The Deity of Christ In the Synoptic Writers

A warning: this section is very messy. This entire series was pretty much sifting what I’ve been studying and trying to slap it into some sort of form that others can read but this execution is, admittedly, less refined (if not outright rough).

I’m going to focus on Matthew. Not because I think Matthews account was first (I actually think priority goes to Mark), nor because I think that Matthew is most reliable (I think Luke’s account gives the most historically pertinent information) but because Matthew account might possibly, yet without conviction, be examined on it’s own.

Let me justify that with cumulative points:

  1. One: The Synoptic accounts were most likely early. None of the Synoptic writers record the actual destruction of the Jewish Temple. Neither does Paul. Luke mentions having collected data to write his accounts (Luke 1:1-4; Acts 1:1-12) and surely would have recorded it, but then goes on to include everything right up to Paul’s the Roman house imprisonment (Acts 28:30-31). If one were to deny the recorded messages of Christ as prophecy, then it could mean that these Gospel accounts were written after 70 A.D but that presupposes that prophecy doesn’t happen.
  2. Two: The Synoptic accounts probably did not circulate before Paul’s writings. That doesn’t mean Paul’s writings are less or more important, but it is to say that Paul’s writings contains some of the earliest Christian beliefs—one of many being that Christ is God.
  3. Three: Paul might have influenced Mark and Luke. Mark was an original member of Paul’s missionary party (Acts 12:25; 15:37) and later would be a helpful companion (Phil 1:24; Col 4:10; 2 Tim 4:11).  Luke was Paul’s travel companion (Phil 1:24; Col 4:14). If both Mark and Luke’s Gospel accounts were contemporaneous to their activity with Paul, and they were in happy fellowship together, then it is possible that there is influence.
  4. Four: Paul was in step with Jerusalem. Paul, after all, actually checked himself to see if the message he preached was the same as that of the original Twelve, was confirmed in the endeavor (Gal 2:6-9), and was sent back with full approval and backing (Gal 2:10; Acts 15:23-29). Not only did he function in the capacity as apostle, he was a contemporary itinerant worker with the living Disciples (1 Cor 9:5; Gal 2:14-15). And even where Paul and Peter’s messages differed, Luke goes out of his way to record the similarities (Acts). Going to the Gospel accounts shouldn’t create a force field where on the one side we have whatever it is Paul believed about Jesus and on the other side what the Gospel writers actually thought of Jesus but in all honesty should be seen as offering a spectrum.
  5. Five: Differences of purpose in writing aren’t an excuse. Paul’s writings address specific church needs and the Gospel accounts records a biographical account of the basis for the Church—but that doesn’t matter. Since these points aren’t based on the purpose of the writing, but what the writer wrote as a believed and textually recorded message.

The Jewish disciple Matthew surely held strong beliefs about the nature of God. God is other. God stands apart. God upholds all things. God is the God of the Sabbath. If a later community put his account together then it is likely that they were recording the beliefs that were already circulating which are only evidenced by what the text says.

So we’ll see certain patterns in the text. We’ll see that Matthew doesn’t record Jesus as only the recipient of God’s promises. That is not to say that the book doesn’t speak of Christ as King—surely it does—but it doesn’t speak of him as no more than King.

Jesus Really is God’s Family

The book contains a rhythmic pattern of Christ’s unique relationship to the Father.

Early in the book, we have the recorded conception and birth of Christ. The child is conceived in a woman by The Holy Spirit (Matt 1:18) and the fact is announced by God’s angel (Matt 1:20).

This baby is supposed to do things that no mere human king could do: he would save His people from their sins. Matthew takes this announcement to fit into the prophetic saying of Isaiah that (A) a virgin would conceive and (B) that his name will be God With Us. As to (A) it is interesting that in the Isaiah passage, historically speaking, Isaiah was possibly referring in his own mind to the young woman his wife. Before she would conceive, the prophecy would come to be. Matthew seems to take this as Isaiah speaking even better than he knew, a young lady who is a virgin will conceive and give birth to a son and they will call his name Immanuel which is God with us. The Parents actually name the child Jesus so the fact that Matthew records the “They” and gives the child the dictated name (Matt 1:21, 25) seems to indicate something going forward. The child will be called God With Us by People.

Magi come along looking for the King of the Jews but one must remember what this sought for King was to do. Ezekiel 34 stipulates that the Lord God would get rid of the leaders of the people and would take care of them himself by then establishing David over the people. So when the Magi are in awe looking for this King they are searching for God’s Stand In of David.

