At the heart of John’s trinitarian Christology is the claim that Jesus is “God.” The following is an attempt to summarize what John intends by this claim and how he communicates it.
1. Both the prologue and the Gospel in its entirety are structured around statements regarding the deity of the second person of the Trinity. The prologue begins with the claim that the Word “was God” (Jn 1:1) and concludes by describing the monogenēs as “the one who is” (Jn 1:18), which seems to be an echo of Exodus 3:14. The prologue’s opening identification of the Word as God is likewise mirrored at the conclusion of the Gospel by Thomas’ confession, “My Lord and my God!” (Jn 20:28).
2. The ascription of deity to Jesus is not in itself all that striking. In the first century, the term “god” did not function exclusively as a proper name for the one true God, as it (still often) does in the modern West. “God” functioned as a class term, applicable to many different beings and many different kinds of beings (including exalted human beings). Some of these beings were regarded as “gods by nature,” while others were regarded merely as “so-called gods,” i.e., beings called “god” for honorific reasons (Pss 82:6; 95:3; 1 Cor 8:4-6; Gal 4:8-9). Across various religious and philosophical cultures, including Judaism, many held the conviction that, among the numerous “gods” that exercised various degrees of power and authority in the world, one high God ruled over the rest of the gods.
3. Following Old Testament precedents, many Jews in antiquity distinguished the one high God from other (so-called) gods (some of whom Deut 32:17 identified as demons!) in several ways: first, by means of the distinction between uncreated and created being (1 Cor 8:4-6; Philo, Decal. 1:64-65; Legat. 1:115; Josephus, A.J. 1.155); second, by means of God’s proper name YHWH, the sign of God’s unique glory (Deut 6:4; Isa 48:11; Ps 145:21; 1 Cor 8:6); third, by means of God’s throne, though the evidence here is complicated by the fact that other figures in the Old Testament and other Jewish writings are said to ascend to/share YHWH’s throne/dominion (for example, the “Lord” mentioned in Psalm 110:1, “the Son of Man” in Daniel 7:13-14, and Isaiah’s Servant in Isaiah 52:13); and, fourth, by means of the unique honor that is due him (Deut 6:4-5; Mark 12:28-33; Philo, Spec. 1:58-64, 67; 2:63; Josephus, A.J. 4.200-201).
4. John’s Gospel reflects awareness of the Old Testament’s penchant for ascribing deity to beings that, strictly speaking, are not divine (John 10:34, citing Ps 82:6). However, in John 10, a passage with multiple allusions to Psalm 95, which affirms YHWH’s transcendent uniqueness by describing him as “a great God, and a great King above all gods” (Ps 95:3) and as creator of all things (Ps 95:4-6), Jesus claims that he is “one” with his Father, the God who is “greater than all” (Jn 10:29-30), a claim which immediately provokes the charge of blasphemy by Jesus’ opponents (Jn 10:31, 33). As the prologue’s opening predication has already made clear, John’s ascription of deity to Jesus is no mere honorary designation. By locating the Word on the divine side of the creator-creature distinction (Jn 1:1-3), John has removed all ambiguity regarding the nature of Jesus’ deity: Jesus is “one” with the uncreated God, the maker and ruler of all things. Jesus is “God” in the supreme and full sense of the term.
5. Jesus’ claim to deity first becomes a matter of public dispute in John 5:18, following his healing of a lame man on the Sabbath. In defending himself against the charge of blasphemy, Jesus ascribes to himself divine names, divine attributes, divine works, and divine worship (Jn 5:19-29; note the similar pattern of attribution in Heb 1:5-14). These four categories provide a helpful framework for summarizing John’s teaching regarding Jesus’ deity. John demonstrates the divine oneness of the Son with the Father in at least four broad ways. (1) Jesus shares the divine name(s). According to the Fourth Gospel, Jesus shares his Father’s holy “name” (Jn 17:11; cf. 12:41). Throughout the Gospel, Jesus is not only acclaimed as “God” (Jn 1:1; 20:28), he is also identified by God’s proper name YHWH, “the linguistic token of God’s uniqueness par excellence,” along with the “corona of connotation” established by various OT ways of expounding God’s proper name (Kendall Soulen). The monogenēs is called “the one who is” in John 1:18 (echoing Exod 3:14 LXX). Jesus is called “the Lord” in John 1:23 (citing the Tetragrammaton from Isa 40:3) and John 20:28 (echoing Ps 35:23 [34:23 LXX], which calls YHWH “my Elohim and my Adonai”). Perhaps most significantly, Jesus identifies himself as the one true God by means of a series of absolute (Jn 4:26; 6:20; 8:24, 28, 58; 13:19; 18:5, 6, 8) and predicate (Jn 6:35, 41, 48; 8:12; 10:7, 9, 11, 14; 11:25; 14:6; 15:1) “I am” statements, which echo YHWH’s own self-identification in the Old Testament (Deut 32:39; Isa 41:4; 43:10, 13, 25; 46:4; 48:12; 51:12; 52:6). (2) Jesus possesses divine attributes. He shares God’s eternal and unchangeable being, in contrast to temporal and changeable creatures (Jn 1:1-3; 8:35, 58). He manifests YHWH’s unique “glory” (Jn 12:41, alluding to Isaiah 6), abounding in “grace and truth” (Jn 1:14, which alludes to Exod 34:6). He has “life in himself,” just “as the Father has life in himself” (Jn 5:26). Jesus is a divine king (Jn 18:36) who holds all divine authority in his hands (Jn 3:35; 13:3). (3) Jesus performs divine works. As the Word who created all things (Jn 1:3-5), Jesus also proclaims the divine name to creatures (Jn 1:14, 18; 17:6, 26). Because he holds all divine authority in his hands, he executes divine judgment, raises the dead, and grants eternal life to whomever he will (Jn 5:21-22, 25, 27; 10:18; 17:2). Jesus predicts the future, revealing that “I am he” (Jn 13:19). Whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise (Jn 5:19), completing the divine work of salvation that the Father gave him to do on the cross (Jn 13:1; 19:3). For all the aforementioned reasons and others, (4) Jesus is worthy of divine honor. The Father “has given all judgment to the Son, that all might honor the Son, just as they honor the Father” (Jn 5:22-23). Jesus is worthy of the same faith that is due God (Jn 14:1; cf. 3:14-15; 8:24; 20:31), and also the same love (Jn 14:15). As one who shares the divine name, he is “lifted up” and “glorified” as “I am” (Jn 8:28; 12:32, 41). After Jesus’ resurrection, Thomas exclaims, “my Lord and my God” (Jn 20:28), a scriptural expression of covenant devotion (Ps 35:23). Though personally distinct from the Father as his Word and monogenēs, Jesus, according to John, is “one” God with the Father in every way (Jn 10:30).