This is a chapter from my book, God, I Don't Understand.
Jesus Christ Himself, the central figure of Christianity, is really a biblical mystery. Many portions of Scripture completely affirm His deity, showing that at no time did He lose His divine nature. Yet the Bible teaches, equally strongly, that Christ became fully human.
Christ receives divine titles in the Word of God. The familiar prologue to the Gospel of John reads, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was fully God” (John 1:1 NET Bible). John makes it clear that this Word is Jesus Christ: “Now the Word became flesh and took up residence among us. We saw his glory – the glory of the one and only, full of grace and truth, who came from the Father.” (John 1:14). Jesus Christ is therefore called God in John 1:1.
The same is true of this passage: but of the Son he says, 'Your throne, O God, is forever and ever, and a righteous scepter is the scepter of your kingdom' (Heb. 1:8).
The Gospel of John records Thomas’ response to the resurrected Christ: “Thomas replied to him, 'My Lord and my God!’” (John 20:28).
Jesus Christ not only accepted worship due only to God but also demanded it (Matt. 4:10; John 5:23). Christ claimed to be the supreme object of faith, demanding of men the same kind of faith that they placed in God (John 17:1-3). He said, “The Father and I are one” (John 10:30).
The scriptural case for the fact that Jesus Christ is God is further supported by Christ’s divine attributes and words. He is eternal (John 17:5; Heb. 1:11-12), omnipresent (Matt. 28:20), and omnipotent (Heb. 1:3). The Scriptures show Him to be the Creator of all things (John 1:3; Col 1:16; Heb. 1:2), the One who holds all things in the universe together (Col. 1:17; Heb. 1:3). He alone as God offers forgiveness of sins (Luke 5:20-24), and all men will face Him in judgment (John 5:24-28). Thus, the fact of Christ’s full deity has clear biblical support.
The Bible builds an equally clear case in support of Christ’s full humanity subsequent to the Incarnation. Several passages indicate that Christ had a human birth (Matt. 1:18-25; Luke 2:4-21; John 1:14; 1 Tim. 3:15; 1 John 4:1-3). He also had a human development (Luke 2:52). He had all the human elements: a body (John 2:21), a soul (John 12:27), and a spirit (Luke 23:46).
In addition, just as Christ had divine names, He also had human names such as “man” (1 Tim. 2:5), “Son of man” (Luke 19:10), and “Son of David” (Mark 10:47). Christ possessed all of the human limitations except sin. He got tired, hungry, thirsty, sorrowful, and He died.
The Bible, therefore, gives clear testimony to the humanity as well as the complete deity of Jesus Christ. Paul summarizes this: “For in him all the fullness of deity lives in bodily form” (Col. 2:9).
The mystery here lies in the fact that humanity is not the same as deity. If Jesus were 50 percent God and 50 percent man (as some have taught), there would be no problem, since one-half plus one-half equals one. But the Bible does not allow this because it testifies that Jesus is a total man and fully God. Even though it is easy to make a statement like this, there is no way in which it can be truly comprehended because one plus one does not equal one. It is like trying to put one quart of water and one quart of oil into a one-quart container.
Human reasoning denies that one can be fully human and fully divine, but the Bible tells us that is the case with Jesus Christ.
When someone realizes that the Scriptures reveal Christ to be the complete God-man, he has three basic alternatives.
· First, he may decide to reject this revelation because it does not make sense to him. Such a rejection would diminish or completely erase the authority of the Word of God in his mind.
· Second, he can try to reason it out, reword it, or illustrate it, as though it could be resolves like a paradox. In this case the issue is skirted by minimizing certain Scriptures or avoiding a direct collision with the implications of the biblical data on this point.
· The third alternative is to acknowledge that no analogies or illustrations will really solve the puzzle, and that the complete authority of the Word of God must be recognized, no matter how difficult some of its implications may be. All the biblical data is accepted by faith, and reason is made subject to revelation. Only when the Bible is approached in this way can intellectual satisfaction be attained.
There is a parallel to this in the area of salvation. A person without Christ will not rid himself of his doubts about Christianity until he decides to accept Christ’s gift by faith. Satisfaction and peace then follow as a natural by-product.
