Jesus stands at the centre of the Christian faith. Christians place their trust in Jesus and shape their life around him. They also worship him as God. And yet: Jesus was a Jewish person who lived during the first century in Palestine.
So how does this Jewish man become an object of Christian devotion and the centre of a faith to which billions of people subscribe? Put another way, how did intensely monotheistic Jewish men and women come to worship the man Jesus Christ? Added to this question, did early Christians (i.e., those in the first century) worship Jesus as God?
To answer these questions, we need to listen to the testimony of Jesus’ disciples or to a record of their testimony of Jesus.
One place to start is the Book of Revelation (but certainly not the only place to start!). The text underscores the unity of divine titles for God and the lamb and the worship of God Almighty and the lamb with co-equal honour, glory, and dignity. Here are examples.
Same Divine Title: The Alpha and The Omega
In a real sense, the Book of Revelation includes the lamb in the being of God Almighty by giving both of them the same titles and the same worship. Consider the title The Alpha and the Omega.
In Revelation 1:8, God says, “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” So there it is: God is the Alpha and the Omega. God only speaks directly twice in the Book of Revelation (Bauckham, Revelation, 1993: 25), and the second time also includes a claim to a title (21:5–8; the first is in Rev 1:8). God says, “And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end” (Rev 21:6).
Jesus makes the same claims:
Revelation 1:17: “Fear not, I am the first and the last”
Revelation 22:13: “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.”
In other words, God and Jesus make the same claims about themselves. As Bauckham notes, Revelation applies Isaiah’s identification of Yahweh to God and the lamb who together are the first and the last (See Isa 44:6; 48:12; 41:4; Bauckham, Revelation, 27).
In Revelation 4 and 5, John portrays two scenes of worship. In both passages, the setting is God’s heavenly throne room. In Revelation 4, the four creatures say, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!” (4:8), and the twenty-four elders say, “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created” (4:11).
Chapter 5 moves from the worship of God to the worship of the lamb. After the lamb proves himself worthy to open the Scroll, the four creatures and twenty-four elders worship him (5:8). They then sing a new song to the lamb (5:9–10).
Next, all heaven breaks into praise, saying: “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” (Rev 5:12). Then earth adds its voice to heaven and says, “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” (Rev 5:13). Finally, John records a final scene of worship, “And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” and the elders fell down and worshiped” (Rev 5:14).
John presents the universe as worshipping God and the lamb with equal honour, glory, and dignity.
Bauckham reflects on the implications of this Christ worship on monotheism:
Since the issue of monotheistic worship is so clear in Revelation, it cannot be that the worship of Jesus is represented in Revelation through the neglect of this issue. It seems rather that the worship of Jesus must be understood as indicating the inclusion of Jesus in the being of the one God defined by monotheistic worship. The point becomes clear in the scene of worship in heaven in chapters 4–5. (Revelation, 60).
In other words, the two scenes of worship in heaven draw readers to the conclusion that Jesus is included “in the being of the one God” and that monotheism remains true.
Is John a Trinitarian?
Consider John’s own words:
Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth. (Rev 1:4–5)
John opens his letter by saying that “Grace … and peace” come from three somethings.
- “from him who is and who was and who is to come”
- “from the seven spirits”
- “and from Jesus Christ”
Notice that each of these three somethings work together to give grace and peace. They work together to share grace and peace to John’s readers.
The first title belongs to God. The third name belongs to Jesus. And the second name, the seven spirits, refers to the Holy Spirit; the number 7 refers to completion not to seven different parts (see Bauckham, Revelation, 109).
So the introduction to the Book of Revelation is trinitarian. (And the revelation itself is trinitarian as later chapters in the Book of Revelation will illustrate). John sees God at work in a threefold manner.
No. John does not use the same language of later Nicene formulations, but he certainly uses triune language.
So Why Worship Jesus?
So why did early Christians worship Jesus? One answer is because he is worthy to open the scroll and of worship because he is the lamb slain before the foundation of the world. More than that, John saw the man Jesus worshipped as God and claiming the same title as God.
John doesn’t give up his monotheism due to this. Far from it. Bauckham insightfully observes how careful John uses grammar to maintain his monotheism while affirming that Jesus ought to be worshipped as God:
Probably connected with this concern to include Jesus in monotheistic worship is a peculiar grammatical usage elsewhere in Revelation, where mention of God and Christ together is followed by a singular verb (11:15) or singular pronouns (22:3–4; and 6:17, where the singular pronoun autou is the better reading). It is not clear whether the singular in these cases refers to God alone or to God and Christ together as a unity. John, who is very sensitive to the theological implications of language and even prepared to defy grammar for the sake of theology (cf. 1:4), may well intend the latter. (Revelation, 60)
But in either case, he is evidently reluctant to speak of God and Christ together as a plurality. He never makes them the subjects of a plural verb or uses a plural pronoun to refer to them both. The reason is surely clear: he places Christ on the divine side of the distinction between God and creation, but he wishes to avoid ways of speaking which sound to him polytheistic. (Revelation, 60–61).
If Bauckham is correct, John carefully uses verbs and pronouns both to affirm monotheism and to affirm that Christ is included in the being of God.
However we answer the historical question of why monotheistic Jewish persons started worshipping the man Jesus Christ as God, we at least know they did so at the earliest periods of Christianity. And if we believe John (and I think we must), one reason why they worshipped Jesus as God is because the triune God revealed himself in this way to John in his visions of heaven.
Much more could be said. And I have only looked at one book of the New Testament. But even this one book provides insight into the question of why early Christians worshipped Jesus as God as well as confirming that they in fact did so at the earliest stages of the faith (i.e., when Scripture was still being written).