I had it in mind to do a more widespread survey of the many different types of witness to Jesus' uniqueness: God's own witness to him, direct quotes from Jesus himself, Old Testament quotes applied to him, the witness of his apostles and followers. As I sat down to look some of them up, however, I realised what a gargantuan task it would be to assemble all of the manifold testimonies of the Bible, and so, in the interests of keeping this post to a readable length (and of getting to bed at a reasonable hour!) I am going to focus on just one tiny sample: the statements made by Jesus himself in John's gospel. Briefly: why just these quotes? Well, I happen to have been reading John's gospel in my quiet times over the last few weeks, and I've been really struck this time, in a way I've never really seen before, quite how much Jesus wants people to look to HIM personally - he doesn't primarily recommend rules or regulations, religious structures or anything else, he just puts himself forward as God's saviour for sinners, and challenges us to come to him that we might have life. It's great reading, and I can barely scratch the surface here, but hopefully it will be a helpful start.
1. Jesus, eternally God
John's gospel opens with the famous words often associated with Christmas: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God." - the Word that "became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth." (John 1:14) The Word who John the Baptist bore witness to, saying "This was he of whom I said, 'He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.' - Jesus, the Lamb of God (1:30)
So the claim is that Jesus was in the beginning with God, and that he in fact was God - certainly the very beginning of time counts as being "before" John the Baptist!
In case we're worried the apostle John is putting words in Jesus' mouth, we can compare this with Jesus' own prayer towards the end of his life, in John 17:1-5: “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do. And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.”
There's some staggering claims in there - eternal life is to know God and Jesus Christ; the Father has given Jesus authority over all flesh; and there's that eternity theme again: the glory Jesus had with God before the world existed.
2. Jesus, greater than Abraham, greater than Moses
Jesus uses this fact of his eternal glory to demonstrate his superior rank over the great prophet Abraham - the founding father of the Jewish nation. In a dispute with the Jews in John 8:48-59, Jesus makes a pretty bold claim in it's own right: "If anyone keeps my word, he will never see death." The Jews see something profound in this: v52 - "Now we know that you have a demon! Abraham died, as did the prophets, yet you say, 'If anyone keeps my word, he will never taste death.' Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died? And the prophets died! Who do you make yourself out to be?"
Makes sense - right? Abraham died. All of the prophets died. Yet here comes this man Jesus, who says "Keep my word, and you will never taste death." How can you offer us escape from death if you yourself are going to die? Unless you're saying that you're greater than all of the other prophets, then your claim is nonsense!
How does Jesus respond? Check out the mind-blowing v56: "Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad." That's pretty arrogant, isn't it? Great Abraham rejoicing to see Jesus? Not to mention the chronological problems: "You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?" Here comes that eternity theme again: Jesus said to them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am."
Now, at this point, to truly understand what a massive claim this is, and to explain the reaction of the Jews in v59, a brief history lesson might be in order. Way back in Exodus 3, when the prophet Moses was around, he met God on mount Sinai. Moses said to him, v13, "If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, 'The God of your fathers has sent me to you', and they ask me, 'What is his name?' what shall I say to them?" God said to Moses, "I AM WHO I AM." And he said, "Say this to the people of Israel, 'I AM has sent me to you.'" The divine name for God in the Old Testament, "Yahweh", is strongly connected to that phrase "I AM", or To Be.
So when Jesus says, "Before Abraham was, I am", not only is he claiming superiority over Abraham, but he is actually invoking the divine name of God and applying it to himself: "I AM". He does it at least nine times in John's gospel (see point three) and each time it is unmistakable what he's doing. That's why, in 8:59 the Jews immediately picked up stones to throw at him: to their Jewish ears, Jesus is blaspheming by equating himself to God - he demands to be stoned! Exactly the same thing happens in 10:30 where Jesus says "I and the Father are one." - "they picked up stones again to stone him." Exactly the same again in 5:17-18: "This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.".
Jesus claimed to be God: greater than Abraham by far!
But also, greater than the great prophet Moses: in 6:22-59 we have a discourse on the bread of life. Back in the Exodus, the Israelites lived in the wilderness on a diet of manna: bread from heaven, provided by God. The Jews comment on this in v30, saying "What sign do you do, that we may see and believe you? What work do you perform? Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, 'He gave them bread from heaven to eat'". Jesus replies, "Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world."
It's no wonder they say "Sir, give us this bread always" - it's a bread far superior to Moses' manna. Look over to v49: "Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. But this is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die" (emphasis mine). Moses (and it wasn't even Moses, but God) gave bread that lasted for a day, but couldn't prevent death. Jesus claims to bring a bread that leads to eternal life - but in fact the claim is so much greater, even than that: v35: Jesus said to them, "I AM the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst." Moses would never have asked the Israelites to come to him directly for life - it was most definitely God who provided the manna through Moses. Yet here we see Jesus putting himself in the limelight - "come to ME", he says. "I myself am something eternally more satisfying than that which came through Moses".
Jesus, greater than Abraham, greater than Moses.
3. Jesus, the great I AM
There are at least nine distinct I AM sayings of Jesus in John's gospel, each in themself a claim to divinity, and the majority of them also invoking images that God uses of himself in the Old Testament.
- Before Abraham was, I AM (John 8:58) - ranks before both Abraham and Moses
- I AM the bread of life (John 6:35) - as we've seen already, come to Jesus directly for eternal life.
- I AM the light of the world (John 8:12) - "Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life."
- I AM the door of the sheep (John 10:7) - "If anyone enters by me, he will be saved andwill go in and out and find pasture"
- I AM the good shepherd (John 10:11) - "The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep". This is certainly a reference to the prophesied descendant of David who God would provide as shepherd over his people, but also invokes thoughts of Psalm 23: "The LORD is my shepherd"
- I AM the resurrection and the life (John 11:25) - "Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die." - just wow
- I AM the way, and the truth and the life (John 14:6) - "No-one comes to the Father except through me." Jesus is the unique route to God - there is no other way but through him. He is THE truth incarnate.
- I AM the true vine and my Father is the vine dresser (John 15:1) - "Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown in to the fire, and burned."
- I AM (John 18:5) - "When Jesus said to them 'I AM', they drew back and fell to the ground". I've just got my flatmate to check the Greek on this one, and apparently what's translated in the ESV as "I am he" is definitely the same emphatic Greek phrase as the other I AMs. Jesus says it and they fall down - involuntarily bowing before his majesty
This is barely scratching the surface of the Bible's testimony to Jesus' claim to be God, and yet personally I find even this thoroughly compelling. The Christian author C.S.Lewis said that in the light of Jesus' claims there was no alternative conclusion left open to us than that Jesus must be either "mad, bad or God". Anyone who made such arrogant claims could not possibly be "just a good man" or "a good prophet" - good prophets do not steal so much of God's glory for themselves, good men do not go about describing themselves as the fulfilment of the whole of the Old Testament. Such men are either mad: deluding themselves, if not others; or they are bad: knowing themselves to be wrong, they make such claims anyway, perhaps as a means of attention seeking; or they are God: they make such claims because such claims are true. The one thing he cannot be is "just a good man".