10 Things You Should Know about Early Christology
This article is part of the 10 Things You Should Know series.
According to a 2019 study, roughly 97% of evangelical Christians affirm the doctrine of the Trinity—one true God in three persons (Father, Son, Holy Spirit).1 That’s great news. The bad news: the same survey found that nearly 80% of those surveyed also believe Jesus to be a created being, apparently without realizing the contradiction.
Moreover, in the church world I’ve observed that many Christians often can assent to key statements on Christ’s divinity like the Nicene Creed, but struggle defending such statements from Scripture (beyond, say, John 1:1–3). But in the academic world, the prevailing opinion is that the creeds cannot be defended fully from Scripture, because the idea of Christ’s divinity was, in some sense, “invented” later.
However you slice it, there is clear need for solid teaching on how the Bible actually conveys not only the humanity of Jesus Christ—most laypersons “get” that aspect at some level—but also his full divinity. Here are ten things to know about early divine Christology as found in Scripture.
1. The New Testament teaches the heavenly preexistence of Christ before taking flesh.
For any person to be fully divine, he must exist forever—God, by definition, cannot begin to exist or be created. In various ways, the New Testament affirms that Christ did, in fact, exist in the spiritual or heavenly realm before being born in the flesh. John’s Gospel teaches that Jesus “came from above” (or similar wording, John 3:31; 6:38, 51; 8:23) and had glory with the Father in heaven in eternity past (John 17:5). Paul also teaches that Jesus existed in heaven before being sent in the flesh (Col. 1:17; 1 Cor. 15:47; Eph. 4:9-10; Gal. 4:4; 1 Tim. 1:15; 3:16). Jesus, too, gives subtle signs that he has “come” from outside the earthly realm (e.g., Luke 12:49-51), which even demons recognize (Mark 1:24).
Is Jesus Truly God?
This book invites readers to explore the humanity and divinity of Jesus Christ by looking at 6 key truths presented in the Scriptures and later developed in the ecumenical creeds.
2. The Old Testament signals the preexistence of Christ.
If Christ existed prior to coming in the flesh, we should not be surprised to find telltale signs in the Old Testament. Paul describes the water-providing rock in the wilderness (Ex. 17:6; Num. 20:8–11) as “Christ” (1 Cor. 10:4); and when the Israelites rebelled, (Num. 21:5-6) they were actually putting “Christ to the test” (1 Cor. 10:9). Jude similarly describes how it was “Jesus who saved a people out of the land of Egypt” (Jude 5), apparently connecting Christ to the angel of the Lord who went before the Israelites (Ex. 14:19; 23:20; 32:34). John also states that the grand vision Isaiah had of the “glory” of the LORD in Isaiah 6 was actually a mysterious glimpse of Christ (John 12:41). This heavenly, pre-incarnate existence of Christ may also lie behind the human-like being seated on a heavenly throne in Ezekiel 1, as well as the “one like a son of man” in Daniel 7:13–14.
3. Jesus expresses a unique sense of divine sonship to the Father.
To disprove the deity of Jesus, skeptics often note that Jesus did not parade around claiming, “I am God!” While it is true that no such behavior is recorded, he did make exceptional claims about his unique position as Son in relation to the Father. He addresses him as “Abba” (Mark 14:36) and “my Father” (e.g., Matt 26:53; Luke 22:29; John 5:17), which was almost unheard of for Jews (who, if they addressed the Father as such, used “our”). He also distinctly refers to himself as “the Son” (Mark 13:32). The Father returns the favor, so to speak, by addressing Jesus in an intimate, paternal way at his baptism (Luke 3:22) and transfiguration (Mark 9:7). Finally, Jesus expresses the unique Father-Son relationship not only in the famous passages of John 10:15, 30, and 38, but even in the Synoptic Gospels (Matt 11:25–27; Luke 10:21–22). This evidence clarifies the full meaning of “Son of God” (Matt 14:33; Rom 1:3–4; etc.).
4. The New Testament applies YHWH passages from the Old Testament directly to Jesus.
If Jesus alludes to his own preexistence as well as special divine sonship, then it is perhaps less shocking to see New Testament authors take passages that speak about the LORD in the Old Testament and re-read them as referring to Christ. For instance, Mark 1:1-2 quotes Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3. In both Old Testament passages, the coming messenger is preparing the way for the LORD himself—but for Mark, this messenger (John the Baptist) is preparing the way for Jesus. Acts 2:21-38, similarly, reorients the “call upon the name of the LORD” from Joel 2:28-32 in a Christ-ward direction, whereby salvation comes by calling on “the name of Jesus Christ.” The “I am” (without a predicate) claims of Jesus are likely allusions to the LORD’s strong monotheistic claims in the Old Testament (e.g., Deut. 32:29; Isa. 41:4; 43:10). Most impressively, perhaps, is how Paul takes the Shema of Deuteronomy 6:4, which confesses that the LORD and God is “one,” and applies it to Father (“one God”) and Jesus Christ (“one Lord”) in 1 Corinthians 8:6.
