Jesus of Nazareth is one of the most popular people in America. That’s according to a poll taken about ten years ago. Jesus came in second to Abraham Lincoln by just one point (91% for Lincoln, 90% for Jesus). A more recent poll showed that 52% of Americans say Jesus isn’t God, but was a great teacher.
We hear the same thing from people around the world. Many people ‘like’ Jesus, but most don’t worship Him as God. They like some of what He said and did, but they don’t believe the claim that Jesus Christ is God. Many religions other than Christianity claim Jesus as one of their prophets or gurus. Great teacher, but not God, they say.
Sadly, many “evangelical Christians” also don’t believe Jesus is God. A poll taken in 2020 showed that almost one-third of evangelical Christians don’t believe in the deity of Jesus Christ. That doesn’t mean those ‘Christians’ don’t like Jesus; it just means they don’t think Jesus is God.
LifeWay Research confirmed that the people in the poll were evangelicals based on their strong agreement with these four statements:
- The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe.
- It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior.
- Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin.
- Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.
Another sad side to this story is that 65% of evangelical Christians agreed with the statement that “Jesus is the first and greatest being created by God.” That belief is an ancient heresy that the Church condemned centuries ago. Arianism was so popular in the early Church that it almost ripped apart the theological unity until it was finally defeated at the Council of Constantinople. Unfortunately, a majority of people who say they are evangelical Christians today also say they believe that ancient heresy. Churches have splintered into so many individual groups (denominations) that the heresy may not be defeated again until Jesus returns to earth.
I agree with people who say that Jesus was (and is) a great teacher, but I don’t think they understand what they’re saying. If people think Jesus was a great teacher but don’t believe He is God, then we have a big problem. That’s because Jesus taught that He is God and did things that only God could do. His disciples, inspired by the Holy Spirit, also taught that Jesus is God. I don’t think we can say that someone who teaches things that are not true is a great teacher. If Jesus is a great Teacher (which He is), then He doesn’t lie. If Jesus is not God, then something is terribly wrong.
Some people who think Jesus was a great teacher but not God, think Jesus was mistaken about His identity or possibly unstable mentally. Neither of those reasons should give anyone the idea that Jesus was a great teacher if He was wrong about what He taught or not in His right mind when He taught.
I can promise you as a former atheist that I wouldn’t trust the word of anyone like that. Jesus was and is a great Teacher because He teaches the truth. He even claimed to be the Truth in the flesh (John 14:6), which in itself was an amazing statement. He went on to say that “No one comes to the Father except through Me,” which is another amazing statement. If Jesus is truly a “great teacher,” then He is the Way, the Truth and the Life and no one comes to the Father except through Jesus.
C.S. Lewis, author of the Narnia series, Mere Christianity, and many other famous books, is well known for this quote:
I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. Mere Christianity
I agree with Lewis. It would be foolish, and illogical, to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher but not to accept His claim to be God. The idea of a liar or a lunatic being a great teacher is ludicrous. Yet, that’s what millions of people believe about Jesus – including a majority of evangelical Christians.
Text and Context
Reading the Bible is similar to reading other books in that books are made up of individual words that are connected to other words that are connected to other sentences and paragraphs in a particular setting (e.g. historical) and genre (e.g. historical narrative, biography, poetry). If we want to know what authors meant when they wrote their book, we need to read the words in context (“the parts of something written or spoken that immediately precede and follow a word or passage and clarify its meaning” – Oxford Languages).
Here’s an example from something Jesus said in the Gospels. Look at the words Jesus used and how His audience understood what He said:
But Jesus answered them, ‘My Father has been working until now, and I have been working.’ Therefore the Jews sought all the more to kill Him, because He not only broke the Sabbath, but also said that God was His Father, making Himself equal with God. John 5:17-18
Jesus used the words “My Father” and the Jews who understood the context of how He used those words sought to kill Him. Why? Because Jesus said that God was His Father, “making Himself equal with God.” That is a strong indication that the Jewish religious leaders who Jesus spoke to understood that Jesus was making a claim to being God. Evangelicals may be confused, but the Jewish leaders of the 1st century were not confused. They got the message loud and clear.
Why would the Jews think that Jesus’ use of the term “My Father” was the same thing as claiming to be God? Because ancient Semites used the title “son of” in the sense of sameness of nature and equality of being (Popular Encyclopedia of Apologetics, Harvest House, p 74). It’s interesting to note that demons called Jesus “Son of God;” so did the religious leaders of Israel and others when Jesus was hanging on the Cross:
And those who passed by blasphemed Him, wagging their heads and saying, ‘You who destroy the temple and build itin three days, save Yourself! If You are the Son of God, come down from the cross.’ Likewise the chief priests also, mocking with the scribes and elders, said, ‘He saved others; Himself He cannot save. If He is the King of Israel, let Him now come down from the cross, and we will believe Him. He trusted in God; let Him deliver Him now if He will have Him; for He said, ‘I am the Son of God.’ Matthew 27:39-43
Jesus was well known for His claim to be the Son of God. The Jews understood that He was claiming equality with God. They believed that Jesus had blasphemed the name of God by claiming to be Him.
Here’s another example of the importance of text and context as it pertains to Jesus Christ from the writings of the Apostle Paul:
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. Colossians 1:15
Some people point to that verse and say it proves that Jesus had a beginning — that He was “born” first. They believe He was “firstborn” in the sense of being created (born) before any other creature. Is that what the text means in the context?
Let’s first look at the word “firstborn” in light of both the Greek language and the context of Jewish understanding. The Greek word is prōtotokos and means “pre-eminent.” Ancient Jews called God “the firstborn of all creation.” It signified His being the Creator of all things. Paul understood that as a Jewish scholar and used a term that both Jews and Gentiles would understand.
Second, let’s look at the full context surrounding the word prōtotokos.
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist. And He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the preeminence. For it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell, and by Him to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross. Colossians 1:15-20
Jesus Christ is the “image” of the invisible God. The word “image” is eikōn and means “exact representation, mirror-like representation.” Jesus is the exact, mirror-like representation of God. See Jesus, see God. Paul used that description first, then continued with Jesus being the “firstborn over all creation.” Jesus is the exact representation of God, pre-eminent over all creation. Jesus created everything in the heavens and the earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created by Jesus and for Jesus. Because Jesus is God, He is before all things and in Him all things consist (synestēken – hold together, stand together).
It’s obvious from both the text and context that Jesus Christ is God.
A third example comes from the well-known John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” People who believe that God created Jesus often point to the word “begotten” to bolster their argument. The Greek word for “begotten” is monogenē and means “unique, one of a kind, the only of its kind, one and only.” Nicodemus, the man Jesus was talking to, would have understood Jesus to mean that God had sent His one-of-a-kind, unique “Son.”
Those are just three examples of how understanding the meaning of the original text within the context helps us understand the true meaning of Scripture. Unfortunately, many people, including a majority of evangelicals, don’t understand the truth concerning the true Nature of Jesus Christ.
And Jesus Said
The purpose of this series is to look at what Jesus “said” in relation to who He “is.” Is Jesus God or just a great teacher? We’ll look at both His moral teachings that so many people like, along with many of the teachings that people don’t like. We hope you’ll join us next time for And Jesus Said.
Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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