Sunday, July 14, 2013

Who is Jesus?

When I was young, denominational lines between churches separated the Body of Christ in America. A person was encouraged to never talk about religion or politics, and the denominational walls remained intact. In my life, I have seen a lot of change within the church. People have been searching for something more than a set of traditional beliefs and the interaction across the former boundaries has changed the Christian landscape in America. And while it’s great that believers from different denominations have been able to interact and pray in unity, I’ve been saddened recently by a realization that the Church’s transformation may have some undesirable consequences. In many ways, Christianity is being watered down and as a result, doctrinal victories are being forgotten.

Take for example the deity of Jesus. Once an incontrovertible tenet of Christianity, I was surprised to find it challenged on separate occasions by a couple men with whom I’ve met with in Bible study and prayer. One of these men, I’ve known for over ten years.  I don’t doubt the good intentions of these men, but “the road to hell is filled with good intentions”. And without an understanding or appreciation of church history, we are vulnerable to falling back into deceptions that have already been exposed.

Pagan propaganda in recent years has challenged Christ’s deity, claiming it was all just a strong-arm tactic of the emperor Constantine, that it was used to solidify his political powerbase through the church as it met in Nicaea. Now it is true that hundreds of bishops convened at the emperor’s invitation to meet on the topic of Christ’s divinity; some participants even came from outside the Roman Empire. Most of these bishops had lived under years of persecution and had repeatedly demonstrated a willingness to die for their faith; this is a fact that pagan propaganda conveniently leaves out. Also, there were no quick decisions. It was not a short meeting, but it took place over a couple months at the end of which an overwhelming majority affirmed the teaching of the apostles: that Jesus is both divinely one with Father God and yet somehow separate. The council decided to document their position so that all of Christianity could unify under this statement of faith. This document has become known as the original Nicene Creed, and of the reported 318 bishops, only two refused to affirm these words:
We believe in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible; and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten of the Father, that is, of the substance of the Father, God of God, light of light, true God of true God, begotten not made, of the same substance with the Father, through whom all things were made both in heaven and on earth; who for us men and our salvation descended, was incarnate, and was made man, suffered and rose again the third day, ascended into heaven and cometh to judge the living and the dead. And in the Holy Ghost.
Those who say: There was a time when He was not, and He was not before He was begotten; and that He was made out of nothing; or who maintain that He is of another hypostasis or another substance [than the Father], or that the Son of God is created, or mutable, or subject to change, the Catholic Church anathematizes.

The church leaders of the time felt this truth about Jesus’ deity was so important that they “anathematized” anyone who refused to subscribe to it. An anathema is a formal ban or excommunication, so the decision to anathematize anyone who refused to subscribe to this belief meant there could be no Christian fellowship with a person who refused to believe in Jesus’ deity.  

At the time, there were some leaders who thought this last part of the Nicene Creed was extreme, and had I been in their position, I think it would have been difficult for me as well. But then what is the alternative? Without a strong statement, what would prevent the errant teaching? This was a different age, where information travelled slowly. And in essence, the Nicene council was simply reiterating what the original apostles had taught and which is described in Scripture. But more than that, they had spent time trying to explain the truth to these men, to listen to and understand their perspective and ultimately concluded that their differences were too great to be considered as one. The deity of Jesus was just too essential to the Christian faith and fellowship was not possible if it watered down the message.

The council of Nicaea affirmed what the apostles’ writings had already clearly stated. John, friend of Jesus and one of the original church leaders, did not leave anything to wonder about Who he believed Jesus to be. He opened his gospel account with a clear description, asserting that Jesus was actively involved in creation. Using a literary tool clearly reminiscent of Genesis 1. John wrote:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. (John 1:1-3)
It’s clear reading through the rest of John 1 that the “Word” is Jesus and that He is both God… and yet somehow separate. “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (v. 14) As prophesied by Isaiah and clearly explained in Matthew’s gospel account, Jesus is both God and man… Emmanuel, which means “God with us” (Matthew 1:23). 

There’s so much more I could write about Who Jesus is: the King of all the universe, the perfect Lamb Who was sacrificed to pay the price for sin… my sin, my legally appointed representative in an eternal courtroom whenever an accusation comes up against me, and my big brother who has always watched out for me. As both God and man, His authority can’t be questioned and His understanding of the human situation can’t be denied. 
copyright ©2013 Mitchell Malloy (