should only give this kind of worship to God, then why would he show the disciples giving it to Jesus if he isn’t God?
The obvious answer is that Jesus is in fact divine. For Luke, the answer is obvious: Jesus’ disciples gave him the worship due to God alone because Jesus is, in fact, God-incarnate.
I have only scratched the surface of the many texts in the synoptic gospels that present Jesus as God-incarnate. John’s gospel is not, as Bart Ehrman suggests, the only gospel to diefy Jesus. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all show Jesus saying and doing things that only God can say and do, attributing Old Testament prophecies about God to Jesus, and receiving the worship that is due to God alone.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke clearly interpreted and understood Jesus as God-incarnate. This was not an attribute that was attributed to Jesus centuries later based solely on John’s gospel or some corruption thereof; the Christian belief from the very beginning has been that Jesus is God.