Jesus: his roles and nature

James M. Arlandson

(Part One, Part Two, Appendix)

Jesus Christ started a religious movement that would eventually become a religion and include over two billion people. It is easily the fastest growing religion in the world, in such continents and countries as Africa, China, and India. Reliable estimates, based on current growth rates, say that Sub-Saharan Africa will be all or mostly Christian in a short few decades from now.

So who was Jesus, really? How do we cut away falsehoods from the truth about his roles and nature? Was he merely and strictly a prophet? Was he merely and strictly a good Teacher, as liberal Christians and critics assert, as they deny or discount the supernatural elements in the Bible? Was he a human ethicist, of sorts? Most importantly, what does he say about himself?

The only secure text, the one that first conveyed all of the information about Jesus—is the New Testament. So to this source we appeal as authoritative for all Christians everywhere.

For multiple translations of the Bible, go to this website.

To begin, Jesus accepts and fulfills—and sometimes corrects—the popular titles circulating around first-century Israel, such as prophet and son of David. But in the right circumstances he reveals that he is much more than this.

(1) Rabbi

According to the New Testament, the title means "teacher," and that is Jesus’ role, which he gladly accepts. It is used 17 times (including Rabboni) in the Four Gospels. Here are the different classes of people who use this title as they address Christ.

Ordinary people: Blind Bartimaeus (Mark 10:51); crowds (John 6:25)

The disciples: Judas (Matthew 26:25, 26:49; Mark 14:45); Peter (Mark 9:5, 11:21); Andrew and another disciple (John 1:38); Nathanael (John 1:49); twelve disciples without specifying which ones (John 4:31, 9:2, 11:8); Mary, who says "Rabboni" or "my Teacher" according to John’s explanatory note (John 20:16)

One time John the Baptist’s disciples use it of John (John 3:26)

Religious leader: Nicodemus (John 3:2)

How Jesus uses the title:

In one context, Jesus exhorts his disciples to see themselves as equals and not to grab for titles like Rabbi to exalt themselves above each other (Matthew 23:7). He says that they really have one didaskalos or "teacher"—himself. "And you are all brothers" (v. 8). In Matthew 23:10, he uses still another term besides "Rabbi": kathęgętęs. All of these terms are likely synonyms for Rabbi, so we should not make too much of this. (More research into the different words may yield some interesting nuances.) Be that as it may, the context indicates that Jesus was never in search of titles as such. Rather, he is building a community of equals with himself as their leader.

In all cases, Jesus accepts the title "Rabbi" from people in public or private because he understands that they were accustomed to it. He was adapting to his culture. When people looked at this devout Jew who taught them, they correctly saw a Rabbi—the Rabbi. But this title does not reflect his divine nature in its fullest sense as the Son of God or the "I am" does, as we shall see below. After all, for many years the title "Rabbi" was applied to so many humans without a divine nature, how could the title by itself speak about the divine nature of Jesus?

(2) Teacher

This is Jesus’ role, which he willingly takes on himself. "Teacher" also overlaps with "Rabbi" according to the New Testament. This title is used a little over 40 times in the Four Gospels. Here are the classes of people who use it as they address Christ.

Ordinary people: men from Jairus’ house (Mark 5:35; Luke 8:49); men from the crowd (Mark 9:17; Luke 9:38, 12:13); tax collectors (Matthew 17:24); small crowd about to stone an adulteress (John 8:4)

A rich young ruler: (Mark 10:17; Matthew 19:16; Luke 18:18)

The disciples: as a group without specifying which disciple is speaking (Mark 4:38, 13:1; Luke 21:7); John (Mark 9:38); James and John (Mark 10:35); Andrew and another disciple (John 1:38); Martha (John 11:28); Mary (John 20:16)

Religious and political leaders: teachers of the law (Matthew 8:19; Luke 11:45); Pharisees (Matthew 9:11, 22:36; Mark 12:32; Luke 10:25, 7:40, 19:39); Pharisees’ disciples and Herodians (Mark 12:14; Matthew 22:15-16; Luke 20:21); Pharisees and teachers of the law (Matthew 12:38); Sadducees (Mark 12:19; Luke 20:28-39); Nicodemus (John 3:2); spies to trap Jesus (Mark 12:14; Matthew 22:15-22; Luke 20:21)

How Jesus uses the title:

(1) He tells the disciples to inform an unnamed man that the "Teacher" needs his house for the Passover (Mark 14:14; Matthew 26:18; Luke 22:11).