It is unfortunate that, historically, most people confronted by this mystery have chosen one or the other of the first two alternatives. They have either rejected the biblical testimony concerning the God-man or they have juggled or ignored certain passages in an attempt to make this compatible with human comprehension. This has led to two inevitable extremes.
One extreme is to reject the deity of Jesus Christ, thus reducing Him to the level of being a man only. Often people will try to reduce the thrust of this approach by throwing in a few kind words. They say that Jesus was indeed a “great teacher” or a “true prophet.” Statements like these shouldn’t fool anyone, since almost all false systems want to give lip-service to Jesus and put Him on their bandwagon in spite of their rejection of His deity.
The implications of this extreme undermine all of Christianity. It would mean among other things that the Bible is not true and salvation is still not available, since the death of a mere man (no matter how noble he may have been) cannot provide the infinite purchase price required to redeem other men from their sins. This would leave all of us in deep trouble, since no one can hope to please a holy God with his own efforts.
This first extreme viewpoint concerning the God-man would imply that it is an utter waste of time to study the Scriptures and get into Christianity at all. If Christ is not God, the Bible is wrong, there is no salvation, and each person must become his own authority for “truth”.
The opposite extreme is equally devastating. In this case, the deity of Christ is affirmed, but His humanity is minimized or rejected. Interestingly, the results of this extreme are essentially the same as those of the first extreme. The Bible would not be the Word of God, and salvation would not be available for men.
Since the Bible makes it clear that Jesus Christ was completely human, a rejection of His humanity is tantamount to a rejection of the Bible. And salvation would not be available because the substitutionary atonement requires that Jesus Christ must die as a man to bear judgment for the sins of all men. As Scripture says, “ … there is one God and one intermediary between God and humanity, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself as a ransom for all, revealing God’s purpose at his appointed time” (1 Tim. 2:5-6). The Messiah could not have become the mediator between God and man apart from becoming the God-man by taking on human flesh. Many other important biblical doctrines would be destroyed with the notion that Christ never became a man, but the two that have been discussed here (God’s revelation to man and His provision of a Savior) are the most critical.
Church history affords a number of illustrations of how people have tried either to reject or rationalize this God-man mystery. The two erroneous extremes just discussed have appeared in many forms throughout the centuries and will continue to arise as long as people refuse to bow to the authority of God’s revelation of Himself in the Scriptures.
The Gnostics were among the first who perverted the Biblical doctrine of the God-man. Because of their dualistic conviction that matter is evil, they refused to believe in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Theirs was a form of Docetism, a doctrine that taught Christ only seemed to have a real body. They believed that Christ tricked the evil god of the Old Testament at the Crucifixion because His body was not real.
The Apostle John fought against the developing Gnosticism of his day and urged his readers to “test the spirits,” for “every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God” (1 John 4:1-3; see 2 John 7). John was vehemently opposed to this denial of the full humanity of Jesus, calling it “the spirit of the antichrist.”
Another controversy related to the issue of the God-man was generated in part by Arius of Alexandria in the early fourth century. Arius said that Christ was different from God and was of another substance. The conflict that arose from this led to the important Council of Nicea in A.D. 325.
Opposition to the deity of Christ was soon followed by a return to the other extreme. Apollinaris held a docetic view of Christ, saying that Christ was not truly human. Apollinaris placed his reason above Scripture and refused to accept that both the human and the divine nature were in Christ.
Nestorius was another church leader who stumbled over this mystery. He ended up with two persons, saying that Jesus as a man was energized by the logos of God. This was effectively a denial of the complete deity of Jesus Christ.
Eutyches, in the fifth century, arrived at the unusual viewpoint that Christ was neither truly human nor divine, but was a “tertium quid” (a “third other”).
Following this, there arose the Monophysite group, who stressed the divine nature in Christ and minimized His human nature to such an extent that His humanity was divested of all but a few human characteristics. That represented another swing back of the docetic (not completely human) view of Christ.
Though representatives of both extremes regarding the God-man continued to persist, the major christological controversies beginning with the seventh century centered more on the work than on the person of Jesus Christ. The next major group to deny the deity of Christ in favor of His humanity were the Socinians in the sixteenth century. Since that time the most common trend in avoiding the God-man mystery has been a simple rejection of the biblical testimony concerning the deity of Christ. This has been supported in large measure by eighteenth- and nineteenth-century philosophy, the evolutionary hypothesis, and higher criticism. The docetic extreme of minimizing the true humanity of Christ was more common in the days of the early church and is not often found today.
