Early Christians faced persecution from Roman authorities for refusing to worship the gods of Rome, including the Emperor. Some were even put to death for this offense. One famous example was Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna and disciple of the apostle John, who was executed by the Romans in 155 AD.
As followers of the Jewish teacher Jesus of Nazareth, Christians recognize only one God: Yahweh, the God of Israel. From the beginning, though, Christians have also accorded divine status to Jesus, including him in Yahweh's unique divine identity.
We see evidence of early Christian devotion to Jesus in Phil 2:6-11, which praises Jesus for relinquishing his divine status in order to be born as a human and die on a cross. For this supreme sacrifice, "God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father."
Many scholars believe that this passage is part of an early Christian hymn. It references Isa 45:22-23, in which God declares his uniqueness and incomparability and then asserts that "to me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear allegiance." Since Isaiah says that Yahweh alone will be universally honored and Philippians states that all will worship Jesus, Phil 2:9-11 implies the deity of Jesus.
How did those staunchly monotheistic early Christians conclude that Jesus is God in human form? They seem to have drawn this conclusion from the testimony of the Hebrew Scriptures and their personal experience with the resurrected Messiah.
During the centuries before the coming of Jesus, the Scriptures record many instances in which God sent a special representative to interact with people. Often this representative is both distinguished from, and yet identified with, God himself.
One example involves the mysterious man who wrestled all night with the patriarch Jacob and then gave him the new name Israel ("he strives with God"). Afterward, Jacob was convinced that he had wrestled with God (Gen 32:24-30).
The prophet Hosea later wrote in parallel clauses that Jacob "strove with God" and "strove with the angel" (Hosea 12:3-4). Jacob made the same kind of identification between God and his angel at the end of his life when he blessed Joseph, Ephraim, and Manasseh (Gen 48:15-16).
Later, at the time of the Exodus, God told the Israelites at Mount Sinai that he would send an angel to be with them on the trip to the Promised Land. This angel bore God's Name, was to be obeyed and had the power to forgive sins (Exod 23:21). All of these characteristics suggest the angel's divine status.
After the Israelites reached the Promised Land, an angel of the Lord stated that he had brought them out of Egypt, made an unbreakable covenant with them, and been disobeyed by them (Judges 2:1-5). These statements again closely connect the angel of Yahweh with Yahweh.
Daniel's vision recorded in Dan 7 includes a scene in which two divine figures appear together. First the "Ancient of Days" is described, seated on a fiery, wheeled throne (vv 9-10). Then "with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man," who was given authority over an everlasting kingdom by the Ancient of Days (vv 13-14).
The phrase "with the clouds of heaven" in Dan 7:13 is significant. In the Ancient Near East, it is deities who are pictured riding on the clouds. In particular, in the literature of Ugarit, a northern neighbor of Israel, the god Baal is said to ride on the clouds. On the other hand, in the Bible Yahweh is portrayed as a cloud rider (Deut 33:26; Ps 68:33; 104:3; Isa 19:1), sending the message that he, not Baal, is the ruler of the universe. The imagery of Dan 7:13-14, then, suggests that the second figure in Daniel's vision is both human ("one like a son of man") and divine (a cloud rider).(1)
The vision of Dan 7:9-14 portrays two distinct divine figures in the same scene. Scriptures like the ones we have been considering led to speculations during the Second Temple period about the existence of "two powers in heaven."(2) These scriptures suggested that the unique divine identity, the echad described in the Shema, might be a kind of compound unity.
The Jewish literature of this period suggested some possibilities for who Daniel's son of man, the second power in heaven, might be. The candidates included humans like Adam, Enoch, Jacob, and Moses. Angels like Michael were also proposed.(3)
We know from the Gospels that Jesus often spoke of himself as Son of Man. This enigmatic designation can refer either to a human being, as in the book of Ezekiel, or to the divine figure in Daniel's vision. Jesus' use of the phrase may have added to the speculation that surrounded his identity (Matt 16:13-14).
On the eve of his crucifixion, Jesus made clear which Son of Man he was. When asked by Caiaphas if he was the promised Messiah, he replied that "from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven" (Matt 26:64). Jesus acknowledged that he was the Cloud Rider, the divine Son of Man.
Based on the words of their Master, the disciples of Jesus were quick to connect him with earlier visible manifestations of Yahweh like the angel of Exodus 23. The apostle Paul wrote that Jesus had accompanied the Israelites on the Exodus (1 Cor 10:4). Jude asserted that Jesus "saved a people out of the land of Egypt" (Jude 5). The testimony of the first followers of Jesus laid the foundation for the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.
(1) On this topic see "The Rider of the Clouds," chapter 29 in The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible by Michael S. Heiser, Lexham Press, Bellingham, WA, 2015.
(2) See Alan F. Segal, Two Powers in Heaven: Early Rabbinic Reports about Christianity and Gnosticism, Baylor University Press, Waco, Texas, 2012.
(3) Dr. Michael S. Heiser* surveys these proposals in The Jewish Trinity: How the Old Testament Reveals the Christian Godhead, Logos Mobile Education course OT 291, Logos Bible Software, Bellingham, WA, 2014.
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