Did the New Testament authors think Jesus was God?
Some critical scholars would say no. Jesus, they would argue, is just presented as an ordinary man who has been given an exceptional role as God’s chief emissary and representative. He is messiah perhaps. But not God.
Of course, Christians (historically speaking) have disagreed. Yes, Jesus is Messiah, but he also shares in the divine identity and is rightly accorded all the glory and honor due to God.
When it comes to demonstrating the divine status of Jesus from Scripture, the “go to” passages are not difficult to list: John 1:1; John 8:58; 1 Cor 8:6; Phil 2:1-11. These are the places we most commonly turn in debates and discussions.
But, there is a passage often overlooked in such discussions that lays out the divine status of Jesus as plainly as any of these (if not more so). And that passage is the first chapter of Hebrews.
The letter to the Hebrews is most likely written to Jewish Christians–people who are steeped in the Old Testament texts and traditions of Israel. It is no surprise, then, that the author seeks to demonstrate the divinity of Jesus by appealing to a number of OT passages (seven to be exact).
By applying these OT passages to Jesus, the author effectively attributes three characteristics to Jesus that only God possesses: he is the creator, he alone is to be worshiped, and he rules and upholds the universe. Indeed one might say these form the sine qua non of divinity for a first-century Jew.
Jesus is Creator
Perhaps the most fundamental quality of God that makes him God is that he is the creator of all things. God is, of course, not a created being but has always existed from eternity past. By definition, God himself is not made but is instead the maker of all things.
The author of Hebrews plainly places Jesus on the “creator” side of the creator/creature distinction: “God has spoken to us by his Son…through whom he also created the world” (v.2).
And then he applies Psalm 102:25-27 to Jesus, “You, Lord, laid the foundation of the earth in the beginning, and the heavens are the works of your hand” (v.10). In the original context, Psalm 102 referred to God and his creative activity in Genesis. Now the author applies it to Jesus.
Jesus Deserves Worship
For a faithful Jew, worship is due to Yahweh and to him alone. Indeed, this is the heart of Jewish monotheism. No other gods, no idols, no creatures should ever receive worship. Only the one true God is to receive worship.
Indeed, even angels, despite their glory and magnificence, were not to receive worship. When people try to worship angels they are expressly rebuked (Rev 19:10; 22:9).
The author of Hebrews plainly makes Jesus the object of worship, even by the angels. He applies Deut 32:43 to Christ, “Let all God’s angels worship him.”
Jesus Sovereignly Reigns
A final characteristic of God (that we will observe here) is that he is the one who rules, sustains, and upholds the universe. That cannot be said of creatures, whether humans or angels.
Yes, it is true that believers someday will rule with Christ in some fashion (in fact this very theme is addressed in Heb 2:7-8). But we only participate in the rule by virtue of our union with Christ–it is Christ himself that upholds the universe.
The author applies this attribute to Jesus by citing Psalm 45:6-7, “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever” (v.8). Notice that the title, “O God,” is seen as a referent to Jesus. Similarly, Jesus’ position of power is seen in the citation of Psalm 110:1, “Sit at my right hand while I make your enemies a footstool for your feet” (v.13).
In the end, Hebrews chapter one functions as one of the plainest expressions of the divinity of Jesus. He is the creator. He is to be worshiped. He rules and upholds all things by the word of his power.
For more on the divinity of Jesus in Hebrews, see Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the God of Israel (Eerdmans, 2008), 233-253.
To watch the videos of my current RTS Women’s Bible study in Hebrews, see here.