“They worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem.” In this powerful way, Luke’s Gospel concludes — shortly after the risen Jesus instructed his disciples to evangelize the nations (Luke 24:45–49) and ascended to heaven (Luke 24:50–51). This scene, though, closes a loop that began back at his birth, when the nations — represented by the Persian magi — visited the newborn Jesus and “fell down and worshiped him” (Matthew 2:11). In beautiful symmetry, the earthly life of Jesus begins and ends with people worshiping him.
But shouldn’t this strike us as odd? Aren’t Israel’s Scriptures clear that only the one true God may receive worship? Yet already in the Gospels, we see signs that people adored Jesus as God.
While Jesus does not wear a cloak emblazoned with “I am God,” the Gospels are full of indications that he saw himself not only as Israel’s Messiah, but as Israel’s true God as well. A divine Messiah. Let us sketch three main ways we see this, first in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), and then in John’s Gospel, where Jesus’s divinity often receives the clearest expression.
1. The Son’s Eternal Existence
God, by definition, cannot emerge at some point in time. He exists from eternity past (Isaiah 43:10). But yearly, Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus. On a certain day, in a certain place, Jesus was placed in a manger — barely hours old. How can he be God, then?
This gets to the heart of one of the distinguishing marks of Christianity: the Son of God existed eternally — yet took on human flesh. Doubtless, early Christians such as Paul affirmed Jesus’s eternal existence (or “preexistence”) before his human birth (as in Philippians 2:5–11; Colossians 1:15–20). But did Jesus himself indicate his heavenly existence before his human birth? The answer is a strong yes.
In the Synoptics, we see this most profoundly when Jesus reads himself into Psalm 110 (Matthew 22:41–46 par). He asks the Pharisees why David refers to the Christ — who most Jews agreed would come from David’s lineage — as “my Lord.” Initially, Jesus’s question may seem obscure. But when one reads the full psalm, lights start going on.
In Psalm 110, David records the LORD God (Yahweh) instructing “my Adon” (or “my Lord”) to “sit at my right hand.” Jesus picks up on something easily missed. Yahweh is not addressing David in the psalm; rather, David is recording a conversation between Yahweh and David’s “Lord.” Jesus, thus, is identifying himself as that “Lord.” What David has overheard, by the Spirit (Mark 12:36), is a conversation between Father and Son long ago. Psalm 110 is a window into the Son’s heavenly enthroning with his Father! That’s how David can call Christ, who would be his descendant centuries later, his Lord — for he reigns with God in heaven.
“The Gospels are clear that Jesus is fully God. The only question is this: Will you come and adore him?”
This, in turn, helps clarify what Jesus means when he says he “has come” — from above, it seems — to do things below that transcend what normal people can do, such as “cast fire on the earth” or “give peace on earth” (Luke 12:49–51) and be “a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Mere prophets cannot do such things that have a worldwide scope. Even demonic spirits recognize that Jesus is not from around here but has “come,” apparently from heaven, to confront them (Matthew 8:28–29; Mark 1:24).
When we turn to John’s Gospel, we read that “Isaiah said these things” about Jesus — referring to quotations of Isaiah 6:9–10 and 53:1 — because “he saw his glory” (John 12:38–41). But when did Isaiah see the glory of Jesus? The quotations themselves point the way. Isaiah sees the glory of Jesus first in the throne-room scene of Isaiah 6:1–5, and then as the Servant who will be glorified in his death (Isaiah 52:13–53:12). In short, John is saying that Isaiah already glimpsed Jesus long ago.
Jesus speaks even more plainly elsewhere: “I have come down from heaven” (John 6:38, 51); “I am from above” (John 8:23); “Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58). And he speaks of glory he had with the Father “before the world existed” (John 17:5).
Thus, the Gospels reveal emphatically how Christ existed in heaven long before Mary ever held him in her arms.
2. Jesus and the Trinity
If Jesus meets the preexistence prerequisite for eternal divinity, an important question follows: Does he have a special relation to the eternal Father and Holy Spirit? The answer is just as much yes for the Gospels as elsewhere (e.g., Acts 2:1–41; Romans 1:3–4; 8:11).
In the Synoptics, Jesus evokes his special sonship by calling God “Abba” (Mark 14:36) and “my Father (in heaven)” (Matthew 7:21; 10:32; 26:53; etc). The Father returns the favor, declaring Jesus to be “my son” after his birth (Matthew 2:14–15), at his baptism (Matthew 3:17 par), and at his transfiguration (Matthew 17:5 par). Jesus conveys the intensity of this Father-Son relationship in the so-called “Johannine thunderbolt” (Matthew 11:25–27; Luke 10:21–22), declaring that the Father has revealed all things to him, and that he uniquely knows the Father — and the Father uniquely knows him.
“Already in the Gospels, we see signs that the people adored Jesus as God.”
