But Jesus remained silent. And the high priest said to him, “I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.” Jesus said to him, “You have said so. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” Then the high priest tore his robes and said, “He has uttered blasphemy. What further witnesses do we need? You have now heard his blasphemy. What is your judgment?” They answered, “He deserves death.” Matthew 26:63-66 ESV
Perhaps the greatest Muslim missionary/apologist/polemicist of all time was the late Ahmed Deedat from South Africa. He is famous for introducing the “exact words” argument against the divinity of Jesus. It goes like this: “Show me one verse in the Bible where Jesus says, ‘I am God, worship me’… in those exact words.” Implied in this conditional statement is “If you can’t find those exact words, then Jesus isn’t God.” A cursory examination shows this to be a fallacious argument, and yet it is still widely used by novice and experienced Muslim apologists alike. Apparently, Muslims demand blunt statements regarding their deities. While Jesus uttered no such exact quote in the New Testament, it would be fair to reframe the question as “Did Jesus ever plainly say that he was God and deserved our worship?”
One of the clearest examples that comes to mind occurs in the account of Jesus’ trial before the high priest Caiaphas and the Jewish Sanhedrin leading up to his conviction and crucifixion.
And they led Jesus to the high priest. And all the chief priests and the elders and the scribes came together… Now the chief priests and the whole council were seeking testimony against Jesus to put him to death, but they found none. For many bore false witness against him, but their testimony did not agree. And some stood up and bore false witness against him, saying, “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.’” Yet even about this their testimony did not agree. — Mark 14:53, 55-56 ESV
I can imagine the building frustration the high priest was feeling at this point. He was going to ask for a vote of guilt or innocence soon and he lacked the evidence to convict. I surmise out of desperation he attempted to goad Jesus into self-incrimination.
And the high priest stood up in the midst and asked Jesus, “Have you no answer to make? What is it that these men testify against you?” But he remained silent and made no answer. — Mark 14:60-61a ESV
You can sense the palpable vexation, anger and exasperation. At this point, I’ll switch over to Matthew’s narrative for additional details. It reeks of the desperation of Caiaphas.
And the high priest said to him, “I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.” Jesus said to him, “You have said so. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” Then the high priest tore his robes and said, “He has uttered blasphemy. What further witnesses do we need? You have now heard his blasphemy. What is your judgment?” They answered, “He deserves death.” — Matthew 26:63b-66 ESV
The Jews were expecting a fully human Messiah, anointed by God to end the Roman occupation of the Promised Land and establish God’s kingdom over Israel. Thus, the titles “Christ” and “Son of God” that Caiaphas used were not seen as divine. Jesus, however, not only owns these titles, but adds a few of his own – and these are the ones that led to the guilty verdict. The titles “Son of Man”, “at the right hand of Power” and “Rider of the Clouds” literally sent Caiaphas and the Council ballistic. Why? To answer this, we need some Old Testament period background.
[Ed Note: What follows is pilfered from a YouTube video entitled “Biblical Insights 4: The Divine Cloud Rider” by Islam Critiqued. I am honored to draw from his excellent content. I’ll trust he doesn’t mind.]
Arguably one of the most prominent Canaanite gods was Baal:
The worship of Baal demonstrably pervaded the entire area inhabited by the Canaanites. During the period of the Middle Kingdom, if not earlier, the cult was adopted by the Egyptians. along with the cult of other Canaanite gods (S. MORENZ. Agyptische Religion [RdM 8; Stuttgart 19772] 250-255). In the wake of the Phoenician colonization it eventually spread all over the Mediterranean region. — W. Herrmann, Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible (DDD), Karel van der Toorn, Bob Becking, Pieter W. van der Horst (Eds.), 2nd Extensively Revised Edition, Eerdmans, 1999, p. 133
Similarly the increasingly sharp polemics which came to dominate the Israelite literature (cf. KOHLEWEIN 1971:331) attest to the fact that during the early Iron Age the god Baal played a large part in the belief of the Israelite population. — Ibid., pp. 136-137
So, who was Baal?
Baal (Hadad) is regularly denominated “the son of Dagan,” although Dagan (biblical Dagon) does not appear as an actor in the mythological texts. Baal also bears the titles “Rider of the Clouds,” “Almighty,” and “Lord of the Earth.” He is the god of the thunderstorm, the most vigorous and aggressive of the gods, the one on whom mortals most immediately depend. — https://phoenicia.org/ethnlang.html
Here are a few quotes from a Syro-Canaanite text depicting Baal as “Rider of the Clouds”:
“Did I not tell Thee, O Prince Baal,
Nor declare, O Rider of Clouds?” — Ibid.
“Hear, O Aliyan Baal!
Perceive, O Rider of Clouds!” — Ibid.
Baal was the god of wind, thunder, rain — essentially the god of weather, which is pretty important stuff. A “polemic” is the offensive counter of the defensive “apologetic”. The Jews, being ever-so cleaver, consciously and consistently applied the title “Rider of the Clouds” to YAHWEH whenever they could, declaring instead that YAHWEH controls the weather (in addition to everything else)! They were, in essence, poking the bear (the Baal worshipers) polemically by ascribing Baal’s power to YAHWEH.
Bless the Lord, O my soul!
O Lord my God, you are very great!
You are clothed with splendor and majesty,
covering yourself with light as with a garment,
stretching out the heavens like a tent.
He lays the beams of his chambers on the waters;
he makes the clouds his chariot;
he rides on the wings of the wind;
he makes his messengers winds,
his ministers a flaming fire. — Psalms 104:1-4 ESV
O kingdoms of the earth, sing to God;
sing praises to the Lord, Selah
to him who rides in the heavens, the ancient heavens;
behold, he sends out his voice, his mighty voice. — Psalm 68:32-33 ESV
An oracle concerning Egypt.
Behold, the Lord is riding on a swift cloud
and comes to Egypt;
and the idols of Egypt will tremble at his presence,
and the heart of the Egyptians will melt within them. — Isaiah 19:1 ESV
“There is none like God, O Jeshurun,
who rides through the heavens to your help,
through the skies in his majesty.” — Deuteronomy 33:26 ESV
“I saw in the night visions,
and behold, with the clouds of heaven
there came one like a son of man,
and he came to the Ancient of Days
and was presented before him.
And to him was given dominion
and glory and a kingdom,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him;
his dominion is an everlasting dominion,
which shall not pass away,
and his kingdom one
that shall not be destroyed.” — Daniel 7:13-14 ESV
The consistent trademark of Jesus’ ministry was subtlety. His preferred method of communication involved parables, which relied on the hearer’s effort to grasp the underlying message. The imagery Jesus invoked before Caiaphas and the Council was the opposite of subtle — it was a cold slap in the face, a clear and unequivocal claim of divinity with a call to worship. Everyone in the Council knew that “Rider of the Clouds” and YAHWEH were one and the same, so this one statement by Jesus sealed his fate to die on a cross for your sins and mine. This bears repeating — Jesus made the conscious decision to willingly offer truthful testimony concerning himself that would force Caiaphas and the Council to condemn him to suffer one of the most painful deaths imaginable.
“I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.” — John 10:14-18 ESV