(2) He tells his disciples not to be ambitious and pursue the title "Teacher," because they have one Teacher (a possible translation of the Greek word), the Christ (Matthew 23:10). The reason for this exhortation has been explained in the previous section "Rabbi," and Jesus’ use of the term, above. He is creating a community of equals with him as their Leader, Master, or Teacher.

(3) In the context of washing his disciples’ feet, in a moving scene of humility, Jesus says that it is right that they call him Teacher and Lord (John 13:1-17). He now sets the example of how a Teacher and Lord is supposed to act. If he has served them by washing their feet in preparation for Passover, then how much more must they serve each other in humility?

To sum up this section, in the vast majority of times that the word "teacher" appears in the Four Gospels, people other than Jesus use it, comparatively speaking. When Jesus is resurrected from the dead and ascends into heaven, he will no longer be called teacher, but the Lord. In fact, in no instance outside of the Four Gospels do any disciples or New Testament authors refer to Jesus as teacher—in the Book of Acts, the Epistles, or the Revelation. This means that the title no longer carries as much weight after his resurrection and ascension. But while on earth, he taught, and he gladly did this ministry. He is the Teacher. But the title by itself does not reveal his divine nature that he always has, since the title was applied to so many non-divine humans for so many years.

(3) Prophet

In all of the following examples, Jesus stands in the prophetic tradition of the Bible. The word "prophet" is used a little over 20 times in the context of Jesus in the Four Gospels. (Passages that refer explicitly to an Old Testament prophet, for example, were not counted here.) These are the classes of people who use it.

Ordinary people: the crowds see Jesus as a prophet (Matthew 21:11, 26:46; Luke 7:16; John 6:14, 7:40); woman at the well believes he is a prophet (John 4:19); a healed blind man believes that Jesus is a prophet (John 9:17); Jesus asks the disciples who people say that he is, and the disciples report that some say that he is a prophet (Mark 8:28; Matthew 16:14; Luke 9:19).

The most significant point in these last three passages (Mark 8:28; Matthew 16:14; Luke 9:19) is that Jesus reveals that his identity as a prophet does not reflect his divine nature in its fullest meaning, as his being the Christ, the Son of the Living God does reflect it (Matthew 16:16).

Religious leaders: Simon the Pharisee questions his prophethood (Luke 7:39); chief priests and Pharisees doubt his prophethood (John 7:52).

Disciples: Zechariah predicts that Jesus will be called prophet of the Most High (Luke 1:76); two disciples on the Road to Emmaus (one is named Cleopas) say that he was a mighty prophet (Luke 24:19); Peter says that Jesus fulfills the prophecy in Deuteronomy 18:14, which says that another Prophet like Moses would be sent by God (Acts 3:22).

Other passages in the New Testament say that the risen Lord Jesus Christ ordains prophets in his church (Acts 11:27; 13:1; 15:32; 1 Corinthians 12:28-29; 14:29-37; Ephesians 2:20, 3:5, 4:11). This means that Jesus rises far above mere prophethood, though this office is valued in his church.

The most revealing interpretation of the office of prophet is found in the words of Christ himself.

How Jesus uses the title:

(1) He says that prophets are sent out on missions, and anyone who receives them will receive a prophet’s reward (Matthew 10:41). This means that Jesus, who sends prophets, rises far above this office.

(2) He says that John the Baptist is a prophet, and no one is greater than John is—except anyone who lives in the new dispensation of the kingdom of God as Jesus reveals it. "Yet [any disciple of Jesus] who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than [John the Baptist]" (Matthew 11:9-11). This means that Jesus, who lifts ordinary believers above the great John the Baptist, rises far above mere prophethood.

(3) He accepts the common belief that no prophet is honored in his own hometown (Mark 6:4; Matthew 13:57; Luke 4:24; John 4:44).

(4) Using a lot of irony, he says that no prophet can die outside of Jerusalem (Luke 13:33). From an historical point of view, Jerusalem had acquired this reputation. As noted, he stands in the prophetic tradition of the Bible, so how can he deny Jerusalem’s reputation by dying somewhere else?

It is clear, then, that the New Testament authors understand the concept of point of view. From the people’s (and sometimes the disciples’) point of view, he is a prophet. Next, from the Old Testament’s point of view, he stands in the prophetic tradition. He is the Prophet predicted in Deuteronomy 18:14. Finally, however, in private and from a higher, divine point of view, he is more than a prophet. He reveals that he is the Christ, the Son of the living God (Matthew 16:16). But does this mean that he privately and secretly rejects the title of "prophet"? Not in the least. But it does not reflect his divine nature in its fullest meaning, as the Son of God does, for example, because the title "prophet" had been applied to so many humans for so many centuries.

