The same trustworthy Bible that tells us about our sin also reveals our solution: Jesus Christ.
Maybe you’ve heard people say that Jesus never claimed to be the Son of God and that he’d roll over in his grave if he knew his followers today were worshiping him. Evidently, they never read what Jesus said—and they must have missed the news that he rose from the dead!
For example, in John 5:16-20, Jesus clearly paints himself as divine. This made his detractors so angry that they “tried all the harder to find a way to kill him.” Why? Because Jesus “not only broke the Sabbath, he called God his Father, thereby making himself equal with God."
As the greatest teacher who ever lived, Jesus would have known if these people were misinterpreting his words and would have quickly corrected them if they were drawing the wrong conclusions. Instead, far from denying that he was “making himself equal with God,” he went on to reinforce those claims.
You can read in John 8:56-59 how Jesus shook up his hearers again: “Your father Abraham rejoiced as he looked forward to my coming. He saw it and was glad.” They were incredulous, saying, “You aren’t even fifty years old. How can you say you have seen Abraham?”
They were stunned by what Jesus said next: “I tell you the truth, before Abraham was even born, I Am!” In one sentence, he claimed not only to exist before Abraham, but he applied the exclusive name of God—“I Am” (see Exodus 3:14)—to himself. His listeners got the point: either Jesus really was God in human flesh, or he was a blasphemer. They again opted for the second choice, picking up stones to kill him.
And in John 10:30-33, Jesus underscored this claim once more. He told his audience, “The Father and I are one.” The original language makes it clear that he was claiming to be one in nature or essence with God, not merely unified in purpose. Without hesitating, his opponents picked up stones to kill him because “you, a mere man, claim to be God” (vs. 33).
Were they merely misunderstanding his claims? No, he was making it very clear that he was God’s Son—deity living in humanity. Instead of correcting their misperceptions, he drove home again, in the verses that followed, how they could examine his works and his miracles in order to see that his claims were true (John 10:34-38). And another time he summed up in sobering terms why his identity was so important: “Unless you believe that I Am who I claim to be, you will die in your sins” (John 8:24).
Some skeptics point out that Jesus preferred to call himself the Son of Man, and they interpret that to mean that he was merely claiming to be human. For example, this was his most common self-reference in the Gospel of Mark, which was probably the earliest biography written about him.
After being asked by his accusers whether or not he was “the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One,” he replied, “I Am. And you will see the Son of Man seated in the place of power at God’s right hand and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Mark 14:61-62). Once again his opponents were horrified, accusing him of blasphemy and pronouncing him worthy of death.
Why? Because, first, it appears that Jesus was again using the divine name “I Am” to describe himself—something no mere human should ever do. Second, he said they would see him “seated in the place of power at God’s right hand,” which was a clear identification with the divine person described in Psalm 110:1. And third, he called himself “the Son of Man,” which is a title drawn from Daniel 7:13-14, where the Son of Man was shown to possess divine characteristics. And just so there would be no doubt left in their minds, Jesus even said they would one day see him “coming on the clouds of heaven”—which means he would come back to judge humankind. This is another allusion to God in that same prophecy of Daniel (7:13).
Jesus’ claims of equality with the Father were unmistakable, and they would have been blasphemy—had they not been true.
If Jesus Christ is the Son of God, then we may indeed be sure of the salvation he offers. But the difficulty still faces us: Is Jesus Christ really who he claimed to be?
Many people have tried to limit the range of options concerning who he was to three: the Son of God, an honest but deluded man, or a deceiver. But there’s a fourth option—one that more and more skeptics would embrace today—that he was a legend, or at least that his claims to deity were legendary.
Let’s look briefly at the three alternatives to his being who the Bible says he claimed to be, the Son of God:
First, was Jesus deluded?
We find him matching wits with some of the cleverest people of his day, individuals who were sent to intentionally catch him in his words or in some factual mistake, and yet he so silenced them that they dared not ask him any more questions (Matthew 22:46). Even at the age of twelve he astounded the religious teachers with his spiritual insights. Luke 2:47 reports, “All who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.”
