When I was a young man in high school, I remember talking to my next door neighbor who went to a liberal church. She told me that Jesus was a great man, a teacher whom she respected, but she wanted me to understand that Jesus never claimed to be God as some churches wrongly teach.
Over the years, I have had many people—Jehovah’s Witnesses, Muslims, and other nonbelievers—try to convince me that Jesus was not God nor did he himself ever make the claim to be God. It was the early church—decades after his death—that deified him.
Jehovah’s Witnesses and Muslims insist that all Jesus meant to say was something like, “I and God are one in purpose,” something that they would say every true follower of God should be able to affirm. But this only scratches the surface of what Jesus was saying.
I have a saying that I have told my students for many years: “Context rules.” When interpreting any written communication—whether it is a traffic ticket, the newspaper, or the Bible—meaning must be derived by examining context.
The context of John 10 prohibits an honest interpreter from concluding that all Jesus meant was that his purpose was in line with God’s. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, had just declared that no one could snatch “his sheep” from his hand, because no one could snatch them out of his Father’s hand, for it was he who gave them to Jesus. The relationship that Jesus, the incarnate Son of God, had with the Father when he spoke these words makes it impossible that someone could snatch one of his sheep from his hand.
Notice also in that same verse that Jesus uses a plural verb: “I and the Father— we are (ἐσμεν) one.” These words have a much stronger meaning in the original Greek. No mere human being could include himself in a common plural like this without being accused of blasphemy or of being delusional, like the person who thinks he is Julius Caesar or an orange! By using the plural verb, Jesus was denying that he and the Father are one person, but at the same time he was affirming that he and the Father are one in being (or essence) and power.
Jesus’s Deity Claim
The Jews who were present clearly understood him that way; they immediately picked up stones to kill him for uttering blasphemy. If Jesus had not been making a deity claim, he could have immediately defused the situation by protesting, “Truly, truly, I did not mean that I was claiming to be God; I was simply saying that my purpose in leading people is in line with God’s will.” Instead, he explained his meaning to make it very clear that he was in fact making a deity claim, and furthermore, had every right to do so because of who he is.
No wonder the charge at Jesus’s trial was blasphemy; again and again Jesus had made statements claiming that he was God incarnate!
If someone tells you that Jesus never claimed to be God, invite him or her to carefully read John 10.