CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

Answering Objections to the Divinity of Christ

Dec 18, 2017

The cornerstone of Christian belief is the deity of Jesus Christ. If he is not fully God and fully man, he cannot save us. Nor would he be an object of worship, or seen as equal to God the Father. But all these things are clearly affirmed in the New Testament and at least hinted at in the Old.

So it is imperative that we get it right when it comes to thinking about who Jesus is and what he did. The case for his deity is one I have made elsewhere, so those articles need to be consulted along with this one. Here I wish to look at just two common objections, based on two passages of Scripture, both found in John’s gospel.

Those in the Christian cults and those affirming Christological heresies will regularly appeal to these two texts, but will ignore the mass of data which gives another view. If these two verses were all we had on Christ, then maybe it could be argued that he was not God in the flesh.

But all the biblical data must be examined, and we must compare Scripture with Scripture. As is well known, of all the four gospels, John is the one filled with texts stressing the divine nature of Jesus. What he said about himself, what he did, and what others said about him all point to a divine figure.

So these two problem passages must be read in light of the entire gospel, as well as the entire New Testament. Let me therefore examine each of these two verses in some detail.

John 5:19

The first passage used to try to prove Jesus is not God says this: “Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself.” Those using this verse claim Jesus is not equal to God. But as always, context is king, and John 5 turns out to be quite a highly Christological chapter, one which clearly holds up the divine status of Jesus.

Indeed, the immediate context of 5:16-30 needs to be read here to help us understand what Jesus was saying. And the slightly larger context – including the story of the healing of the man at the pool at Bethesda at the beginning of the chapter – makes it clear just how wrong the cultic interpretation is.

The whole chapter involves Jesus defending himself and what he has done, and the two verses prior to v. 19 make it clear that this is all about the divine nature of Jesus. Verse 17 says this: “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working.”

Much can be said about all of this, but since I just reread a helpful little volume which deals with this by D. A. Carson (Jesus the Son of God – Crossway, 2012), let me rely just on him. He says this about the importance of verse 17:

This utterance establishes at least three things. First, by referring to God as “my Father,” Jesus is implicitly saying that he himself is God’s Son. Second, because in the context Jesus is arguing that he has the right to do things on the Sabbath that other human beings do not have the right to do, he is declaring his sonship to be unique. Third, because the warrant for Jesus’ work on the Sabbath is grounded in the fact that God, his Father, works on the Sabbath, Jesus is implicitly claiming he has the prerogatives of God. Small wonder that we read, “For this reason they tried all the more to kill him; not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God” (5:18).

That verse alone should make it clear that the subordination spoken of here is a functional one, not an ontological one. That is, Jesus always does the work of the Father and he always does the will of the Father. This is because he is one with the Father in his very being or essence.

As Carson concludes:

Here, then, is Jesus’ explanation to the Jewish leaders of his peculiar sonship. He does not back away one millimeter from his claim that he has all the prerogatives of God, that he does all that his Father does, that he is to be revered as his Father is revered. And yet he makes his claim with arguments that carefully avoid giving any impression that he is a separate God-center, a second but equal God. Although his language is largely functional, it is simply impossible to overlook the ontology that is presupposed behind it.

John 14:28

The second passage appealed to by the critics of orthodox Christianity says this: “the Father is greater than I”. Again, context is crucial. Jesus is talking about returning to the Father where he will again enjoy the full glory he always had with Him.

But in his incarnational state he does not have that full glory on display. It is veiled. But he rejoices that he is now returning to the Father, and he wants his disciples to rejoice as well. As Carson says in his commentary on John:

If Jesus’ disciples truly loved him, they would be glad that he is returning to his Father, for he is returning to the sphere where he belongs, to the glory he had with the Father before the world began (17:5), to the place where the Father is undiminished in glory, unquestionably greater than the Son in his incarnate state.

Again, we see the relationship between Father and Son, and in this case, it is a very unique relationship. As Rodney Whitacre comments, “The Father is greater in that he is the origin (eternally) of the Son, but he and the Son are equal in that they share the same nature.”

There is a subordination to the Father, which is part of his eternal sonship. Thus the other clear pronouncements of deity in John’s gospel must always be kept in view here, such as John 10:30: “I and my Father are one.” As Craig Keener says,

In the whole of his Gospel, John plainly affirms Jesus’ deity (1:1; 8:58; 20:28) but distinguishes Jesus from the Father (1:1b, 2)… The issue is not Jesus’ nondeity, or even his distinction from the Father (which is assumed), but his subordination to the Father, which portrays Jesus as the Father’s obedient agent and therefore appeals to those who honor the Father to honor him.

