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When He was walking around Israel in human form, Jesus used several titles to introduce monotheistic Old Covenant Jews to the shocking idea that we humans actually have three separate and distinct Creators, not just one. In this post, we’re going to explain a few interesting facts about the Old Testament and the New Testament Jewish perspective that will help you appreciate the theological strategy behind Jesus’ title games.
WHY USE TITLES?
Before we talk about Jesus, let’s consider this question: what’s the point of using titles in the first place? Throughout the Old Testament, Yahweh refers to Israel as His “bride”–but had He literally married her? No. Yahweh calls His followers His “children,” but had He really procreated them? No. On many occasions, Yahweh also called Israel a prostitute and an adulteress who was having “sex” with other gods. The Bible is full of metaphorical titles–words that God uses to teach important principles. These titles are not meant to be taken literally.
In the Bible, we find Yahweh and Jesus saying that the kind of relationship dynamic They want with us humans is similar to the dynamic between 1) a husband and his wife, 2) a father and his children, and 3) a master and his slaves. These titles all help us learn important principles about how our Gods view us and want us to relate to Them, but none of these titles are meant to be taken literally. In the Bible, our Gods use metaphorical titles to help us humans understand who They are and what They want from us. Titles can be very helpful, but to really benefit from them, we need to remember that they are metaphorical at best.
SON OF GOD/SON OF YAHWEH
Now when Jesus showed up in a physical form on earth, He could have created any kind of body for Himself. But He chose to come in the form of an ethnic Jew, and then He lived among ethnic Jews and preached to ethnic Jews within the context of their current culture. This is very important to understand, because much of what Jesus says was tailored to mean something to the Jews of His day. For example, Jesus called Himself the Son of God which was the same as saying the Son of Yahweh, because Yahweh was the only God Old Covenant Jews recognized. But here’s the catch: all Jewish men considered themselves to be sons of Yahweh and they proudly referred to Yahweh as their Father. So Jesus was not at all unique for saying this. Even today, we Christians refer to ourselves as the children of God, don’t we? And we’re correct in doing this, because our Gods invite us to use parent-child metaphors when talking about our relationship with Them. But you see, once we’re using the same terminology as Jesus, we can hardly argue that Jesus’ use of the Son of God was clear evidence that He was claiming to be a God. For that, we’ll need to hear Jesus specifically claiming to be more than just a human.
SON OF MAN
Of all the titles Jesus used, the Son of Man was the most common. At first glance, this doesn’t sound like anything special. In the Old Testament, the term son of man is frequently used to simply mean human. Yahweh uses the nickname son of man for Ezekiel, which is like Yahweh saying, “Hey, human.”
“Son of man, I am sending you to the Israelites, to the rebellious pagans who have rebelled against Me.” (Eze. 2:3)
If Jesus had been talking in Ezekiel’s day or earlier, then using the title Son of Man would have meant nothing more than human. But here’s the thing: Jesus is not speaking in the days of Ezekiel. In fact, He’s speaking centuries later, after the lifetime of the prophet Daniel. It is because of something that Yahweh did with Daniel that Jesus’ title Son of Man took on a whole new meaning.
Centuries before Jesus showed up in Israel, Yahweh was giving His obedient Jewish prophet Daniel all kinds of wild and crazy visions. Daniel doesn’t understand much of what he sees, but he jots it all down and marvels over it. One of the visions he found most striking was a time when he saw Yahweh Himself–the Ancient of Days–sitting on His glorious throne. It’s always a thrill for a devoted Old Covenant Jew to see God. And remember, under the Old Covenant, true believers understood that Yahweh was the only true God. So Daniel only sees one God on a throne: the glorious Yahweh. But then Daniel sees a second Figure who seems to come from Heaven itself. The second Figure looks like a human–like a “son of man.” And yet when this Figure goes up to the glorious Yahweh, Yahweh gives that human-like Figure all kinds of glory, authority, and power. Yahweh fixes it so that all people everywhere have to serve this second mysterious Figure. Daniel understands that this second Figure will have an everlasting, indestructible Kingdom.
