The Deity of Jesus, Part 4

The Assertions of the Apostles

By Dan Barkman

In parts 2 and 3 of this series we examined the four canonical gospels and how they portrayed Jesus as claiming to be divine both in His statements and His behavior. In this installment we will explore how the rest of the New Testament authors portrayed Jesus and how this bears on the overall case for Jesus' divinity. We will pay particular attention to early creeds/confessions of the early church that pre-date the writing of the New Testament and how this speaks to the suddenness of the conviction on the part of the earliest Christians that Jesus is a divine person.

One of the more overlooked letters bearing on the question of Jesus' divinity is the Epistle of James, authored by the half-brother of Jesus. Being one of the earliest New Testament books to have been penned (dated by some as early as 45-50 A.D.), it is all the more important to take notice that the Apostle James speaks of Jesus in the loftiest of terms. As the great Princeton theologian B.B. Warfield explained:
James speaks of our Lord by name only twice, and on both occasions he gives Him the full title of reverence: 'the (or our) Lord Jesus Christ' (James 1:1; 2:1) — coupling Him in the one case on equal terms with God, and in the other adding further epithets of divine dignity. [1]
Warfield continues:
The pregnant use of "the Name," absolutely, which we found current among the early Christians as reported in the Acts, recurs here; and James advises in the case of sick people that they be prayed over, while they are anointed with oil "in the Name" (James 5:14). The "Name" intended is clearly that of Jesus which is thus in Christian usage substituted for that of Jehovah. [2]
What is interesting is that Jesus is referred to in this manner a mere 15-20 years after His death — by His own blood brother, a person who had previously rejected Jesus' divine/messianic claims during His public ministry (Mark 3:21; John 7:5). The most likely cause of this abrupt turnaround is Jesus' post-resurrection appearance to His brother (1 Corinthians 15:7).

Another piece of relevant data to be considered is the content of the doctrinal summaries that are buried inside several New Testament texts. As one author put it:
In the New Testament, we find numerous statements that actually predate the texts in which they are embedded. These creeds or traditions are often concise, catchy sayings that are packed with meaning in a minimal number of words. They provide the clearest examples of the apostolic teaching that occurred in the earliest years after Jesus' death but prior to the first canonical writings. [3]
In these early creeds we find Jesus referred to as deity, a point all the more powerful when we remember that in these early creeds we get a view of the earliest Christian beliefs-years before the composition of the New Testament documents.

One example of this is contained in the Apostle Paul's letter to the Church at Philippi which states concerning Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death — even death on a cross. Philippians 2:6-8
Many New Testament historians believe this early doctrinal summary to have functioned in the role of a hymn, probably used in the worship gatherings of the earliest Christians. Other similar passages that likely functioned as worship hymns include John 1:1-18 and Colossians 1:15-20 — both of which equate Jesus with God and ascribe to Him the act of creation. So it seems that what has been referred to as "Jesus-devotion" began very early in the Christian movement — a devotion reflected in the veneration of Jesus in worship gatherings as well confessions of Him as "Lord" in their most primitive doctrinal summaries (e.g., Romans 1:1-4; 10:9, etc.). [4]

The Apostle Paul explicitly refers to Jesus as deity in two of his letters (Romans 9:5; Titus 2:13). This point carries additional weight when we remember that Paul's doctrine was endorsed by the Jerusalem Apostles: Peter, James (the brother of Christ), and John (Galatians 2:9) — three men who were certainly in a position to know what it was that Jesus had claimed for Himself. The Book of Revelation describes worship being directed to Christ, "To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb [Jesus] be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever" (Revelation 5:13). As Larry Hurtado has noted regarding this text:
The ready acceptance of the joint worship of Jesus and God by this author who echoes the prohibition of worship of anyone but God is the clearest indication that in Revelation Jesus ("the Lamb") is completely distinguished from all other divine agents and is uniquely associated with God, and this precisely in the most sensitive matter for ancient Jews and Christians: worship. [5]
In conclusion, while the four canonical gospels provide us with sufficient evidence that Jesus saw Himself as a divine person with a divine authority, there is far more data to be gathered from the rest of the New Testament. A thorough overview of the rest of the New Testament — including the early creedal statements embedded in several New Testament texts — provide us with strong reason to think that devotion to Jesus came at the very beginning of the Christian movement. So it seems that belief in Jesus' divinity was not a result of decades-long theological reflection by the early church; rather, it looks to have appeared at the very inception of the Christian movement — a result of Jesus' repeated claims to be divine and His proof of these claims via His resurrection.

The Series
Part 1: The Testimony of Jesus
Part 2: The Account of the Synoptic Gospels
Part 3: The Claims of the Gospel of John
Part 4: The Assertions of the Apostles

1. Benjamin B. Warfield, The Lord of Glory: A Classic Defense of the Deity of Jesus Christ. (Birmingham: AL.: Solid Ground Christian Books, 2003) p. 264.

2. ibid.

3. Gary R. Habermas, "Why I Believe the New Testament Is Historically Reliable," in Why I Am a Christian: Leading Thinkers Explain Why They Believe, ed. Norman K. Geisler and Paul K. Hoffman (Grand Rapids: MI.: Baker Books, 2006) p. 173.

4. L.W. Hurtado, "Christology," in The New Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Katherine Doob Sakenfeld (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006-2009), 1: 612-22

5. L.W. Hurtado "Early Devotion to Jesus: A Report, Reflections and Implications" in Expository Times 122/4 (2010): 167-76.

Image Credit: Joe Shlabotnick; "King Of Kings"; Creative Commons

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Republished 4-25-12