Most Christians think Jesus claimed to be God. Ask most of them who know their Bible, “Where does the Bible say Jesus claimed to be God?” and they’ll likely answer, “He said it in John 10.30, ‘I and the Father are one.’” But that is a far cry from saying, “I am God,” or the like. One is struck with the thought, “Is that the best evidence Christians have for Jesus claiming to be God? If so, maybe he never made such a claim.”
This is a very important issue for Christians. Most assert that a person must believe Jesus is God in order to be a genuine Christian and thus possess salvation and the hope of eternal life. That’s what the institutional church has insisted since the early fourth century. But interpreting Jesus’ saying in John 10.30 as a claim to be God ignores its context.
Jesus was attending the Feast of Dedication at the temple in Jerusalem. We read, “The Jews therefore gathered around Him, and were saying to Him, ‘How long will You keep us in suspense? If You are the Christ, tell us plainly.’” (John 10.24).* Jesus responded by mentioning his marvelous works that he had been doing and how they testify to his intimate relationship with God (vv. 25-29).
So, when Jesus then said he and God the Father were “one,” he meant they were unified. That is, they were in complete harmony regarding Jesus’ mission of doing good works and drawing disciples to himself. This is confirmed in Jesus’ so-called “high priestly prayer” he made the night he was betrayed and arrested. It, too, is recorded only in John’s gospel. Jesus, in anticipation of his crucifixion, death, resurrection, and ascension, prayed to the Father about his eleven apostles, “Holy Father, keep them in Your name, the name which You have given Me, that they may be one even as We are” (John 17.11). He soon added, “The glory which You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as We are one; I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity” (vv. 22-23). So, Jesus asked the Father for the same oneness for his apostles that he said, in John 10.30, he and the Father had. To say that “one,” there, means Jesus is God requires that it means the same here, which is ludicrous.
Jesus’ antagonistic listeners thought like many Christians have, that Jesus here claimed to be God when he said he and the Father were “one.” For, when Jesus asked them why they were picking up stones to stone him to death (John 10.31), they replied, “For a good work we do not stone You, but for blasphemy; and because You, being a man, make Yourself out to be God” (v. 33). (It seems they accused him of claiming to be “a god” since the Greek text lacks the article with theos–the Greek word for “God/god.”)
The Roman Catholic Church’s prestigious Pontifical Biblical Commission rejects this common interpretation of John 10.30. In its very important and excellent document on Christology, Bible et christologie (1983), this elite group of twenty Catholic scholars allege that those who espouse classical (Nicene-Chalcedonian) Christology tend to be obstinate, “not being open” to critical investigation, resulting in their appeal to Scripture only defensively. These scholars chose the venerable American Catholic Joseph A. Fitzmyer to produce a commentary on this document. In it he explains, “the Commission is pointing its critical finger at Catholic fundamentalism, often associated with this approach to Christology. An example of this sort of use of the NT [New Testament] would be the appeal to Jn 10:30, ‘I and the Father are one,’ to establish the divinity of Christ.” Fitzmyer means that he and commission members do not believe Jesus here claimed to be God.
Jesus then asked his interrogators, “do you say of Him, whom the Father sanctified and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’?” (John 10.36; no article here for huios [Son] either). John A.T. Robinson insists that Jesus here made the following important points: (1) he implicitly denies the Jews’ allegation that he said he was God, (2) he distinguishes himself from God, and (3) he affirms his true identity as Son of God.
Now, Jesus never went about declaring publicly that he was the Son of God; but he often implied it by calling God his “Father.” Until then, Jews had recognized their God Yahweh corporately as the father of the Jewish nation; but individual Jews rarely or never identified God personally as their father, as Jesus regularly did.
Then, Jesus clarified what he meant by him and the Father being one. Many Christians have failed to grasp this. He declared, “the Father is in Me, and I in the Father” (John 10.38). Later, Jesus affirmed this truth again by telling his apostles, “Believe Me that I am in the Father, and the Father in Me” (14.11).
Scholars call this concept “the Mutual Indwelling.” In saying this truth here, Jesus clearly disavows that his being one with God means that he claims to be God or a god. Rather, Jesus here affirms a God-in-Christ Christology as contrasted with the traditional, incarnational, Christ-is-God Christology that Christians later developed. The Apostle Paul later explained one half of this concept, “that God was in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself” (2 Corinthians 5.19).
Jesus’ opponents seem to have accepted his clarification about being one with the Father, in which he denied claiming to be God. How so? They never brought this charge against him during the interrogation of him by the Jewish Sanhedrin (Council).
In sum, when Jesus said, “I and the Father are one,” he did not mean he and God the Father were one in essence, making himself God, but one relationally, resulting in a functional unity. And if this brief saying of Jesus in John 10.30 is the best traditionalists can muster to support their assertion that Jesus claimed to be God, we can be pretty sure he never made such a claim.
(In my book, The Restitution of Jesus Christ (2008, 600 pp.), I devote ten pages to explaining what Jesus meant in John 10.30 when he said, “I and the Father are one.” In doing so, I cite forty-four scholars and four church fathers.)
*All scripture citations are from the New American Standard Bible.