Jesus performed several roles: a seer-prophet, a reformer, a wisdom sage, a healer, an itinerant preacher, and a Torah teacher. About in the middle of his public ministry, according to the Gospel of Mark Jesus asked his male disciples, “Who do people say I am?” (Mk 8.27 NIV). Large crowds were gathering to hear Jesus pronounce his parabolic pearls of wisdom and perform his mighty deeds of healing and even nature miracles, and they were awestruck. That’s why they began to ask who he was and if he was the Christ (e.g., Jn 4.29; 6.14; 7.26; 8.25; 10.24).
When reading or studying a synoptic gospel (first three in NT), it is often wise to compare it with the other two synoptics. For, in this case, Matthew records that Jesus asked, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” (Mt 16.13). Matthew probably relates the ipsissima verba (exact/very words), in contrast to Mark’s ipsissima vox (very voice). Jesus was always calling himself “the Son of Man.”
The disciples answered that various people thought Jesus was someone come back from the dead, such as John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or another of the biblical prophets (Mt 16.14; Mk 8.28). Notice that none of the disciples reported that anyone said he was God. They surely would have added that if anyone did indeed say it, since it would have been so provocative for a Jew to make such a claim about a man. Why? Jews believed God is numerically one (e.g., Deuteronomy 6.4). Jesus thought of God as someone separate from himself, calling him “the/my Father.” And scripture states, “God is not a man,… nor a son of man” (Num 23.19).
According to both Matthew and Mark, Jesus again asked, “But who do you say I am?” If Matthew reports the ipsissima verba for Jesus’ first question, then in this second question Jesus obviously identifies himself as the Son of Man. According to Mark, Peter spoke up and answered, “You are the Christ” (Mk 8.29), and that’s all. But Matthew again is more definitive, recording that Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Mt 16.16). Notice that Peter did not state expressly, “You are God.” But did Peter indirectly identify Jesus as God by saying he was the Son of God?
That’s what I was taught by my theological teachers early in my spiritual journey. The Bible’s identification of Jesus as the Son of God was the main reason I believed he was and is God. Ask the average Christian who believes Jesus is God what his or her main reason is for believing that, and you’ll probably get that same response I would have given. Now, if Matthew’s account is correct, and Peter meant that Jesus was God by calling him the Son of God, that would have been quite a literary blunder for Mark to have omitted such an important identification of Jesus. For, it is far more important to identify a man as God than only as the Christ.
Now, let’s fast forward to Jesus’ hearing before the Sanhedrin the night before he was crucified. The purpose of that interrogation was to find Jesus guilty of having taught against the Torah, charge him with blasphemy, and punish him with death. According to the Gospel of John, on two different occasions when Jesus taught in the temple at Jerusalem, he was accused of “making himself equal with God” and “claim[ing] to be God” (Jn 5.18; 10.33). But both times Jesus responded by denying these charges. And this is so apparent because none of the witnesses who testified against him at his hearing brought forth either of these charges. Those religious leaders were frustrated that they could not obtain any testimony to charge Jesus with teaching or doing anything contrary to Torah. Moreover, the witnesses gave “false” and “inconsistent” testimonies (Mt 26.59-60; Mk 14.55-59).
Finally, according to Matthew, Caiaphas the high priest said to Jesus, “Tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God” (Mt 26.63). Mark relates, “the high priest asked him, ‘Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One’” (Mk 14.61). Mark says Jesus answered, “I am” (Mk 14.62). But Matthew probably provides the ipsissima verba in relating that Jesus answered, “You have said so” (Mt 26.64 NRSV). Did the high priest mean “Son of God” as synonymous with being God? Certainly not! He knew that his Bible called men and angels “son(s) of God.” And he likely knew also that it never used that language in identifying God. And neither did Jesus mean that he was God by answering affirmatively.
Oh, how things change. Less than a century later, Gentile church fathers started identifying Jesus as God. And in 325 AD they drafted the Nicene Creed which says Jesus is “very God of very God.” Moreover, this creed goes on to declare that if anyone does not believe that Jesus is God, it pronounces several anathemas on that person, which means they are condemned to hell.
One of the primary reasons church fathers set forth for their belief that Jesus was and is God was that the New Testament identifies Jesus as “the Son of God,” which they thought meant that he was God. But nowadays, most distinguished Trinitarian scholars are correct in conceding that the New Testament calling Jesus “the Son of God” does not mean he is God. And many of them admit that those Bible texts which join the titles “the Christ” and “the Son of God” together–as both Peter and Caiaphas did–mean that they were being used interchangeably, so that those two titles are either synonymous or nearly so.
(For more information on this subject, see our website christiansforonegod.com and get my book, The Restitution of Jesus Christ.)