The MOST Theological Collection: Outline of Christology

"XVII. Jesus' Self-Revelation"


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It seems clear that He as we would expect, wanted to reveal Himself gradually. As a result, the evidence for His divinity from the Gospels was heavily debated even after the definition of His divinity by the Council of Nicaea in 425. And today many doubt the historicity of many of the strong statements in John's Gospel, where He says "I and the Father are one" (Jn. 10. 30) and "The Father is in me and I in him" (Jn 10. 38 & 14. 10 & 11) and still more: "Before Abraham was, I AM." (Jn 8. 58). No one could miss the claim to be Yahweh Himself in this last text. But there really is no problem if we suppose that John was recording statements made near the end of His public life. At first, He let His identity appear gradually. At the end, when the malice of His enemies was fully hardened, there was no longer any reason to hold back. So He spoke very plainly.

We can explore best by taking up one at a time the special titles of Jesus in the Gospels:

a) Son of Man: Much ingenuity has been expended on this title. The Aramaic would be bar ('e) nasha. Some have tried to show that this meant merely "I" or "a man in my situation." But there is no hard proof that this was so at the time of Jesus (Cf. J. Fitzmyer in NJBC, p. 1325).

Some have tried to say Jesus was not referring to Himself but to some other figure. But this cannot be sustained. We need to examine the earthly, the suffering, and the eschatological Son of Man.

Jesus clearly makes Himself the earthly Son of Man in Mk 2. 28: "The Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath. Also in Mt 13. 37:"The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man." Most clearly in Mt. 16. 13: "Who do people say the Son of Man is?" Also: Lk 9. 58: "Foxes have their holes and the birds of the sky their nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to recline his head."

Jesus is clearly the suffering Son of Man: In Mk 8. 31: "He began to teach them that it was necessary that the Son of Man suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and the high priests and the scribes and be killed and after three days rise." In Mt 16. 21 we have the same prediction, but the word he instead of Son of Man. The same picture is found also in Mk 9. 9; 9. 31; 10. 33 and parallels in other synoptics. He did as a matter of fact fulfill these predictions, so He spoke of Himself.

Jesus is the eschatological Son of Man: After telling the parable of the weeds in Mt 13. 26-41 Jesus explains the parable: "The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world, the good seed the sons of the kingdom. The weeds are the sons of the evil one. The enemy who sows them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the world. The harvesters are the angels... . . The Son of Man will send His angels... ." In Lk 17. 24-26: "Just as lightning flashing out of the things under the sky gleams to the sky, so will be the Son of Man on his day. But first it is necessary that he suffer many things and be rejected by the generation." Here we see an equation of the suffering and the eschatological Son of Man. We have already seen that the suffering Son of Man is Jesus. We compare also Mt 24. 5: "Many will come in my name saying: I am the Christ, and will deceive many." In Mt 24. 24: "False Christs will rise up and false prophets and will give great signs and wonders so as to deceive, if possible, even the elect." And in 24. 30: "Then there will appear the sign of the Son of Man in the sky... and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory."

Especially this last verse, Mt 24. 38, ties the Son of Man to the Son of Man in Daniel 7. 13-14: "Behold with the clouds of heaven there came one like a Son of Man. He came to the Ancient of Days and was presented to him. He was given dominion and glory and kingdom so that all peoples, nations and languages should serve him. His dominion is everlasting and it shall not pass away, and his kingdom shall not be destroyed." After that Daniel is puzzled, and learns that the four beasts already mentioned stand for four kings. In 7. 18: "But the holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom." Anchor Bible Daniel esp 94. ff says the Son of Man is equivalent to the holy ones of the Most High. But this does not fit. The holy Ones of the Most High, whether we take them to be the ancient Jews or the Christians later, never did get an everlasting kingdom. And further in Psalm 80. 17 the Son of Man is used to meant the Messiah, the Son of God. (Cf. Samson Levey, The Messiah: An Aramaic Interpretation, Hebrew Union College, Cincinnati, 1974, pp. 119-20). Nor did the Jews ever think of the Messianic Kingdom as headless - the head was the Messiah.

