So far in this series we’ve looked at historical evidence that shows that some of the earliest Christian spoke of Jesus as Lord, applying to him the very name of Israel’s God. To their Lord they prayed and offered worship. Why? Why did faithful, monotheistic Jews begin to believe that Jesus, the human Messiah, was also in some sense the one true God?
Since all of this happened early within Christian history, and since it happened even among the Aramaic-speaking followers of Jesus, who were, for the most part, devoted Jews, the “divinization under the influence of Greco-Roman paganism” theory doesn’t explain the facts. Moreover, in one of the early Christian texts that speaks of Jesus as the divine Lord (1 Corinthians 8:5-6), there is a clear rejection of pagan polytheism. Christians didn’t think that Jesus was one god among many, but that he was, in some sense a personification of the one true God, the Lord who revealed himself to Israel. So if the “pagan influence” theory fails to account for the early Christian belief in the deity of Jesus, what else might explain this startling theological development?
I would answer this question, in part, by pointing to the implications of salvation through Jesus Christ. (Photo: James B. Janknegt, “Father Forgive Us,” 1990. Used by permission. I appreciated Janknegt’s paintings for many years before I had the opportunity to meet him when he came to Laity Lodge as a resident artist. You can view more of his art here.)
The early Christians believed that God’s salvation had come through Jesus, preeminently through his death and resurrection. Acts of the Apostles, for example, describes Peter as proclaiming to the leaders of the Jews: “This Jesus is ‘the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.’ There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:11-12). Similarly, in what might be the earliest of all extant Christian writings, Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, the Apostle writes, “For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 5:8). The good news about what God has done in Jesus is, according to Paul, “the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Rom 1:16).
From the fact that God’s salvation came through Jesus, the early Christians came to view Jesus as more than merely an agent of divine salvation. He began to be regarded as the Savior, the one who accomplished what God alone could do. Consider, for example, the following New Testament passages:
Luke 2:11: “. . . to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”
Philippians 3:20: “But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.”
1 John 4:13-14 “By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world.”
Christians, who are so used to regarding Jesus as Savior, might easily miss the scandalous element in this confession. But a careful look at the Old Testament underscores the scandal. Rarely do the Hebrew Scriptures refer to human beings as agents of divine salvation. In the vast majority of texts, God and God alone is the true Savior. For example, through Isaiah God says:
When you go through deep waters and great trouble, I will be with you. When you go through rivers of difficulty, you will not drown! When you walk through the fire of oppression, you will not be burned up; the flames will not consume you. For I am the LORD, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. . . . I am the LORD, and there is no other Savior (Isaiah 43:2-3, 11 NLT).
Or consider the opening of Psalm 62:
I wait quietly before God,
for my salvation comes from him.
He alone is my rock and my salvation,
my fortress where I will never be shaken (Psalm 62:1-2, NLT)
So, the earliest Christians, most of whom would have been familiar with these and many other Old Testament passages that proclaim God as the only Savior, nevertheless assigned the title of Savior to Jesus. Yet if Jesus was the Savior, and God alone was the Savior, what did this imply about Jesus himself?
In my next post I’ll try to answer this question by examining another New Testament passage that weaves together the notion of Jesus as Savior with the idea of his divinity.