The Church


Who Is Jesus?

by Wibisono Hartono

Almost two thousand years ago, Jesus asked the following question (Matthew 16:13): "Who do men say that the Son of man is?"  The next verses tell us that there are a number of answers to this question.  Interestingly, today the same question will also lead to a number of different answers.  Some may say that Jesus was a great philosopher; He was the founder of Christianity; others consider Him as a prophet; and some may even believe that He is just a fictitious figure created by the early Christians.  But those who claim to be Christians will say that Jesus is not just a prophet and a mere man, but He is the eternal Son of God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity who became man and died on the cross for our sins.

It is easy to believe in the humanity of Jesus if we accept Him as a historical figure, but how about His Divinity?  The Bible mentions His divinity directly or indirectly in a number of places.

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."

John 1:1 (emphasis added)

It is the clearest and direct reference in the Bible about the divinity of Jesus.  We know that the Word refers to Jesus because John 1:14 says: "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as the only Son from the Father."  In the same gospel, Jesus also declared His Divinity:

"and now, Father, glorify thou me in thy own presence with the glory which I had with thee before the world was made"

 John 17:5 (emphasis added)

"I and the Father are one"

John 10:30

Other books of the New Testament also testify about His Divinity.

"For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily". 

Colossians 2:9

Simeon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ.  To those who have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours in the righteousness of our God and Saviour Jesus Christ.

2 Peter 1:1 (emphasis added)

One of the common questions is: did Jesus Himself claim that He is God or divine?  While Jesus never says that He is God, He stated a number of times that He is equal to God.  In the Old Testament, God says that He is the First and the Last (Isaiah 41:4, 48:12) and in Revelation 1:17 Jesus also made the same claim about Himself.  In Revelation 1:8 and 21:6,7 Jesus says that He is the Alpha and the Omega (they are the first and the last letters of the Greek alphabet), which gives the same implication.  Jesus declared that He sits at the right hand side of God or equal to God (Mark 14:62).  In the Old Testament when Moses asked God about His Name, God asked him to tell the Israelites that I AM has sent him (Exodus 3:14).  In Greek (the language in which the New Testament books were written) the words I AM are "ego eimi" and Jesus used this word to refer to Himself in Mark 6:50, John 6:20; 8:24, 28, 38; 13:19 and 18:6.  Furthermore Jesus promised to be with His followers until the end of age (Matthew 28:20), something that a mere man cannot do.

How do we describe the relation between Jesus and God? The Bible says that Jesus is the Son of God.  However, the Bible also applies the same title to the angels (Job 1:6), to the Israelites (Exodus 4:22, Deuteronomy 32:8), to king Solomon (2 Samuel 7:14) and even the Christians through Jesus become the children of God (John 1:12).  The title indicates an adoptive sonship established from the intimate relation between God and His creature.  It does not necessarily make the bearer divine and it is definitely not a biological sonship.  Yet, His first disciples already recognised that His sonship is more superior.  Replying to Jesus' question on His identity, Simon Peter said: "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God" (Matthew 16:16).  The Gospel testifies that He is the only begotten or unique (Greek “monogenes”) Son of God (John 1:14, 18, John 3:16, 18, Hebrews 11:17 and 1 John 4:9).  Monogenes comes from two words: “Mono” means “alone” or “no other” and “genes” means “offspring” or “family” or “kind”.  In the Gospel according to Luke “monogenes” is applied to indicate the only child of human (Luke 7:12, 8:42, 9:38).  To indicate His perfect and unique relation with God, Jesus said:

"All things have been delivered to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him"

Matthew 11:27

"The Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son, that all may honour the Son, even as they honour the Father.  He who does not honour the Son does not honour the Father who sent him.

John 5:22-23

Jesus clearly distinguished between His relationship with God and other's relationship to God.  He always used the term "my Father" or “Father” for Himself and "your Father" for others and never used the term “our Father”collectively. 

“Do not hold me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brethren and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God”.

John 20:17 (emphasis added)

In Matthew 6:9, the Lord’s Prayer starts with the word "Our Father" but it is preceded by the sentence “Pray then [you] like this” or the parallel prayer in Luke 11:2 starts with "when you pray", thus the prayer is only meant for his disciples and us.  In Mark 12:29 Jesus quoted directly from Deuteronomy 6:4 where the words “our God” are used.

