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Why Did Not Jesus Christ Call Himself God?

Met. Anthony sketch

Blessed Metropolitan Anthony (Khrapovitsky) of Kiev

We, the sons of little-believing modernity, have to settle this matter because of the arguments against the divinity of Christ, based on the supposition that Christ Himself never called Himself God. These objections are especially skillfully spread by the Muslims, who, to our shame, often turn out to be better connoisseurs of our Bible than we are.

Those of us who read the Gospel hurry to quote the utterances which show that the Lord required us to believe in Him, approved of those professing Him to be the Son of God, called Himself the same, and spoke about His nature as equal to the Father. Still, the objectors are little convinced by these utterances in the Gospel: the Muslims find in them only references to the more than human dignity of Jesus Christ but not to His divine character; and rationalists understand them in the pantheistic sense, in which, in their opinion, these utterances can be applied to any man. It is easier to refute the opinion of the latter than that of Muslims; it is enough to read to them those words of Christ in which He reveals His exclusive relation to the Father, atypical of other people, and then to show them the absolute difference between the pantheistic views and the Biblical teachings of faith—those of the Old Testament and Christian ones, in which are shown the personal relations between God and man.

It is much more difficult to satisfy the demands of the Mohammedans, whom the Semite culture taught to perceive some evangelic truths very well, but at the same time introduced into the latter a very consistent distortion. The Muslim religion teaches that Jesus, miraculously conceived by a righteous woman, bearing the divine spirit, even Himself being the divine Spirit and the holiest man, brought the heavenly doctrine to earth; but after His ascension to heaven (in which Muslims believe, though denying both the Resurrection of Christ, the crucifixion, and His death), His disciples and the Apostle Paul (who is especially hated by them), distorted the teaching of Jesus and the story of His life narrated in the holy book—so the Gospel, after its gradual distortion, as they think, is being presented to the people in a misinterpreted form.

By this similar representation of Christ, the sly leaders of the Muslims kill two birds with one stone. They do not stop their followers from approving of the inspiring truths of the Gospel teaching and thus do not force them to go against the obvious truth, but on the other hand, they block the path of following the truth, which could lead to joining the Christian community, and proclaim the true teachings of Jesus the Prophet to have been lost by the Christians but restored and augmented by God through Mohammed.

Because Christians, arguing with Muslims about the advantage of their Teacher above Mohammed, resort to the divinity of Christ, Muslims try to repulse us decisively in this truth, stating that Jesus never called Himself God and that this dogma was invented by His disciples. It is useful to refute this objection not only for those who have to deal with Muslims, but also for all Christians, because, unfortunately, the unrighteous words of those circumcised are often repeated by the baptized but little-believing sons of European culture. These latter, without reason, love to distinguish the Gospel from the whole integrity of the New Testament, though the whole New Testament is written by the same apostles. Certainly, another reason for this division is ignorance.

The tempting character of this question gains more power within the contemporary mentality due to the influence of Western doctrines upon our schools’ methods for the teaching of faith. And so, the settling of this perplexing matter about the divinity of Christ should begin with the refutation of these Western views of Christianity. Certainly this truth is, undoubtedly, one of the most precious and holiest truths of Christianity, which would have stopped being Christianity if it had lost the saving belief in this truth.

But, on the other hand, the Protestant teaching about a saving belief in the divinity of Jesus Christ, with a careless attitude towards His commandments, elucidates the Gospel history only in one aspect. If salvation, given to us by Jesus Christ, is seen only in the necessity to believe in His divinity, then surely this truth would be the main object of His preaching.

And suddenly they tell us that the Lord never called Himself God directly and clearly. Once He said that His Father is greater than Him, and another time He called the Father His God and the Lord of His followers. If the teaching about the divinity of Christ is the unique goal of His sermons, then how can one explain why He did not directly say what the essence of His mission on earth was? We understand the importance of this bewilderment and the necessity of settling this matter.