Summary of the previous three sections

When the people of Israel—the land that produced the Bible and engendered the special vocabulary analyzed in Part Two here—saw their fellow Jew work miracles and teach with authority, they used these three titles naturally. And Jesus accepts them as accurate. However, in the total number of times that the three titles appear in the Four Gospels (about 55 times), Jesus rarely uses them about himself, comparatively speaking. One possible reason concerns point of view.

As the people look at Jesus, they correctly see the three titles, and the people honor him with them. He fulfills these roles perfectly. His not using them as often as the people use them does not indicate that he secretly rejects the titles. Rather, he is the Rabbi, the Teacher, and the Prophet.

But as Jesus looks at the people and understands his divine nature that he always has, he realizes that these three titles do not represent the end of the story as the be-all of his divine glory and nature. After all, they had been attached to so many humans for many years, so how could they by themselves reveal the divine nature of Jesus? He came down from heaven as the eternal Son of God. Thus, he has much more to reveal to them—and most people do not enjoy the opportunity to receive this privileged knowledge. This is why after the resurrection and ascension, the disciples have to go out along the dusty roads and preach this message.

(4) The Christ

Meaning "the Anointed One" (anointed by God and his Spirit), this title is used of Jesus 54 times in the Four Gospels. Mark’s Gospel has it only seven times; Matthew sixteen; Luke twelve; and John nineteen. (In Acts and the Epistles and the Revelation it is used numerous times, as in "Jesus Christ.") So we do not have the space to list all the different speakers and contexts. Instead, only two passages are cited here, in which Jesus accepts someone else’s correct definition.

First, according to Peter’s famous confession on the true identity of Jesus, the Messiah is the Son of God. After Jesus privately asks his disciples who the crowds of people believe he is, he asks them who they think he is. Peter strides forward with the correct answer.

16 Simon Peter answered, "You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God." 17 Jesus replied, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but my Father in heaven" (Matthew 16:16-17; cf. Mark 8:29; Luke 9:20).

It should be emphasized that in the context of these two verses, some among the crowds take Jesus for a prophet. He does not explicitly deny this, but he also reveals his fullest nature to his key disciples: the Christ, the Son of God.

Second, the high priest, during Jesus’ trial, understands the implication of Messiahship in the context of Jesus’ ministry and first-century Israel. He asks Jesus plainly:

61 Again the high priest asked him "Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?" 62 "I am," said Jesus. "And you will see the Son of Man at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven." (Mark 14:61-62; cf. Matthew 26:63-64; Luke 22:66-71; cf. John 19:7)

Jesus answers the high priest plainly. He is more than a Rabbi, Teacher, and Prophet, though he had functioned in all of these callings before the people.

Why did Jesus not use the title of Messiah widely, such as in the Gospel of Mark, which has the title only seven times? He uses it often enough, but not as many times, for example, as the Son of Man (see below). Three reasons explain why. First, in his day, the term was associated with a military and political figure, and Jesus did not identify with this. For example, the people almost forced him into being a king (John 6:15). Second, plenty of wandering prophets and messiahs crisscrossed the eastern half of the Mediterranean world, so he avoided this trap. Third, he came as the Suffering Servant Messiah (Isaiah 53), to die for the sins of the world. When he comes back a second time, all worldly accounts will be settled under his rule as Messiah.

Besides, it is not the number of times a term is mentioned that matter in the final analysis, but it is the meaning of the term, especially when Jesus imbues a title with his definition. And Messiahship ultimately and most accurately means Sonship.

(5) The Son of David

This is a Messianic title that was popular among the Jewish people. It is used as such in the Four Gospels about 10 times, and in most cases ordinary Israelites use it. For example, in Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the crowds cry out, "Hosanna to the Son of David!" (Matthew 21:9, 15). However, Jesus does not use it about himself. In this light, we focus on Jesus’ correction of this popular usage.

The Pharisees believe that the Christ is the Son of David, but Jesus clarifies matters.