The belief in the divinity of Jesus does not make Christians believe in more than one God.  It is against the Bible (1 Corinthians 8:4-6; Galatians 3:20) and what Jesus Himself taught quoting from Deuteronomy 6:4:

"Hear oh Israel, the Lord our God, The Lord is one"

Mark 12:29

Christians also believe in the divinity of the Holy Spirit, who together with God and Jesus, form the Holy Trinity.   Jesus, the Counsellor (Greek "paracletos", 1 John 2:1) mentioned about the coming of the Holy Spirit as another Counsellor in the following verses:

“And I will pray the Father, and he will you another Counsellor to be with you forever,”

John 14:16

“But the Counsellor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.”

John 14:26

“But when the Counsellor comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness to me,”

John 15:26

The Catholic Church explains the dogma of the Holy Trinity as follows:

The Trinity is One. We do not confess three Gods, but one God in three persons, the co-substantial Trinity. The divine persons do not share the one divinity among themselves but each of them is God whole and entire: "The Father is that which the Son is, the Son that which the Father is, the Father and the Son that which the Holy Spirit is, i.e., by nature one God.

CCC # 253

In addition the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are not simply names designating modalities of the divine being, for they are really distinct from one another (CCC #254).  The Catholic Church also teaches that the Trinity is a mystery of faith in the strict sense, which can never be known without God’s revelation.  It is a mystery that is inaccessible to reason alone or even to Israel’s faith before the birth of Jesus and the coming of the Holy Spirit (CCC # 237).  The name "Trinity" is not found in the Bible and was first used by Theophilus (in "To Autolycus", Book II Chapter 15), bishop of Antioch (in c. 180).  However, there are allusions to the Holy Trinity in the New Testament. 

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit

Matthew 28:19 (emphasis added)

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all

2 Corinthians 13:14

The above verses place the Holy Spirit on par with God and Jesus, thus indicating His Divinity. 

Although the name "Trinity" was introduced in the late second century and the dogma of the Holy Trinity was finally formulated in the fourth century, the belief of the divinity of Jesus and of the Holy Spirit has been with the Church since the beginning of Christianity.  Ignatius, bishop of Antioch (died c. 107 AD) addressed Jesus as “our God” (Epistle to Polycarp Chapter 8 and Epistle to Trallians Chapter 7), and “God made manifest in human form” (Epistle to Ephesians Chapter 20)Irenaeus, bishop of Lyon wrote in around 180 that the Spirit is eternal (Against Heresies Book 5 Chapter 12).  While they did not use the name "Trinity", the Trinitarian formula, the Father, The Son and the Holy Spirit, appears in the writings of Clement (1 Clement Chapter 46), bishop of Rome (c. 96 AD), Justin Martyr (1 Apology Chapter 13) who died c. 165 and Irenaeus (Against Heresies Book IV Chapter 20).  In the fourth century Arius (c. 260 to 336), a presbyter and theologian in Alexandria argued that Jesus was not divine but a created being and his view caused division among the Christians.   The first ecumenical council was held in Nicea in 325.  The council condemned the Arian view and declared that Jesus is of the same substance (Greek “homoousios”) with the Father; that is, Jesus was divine.  A fourth century group nicknamed Pneumatomachians (meaning opponents of the Spirit) or Macedonians (after Macedonius who died c. 362, semi-Arian bishop of Constantinople from 342-360) rejected the divinity of the Holy Spirit.  The second ecumenical council was held in Constantinople in 381, which declared the Divinity of the Holy Spirit.   By the end of the 4th century, under the leadership of Basil (c. 330 to 379), bishop of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa (c. 331 to 395), bishop of Cappadocia and Gregory of Nazianzus (c. 329 to 390), bishop of Constantinople the doctrine of the Trinity took substantially the form it has maintained ever since. 

The dispute continued in the fifth century on the relation between the divine and the human nature in Christ.  Nestorius (c 381 to 451), bishop of Constantinople regarded Christ as a human Person joined to the divine Person of Godhead.  He proclaimed that Christ is one Person (Greek “hypostatis”) but the oneness of the Person was only moral, and not at all physical.  He rejected the title of Mary as Theotokos (God bearer) and proposed the title Christotokos (Christ bearer).  Cyril (c. 375 to 444), bishop of Alexandria, and the third ecumenical council at Ephesus in 431, condemned Nestorius' belief and affirmed the title of Mary as Theotokos.  The Christians in east Syria and Mesopotamia did not accept the decree of this council and broke away to form The Assyrian Church of The East or mostly known as Nestorian Church.  The name Nestorian is misleading because they do not admire Nestorius but his teacher, Theodore (c. 350 to 428), bishop of Mopsuestia, who also denied the title "Theotokos".

