Christology in the Synoptics: What Jesus Taught about Himself

Course: Biblical Theology

Lecture: Christology in the Synoptics: What Jesus Taught about Himself


This is tape 3 in the series on The Theology of the Gospels.

We have looked at the centrality of the theme of the kingdom for the teaching of Jesus.  Then we proceeded to the ethical outworking of Jesus' announcement of the kingdom's arrival.  It now becomes appropriate (still focusing exclusively on the synoptic gospels: Matthew, Mark and Luke) to ask the question: What kind of person was Jesus – including what He thought about Himself?   This is the question of Christology.  Who but the King Himself would announce the kingdom in the way that Jesus did?  Who but divine Messiah would reinterpret the eternal law of God for the ethical mandates that Jesus gave?

I. The Nature of Jesus' Death

Or, to ask the question the way many recent scholars in the so-called Quest of the Historical Jesus (that is, functioning simply as historians, whether or not they also share Christian faith) have been asking the question: What was it that got Jesus crucified?  It may sound almost humorous, but the one indisputable fact that historians of all ideologies have to come to grips with is the nature of Jesus' death.  And many, particularly quite liberal scholars (particularly those represented in the famous Jesus Seminar), prove the weakest at precisely this point.  If Jesus were nothing other than a good rabbi, a wise sage, a human teacher (encouraging people to love one another and God, illustrating this principle from the world of nature and ordinary human interaction as in the parables), there is very little likelihood that He would ever have been arrested and executed with the agonizing form of capital punishment reserved for criminals or slaves.

a. Jesus Clearing the Temple

In the synoptic gospels, it is the role of Jesus clearing the temple (see Mark 11 and parallels), which the gospel writers point out as the final climatic incident that confirmed in the minds of the Jewish authorities the need to put Him to death.  And not surprisingly, He was calling for far more than reform from corrupt practices.  He was suggesting that something was so endemically or inherently wrong that the temple had to be cleared of its current sacrificial practices so that things could begin again.

b. Jesus' Claims that He is God

But this is merely the climactic incident in the synoptic presentation.  As N.T.Wright has done so nicely in one portion of his book, Jesus and the Victory of God, one can move backwards from His trial before the Sanhedrin (the Jewish high court), all the way to His baptism at the beginning of His public life.  Throughout, one see provocative claims that, when rightly understood, meant that Jesus was explicitly or implicitly claiming messianic authority and often divine messianic authority of the kind that would ultimately lead to His charge of blasphemy against God and conviction under the Jewish law. 

We begin then with His confession before the Sanhedrin in Mark 14:62 (and parallels).  Jesus is asked directly if He is the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God.  And at least in Mark, His answer is clear enough.  He says, "I am."  Matthew and Luke have vaguer parallels to the effect of "you say that I am."  This is a more veiled affirmative, which was equivalent to "that is your way of putting it, though not necessarily Mine."  As we have already seen, there was considerable expectation of a militaristic or nationalistic regal kingly Messiah who would overthrow the Romans.  This, of course, is not how Jesus understands His mission on this occasion.

But He goes on to say, in all of the synoptic accounts, that the high court would see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven.  This is an allusion to Daniel 7 and the human being who approached the Ancient of Days (the name or title for God) and was given universal dominion over the peoples of the earth.  Not surprisingly, the implied divinity in such a claim leads the high priest to tear his robes as a sign that Jesus has committed blasphemy.

But how did we get to this climactic stage?  Just earlier in this same week, Jesus was teaching in the temple and using the parable of the wicked tenants (see Mark 12:1 and following and parallels).  He taught that the kingdom would be given to a nation producing the fruits – a people group (that is to say, those who were His followers), Jew or Gentile.  This was not the current Jewish leadership, which had forfeited its right to rule through its disobedience and failing to truly serve God.

That same day of Jesus' final teaching in the temple, He stymies the Jewish leaders and marvels the crowd with His appeal to Psalm 110:1.  In this, David declared: "The Lord says to my Lord: 'Sit at My right hand while I make your enemies your foot stool'."  Who is this second Lord, besides Yahweh the God of Israel, who is above even the king of Israel if not the Messiah?