41 While the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them, 42 "What do you think about the Christ? Whose Son is he?" "The son of David," they replied. 43 He said to them, "How is it then that David, speaking by the Spirit, calls him ‘Lord’? For he says, 44 ‘The Lord said to my Lord, "Sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet."’ 45 If then David calls him ‘Lord,’ how can he be his son?" 46 No one could say a word in reply, and from that day on no one dared to ask him any more questions. (Matthew 22:41-46; cf. Mark 12:35-37; Luke 20:41-44)

This passage in Matthew comes after the triumphal entry during which the people acclaimed him the son of David. Jesus is quoting Psalm 110:1, and the entire psalm was considered by the Jews as Messianic before Jesus was born. In Jesus’ interpretation, God is speaking to David’s Lord, that is, David’s superior, who is Christ. If the Lord Messiah is superior to David, how can the Lord be subordinate as a son? Thus, the title "son of David" is ultimately inadequate; Jesus is the Lord even of David himself, the greatest king of Israel.

(6) The Lord

In the Four Gospels, this title is used nearly 140 times in a context that clearly refers to Jesus. (Passages that quote from the Old Testament, for example, were not counted here.) We can list only a fraction of them. In Greek, "Lord" (kyrios) may mean "sir," "lord," (e.g. a human lord) or "Lord" (e.g. a deity, as in Lord God), depending on the context. But in the New Testament the latter divine meaning occurs in the vast majority of times and refers to Jesus. We zero in on the fullest meaning that Jesus gives the title or accepts from others. Here are only seven examples.

First, the Lord Jesus judges people in the Last Day.

"Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven." (Matthew 7:21; see also 25:37-44; cf. Luke 6:46)

Second, the Lord Jesus will return to earth at his second coming. The context of this verse shows him finishing his long discourse on the signs of the End Times:

"Therefore, keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come." (Matthew 24:42)

Third, Jesus is the Lord of the harvest or the effort to reach out to people. In this context, he is about to send out the Twelve into various towns and villages on a mission of ministry (Matthew 10:1-42)

37 The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. 38 Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into the harvest field (Matthew 9:37-38).

In Luke 10:1, Jesus the Lord also sends out seventy-two other missionaries. "The Lord appointed seventy-two others."

Fourth, Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath. The context of this verse is a dispute over keeping the Sabbath and how much and what kind of work, if any, is permitted.

For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath. (Matthew 12:8; cf. Mark 2:28; Luke 6:5)

The law to keep the Sabbath is found in the fourth of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:8). Jesus is Lord over the endless regulations that religious teachers had piled on this sacred day, but he is also Lord of the Sabbath in its purest form, as first revealed to Moses and expanded on in Exodus 31:12-17. Jesus says here that it is intended as a day of rest, not a day of legalistic bondage. Man stands on the Sabbath, so to speak; it does not hang like a sword over his head.

Fifth, John the Baptist was sent to prepare the way of the Lord, as Isaiah, the Old Testament prophet, predicted:

A voice of one calling: "In the desert prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God." (Isaiah 40:3).

The capital "LORD" means Yahweh God. Under divine inspiration Matthew applies this passage to Jesus. He is the LORD whose way is prepared.

This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah: "A voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’" (Matthew 3:3, cf. Mark 1:3; Luke 1:76)

Thus, Jesus is identified in this passage as Yahweh.

Sixth, Jesus is Lord and God. After Christ’s resurrection, Thomas, one of the Twelve, had doubted whether the Lord was alive (hence the name "doubting Thomas"). Jesus appears to him and invites him to touch the wound from the spear that pierced his side while he was on the cross.

27 Then he [Jesus] said to Thomas, "Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe." 28 Thomas said to him, "My Lord and my God!" (John 20:27-28)

At the beginning of John’s Gospel, Jesus was the Word, and the Word was God, and the Word became flesh and lived among us humans (John 1:1-2; 14). Here at the end of the Gospel, Thomas makes the ultimate confession of Jesus’ divine nature. This disclosure of Jesus divine nature has been John’s literary (the Gospel is in story form) and theological strategy, which has been carried out perfectly.

Seventh and finally, to leave the Four Gospels behind, Acts and the Epistles are filled with references to the Lordship of Jesus. One example represents others. Paul says that if we confess Jesus as Lord, then we receive salvation.

. . . If you confess with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved (Romans 10:9; see 10:13 and 1 Corinthians 12:3)

For believing Christians, the Lordship of Christ fulfills their lives. They submit to him, and he becomes Lord over all areas of their daily walk with him. He leads them along good paths.

