The Self-Assessment of Jesus
The self-assessment of Jesus refers to the way Jesus understood and demonstrated his own identity and mission through his words and deeds.
Who is Jesus according to his own words and deeds? How did he reveal, communicate, and demonstrate his own self-understanding to those around him during his ministry? The answers to these questions are not merely theoretical and theological but also practical as they expose the identity, mission, and worthiness of Jesus. The purpose of this essay is not to psychoanalyze Jesus but to accurately understand him based on his sayings and actions evidenced in the Gospels. The evidence indicates that Jesus was fully aware of himself as God’s equal, the long awaited Messiah sent by God the Father to accomplish his mission on earth: to fulfill the longings of Israel, to inaugurate the kingdom of God on earth, and to fully identify himself with mankind to provide sinners access to the Father through his life, death, and resurrection.
Who is Jesus according to Jesus himself? How did he understand his own identity as his words and deeds tell us? Was he aware of himself as the long-awaited Messiah,1 or was he simply regarded as such by his followers? How did he understand his role on earth and did he succeed in his mission? How did he view himself with respect to God the Father and his creation? All these questions ultimately seek to evaluate Jesus’ own understanding of himself. Granted that the Gospels provide reliable historical data on Jesus based on eyewitness testimony2, the task at hand is to evaluate the words and deeds of Jesus to accurately understand how Jesus viewed and carried out his identity and mission on earth.
Jesus and Israel
Son of Man
Jesus frequently used the phrase “son of man” to refer to himself throughout the Gospels (e.g., Matt. 8:20; 12:8; 20:28; 26:2, 24; Mark 2:10, 28; 10:45; 14:41, 62; Luke 6:5; 9:22, 58; 22:48; John 8:28; 12:23; 13:31). By itself the phrase simply means, “human being.” However, it is difficult to overlook the connection to Daniel 7:14 where the prophet tells of “one like a son of man” who rides the clouds and receives an eternal kingdom. When Jesus refers to himself as “son of man” he echoes Daniel’s prophecy (e.g., Mark 13:26; 14:62; Luke 12:8-10). This suggests a heavenly origin and that Jesus understood himself to be more than a mere prophet or teacher. This understanding is reinforced when we observe that the original listeners considered the claim blasphemous (Matt. 26:65-66).
Isaiah 61 is another prominent Old Testament passage that sheds light on Jesus’ self-assessment of his identity and mission. The beginning of Isaiah 61 captures the idea of Messiah, anointed by God to bring good news to the poor, bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim liberty to the captives (Isa. 61:1-2). Jesus directly claims that he is the fulfillment of this prophecy (Luke 4:14-30). Furthermore, when John the Baptist asked Jesus if he is “the one who is to come,” Jesus responds by highlighting his works: healing people of diseases, plagues, evil spirits, and preaching the good news to the poor (Luke 7:18-23; cf. Isa 35 and 61). Jesus was letting his actions speak for themselves to affirm the messianic themes told throughout the book of Isaiah.
In Matthew 5:17-20 Jesus famously states that he came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it. This indicates Jesus’ high view of the law, but his declarations in the following verses (21-48) reflect his own unique, divine authority: “You have heard it said … but I say to you.” Jesus positions himself as greater Moses. As Ben Witherington notes: “Jesus seems to assume an authority over Torah that no Pharisee or Old Testament prophet assumed.”3
Son of David
Jesus also demonstrates that he is the son of David (cf. 2Sam. 7:11-16). In Matthew 22:41-46 Jesus, referring to Psalm 110:1, asks those in the temple how it is possible that David’s son can also be David’s Lord (Matt. 22:41-46). As the divine Messiah Jesus is both – David’s son and David’s Lord.
Jesus and the Father
In John’s Gospel Jesus often presents himself as “sent” from the Father to his mediatorial mission (John 3:34; 4:34; 5:23, 24; 30, 36, 37, 38; 6:29, 38, 39, 44, 57, etc.), and this “sent-ness” often assumes Jesus’ own heavenly origin (cf. John 17:24).
Jesus’ particular use of the Aramaic term, abba, is worth noting here as well. It connotes an intimate familial relationship (Mark 14:36). This was unattested in common Jewish prayers and Jesus’ particular and purposeful use of this term communicates his own unique relationship to the Father. We notice that this term of endearment and intimacy was used later on by the disciples of Jesus as well, which seems to suggest that through Jesus’ unique relationship with the Father, the ones who belong to the Father through the person and the work of Jesus are then given the privilege to relate to God the Father in the same manner (Rom. 8:15; Gal. 4:6). The ability for us to call God our father is only made possible through the son of God who gives us this privilege in his life, death, and resurrection.
Jesus’ unique authority based on his relationship with the Father is perhaps most vividly expressed in his “I am” statements. In John 8:58 Jesus says, “Before Abraham was, I am.” The Jews who heard him immediately recognized the allusion to Exod 3:13-15 where God identifies himself as “I am” and so sought to execute him for blasphemy (John 8:59). Though they were wrong to consider Jesus’ claim blasphemy, they rightly understood him as identifying himself with God. Similarly, in John 10 Jesus describes himself as the good shepherd and concludes by claiming, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). Again, the implications of Jesus’ deity are plain.
Forgiveness of Sins
When Jesus declares that his words carry the power to forgive sins (Mark 2:5; Luke 7:48), the scribes respond by accusing Jesus of blaspheming since the power to forgive sins only rests on God alone (Mark 2:7). Jesus was fully aware of what kind of reactions he would receive for such a claim, but his divine prerogative is precisely the point he wanted to press. The paralytic who was healed by Jesus in Mark 2 may not have had full clarity on who Jesus really was but Jesus was demonstrating that he is much more than a healer – he is God incarnate, God’s equal, one with God sharing with him the authority to forgive sins.