And when we consider the wisdom of his teachings from an intellectual standpoint— for example, in his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7)—we see a simple brilliance that would suggest he was anything but deluded.
On the contrary, both then and now, his influence has helped countless people to better face the realities of their own lives and to lift them out of delusion.
Or, second, was he trying to deceive people?
If so, then he would have been acting in ways diametrically opposed to everything he stood for. Again, his enemies spent years following him around, critically weighing his every word and action in the hope of exposing some error or lie, but never with even a shred of success.
In fact, at the trial prior to his crucifixion it was ironically his accusers, not Jesus, who trumped up false charges. Matthew reports that they “were trying to find witnesses who would lie about Jesus, so they could put him to death” (Matthew 26:59). Mark adds, “But even then they didn’t get their stories straight!” (14:59). So there was definitely some deception going on— but it was always against Jesus, never by him.
And look at the impact Jesus has had on people ever since then. Though his followers are not perfect as he was, his influence serves to make them more honest, trustworthy, and pure. He taught and modeled that we should always speak the truth, correct errors, and serve others selflessly.
His earliest followers quickly became known for sharing their possessions, money, and meals with those in need; as a result they were “enjoying the goodwill of all the people” (Acts 2:44-47). This certainly does not sound like the influence that would flow from the life of a deceiver!
Third, might Jesus—or at least his claims to deity—have merely been legendary?
As tempting as that option might be for some people today, it is fraught with fatal flaws. We’ve already explored the historical nature of the New Testament, including the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry. We’ve also discussed the wealth of early manuscript records we have of those writings—well beyond what we have for any other work of antiquity. In addition, there is strong secular confirmation for a number of the details in the biblical accounts.
Historian Gary Habermas, in his book The Verdict of History, reports thirty-nine ancient sources documenting the life of Jesus, from which he enumerates more than one hundred reported facts related to Jesus’ life, teachings, crucifixion, and resurrection. Twenty-four of those sources, including seven secular sources and several creeds of the earliest church, specifically concern his divine nature. “These creeds reveal that the church did not simply teach Jesus’ deity a generation later ... because this doctrine is definitely present in the earliest church.” The best explanation, he said, is that these creeds “properly represent Jesus’ own teachings.”
No, the weight of history—both religious and secular—is on the side of Jesus being and doing exactly what the Bible reports about him: he was God in human flesh, who came to be the Savior of the world.
And as we’ve already seen, Jesus had many more “credentials” confirming his identity as the Son of God. These include his fulfillment of numerous messianic prophecies in the Old Testament, his morally impeccable life, his divine insights into human nature and even into the specific thoughts of the people he talked with, his miraculous works, and especially his resurrection from the dead—an event well documented by the eyewitnesses who knew the tomb was empty and who saw, talked, and even ate with the risen Jesus.
So why did Jesus, the Son of God, come to live among us?
What was his purpose? He tells us himself in the most famous verse in the Bible, John 3:16: “For God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.”
He saw that we were lost and that we had forfeited our lives to sin. But his life was not forfeited. It was sinless and spotless. He was willing to give this pure life in place of our sinful lives so that we could go free.
In fact, Jesus presented his personal mission statement in Luke 19:10. After explaining his offer of salvation to the inquisitive tax collector Zacchaeus, he declared, “The Son of Man came to seek and save those who are lost.” And in Mark 10:45 Jesus discussed his mission further: “Even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Mark Mittelberg is a bestselling author, speaker, outreach strategist, and the Executive Director of The Center for American Evangelism, in partnership with Houston Baptist University. He is the bestselling author of multiple books, including Becoming a Contagious Christian with Lee Strobel and Bill Hybels. All together, his published pieces have sold a combined total of nearly three million copies. Mark and his wife Heidi have two grown children, and live near Denver, Colorado. You can connect with him on twitter.
Editor's note: Mark will be speaking with us for our IGNITE Tour in 2016 in Houston, San Antonio, Dallas, and Fort Worth, Texas. More details to come in coming weeks.