The Deity of Jesus Christ


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Matthew 22:34-46

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Remember, we are reading a succession of episodes in which the Lord’s enemies attempt to catch him in some faux pas.  In this last case, while the Jews themselves were always talking about this very question – which is the most important commandment – there were minefields here and an incautious reply by the Lord could have suggested that he favored the wrong commandments or was inadequately committed to obedience to the Law of God. He had certainly seemed cavalier about the rabbinic interpretations and applications of the law.

v.36     Interestingly, Jesus himself asked a similar question of another expert in the law, as we read in Luke 10, and received from that man the same answer he himself will give.  It was that discussion, you remember, that led to the Lord’s teaching the parable of the Good Samaritan.

v.37     This verse, from Deut. 6:5, was repeated twice daily by pious Jews as part of the Shema.  To say “heart, soul, and mind,” is not to distinguish different parts of a human being but to indicate that the whole self in all its parts and dimensions is to love God.  That is, it is not a superficial allegiance that is required but one that is sincere, thoughtful, intentional, and heart-felt.

v.39     The Lord has already interpreted Leviticus 19:18 in the Sermon on the Mount, Matt. 5:43-47 and said that our neighbor includes our enemies and not just our friends.  At any rate, Rabbi Duncan of 19th century Scottish Presbyterianism had this interesting comment on this text:  “How good God is!  He bids everybody love me!”  [Just a Talker, 76]

v.40     The Lord’s teaching of the primacy of love in obedience is taken up later by Paul in his teaching that love is the fulfillment of the law.

These two commandments go together.  John tells us in his first letter, “If anyone says he loves God and hates his brother he is a liar.”

In any case, the rest of the commandments are not suspended or rendered superfluous by the two great commandments, as has sometimes been taught, as if “love” were the only law remaining for us to keep.  “No creed but Christ, no law but love,” some have said.  Not so.  The other commandments “hang on” these two and are to be understood as expressions and applications of them.  Every commandment in God’s law, in other words, is a way of loving God and/or your neighbor.  “The law is love’s eyes,” as the Puritans used to say.  The Lord’s brilliant answer left the Pharisees with nothing to say and they were in no mood to risk another exchange.

v.41     Having endured three tests in short order, three attempts by different groups of his enemies to trip him up, the Lord now turns the tables and asks his adversaries a question.  It is a loaded question because the crowds have hailed him, even in these most recent days as “the Son of David,” an identification that had galled the religious leadership.  But Jesus asks the question as a question of academic theology, the way their questions had been put to him.

v.43     Jesus is, of course, not denying that he is the Son of David.  Remember this Gospel begins with a genealogy designed, among other things, to demonstrate that Jesus was a descendant of David the King.  But there is more to Messiah than his royal lineage from David and that is what Jesus is forcing them to reckon with. It is not enough to say that the Messiah is the Son of David.  He is that but he is more; he is at the same time David’s Lord.

To say that David wrote these words “speaking by the Spirit” means that he wrote them as a prophet speaking God’s words.  So God himself designated the Messiah as a personage greater than David.

v.44     The first “Lord” in the verse, in the original Hebrew of Ps. 110:1 is the name Yahweh.  The second “Lord” is the general title adonai, “Lord”.  In any case, David, speaking about his descendant, the Messiah, confesses that he is a personage greater than King David himself; someone he must address as Lord.

v.45     What is significant about all of this is that Jesus is saying that the Messiah will not be simply another man in David’s mold.  There is far more to him than that.  Jesus was not simply David redivivus. A king who would lead his people in victory over their enemies; a king like David was.  In fact, his ministry had been quite unlike what the Jews expected of the Messiah and would become dramatically more so when he went to the cross.

v.46     They’ve already made damaging admissions and wish to make no more, so they retreat into silence and leave the Lord Jesus in possession of the field.  The theological professionals were sure that they could make the layman from Galilee look stupid or dangerous or both.  But they had been badly defeated and both they and the crowds knew it.  This was galling to them and only increased their animosity toward Jesus.  The Lord’s debates with his antagonists are now over and the remainder of his recorded teaching will be given either to his disciples or to the crowds.

I suppose that almost every thoughtful reader of the Gospels has at one time or another wondered why Jesus didn’t just come out and say that he was God.  Why didn’t he stand up before the great crowds in those temple porches or, for that matter, why didn’t he simply tell his disciples that he was in fact, no one less than the Maker of heaven and earth?  Why didn’t he tell them that he was the Second Person of the Triune God?  Why didn’t he explain himself in perfectly unmistakable terms?

