Saying that Jesus was and is a controversial figure in history is like saying the sky is blue or needles are sharp. It’s pretty obvious. Many people have their own ideas about who Jesus was and who he claimed to be. With so many voices shouting at once, it can be difficult to pick out the truth.
Detractors of Christianity often attack the claim that Jesus was the Son of God. Many argue that Jesus did not believe this about himself but that his followers made it up. Is there any weight to this?
Even a cursory glance through the gospels shows exactly who Jesus believed he was: Jesus was (and is) the Son of God.
What Titles Did Jesus Use for Himself?
Jesus is given many titles throughout the gospels (Son of God, Lamb of God, Son of David, Lord, Teacher, etc.). Each one is important to understanding the identity of Jesus. We find some pretty astonishing claims when we consider the titles Jesus used for himself.
- Son of Man – Jesus’ favorite self-designation was Son of Man, a title that his hearers would have recognized as coming from the book of Daniel. We will discuss this title in greater detail later.
- I Am (John 8:58) – Throughout the eighth chapter of John’s gospel, tensions rise between Jesus and the Jews over who he claims to be. The chapter ends with a climactic statement from Jesus: “before Abraham was, I am.” This is a reference to the covenant name of God revealed in Exodus 3:14. At that moment, Jesus undeniably claimed to be YHWH, the God of the Old Testament, and the Jews tried to stone him for it.
- “I Am” statements in John – In the gospel of John, Jesus makes seven claims about himself which point to different aspects of his character and ministry.
- “I am the bread of life” (John 6:35)
- “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12)
- “I am the door of the sheep” (John 10:7)
- “I am the good shepherd” (John 10:11)
- “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25)
- “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6)
- “I am the true vine” (John 15:1)
Did Jesus Call Himself the Son of God?
It is difficult to read the gospels and conclude that Jesus did not believe he was the Son of God.
From an early age, Jesus knew that God was his Father, long before his baptism and public ministry (Luke 2:49). Jesus often spoke about having a special relationship with his Father, having access to him in a way that other people did not (Matt. 11:27; John 14:6, 10-11). And this was not an insignificant fact about Jesus’ parentage; it informed everything about his life and ministry. Jesus demonstrated authority to say and do things only God could say and do.
The first chapter of the gospel of Mark portrays Jesus’ authority as the Son of God. This chapter emphasizes Jesus’ authority as a teacher (vs 21-22), his authority over spiritual forces (vs 23-26), and his authority over physical disease (vs 40-45). In the next chapter, Mark records an account of Jesus forgiving a paralyzed man’s sins. Knowing that the scribes who were present thought he was blaspheming, Jesus asked them if it was easier to forgive this man’s sins or to heal him. Jesus then turned to the paralytic and healed him in front of the crowd (Mark 2:3-11). At the end of the same chapter, Jesus claims to have authority over the Sabbath, which was instituted by God (2:28). And he begins chapter 3 by backing up this claim by healing a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath (3:1-5). In the opening three chapters of Mark alone, Jesus says and does several things that only God himself could say and do. Jesus knew exactly who he was and what he was on earth to do.
Jesus spoke multiple times about his relationship with his Father. The authority of the Son comes from the Father, and the Father testifies about the Son (John 5:19-47). The most obvious support of this claim is that God the Father audibly testified about Jesus. God testified both at Jesus’ baptism (Mark 1:11, Matt. 3:16-17, Luke 3:22) and the Transfiguration (Matt. 17:5). Jesus also plainly said that the Father gives all things to the Son and the Son reveals the Father (Matt. 11:27). We can only know the Father if Jesus reveals him to us.
Certainly, we cannot possibly examine all of the scriptural evidence on this topic in such a short time. This small sampling barely skims the surface of all Jesus said about himself as the Son of God. But we should not miss the evidence of the High Priestly Prayer in John 17. After speaking to his disciples before his arrest, Jesus prays for them and all who would come after them. In that prayer, Jesus reveals a glimpse of the Son’s relationship to the Father and makes clear that Jesus knows himself to be God the Son.
Why Did Jesus Call Himself the Son of Man?
Many scholars and teachers believe that Jesus used the title Son of Man to emphasize his humanity and role as Messiah.