We may wonder if Daniel saw all this. But it is not necessary that he would, for the chief author, the Holy Spirit, could see it. We have cases of this in Genesis 3. 15 and Isaiah 7. 14 as interpreted by Vatican II in LG 55, and in the prophecy of the new covenant by Jeremiah 31. 31 ff. - where the essential obedience is that of Jesus. But did Jeremiah see that? There is another case in St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3. 22. 4. Irenaeus speaks of the knot of all sin being untied with the cooperation of Mary. In context, St. Irenaeus has in mind the annunciation. But the knot was not untied until Calvary. So Irenaeus wrote more than he understood. It is likely that Vatican II also wrote more than it saw in LG chapter 8 (Cf. Wm. G. Most,"Mary's Cooperation in the Redemption" in Faith & Reason, XIII, 1987, pp. 28 - 61, esp. pp. 54-55. Further, the final kingdom that will never be destroyed in Daniel 2 is the Church of the Son of Man.

Without using the title Son of Man, Jesus in Mt 7. 22-23 indicates He is the eschatological judge: "Many will say to me on that day: Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name? And then I will say to them: I never knew you."

We add: The very unclarity of the title Son of Man, whether or not it would bring to the minds of His hearers Daniel 7, makes this title serve very well for gradual self-revelation.

b) Messiah: Trouble about this title goes back chiefly to the publication in German in 1901 of a book by Wilhelm Wrede, The Messianic Secret (tr. J. C. C. Greig, James Clarke Co. , Cambridge & London, 1971, from 3d ed). Wrede asserted that Jesus never claimed to be the Messiah. Rather, the Church later found it embarrassing that He never said so, and then invented incidents in which He really admitted He was Messiah, but insisted on keeping it secret. Wrede gave two chief arguments: (1) He said that several incidents of the Messianic secret were faked by the Church. He says the strongest incident is the raising of the daughter of Jairus (Mk 5. 43). He said that anyone could see the girl was alive. (2) After the Transfiguration, Jesus told them to keep it secret until He would rise from the dead. Wrede argues that thus the Transfiguration was considered a sort of preview of the resurrection. The true meaning would be visible only after the resurrection. But then he adds that if the meaning was to be seen only later, it would be rather harmless if people heard of it earlier.

To reply to Wrede we note: (1) Jesus brought back the daughter of Jairus with only the parents, plus Peter, James and John present. The crowds were outside. How long did it need to be quiet? Just long enough for Him to slip out and get on the way to the next place. If the crowds had found it while He was there, they would have seized Him and proclaimed Him King Messiah, with unfortunate notions of the Messiah. - The other incidents Wrede cites are explained similarly. (2) He misses the point of the Transfiguration. It was not just to foretell the resurrection. It was to reveal in part the true nature of Jesus, and to do so in a way that could be understood at once. Even dull Peter got it for the moment (Mk 9. 5).

Sadly, on top of these empty arguments there has been built an analysis to show Jesus did not think He was Messiah. R. H. Fuller, in The Foundations of New Testament Christology (Chas. Scribner's Sons, NY. 1965, p. 109) thought he could break the incident at Caesarea Philippi (Mk 8. 29-33) into four units. After Jesus had asked the disciples who people said He was, and heard their replies, He turned to them and asked (unit 1): "Who do you say that I am?" Peter replied: You are the Messiah. (unit 2): Jesus tells them to keep it secret. (3) Jesus predicts His death and resurrection, and Peter objects strongly. (unit 4):Get behind me satan!

Now, they say, units 1 and 4 seem all right. But units 2 and 3 are faked by the Church. On unit 2, they lean on Wrede's work, which we have seen is totally vain. On unit 3, they say this: If Jesus had really predicted His death and resurrection then when it really happened, the Apostles would not have been surprised. But they were even slow to believe. So the Church faked the predictions.