In some ways, this exchange between Jesus and the Pharisees that we have read is very typical.  He asks a question and poses a challenge to his religious opponents.  “Why is it that, if the Messiah is supposed to be a descendant of David, as the OT prophets so clearly say, does David himself refer to the Messiah as his Lord?” In that text from Psalm 110 the part about putting enemies under the feet applies to the Messiah when he comes, the coming deliverer who would establish the kingdom of God in the world.  But the one to whom this applies in Psalm 110:1 David calls his Lord and Master.  Fathers are not accustomed to calling their sons “Lord,” and yet David addresses one who was to be his descendant as his Lord.

All very well.  But the Lord drops the matter at the key moment.  He asks a rhetorical question in v 45 and leaves it at that!  Why did he not go on and say the obvious:  “I am not only David’s descendant, I am David’s Lord.  I am the Son of God now come in the flesh.” Why didn’t he say about himself something like what Paul said about him in Romans 1: namely that according to his human nature Jesus was a descendant of David, but as to his divine nature he was the Son of God?

The fact that Jesus cited this text and used it to make this point accounts for the important fact that the apostles came to see Psalm 110:1 as one of the most important texts concerning the Messiah in the Old Testament.  Indeed, according to some calculation, Psalm 110:1 is the Old Testament verse cited more often than any other in the NT.  But Jesus did not himself draw out the implications of that statement.  He left it for others to do.  Why was that?  And why here in particular?

We have seen in our studies in the Gospel of Matthew on any number of occasions that Jesus kept his deity under wraps as it were in order not to provoke a confrontation with the religious leadership before it was time.  This is the famous “messianic secret” that Jesus not only practiced himself but ordered his disciples to practice.  He would tell them not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah, though sometimes they did just the opposite.  Keeping that secret was more than most people could do. Nevertheless through most of the 3 years of his ministry the Lord sought to keep his Messiahship under wraps.

But that time has passed.  We noticed at the beginning of the passion week that Jesus was now throwing his previous caution to the wind.  He allowed the great crowds on Palm Sunday to acknowledge him as the Son of David, to shout their hosannas to the one who comes in the name of the Lord.  The children shouted the same things of him a day later when he was in the temple courts and when the religious leaders told him to stop them he refused.

If the gloves have come off and Jesus was throwing down the gauntlet, why did he not make more explicit, why did he not stand up and say publicly that he was God now present in human nature?  Why didn’t he tell these Pharisees, “I’m the one David was talking about; I am David’s Lord, and I am your Lord as well, the Lord of heaven and earth”?

It is not as though no one figured out that this is precisely what had to be said about Jesus of Nazareth, that he was the Son of God, not in the sense that all believers are sons of God, but that Jesus was God himself, God the Son.  We have that confession made on several occasions in the Gospels as the truth dawned on one man or woman or another.  “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God,” Peter said at Caesarea Phillipi; an extraordinary confession to come out of the mouth of a monotheist Jew concerning a human being he had known for several years.

And no wonder.  If Jesus did not come out and tell people that he was God the Son, that though his human nature was only some 30 years old, his divine nature was eternal and that he had, in fact, himself created heaven and earth, I say if Jesus did not say such things explicitly about himself, he did say and do many things that a thoughtful hearer would take to be virtually a claim to be the one true God or proof that he was.

He claimed the right and the authority to judge mankind on the last day.  We have heard him make that claim a number of times already in the Gospel of Matthew.

“Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evil-doers.’” [7:22-23]

That was an extraordinary thing for an amateur rabbi from Galilee to say.  That he would pass judgment on mankind at the great day.  That is God’s work and God alone as the Bible clearly says.

What is more striking still, Jesus claimed the authority to forgive people’s sins.  “You sins are forgiven,” he said to any number of those who came to him in faith.  But only God can forgive sins that have been committed against him.

Still more Jesus claimed for himself the right to bestow eternal life and, what is more, to bestow it on those who followed him.  As many have pointed out through the ages, that is either the voice of God or of a megalomaniac.