Is it typical of the Orthodox teachers to have such a view of the Gospel message, as upon only one dogma about the divinity of Christ?—Certainly, the holy fathers did not miss a chance to prove this truth using the utterances of Christ in which it was contained. But despite the Protestant interpretations, our Church exegetics do not testify that the Lord tried to instill faith in His divinity in the listeners of His sermons, but on the contrary says that He concealed His divinity. So, in several stichera from the Festal Menaion and Triodion Christ is called unseen, i.e., concealed God. The Lord concealed His divine origin, according to the interpretation of the holy fathers, until His Resurrection, not so much from the people but mainly from the devil, who only because of his inability to foresee that Christ would destroy the kingdom of Hades with His divinity, led the Jews to the point of putting Him to death.

Does such a view of the fathers correspond to the evangelic history?—It does, and we shall prove that now. And when we prove that Jesus Christ, being true God, had an intention to conceal His divinity from the people who were not ready for the acceptance of this truth, if we understand those motives by which our Lord and Teacher was guided, then, I hope, we shall understand why He did not call Himself God literally and directly, though He was God and taught His apostles to believe in Him as in God.

Let us say several words about this belief, before resorting to the Gospel history. The Savior revealed it to the Jews who asked Him: Who art Thou? —"Even the same that I said unto you from the beginning"—the Lord answered. "Before Abraham was, I am" (John 8:58); "I and My Father are one" (John 10:30). In these utterances the Lord proclaims His pre-eternal existence and coessentiality with the Father. When the Pharisees doubted the teaching powers of the Savior, He directly announced His divine right to forgive sins. "But that ye may know that the Son of Man hath power on earth to forgive sins" (Mark 2:10). The Lord possessed this power and glory "before the world was" (John 17:5). He professed Himself as all-knowing and omnipresent: "As the Father knoweth Me, even so know I the Father" (John 10:15); "no man knoweth the Son, but the Father; neither knoweth any man the Father, save the Son" (Matt. 11:27); "no man hath ascended up to heaven, but He that came down from heaven, even the Son of man Who is in heaven" (John 3:13).

Is it necessary to prove that the Savior said this about Himself personally, not about the incarnation of some abstract impersonal “world spirit,” which is worshipped by pantheists?—Not the evolution of a world spirit, but His personal life is what He describes in His final conversation with the disciples: "I came forth from the Father, and am come into the world; again, I leave the world and go to the Father" (John 16:28).

In the Gospel one can find many words of Christ from which it is seen that He professed Himself as God, though He did not say directly, "I am God." It is obvious that in the phrases given above, the Lord made those asking Him believe that He was the eternal Being, Who was personally and consciously living before His physical birth and was predestined to return to His former glory, equal to that of God. From those utterances it is seen that though the Lord Jesus Christ did not call Himself God even once, this truth is implied in His speech with definitiveness and clarity.

However, it is impossible not to notice the fact that He was forced to say what He did only after the persistent questions of the Jews. Therefore, the thought of the Church teaching that the Lord hid His divinity as long as possible preserves its force.

Now let us turn to the Gospel history in order to determine the truth of this thought, as promised.

The interpreters who are inclined to see in all the events and words of the Gospel the message of Christ about His divinity first of all point to His miracles, as to acts performed for the sake of such a message. No doubt, the miracles of Christ were one of the most important stimuli for His disciples to believe in His dignity, which was more than human. Note, however, if it was always the Lord Who instilled such a kind of faith. The Savior often prohibited others to spread the news about His miracles of the curing of lepers (Mark 1) and the possessed (Mark 3; Luke 4:41); He concealed His miracle at the wedding in Cana of Galilee (John 2), did not allow the apostles to speak of His miraculous Transfiguration, and showed the resurrection of the daughter of Jairus only to the five of them. But in other cases, the Savior Himself ordered others to proclaim His miracles, for example, to the possessed Gadarenes or to the disciples of John who doubted His Messianic mission; finally, a great number of miracles were performed by Him in front of a crowd of many thousands of people, as, for instance, His feeding the crowd by five loaves and, later, seven loaves, the resurrection of the son of the widow of Nain, the raising of Lazarus, etc.

This comparison is absolutely just, and it will help us to answer the question: what made the Lord conceal His miraculous power?