5. The New Testament ascribes exclusive divine titles and prerogatives to Jesus.
Not only does the New Testament apply YHWH passages to Jesus, but it also ascribes explicitly divine honors, attributes, names, and deeds to him.2 For instance, overnight Christians call Jesus “Lord” (kyrios), which was the Jewish Greek translation of Adonai as well as, at least for some, YHWH. Jesus is also described as executing specific duties that only God himself does, which he never delegates even to high-ranking angels—specifically, the creation of “all things” (John 1:3; Col. 1:16; Heb. 1:2) and sovereignty over “all things” (Matt 28:18; 1 Cor. 15:27; Eph. 1:21).
6. The earliest Christians worshiped Jesus as God.
The New Testament authors and earliest Christians did not only think Jesus was divine—they also treated him as such through acts of worship, which is all the more stunning given the Jewish prohibition on worshiping angels, patriarchs, and so forth. Prayer is offered to Jesus (1 Cor. 16:22; Acts 1:24). Songs are sung not only about Jesus (e.g., Magnificat and Benedictus in Luke 1) but to Jesus (Rev 5:9). Christian worship ordinances are done to honor Jesus and are carried out in his name (Acts 2:38; Rom. 6:3-4; 1 Cor. 11:20)—as is church discipline (1 Cor. 5:4-5). And disciples both before and after the ascension “bow down to” (or “worship”) Jesus (Luke 24:52; Matt. 28:9, 17). Even angels and saints worship the Lamb on the throne in heaven (Rev. 5:13-14; 7:9-12)!
7. The New Testament teaches a “trinitarian” Christology.
Another sign of the full deity of Christ is his relationship to the Holy Spirit. His earthly ministry is fully empowered by the Spirit (Matt. 3:16; 12:28; John 20:22), and he exercises the divine role of pouring out the Spirit (Joel 2:28–29) after his ascension (Acts 2:32–33). More than this, the essence of God is described as a oneness of Father, Son, and Spirit, captured vividly in the baptismal “name” of Matthew 28:19–20 and the compact declaration of Romans 8:11—“the Spirit of him [=Father] who raised Jesus from the dead” (cf. Rom. 1:4; 8:9; Eph. 4:4-6).
The full deity of Christ is displayed again and again on the pages of Scripture.
8. The New Testament explicitly calls Jesus “God” (theos) several times.
On seven clear occasions (John 1:1; 10:33; 20:28; Titus 2:13; Heb. 1:8; 2 Pet. 1:1; 1 John 5:19-20) and several debated occasions (which have grammatical or text-critical difficulties that cause some uncertainty; e.g., John 1:18; Acts 20:28; Gal. 2:20; 1 Tim. 3:16), the New Testament clearly predicates the Greek word for “God” (theos) to Jesus. While Jesus may not have shouted that he is God, a variety of New Testament authors do! This may not by itself prove as much as some might think—Satan, angels, and Roman gods are called theos, too (2 Cor. 4:4; John 10:35; Acts 14:11)—but in light of the preceding points, we get a feel for what the New Testament means by applying theos to Jesus.
9. Four key New Testament passages offer the best summary of divine Christology.
Nearly all the evidence regarding early New Testament Christology is captured beautifully in four major passages that demonstrate, without any reasonable doubt, that the inspired writers believed in and taught the full deity (and humanity) of Jesus Christ: John 1:1–18; Philippians 2:5–11; Colossians 1:15–20; and Hebrews 1:1-14. To boost one’s grasp of the New Testament teaching on this topic, a layperson could hardly do better than mastering these four texts.
10. The Christology of the creeds is the Christology of the New Testament.
The net result of the preceding nine points is this: the high Christology found in the later creeds of Christendom, like that of Nicaea, is not a late innovation or invention of the early Church. Jesus didn’t “become divine” over the course of time due to, say, overactive, Greek-influenced imaginations of the church fathers. The full deity of Christ is displayed again and again on the pages of Scripture. The earliest Christology is also the highest.
Gregory R. Lanier is the author of Is Jesus Truly God?: How the Bible Teaches the Divinity of Christ.
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