There is a difference. I’m referring to post-apostolic, institutional, Catholic church fathers of the 2nd through at least the 5th centuries. I mean their extant writings and creeds drafted at their so-called “ecumenical councils.” At their first one, the Nicene Council of 325, they drafted the Nicene Creed signed by over 300 bishops that says Jesus is “very God of very God.” They mean he is just as divine as the God, whom Jesus called “Father,” that is, the God of creation. But that is NOT who Jesus said he was.
At the second ecumenical council, the first Council of Constantinople in 381, Catholic church fathers augmented the Nicene Creed by including in it that God is triune–three persons. Jesus certainly never said anything like that about the God he worshiped.
Jesus’ baptism in the waters of the Jordan River by his cousin, John the Baptist, was a most pivotal event in the life of Jesus. The New Testament tells us it was the beginning of his itinerant ministry of preaching the kingdom of God, healing people, and casting out demons. It happened mostly in Galilee, where he lived. But sometimes Jesus visited Jerusalem to attend the Jewish feasts, just as the Law of Moses had required.
Something very dramatic happened when Jesus was baptized. It was important for people to know about this Jesus of Nazareth. Why? He was about to reveal, to manifest, the God he would preach about in his mission. When John baptized him, Jesus rose up out of the waters, and a voice came from above that said, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 3.17; Mark 1.11; Luke 3.22). This message obviously came from the God whom Jesus worshiped. God identifying Jesus as his Son does not mean Jesus is God but that Jesus had a most extraordinary relationship with God. The implication of these words is that whatever Jesus says about himself and his God, people should pay attention to it more than to any other voice.
The same thing happened at Jesus’ Transfiguration. A voice from above said the same words except something was added to them. This event seems to have occurred during the middle, or a little earlier, in Jesus’ two-to-three year ministry. Jesus led his three closest apostles–Peter and the brothers James and John–up on a “high mountain,” and Jesus was “transfigured before them” (Matt. 17.2). “His face shone like the sun, and His garments became as white as light” (v. 2 NASB). A cloud overshadowed them. Apparently, the same voice sounded from above as at Jesus’ baptism, saying, “This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased. Listen to him” (v. 5). So, God told these three apostles of Jesus to listen to what Jesus says.
Jesus’ identity is so central to Christian belief. As church councils often determined, getting Jesus’ identity correct was crucial to being a Christian and thus to have eternal life that Jesus made possible for his people to inherit by believing in his subsequent death on the cross that represented a payment for their sins. So, if we are going to do what God said at the Transfiguration, we should listen to what he said of his identity in his sayings recorded in the New Testament gospels. If what Jesus said of his identity differs from what church fathers later said about it, we should listen to Jesus rather than those church fathers.
I think the most enlightening thing to do about learning Jesus’ identity is to get a red letter Bible and read only those statements in red, which contain all of the NT gospels sayings of Jesus. I was a Trinitarian for twenty-two years, and then one day I began to question it while I was reading Jesus Olivet Discourse. I became perplexed at Jesus’ statement about not knowing the time of his return (Matt. 24.36). So I went to my Christian bookstore, bought a red-letter Bible, and read only the words in red–Jesus’ sayings. To my surprise, I learned Jesus never said he was God or anything like it. The closest I he ever came to that was his statement, “I and the Father are one” (John 10.30). But I thought that saying more readily meant they were unified than what Nicene and Post-Nicene church fathers said, that they were of the same “essence,” making Jesus God.
So, who did Jesus say he was? That is such an important question that arose numerous times among people who heard Jesus teach and preach and saw him perform many wonders, many of which delivered people from their infirmities and demons. The first time this question arose in Jesus’ ministry, according to the NT, was privately with his apostles at Caesarea Philippi. Mark reports that Jesus asked them, “Who do people say that I am?” (Mark 8.27 NRSV). They answered that people said Jesus was some great spiritual hero who had come back from the dead, possibly John the Baptist, or Elijah, or one of the prophets (v. 28). Then Jesus “asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah'” (v. 29).
Both Matthew and Luke report Jesus’ question and Peter’s answer a little differently. Matthew records that Jesus first asked, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” (Matt. 16.13). And Matthew records just like Mark does that Jesus asked the second time, “Who do you say that I am?” (v. 15). So, did Jesus mention “the Son of Man” in his first question, as Matthew reports, or not, as Mark and Luke record? It is a difficult question to answer. But I think the main point to be gleaned from Matthew’s account is that Jesus thereby indirectly identifies himself as “the Son of Man,” which he expressly did on several occasions according to all four New Testament (NT) gospels. (I do not subscribe to determinations of historical critics who have a weak view, or none at all, of the divine inspiration of the Bible and therefore allege that many of the NT gospel sayings of Jesus are historically inauthentic.)