And there is much, much more of this kind of evidence.  He said on several occasions that the eternal destiny of human beings depended upon their response to him.  He said of himself that he was greater than the temple and greater than Jonah and that he existed before Abraham. He identified actions toward himself with actions toward God.  He taught the truth on his own authority.  More than 70 times he introduced his teaching by saying, “Truly I say to you…”  He offers no proof other than his own authority.  He performed miracles also in his own name.  His disciples performed them in his name, but he performed them in his own.  He exercised divine power, that is, in his own name.  A failure to give glory to God for a miracle performed was Moses’ sin in the desert, but Jesus was not faulted for a similar sin.  What is more, Jesus received worship.  He never told those who fell at his feet to get up because he was just a man as his disciples and apostles did.  In the NT no one successfully falls down before any personal being except before Jesus.  We read of demons acknowledging him as the Son of God, of his ordering them to be silent, and of their obeying him.  And, finally, he applied to himself OT texts that referred to or applied to God himself.  On one occasion he even said “I and my Father are one.”  [Material taken from Dan Doriani, “The Deity of Christ in the Synoptic Gospels,” JETS 37/3 (Sept. 1994) 333-350]

There was so much of this that we understand why, on one occasion, the Jews took up stones to stone him because he, a mere man, claimed to be God.  But, as many different lines of evidence as converge to prove that Jesus was God, knew himself to be God, and was unafraid of speaking and acting as God, still he did not make it a practice to state the fact openly, unequivocally, and then explain it by reference to the Trinity and the incarnation of the Second Person.  Why was he not more explicit?

What makes this question more pressing is, of course, the fact that Christ’s deity is what utterly sets him apart from every other human being who has ever lived and what makes him so supremely important to every human being on the face of the earth.  The fact that Jesus of Nazareth was and is Almighty God is the single fact that unlocks the secret of human existence and gives hope to mankind.  It is the fact of all facts in our faith as Christians.  It is the reason we have every right to say that every human being should and must become a Christian, a follower of Christ.

I am a comparatively well-educated and modern man.  I am a man of the modern, scientific world.  I know very well the difference between fact and fiction and I am all too well aware of how much fiction has been passed off as fact in the name of religion.  If Jesus were a mere man, I am quite confident that the New Testament accounts of his life and work cannot be believed.

But, if Jesus was, as the New Testament claims and as the Gospels show him to be, the living God, the Second Person of the Triune God, the Maker of heaven and earth, come in human nature, well then, it is no wonder:

  1. that his birth was dramatically different than that of any other human being;
  2. that he should do things more remarkable than any man has ever done;
  3. that his death should be the salvation of the world;
  4. that he should rise from the dead;
  5. and that his life and work should have such momentous significance for every human being who has ever lived, lives now, or ever shall live in the world.

That there is mystery here, no one can doubt.  Indeed, there are two great mysteries for the price of one: the plurality of persons within the unity of the Godhead (the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit) and the union of the Godhead and manhood in the person of Jesus.

Clearly, if Jesus is God and died for men, then that and that only is the way of salvation.  And, for someone who has embraced Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, the fact that he is both God and man makes him deserving of all our love and all our obedience – heart, soul, and mind. The Muslims are right, Jesus can’t be God if Islam is true and Islam cannot be right if Jesus is God!

So, why then, did Jesus not say that he was God, say it and say it again, say it until everyone understood precisely what he was saying?  Why did he leave the question of v. 45 unanswered?

It is certainly fair to say that Jesus knew better than anyone what people would and could understand.  There was a spiritual blindness and ignorance that was almost invincible among the people of Jesus’ day.  Even the Lord’s disciples did not grasp who Jesus was until after his resurrection.  They had glimpses and from time to time the mists would clear but their confusion was great and the bitter death of Jesus drove all that they had learned about him right out of their minds.  It was not until after his resurrection that it all became clear to them and they fully understood that Jesus was both God and man.  Thomas the doubter would fall before him and cry out, “My Lord and My God.”  And Peter, a few weeks later, on the Day of Pentecost, would cite Psalm 110:1 himself and say, “Let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus whom you crucified both Lord and Christ.” Until the resurrection it was simply too much for people to take in.  They knew Jesus as a man; they simply couldn’t understand how a man could be the living God.  The resurrection proved to be the key that unlocked the puzzle.

Then it is surely also right to say that the Lord did not make his deity as explicit as he might have because it is his will that his followers live by faith and not by sight.  The truth about Jesus was there for any honest heart to grasp and is there in the Gospels for any honest heart to grasp, but the Lord does not throw his pearls before swine.  Faith sees what unbelief will not and it is the beauty and glory of faith and it is the value of it in God’s sight that it does not require all the demonstrations that unbelief asks for and demands.  “Show us a sign,” the Pharisees demanded.  But Jesus refused.  Their hearts were not sincere.  They did not want to believe in him or worship him.  And the same things might be said about the demonstration of Christ’s deity.