(7) The Son of Man

Jesus is almost the only one in the Four Gospels who uses this term about himself (81 times). In Mark 8:31 and 9:9 the title is used indirectly by Jesus in two summaries. In Luke 24:7 an angel quotes Jesus using the title about himself. And in John 12:34, the crowd borrows it in the context of Jesus. But in all passages, it refers only to Jesus. And in all cases other than the four verses just now explained he alone uses it and only about himself. So it is important to understand his meaning of the title. Two options are possible, but one suits his meaning, ultimately. First, Ezekiel, an Old Testament prophet, uses it 93 times, and he emphasizes his humanity. He is an ordinary human son of an ordinary human man. Second, Daniel, another Old Testament prophet, uses it about a divine figure who is entrusted by God in the End Times with authority, glory, and sovereignty (Daniel 7:13-14). Jesus demonstrates that he is the exclusive fulfillment of Daniel’s description, though he is fully human as well. Five examples represent others that speak of Daniel’s words.

First, the Son of Man has authority to forgive sins and heal sickness.

5 When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, "Son, your sins are forgiven." 6 Now some teachers of the law were sitting there, thinking to themselves, 7 "Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?" 8 Immediately, Jesus knew in his spirit that this was what they were thinking in their hearts, and he said to them, "Why are you thinking such things? 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 that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins" . . . . (Mark 2:5-10; cf. Matthew 9:2-8; Luke 5:18-26)

Jesus then heals the paralytic. The teachers of the law make the right inference. Only God can forgive sins in this manner. Jesus does this, so what does this say about his divine nature? Interestingly, the Quran acknowledges this exclusive right of God to forgive sins: "who forgives sins but God?" (Sura 3:135). What does this say about Jesus’ nature?

Second, as noted in the previous section "the Lord," the Son of Man is the Lord of the Sabbath, so this means that he fulfills the Old Testament in this important regulation in the life of Israel.

Third, Jesus comes to seek and to save the lost. The following two verses find Zacchaeus the tax collector repenting of his cheating and defrauding. He promises to repay people and return stolen money.

9 Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost. (Luke 19:9-10).

So Jesus combines his divine status of the Son of Man with his divine status of Savior.

Fourth, the Son of Man must suffer many things and be killed, but he will be resurrected. After Peter’s great confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God (Matthew 16:16), Jesus warns the disciples not to tell anyone. Then he makes a prediction and clarifies his destiny.

22 And he [Jesus] said, "The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life." (Luke 9:22, 9:44; cf. Matthew 12:40, 16:21; Mark 8:31)

Thus, Jesus fulfills the Suffering Servant Messiah described in Isaiah 53.

Fifth and finally, during his trial, Jesus boldly tells the high priest that he, the Son of Man, will sit at the right hand of the Father and come on the clouds of heaven at the end of the age.

63 The high priest said to him, "I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God." 64 "Yes, it is as you say: In the future you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on clouds of heaven." (Matthew 26:63-64; cf. Mark 14:61-62)

These two verses combine the three titles of Messiah, Son of God, and Son of Man.

Clearly, then, Jesus rises far above Ezekiel’s description of himself as an ordinary human. Rather, Jesus fulfills Daniel’s apocalyptic, divine figure.

(8) The Son of God

This is one of the most important titles of Jesus Christ in the Four Gospels, which use it over 60 times. ("Son" is not counted here when it is used in an ordinary sense, such as in Luke’s genealogy.) Only five examples represent many others, and they are found throughout Jesus’ ministry, from beginning to end.

First, Father God proclaims the Sonship of Christ at his baptism.

16 As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit descending like a dove and lighting on him 17 And a voice from heaven said, "This is my beloved Son, whom I love, with him I am well pleased." (Matthew 3:16-17; Mark 1:9-11; Luke 3:21-22)

This passage is a wonderful image of the Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—testifying to the divine nature of Jesus.

Second, even demons, which have access to certain truths in the spirit world that we do not have, shriek and submit before the Son of God:

28 When [Jesus] arrived at the other side in the region of the Gadarenes, two demon-possessed men coming from the tombs met him. They were so violent that no one could pass that way. 29 "What you want with us, Son of God?" they shouted. "Have you come here to torture us before the appointed time?" (Matthew 8:28-29; Mark 5:6-8; Luke 8:27-29)

It should be noted that Satan himself questions Jesus’ Sonship in the God-ordained and Spirit-led Temptation or Testing (Matthew 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-11). Said Satan, "If you are the Son of God" . . . . Jesus was victorious over this evil being, so this means that he is the Son of God. Does Muhammad question Jesus’ Sonship?

Third, the disciples acknowledge him as the Son of God, after they saw him walking on water during a storm. Peter, in his boldness, asks Jesus to tell him to walk on water, too.

