Following my post on the question of whether Jesus claimed to be God it was (indirectly) suggested to me that Jesus may have communicated his sense of divine identity through his actions rather than through his words. Despite popular assumptions to the contrary, Jesus’ miracles in themselves cannot be counted as evidence that he was God; nor can his resurrection. Off the top of my head, I can think of no more than two or three incidents that might qualify (I am open to considering other suggestions), and in these cases it still seems more likely that they reveal a person who believes he is acting on behalf of God rather than a person who thinks that he is acting as God.
The stilling of the storm
Jesus’ stilling of the storm on the Sea of Galilee (Matt. 8:23-27) must recall passages in the Psalms which speak of YHWH as the ‘hope of all the ends of the earth’, as incomparable among the heavenly beings, who gathers his chastised and distressed people from the ends of the earth. It is this supranational, politically engaged God who ‘stills the roaring of the seas, the roaring of their waves, the tumult of the peoples’ (Ps. 65:5-8), who rules ‘the raging sea’ (Ps. 89:9), who ‘made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed’ (Ps. 107:29). What these passages have in common is the by no means straightforward recognition that the God of Israel, indeed the God of Israel under judgment, subject to and harassed by the nations, is God of the whole earth and can therefore save his people from destruction.
That Jesus has the power, or has access to the power, to still the storm is not in itself intended as evidence that he was divine. But does the symbolic dimension to his action – the evocation of the drama of the Psalms – point to a divine self-consciousness of some sort? Does he mean, ‘I am doing what the Psalms say YHWH does, therefore it is right to think of me as YHWH’? Or is he saying, ‘By stilling the storm I want you to understand that I am acting on behalf of the God who will deliver his people from the distress of their oppression by the nations’? If the stilling of the storm is to be taken as a sign of what YHWH will do in restoring his people following judgment, then Jesus is acting as a prophet, not as God himself. This seems the more likely meaning of the passage – one that is consistent, moreover, with two other incidents in which he enacts symbolically what God will do actually and historically.
The protest in the temple
The words with which Jesus interprets his protest in the temple (“It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers”: Matt. 21:13) come from Jeremiah 7 and Isaiah 56. Jesus brings to mind, therefore, on the one hand, the prospect of catastrophic judgment on the corrupt temple system and the destruction of the temple; and on the other, the hope that, following judgment and the restoration of the people, ‘foreigners’ will join themselves to the Lord so that the ‘rebuilt’ temple (ie., the new community of ‘Israel’ formed around the suffering messiah) will become a ‘house of prayer for all peoples’. Through the drama of his violent actions Jesus spoke prophetically about what YHWH would soon do in judging and reconstituting a corrupt nation. He is not claiming to be God himself any more than Isaiah or Jeremiah was.
The entry into Jerusalem
Similarly, it can be argued – and has been argued splendidly by N.T. Wright – that by riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, Jesus was telling a story about the return of YHWH to Zion following the protracted ‘exile’ of the people and absence of God from his house and city.
I suggest, in short, that the return of YHWH to Zion, and the Temple theology which it brings into focus, are the deepest keys and clues to gospel christology. Forget the ‘titles’ of Jesus, at least for a moment; forget the pseudo-orthodox attempts to make Jesus of Nazareth conscious of being the second person of the Trinity; forget the arid reductionism that is the mirror image of that unthinking would-be orthodoxy. Focus, instead, on a young Jewish prophet telling a story about YHWH returning to Zion as judge and redeemer, and then embodying it by riding into the city in tears, symbolizing the Temple’s destruction and celebrating the final exodus. I propose, as a matter of history, that Jesus of Nazareth was conscious of a vocation: a vocation, given him by the one he knew as ‘father’, to enact in himself what, in Israel’s scriptures, God had promised to accomplish all by himself. He would be the pillar of cloud and fire for the people of the new exodus. He would embody in himself the returning and redeeming action of the covenant God.1
The climactic phrase ‘embody in himself’, however, has to be understood carefully: this is still to be read as symbolic drama; it is a narrative and prophetic, not a metaphysical, ‘incarnation’. There is clearly a question of whether Jesus had the exceptional authority from God to perform this prophetic role. Or to put it differently, was he justified in putting himself forward, in so controversial a fashion, as Israel’s king? That even the wind and the waves obeyed him presumably points to the fact that he has been given the authority of the universal, creator God not merely to keep the boat from foundering but to define an unorthodox way of deliverance for distressed Israel. The story of the Son of Man, as I suggested in ‘Did Jesus claim to be God?’, establishes a future dimension to this question: the Son of Man, who will be rejected by his own people and suffer at the hands of the Gentiles, will be vindicated before the throne of God and will receive ‘dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him’ (Dan. 7:14).