God’s son, this one who is born of the Holy Spirit, is called out of Egypt typologically rising up out of oppression by actually exodus out of Egypt just like Israel of old. But this son isn’t merely heralded by a human agent (like Moses did when he told Pharaoh that Israel was His Son—Ex 4:22) he is heralded by God himself who speaks out of heaven saying “This is my beloved Son!” (Matt 3:17; Matt 17:5)

Jesus Heralded as God

Another textual pattern is this interplay of John the Baptist and Elijah. For that you would need to know your Jewish History, but in a bit of short hand it was expected that before the end of the world arrived, Elijah would show up and herald it. The Lord Himself is coming to bring judgment and messenger goes before him.

The idea exploded in the intertestamental period labeling the messenger as Elijah, but it finds its ground on two passages: Isaiah 40:3, Malachi 3:1 and Mal 4:5.

Isaiah 40 is about the Lord God himself commanding a messenger to straighten his paths according to his mandate giving both a mission and a message to the messenger. This is really the incomparable God:

See, the Sovereign LORD comes with power, and he rules with a mighty arm.

“To whom will you compare me?  Or who is my equal?” says the Holy One. (Isaiah 40:10, 25)

It’s in this passage that the messenger is stated as doing the Lord’s work out in the wilderness (Is 40:3)

The Malachi passage is about God coming in judgment ready to purify the temple and its practices. The messenger is sent before him (Mal 3:1) but it is the Lord God Almighty (Mal 3:5) himself who comes after the messenger to do the judge-work.

So when we get to Malachi 4, we see the repeated message that the fiery day of the Lord is coming (Mal 4:1) where he arrives as judge but before he comes he will send the prophet Elijah.

“See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the LORD comes.”

Matthew picks up on this and presents John The Baptist as God’s messenger, making straight the way of the Lord, Elijah who was to come (if the people are willing to accept it:  Matthew 3:1-17;  11:1-14). This is almost torqued up when we see Jesus actually having a conversation with the actual Moses and Elijah (Matt 17:1-13). John on the one hand functioned as Elijah, but on the other hand Elijah himself stands with Jesus and Moses (discussing Christ’s exodus Luke 9:31) and Jesus is revealed as brighter than white. The fact that in Matt 27:46-54 some people believe he’s calling for Elijah and they wonder if Elijah will come is met with a pregnant silence: Elijah as come as John and they killed him, and Elijah is still to come before the Lord who judges.

But hop over to Mathew 21. Jesus is now approaching his exit and he’s functioning in an extremely important way. Throughout the following chapters he will make all types of prophetic proclamations but in this chapter we start to get a peek that he’s not only functioning as a mere prophet or King.

He tells the disciples to go into the village and find a colt. When the question is asked “what for” the answer the disciple is to give is:

The Lord has need of them.

This is not merely predictive. This is the Lord Yahweh showing the divine ordering of events and dictating his desire in accordance with events which God had already recorded as coming to occur (Zech 9:9):

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
Shout in triumph, O daughter of Jerusalem!
Behold, your king is coming to you;
He is just and endowed with salvation,
Humble, and mounted on a donkey,
Even on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

Now, when the events transpire exactly as he said, the crowds welcome Jesus into Jerusalem saying “blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” evidencing some of that Matthean irony. He is heralded as coming in the name of the Lord because his name is actually Lord (remember the Lord had need of these things). He’s functioning with the authority of Yahweh because he is Yahweh—and the people, unbeknownst to them, herald him home.

It’s as if Matthew is saying that this Jesus is twice heralded as God: once in his proclamation and later with his judgment.

Jesus Functions with God’s Prerogatives

Mathew also depicts Jesus as having all the prerogatives of God.

Note Matthew 12. Jesus is questioned regarding the Sabbath because his disciples are picking the heads of grain and eating them and Jesus answers in four parts:

  1. David did something only the priests could do (this was not-bad)
  2. The priests work on the Sabbath  (this is good)
  3. Good is better than sacrifice
  4. The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.

The fourth point just seems to hang there. Why underscore it if it has nothing to do with the argument? I mean, isn’t the point proven on Point 3?

The passaged doesn’t stop there.  Again, in front of a man with withered hands, the Pharisees demand to know if it is lawful to heal on the Sabbath. Jesus answers

  1. People do good by saving injured sheep on the Sabbath
  2. Injured people are more important than Sheep
  3. Therefore healing injured people is right to do on the Sabbath.

