Why do Christians Believe that Jesus was Divine

by frankbeswick

The distinguishing characteristic of Christianity is its belief that Jesus is the divine Son of God.

Generally people of good will like Jesus. Muslims regard him as a truly great prophet; many members of eastern religions respect him greatly, even though they do not worship him. There is many an atheist who respects Jesus and his teaching, even though they don't believe he is a divine being. But while there are Unitarian Christians who reject the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus, orthodox Christians, those who follow the teachings of the great church councils, regard Jesus as being divine. How did this belief come about?

Image courtesy of sattriani

The Apostles' Experience

Jesus did not go round Judea claiming to be the Son of God, and when, sitting on the hillside above Caesarea Phillippi he asked the apostles who men said that he was, he received a variety of answers. He was a prophet reincarnated, possibly Isaiah or Jeremiah, even John the Baptist, but no one said that they or anyone else regarded Jesus as divine. When Simon Peter told Jesus that he thought him the Christ, the messiah, there were no divine meanings to that term, and it denoted one holy in God's sight sent to save Israel.

Many people try to pigeonhole Jesus into pre-existing categories: he was a prophet, a story teller, a teacher of wisdom,a revolutionary,a rabbi, and the apostles were no exception to this tendency. Yet Jesus did not fit comfortably into the categories in which people placed him. He was all of them, yet more. There were experiences that seemed to draw on the understanding to transcend existing categories through which Jesus was seen, but the understanding lagged behind the experience and the full apprehension took time to mature.

Let us look at some of them. There was the transfiguration,[Mark 8]  the time on Mount Tabor [so tradition has it] when Jesus seemed to glow with light. A sense of being in the presence of bright white light sometimes happens in a religious experience, but for the three apostles present Jesus was not having a religious experience, he was the religious experience, and he was being affirmed by the presence of God. This was a powerful indication that Jesus was someone special. Furthermore, his Word seemed to have power to command.  In Mark 2 he displays unusual knowledge of the origins of the paralyzed man's condition, and his word of command touches the depths of the man's soul, forgiving his sins, an action that only God can do. We see the same power of the word in the case of Jairus' daughter in Mark 5, where he speaks to a clinically dead girl and restores her to consciousness.  

He conducted himself as one with authority, and as Neil Wright, an Anglican bishop, says in Who Was Jesus, Jesus behaved as though he was in charge. This is confirmed by Bornkamm [writing in Jesus of Nazareth] who says that he was one who had innate authority.Jesus was therefore a big personality with an imposing charismatic presence. Furthermore,in Mark's Gospel   we are told that unlike his fellow rabbis who taught by referring back to other rabbis, Jesus taught on his own authority, a practice that upset the religious and intellectual establishment of Israel at the time. But this makes him a challenge, you either stand for him or against him, but you cannot be neutral, so there were people who loved and committed to him, and there were others who were bitterly opposed. You either loved him or hated him, but you could not ignore him.

To be one of Jesus' disciples was to walk with a powerful charismatic figure whose words fired the soul and challenged listeners to holiness. It was, I believe,to walk with one who had a  deeply holy presence, one who was close to God and drew listeners into that closeness. Yet none of the disciples regarded him as God, and the Transfiguration indicated that God was other than Jesus,who was his Son, but the term Son of God  simply denoted to Jews a  holy person close to God. So far therefore, no divinity, but great holiness. But the stage was prepared.


The Moment of Decision

There was something of a division between the people who loved Jesus, but did not fully understand him, and the educated elite who understood more of what Jesus was claiming, but disliked him intensely. The Sadducees, a party representing the chief priests and the Jerusalem ruling class strongly disliked Jesus, as his teaching on the resurrection of the dead was closer to that of their opponents, the Pharisees. They also had a strong financial interest in the temple market, which Jesus had trashed, an incident that signed his death warrant. But they were an educated group who could draw some conclusions from Jesus' claim to forgive sins and saw that he was stepping into the territory that belonged to God alone. This made him potentially a blasphemer.

But there came a moment when to use the words of the late Dr Ian Ramsey, bishop of Durham, the penny dropped.Ramsey believed that there are moments in religious experience and thought when we discern a new meaning in language, and this for Caiphas was one such moment. When Caiphas, the high priest, demanded, "Are you the Christ, the Son of the Living God?"he was merely asking whether Jesus saw himself as messiah, but Jesus' answer shocked him, "I am! And you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the power and coming on the clouds of heaven."It was the combination of titles that revealed Jesus' claim to divinity. "I am" is the ancient and unspeakable name of God [Yahweh.] Son of Man was a heavenly being more than mere mortal.To sit at God's right hand is to be on a par with him; and in this context Son of God takes on a new and powerful meaning. Jesus was claiming a special relationship with God. This was either a great blasphemy or a great revelation. Caiaphas saw it as blasphemy. The penalty requested of Pilate was crucifixion, and the reason was that a hanged person was cursed under the Torah [law] and for ever excluded from the community of Israel. Not only a painful death, but eternal death! 