Thus, as we move backward to the beginning of the week, now known as Passion Week that would culminate in Christ's death, we have not only the temple cleansing but sandwiched around it in Mark 11 the at-first glance puzzling episode of the withered fig tree.  This is particularly striking in Mark's account.  Mark goes out of his way to say it was not the season for figs, which is surely a way to stress the symbolic value of this account.  It is not that Jesus is simply upset with the tree that should have provided breakfast for Him and perhaps His disciples.  But given that fig trees in bloom and at harvest-time were regularly a sign or symbol in the Old Testament of Israel living in peace and prosperity in her land, a barren fig tree becomes a natural symbol for the current Israelite regime being under God's judgment.

All of these various factors of Passion Week then combine to create a significant measure of hostility between Jesus and the prevailing Jewish leadership of His day.

c. Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday)

But there is more.  What we today celebrate on Palm Sunday and sometimes call the triumphal entry into Israel at the beginning of Mark 11 (and parallels) might better be called His non-triumphal entry.  For He comes not as a conqueror on a white horse (as indeed He will in Revelation 19 at the end of time), but on this occasion as one riding a humble beast of burden, the donkey.  This is still in fulfillment of the messianic prophecy (see Zechariah 9:9), but whose humble manner is not captured by the crowds who acclaim Him as the coming King.  Little wonder their discouragement and disillusionment with Him a scant five days later when at least some of the same individuals are calling for His crucifixion.

d. Jesus Predicts His Suffering, Death and Resurrection Three Different Times

But continue moving backwards through the final months of His ministry and we read in the synoptics that Jesus three times predicts His coming passion, His death and resurrection.  The first of these comes toward the end of Mark 8, on the heels of Peter's confession of Jesus as the Christ.  This confession is significantly elaborated in Matthew's account in Matthew 16, so that Jesus praises him as having received supernatural heaven-sent insight.  But the key piece missing in all of the gospel accounts of this confession is that Peter remains unprepared for a suffering Messiah.  So when Jesus begins to predict His passion, Peter sharply rebukes Him.  And Jesus has to reply in kind.  Nevertheless, there is a recognition by those following Jesus that He is a Messiah.

e. Jesus Teaches about His Kingship in Parables

Still earlier, we recall Jesus' teaching in parables and working miracles throughout the bulk of His public ministry.  The heart of each is to focus attention on the arrival of the kingdom which means the arrival of the King.  So to the inaugural sermon from early in Jesus' ministry at the Nazareth synagogue (in Luke 4:16 and following).  This describes Him quoting what we know as Isaiah 61:1-2a, in which the prophetic ministry of a Spirit-anointed spokesman is highlighted.  But again, this is not one who will triumph in the world's sense on this occasion, but one who has come to proclaim liberty for captives and good news to the poor.  This is one who focuses on the spiritual needs of the dispossessed and stigmatized  society of His day.

f. Jesus' Baptism

Finally we arrive, in our backward march, all the way at Jesus' baptism in Mark 1 (and parallels).  This is at the very beginning of His public ministry, where the voice from heaven alludes to excerpts from the Messianic Psalm 2:7 and the Suffering Servant passage Isaiah 42:1.  The voice  conjoins these very two offices into the one person of Jesus, who is both My beloved Son and also the One to whom all obedience should be given.

None of these passages come out and affirm Jesus' divine messiahship as clearly as many texts in the gospel of John (to which we shall turn in a later lecture).  But the very fact that they represent what has been called a more implicit than explicit Christology makes them, from the historian's point of view, all the more likely to be historical, or authentic.  This makes the more explicit Christology, still to be discussed, that much more credible.

II. The nature of Jesus' relationships

Indeed, we may add to our list still other examples of Jesus' implicit Christology from the synoptics.  The nature of His relationships, for example, including with John the Baptist.  We have already seen in a previous lecture in Matthew 11:11-12, He pronounces that the least in the kingdom is greater than John.  But who is it who can objectively pronounce on who is greater than the greatest prophet of all time to date, unless one who is greater still?

Or, as He preached in the Sermon on the Mount (as we saw in the lecture concerning the ethics of the kingdom), the sermon concludes with the people marveling that His authority was greater than that of the Jewish leaders.  How so?  They claimed a remarkable authority.  And yet it was always based on being able to cite a Scripture to back up their claims or a previous authoritative rabbi who agreed with them.  Jesus rarely took the former tack (more often quoting the Old Testament only to give a new interpretation of it) and never followed the latter procedure.  Who, in a first century Jewish context, had the right to simply sovereignly pronounce on how God's immutable law should be taken?