So these two passages, long appealed to by early heretics and more recent cultists, do not make the case they seek to make with them. Admittedly, they can be difficult to fully comprehend correctly, and as mentioned, if this were all we had on Jesus, it might well seem to make the case for his lack of deity.

But we have the entire New Testament to look at, which throughout makes a clear and strong case for the eternally divine Son. In sum, we insist upon the full deity of Christ. As Wayne Grudem reminds us, we must insist on this

not only because it is clearly taught in Scripture, but also because (1) only someone who is infinite God could bear the full penalty for all the sins of all those who would believe in him—any finite creature would have been incapable of bearing that penalty; (2) salvation is from the Lord (Jonah 2:9 NASB), and the whole message of Scripture is designed to show that no human being, no creature, could ever save man—only God himself could; and (3) only someone who was truly and fully God could be the one mediator between God and man (1 Tim. 2:5), both to bring us back to God and also to reveal God most fully to us (John 14:9).
Thus, if Jesus is not fully God, we have no salvation and ultimately no Christianity. It is no accident that throughout history those groups that have given up belief in the full deity of Christ have not remained long within the Christian faith but have soon drifted toward the kind of religion represented by Unitarianism in the United States and elsewhere. “No one who denies the Son has the Father” (1 John 2:23). “Any one who goes ahead and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God; he who abides in the doctrine has both the Father and the Son” (2 John 9).

[1411 words]

5 Responses to Answering Objections to the Divinity of Christ

  • It is extremely significant that Islamic Christology denies both the deity of Christ and His crucifixion. Islamic dogma also explicitly anathematises the teaching that Jesus, the son of Mary is the Son of God. Yet, Qur’an teaches the virgin birth of Jesus and describes him as the Word of God and the spirit of God.

    The notion of “the reproach of the Christ” [Hebrews 11:26] doesn’t fit a theology where shame and honour matter more than the redemption and sanctification of lost sinners. The scandal of the cross of Christ is only the more intense because He is not only the Son of Man, but Jesus is also the Son of God in a unique way.

  • I’ve only recently followed your blog. Have always respected and taken good notice of you on Vision Radio.
    Am looking forward to each new day will Bill.
    It’s strange that people can go to Johns gospel to show Jesus is not God; I counted over 200 of Jesus statements in John about himself that no one else on this planet could say, mainly regarding equality with the Father or radical promises to believers in Him.
    Thanks Bill,
    Dick Nicholls

  • I believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ. My limited understanding starts with the Old Testament book of Leviticus which tells how the people of ancient Israel and Judah used to make animal sacrifices to God to atone for sin and receive forgiveness but in time God made a new covenant with His people whereby blood sacrifice was not required. They had only to love God above all other and obey His law but they were not up to this commandment. In time He sent His only begotten Son, Jesus the Messiah, who came to earth to fulfil a mission as the Saviour of human kind and give us the good news of God’s Kingdom to come to Earth as it is in heaven. Jesus came to Earth and dwelled among us, full of grace and truth, and was sacrificed as a lamb to the slaughter, exposing the horror of human cruelty and profanity, to take our sins upon Himself and pay the price so that we may have eternal life. It is prophesied in ancient scriptures, some of which Jesus himself referred to, that he will return to Jerusalem as the Lion of Judah in power and glory in the latter days.

    While he dwelled among us, Jesus said that His Father is a Spirit. After his temptation by Satan, He said He had overcome the world. The book of John describes the wedding feast where they ran out of wine and Jesus’ mother wanted Jesus to assume responsibility but He declined saying “my time has not yet come”. Then near the end, in the Garden of Gethsemane, when Jesus was overwhelmed with sorrow even to the point of death and his disciples were too tired to stay awake to keep watch over him, he said “The hour has come when the Son of Man is betrayed to the hands of sinners. Here comes my betrayer”. Then after hanging on the cross for 6 hours he cried out “Eli Eli lama sabachthani?” which means “My God, My God why have You forsaken me?” whence followed dramatic heavenly signs of God’s wrath.

    So Jesus is, was and ever shall be with God and the Holy Spirit. He suffered and paid the price for our sins and he rose from the dead, that we might have eternal life and our names written in the Book of Life.

  • One sect declares from Jn 1:1 that Jesus is “a god”. That is easily disproved by anyone who can read NT Greek. The order of words is “Theos en ho logos”, literally “God, was the Word”. Logos (word) is still the subject, and Theos (God) is the object, but by putting theos first emphasises that word, so it’s “God”, not “a god”.

  • Jesus is both God and Man. So when He makes statements like “the Father is greater than I” and “‘I ascend to…My God and your God”, He is identifying Himself as a Man and not God – His humanity, not deity

Leave a Reply