Followers of Jesus believe that he is God. Even the first Jewish ones believed that. Naturally, many questions might come to mind. You might find yourself asking one or more of these:
Those are great questions. Here are some brief but hopefully thought-provoking responses.
The idea actually isn’t that a man became God, but that God decided to become a man. Or more accurately, God embodied Himself in the person of a first-century Jewish man: Jesus.
Jesus’ followers believe he is both human and divine at the same time. How this is possible is something of a mystery for us finite human beings. But the idea that it is possible should be a no-brainer.
After all, if God created the universe, He can do pretty much anything He wants. And the universe we live in is something we are still figuring out. How did the “Big Bang” work exactly? How can light be a particle and also a wave? If the created universe is hard for us to figure out, how much more the creator Himself? So, if God decides to embody Himself in a human being, why shouldn’t that be possible?
But this also relates to the next question:
He is! The idea is not that God stopped being God and turned Himself into a person instead.
If you or I turned ourselves into zebras (assuming we had that interesting superpower), we wouldn’t be people anymore. Or when a caterpillar “turns itself into” a butterfly, there’s biological continuity, but the little flying creature is no longer a caterpillar.
When we say God became a man, we mean something different. God decided to embody Himself in a human being, so that Jesus was fully human and fully divine. God didn’t “turn Himself” into Jesus. God was still omnipresent, still in heaven, and still everyplace else.
God is an infinitely higher kind of being than we are. Things are possible for God that make no sense for us. Just the idea of Him being in heaven and also everywhere is impossible to fully understand. And both Jewish and Christian theologians will say that God exists outside of our time. So, God could enter history as a particular Jewish person, and He could also be omnipresent without any contradiction.
The New Testament writers spoke of it in expressions like these:
The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.1
Messiah Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, … emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.2
[Jesus] is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.3
This embodiment is usually called the Incarnation, which means “taking on human flesh” or human nature.
The New Testament also shows us that God exists as a three-in-one unity, and certain stories in the Tanakh (or the Old Testament, if that’s your preferred term) are also suggestive.
We know that God is one because of the Shema: “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.”
But in the Hebrew Bible, He doesn’t exist as an indivisible numerical unity, but as one God who somehow shows Himself in many different ways. Most obviously, He exists as a heavenly, divine King of the Universe. Yet He is also a moving Spirit that fills the people of Israel. At other times, He’s somehow embodied in a physical form where He wrestles with Jacob (Genesis 32:24–30) or lets His “feet” be seen by the elders of Israel (Exodus 24:9–11).
The Hebrew Bible doesn’t tell us how all this is possible, and it doesn’t give any handy definition of God’s complex nature. Instead, it just presents God in the many mysterious ways that Israel experienced Him (more on this below).
The New Testament handles God in pretty much the same way. But Jesus’ teaching reveals a more nuanced understanding. Like the Hebrew Bible, Jesus never offers definitions, but (as we might expect from God incarnate) simply teaches in a way that reveals behind-the-scenes knowledge.
If we study the New Testament closely, we see that the one creator God exists in three persons, who are called the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. The New Testament writers took those terms from the Tanakh, which was their authoritative source for understanding God and the Messiah.
Followers of Jesus believe that the Son became incarnate as Jesus, which is why Jesus could address God as his Father at the same time as he is God, come in person.
Mysterious and even paradoxical? Sure. But it’s also something that’s very personal and relational. If God became incarnate in Jesus, then He is no distant figure “in the sky” who can’t relate to us simple humans—He became one of us and can relate intimately to the human situation.
Surprisingly, this idea is actually quite Jewish. Many of us learned in Hebrew school that God can’t become a man, and that He certainly isn’t three-in-one. Those ideas, we were told, are for Christians, and Jews don’t believe that way. (Let’s put aside for now whether something about God can be true for Christians but not for anyone else.)
But it turns out that the idea that God is an indivisible, numeric “one-ness” comes not from the Hebrew Bible but from the great medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides.
In the Middle Ages, Jewish as well as Christian and Muslim philosophers came heavily under the influence of Greek philosophy and particularly Aristotle. Based on this Greek influence, Maimonides formulated his ideas about God, humanity, and the Bible. There are some things in Orthodox Jewish thinking that are indebted more to Aristotle than to the Bible, and this is one of them.
