The Issue of Worship
One of the key questions in the debate about the divinity of Jesus has been whether he is worshiped in a way that “principal agents” of God are not (see Hurtado, How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God? 46-53). It is difficult to distinguish ancient texts and practices expressing political submission and respect, on the one hand, from practices that we would call religious, which express worship and devotion, on the other. (The use of the verb προσκυνεω in the book of Revelation with God and the Lamb as objects, as well as with the community in Philadelphia as object (3:9), is a case in point. The honor given to the highly exalted Jesus in Philippians 2:10-11 is also ambiguous in this way). If Jesus was seen as taking over God’s function as king, warrior, and judge at the End, as God’s agent, his divinity may have been perceived primarily in functional terms at first.
But the idea of a heavenly messiah opens doors to speculation and rhetoric about preexistence. (Cf. the Greek version of Psalm 110, especially v. 3.). The notion of preexistence intensifies the divine status of the heavenly messiah. Similarly, the honorific recognition as God’s son is intensified in language about a virginal conception.
The cultural environment must also be taken into account. In the Hellenistic ruler cults and especially in the imperial cults, men who were once human beings were honored and worshiped as gods. Some were even worshiped as gods during their earthly lifetimes. The messiah of Israel was conceived as first primarily as a king, of his own nation first of all and then of the whole world.
The understanding of Jesus that emerged after his resurrection involved his kingship over Israel and over the entire world. Given the practice of the imperial cults, it is not surprising that Jesus was viewed as a god and that worship of him became an alternative to the worship of the emperor.
Adela Yarbro Collins, King and Messiah as Son of God: Divine, Human, and Angelic Messianic Figures in Biblical and Related Literature, page 174. Emphasis added.
Adela Yarbro Collins is Professor of New Testament Criticism and Interpretation at Yale Divinity School. Collins has also served as the President of the Society of New Testament Studies.