The humanity of Jesus was critical to God’s plan of salvation. Only a real human could pay for the sins of humans, but only God is sinless, so only God could live up to his own standard and become a substitute for sin. The solution to this problem was for Jesus, God the Son who is co-eternal with God the Father, to take on humanity. Philippians 3:5-8 describes how Jesus humbled himself by taking on human flesh and obeyed his Father’s will to the point of dying on the cross. By taking on flesh, Jesus made himself the perfect—and only—substitute for sinners.
This was not the kind of Messiah the Jews were expecting. When Jesus’ original audience heard him refer to himself as the Son of Man, they likely would have remembered the vision of the prophet Daniel, in which Daniel describes seeing “one like a son of man, coming on the clouds of heaven” (Daniel 7:13). This and other messianic prophecies came to be understood as pointing to a liberator who would free Israel from her oppressors and establish a glorious kingdom on earth. Understandably, this kind of Messiah appealed to people under the Roman Empire’s crushing weight. The Jews wanted a king like David, not a lamb for slaughter.
Jesus revealed and reinforced essential truths about his identity by calling himself the Son of Man. On the one hand, it hammered home his full identification with humanity. He was not just a god who looked like a man; he was one of us. He became one of us to rescue us. Though he was not the great military commander the Jews hoped for, he proved to be a better kind of liberator. He could break spiritual chains. As the Messiah, Jesus fixed humanity’s greatest problem: separation from God.
And now, we look forward to the fulfillment of Daniel’s prophecy, in which the Son of Man is given dominion over all creation and establishes his eternal kingdom here on earth.
Why Was Jesus Killed for Saying He Was the Son of God?
In Matthew 26:63-66, Jesus stands before the council of religious leaders as the high priest demands that Jesus tell them if he is the Son of God. Jesus affirms the statement, leading the council to pronounce a death sentence.
Why did Jesus’ claim to be the Son of God elicit such a violent response? On the surface, the answer is surprisingly simple.
Judaism is strictly monotheistic, meaning they believe only one God exists. This is clearly demonstrated in Deuteronomy 6:4-5, known as the Shema: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” Several other passages speak to God’s oneness, including Deuteronomy 4:35, 2 Samuel 7:22, and Isaiah 46:9.
Through the life of Christ and the giving of the Holy Spirit, God revealed himself to be Trinity, three eternal persons in one God. The New Testament clearly states that God is one, just as the Old Testament says. However, now we have the benefit of understanding this oneness more fully. The concept of the Trinity would have been considered blasphemous to first-century Jews. According to the law, blasphemy was punishable by death (Lev. 24:14-16).
This explanation makes sense on its own, but the true answer to why Jesus was killed goes deeper and leads right to the heart of God.
Up to that point, the Jewish people had been offering sacrifices to make atonement for sin. But none of those sacrifices could truly take away sin. The Jews needed a better sacrifice, which is what Jesus would be. In Romans 3:25-26, the Apostle Paul says that God sent Jesus to give his life as an atoning sacrifice for sin. God did what no mere human could do: he provided salvation. Verse 26 tells us that God did this to demonstrate his righteousness. The Apostle John adds to that by indicating that God sent Jesus as an act of love toward those who would become his people (1 John 4:8-9). At the cross of Christ, we see the love and righteousness of God, his justice, and his mercy. Through the death and resurrection of Jesus, we have the offer of forgiveness and reconciliation with God. Ultimately, that’s why Jesus died.
In Jesus’ trial and execution, both humans’ agency and God’s sovereignty are on display. The religious leaders were outraged by Jesus’ claim to deity and wanted to execute him as the law demanded (though not by the appropriate stoning). At the same time, God’s sovereign plan played out just as he intended. Though seemingly contradictory, these two concepts actually worked together for Jesus to accomplish our salvation.
Jesus fully understood that he was the Son of God, and he proved it by the things he said and did. He knew what making such a claim would cost him (Mark 9:31), yet he pressed on to do the Father’s will. Because of his finished work on the cross, we who place our faith in him also have the right to be called children of God (John 1:12).
Photo Credit: ©Alessandro Bellone/Unsplash
Rylie Fine is a freelance writer and editor. She is passionate about the Bible and seeks to equip other believers to study it for themselves. Rylie lives in northeast Ohio with her husband, Evan.
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