This week's question comes from Jason on the Internet. He strikes right at the heart of the matter: "Is Jesus really God?"
For long-time Christians this question itself might seem blasphemous, but no question is blasphemous when sincere answers are sought. And besides, as late as the fourth century the church was still struggling with this very question.
In 325 the First Ecumenical Council of Nice met to debate the question of whether Jesus was God or was like God. The question boiled down to the use of the Greek word homousios, meaning of the same substance or of the same being. Was Jesus homousios with God or not? Arguments broke out when some asserted the church shouldn't use unbiblical words to describe theological issues, and homousios was not a scriptural term. In the end, the word was adopted and the Council agreed that orthodox Christianity believed Jesus was God.
But today many hold that tradition isn't necessarily truth -- the earth isn't flat, despite 4,000 years of tradition and 1,500 years of church dogma.
To decide whether or not Jesus is God, we have three levels of testimony to consider. First, there is the testimony of Jesus himself. Granted, this testimony was recorded by others, but that's the best we can do, since this is all we have. Second, there is the testimony of those who knew Jesus, and finally there is the testimony of tradition, which we've already considered.
Clearly, the testimony of Jesus himself would hold the most weight. So, did Jesus ever claim to be God? The answer is no -- not exactly. The closest he came was: "The Father and I are one" (John 10.30). Traditionally, this verse has been used to assert the divinity of Jesus, but Jesus defines more precisely what he meant in John 17.11, 22-23b: "Protect them in your name, so that they may be one, as we are one. . . . The glory that you have given me I have given them, so they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one." It seems the oneness Jesus spoke of was singleness of purpose. In this same context, Jesus also told his disciples that they have known and seen God in him: "If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him" (John 14.7). However, Jesus again qualifies his statement by asserting God is in him and he is in God, again a declaration of singleness of purpose or motive (John 14.10-11).
Of those who knew Jesus, it is only Thomas who makes a clear assertion of Jesus' divinity. In John 20.28 he says, "My Lord and my God!" No other disciple or writer of the New Testament makes such a clear claim. In fact, the New Testament writers seem to go out of their way to show the humility and subservience of Jesus to God (Hebrews 5; Philippians 2.6; 2 Peter 1.17).
So, if Jesus was divine, why didn't he say so? For one, if Jesus had claimed to be God there would have been no hesitation on the part of the religious leaders and the Roman government in his swift execution. To claim divinity, in the Roman Empire, was treason. According to civil law, the only living person who could lay claim to that title was the emperor himself. Secondly, Jesus' mission was to spread the gospel within the Jewish nation. To have claimed divinity would have seemed blasphemous to the Jewish people, even if it were so, and he would have lost all his followers. On the other hand, he didn't deny Thomas' confession that he was God in John 20.28. In the end, it all comes down to a matter of faith and tradition.
Jesus did claim to be the son of God. He claimed to be the messiah. And he claimed to be the founder and the builder of the Church. But most of all, he taught that obedience to the teachings of God -- to love God, to love one another, and to make disciples-- was the end-all, be-all. The writers of scripture were less interested in who Jesus was than in what Jesus did and taught. Perhaps we should follow their lead.