The New Testament, generally, makes a distinction between Jesus and God and uses the title “God” for the Father alone. That implies that Jesus is not “God.” However, of the 1300 instances in the New Testament of the Greek word theos (translated as “god” or as “God” – Strong’s Greek: 2316. θεός), about seven refers to Jesus as theos. The purpose of this article is to determine what the New Testament writers meant when they described Jesus as theos.
God’s name YHVH
YHVH is often translated as “the LORD.”
To appreciate the meaning of the term “God,” first consider the Old Testament. In the Hebrew Old Testament, the God of Israel has a unique name that is not used for any other being. That name is YHVH, pronounced as Jehovah or as Yahweh. This name is used all over the Old Testament; more than 6800 times. Some Bibles translate YHVH as Yahweh or Jehovah, for instance:
“That men may know that thou,
whose name alone is JEHOVAH,
art the most high over all the earth”
(Psalms 83:18, KJV).
But most Bibles ‘translate’ YHVH as “the LORD” (all capitals). For example, in the NASB, the same verse reads:
“That they may know that You alone,
whose name is the LORD,
Are the Most High over all the earth.”
?? This verse refers to YHVH as the “Most High.” Angel Gabriel similarly said to Mary that Jesus “will be called the Son of the Most High” (Luke 1:32).
This distorts the meaning.
For example, God said to Moses:
“I am the LORD;
and I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,
as God Almighty, but by My name, LORD,
I did not make Myself known to them” (Exo 6:2).
Because “Lord” is a title and not a name, this ‘translation’ distorts the meaning. It would be easier to understand this verse if the name “YHVH” was not replaced with“the LORD” and it read as follows
“I am YHVH;
and I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,
as God Almighty, but by My name, YHVH,
I did not make Myself known to them.”
In other words, Moses was the first person to whom God revealed His name. The name YHVH does appear in Genesis, but that is because Moses also wrote Genesis.
El and Elohim
Elohim is a category name.
In Hebrew, the word for “god” (generally El or the plural form Elohim), in contrast to YHVH, is used both for the true God and for false gods. El and Elohim are even used for angels and exalted people. The NASB, therefore, translates Elohim 45 times as “god” and 204 times as “gods,” and occasionally also as divine, divine being, exceedingly, God’s, goddess, godly, great, judges, mighty, rulers and shrine (Strong’s Hebrew: 430. אֱלֹהִים (elohim)). For example:
The True God”
“A jealous and avenging God [elohim] is the LORD” (Nahum 1:2).
“For My people have forgotten Me,
They burn incense to worthless gods [elohim]”
(Jer 18:15; cf. Exo 20:3; 32:31).
Princes of Egypt:
“For I will pass through the land of Egypt …
and on all the gods [elohim] of Egypt [the princes]
I will execute judgments: I am the Lord” (Exo 12:12).
Judges appointed by Moses:
“Then his master shall bring him unto the judges [elohim]”
(Exo 21:6, KJV; also see Exo 22:8-9, 28).
The Hittites described Abraham as a “mighty [elohim] prince” (Gen 23:6).
Techniques to make the title elohim specific
Since the title Elohim is a name for a category of beings, the Old Testament uses various techniques to be specific when the true God is intended:
(1) Combines Elohim with YHVH:
“The LORD God” (YHVH Elohim) is found more than 200 times in the NASB, for instance, “the day that the LORD God made earth and heaven” (Gen 2:4).
“The LORD, the God” – about 50 times;
“The LORD your God” – about 200 times; For instance, “Then the LORD spoke again to Ahaz, saying ’Ask a sign for yourself from the LORD your God’” (Isa 7:10).
“The LORD his God,” for instance, “When a leader sins and unintentionally does any one of all the things which the LORD his God …” (Lev 4:22)
“The LORD my God,” for instance, “I (Daniel) prayed to the LORD my God” (Dan 9:4).
“The LORD our God,” for instance, “We have sinned against the LORD our God” (Jer 3:25). (54 times)
“The LORD their God,” for instance, “I am the LORD their God” (Exo 29:46). (12 times)
(2) YHVH in the immediately context
When Elohim is not directly combined with YHVH, YHVH is often used in the immediately context, so that it is still clear that Elohim refers to YHVH, for instance:
“So the LORD changed His mind …
Then Moses … went down from the mountain
with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand …
the writing was God’s writing engraved on the tablets.”