The Monophysites (means “single nature”) led by Eutyches believed that Christ's human nature had ceased to exist when His divine Person assumed it.  Against this belief ,the fourth ecumenical council at Chalcedon in 451 declared that Christ was perfect in both His divinity and humanity, truly God and truly man, the same substance with God in His divinity and with us in His humanity.  He has two natures without confusion, change, division or separation.  The distinction between the two natures was never abolished by their union, but rather the character of each one was preserved as they came together in one Person.  Those who did not accept the Chalcedonian decrees broke away from the Church.  They are now known as Non-Chalcedonians or Oriental Orthodox Churches, which now comprise (in alphabetical order) Armenian, Coptic, Erithrean, Ethiopian, Syrian or Syriac (Antioch and Malabar) Orthodox churches.  They have been wrongly labelled as Monophysite churches as what they believe about Christ is different from that of Eutyches, i.e. they believe that Christ's single nature is a union of His divine and human natures.  Syrian Orthodox church is also referred as Syrian Jacobites after their sixth century bishop Jacob Baradeus or Bar’adai.  However, he was not the founder of the church and the term Jacobites is considered derogatory.  The Catholic Church together with the Eastern Orthodox Church and all Protestant and "Bible alone" churches accept the Chalcedonian decree and profess that Jesus is one Person with two distinct natures, human and divine.  Because of His dual nature, Jesus becomes and is the only mediator between God and man (CCC #618)

For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus,

1 Timothy 2:5

"I am the way, and the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.”

John 14:6

Catholics believe that Jesus is not partly man and partly God but He is truly man and truly God (CCC #480).  As a human Jesus is the same as us except that He is without sin (Hebrews 4:15, 1 Peter 2:22, 1 John 3:5).

Catholics express their belief in the Holy Trinity when they recite the Nicene Creed (the creed was actually formulated in both Nicea and Constantinople councils):

We believe in one God

the Father, the Almighty

maker of heaven and earth

and all that is, seen and unseen

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,

the only Son of God

eternally begotten of the Father

God from God, Light from Light

true God from true God

begotten, not made

of one Being with the Father

Through Him all things were made

and

We believe in the Holy Spirit

the Lord, the giver of life

who proceeds from the Father and the Son [1]

with the Father and the Son He is worshipped and glorified

He has spoken through the Prophets

 

The common objection against the belief of the Divinity of Jesus is His own statement that “the Father is greater than Him” (cf. John 14:28) and only the Father, not the Son knows the day and hour of His second coming (cf. Matthew 24:36).   To answer, Christians reply that Jesus did humble Himself by becoming human and obedient servant to His Father to the point of death (Philippians 2:7-8).  Thus when He was on earth, God the Father to whom He did what was pleasing (John 8:29) was greater than Him.  In John 14:28, He told His disciples to rejoice because He returned to His Father (i.e. to heaven) because once He is in heaven He will share again the glory He has with the Father since the world began (cf. John 17:5).

Why did Jesus bother to come down from heaven and become a man and then die in agony on the cross?  Isn't heaven a much nicer place?  Quoting from Nicene Creed, Catholics will confess:

For us men and for our salvation He came down from heaven 

This belief is based on the Bible:

"And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Saviour of the world"

1 John 4:14

"For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life"

John 3:16

"He became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey Him"

Hebrews 5:9

The name "Jesus" (Greek “Iesous” or Hebrews “Yeshua” or “Joshua”) means "God saves".  The same name is also used by a number of persons in the Old and New Testaments (Joshua 1:1 and Colossians 4:11).

Why do we need a Saviour?  Like most Christians, Catholics believe that the sin of Adam (the forefather of all humans) separates us from God.  Through Adam's disobedience, sin came to the world and afflicted all of us.

Therefore as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned.

Roman 5:12

All of us were born in a fallen state, which produces our inclination to sin and makes us subject to suffering, ignorance and dominion of death (CCC #404-5). Yet God still loves us and wishes to restore our relation with Him by sending His only Son, Jesus.

All this is from God, who through Christ reconciles us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.

