Larry Hurtado has a clear and concise summary statement of his view regarding the emergence of what he calls “Jesus devotion”. He does not think that Jesus himself demanded to be worshipped, which is not quite the same as saying that Jesus did not claim to be God or act as though he thought he were God, but it’s close. Rather, the early church directed devotion towards Jesus as soon as it became apparent that God had exalted him to a position of glory and power at his right hand.
Essentially, I contend that a critical sifting of the evidence (in the NT Gospels) yields the conclusion that Jesus was treated with the sort of reverence that connoted respect for a teacher or prophet or holy man, especially by those who approached him for healing or exorcism, or for respectful dialogue over religious matters. But there is no indication that Jesus was given the sorts or level of devotion that so quickly erupted among early circles of Jesus-believers soon after his crucifixion. Nor is there evidence that Jesus demanded recognition as “divine” or demanded that he be given worship. We should not expect this of a devout Jew of his time, and the evidence conforms to this expectation.
So, one might ask, if Jesus never demanded such reverence, what is the justification for it? Why did early Jesus-believers practice such devotion to Jesus? The answer seems to be that they held the conviction that God had exalted Jesus to an exceptional place of heavenly glory (e.g., Acts 2:36; 1 Peter 1:21), had enthroned Jesus as universal ruler (e.g., 1 Cor. 15:20-28), had declared him to be “the son of God” (e.g., Rom 1:3-4), had given Jesus to share in the divine “name” (e.g., Philippians 2:9-11), and now required that Jesus be reverenced in an unprecedented manner (e.g., John 5:23). Indeed, these early believers appear to have felt that to refuse to give Jesus the devotion reflected in the early Christian sources would be to disobey God.
In short, the reason for treating Jesus as so central in their devotional practice was fundamentally theo-centric: God required it.
That last statement is an interesting one, but if Hurtado is saying that by exalting Jesus in this way God has demanded that people worship him, he may be saying too much.
There is clearly a requirement that both Jews and Gentiles, in different ways, should accept or confess that the authority to judge and save has been given to the Jesus who was crucified by the rulers in Jerusalem and raised from the dead. But this is consistently a matter of eschatology rather than of theology or worship or divine identity. The response could perhaps be construed as devotion in some looser sense, but that would still, I think, miss the point. What God appears actually to have required is, first, belief that he really has done this and, secondly, repentance “in the name of Jesus Christ”. I’m not sure I see where—for example, in Peter’s speeches in Acts—a demand that Jesus be worshipped is formulated on the basis of his exaltation.
Even in Philippians 2:9-11 the climax to the story of Jesus’ faithfulness and vindication is that the nations will confess that he is Lord, “to the glory of God the Father”, which then has immediate eschatological, rather than, say, ontological, implications: “work out your own salvation… holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ…” (Phil. 2:12, 16).
So the emphasis on what God has done in all this is absolutely right. But I would suggest that the argument about devotion or worship has, nevertheless, been determined by later christological concerns. Hurtado’s emphasis on the practice of devotion is a good way of retrojecting these concerns into the immediate historical circumstances of the early church, but I am not persuaded that it is the right category for making sense of how the first believers responded to the “fact” of Jesus’ exaltation.