He could have demonstrated it, of course.  It was demonstrated to three of his disciples on the Mount of Transfiguration.  Peter, James and John saw his divine glory.  He did demonstrate it by his resurrection from the dead.  But even then that demonstration was given to those who believed and not to others.  And here, I think, is one of the most important reasons why Christ did not publish and demonstrate his deity to everyone and why he didn’t make things plain to the Pharisees on this occasion.

His glory was withheld from them in judgment for their unbelief.  “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” we read in Rom. 3:23.  The New English Bible reads that same verse, “All have sinned and have been deprived of God’s glory.”   Man loses his right to know God by his sin and rebellion.  Remember unbelieving Israel in the wilderness.  Moses would speak to God in the tabernacle and then come out to the people to report to them what God had said.  And when he came away from speaking with God his face shown with the divine glory.  After he told the Israelites what God told him he would put a veil over his face so that Israel could no longer behold the glory of God.  She didn’t deserve that privilege because she didn’t believe.  She saw it briefly and then it was veiled so that she could not gaze on that glory any longer.  Paul talks about that episode in 2 Cor. 3 and then speaks of people whose hearts are still veiled, whose unbelief keeps them from beholding the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. Well the Person of the Godhead Moses talked with, whose glory shown on his face, whose glory he would cover up before unbelieving Israel, that person Paul tells us was God the Son, whom we would later know as Jesus Christ.  In the Gospels his glory is still being covered up, hidden from the unbelieving.

The glory of God was standing in front of those Pharisees but Jesus wouldn’t let them see it.  They had lost all right to that privilege.  Showing his divine glory to them would be nothing more than a stunt.  And, what is more, to be unrecognized as God the Son was part of his humiliation, part of his sacrifice, part of his suffering for our sin.

The greatest single fact in all the world – that God had come into the world as a man to save us from our sin and give us eternal life – that fact remained undiscovered by so many in Jesus’ own day because of the pride and sinfulness of their hearts.  But to others, it became the foundation of all their hopes and the keystone of their understanding of their lives.

To which group do you belong?  That is the question of all questions.  Let me put it to you this way.  Suppose – for the sake of this illustration only – suppose that you discovered that there never was a Christ, at least not the Christ described in the Gospels.  There never was a God-man who came into the world to save sinners; never a Christ who could forgive sins and who would someday judge the world, a Christ who determined the eternal destiny of every human being.  Suppose you had sent out spies who had explored the entire universe, in height and in depth, and returned to report to you that they had found no one who answers the description of Jesus in the Gospels and the New Testament.  No one who is both the living God and true man at one and the same time.

What would your response be?  Would that report be a great relief to you?  Would you breathe more easily after hearing that?  Would you confess to your spies that you had been hoping for such a report because the thought of meeting Christ at the last judgment had always been a fearful and unhappy thought to you?  Would you say to your spies, ‘Let me take you to dinner and let’s celebrate because there is no Christ and so there is no judgment seat of Christ and no books to be opened and no account that has to be given to him of our lives in this world and we don’t have to follow him in order to be at peace with God’?  Is that the kind of thing you would think and say?

Or, on the contrary, would you say that the report of your spies had made you, of all men, most miserable.  Would you feel that all the hope and all the joy of your life had been ruined by their report that there was no Christ in all the universe.  There was nothing you counted on more than that the Son of God, having loved his people enough to enter the world as a man for them and to die for them, would not fail to save you and bring you to glory because you stood ready to put your entire trust and hope in him and you were ready to count it your great privilege to follow him.

By putting the question to ourselves in this way, we are able better to read our deepest and most secret thoughts.  Before he became a follower of Christ, in the time of his unbelief, John Bunyan admitted that he never thought whether there was a Christ or not.  No doubt there are many today who are just like that.  They never think about Christ.  [the above from Alexander Whyte, “What Think Ye of Christ?” With Mercy and With Judgment, 111-115]

But that must not be the case with us.  Never the case with us.  For the fact is, tell me what you think of Jesus Christ, who he is, and I will tell you what your future will be.  Tell me your thoughts about Jesus Christ and your beliefs about him, and I will tell you what is to become of you when you die and what kind of life you will live until you die.

And why is that?  Why must that be?  Because the resolution of every human problem, the answer to every serious, heartfelt question; the fulfillment of every longing of the human heart; the path to any and all lasting happiness and satisfaction of life lies here and here only: Jesus is God!  Jesus is not only David’s descendant, but David’s Lord.