Furthermore, Matthew records that Peter answered Jesus’ second question, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16.16), thus including the last phrase which Mark and Luke do not. What should we make of this difference? We should understand at least that for Mark and Luke, it does not add anything to Jesus’ identity as the Messiah to also include that he is the Son of God. This comes as shock to some Christians because they have been wrongly taught due to those axioms laid down by church fathers in their councils and creeds that there is a great deal of difference between Jesus being the Messiah of Israel and his being the Son of God. NO THERE IS NOT! Many scholars now say there is little or no difference, at least in certain NT gospel narratives. And one would be here in this comparison of the accounts of Jesus questioning his disciples about his identity and their answers.
The high priest then tore his clothes and said, “He has blasphemed?” Matt. 26.65), which is what he had symbolized by tearing his clothes. What had Jesus said that deserved the charge of blasphemy according to Torah? Nothing! It was not blasphemy according to Jewish belief, as some Christians have thought, for Jesus to have claimed to be the Messiah of Israel, even if he was not. There is no such law in Torah. For example, many Jewish men throughout the history of the Jewish people have claimed falsely to be that Messiah, yet Judaism never charged them with blasphemy and usually did not execute them for such a claim.
Did Caiaphas charge Jesus with blasphemy because he admitted to being the Son of God? That is what a large majority of Christians have thought throughout the Christian era because they have thought in claiming to be the Son of God, Jesus indirectly claimed to be God. NOT AT ALL! If Caiaphas and the other Sanhedrin members thought Jesus at any time claimed to be God, either directly or indirectly, they surely would have brought this out at their hearing and subsequent trial of Jesus rather than the lesser claim of being the Messiah. Rather, Matthew’s report that Caiaphas asked Jesus if he was “the Messiah, the Son of God” represents an interchanging of the two titles so that Caiaphas viewed them as synonymous. This is supported in Psalm 2.2-7, in which “anointed” (Heb. mashiach) means Messiah.
In fact, according to the Gospel of John, Jesus was twice accused of “making himself equal to God” and, later, “making yourself God” (John 5.18; 10.33). But both times he denied these charges in rather elaborate and extensive replies (John 5.19-47; 10.34-38). And these must have eventually, if not immediately, silenced his adversaries. This becomes most obvious when we realize that none of these allegations were brought forth at the Sanhedrin hearing and trial of Jesus.
Now, Jesus did not go around during his itinerant ministry claiming publicly to be Israel’s Messiah promised abundantly in its scriptures, which we Christians call “the Old Testament” (OT). The reason was he did not want to alert Roman officials in thinking he was a trouble maker who could stir up a messianic uprising. Thus, he only publicly affirmed his messiahship at the end.
But Jesus did go about identifying himself as “the Son of Man,” and he did it quite often. In doing so, he was alluding to Daniel 7.13-14, which I think is, besides the Shema, the most important OT text and upon which Jesus based his teaching about the kingdom of God. It reads, “I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days [God the Father] and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed” (ESV). So, Jesus is that Son of Man.
In conclusion, Jesus never said he was God; he even denied it when so charged twice; and he was not charged before the Sanhedrin of ever claiming to be God. But he did claim often to be that Son of Man in Dan 7.13-14 to whom God will give a great, everlasting kingdom in which his people from all ethnicities, nations, and languages will serve him forever. Since Daniel also says this kingdom will cover the entire earth (Daniel 2.35). And this status of Jesus as Son of Man ruling his worldwide kingdom on earth is a far greater status than that of his being the Messiah of Israel, no matter how blessed that is (Isa 49.6). Thus, we should listen to Jesus about who Jesus is and not be misled by church fathers who declared that he was God.
To see a list of titles of 130+ posts (2-3 pages) that are about Jesus not being God in the Bible, with a few about God not being a Trinity, at Kermit Zarley Blog click “Chistology” in the header bar. Most are condensations of my book, The Restitution of Jesus Christ. See my website servetustheevangelical.com, which is all about this book, with reviews, etc. Learn about my books and purchase them at kermitzarley.com. I was a Trinitarian for 22 years before reading myself out of it in the Bible.