32 And when [Jesus and Peter] climbed into the boat, the wind died down. 33 Then those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying "Truly, you are the Son of God." (Matthew 14:32-33).

For a good discussion of the Greek word "worship" in this verse and others, please go here.

Fourth, Jesus was transfigured in front of Peter, James, and John, on a high mountain. "His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as while light. Just then there appeared Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus" (Matthew 17:3). Then Father God speaks from heaven.

5 . . . a bright cloud enveloped them, and a voice from the cloud said, "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!" (Matthew 17:5; cf. Mark 9:7; Luke 9:35)

Moses represents the Law and Elijah the prophets. This implies that Jesus fulfills their ministries. "Listen to him!" This passage, most importantly, reveals the divine nature of Jesus—the very Son of God. He rises far above the greatest lawgiver and the illustrative prophet.

Fifth and finally, a Roman centurion (and others) who was guarding Jesus during the crucifixion declares that Jesus is the Son of God.

When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, "Surely he was the Son of God." (Matthew 27:54; Mark 15:39)

The title "the Son of God" is an indispensable description of Jesus Christ. No Bible-educated Christian could abandon it and reduce Jesus to a mere human prophet or teacher or rabbi or human son of man or messenger.

(9) The "I Am"

Exodus 3:14 describes a holy scene. Moses asks God, appearing in the burning bush, who he is. God replies, "I am who I am." The third person form of "I am" is "he is," and it is from this third person clause that the divine name YHWH (Yahweh) is derived. Further, God says about himself in Isaiah such truths as these about his self-existing Being: "I am the Lord" or "I am your God" or "I am the first and the last" (41:10; 43:3, 11; 43:15; 44:6; 48:12; 51:12 cf. Jeremiah 32:27).

With the Old Testament clearly in the background, Jesus uses this "I am" subject pronoun and verb combination in special ways in the Gospel of John. The Greek is ego eimi (ego = I and eimi = am or even "I am" as the pronoun is implied). "I am the bread of life" (6:35); "I am the light of the world" (8:12); "I am the gate for the sheep" (10:7); "I am the good shepherd" (10:11, 13); "I am the resurrection and the life" (11:25); "I am the way and the truth and the life" (14:6). This theme of "I am" is so dominant and built up in such a deliberate way in John that no serious scholar reduces them to a mere expression that all of us use, like "I am a man" or "I am a human." Which average Jew in first-century Israel walked around the countryside proclaiming, "I am the way and the truth" or "I am the light of the world"? The truth? The light? These are stunning claims by Jesus in his context.

But these "I am" expressions are not the strongest and clearest examples of the parallels between the Old Testament and the Gospel of John. In the following passages, Jesus clearly identifies himself with the God who spoke in the burning bush.

First, Jesus says that he existed before Abraham.

57 "You are not yet fifty years old," the Jews said to him, "and you have seen Abraham!" 58 "I tell you the truth," Jesus answered, "before Abraham was born, I am! [ego eimi]" (John 8:57-58).

That is, Jesus existed before Abraham was born, and surely in the mind even of ordinary first-century Jews, Abraham was considered an early patriarch in Genesis, before God revealed himself as the "I am" to Moses. Thus, Jesus is the self-existing Being that God is, even as he said in the burning bush. This is a remarkable statement by Jesus, for which Jews picked up stones to kill him for blasphemy (v. 59).

Second, Jesus speaks out his true nature, and wicked men fall backwards. Jesus is getting arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, in the dark. He asks the mob who they want. After they answer, his reply was not ordinary, though the words are used everyday.

4 Jesus, knowing all that was going to happen to him, went out and asked them, "Who is it you want?" 5 "Jesus of Nazareth," they replied. "I am he," [ego eimi] . . . 6 When Jesus said, "I am he," [ego eimi] they drew back and fell to the ground. (John 18:4-7).

This passage fits perfectly into the "I am" theme in the entire Gospel. His answer, in words we all use everyday in our own language, sends the arresters falling backwards. Thus, John’s purpose is to elevate this ordinary subject pronoun and verb, ego eimi, beyond the natural and into a supernatural, divine meaning that echoes the Old Testament’s designation of God.

Third, Matthew also records an "I am" declaration. In the previous section it was noted that Jesus walked on water and that Peter asked permission to do this as well. Before Peter asked, however, the disciples dimly saw a figure walking towards them in the storm, and they thought it was a ghost. Jesus reassures them with an expression that literally says "I am" or "ego eimi."