Outside of the main lines of church history, many more examples of the two extremes (a denial of Christ’s deity or of His humanity) can be found by looking into the beliefs of cults and Eastern religion concerning the person of Jesus Christ. Several of these religions regard Christ as simply another prophet sent by God to help enlighten the people of His day. Along with this goes the claim that other prophets with an even greater message have succeeded Jesus, and people of today should first listen to them (for instance, Muhammad, Baha’u’lah, and more recently, Sun Myung Moon). Other groups think of Jesus as “divine” in the same pantheistic sense in which all men are divine, thus rejecting Christ’s exclusive claims.
Another popular approach, which has been supported by various esoteric and occult teachings, is the separation of Jesus from Christ. This is an old idea that goes back to second- and third-century Monarchianism. Some, like Paul of Samosata, taught that “the Christ” (the divine power) descended upon the man Jesus at His baptism and left Him just prior to His crucifixion. This has been extended by some today into the idea that all of us can have this divine power or “Christ consciousness” within us.
All these erroneous teachings concerning the God-man place faith in human reason above God’s revelation. Thus it is imperative for each true believer in Christ to accept by faith all the scriptural data. He must not rationalize or disregard those elements that tax his comprehension, or he will be guilty of subjectively choosing those parts of the Bible he likes and eliminating the rest.
At his point, it may be helpful to deal specifically with some of the practical problems and questions related to the God-man antinomy. Remember, since these problems are related directly to a true mystery, by definition there can be no really satisfying solutions to them on a human level. They only illustrate the nature and implications of the mystery of the God-man.
One related issue is the preexistence and eternality of Christ prior to His incarnation. Many Old and New Testament passages make it clear that Christ existed before He was born of Mary and that there never was a time when Christ was not (Micah 5:2; John 1:1-2, 8:58).
Christ has always existed without a body apart from time and space as equal with the Father and with the Holy Spirit. He was always the Son of God by eternal generation from the Father (footnote 1).
Yet, while He is the same One who has forever existed, in another way He is different. Before He became man He always possessed a divine nature, but since that time He now possesses a divine-human nature (the word nature referring to essential qualities or intrinsic properties). He still subsists as the same Person but He is now a divine-human Person.
This concept, that there is now a God-man in heaven and that Christ now has a divine-human nature, affects the Trinitarian relationship because Christ is part of the Godhead. There is a close relationship between the two mysteries of the God-man and the Trinity. But even though Christ will forever have a body He never possessed in eternity past, God’s immutability remains: He has not changed in His essence or in His subsistence (mode of being).
It was the will or decree of God from the councils of eternity past that Jesus Christ would take on human flesh and human nature in the context of God’s space-time creation. This timeless plan provided that Christ would have a divine-human nature while remaining a single personality (see John 1:1-14; 1 John 1:1-3; Phil. 2:6-1). Part of the problem here is the question of what controlled the interaction of these two 100 percent entities.
It would not be accurate to say that “Jesus did this out of His humanity,” or “He did that out of His deity.” This would divide the personality of Jesus and imply that the association between Christ’s humanity and His deity is mutually exclusive. The real affiliation between the human and the divine in the person of Jesus Christ is an unsolvable mystery, since no one has the intellectual capacities to relate to such a combination.
The concept of God’s revelation in Christ, the God-man, was so overwhelming to the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard that he called it “the absolute paradox” (footnote 2). This was part of the basis for his “leap of faith” into the unknown, into the fact that cannot be a fact. For Kierkegaard, the absolute paradox is a scandal to reason because it simultaneously unites the nonhistorical with the historical in the person of the God-man. Because of this, Kierkegaard believed that faith and reason cannot be harmonized. Most Christian scholars part company with him on this point.
The great passage that describes the kenosis (self-emptying) of Jesus Christ is Philippians 2:5-11. The kenosis is related directly to Christ’s nature as God and man, and verses 6-8 portray what was involved: “who though he existed in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied himself by taking on the form of a slave, by looking like other men, and by sharing in human nature. He humbled himself, by becoming obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross!