I think it is easier to answer this with the help of an opposite question: what would happen if the Lord started His preaching by revealing His divinity, performing miraculous cures, concluding with the message that He was God, Who had become incarnate but had not ceased to be God and equal to the Father? It would have made people die of horror (Ex. 33:20). Our soul cannot bear an undisguised appearance of the infinite, divine Being. Let no one think that there is some exaggeration in these words. In those few cases when the Savior revealed the glory of His divinity even a little, men fainted from fear. The same happened to everyone, both His friends and enemies. "Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord," said Peter after the miraculous catch of fish, and at the time of the Transfiguration of Christ on the mount, His disciples were overwhelmed by such fear that they fell to the ground and remained in that state until the vision of the glory of the Lord was over, and He, having approached them with His former appearance, said "It is I; be not afraid!" And the next time He said powerfully "I am" to the crowd of enemies who came to arrest Him, it aroused in them such fear that "they went backward, and fell to the ground."

Thus, when it occurred to the Jews that there was some possibility that the teacher Jesus was not a simple prophet, but the One Who had descended from God to earth, they became astonished and could not come close to Him (Luke 4:30; John 7:30; 8:59; 10:39; Luke 11:19). Think now, could they really bear the definite truth, proved by His miracles, that the Teacher staying with them was God? Not only simple sinners, but God-enlightened prophets became as dead from fear when only an angel appeared before them. And even angels, archangels, cherubim, and seraphim cannot endure seeing God; in fear they cover their faces, seeing His glory, and cannot stop their reverent glorifications, which cause one to tremble, as was once revealed to Prophet Isaiah (ch. 6).

The Lord taught people the truth of His divinity, but He expressed this truth partially so that they could be convinced of it little by little. It is not so typical of the human mind to admit that the Person appealing to it was the Inhabitant of heaven and moreover God, so that, on the testimony of the evangelists, even the apostles perceived similar words as something absolutely mysterious, and they consciously accepted them only after the Resurrection of Christ (John 2:22).

The very prediction of the Lord about His Resurrection was not comprehended by them (Mark 9:10), and at the time of His arrest they finally forgot that prediction, though it was said by Christ one hour before His arrest (Mt. 26:32)—and forgot in such a way that they did not even believe the myrrh-bearers when they announced that they saw the resurrected Lord (Mark 16:13). They could not believe their eyes when He appeared before them—until they touched Him with their hands and saw Him eating food. Only then, when doubting Thomas touched His wounds, did the mouth of man first directly proclaim Christ to be true God: "My Lord and my God!" And Christ approved of such a proclamation.

The Lord had another motive for not revealing His divinity to the people, even believing ones. Let us analyze this motive, using the Gospel.

Whom did the Lord call believers, while He was alive?—Those who believed that He came from God and that His words were divine (John 7:16-18). He did not wish to make people see His divinity, or even His prophetic dignity, using external means, so that the coerced human mind would accept His commandments slavishly, as it happens with the followers of Mohammed, but He wished to see the free agreement of their minds with His teaching about virtue.

Many abuse this expression: "the free agreement of the mind" and understand one’s very faith as something dissimilar to the usual logical proof. This is absolutely incorrect. Our faith has no blind freedom. Free acceptance of believing in the truth and holiness of the commandments of Christ, and consequently in His divinity, is just as compulsory for an attentive and unbiased observer as the rules of arithmetic; but attentiveness and impartiality are qualities of the soul that cannot be obtained by force: "Search the Scriptures; for in them ye think to have eternal life: and those are they which testify of Me. And ye will not come to Me, that ye might have life" (John 5:39-40). If contemporary man would understand the simple truth that having a mind free from any passion leads to faith, and also would understand the fact that it is rather difficult, and even impossible, for unbelievers to achieve impartiality through examining the subjects of faith without divine help, then outstanding literature about knowledge and faith, science and religion would lose its significance, and the wise could be occupied with more useful questions, concerning the spirit.

But let us turn back to the Gospel. So, first of all the Lord wished people to love the new virtues preached by Him. This is the way it was with those Pharisees’ servants who did not want to arrest Him, listening to His heavenly teaching with delight, and they said to their masters to justify themselves: "Never did a man speak as this Man." Yes, the Savior wished men, on the testimony of their own hearts, to come to the conviction that the Preacher of this teaching is not a simple man but the Messenger of God, so that, finally being convinced of this, they with absolute trust would accept those extraordinary words of the Savior about Himself, the sense of which was not so clear for them while the Lord was among them, but which, after His resurrection from the dead, became logical and clear to them, as the truth about the divine, equal to the Father dignity of the Redeemer, "Light of Light: true God of true God."