26 When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. "It’s a ghost," they said, and cried out in fear. 27 But Jesus immediately said to them: "Take courage! It is I [ego eimi]. Don’t be afraid." (Matthew 14:26-27)

This claim to divine status fits in with the disciples worshiping Christ as the Son of God in the same passage (v. 33).

Fourth and finally, to go outside of the Four Gospels, Jesus says in the Revelation, "I am the first and the last" (1:17, 22:13). The Revelation was written by John, and he has in mind the verses in Isaiah, where God speaks of himself as "the first and the last" (44:6; 48:12). How much clearer does Christ’s identity with God Almighty have to get?

For a more thorough analysis of the "I am" statements in John and this one in Matthew, go to this article.

(10) God Incarnate

For the priceless doctrine of the Incarnation (the heavenly Son of God becoming flesh), we appeal to four passages, again from the Gospels of Matthew and John and from Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians. This is the culmination or highest expression of Christ’s divine identity.

First, Jesus is Immanuel, "God with us."

22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 "The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel—which means, ‘God with us.’" (Matthew 1:22-23; cf. Isaiah 7:14).

A major theme in the Gospel of Matthew is Christ’s fulfillment of Old Testament promises and prophecies. This quotation from Isaiah is Christ’s first fulfillment in Matthew.

Second, Jesus was the Word who created the world and who became flesh.

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that was made . . . 10 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him . . . 14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. (John 1:1-3, 10, 14)

John always views the Old Testament in the background to his Gospel, and this passage is a clear reference to Genesis 1:1, "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth" . . . . The fuller New Testament revelation says that God the Father created all things through the agency of God the Son (note the word "through" in verse 3). Blessedly, the Word became flesh and lived among us.

Third, Jesus repeats a theme about his being sent by his Father, often using such clauses as "he has sent me or I have been sent" (Matthew 10:40, 15:24; Mark 9:37; Luke 9:48; John 4:34; 5:24, 30, 36; 6:38). In the larger context of Jesus’ ministry, he has been sent down from heaven.

For example, John 5:24 says:

I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.

Fourth, Paul the Apostle, formerly a Rabbi and a strict Pharisee whose knowledge of the law was deep, records his understanding of Christ’ Incarnation that also circulated around the earliest Christian communities.

5 . . . Christ Jesus 6 Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, 7 but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. (Philippians 2:4-7)

The rest of the passage describes his willing humility and obedience to death, even death on a cross. Many scholars concur that these verses are part of an early hymn. This is a remarkable fact. Philippians was written between AD 53 and 61. The hymn likely circulated around the Christian community before this timeframe. This means that not too long after Christ’s resurrection and ascension, the believers understood and celebrated the Godhead of Christ as established doctrine. It is often believed that much later Christians, in the fourth and fifth centuries, for example, fabricated the idea of the deity of Christ. But this early hymn or passage in Philippians contradicts this belief. Apparently, the resurrection of Christ, which was witnessed by over five hundred believers (1 Corinthians 15:6), made such an impact on Christian leaders and authors that the deity of Christ logically and immediately followed as doctrine. How could this be otherwise?

See this exegesis of this passage in Philippians.

The Incarnation is the most blessed doctrine for all of humanity. The God of the Bible is not remote and distant. He stepped down out of eternity and entered time.


Jesus Christ has multiple titles. Some portray him as human (Rabbi, Teacher, and Prophet), and others depict him as Deity (Son of Man, Son of God, and the "I am"). Therefore, the New Testament absolutely supports the doctrine that Jesus Christ is fully human and fully divine. Later theologians who merely confirmed what was already in this sacred text understood it thoroughly.[1]

Moreover, it is not a contradiction to have multiple titles. To use a mundane, human example, Jimmy Carter is a farmer, Baptist, Sunday School teacher, and home builder for the charity organization Habitat for Humanity. And he may still be referred to as Governor of Georgia or President of the United States: "Mr. President."

In ultimate terms, however, Jesus is God incarnate—the fullness of deity lives in bodily form in Jesus (Colossians 2:9).

On the other side, Muhammad is strictly human. He is a mortal man who died of a fever in the arms of his girl-bride Aisha in AD 632. His title of "prophet" occurs late in his ministry in Mecca and only two times in that city.

Muhammad did not accept the Sonship and deity of Christ, but on what grounds? He believes that Allah would have to engage in sex with a consort to produce a son, a false belief that Christians reject. Also, if Muhammad is the last and the best of messengers and prophets, then how could Jesus rise above this title and be the eternal Son of God?

