Mark D. Roberts

In last Friday’s post I began to answer the question of why the earliest Christians came to regard Jesus as divine. I showed how belief that divine salvation came through Jesus led to confessing Jesus as the Savior. Then, given the consistent testimony of the Old Testament to the effect that God alone is Savior, the move from Savior to divine Lord was obvious, however scandalous. (Photo: “St. Joseph with the Infant Jesus” by Guido Reni, c. 1635. It’s striking that Joseph, who is pictured as being old, holds Jesus much as Mary does in much Christian art.)


Consider one additional New Testament text that connects Jesus as Savior to Jesus as God. This one comes from the so-called “Infancy Narrative” in Matthew’s gospel. Joseph had just found out that his fiancée, Mary, was pregnant, though he had not been sexually intimate with her. So he resolved to break their engagement. But while he was sleeping, an angel appeared to him in a dream. The angel said:

“Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” (Matthew 1:20-23).

Joseph was to name Mary’s son “Jesus.” Why? Because “he will save his people from their sins.” There is a play on words here easily missed in English. Jesus’ actual name in Aramaic was Yeshua, or in Hebrew, Joshua. This name means, in either Semitic language, “The LORD is salvation.” So Mary’s son will be called “The LORD is salvation.” Given the fact that Yeshua/Joshua was a popular name in the time of Jesus, we cannot conclude that Jesus’ bearing of this name identified him as divine. Yet, the angel said to Joseph that Jesus himself would save Israel from their sins. From this one can produce a nifty syllogism:

Major premise: The LORD is salvation.
Minor premise: Jesus will save his people from their sins.
Therefore: Jesus is the LORD.

Of course the angel made this conclusion clear by adding a line from Isaiah 7:14: “‘Look the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means, ‘God is with us.'” Jesus will fulfill the promise of Isaiah. He will be, not only the Savior, but the One who is Emmanuel: God with us. Notice that Jesus is not one god among many, but in some way the presence of the one true God.

I began my last post with a question: Why did the earliest Christians come to regard Jesus as divine? Part of the answer is now apparent. The deity of Jesus was an extrapolation from his role as Savior. Because they experienced salvation through Jesus, and because they believed that God alone was the Savior, the early Christians concluded that Jesus was indeed Emmanuel, God with us.

When I use the language of “extrapolation” and “conclusion,” I don’t mean to suggest that the earliest Christians sat down together and worked out logical syllogisms to prove the deity of Jesus. Faith is far more fluid and experiential than this, of course. Moreover, I believe that the Holy Spirit was active among the earliest Christians, teaching and guiding them into all truth (John 15:26; 16:13). But when you probe beneath the early Christian confessions to their theological foundation, you find that salvation through Christ was part of what led to the belief that he was the Savior, which then led the faithful Jewish followers of Jesus to the unprecedented conclusion that he was also, in some measure, the one true LORD.

Centuries later, Christian theologians continued to define the nature of Jesus in light of his role as Savior. If Jesus were to save us, they argued, then he had to be fully human. Only in this way could he bear the penalty for human sin. Yet if he were merely human, then he wouldn’t be able to break the power of sin. So he must also be fully God. Thus, the logic of the earliest Christians, from salvation in Jesus to Jesus as divine Savior, set the stage for later and more systematic examinations of Jesus’ unique nature as one who is fully God and fully human.

In my next post in this series I’ll examine another avenue of reflection that guided the early followers of Jesus to the conclusion that he shared in God’s own nature. 

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