I argued last time that when the Johannine Jewish establishment stigmatizes Jesus as a man who “makes himself God” (John 10:33, cf. 5:18, Mark 2:7, 14:67) they do so with certain self-aggrandizing pagan emperors in mind; the king of Tyre (Ezekiel 28), the king of Egypt (Ezekiel 29), the king of Babylon (Isaiah 14), and, most prominently, the king of Syria, Antiochus Epiphanes (Daniel 7-11). This is to say that these Jews view Jesus not as a man who pretends to be God in the flesh, the creator of the world, but as a human usurper of God’s rightful authority and prerogative. Though he is merely a man, and like the pagan kings of Israel’s troubled past and present, Jesus fraudulently claims to possess the credentials necessary to work as only God works, forgive as only God forgives, and judge as only God judges.
With this accusation the Jews are partly correct. Jesus indeed alleges that he does God’s works (John 10:25-26), that he can give eternal life (John 10:27-28, cf. Deuteronomy 32:39, 1 Samuel 2:6), and that he and God are in fact “one” (10:30).1 Yet as Jesus claims in this controversy and others, he has not stolen these powers from God as his enemies suppose, he has rather been given them in accordance with God’s will (John 10:29, cf. 5:22-27).
So, though Jesus believes himself to be God’s agent of power, judgement, and forgiveness, the Jews know God has given him no such authority; like a heathen king, he is playing god for his own gain.
The man of lawlessness
About this deluded pagan ruler more can be said.
Like their non-Christian Jewish kinsmen, the first Christians vilified those whom they believed encroached upon God’s sovereignty. 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4 is a classic text in this regard.
Let no one deceive you in any way… [the man of lawlessness] will oppose and exalt himself above every so-called god or object of worship. So he will seat himself in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God.
Right in line with the Near Eastern kings of old, Paul’s eschatological “man of lawlessness” lauds himself as greater than the gods (including, we assume, YHWH), usurps divine thrones (i.e. divine prerogatives) (cf. Isaiah 14:13-14, Ezekiel 28:2), and finally, declares himself to be god almighty, god most high. This last abomination, because it is commonly understood through our inherited Christological lens, requires some unpacking.
By military conquest and political might, the pagan despot envisioned by Paul enthrones himself in the temple of Israel’s god as a part of a politically-symbolic act. In so doing he presents himself as the ruler of Israel and thus the destroyer of Israel’s god. He does not claim to be Israel’s god himself, that is, the god of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, however. Instead, through his unopposed domination of Israel and her temple,2 he will prove himself to be god to Israel, that is, Israel’s supreme master (cf. Exodus 4:16, 7:1). And so, in hoisting himself onto God’s temple-throne as the rightful ruler of the Jewish people, he, in effect, “blasphemes” the god of Israel as an impotent impostor (cf. Psalm 73:9, Revelation 13:5-8).3
What must be stressed then is that the pagan king does not actually claim to be God or a god in a metaphysical sense. We need not confuse ancient theo-political propaganda with the philosophically-motivated confessions of Trinitarian thinkers. The pagan king, though he claims to be a god-man, being able to subject the nations and history to his whims, and defeating all the gods of his enemies, still submits his people to the idolatrous worship of the pagan deities (1 Maccabees 1:41-51) and still depends on those heavenly beings for his own earthly power (2 Maccabees 6:2-7, Revelation 13:4). He may consider himself more than mortal, divine in some fashion, even the son of a god, yet he remains, from his own point of view, subject to and empowered by heaven. Since his aims are political, he makes no claim to being the God-Man of later incarnational Christology.
For the Jews who experienced the political crisis of pagan empire, then, the arrogant king has, by seizing control of Israel’s political and spiritual life, “made himself to be [Israel’s] god.” He has taken for himself YHWH’s role in the world. He has declared himself Lord of Israel and “Lord of the nations” (Psalm 22:27-28).
The man made god by God
Having laid this groundwork for an archetypal pagan kingship in Jewish perspective, I think we can better understand some of the high Christological claims made by the first Christians.