Or again, in places such as Matthew 19:28 where He speaks of His twelve followers constituting the judges or kings who would reign on twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.  If He is not the Messiah constituting the nucleus of the new, true or freed Israel, then who can make such claims?

III. Instances in which Jesus Accepts Worship, Prayer and Faith

Or consider still further those contexts, such as in Mark 2 with the healing of the paralytic, or Matthew 14 after the stilling of the storm, in which He accepts worship, prayer or faith.  This happens after the healings of Jairus' daughter and the woman with the flow of blood.

IV. Jesus Acts as God's Agent for Final Judgment

Consider the ways in which He acts as God's ultimate agent for final judgment in Mark 8:38 (and parallels).  Consider His claiming His own authority to forgive sins, such as at the healing of the paralytic or to the thief on the cross in Luke 23:43.

V. Metaphors Applied to Yahweh are also Applied to Jesus

Note how numerous metaphors applied to Yahweh (God of Israel) in the Old Testament are applied to Jesus.  Often this is in His own teaching, particularly in parables in the synoptic gospels.  These metaphors including that Jesus is the Bridegroom, the Rock, the Lord of the harvest, the Good Shepherd, the Sower, the vineyard Owner and the One who receives the praise even of children (compare Matthew 21:16 with Psalm 8).

VI. Intimate Relationship with God the Father Characterized by Jesus Calling Him "Abba."

Think again of the way in which the unique, intimate sonship between Jesus and His Father is described by that remarkable Aramaic word "Abba".  This is preserved in Greek transliteration in Mark 14:32 and is probably behind most, if not all, the other uses of Father – even when translated into the Greek patēr in the synoptic gospels.  This is a term very rarely found in other Jewish literature for a mere human addressing God.  It reflects the intimacy that one might use of speaking of one's earthly father in the language of "daddy" or something very close to that.

VII. "Truly I say to you, ..."

Think too of the numerous places throughout the gospels where a saying of Jesus is prefaced with the solemn announcement "Truly I say to you."  This uses the Greek transliteration of the Hebrew word "Amen" - meaning truly, verily, or this is most certainly the case.  This is a very distinctive and characteristic form of Jesus' address, stressing His sovereign authority (or at least His claim to such), including in context in which He claims to critique the law or its current interpretation.

VIII. Jesus Talks about "Being Sent"

And then there are those various places where He speaks of having been sent, sometimes explicitly by the Father.  This suggests some form of other-worldly origin.

All of these combine together to create a strong impression that Jesus made claims and/or was understood to be making claims that transgress the boundary that Jews understood to lie between humanity and deity and therefore led to His arrest and crucifixion.

IX. The Meaning of Jesus' Death

What then, from the perspective of His followers, was the meaning of this death, if not the deserved condemnation for blasphemy?  They appealed again particularly to two of Jesus' own teachings.  First, in the context of one of those passion predictions (particularly in Mark 10:45 and parallels),  Jesus stresses that, as the Son of Man, He came to serve, not to be served and to give His life a ransom (the price paid to buy a slave's freedom) for many.  Jesus understood Himself as one who was substituting for enslaved human beings, paying the price that would liberate them from their slavery to sin.

And this substitutionary language appears again the last night of His life at the Last Supper, when He takes the bread and wine and speaks of them as His body and blood given and shed for many, establishing a new covenant with His people.  All of this hints at what the disciples would come to recognize within the generation after His death and resurrection as superseding the need for the Jewish sacrificial system.  As the book of Hebrews would put so clearly, and in so much detail, Jesus becomes the once-for-all sacrifice for human sin as a representative human, as a substitutionary atoning sacrifice.  And as the One who, because He was also fully God, could once for all eternity satisfy the need for sin to be dealt with a way that temporary animal sacrifices never could.

How did a crucified would-be Messiah come to be viewed in such terms, since Deuteronomy 21:23 clearly declared that cursed was anyone who is hanged on a tree?  And already by Jesus' day, rabbinic interpretation had understood the horrors of Roman crucifixion (death with one's hands nailed outstretched to a crossbeam of wood similar to the shape of a tree with two branches) to apply to crucifixion as well as to hanging.

X. Validation of the Jesus' Resurrection

How did Jesus' followers come to view a crucified Messiah as one who in fact was divinely vindicated – cursed to be sure, but not for His sins, but for the sins of the world unless there was a genuine resurrection that took place?  And there are numerous other arguments we could add for the credibility of Jesus' resurrection but, in a survey of the theology of the gospels, the more appropriate direction in which to turn at this point is to observe that such a resurrection likewise vindicated the more explicit pre-Easter gospel claims for Jesus' divine Messiahship in the synoptic gospels.