Jesus and His Mission
As already mentioned, Jesus claimed to have been sent by the Father on a saving mission. This saving mission, in turn, would be accomplished climactically in his atoning death: “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28). Jesus is the good shepherd who “lays down life for the sheep” (John 10:11; cf. vv. 17-18). As the uniquely qualified Son of God incarnate he offered himself in place of sinners to ransom them from sin and to God.
Jesus also claims that this good news of salvation through his sacrificial atoning work is only available to those who come to believe and have faith in him. Jesus describes himself as “the door” in John 10:9, expressing that it is by faith in him alone that grants one enter through that door and to be saved (John 10:10). He also claims: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the father except through me” (John 14:6). His offer of salvation is universal in the sense that anyone from any cultural background and social status can come to receive this abundance of life (John 6:35), but the offer is exclusive also in that he is the only savior (cf. John 11:25). Jesus understood himself to be the only savior of sinners (cf. John 14:6).
Jesus understood that his mission would necessarily include suffering and humiliation as well (Isa. 53). As mentioned above, this was not an accident. Jesus saw himself as the “rejected stone” (Mark 12:10) in Psalm 118; the one who is betrayed by a friend (Matt. 26:23; Mark 14:18; Luke 22:21; John 13:18) in Psalm 41; the one who is forsaken by God (Matt. 27:46; Mark 15:34; Luke 24:26) in Psalm 22. Later on in Jesus’ ministry, when Peter acknowledges that Jesus is the Messiah (Matt. 16; Mark 8), Jesus responds with an emphasis on suffering thus highlighting the nature of his mission. Jesus was fully aware that the lowest point in his earthly life would be the hour of glory in the plan of God (John 17:1). Understanding the necessary role and the importance of suffering gives us another window into the reality of recognizing Jesus’ redefinition and affirmation of his identity as the Messiah.
Discipleship and Worship
Jesus’ self-estimate is reflected also in his demand of exclusive and supreme loyalty. Indeed, our devotion to him must make all other loyalties in contrast seem like hate (Luke 14:25-27). Indeed,
to be his, we must take up our own cross for his sake (Matt. 16:24), subordinating all self-interests to his. Jesus insists, in fact, that his worth is so supreme that to be put to death “for my name’s sake” is a life well-given (Matt. 10:16-22).
Jesus and the Church Today
Based on Jesus’ demonstration of unparalleled authority, unique relationship to the Father, claims of worship and messianic identity, fulfillment of Israel’s longings through the prophecies, we must conclude that Jesus had an understanding of himself that went beyond a mere human teacher or prophet. Human categories are not big enough to contain the identity and the mission of Jesus. He is the son of God, God’s equal, God incarnate, who inaugurates the kingdom of God in his life, death, and resurrection. This Jesus is then the giver of eternal life at the cost of his own life as a ransom for many and is deserving of all devotion, loyalty, sacrifice, and worship.
This understanding of Jesus’ self-assessment carries the following implications for the church today:
First, we can be sure that the church’s common understanding of Jesus’ identity is one that we share with Jesus himself. Jesus is not an over-glorified or hijacked idea of the early church that we somehow still happen to believe in today. The trustworthiness and authenticity of Jesus’ self-claimed divinity, authority, and messianic identity can be upheld, and this means that the basis of our faith can be secured in the very claims and acts of Jesus, the cornerstone of the church.
Second, we need to take Jesus’ words and deeds seriously. If Jesus is not who he says he is and he was just a mere man who happened to be revered and worshipped by his followers who were set out to create a religious movement, then Jesus’ words are mere words of a wise human being at best. His words cannot be salvific. However, if an accurate understanding of Jesus based on the trustworthy source of Scripture proves that he was fully aware of his own identity and mission on earth as the son of God who bears in himself the source of eternal life, then we must go back and honestly consider and digest all the words that were spoken by him. In this sense, the words of Jesus cannot be mere words for good advice or behavior modification, but for salvation and eternal hope for sinners.
Articles and Devotionals
- How Do We Know Jesus Was the Messiah? – D.A. Carson
- Who Do Scholars Say That I Am? – James R. Edwards
- Who Do Scholars Say That I Am? Part 2 – James R. Edwards
- Why Is Jesus Called “Son of Man” – John Piper
- Jesus’ Self-Understanding – N.T Wright
- The Jesus We’ll Never Know – Scot Mcknight
- Did Jesus Believe He Was the Messiah? – Trevin Wax
- Jesus as Messiah: An Interview with Michael Bird – Trevin Wax
- “Christ” – Michael F. Bird in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels
- “Jesus Christ” – I. Howard Marshall in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology
- “Son of Man” – Darrell Bock in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels
- Christology: the study of Christ – Daniel L. Akin
- The Person of Christ – Donald Macleod
- The Self-Disclosure of Jesus – Geerdhardus Vos
- The Origins of New Testament Christology – I. Howard Marshall
- Are You the One Who Is to Come? – Michael F. Bird
- Jesus Is the Christ: The Messianic Testimony of the Gospels – Michael F. Bird
- Jesus and the Victory of God – N.T. Wright
- The Glory of Christ – R.C. Sproul
- Who is Jesus – R.C. Sproul
- Christ Alone – Stephen J. Wellum
- God the Son Incarnate – Stephen J. Wellum
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