We have said ‘logical and clear,’ because the logic of the utterances of Jesus Christ mentioned above, concerning Himself, is unique, and it is conveyed in the Creed, but meek human souls did not dare to understand the meaning of those miraculous words while the Savior was alive and were content with the conviction that their Teacher was the highest Messenger of God, Who only recently became incarnate and took on the appearance of a meek and humiliated simple Man.

From such a supposition concerning the aims of the teaching of Christ, it will become clear to us when He concealed His divine qualities and when He revealed them. He hid them at the beginning of His preaching to avoid the mental enslavement of His listeners.

After all the attempts of the Lord to make the people who become close to Him remember that the closeness of the Lord to their hearts depends on their personal freedom from passions and any evil, He still sometimes met with the incomprehension of that truth, even among His best disciples.

What disappointed our Savior the most? Was it disbelief, or belief but with no Christian spirit? We think that both did to an equal extent, and this will be proved by an analysis of Christ’s miracle of feeding the multitude with five loaves. As a result of this miracle, the people decided to proclaim Him their king and revolt against the Romans.

The Lord did not perform that miracle to amaze people with His extraordinary power. The people, having forgotten about their physical needs, followed the Lord into a faraway wilderness, for the Lord more than once taught that one should not care about what to eat or drink and in what to be clothed, but to seek the kingdom of God and its truth, and then "all these things shall be added unto us." On that day the people acted according to that commandment: was it not necessary to prove it in action? Therefore, compassion for the people and the desire to support the believers in a carefree attitude toward their everyday needs became His motive for performing the miracle with the loaves. But the Lord did not become glad concerning the Jews’ ardent but senseless belief in His Messianic mission, with which belief the fed people were filled, so that He even fled from them. When the people found Him on the other side of the sea the next day, after the first impression faded a little, then the Lord started exposing them and revealed the absolute instability of their external faith, for those who the day before shouted: "This is of a truth that prophet that should come into the world"—the next day were saying: "This is a hard saying; who can hear it?"—and complained, so that "from that time many of His disciples went back, and walked no more with Him" (John 6:14, 60-66).

Here is the explanation in the words of the evangelist about faith based on external proofs: "Now when He was in Jerusalem at the passover, in the feast day, many believed in His name, when they saw the miracles which He did. But Jesus did not commit Himself unto them, because He knew all men" (John 2:23-24). The Lord knew that the Jews would lose that external faith as soon as they would learn how His teaching contradicted their passions: "But I know you, that ye have not the love of God in you. I am come in My Father's name, and ye receive Me not: if another shall come in his own name, him ye will receive" (John 5:42-44).

To free the Jewish people from their prejudices, based upon the Pharisees’ distortions of the Biblical truth, the Lord directly declares His heavenly dignity, which the people correctly understood as a message of His equality with the Father: "‘My Father worketh until now, and I work.’ Therefore the Jews sought the more to kill Him, because He not only had broken the sabbath but said also that God was His Father, making Himself equal with God" (John 5:17-19). In another similar case the Savior says: therefore "the Son of Man is Lord even of the sabbath" (Mt. 12:8). Those evil ones among the Jews persistently objected to the words of the Lord, and there He mentioned again that neither miracles nor prophecies were the reason why some believed in His teaching; but on the contrary, the disgust of the Jews towards His commandments was the reason for their disbelieving in His miracles: Ye have not His word abiding in you?—Because My word hath no place in you" (John 8:33-37; 5:38-44). According to the same sequence, the Lord waited for faith to be expressed by those who were expecting miraculous cures; therefore He refused to perform a miracle before those enemies not believing in His teaching, promising to them only the sign of Jonas the prophet and telling the sufferers who were begging for cures, "If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth. According to your faith be it unto you," and so forth.

So the Lord did not force anyone to believe in Him, though He could have achieved that through wonder-working; but when the unbelievers were asking Him: "Art Thou the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” Jesus said, “I am: and ye shall see the Son of Man sitting on the right of the power and coming on the clouds of heaven" (Mark 14:61-62). Surely, no pantheistic meaning can be assigned to such definite utterances by the Tolstoy movement; for pantheists, these utterances are of some personal character.