XI. Messianic Titles used when Referring to Jesus

This is particularly so with those claims that attach themselves to the most common titles used for Jesus.  By far, the most common are the following four: Son of Man, Son of God (or Son just by itself), Lord and Christ (or Messiah).

As already mentioned, the key background for Son of Man is Daniel 7:13-14.  Not all texts in the synoptic gospels clearly allude to this.  Scholars have regularly divided the Son of Man sayings into three categories.  First there are those in which it could be that Jesus is simply referring to Himself or to a representative human or to some person in His position (such as His famous teaching that foxes have holes and birds of the air have their nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head).  But if Daniel 7 is at least at one remove in the background, such texts take on that much more poignancy, that one who was even a divine Messiah should find Himself in so ignominious a position.  Then secondly, there are the Son of Man texts that predict His suffering and death redefining, as it were, the Messiah by means of the Suffering Servant passages of the Old Testament (particularly in Isaiah, and particularly Isaiah 52-53).  And then thirdly, there are those more exalted references such as we have already seen at Jesus' confession before the Sanhedrin.  Put them all together, however, and the Son of Man for Jesus is a much more exalted title than appears at first blush.  It is, in fact, in many contexts more of an equivalent to than a contrast with the title Son of God to which we turn next.

Son of God, or Son absolutely, in various contexts often does refer to Jesus' unique role with His heavenly Father (as we have already seen in such passages as Matthew 14:33).  But in other contexts, particularly early in Jesus' career – as we now know more clearly than ever from a document discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls – Son of God in Judaism was often simply a synonym for Messiah.  It did not always carry overtones of divinity.  But as Jesus' ministry unfolded through His implicit and explicit claims, it comes more and more to verge on this added significance.

Then, of course, there is Lord, a term which, in both Testaments and both Hebrew and Greek, could be a term of respect for a human superior.  This is much as it was used in the Middle Ages when there were lords and ladies in European culture.  But it was also regularly used to translate the divine consonants not used with vowels in the oldest manuscripts of the Old Testament (but accepted by scholars today as probably to be pronounced as Yahweh): God of Israel Himself.  Thus, not every person who falls down before Jesus, say requesting healing in the synoptic gospels, and addressing Him as Lord, necessarily means anything more than master.  But in those contexts where Jesus cites the Old Testament, particularly the quotation of Psalm 110 alluded to earlier and elsewhere, there probably is a stronger overtone beginning to move in the direction of divinity.

Finally, Christ or Messiah.  The Anointed One, as we have already seen, had a very multifaceted background.  Especially in intertestimental Jewish works like the Psalms of Solomon, it was viewed as primarily a militaristic liberator from Israel's human enemies.  But Jesus increasingly qualifies this through all of the other titles He ascribes to Himself and for the suffering He predicts for Himself.  So it is only on His second coming, at His return at some unspecified future date, when He will take on this role.  First He comes to suffer for the sins of humanity. 

XII. How could Monotheistic Jews Believe that Jesus is God?

In closing it is worth asking the question: How is it possible for staunch Jewish monotheists (those who believed in one and only one God and who believed in the unity of that one God – as in Deuteronomy 6:4, the Lord our God, the Lord is one, the Lord is single, single-minded and united in nature and character), how was it possible, for what in the first days were exclusively Jewish followers of Jesus, to use such a bewildering array of titles and descriptions of Jesus' teaching and behavior that make it clear they believed that He also was God?  The logic here is not that of later councils and creeds, for which it was taken for granted that there were three persons in one Godhead and now attempts were made to explain and support this conviction.  Rather it seems, following work by such scholars as Larry Hurtado and Richard Bauckham and others, that we must recognize, particularly before AD70, a flexibility within Jewish monotheism that allowed for exalted angels, for various messianic figures (including Melchizedek), for wisdom itself as a personification of God, for agents who are said to be sent by Him to humanity, even for the great patriarchs such as Abraham and Moses and even Job from antiquity, to be described in language that, at times, does seem to border on, if not even transgress, what in later rabbinic circles and certainly in some pre-Christian Jewish circles would have, by other people, been viewed as blasphemous.  We may need to think, at least in part, of an intramural Jewish debate at this juncture.