And here a structure is unveiled as Jesus allows his actions to speak louder than his words. As one who has power over the withered hand, he turns and does a work on the Sabbath specifically underscoring the 4th point above: Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath.

But who is rightly Lord of the Sabbath?

And God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it: because that in it he had rested from all his work which God created and made. These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth when they were created, in the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens…(Gen 2:3-4)

And it doesn’t stop there. Scribes had authority, but Jesus taught as one with authority (Matt 7:28-29) and healed with one directly under God’s authority evidenced in a conversation with a man who knew how authority functioned (Matt 8:8-13). But miracles and doing activity on the Sabbath isnt’ the end of it.

It was commonly known that you couldn’t’ forgive a person’s sins because that is something God does. After all, God provides the means for it to happen by offering sacrifices; you can’t just stand up in the way of that and forgive sins.  But Jesus operates with God’s own prerogatives when he takes a paralytic and forgives his sins apart from any sacrifices, offerings or even a verbal plea for forgiveness (Matt 9:2). Then knowing the very thoughts of his opponents he points out how the Son of Man has special authority on earth to forgive sins by doing something easy like telling the paralytic to get up and walk.

It’s no wonder that he allows people to worship him (Matt 14:33; 28:9) while explicitly knowing that a person must worship and serve only the Lord God (Matt 4:10).

This is not only a King functioning under God’s authority; this is God Himself acting like God.

Jesus’ Enemies Know Him

Another interesting happening in Gospel’s account is the activity of Christ’s demonic enemies.

For example, the Gadarene demons (Matt 8:28-33) wonder why the Son of God is there to torment them before The Time which should engender two questions: torment them how and what time? Their hope is that he has mercy on them and lets them indwell pigs. Honestly, I don’t understand demons but it seems to mean that as Son of God he had (1) the power to tell them what to do, (2) they had to ask him permission, (3) they envision that what he’s doing hurts them and (4) there is an ultimate time coming which they expect Jesus to do something.  In light of that whole Elijah bit above, I’d assume that what they’re talking about is the final judgment and noting that this one has power over them in that respect.

But we wouldn’t know since Jesus keeps them quiet because, says Mark, they knew who he was (Mark 1:34).

But what of Satan? He recognizes him enough to be personally involved in trying to throw him off track or possibly trying to detract him from his mission (Matt 16:23); yet he speaks in terms of “If you are the Son of God” (Matt 4:10). Did Satan not recognize him while the Demons did? Well Christ says that the demons are part of Satan’s house, as it were, so that would be a strange phenomenon (Matt 12:26). I don’t know much about the devil or demons but I do know he’s a deceiver so maybe it’s that Satan was trying to force Christ’s hands to act outside of the Triune will? Or maybe to see how submissive was he really trying to be with a secondary motive that could be beneficial? Satan has been crafty from the get go, so it may be best to avoid coming up with his exact motivations. His Satanic Majesty is not to be trifled with.

Conclusion: Well we don’t see confessions of Christ is God like we do in other places but we see (1) the compass pointing North as it were and (2) enough clues to strongly suggest that Matthew intends us to see that this is the case. Maybe that’s why Matthew’s Gospel is just choc full of people speaking better than they know, or God’s direct activity illuminating Christ’s activity. Elijah not showing up is one thing, but not the only thing. Christ dies and tombs open and the veil of the temple rips from the top down. Christ dies and a centurion says that Jesus was the Son of God, which surely meant something different for him than it did for the Jew. True Matthew also wants us to see that this Jesus, God, born of God, in the flesh with Gods’ prerogatives also functioned in subjection to another but he makes sure to include that all authority has been given to him in heaven and, presumably now, on Earth (Matt 28:18-20). He teaches, he commands and he tells people to baptize others in the collective name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit—putting him on equal footing with God himself.

So does Matthew see Jesus as God? I don’t think you can say he doesn’t. You can’t even say it isn’t important. It seems to be “Yes surely: as the Yahweh God” while admitting that Matthew is trying to get across several themes to his audience. It’s probably part of the reason why John felt it necessary to record his own account clarifying things (like Jesus is God; like the Baptist said he wasn’t Elijah).

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2 thoughts on “The Deity of Christ In the Synoptic Writers

Rey,

I am glad you are posting these studies on Jesus’ deity. They are certainly needed at this time!

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