But there was another for whom another penny dropped, Pilate. As a Roman official, execution of troublemakers would have been routine. Even innocents could be disposed of without compunction, but Pilate made the mistake of engaging with the prisoner and met the strength of his personality. And that's where his problems began. As a pagan he had heard stories that gods could descend on young women and impregnate them,so when he links the claim to be Son of God to the great charismatic presence before him, he got scared and began to suspect that he had encountered such a being, and knew that he risked crossing a powerful God. But he feared the devilish Tiberius more than the God of Israel and so passed sentence of death on Jesus. 

Jesus' followers were left with the knowledge that the one that they loved and trusted had made enormous claims before the Sanhedrin. They were loyal in their love, but totally confused, so for two days knew not what to do or thin/k.

The Resurrection

"If Christ is not risen our preaching is in vain" says Paul in !Corinthians 15:14.  Sentence had been passed under the divine law, but the Christians knew at Jesus'  resurrection that God had revoked the sentence against Jesus and cancelled the penalty, not merely posthumously, but by reversing it, restoring Jesus to life. This meant to the astounded church that the claims that Jesus had made before Caiaphas had been validated by God. Furthermore, there were those who experienced him after his death and resurrection, confirming God's cancellation of the judgment. 

What is more,the Christians realized that the presence of Jesus had not gone away. They were aware that his presence lived on in the heart of his church through his Spirit that was poured onto believers at Pentecost and his presence was particularly apprehended at Eucharist, when the church met for the Lord's Supper as a sign of their bond of fellowship. 

It is customary for scholars to observe that the full development of the Christian view of Jesus took  place over a period of years, and there were seminal thinkers who contributed to this development, such as Paul, all of whom participated in the lively dialogue that took place over the first few hundred years of Christian history. But while this comes as a  disturbing shock to those who think that the Christian faith arrived fully formed, there is no problem with this, and the process of fully comprehending Jesus is still going on.

But to understand the Christian faith you must realize that Jesus is for Christians not merely a dead thinker remembered for his message, but a living Lord and a powerful presence in the community of the church in whose heart he still lives. He is not a figure in a  distant, otherworldly heaven, but one who is still incarnate through the resurrection as a living presence in the world, both collectively and in the lives of individuals who accept him,  influencing them for good. He is a source of  divine grace in the world, the mediator between God the Father and humankind.  So Christians believe that Jesus is divine because of not only what he was and did in Judea in the first century, but what he is to them in the here and now:the way in which God became incarnate in his world and through whom he relates to humankind,and one who will fulllfil his promise to  come again in the fullness of time to finalize God's rule in the world.

Updated: 08/11/2016, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick on 04/08/2023

I think that Jesus had the divine presence about him, and after the resurrection the jigsaw fell into place, and the disciples became aware of the significance of what he had been saying and doing.

DerdriuMarriner on 04/08/2023

The first paragraph to your first subheading, The Apostles' Experience, considers that "Jesus did not go round Judea claiming to be the Son of God, and when, sitting on the hillside above Caesarea Phillippi he asked the apostles who men said that he was, he received a variety of answers. He was a prophet reincarnated, possibly Isaiah or Jeremiah, even John the Baptist, but no one said that they or anyone else regarded Jesus as divine. When Simon Peter told Jesus that he thought him the Christ, the messiah, there were no divine meanings to that term, and it denoted one holy in God's sight sent to save Israel."

Some internet sources, I do not know how authoritative even though at least apparently credible, describe King David as considered the Messiah -- because he expressed sorrow over wrongdoing and willingness to make amends (albeit not possible with Uriah) -- by some unspecified segments of the Jewish population.

Would the Jewish groups with which Jesus Christ interacted have believed in King David's Messiahship?

frankbeswick on 08/12/2016

The idea that the human mind is in babies a tabula rasa [blank slate ] is erroneous, for we have innate knowledge, and I believe that there is in babies an inchoate sense of self, though it is not yet conceptualized and shaped by language. Thus the human Jesus would have had some pre-conceptual sense of who he was, but he needed to formulate it in language, which he did through sharing in the cultural tradition of Israel and through interactions with others and in his case with his Father. So he would have slowly realized his true identity as Son of God, but we cannot discern the precise moment when this identity became clear.

I don't think that we should think of a pre-existing Jesus forgetting what he knew before his incarnation, for as you know as a physicist, thinking in terms of linear time sequences is an error when dealing with the profound mysteries of reality His time "before"the incarnation should not be seen in linear sequence with his early life. But this is going into metaphysical depths that require some explaining.

blackspanielgallery on 08/12/2016

A theologian once told me that the rising from the dead was what gave credence to Jesus being God.
Alas, he could not answer another profound question that a friend kept asking, week after week. At what point did Jesus Himself know He is God? The best guess answer was it came gradually, for being true man as well as true God as a baby he would not have not likely known in His human condition. Of course His divine nature would, so we were told while He was also man, He did not leave the Godhead. Were my knowledge greater that would make a great article.

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