The answer is easy. If a person gets a mental framework of ideas, and some idea that does not fit tries to enter, it will not come in. There are many such examples. Teilhard de Chardin thought there would be a wonderful period just before the return of Christ, when most people would be joined in a close unity by love. Hence he failed to grasp at all the many Scriptural predictions about that time. In Lk 18. 8 Jesus asks: "When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?" St. Paul in 2 Thes 2. 3 also predicts a great apostasy. 2 Tim 3. 1-5 says: "In the last days, there will be times of stress. People will be... ." And he gives a dreadful picture of what people will be like. Chardin had a set of ideas with which these texts did not fit. So he missed them entirely. Galen, the second century Greek physician and authority on anatomy so dominated the ideas of later investigators that some disregarded discoveries made by dissection which did not fit with Galen's ideas. Fabricius, the anatomy professor of William Harvey (who discovered the circulation of the blood) missed the import of some of his own findings since they did not agree with Galen. Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis (1817-65) of Hungary, one of the great discoverers of germs (along with Pasteur and Lister) was put into an insane asylum by the other medical Doctors, who saw his findings did not fit with their own previous notions. And there are more cases. No wonder the dull Galilean fishermen Apostles, with a false set of notions about the Messiah, could not digest what Jesus predicted.

But then, Fuller, thinking he had proved units 2 and 3 were faked, read the real account, as he thought, without the fakery: Jesus asks the Apostles who they say He is . Peter says He is the Messiah. Jesus angrily rejects the notion: Get behind me satan. He does not believe He is Messiah. Unfortunately, this is one of the major roots of the claims of ignorance in Jesus.

We must add: Today Fuller has given up on the Form Criticism that led him to this conclusion. He said more recently (St. Luke's Journal of Theology, 23, 1980, p. 96) that Form Criticism is bankrupt. So he was wrong twice, first in abusing Form Criticism, then by failing to see its very real values if used properly.

We add too that Wrede admitted a chief root of his troubles. He wrote (p. 50): "Historical research... does not recognize miracles in the strict sense." Of course, this is a common blindness of rationalists.

So Jesus did know He was Messiah. Really, we have already shown that His human soul from the beginning had the vision of God, in which all knowledge is available.

St. Matthew's version of the same incident In chapter 16) adds two points: the fact that Peter called Jesus the Son of God, and Jesus said that was revealed to Him by the Father, and the promise of the primacy. So we must ask: could the whole incident, or at least these two points, have been retrojected (written as happening before Easter, when they really came after Easter)? As to the whole incident, i t could not have been retrojected, for after Easter Jesus would not ask what people were saying about Him. Nor is there any reason to suppose He went to Caesarea Philippi after Easter. About the two added points: they could have been retrojected, provided that the words were actually said at least after Easter. But there is no positive proof to support such a retrojection theory.

c) Son of God: In general, as we have said, any devout Jew could be called a son of God. But the way Jesus used the term is special. He often - 22 times in the Synoptics, speaks of your Father. He speaks of my Father 20 times in the Synoptics. But He never speaks of Our Father, putting Himself and others together, except in the opening of the Our Father. So He does make a distinction between their Father and His Father.

In the parable of the wicked tenants, which we just saw, He speaks of Himself as the beloved Son of the Father. In Mk 12. 6 and Luke 20. 13 the son who is finally sent is called the beloved son, agapeton. Interestingly, the Septuagint uses agapeton to translate Hebrew yahid which means only son.

Matthew 11. 27 and Lk 10. 22 are sometimes spoken of as a "thunderbolt from the Johannine sky". That is, in John He speaks clearly of His own divinity. But in the Synoptics not clearly. Here He says that no one knows the Father but the Son, and no one knows the Son but the Father. J. Jeremias (New Testament Theology, tr. J. Bowden, Charles Scribner's Sons, N. Y. 1971, pp. 56-61) suggests that this statement is a Semitic proverb, using repetition to make up for the Semitic lack of a good reciprocal pronoun (such as each other). Then the sense would be that only a father and a son really know each other. But not all fathers and sons know each other better than others do. For certain we will say that if it would be such a proverb, Jesus would be applying it to Himself to claim a special sonship beyond that which others could ever claim.

