I could respond to this by using the C.S. Lewis argument that Jesus is either Lord, Lunatic, or Liar. I tend to not use that one a lot. While it still has some value it generally begs the question of the reliability of the New Testament. After all, some skeptics assume the deity of Jesus is a later invention of the Church. As I have noted elsewhere, this is incorrect. The Christology is Jesus was at the very start of the formation of the early Jesus movement.
Jesus is the Message
Anyway, how do I respond to this? First, since the person already admires the teachings of Jesus, I point to the blind spot in their thinking. First, it is not the moral teachings of Jesus that is the message. Rather, Jesus is the message!
Probably the most pertinent examples of how Jesus in the message is in the Gospel of John where we see the “I AM” (Gk. ego eimi,) statements. I am well aware that all these passages need to be studied in context. But we see clearly that Jesus is emphasizing He is the message. For example:
Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty. (John 6:35)
When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12)
I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out, and find pasture. (John 10:9)
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (John 10:11)
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” (John 11:25-26)
Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)
“I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)
From a tactical perspective, when people say they only like the teachings of Jesus, it can allow you the opportunity to share these passages from John and ask them if they might rethink their position.
Why Was Jesus Crucified?
Second, I ask the person is why was Jesus crucified? One issue that can tend to be overlooked is that we can minimize the issue of blasphemy in a Jewish setting. by the way, none of the above figures were accused of blasphemy. According to Jewish law, the claim to be the Messiah was not a criminal, nor capital offense. Therefore, the claim to be the Messiah was not even a blasphemous claim. (1)
If this is true, why was Jesus accused of blasphemy? According to Mark 14:62, Jesus affirmed the chief priests question that He is the Messiah, the Son of God, and the Coming Son of Man who would judge the world. This was considered a claim for deity since the eschatological authority of judgment was for God alone. Jesus provoked the indignation of his opponents because of His application of Daniel 7:13 and Psalm 110:1 to himself.
Also, many parables, which are universally acknowledged by critical scholars to be authentic to the historical Jesus, show that Jesus believed himself to be able to forgive sins against God (Matt. 9:2; Mark 2: 1-12). Forgiving sins was something that was designated for God alone (Exod. 34: 6-7; Neh.9:17; Dan. 9:9) and it was something that was done only in the Temple along with the proper sacrifice. So it can be seen that Jesus acts as if He is the Temple in person. In Mark 14:58, it says, “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this man-made temple and in three days will build another, not made by man.’ The Jewish leadership knew that God was the one who was responsible for building the temple (Ex. 15:17; 1 En. 90:28-29).(2)
Also, God is the only one that is permitted to announce and threaten the destruction of the temple (Jer. 7:12-13; 26:4-6, 9;1 ). (3) It is also evident that one reasons Jesus was accused of blasphemy was because He usurped God’s authority by making himself to actually be God (Jn. 10:33, 36). Not only was this considered by the Jews to be blasphemous, it was worthy of the death penalty (Matt. 26:63-66; Mk. 14:61-65; Lk. 22:66-71; Jn. 10:31-39; 19:7)
As the late Martin Hengal said:
“Jesus’ claim to authority goes far beyond anything that can be adduced as prophetic prototypes or parallels from the field of the Old Testament and from the New Testament period. [Jesus] remains in the last resort incommensurable, and so basically confounds every attempt to fit him into categories suggested by the phenomenology of sociology of religion.” (4)
Remember that there was a Jewish leader named Bar Kohba who made an open proclamation to be the real Messiah who would take over Rome and enable the Jewish people to regain their self-rule (A.D. 132-135). Even a prominent rabbi called Rabbi Akiba affirmed him as the Messiah. Unfortunately, the revolt led by Bar Kohba failed and as a result and both he and Rabbi Akiba were slain. And remember, Bar Kohba was not accused of blasphemy. He never claimed to have the authority to forgive sins or claim to be the Son of Man (as referring to Daniel 7).
In the end, I think the reason some people like the moral teachings of Jesus and avoid the divinity issue is an issue of autonomy. A non- divine Jesus is really not very threatening and doesn’t ask much of us.
1. See Darrell L. Bock. Blasphemy and Exaltation in Judaism: The Charge Against Jesus in Mark 14:53-65. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1998.
2. William Lane Craig. Reasonable Faith: Third Edition. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2008, 307.
3. Martin Hengel, The Charismatic Leader and His Followers. New York: Crossroad, 1981. 68-69; Cited in Edwards, 96.
4. Jacob Immanuel Schochet. Mashiach: The Principle of Mashiach and the Messianic Era in Jewish Law and Tradition. New York: S.I.E. 1992, 93-101.