“6 The LORD God appointed a plant and it grew up over Jonah …
7 But God appointed a worm … and … the plant … withered.
8 … God appointed a scorching east wind,
and the sun beat down on Jonah’s head …
he became faint and begged with all his soul to die …
9 Then God said to Jonah …” (Jonah 4:6-9)
(3) Other techniques
The Old Testament also uses other techniques to ensure that the reader understands that the true God is intended, include:
The phrase “God of Israel” is found more than 60 times (e.g., Jer 19:15) and makes a distinction between YHVH and the false gods of the surrounding nations. For instance:
“Is it because there is no God in Israel
that you are going to inquire of Baal-zebub,
the god of Ekron?” (2 King 1:3-4)
The phrase “God Almighty” is found 5 times (e.g., Gen 48:3).
Many times God is identified as the “God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” (e.g., Gen 32:9).
Jesus is Elohim.
It is difficult to find a place in the Old Testament where the term Elohim is used for YHVH without further identification. The name YHVH seems to be always somewhere in the context. This means that the Old Testament does not use Elohim as a unique identifier or as a name for the God of the Bible. In contrast, in modern English, “God” is used as a unique name for the Most High.
Since Elohim, by itself, does not identify any specific being uniquely and since it has such a wide range of meanings, so that it is even translated as “god,” “divine,” “divine being,” “great,” “judges,” and as “rulers,” given what we know of Jesus, He would also be Elohim. But we want to know more than that. We want to know whether Jesus is YHVH, or the Elohim of Israel.
Jesus is called God.
Of the 1314 times that the title “God” appears in the New Testament, it refers explicitly to Jesus about seven times, depending on the translation. Jesus is possibly called “God” three times in John (1:1, 18; 20:27; 1 John 5:20), twice in Paul’s letters (Romans 9:5; Titus 2:13), once by Peter (2 Peter 1:1) and once in Hebrews (Heb 1:8). This, by itself, does not prove that Jesus is the same as or equal to the Only True and invisible God (John 17:3; Col 1:15), because “god” is also used for false gods and for exalted created beings, and because Jesus is referred to as “God” in only about seven instances. Furthermore:
The NT reserves “God” as a name for the Father exclusively.
A separate article shows that, from the occurrences of “God” in the New Testament that do provide further identification, that the New Testament consistently and clearly draws a distinction between God and Jesus. For example:
Paul refers to “God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom 1:7).
Revelation states. “I saw no temple in it, for the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb are its temple” (Rev 21:22).
John wrote of “the only true God, and Jesus Christ” (John 17:3).
That article, therefore, concludes that the New Testament reserves the title “God” for the Father exclusively. With that use of the term “God,” Jesus is not God.
Another article confirms that Jesus is not God by showing that Jesus is subordinate to God. For instance, God is the Head of Christ (1 Cor 11:3) and Christ sits at God’s right hand (e.g. Acts 2:33). Everything that His Son has, He has received from His Father. This includes:
Ability to raise the dead:
”Just as the Father has life in Himself,
even so He gave to the Son
also to have life in Himself” (John 5:26)
Authority to judge:
“The Father … gave Him authority to execute judgment, because He is the Son of Man” (John 5:27).
“My teaching is not Mine, but His who sent Me” (John 7:16).
The Fullness of Deity: “It was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in him” (Colossians 1:19; cf. 2:9).
“My glory which You have given Me” (John 17:24)
We must use the title “God” in the same way that the Bible does. If we define the title “God” as referring to the Father exclusively, then Jesus is not God.
Does Romans 9:5 refer to Jesus as God?
This is discussed in a separate article Jesus in Romans. That article analyses all references to “God” in the letter to the Romans and it concludes that Romans everywhere makes a distinction between God and Jesus. The only possible exception is Romans 9:5. Of the 28 translations of this verse, as provided by BibleHub, 14 identify Jesus as God but, in the other 14, Jesus is “God blessed” (NASB), which makes, like the entire rest of that letter, a distinction between God and Jesus. It is all a matter of punctuation, and punctuation in the Bible is interpretation (The Aquila Report).