His use of Aramaic Abba seems to suggest a special unique and familiar relationship. Jews would call God their Father, but not with so familiar a word, comparable to English Daddy. It is true, it is not frequent (Mk 4. 36 is the only example in the Gospels). But it seems likely , in view of the uses St. Paul makes of it (Rom 8. 15 and Gal. 4. 6), that Jesus used it more often.

With all these texts, we must admit that He did not in them reveal clearly that He was the only Son of the Father. But this lack of precision was intended, as a part of His gradual self-revelation.

d) Other statements by Jesus:

(1) He said he was greater than Jonah ( Mt 12. 41-42; Lk 11. 32), Solomon (Mt 12. 42; Lk 11. 31 and the Temple (Mt 12. 6).

(2) He also claimed authority over the Torah. He said: "The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath (Mk 12. 8; Lk 6. 5; Mk 2. 28). Several times in Matthew 5 he said: "You have heard it was said to them of old... . But I say to you." No great prophet ever spoke that way. Even W. Pannenburg (Jesus - God and Man, tr. L. Wilkins and D. Priebe, Westminster, Phila, 2d ed. 1977, p. 56) confesses: "Jesus makes himself the spokesman for God himself."

(3) He claimed power to forgive sins. This is especially clear in the case of the paralytic let down through the roof. Jesus said: "My son, your sins are forgiven." Scribes and Pharisees present were murmuring: "This is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone." Yet Jesus went on to prove He had done it by working the cure precisely as a proof that He had forgiven sins. His opponents, lacking the notion of delegated power to forgive, did take this as a claim to divinity. Wm. L. Lane (Commentary of the Gospel of Mark in NICNT, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1974, p. 84, n. 9) thinks His words "your sins are forgiven" are merely the divine passive, a usage intended to avoid the mention of the name Yahweh. But Lane cannot be right. For the scribes, who knew all about the divine passive, still took this as a claim to divinity.

(4) He implied He was Yahweh Himself. When John the Baptist sent messengers to ask Jesus if He was the one to come, Jesus said that John was "more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written, 'Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you. '" Now Jesus was quoting basically from Mal 3. 1 which in the original Hebrew says: "Behold, I send my messenger and he will prepare the way before my face." (Jesus used a text with the modification usual at that time, in which the shift from first to second person came because of the exegetical tradition of the rabbis in which these texts, Mal 3. 1 and Ex. 23. 20 had been combined. (Lane, op. cit. p. 51). But as R. H. Fuller observes (Foundations of New Testament Christology, p. 48),"The starting point for this expectation is Mal 4. 5f (Mt. 3. 23f). In this passage, an editorial note commenting on Mal 3:1, Elijah appears as the forerunner not of the Messiah but of Yahweh himself." (Fuller uses the number 4. 5, following some English versions and the Vulgate. The Hebrew and Septuagint use the numbers 3. 23-24). This is astounding. Jesus speaks of a sort of multiple fulfillment of prophecy. Elijah is to come at the end, as the forerunner of Yahweh Himself. Similarly John the Baptist, whom Jesus calls Elijah, is His forerunner. This is hardly a mere accommodation of a text. No Jew would dare to apply to himself words that in the original referred to Yahweh!

(5) Jesus, as we saw, claims to be the eschatological Judge. That is a shocking claim. God could give a mere human a mind and ability to know the thoughts of all hearts of all ages, and enable him to give infallible judgment. Even if we thought Jesus claimed merely to be human it would be a staggering claim. More easily it means an implication of divinity.

These texts just cited do not amount to a revelation of divinity, but they are very great claims.

(6)Prophet: Jesus did imply He was a prophet. In Mt 13. 57 He said no prophet is without honor except in his own house. But He would not mean He was one of the frenetic prophets or of the schools called "sons of the prophets". He would be in the line of the great prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel. Moses foretold in Dt 18. 18 that God would rise up for them a prophet like himself. This was understood in a Messianic sense by Jews. In Jn 6. 14, after multiplication of the loaves the people said Jesus must be that prophet. And St. Peter identifies Jesus as the great prophet in Acts 3. 22-23. In Acts 7. 37 St. Stephen does the same.