However, Muslims and members of other religions who deny Christ’s Sonship and Lordship must understand where Christians get this doctrine—from the New Testament that has plenty of sound manuscript traditions behind it. They do not get this idea out of thin air or out of a magician’s hat.

For more information on the reliability of the Bible, go to this webpage and click on any of the articles. On the other side, traditional Muslims believe that the Quran came down from heaven in an absolutely pure state and remained that way throughout its earthly existence. However, simple and plain facts contradict this belief. Click on this webpage to see many articles. Even the hadith says that the Quran is missing verses and suras (chapters).

Further, there is nothing inherent in God’s nature that blocks him from stepping down into time and showing us a better way and redeeming us and offering us the gift of eternal life with him. Nothing inherent in his nature? If someone has a prior belief that God could not do this, then what is his starting point for his belief? The Quran? But the New Testament says that the Incarnation happened. So we have two sacred texts that cancel each other out.

So what is the starting point that denies God’s ability to do this? Think about it. Why couldn’t God step down into time in the form of a man—in Jesus Christ? For me, this is the most blessed doctrine and fact that have ever occurred to humankind. "Since the children have flesh and blood, he [Jesus] too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil" (Hebrew 2:14). I do not put God in a distant, remote cage or box, way up in heaven, isolated and lonely. He revealed himself in the ultimate way that humans could understand—in Christ Jesus who was fully human and fully divine. The only reply to this fact is a starting point that limits God.

If a denier of the Incarnation asserts that God couldn’t do this, then that is argument by assertion, without evidence. It is risky to assert that God cannot do anything.

One way to break the deadlock is to compare the life of Jesus with the life of Muhammad. Under these conditions, Muhammad fails. I have already written on this topic. Though I do not wish to be frivolously insulting, the stakes are too high to ignore the following facts. Aggressive Islam is on the march. Its doctrines may confuse people. So here are some down-to-earth, non-abstract, verifiable facts: Muhammad was a slave trader; he married and had sex with a prepubescent girl; he slaughtered and enslaved a tribe of Jews; he allowed his men to have sex with women prisoners of war; he permitted husbands to hit their wives, and the list goes on, as seen in these articles:

I hope the reader at least skimmed the lists found in those four links. Here is what I have concluded from all my reasearch. Imagine a Christian pastor or priest claiming to receive revelations from Gabriel or from the Spirit. He cites the Bible here and there, but you check his research and conclude that he does not understand this sacred text. He also lives a lifestyle that matches the items in those four lists and comes up with rules that are found in them. Would you listen to him? Would you follow him? Would you take him as your authority? I surely would not, most emphatically not. This question, though blunt, follows:

So what right does the prophet of Islam have to preach to me about abstract doctrines and about what God cannot or would not do? That is, Muhammad may announce his purported knowledge of God, but I don’t have to listen to him. To me at least, he lost that right long ago by his unexemplary life.

On the other hand, Jesus lived a perfectly sinless life. He ministered the love of God and blessed people with genuine miracles. Most importantly, he was raised from the dead, after redeeming us on the cross.

For me, the choice is obvious. Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God.

Supplemental Reading

This article examines the many attributes of Jesus Christ according to the Bible.

This article, framed as a reply to Muslim polemics, also has a list of Christ’s titles and attributes.

This article analyzes John 1:1, 8:58, and Colossians 2:9. It also has a quick overview of some "I am" statements.

This article has a point-by-point analysis of the attributes of Christ and Yahweh.


[1] The fully divine and fully human natures of Jesus do not work like a blinking light. For example, it is not the case that when Jesus functioned as the Teacher or the Rabbi or the Prophet, his human nature blinked on, but his divine nature turned off. Similarly, it is not the case that when he said "I am," his divine nature blinked on, but his human nature turned off. He was always fully divine and fully human at the same time, without mixture or confusion and without division or separation (to use the language of the professional theologians). He was always divine when he functioned as the Teacher or Rabbi or Prophet, and he was always human when he said, "I am." It is true, however, that people could not recognize his divine nature in their own limited knowledge unless the Father chose to reveal Jesus’ divine nature (see Matthew 16:16-17). The people’s lack of recognition about the divine nature of Jesus was especially strong in the three titles because they had been applied to ordinary humans for a long time. Hence, Jesus had to reveal to certain persons at the right time his divine nature. And the title "Son of God," for example, suited this need nicely.

Copyright by James Malcolm Arlandson.

Articles by James Arlandson
Answering Islam Home Page