I continued watching in the night visions, and I saw One like a son of man coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was escorted before Him. He was given authority to rule, and glory, and a kingdom; so that those of every people, nation, and language should serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and His kingdom is one that will not be destroyed. (Dan. 7:13-14)
Of course Daniel is stunned by all of this, as well as all of the disturbing visions that came before. He asks an angel for help understanding these strange things, and if you read the angel’s explanation, you’ll notice that he doesn’t say one word about this mysterious One who was “like a son of man.” You see, it’s just too early in the game for monotheistic Daniel to be shocked with the news that there are multiple Gods. But here in Daniel 7, Yahweh is laying the groundwork for Jesus to use with the Jews later on.
Jump ahead several centuries, and we come to the Gospel books. By now Jewish leaders have had plenty of time to obsess over Daniel’s strange image of a Son of Man coming in the clouds, and now the title Son of Man has acquired a very strong association with Yahweh’s promised Messiah. So you see, historical context is huge. Before Jesus came, a son of man was just a human. But because Jesus is speaking centuries after Daniel, when He goes around claiming to be the Son of Man, the Jews are hearing Him say, “I’m that Guy that Daniel was talking about–I’m Yahweh’s Messiah.” One time Jesus makes this especially clear when He is talking to His disciples on the Mount of Olives and He specifically quotes from Daniel 7:
“Immediately after the tribulation of those days: the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not shed its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the celestial powers will be shaken.
Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and then all the peoples of the earth will mourn; and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. [Dan. 7:13] He will send out His angels with a loud trumpet, and they will gather His elect from the four winds, from one end of the sky to the other.” (Matt. 24:29-31)
FATHER & SON
Now it sounds more than a little heady for some nobody from Nazareth to go around claiming to be that super favored Guy from Daniel 7. And clearly Daniel’s Son of Man was more than human, because Daniel saw him come from Heaven, as if He somehow originated from there. Remember, Daniel just said the strange Figure he saw looked like a son of man, and when Daniel used this term, he simply meant “He looked like a human.” But by Jesus’ time, the Jews are frothing for a Messiah to come and save them from Roman rule, and everyone’s wondering who that more-than-human figure from Daniel 7 was. Then Jesus starts claiming that title for Himself–now there’s a joke. How can this bum from Galilee have anything to do with that glorious Figure that Daniel saw? Surely Jesus is puffed up on pride and out of His mind. Yet Jesus keeps calling Yahweh His Father, and that’s just annoying.
You see, when Jews called themselves the sons of Yahweh, they were claiming to be accepted by Yahweh. It was the same when they called Yahweh their Father. So every time Jesus calls Yahweh His Father, He’s using New Testament Jewish lingo for “Yahweh approves of Me.” Well, that’s offensive. The Jewish leaders are feeling increasingly threatened by Jesus and they really don’t want to accept that Yahweh actually approves of this Guy who is going around calling Himself the Son of Man.
Now the Father-Son titles work both ways. When Jesus calls Yahweh His Father, He’s claiming to be accepted by Yahweh. And when Yahweh then calls Jesus His Son, Yahweh is affirming that, yes, He does indeed approve of Jesus. Much to the shock and bewilderment of the Jews, Yahweh does this on several occasions: He publicly declares Jesus to be His Son, and He even goes so far as to order everyone to listen to Jesus.
“This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased; listen to Him!” (Matt. 17:5)
So now we’ve got Jesus claiming to be the Daniel 7 Son of Man who is a very mysterious Figure to the Jews, and one who is strongly associated with Yahweh’s promised Messiah. Jesus keeps dropping hint after hint that He is more than human, and definitely the Messiah, and He keeps inferring that He’s got some uniquely special relationship with Yahweh. In fact, Jesus talks like He knows Yahweh better than anyone else–that He and Yahweh are so totally in sync with Each Other that They are “one.” Well, that’s really obnoxious sounding to the Jews. But then comes the blasphemy that tops all other blasphemies: the day that Jesus claims the title of I AM.