Some have tried to argue from this passage that Christ surrendered His deity in becoming a man. These verses do not support this view but instead teach that the union of Christ to unglorified humanity was the supreme picture of His extreme humility and condescension based on His love for men.
Also involved in Christ’s self-emptying is His voluntary nonuse of some of His attributes, particularly omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence. This does not mean that He surrendered these attributes. He could not do so without losing His deity since these attributes are part of God’s nature.
Voluntary nonuse means that He personally willed not to exercise them on most occasions while He was on earth. Christ veiled His resplendent glory from His birth to His ascension, but He was not divested of this intrinsic glory any more than placing a filter over a floodlight diminishes the brightness of the lamp itself. On at least two occasions this veil was taken away for a short time (at the Transfiguration and in the Garden of Gethsemane). In summary, the Creator of the heavens and the earth humbled Himself to become a perfect man.
The doctrine of the kenosis of Christ raises other questions. One is, How could He have learned anything when He was a child, if He was at the same time the omniscient God? How could it be said that Jesus as God “learned obedience through the things he suffered” (Heb. 5:8)? The impenetrable answer to this must lie in the nature of how Christ could voluntarily not use His omniattributes for periods of time. Somehow the omniscient Lord Jesus was able to veil His omniscience from Himself without diminishing His deity or perfection. As a man He required a preparation period before He could begin His public ministry, and it could be said that “… Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and with people” (Luke 2:52).
Another question pertinent to Christ’s childhood concerns His ability to control His miraculous resources. Jesus needed to mature or “grow” in four basic areas: intellectually (”wisdom”), physically (”stature”), spiritually and socially (”in favor with God and men”). With respect to His human nature, Christ needed to mature, but from the standpoint of His divine nature Jesus as God cannot mature, but is always perfect.
It is difficult to comprehend how the interaction of Christ’s dual nature worked in such a way that He always had perfect physical and mental control over His supernatural abilities.
The idea of a human with superhuman endowment has always intrigued the popular mind. Variations on this theme have been developed in the areas of science fiction (with cyborgs and men of superhuman intelligence), children’s comic books and television shows and films (especially “super heroes” like Superman), and the alluring promises of supernatural abilities offered by witchcraft, the occult, and the black arts.
In reality, because of the problem of sin, a person’s powers are directly proportional to is potential for wickedness and destruction. For example, if a person like Superman really existed, the world or at least a large proportion of mankind would probably have been destroyed long before he reached maturity due to some fit of anger when he was a child. Even if the world did survive his maturation, people everywhere would be gripped by his controlling hand, waiting in dread for his next odious impulse or appetite to become law.
We can thank God that Jesus Christ’s limitless abilities were wonderfully controlled and exercised because of His undiminished deity and perfect humanity. Christ was always motivated by love and compassion for men and was incapable of sinning because He could not go against His own nature as God.
Another question that relates to Christ’s early childhood and His voluntary nonuse of His omniscience during most of His time on earth concerns His knowledge of His own person and ministry. How much of His destiny did He know, and when did He realize He was the Messiah? Luke indicates that at least by the age of twelve Jesus was clearly aware of His identity as the Son of God (2:49). As for His complete awareness of His mission as the substitutionary sacrifice for the sins of the world, the Gospels show that Jesus had a clear knowledge of this at least by the time He was baptized by John.
Since the Scripture are mostly silent about Jesus’ life before He began his public ministry, a more definite answer to these questions cannot be given. It lies within the mystery of how He could know all things as God and voluntarily choose to limit His knowledge at the same time.
Incidentally, these eighteen to twenty “silent years” in Christ’ life from age twelve (Luke 3:1-22) have been seized by representatives from various religions, cultic and occult, in an attempt to diminish Christ’s deity and reduce Him to the level of a precursor of these false systems.
Some, for instance, have taught that He derived most of his teachings from the Essene community during this period of time. Others say He spent some of these years in India, where He was initiated into the labyrinths of Hinduism. When evidence for this curious viewpoint is requested, they proudly reply that John the Baptist was Jesus’ guru!
Several apocryphal books have attempted to spice up these unknown years by ascribing bizarre miracles to Jesus’ ministry. This kind of preoccupation with things not revealed in Scripture is misguided, since God has purposely chosen to veil them. The apostle John said specifically, “There are many other things that Jesus did. If every one of them were written down, I suppose the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written” (21:25).