Furthermore, Romans 9:5 contains the phrase “who is over all” and ascribe blessing. To read Romans 9:5 as describing Jesus as God, He must be the One who is “who is over all” and ascribe blessing. But in all other places in Paul’s writings “who is over all” refer not to Christ, but to God (Eph 4:6). Similarly, everywhere else in Paul’s writings our thanks go to God; not to Jesus.
Given these facts, and since Paul nowhere else applied the title “God” to our Lord, Romans 9:5 should not be used to argue that Jesus is God.
“Our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus,
who gave Himself for us to redeem us from every lawless deed,
and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession” (Titus 2:13).
But Paul also maintained a clear and consistent distinction between God and Jesus, for instance:
“There is but one God, the Father …
and one Lord, Jesus Christ” (I Cor. 8:6)
“I charge you in the presence of God,
who gives life to all things,
and of Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 6:13).
Peter described Jesus as “our God and Savior, Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:1). But in the very next verse Peter makes a distinction between God and Jesus:
“Grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord” (2 Peter 1:2).
We see the same distinction between God and Jesus in Peter’s statement a few verses later, “Lord Jesus Christ … received honor and glory from God the Father” (2 Peter 1:16-17).
Letter to the Hebrews
God says of “the Son”: “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever” (Heb. 1:8). But the very next verse reads, “God, your God, has anointed you”. In other words, God is the God also of “the Son”.
This entire passage is a quote from Psalm 82, where the king is called “God” (v6), saying “God, Your God, has anointed You” (v7). This shows again that people are sometimes called “god”. Hebrews, under inspiration, applies this to Jesus. But the point remains; although Jesus is called God, God is also His God. This statement does not make Him the same as or equal to God.
When Jesus showed him His wounds, the doubting Thomas realized that the One standing in front of him is the risen Lord, and he exclaimed:
“My Lord and my God” (John 20:28).
However, just a minute before Thomas did not even believe that Jesus was resurrected. He had no idea of the profound concepts that God would later reveal to John, which we read of in His gospel. It is unthinkable that Thomas, at that moment, thought of Jesus as the same as or equal to the Only True and invisible God (John 17:3; Col. 1:15).
The Word was God (John 1)
John 1:1 is the best known “proof” that Jesus is God. John 1:18 is similar to John 1:1. These two verses are therefore discussed together:
Jesus is distinct from God.
Both verses start by making a distinction between God and Jesus:
John 1:1 refers to Jesus as the Word (see verse 14). It starts by saying, “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God.” Since Jesus was “with God,” He is distinct from God.
John 1:18 starts by saying that “No one has seen God at any time.” Colossians 1:15 also describes God as invisible. Since God is invisible, while Jesus was seen, Jesus is distinct from God.
But both God and Jesus existed in the infinite “beginning” (1:1) and both therefore are eternal. This is confirmed by 1:3 which says “All things came into being through Him (the Word), and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being”. There was no time that “the Word” did not exist, for God created all things through Him; even time itself.
Jesus is God.
Both verses then continue to refer to Jesus as God:
John 1:1 continues to say “and the Word was God.”
John 1:18 similarly continues, “the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him.”
Conclusions from John 1
Firstly, note that 1:18 identifies the unseen God as the Father. One of the many similar statements is “I ascend to My Father and your Father, and My God and your God” (John 20:17). This confirms the conclusion that the New Testament, in the vast majority of instances, reserves the title “God” for the Father.
Secondly, although John 1:1 and 1:18 refer to Jesus as God, these same verses also make a distinction between God and Jesus. These are two different uses of the title “God:”
WHO: In the vast majority of instances the Bible uses “God” as a name for the Father, similar to the name YHVH. It uniquely identifies the Father. In this use of the term “God,” Jesus is not God.
WHAT: In the seven instances where Jesus is called “God,” the term “God” is used in a different sense. It is not used as an identification, but as a description, namely that Jesus is our God.