What about John’s Gospel? Jesus declares that he will reveal everything he learned from the Father in eternity past (John 8:26–28, 38) and that “the Father knows me and I know the Father” (John 10:15; cf. 7:29). This deep Father-Son relation crescendos in John 10:30: “I and the Father are one.” No Messiah, king, prophet, priest, or anyone else who is simply from earth can make such a claim. It is, perhaps, the clearest divine claim on the lips of Jesus.
The Synoptics display Jesus’s special relation to the Holy Spirit, too. He was conceived by the “overshadowing” of the Spirit (Luke 1:35) and anointed by the Spirit at the start of his ministry (Mark 1:10–12) and throughout it (Luke 4:16–19; Matthew 12:28). Indeed, the baptism of Jesus is richly Trinitarian: Jesus prays to his Father, the Father speaks to his Son, and the Spirit comes from the Father upon Jesus (Luke 3:21–22). And at the end of his ministry, Jesus promises to send the Spirit (Luke 24:49). We see the same patterns in John’s Gospel: Jesus is anointed by the Spirit (John 1:33), promises to send the Spirit (John 15:26; 16:7), and breathes the Spirit on his apostles (John 20:22–23).
All four Gospels make statements about Jesus and his mutual relations to the Father and the Holy Spirit that can be made only about a divine person. Although, famously, the word Trinity is not found in the Gospels (or elsewhere in the New Testament), it did not need to be. Triune ideas are everywhere to be found.
3. Jesus and the Work of God
If Jesus is preexistent and — even in the Gospels — revealed to be the second person of a triune Godhead, does he do the activities of God? Again, the answer is a resounding yes.
Beginning with the Synoptics, we are struck immediately when Mark 1:1–3 declares that the origins of the gospel of Jesus are “as it is written” in Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3. Both Old Testament passages speak of a future messenger who announces the coming of the Lord God himself. But for Mark, the fulfillment comes when the messenger (John the Baptist, Mark 1:4) announces the coming of God in the person of Jesus. This is a fascinating maneuver that reappears elsewhere in the Synoptics: namely, an Old Testament passage dealing with Yahweh is applied to Jesus (e.g., Jeremiah 7:11–15 at Luke 19:45–46). In doing so, the New Testament authors reveal that the Lord of Israel described in such Old Testament passages includes Christ.
Moreover, the Synoptics ascribe divine prerogatives — things only God himself does, not even angels or prophets — to Jesus. Jesus has all authority on heaven and earth (Matthew 28:18). He can forgive sins without limitation (Mark 2:7), control the weather (Luke 8:24–25), and penetrate the hearts and minds of men (Matthew 9:4; 22:18). He is also described using divine metaphors from the Old Testament, such as bridegroom (Mark 2:19–20; Isaiah 50:1; Jeremiah 31:32), horn of salvation (Luke 1:69; Psalm 18:2; 2 Samuel 22:3), dawn from on high (Luke 1:78–79; Deuteronomy 33:2; Malachi 4:1–2), mother bird (Luke 13:34; Deuteronomy 32:11; Isaiah 31:5), and crushing stone (Luke 20:18; Isaiah 8:14).
John’s Gospel is no different. Jesus declares that he does what the Father does (John 5:17), including giving life (John 5:21) — something no mere human can do. He provides, and even embodies, the new manna that God sends from heaven (John 6:27, 32). And he is the true shepherd (John 10:1–18), just as God himself is the shepherd of Israel (Ezekiel 34:11–16).
In short, all four Gospels record, in a variety of direct and indirect ways, how Jesus is and does that which God alone is and does. It is all the more interesting that they often use the Old Testament to accomplish this, showing that Jesus is not just the God of the New Testament but, in a mysterious way, the God of the Old Testament as well.
More Than a Man
All three threads come together in John 1:1–18. We conclude here, rather than start here, to demonstrate that it is not an aberration but simply summarizes the teaching of Jesus and the other evangelists elsewhere. This passage bathes the reader in the glorious light of (1) the preexistence of the Word, who was from the beginning both “with God” and fully “God” (John 1:1–2); (2) the triune relationship the Word has with the Father, as the “only-[begotten]” Son of God (John 1:14, 18); and (3) the divine work of the Word, as the one who created all things (John 1:3). Yet this fully divine Word “became flesh” (John 1:14)!
Do the Gospels, then, teach that Jesus is not only a man, not only a prophet, not only a messiah — but the God of Israel? Yes, once your eyes have been opened to see it. And once you see, you see it everywhere.
“Christ existed in heaven long before Mary ever held him in her arms.”
Which brings us back to where we began: the worship of Jesus. The Gospels make it absolutely clear who Jesus really is. How will you respond? Many in Jesus’s day knew exactly what was going on. They realized only God can forgive sins as Jesus was doing (Luke 5:21). They realized he was “making himself equal with God” with his claims (John 5:18). They accused him directly, saying “you, being a man, make yourself God” (John 10:33).
They knew. And rejected him.
But some knew, and worshiped him — even confessing him to be “my God” (John 20:28).
And that is the choice, is it not? The Gospels are clear that Jesus is fully God. There is simply no real way around this. The only question is this: Will you come and adore him?