Who do you say that I am?
by Fr. Dwight Longenecker
Jesus never says he is God, so why do Christians insist that he is divine?” So argued the young man on the internet. The fact that Jesus is God incarnate is the cornerstone of our faith. It is the bedrock of the Nicene Creed we recite every week at Mass. It is also one of the primary ways to distinguish true Christians from the followers of heretical sects. Most other religions, from Islam to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, from Christian Science to Hinduism, will acknowledge that Jesus is a good man, a holy prophet, and a sublime teacher.
But only full-blooded Christians affirm that he is “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father; through him all things were made,” as the Church professes in the Nicene Creed.
However, since this claim is so astounding, it is fair for the internet atheist to argue, “If this is so important, why didn’t Jesus say he was God clearly and simply?”
THE MESSIANIC SECRET
In fact, when we read the Gospels, it seems that Jesus does exactly the opposite. Instead of proclaiming that he is God’s son, he tells people to keep quiet about it. When he casts out a demon, he instructs the liberated man to tell no one. When he heals a paralyzed person, he says to keep quiet and tell no one.
This strand in the Gospels is called “the messianic secret.” Scholars debate the reason for Jesus’ secrecy, but the general opinion is that Jesus was keeping his true identity hidden within his humanity because he needed to keep the devil guessing.
Jesus was like a secret agent who came from heaven into this realm controlled by the devil, and he had to keep his cover intact. In Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of The Christ, we see the devil howling with fury when it is finally revealed that Jesus’ death was the reversal that defeats Satan rather than Satan’s final victory.
Despite the fact that Jesus keeps his true identity undercover, there are various ways that he did reveal who he really was. Brant Pitre, in his excellent book The Case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ (Image,2016), unlocks some of the ways Jesus revealed his divine identity.
Jesus reveals who he is not so much by his words but by his works.
STILLING THE STORM
Jesus reveals who he is not so much by his words but by his works. Actions speak louder than words, and it is by his marvelous miracles that he shows who he really is. St. John says his miracles are “signs” and all of his works can be understood as indicators of his true identity. However, there are three events that set the stage and help us to bring the other miracles into focus. The first astounding miracle that reveals Jesus’ identity is the calming of the storm. This story is recorded in Matthew, Mark, and Luke’s Gospels. It is therefore one of the most important Gospel stories. You will remember that the disciples were in a boat on the Sea of Galilee when a storm arose and Jesus spoke to their terror and calmed the storm. When we understand the Old Testament background, it becomes clear that this was a sign of Jesus’ divine status.
There are various passages in the Old Testament that show God to be the master of nature, the one who commands the winds and the sea to obey. It is Psalm107, however, that parallels the Gospel story most closely. The disciples were Jews, and they would have known the Old Testament backward and forward. They were especially well-versed in the psalms, as they were used in their daily worship.
Some went off to sea in ships, plied their trade on the deep waters. They saw the works of the Lord, the wonders of God in the deep. He commanded and roused a storm wind; it tossed the waves on high. (Psalm 107:23–25)
The psalm goes on to describe a storm at sea, the terror of the sailors, and how they cried out to the LORD to be saved. He answers their prayer, and the psalm continues, saying that the LORD was the one “who brought them out of their peril. He hushed the storm to silence, the waves of the sea were stilled. They rejoiced that the sea grew calm, that God brought them to the harbor they longed for” (Psalm 107:28–30).
No wonder the disciples were filled with wonder when Jesus calmed the storm, and no wonder they asked in shock, “Who then is this whom even wind and sea obey?”(Mark 4:41). The connection in their minds and hearts would have been clear. Their friend Jesus of Nazareth did what only God can do.
The disciples’ eyes were opened. They knew who Jesus was.
WALKING ON THE WATER
The second remarkable miracle that reveals Jesus’ divinity is the story of his wave walking. Once again this story occurs in three of the four Gospels (Mark, Matthew, and John). We know the story well. Jesus stays behind to pray while the disciples cross the Sea of Galilee in their fishing boat. Then in the midst of the night, he comes to them walking on the water. They are terrified, thinking he is a ghost, but he calls out “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid” (Matthew 14:27).
As in the story of the calming of the storm, Jesus fulfills the Old Testament In Isaiah 43:16 the prophet says, “Thus says the LORD, who opens a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters.”
Meanwhile, Psalm 77:19–20 also shows the LORD as the one who walks on the waves:
The thunder of your chariot wheels resounded; your lightning lit up the world; the earth trembled and quaked. Through the sea was your way; your path, through the mighty waters, though your footsteps were unseen.
But there is more. Pitre points out that the words Jesus uses to identify him-self are significant. Jesus says, “It is I. Do not be afraid” (John 6:20). But the words “It is I” are also translated “I AM.” This is the name that God reveals to Moses at the burning bush. Furthermore, Mark gives another clue with the mysterious phrase that Jesus on the water meant to “pass by” (Mark 6:48).This is a reference back to the revelation of God to Moses and Elijah on Mount Sinai. In both cases God “passed by” them (Exodus 33:22; see 1 Kings 19:11).
What was the result of this amazing action? The disciples’ eyes were opened. They knew who Jesus was and worshipped him saying, “Truly, you are the Son of God” (Matthew 14:33).
The third story that reveals Jesus’ divinity is the Transfiguration. This story also appears in three of the four gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). Jesus goes up a high mountain with three of his disciples. Moses and Elijah appear with him, and he is transformed into a radiant supernatural figure.
Why Moses and Elijah? They represent the law and the prophets, but they are also the two Old Testament figures to whom God appeared in a super natural revelation. Both experienced a powerful theophany — an appearance of God himself. However, they did not see God’s face. He was hidden from them.
At the Transfiguration Moses and Elijah do see God’s face, for Jesus is the “image of the invisible God”(Colossians 1:15).With the presence of Moses and Elijah, the divine identity of Jesus Christ is made known. Jesus’ radiant appearance also fulfills the prophet Daniel’s vision of the “son of man” (Daniel7:13). The prophet sees God as the “Ancient of Days” whose robes areas white as snow. Then he sees the “son of man,” “coming with the clouds of heaven” (see Daniel 7:9–13).
The transfiguration of Jesus fulfills the Old Testament visions of Moses, Elijah, and Daniel and unlocks the mystery of Jesus’ true identity for his disciples and for us.
SIGNS OF HIS GLORY
Once we see the clear revelation of Jesus as God incarnate in these three stories, the rest of his words and works also become clearer as signs of his true identity. In Daniel, the son of man is given authority by God. So when Jesus forgives sin, he does what only God can do (see Mark 2:7). When he casts out demons, he does what only God can do — he takes authority over Satan. When he heals the sick and teaches the truth, he does so with an authority that no one else possesses (see Matthew 7:29).
Most of all, when he dies on the cross and rises again, we seethe Son of God, the King of Glory, laying down his authority and power for our salvation. When he is risen from the dead, he takes up that power again, having defeated Satan once for all. This passion of the Lord is what confirms his divine identity more than anything else.
Rather than the Gospel never portraying Jesus as the Son of God, we can see that every part of the Gospel depicts Jesus of Nazareth as the incarnation of God himself. Indeed, the purpose oft he Gospel is to unlock this truth for the world. As St. John writes near the end of his Gospel, “But these are written that you may [come to] believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through this belief you may have life in his name” (John 20:31).