Note the “our” and “my:” Both Paul and Peter wrote, “Our great God … Christ Jesus” (Titus 2:13; 2 Peter 1:1). Thomas said “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28). In other words, although Jesus is not the God, but He is our God.
When the New Testament refers to Jesus as God, then the NT reverts back to the common meaning of the word “god.” Other people have other gods, but Jesus is our God. This does not mean that He is God, for the title “God” is reserved for the Father, “who alone possesses immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see” (1 Tim. 6:16).
Why is He our God?
To understand why the writers of the New Testament declared Jesus to be our God, we must read the seven verses where He is called God. Then we find that Jesus is our God because:
He was in the beginning with God and that God created all things through Jesus (1:1-3; Heb. 1:10). Although everything may perish, Jesus will always remain and will always remain the same (1:11-12). He is the only One who is able to explain God, who cannot be seen (John 1:18). He rose from the dead (John 20:28) and He is “over all” (Rom. 9:5). He is “Savior” who “gave Himself for us to redeem us from every lawless deed, and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession” (Titus 2:13; 2 Peter 1:1).
Is Jesus God?
This is a bad question, unless we define what we mean by “God.” The New Testament reserves the title “God” for the uncaused Cause of all things, who cannot be seen. Jesus referred to Him as “Father.” Gabriel referred to Him as the “Most High.” If we use this meaning for the title “God,” then Jesus is not God.
But in a small number of instances the New Testament refers to Jesus as “God.” These verses use a different meaning of the term “God.” These verses use the common meaning of theos, in which beings other than the uncaused Cause of all things may be called theos. Other people have other gods, but Jesus is the One that we worship and obey.
This does not mean that Jesus is equal to the uncaused Cause of all things. Here we depart from mainstream Christianity.
As discussed above, Jesus received everything from the Father.
Jesus is not the Creator of all things, but God created all things through Him.
If we ask whether Jesus always existed, then the answer is yes and no, for we need to understand what the questioner means. The term “always” assumes time, and time did not always exist. Time started when this universe was created. Before time there was no such thing as time. But we cannot even talk about “before” the creation of the universe. There is just no such thing. To talk about what exists outside time is to ask about the One “who alone possesses immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see” (1 Tim. 6:16). These things are simply beyond human understanding. But Jesus existed in the “Beginning” (John 1:1). We can therefore safely assume that Jesus existed from the beginning of time.
Jesus is not co-equal to the Father, but He is our God, for He created us, redeemed us, sustains us, is preparing homes for us, and one day He will return to take us where He is. Then:
“All will honor the Son even as they honor the Father. He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent Him” (John 5:23).
“God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus EVERY KNEE WILL BOW … to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:9:11).
I have written several articles on the use of theos for Jesus in the NT. My conclusions can be summarised into the following categories:
Instances where it is NOT clear whether theos refers to Christ:
In many translations of Romans 9:5, Jesus is not God but blessed by God. See, Jesus in Paul’s letter to the Romans.
In 1 John 5:20, the title “true theos” is sometimes understood as referring to the Son. However, the entire purpose of that verse is to say that the Father is the “true” God, in contrast to the idols mentioned in the next verse. It twice refers to the Father as “Him who is true.” Therefore, when that verse concludes by saying that “This is the true God,” this should be understood as referring to the Father:
20 And we know that the Son of God has come,
and has given us understanding
so that we may know Him who is true;
and we are in Him who is true,
in His Son Jesus Christ.
This is the true God and eternal life.
21 Little children, guard yourselves from idols. (NASB)
Instances where it is not clear whether the original manuscripts contain the word theos:
Many of the ancient manuscripts of John 1:18 describe Jesus as “Son” and not as God.” See, Did John John refer to Jesus as theos (god) or huios (son)?
Instances where the meaning of the word theos is in dispute:
The grammatical structure of John 1:1c means that the word was like God; not that he is God. See, The Word was God or like God?
In Hebrews 1:8-9 and John 20:28, 19, Jesus is called theos but the Father is called His God. That means that theos is used in different senses for the Father and Son. See the article on theos.
Other Available Articles
- Is Jesus God? – List of all articles
- The historical development of the Trinity doctrine – List of Articles
- All articles – List of all article series on this website