In conclusion, let us free the Mohammedans and Arians of their state of perplexity caused by some utterances of the Lord. The former especially like to quote the words of Christ: "Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, Ye are gods’?" (John 10:34) and state that the Lord called Himself the son of God in a general, human sense. But such an unfounded statement is refuted by the following words of the Savior, from which one can see that He called Himself the Son of God in a very special sense, and the Hebrews would not have considered that name to be a blasphemy if He was just a simple man. "If he called them gods, unto whom the word of God came, and the Scripture cannot be broken; Say ye of him, whom the Father hath sanctified and sent into the world, ‘Thou blasphemest,’ because I said, I am the Son of God?" (vv. 35-36).

Arians, to support their heresy, referred to the words of Christ: "My Father is greater than I" (John 14:28). The Orthodox representatives answer them very justly that the Lord said it concerning His human nature. And if somebody has doubts about such an interpretation, then they will disappear after reading the sermon of Christ further on. This part of His farewell conversation, from the beginning until the fifteenth chapter, presents the comforting of the disciples about the forthcoming separation and their preparation to bear the foreseen humiliation of Christ. The Lord instills into them that His forthcoming betrayal is not an execution of a defenseless Man by a powerful government but the voluntary return of the heavenly Messenger from the valley of terrestrial humiliation to the glory of the heavenly Father: "Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid,” said the Lord, “ye believe in God, believe also in Me.... I go to prepare a place for you.... I will come again and receive you unto Myself.... I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you."

However, His disciples could not agree with this: Thomas, Philip, and Jude ask Him questions, from which we see their infinite grief about the forthcoming separation and humiliation of their Teacher. He again comforts them with words of love: "Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid. Ye have heard how I said unto you, I go away and come again unto you. If ye loved Me"—continues the Lord, i.e. ‘if you understand the fact that all that will happen is to My glory, then you would understand that no humiliation waits for Me in My death for mankind, for, dying for mankind, I come back to the Father, Who is greater than I am in terms of this human nature—"If ye loved Me, ye would rejoice, because I said, ‘I go unto the Father; for My Father is greater than I’" (v. 28). Could the Lord speak here about His divinity, which does not die, comforting His disciples about the forthcoming Crucifixion and death of His human nature? For He had just revealed His divinity and coessentiality with the Father to them: "If a man love Me, he will keep My words: and My Father will love him, and We will come unto him, and make Our abode with him" (v. 23), and a little earlier: “He that hath seen Me hath seen the Father; and how sayest thou then, ‘Show us the Father’?” (v. 9). Here is a reference to the absolute equality of the Father and the Son.

The same words about the abode of the Father and the Son in the heart of the believer, and also the further predictions of the Lord that the believers will join the unity of the Father and Son, will help us in eliminating another question of the Mohammedans, concerning the words: "I ascend unto My Father and your Father; and to My God and your God" (20:17). There is no reference here to an inequality between the Father and Son, but a notification about the participation of believers in the glory of the Father and Son, and that they are no more the slaves of Christ, but His friends (15:15).

This is the glory which the Lord gains after His Ascension, and He testifies in His words to Mary Magdalene that His friends since that time become so close to His Father, as He had promised to them, that their newly-blessed relationship with God is very similar to that relationship which is between the essential human nature and God; that they are already His brothers in His human spirit: "Go to My brethren, and say unto them" (20:17). Further on, in the same chapter of the Gospel the Lord accepts the profession of one of His human brothers: "My Lord and my God," and, approving of it, answers: "Because thou hast seen Me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen and yet have believed" (20:28-29). By these words He commends those believing that He is true God, and condemns the doubtful.

The same is the final answer of ours to the main question, proved by the Gospel and the whole history of the terrestrial life of Jesus Christ, which refutes all false contradictions. The Lord professed Himself as true God but wished the disciples to perceive this truth gradually, first of all loving the holiness of His commandments, then venerating His humiliation and sufferings, and finally, seeing His Resurrection.

Archbishop Gregory
Dormition Skete
P.O. Box 3177
Buena Vista, CO 81211-3177
Contact: Archbishop Gregory
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