Scholars today who are on the cutting edge of biblical studies have come to believe that the situation is very different. Here is one voice from Professor Benjamin Sommer of Jewish Theological Seminary, whose book The Bodies of God is part of this newer trend:
[My book] forces a reevaluation of a common Jewish attitude toward Christianity. Some Jews regard Christianity’s claim to be a monotheistic religion with grave suspicion, both because of the doctrine of the trinity (how can three equal one?) and because of Christianity’s core belief that God took bodily form. What I have attempted to point out here is that biblical Israel knew very similar doctrines, and these doctrines did not disappear from Judaism after the biblical period.…
No Jew sensitive to Judaism’s own classical sources, however, can fault the theological model Christianity employs when it avows belief in a God who has an earthly body as well as a Holy Spirit and a heavenly manifestation, for that model, we have seen, is a perfectly Jewish one.4 (emphasis added)
Professor Sommer is far from being a believer in Jesus, and those quotes aren’t intended to imply that he is. He has other reasons why he does not accept that Jesus is the Messiah. But the ideas of the Incarnation and God’s being as three-in-one are not among those.
One example of what Professor Sommer is referring to is in Genesis 18, the classic biblical story of Abraham hosting three guests, which forms one basis of Jewish thinking about hospitality.
In the Genesis story, Abraham’s three guests turn out to be … men? Or are they angels? Or is one of them God Himself? At one moment Abraham is talking to the guests, then to God, then to the guests. And the guests reply, or is it that God replies, or…. It is all very vague and mysterious.
It is clear that Yhwh [that is God, using the four letters of his name in Hebrew] appears in bodily form to Abraham in this passage; what is less clear is whether all three bodies were Yhwh’s throughout, or whether all three were Yhwh’s at the outset of the chapter but only one of them by its end, or whether the other two were merely servants.5
Indeed, one of the visitors “clearly is and is not identical with Yhwh; more precisely, He is Yhwh, but is not all of Yhwh or the only manifestation of Yhwh.”6
In another mysterious passage, Jacob wrestles with a “man” who apparently is also God. For after Jacob successfully wins the wrestling match—which lasts all night long until daybreak—Jacob says, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.”7
A third story is the birth of Samson in Judges 13. The “angel of the Lord” appears to Samson’s parents, Manoah and his unnamed wife. At the end of the episode, we read:
Then Manoah knew that he was the angel of the Lord. And Manoah said to his wife, “We shall surely die, for we have seen God.”8
This angel of the Lord, who seems both human-like and God-like, makes several appearances in the Tanakh; here he is explicitly said to be God, or a manifestation of God.
Beyond this, one can also look at the Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition that developed in medieval times and has become quite popular today in a kind of “Kabbalah-lite” version. Some in the past tried to find Christian teaching in the Kabbalah, but that is really a fruitless exercise. But we can note that in Kabbalah, God exists or manifests Himself in the created universe as ten sefirot, often translated emanations.
In a sense then, God is not three-in-one but ten-in-one in the Kabbalah! The comparison with the New Testament ends there. But the point is that we have this very influential movement in Judaism that also does not see God as a single, invisible unity à la Maimonides.
Yes, Jewish tradition does teach that. And the Scripture says that we are made “in the image and likeness of God.”9 But reading through the Bible, we also see that although we have incredible value and worth, we are not divine.
We are not God or part of God. God is separate from His creation, though He is also intimately involved with the world He created at many different levels. But the fact that God and His creation are not the same thing makes it all the more amazing that God became incarnate as a human being in Jesus. We may not be God, but God decided to enter His own creation.
Saying that Jesus is God can still sound like some random idea until we understand what it’s really all about. Suppose God did embody Himself in Jesus. So what?
God did not become incarnated in a person for unknown or arbitrary reasons. It was actually for our benefit. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who had promised to redeem the Jewish people and the nations of the world, became the physically embodied Messiah of Israel. By doing this, God identified Himself both with the Jewish people and with all of humanity.
God became a human being in order to show us more intimately than ever what God was really like, and to die a sacrificial death to atone for our sins—something which God could not do unless He also became human.
Michael L. Brown, Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, Volume 2: Theological Objections (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000). Discusses objections one by one. The first few sections cover the topic of this article.
Benjamin D. Sommer, The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009). This is an academic book, so it’s not for the casual reader.
Larry W. Hurtado, How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God? (Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2005). The first part comes out of lectures that he gave, so it’s good for an educated readership who might not be well acquainted with the issues. The second part is journal articles, so it’s probably at a more academic level.
1 John 1:14.
2 Philippians 2:5–8 (slightly adapted).
3 Hebrews 1:3.
4 Benjamin D. Sommer, The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 135.
5 Sommer, Bodies of God, 40.
6 Sommer, Bodies of God, 41.
7 Genesis 32:30.
8 Judges 13:21–22.
9 Genesis 1:26 (paraphrased).