North Bay Gospel Outreach (NBGO, which I like to call ‘North Bay GO’) is an evangelistic ministry that is headed by Karissa Yeremin which takes the gospel out to the streets of California’s northern bay area. My wife, Faith and I have been long time friends of Karissa and her husband Gera. We have recently been joining with them in their ministry and trying to get our church involved as well. We have attended a couple of the Friday Farmers Market outreaches this year and are looking forward to whatever God has in store for NB-GO.
Last Friday (August 10th, 2012) we talked to a few people. One man in particular both Karissa and I spoke with for some time about the deity of Jesus Christ. This amiable man affirmed that Jesus died for our sin, that the bible was truth and many other important doctrines but he insisted that Jesus was not God and that neither he nor the scriptures claimed that he was. He was obviously very familiar with the scriptures and claimed to know both Greek and Hebrew (along with a few other languages). Several times he asked questions that I struggled to answer from the text. This is not because the text has a hard time answering, but because I was not prepared to give an answer as I should have been. After our discussion I went back to the word to refresh myself with the specific places that Jesus clearly claimed to be divine.
The man we spoke with was arguing that Jesus always made a ‘subject object distinction’ when speaking of God; that is he spoke of God as being some one other than himself. Jesus, he said, made the statement that the Father was greater than Himself. Jesus is called the anointed one; who had been anointed by God. He didn’t anoint himself. Jesus also died, which is something that God can not do. Later, when Jesus was resurrected, the scriptures say ‘God raised him from the dead.’ Again Jesus didn’t raise himself but God did it.
Karissa then asked him about John chapter 1 where the word says “in the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God.’ The man replied that the English translations have it wrong and that in Greek it is understood to mean that the word was ‘a god’ meaning that Jesus was a god but a lesser god which God the Father employed to create everything else that exists. He was, never the less, a created being. We went through various passages in both the New and Old Testament which he tried to explain away and we covered a wide verity of topics. The man was very kind and friendly through the conversation but also very insistent that we didn’t know what we were talking about and that we should agree with him because he had studied Greek and Hebrew and had been studying and teaching the scriptures for many many years.
My initial objection was that though I did not know Greek and Hebrew, I do know many people who have studied Greek and Hebrew and have taught the bible for many years and they would all disagree with him. I pointed out to him that what I saw him doing again and again was confusing the divine nature of Christ with the human nature of Christ. Jesus has two natures. The bible does not teach that he is half human and half God. He was God before the world began (Micah 5:2; John 1:1; 8:58; 17:5) and he added to himself a human nature in the incarnation (Isaiah 53:3; John 1:14; Philipians 2:6-8). How these two natures work together is a mystery. Maybe some one understands it but I am not that some one. Never the less Jesus is both 100% human and 100% God. What the cults often do is interpret passages that refer to Jesus humanity to disprove that he is God.
That was about all I could come up with on the spot (and I didn’t have all the fancy references). But after doing some research I think that this is really what it came down to. In every case this man cited, Jesus is being distinguished not from God but from God the Father. It is true indeed that Jesus says “the Father is greater than I am” in John 14:28. However this is not a denial of Jesus’ deity. It is an acknowledgment of His submissive roll in the Godhead to the Father in everything. Particularly as a human Jesus was and is obedient to all that the Father has commanded him to do (Gal 4:4-5). What is striking about this passage is that Jesus, though He distinguishes himself from the Father is speaking of God as His Father. The Jews of that day understood this to mean that Jesus was claiming to be equal with the God in nature. Indeed John 5:18 says they sought to kill him for this very reason. In John 14:9 (just 19 verses before Jesus statement that the father is greater than him) Jesus clearly states that if the disciples had seen Jesus (the son) they had seen the Father. In John 10:30 Jesus states clearly that he and the Father are one. This seems to me to be a profound way of expressing the reality of the trinity. They are distinct persons but they are one in nature.
There are abundant examples of Jesus claiming to be God in the New Testament and there are many places where he is worshiped and called God by others, actions that he does not rebuke but accepts. Additionally Jesus is called the first and the last in revelation 1:11, a name God claims for himself alone in Isaiah 41:4; 44: 6; 48:12. Paul says in Romans 14 (where he uses the phrase Christ and God interchangeably) and Philippians 2 that every knee will bow to him, again echoing God’s word about himself in Isaiah 45:22-24) Jesus often calls himself ‘the son of man’ which many mistakenly think is a reference to his humanity. His contemporaries understood it to be a reference to Daniels prophecy about ‘one who looked like a son of man’ which sat on God’s throne (Dan 7:13-14). So if there is one thing that the first century Pharisees understood Jesus to be saying it was that he was the manifestation of God, which is one of the main reasons they wanted to kill him. Indeed in light of the overwhelming number of such references in scripture this man’s attempts to sweep the deity of Christ under the rug seems laughably futile and poorly conceived.
Never the less I was unable to answer his assertion with regard to John 1:1. He claimed to know Greek. I couldn’t say anything more, in the moment, than I know many who speak Greek that would disagree with you. However, after looking into the issue I have found that his interpretation of the data was incorrect. He made the point that there is no definite article before the last use of the word God (which is true). This he took to signify that a different God was being referred to. So, in other words, it does not say ‘In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was the God.’ thus he felt it was appropriate to add an ‘a’ in there instead of a ‘the.’ But of course either reading would contradict what is actually being said in the passage and neither is a correct interpretation of the passage as this very helpful article from JATI explains.
Interestingly, when we asked him where it was that he taught, the man we spoke with declined to answer. He said that it wasn’t important. He never came out and said so but based on his rejection of the deity of Christ, his rejection of eternal punishment, his reading of John 1:1 and his rejection of the resurrection of the wicked (despite Jesus words in John 5:28-29 which I read to him) that he was certainly a Jehovah’s Witness. Why he didn’t want to tell us that, I don’t know but his doctrine seemed to fit.
In the end we agreed to disagree agreeably and he went on his (broad) way (which seemed right to him). He did, however, take a moment as he was walking a way to reminding me that the name ‘Jacob’ means deceiver and that I should think about that, (hahaha!) Actually the name means one who grabs the heel or one who supplants, which, I tend to think had more to do (from God’s perspective) with Jacob’s being loved by God while Esau was hated, but that is another discussion for another time. Really I was no more open to accept his view than he was open to accept mine. The only difference was that I was submitting myself to the clear teaching of scripture while he had gone to great lengths to bend the scripture to his own desired reading.
The point of all of this is, first, whatever anyone says, one thing is certain; Jesus claimed to be God, his disciples claimed that he was God and his opponents understood all of them to be claiming the deity of Jesus. Secondly, it is good to be prepared (and pre-prayed) when taking the gospel outside. But even if you are not prepared, even if you can’t answer a question and you walk away more confused than ever, there are answers out there. Biblical Christianity has survived two thousand years of intense critics. Trust me, there are answers. You just have to go look for them. That way, next time you will be ready.