But it is also right to stress that the gospels, like the New Testament in general, go noticeably further in what they attribute to Jesus and predicate of Him.  They use statements reserved entirely for Yahweh alone in previously existing Jewish literature (as we will see particularly in a later lecture when we turn to the gospel of John).  Thus, we must supplement at least the partial conceptual possibility within a broader earlier stage of Jewish monotheism with what we might call the experiential necessity (as James D.G.Dunn has stressed in a variety of his writings).  In other words, as reluctant as any Jew was in any particular school of thought within Judaism in the early first century to associate a human being fully with God, the teachings of Jesus, the nature of His character, the miracles that worked, the resurrection that appeared to vindicate all of His pre-crucifixion claims, combined together to form such an overwhelming impression of divinity on His first Jewish followers that they felt they had no choice but to use language once reserved entirely for God for Jesus as well.

And, if we may appeal to the data of the Acts of the Apostles, and particularly to the permanent, complete indwelling and periodic filling of the Holy Spirit in a way not consistently the case in Old Testament times for God's people, it would appear that their experience of the Holy Spirit likewise convinced them that, though invisible like God the Father Himself, the Spirit too should be spoken of in language both of personhood and of divinity.  Here, of course, they were drawing on countless references from the Old Testament to the Spirit of God and, on rare occasions in previous Jewish literature, to the Holy Spirit as such.  But they elevated Him to a distinct role from the Father, as distinct as Jesus Himself was from the Father.

Yet they still used the language of one God, as classically in the Great Commission at the close of Matthew 28.  Here Jesus commands His followers to baptize those who become disciples in the single and singular name (not names) of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, even though He proceeds to give three titles.  Obviously not all Jews could accept these radical theological developments, and hence the polarization between those who became Jesus' followers and those who did not.

XIII. Lasting Theological Implications of the Deity of Christ and His Resurrection

For those who did, like many of us today who are their heirs, we may then ask: What are the resulting and lasting theological implications of the deity of Christ and the resurrection that vindicates all that came before of the historical Jesus?

Surely, as we see with the cosmic signs and resurrection of select saints in Matthew 27 and as Paul would later expand on in greater detail in 1 Corinthians 15, this is the in-breaking of the end.  Every bit as much as Jesus' kingdom teaching pointed to both present and future realities, here the final resurrection at the end of all human history has begun, but it is not completed.  It is divided into two stages.  But the fact is that Jesus has been resurrected – surprisingly to Jews – in advance of the general resurrection promised in Daniel 12:2 of all humanity.  For this very reason, the resurrection of all people and the salvation and infinitely perfect and wonderful resurrection life for believers is thereby assured.  Paul will speak of this as Jesus being the first-fruits of our resurrection.

It also means that believers should reflect on life on this planet from this already but not yet perspective.  Resurrection life is the ultimate Christian hope.  It is not, as in so many religions ancient and modern, disembodied immortality of the soul.  Many Christians speak of dying and going to heaven, as if that were the end of the matter.  But, as Tom Wright puts it so brilliantly in his large book on The Resurrection of the Son of God, the Christian hope ultimately is not about life after death, but about life after life after death.  That is the time when we are reunited with our resurrected bodies and, in a millennium and then eventually in new heavens and a new earth with a new city, the holy Jerusalem descended from heaven, we experience an embodied eternal existence in an embodied – in a purified but still material – universe, which is far greater and far more glorious than mere disembodied depictions of heaven.  This means that no matter how hard things get in this life, Christians have a marvelous hope that, through God's Spirit, should sustain them through the tough times of this world.  This is a marvelous hope that is so glorious and unending that before very long the worst hardships of this life will pale into insignificance in comparison.

But that is no call for escapism from the realities of this life, because the very nature of that life shows how much God values embodiment – values this earth.  It is this earth that will be recreated.  And we read in the final chapters of Revelation that the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it in some way largely unspecified in the Bible.   Those things that count for God's kingdom in this life, however much they may still need to be purified, will endure and contribute in some way to the eternal state.  So our work in this life, in all walks of life that are honorable and godly and God-pleasing, whether explicitly Christian vocations or not, are of eternal significance.  So we dare not minimize the value of this life, but seek to be Jesus' faithful disciple at every moment.  But then, recognizing since our work never comes even close to being what it could be in this life, that we will have a glorious eternity without the limitations of time as we know it now to which to look forward.  Praise the Lord.