The explicit allusion to Zechariah 9 in the account of the entry into Jerusalem casts Jesus as Israel’s king, who approaches the city in humility, on the foal of a donkey. When he comes, God will defeat the nations (including the sons of Greece) that make war against Jerusalem, and he will establish peace (Zech. 9:9-13). No doubt Jesus expected the people of Jerusalem to understand the wider implications of the prophecy, but we should probably assume that he preserves the distinction between the king who comes and the God who acts through the historical events.
Jesus dramatically predicts the upheaval, régime-change, political-religious transformation that will come about through his coming to the city and the ensuing chain of events. As a prophet he interprets these historical events as the means through which YHWH will act to judge and restore his people: the rule of God is executed through the highly unconventional ‘kingship’ – almost the counter-kingship – of Jesus. His resurrection will be the immediate vindication of his message to Israel, but it is essentially in the historical events, in the demonstration of a humble kingship, that the decisive intervention of God will be revealed: in the defiance of Jewish and Roman authority, in the suffering, in the willingness to face death – and in the inclusion of a community, filled with the Spirit of Jesus, in that narrative posture.
I suspect that this trajectory of a counter-kingship is taking us firmly in the direction of a decisive challenge to the status of the prevailing gods and the corresponding acknowledgment of the ‘lordship’ of Jesus. We see it articulated concisely and poetically in Philippians 2:5-11: unlike the blasphemous and aggressive pagan ruler who counts equality with God a thing to be grasped (cf. Dan. 7:25; 11:36; 2 Thess. 2:4), Jesus makes himself of no account, takes the form of a servant, wretchedly human, and is obedient to the point of death on the cross; but in vindication of this obedience he is elevated to a position of supreme authority over all the gods of the nations – and we are then a whisker away from identifying him with YHWH, to whom ‘every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear allegiance’ (Is. 45:23).
But I would still want to set some narrative-historical boundaries to this process. I argue in my forthcoming book on Romans, The Future of the People of God: Reading Romans before and after Western Christendom, to be published by Wipf and Stock, that Paul’s ‘gospel’ has in view (among other things) the concrete historical victory of Christ and of the community of his followers over the gods of the Greek-Roman oikoumenē – over the pagan empire. At least, it is important to get a sense of how christology developed under contingent cultural conditions, as an engagement first with Judaism, then with paganism, and finally with Hellenistic philosophy.
Christology, therefore, is not necessarily best understood as the search for a universal and final expression of the relationship of Jesus to God. It may rather be the ongoing, always contextualized, always perspectival endeavour to capture the significance of the narrative of the renewal of Israel and the victory of YHWH over the gods of Greece and Rome, pre-empted in Jesus, for our understanding of, and relationship to, the creator. In that case, however, we may need to explore new ways of framing the significance of Jesus for the post-eschatological people of God, after imperialism, after Christendom, after modernity. My initial guess is that this will bring to the fore (new) creational rather than eschatological categories – Jesus as the firstborn of all creation rather than Jesus as firstborn from the dead (cf. Col. 1:15-20).
- 1N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 653.