Lee Strobel in his well known investigation of the Christian faith spoke with an evangelical professor, Ben Witherington. The conversation proceded as follows. Strobel said:
“Jesus tended to shy away from forthrightly proclaiming himself to be the Messiah or Son of God. Was that because he did not think of himself in those terms or because he had other reasons?”
Ben Witherington replied:
“No, its not because he did not think of himself in those terms. If he had simply announced, “Hi, Folks; I’m God, that would have been heard as ‘I’m Yahweh,’ because the Jews of his day did not have any concept of the Trinity. They only knew of God, the Father — whom they called Yahweh, and not God the Son or God the Holy Spirit.”
Two comments are necessary. Yes, Jesus exercised a restraint before the public about his identity as the Messiah. It was a politically charged title. But he left not a shadow of doubt in the minds of his chosen followers about who he was. We have just seen that Jesus viewed the understanding of him as the Christ, the Son of God, as the essential basis of the Christian faith, the rock creed. Peter was warmly congratulated by Jesus for his insight. The New Testament confirms that truth every time it refers to Jesus as the Christ, which of course happens over and over again. He is in fact introduced to us in Luke 2:11 as the “Lord Messiah.” Even before that Elizabeth, as an expert in Messianic affairs, greeted Mary as the “the mother of my Lord,” ie the Messiah, my lord, of Ps. 110:1.
Secondly Witherington unconsciously concedes that belief that Jesus is God, a member of the Trinity, is impossible according to the records of Jesus’ teaching. He is absolutely right when he states that if Jesus had said, “I am God,” he would have meant “I am Yahweh, the God of Israel.” The claim to be the God of Israel would have been nonsensical. No Jew could possibly have understood it, much less accepted it as true. Nor did Jesus believe he was Yahweh. He claimed to be Yahweh’s Son.
And Witherington is absolutely right to say that Jews of Jesus’ day knew nothing of a Triune God. Such a concept would have been a radical and shocking, even a blasphemous innovation. This is essential background information and fact, as we proceed with our investigation.
Who, then, did Jesus think was God? Jesus himself claimed in conversation with a Jew, as we are going to see in detail, that he subscribed to the Jewish unitary monotheistic creed, the Shema — the “Hear O Israel.” The Shema proclaimed that God is One Person. That really settles the whole issue we are discussing. Jesus is on record as reciting and affirming that strictly monotheistic creed of the Jews (Mark 12:28ff.). He also said “that salvation is of the Jews” and “we Jews know whom we worship” (John 4:22). And everyone should know that it was not a Triune God. He invariably identified his Father with his own God and that of the Jews.
“If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing: it is my Father that glorifieth me; of whom ye say, that he is your God” (John 8:54).
Amen, indeed, to Strobel’s correct statement “The Jews of Jesus day did not have any concept of the Trinity.” But neither did Jesus! He believed exactly the same as his colleague Jews about the central affirmation of Judaism, that God is a single Person. The creed of Jesus ought to be the creed of the Church. That it is not should be cause for alarm. Jesus was a unitarian, believing that God the Father alone was truly God (John 17:3).
The issue is very clear. How faithfully has Jesus’ understanding of God and of himself as the Messiah been relayed to us over the many centuries since Peter uttered his historic words about the critically important identity of Jesus as Christ and Son of God? (Matt. 16:16-18). I want to propose that essential elements of that rock foundation of truth have been lost to churches. The transmission of the most central of all spiritual information, the identity of God — as Jesus defined Him — and of Jesus’ own identity, has suffered a subtle and amazing distortion. And this perversion of original truth was well under way as early as the middle of the second century, a little over a hundred years after the death of Jesus. Earlier, the apostles had battled hard against the various counter-ideas which threatened to obscure who God and Jesus are. Soon after their death, with the stabilizing power of apostolic authority removed, a subtle invasion of new and contrary views of Jesus and his identity, as well as the identity of God affirmed by Jesus, took place. The Son of David, God’s unique Son, was replaced by a strange Gentile God.
The results of that later theological thinking, enshrined in the creeds, continue to hold sway over the minds of countless dedicated churchgoers. They are mostly unaware of the shift in understanding at the heart of the faith which has taken place. They have been persuaded in large numbers to believe that the New Testaments they carry to church, containing the very teachings of Jesus and his agents the Apostles, are the same teachings as they have learned in Church. I think that assumption needs to be challenged in the interests of plain honesty as well as the need for us all to share the mind of Christ.
I propose that the foundational belief of all true religion has been shifted “off –base” by post-biblical church authorities, who actually refused the creed which Jesus had declared the most important spiritual truth of all.
A whole school of professional opinion, remarkably confirmed by leading British and German Bible specialists of current times, backs my central thesis that what we now have as “the faith” is in important respects quite unlike the faith known to Jesus. We are urged to embrace the faith which Jesus’ half-brother Jude was so keen to preserve. The faithful are to cling tenaciously to original Christianity in the face of opposition which within the first century was attempting to undermine “the faith once and for all delivered to the holy people” (Jude 3).
The Case for Christ, p. 133.
The New Testament nowhere ever downplays the political role of the Messiah as God’s commissioned agent for establishing a new political order on earth at the Second Coming. Jesus in fact stated that the gift of royal position was the heart of the New Covenant (Matt. 19:28; Luke 22:28-30, where the promise of royal position is covenanted to the disciples.