As in a text like Philippians 2:6-11, for instance, Jesus’ way of kingship can be juxtaposed with the parallel pagan way.
Though [Jesus] was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Unlike the archetypal pagan king, Jesus—having been invested with God’s authority as Israel’s true king—chose not to use that authority for his own personal gain. Instead, he divested himself of his status for the sake of obedience to God. While the pagan king attempted to make himself “equal to God,” which Antiochus admits the folly of with his last breath—”it is right to be subject to God and for a mortal not to think himself God’s equal (ἰσόθεα)” (2 Maccabees 9:12)—Jesus considered [functional] equality with God as something that must neither be exploited (as something already possessed) nor seized (as something one might attain).4 For this restraint, manifested chiefly in his humiliating death as a slave, God bestowed upon Jesus ultimate, and in fact godlike, political power; power even to slay the pretender-god, the pagan king on the last day (2 Thessalonians 2:8, cf. Revelation 19:15). Thus the Lord of the nations (i.e. God) made Jesus to be the Lord of the nations (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:28).
In keeping with the subservient model of kingship to which Jesus subscribed, the super-exaltation of Jesus over all powers, most importantly over all “the nations,” brings final glory to God, not to God’s servant-king (Philippians 2:9-11). By his refusal to make himself God or equal to God as would a pagan king, Israel’s king is made to be like God over the earth, ruling and judging its peoples (cf. Psalm 89:27).
For this form of deification there is, remarkably, some precedent in Jewish thinking. Philo writes, for instance, that Moses was called the “god and king of the whole nation” after he met with God on Sinai. He became there a “Godlike work” such that the people were to imitate and obey him in their worship of YHWH (Life of Moses 1.155-158). Moses’ attainment of divine status in this way, like Jesus’, was neither stolen nor self-serving.
Psalm 45 presents another case. There, Israel’s newly-married king is given the title “God.”
Your throne, O God, endures forever and ever. Your royal scepter is a scepter of equity; you love righteousness and hate wickedness. Therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions… The nations will praise you forever and ever.Psalm 45:6-7, 17
Here again God decides to give to his loyal and righteous king an exalted and, indeed, divine status by which he will establish God’s [political] will in the world.
My lord and my god
As a closing thought, though it is by no means certain, this kind of theosis may even be at work in a text like John 20:28 where Thomas confesses that the risen Jesus is now his “lord” and his “god.” Through resurrection Jesus was made to be god, that is, godlike. Like the one true creator God, the “highly-exalted” Jesus now governs the world’s destiny (cf. Revelation 5).
1—Jesus likely means that he and God are a functional unit—this is how the word ἓν is used in John 17:20-21 and 1 Corinthians 3:8. As God’s representative, Jesus can legally act on God’s behalf and as such as they are “one.”
2—Antiochus Epiphanes, who called himself Θεὸς Ἐπιφανής (“manifest god”), pillaged YHWH’s temple of its sacred instruments (1 Maccabees 1:20-24).
3—The words of the Assyrian messenger who delivered the terms of surrender to Hezekiah offer insight into the megalomaniac mind of the pagan king Sennacherib.
“Do not listen to Hezekiah when he misleads you by saying, ‘YHWH will deliver us.’ Has any of the gods of the nations ever delivered its land out of the hand of the king of Assyria? Where are the gods of Hamath and Arpad? Where are the gods of Sepharvaim, Hena, and Ivvah? Have they delivered Samaria out of [Sennacherib’s] hand? Who among all the gods of the countries have delivered their countries out of [his] hand, that YHWH should deliver Jerusalem out of [his] hand?”2 Kings 18:33-35
4—The word ἁρπαγμός in Philippians 2:6 could mean “exploited,” “seized,” or, most likely, both. As I’ve argued in this post and the previous, “equality with God” has to do with one’s political authority, not with one’s metaphysical nature. Jesus contemplated how he might use the powers given to him by God, whether for personal gain, or for the will of God (cf. John 14:10).