2 Corinthians 5:18-19

In this, the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through Him.  In this is love, not that we love God but that He love us and sent His Son to be the expiation for our sins

1 John 4:9-10

In the Old Testament, expiation of sins was done using animal sacrifice (Leviticus 4 to 6).  The sacrificed animal must be without blemish and is to be offered through a priest.  The New Testament refers to Jesus as "The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29) and testifies that He is a Lamb without blemish (1 Peter 1:19).  Jesus Himself said:

For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

Mark 10:45

The Old Testament also mentions the yearly Atonement Day when the High priest offers the blood of sin offering to atone the sins of the people (in this case the Israelites).

Aaron shall make atonement upon its horns once a year; with the blood of the sin offering of atonement he shall make atonement for it once in the year throughout your generations; it is most holy to the Lord.

Exodus 30:10

Aaron was the first High Priest and only a High Priest is allowed to perform this once-a-year ritual.  In the New Testament, Jesus is the High Priest (Hebrews 4:14, 5:10) but instead of offering the blood of animals, He offered Himself as sacrifice when He died on the cross.  Furthermore, He needs to do it only once for all, while the Old Testament High Priest must do it every year.  The Epistle of Hebrews draws the parallel between His sacrifice and that of the Old Testament.

But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the Holy Place, taking not the blood of goats and calves but his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.  For if the sprinkling of defiled persons with the blood of goats and bulls and with the ashes of a heifer sanctifies for the purification of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify your conscience from dead works to serve the living God.

Hebrews 9:11-14 (emphasis added)

The Catholic Church teaches that through His death on the cross, Jesus redeemed all mankind.  There is not, never has been, and never will be a single human being for whom Christ did not suffer (CCC #605).

Then as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men.

Roman 5:18 (emphasis added)

And he died for all that those who live might live no longer for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised

2 Corinthians 5:15 (emphasis added)

"Worthy art thou to take the scroll and to open its seals, for thou wast slain and by thy blood didst ransom men for God from every tribe and tongue and people and nation,

Revelation 5:9

However not all those redeemed will be saved, i.e. will go to heaven upon dying.  Catholics believe that salvation is only possible through Jesus, no other persons can save us, either dead or living ones, Jesus is our only Saviour.   

The name Jesus signifies that the very name of God is present in the person of his Son, made man for the universal and definitive redemption from sins.  It is the divine name that alone brings salvation, and henceforth all can invoke his name, for Jesus united himself to all men through His Incarnation, so that there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved [2].

CCC #432 (emphasis added)

In order to save us, Jesus had to come down from heaven, become man and die on the cross.  Following the Nicene Creed, Catholics confess:

by the power of the Holy Spirit, He was born of Virgin Mary, and became man

For our sake He was crucified under Pontius Pilate

He suffered death and was buried.

On the third day He rose again

in accordance to the Scripture  

Jesus could have come down from heaven as a full grown man but He chose to spend nine months in the womb of Mary and to be born as helpless baby.  While the four Gospels are almost silent about His childhood other than His birth and one incident when He was twelve years old (Luke 2:42-51), we can expect that (like any baby) He must have had to learn how to walk and to feed Himself; He was willing to do it because of His great love for us.  Jesus even humbled Himself to the extent that He was willing to suffer and to die on the cross.

"who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross" 

Philippians 2:6-8

Did Jesus really die on the cross?  Is it possible that He only swooned and later recovered?  Even Pilate wondered whether Jesus was already dead, but the centurion who was in charge in the crucifixion confirmed it (Mark 15:44-45).  Crucifixion is meant to make the victim die slowly and in agony.   To accelerate the death, the legs will be broken and the victim will be suffocated to death.  This is what the Roman soldiers did to the other persons crucified with Jesus (John 19:31-32).  They did not do it to Jesus because they knew that He was already dead. However, one of them pierced his side with a spear, out of which came blood and water (John 19:33-34).  All the four Gospels give testimony that He died on the cross (Matthew 27:50, Mark 15:37, Luke 23:46 and John 19:30).   We also have professional medical support [3] that Jesus really died on the cross.  How could He die so fast?  The answer is Jesus Himself declared that He has the power to lay down his life and to take it again.

“For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life, that I may take it again.  No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.  I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again; this charge I have received from my Father.”

John 10:17-18 (emphasis added)

Jesus also declared that He was dead and lives again forever. 

"Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one; I died, and behold I am alive for evermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.

Revelation 1:17-18 (emphasis added)

One of the titles of Jesus is "Son of Man".  It may be His favourite title as He used it more often than "Son of God" to refer to Himself.  The same title was also applied to prophet Ezekiel in the Old Testament (cf. Ezekiel 2:1). Does it indicate that He is just a mere man as some might say? The title does indicate his humanity, as the Son of Man He has nowhere to stay (Matthew. 8:20).  However, Jesus also related His title "Son of man" with the prophecy in the book of Daniel (Daniel 7:13)

"then will appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven, then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory".