To understand what the I AM title means, we have to go back to the Old Testament. Yahweh first calls Himself I AM when He’s talking to Moses at the burning bush.
God replied to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: I AM has sent me to you.” (Ex. 3:14)
As we keep reading through the Old Testament, we find Yahweh also claiming to be the only real God in existence. Then, throughout the Old Testament, He says many things which define what a real God is. According to Yahweh, a real I AM God has the following qualities:
- a real God has no beginning or end
- a real God is uncreated
- a real God is totally sovereign–meaning that He controls everything that exists, plus He controls the future
- a real God is omnipresent (present everywhere)
- a real God is omniscient (all knowing)
- a real God is omnipotent (all powerful)
- a real God is all wise
- a real God is the origin of all created things, both good and evil
- a real God is good in Character
- a real God is the only kind of Being who is worthy of receiving worship
When Jesus called Himself I AM, He was claiming to be all of these things. He was not claiming to be Yahweh Himself, for Jesus constantly differentiated between Himself and Yahweh. But He was claiming to the same kind of Being as Yahweh. In other words, we have multiple Gods. Talk about a theological shocker.
EASING THE JEWS INTO THE CONCEPT OF MULTIPLE GODS
Now the idea of there being two I AM Gods in existence was incredibly shocking for Old Covenant Jews. Before Jesus, true Old Covenant believers understood that there was only one I AM God: Yahweh. If Jesus had come to the Jews saying, “Actually, there are two I AM Gods,” no one would have believed Him. We humans need to be eased into such shocking changes, and today our Gods are always easing us into truth one step at a time. We need Them to shelter us like this, because if They were to just rip the blinders off and show us all truth right now, we just wouldn’t be able to handle it.
Jesus and Yahweh had a three step plan for the Jews. Step 1 was to get the Jews to recognize that Jesus was Yahweh’s promised Messiah. Step 2 was to assure them that Yahweh approved of Jesus (and thus it was okay to believe the crazy stuff that Jesus was saying). Step 3 was to help the Jews grasp that Jesus was more than just human. Most Jews never got past Step 2. Those who accepted Jesus as Yahweh’s Messiah still viewed Him as a regular human. This is what most of the New Testament apostles are teaching in their letters: that Jesus is just a regular human who got special rewards from Yahweh in Heaven. They accept Him as the Messiah, but they do not accept Him as more than a human. This is not correct. Jesus is God Almighty. He is Yahweh’s equal, He is not lower than Yahweh, and He is not a created being.
It is because Yahweh gives us so much information about who an I AM God is in the Old Testament that we can understand who Jesus is claiming to be when He calls Himself I AM. He’s uncreated. He’s all powerful, all knowing, and omnipresent. He reigns with total sovereignty and He is absolutely good in Character. In the Old Testament and again in the Gospels, Yahweh and Jesus teach us how to please I AM Gods. It’s all about soul attitude. We should be giving Them reverential submission. We should be trusting Them, embracing our dependency on Them, and sincerely desiring to please Them with our lives. We should be recognizing that the opinions of I AM Gods are the only opinions that matter.
Before He called an end to His charade as a human being, Jesus introduced the Jews to yet another I AM God: the magnificent Holy Spirit. Once again, titles played a critical role in communicating what kind of Being Jesus was talking about. Prior to Jesus’ coming, the Jews had always used the title Holy Spirit to mean the Spirit of Yahweh. There was never any question that the Holy Spirit was an extension of Yahweh Himself, and thus was identical to Yahweh in every way. So when Jesus then introduced a third Being who was separate from Himself and Yahweh, yet He assigned that Being the title of Holy Spirit, He left no doubt about what kind of Being the Holy Spirit is. The Holy Spirit is yet another I AM God, and today a true Christian is one who reverentially submits to all three I AM Gods. There is no salvation without submitting to Yahweh and Jesus and the Holy Spirit. We have three awesome Creators who have always been and will always be. Why did They take so long to reveal Themselves to us? Well, it turns out that I AM Gods also like to be unpredictable.
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