Matthew 24:30

As the Son of Man, He has the authority to forgive sins (Mark 2:10), an authority that belongs only to God, and He claimed to be the Lord of Sabbath (Matthew 12:8).  But He also said that as the Son of Man He must suffer (Mark 9:12) and give His life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45).  However the Son of Man will also sit at the right hand of God (Mark 14:62) or on par with God and will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead (Matthew 25:31-32) and His Kingdom has no end (Luke 1:33).  Thus His title as Son of Man indicates both His divinity and humanity.  Reciting the Nicene Creed, Catholics acknowledge His Power and Second coming:

He ascended into heaven

and is seated at the right hand of the Father

He will come again in glory

to judge the living and the dead,

and his kingdom will have no end.

The most well known title of Jesus is "Christ". In fact, He is mostly known as "Jesus (the) Christ". The word "Christ" comes from the Greek "Christos" (or Hebrew Messiah), which means "anointed one".  The Old Testament says that kings (1 Samuel 10:1, 16:13), priests (Exodus 29:29) and occasionally prophets (i.e. Elishah in 1 Kings 19:16) are anointed.  God called Cyrus, the Persian king as His anointed (Isaiah 45:1).  Yet the Old Testament also prophesies the coming of the Messiah or the Anointed One (Daniel 9:24-26, Psalms 2:2). To the Christians, Jesus is the Messiah as He Himself claimed (John 4:26). Jesus fulfilled the messianic hope of the Old Testament in His three-fold office (CCC # 436): priest (Hebrews 7:26), prophet (Acts 3:32) and king (Revelation 17:14).  The people and even His disciples expected the Messiah to be a political leader (John 6:15, Acts 1:6).  However, Jesus indicated that His Kingdom is not of the earth (John 18:36).  He is more than any earthly king; He is King of Kings and Lord of Lords (Revelation 17:14) and declared that all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Him (Matthew 28:19).

Was Jesus a real historical figure or a fictitious one created by the first Christians? Apart from the New Testament and other Christian sources in the first two centuries AD, we have the testimonies from a number of non-Christian sources. Roman author Suetonius wrote in Life of Claudius (c. 120 AD) about the expulsion of Jews from Rome in AD 49 because they were constantly indulging in riots, at the instigation of "Chrestu".  The name "Chrestus" might be a misspelling of Christ.   Tacitus (AD 54-119) wrote in Roman Annals that Christians got their name from Christ who was executed by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius.   A Syriac manuscript in the British Museum has a letter written after 73 AD by Mara bar Serapion and in it he criticized the Jews who executed their King.  The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (AD 37-94) wrote "Antiquities" where he disapproved the sentence pronounced by the high priest Ananias against "James, brother of Jesus who was called Christ." 

Finally, Catholics also believe that Jesus is the Head of the Church, which is His Body (Colossians 1:18 quoted in CCC #669).  Most people, even Catholics, think that the Pope is the head of the Catholic Church, but the Pope is only His Representative (or Vicar) on earth.

Wibisono Hartono
The Catholic Legate
July 26, 2002


Reference:

  1. Bruce, F.F.: Jesus and Christians Origins Outside the New Testament, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974.
  2. Catechism of the Catholic Church: Part One Section Two, London, 1994
  3. Ferguson. E. (Editor): Encyclopedia of Early Christianity, Garland Publishing, Inc., New York, second edition, 1998.
  4. Harris, R.W. (Executive Editor): The Complete Biblical Library: The New Testament Study Bible (Vol. 2 - 10) & The New Testament Greek - English Dictionary (Vol. 11 - 16), R.R. Donnelley & Sons, Chicago, 1989 - 1991.
  5. Herbermann, C.G. (Editor in Chief): The Catholic Encyclopaedia, online version.
  6. McManners, J. (Editor): The Oxford History of Christianity, Oxford University Press, 1993.

[1] The phrase “and the Son” or in Latin “filioque” did not appear in the Creed formulated in 381 and was originated from Pope Leo I in 447 AD.  It was incorporated in the liturgy of the western (Catholic) Church between eight and eleventh century and remains as a point of disagreement with the Eastern Orthodox Church.

[2] Acts 4:12

[3] Lee Strobel “The Case for Christ” page 191 to 204