Other enigmatic questions concerning the God-man can be connected with the nature of the Virgin Birth. One such question might be, At what point before His birth did Jesus become the God-man?
Another passage that has an interesting bearing on the God-man mystery is the description of Christ's work in Colossians: “for all things in heaven and on earth were created by him … and all things are held together in him (1:16-17). Not only did the Lord Jesus cause all things to exist in the universe; He also continues to sustain His entire creation at all times and in all places. If Christ failed to hold creation together for a moment, all things in the heavens and on the earth would undergo atomic dissolution! This is precisely what will happen in the future when God destroys this universe and creates a new and eternal heaven and earth (2 Peter 3:10-13).
There is no way of knowing how the universe is being held together by Christ, but it may be related to the inexplicable force that holds the nuclei of all atoms together. The positively charged particles that are packed to closely together in atomic nuclei might be expected to repel each other because they have the same charge, and yet they remain compact. If this binding force in all atoms were removed, all matter in the universe would come apart, and all things could be reduced to pure energy.
The connection of this passage (Col 1:16-17) with the God-man mystery lies in the fact that, since Christ had a human body, He physically was composed of atoms and molecules. Christ, therefore, must literally have been holding Himself together while on earth. The word translated hold together (synistemi) can mean “continue, endure, exist, consist, or be composed” in this context (and in 2 Peter 3:5), where it is also connected with the existence or enduring of the heavens.
After His resurrection, Christ took on a new body of glorified flesh, a body suitable for a heavenly existence (see 1 Cor. 15:42-51). This is the same body that Jesus now possesses in heaven, and though it relates to the mystery of the resurrection body (see chap. 6), it can still be said that Christ as the self-existent God will forever continue to hold Himself together and maintain His consistence.
One final consideration concerning this mystery: How could Christ be temptable and impeccable (incapable of sinning) at the same time? These two facts are suggested in Hebrews. “For we do not have a high priest incapable of sympathizing with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in every way just as we are, yet without sin” (4:15).
Since being temptable and at the same time being impeccable is beyond our grasp, the only thing we can say is that His temptability is connected with His complete deity. Christ could not have sinned on any occasion for He is God. Yet, Christ was “tempted in every way just as we are.” The temptation was very real, for He was fully human.
Christians are supposed to model their lives after Christ. “For to this you were called, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving an example for you to follow in his steps. He committed no sin nor was deceit found in his mouth” (1 Peter 2:21-22; see also 1 Peter 1:14-16).
The question is, How can Christ be our example and model when He was also God? How can we follow in the steps of the One who committed no sin?
To some it seems almost unfair. But Paul says it can be done: “Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). Here he is claiming that his life is so Christlike that others can and should imitate it.
How can our lives attain this quality? As it is often said, “The Christian life is not difficult - it’s impossible!” The solution is seen in Paul’s statement, “I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So the life I now live in the body, I live because of the faithfulness of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). Paul’s life of modeling Christ was possible only insofar as he appropriated the power of the indwelling God.
The Christian life, then, is a divine-human process. It is a supernatural, not a natural life. God has not told us “Here are the rules. Good luck!” Instead, all who have received Christ are indwelt by the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (John 14:17-23). Christians are empowered by the eternal Godhead, but we need to allow this power to control and transform our lives by faith.
The God-man’s life is, therefore, a valid model for all believers because the living indwelling God offers divine enablement to all Christians who want it. This divine-human process involved in the Christian life is mentioned by Paul: “… continue working out your salvation with awe and reverence, for the one bringing forth in you both the desire and the effort – for the sake of his good pleasure – is God” (Phil. 2:12-13). Verse 12 describes the human and verse 13 the divine role in the outworking of the Christian life.
The true humanity of Christ is graphically depicted by the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews. “During his earthly life Christ offered both requests and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death and he was heard because of his devotion. Although he was a son, he learned obedience through the things he suffered. And by being perfected in this way, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him” (Heb. 5:7-9). Christ offered up prayers and “learned obedience,” and He was empowered by the Holy Spirit and sustained by His heavenly Father. All Christians will do well to follow His example.
A person who is in Christ has the potential to choose not to sin in any given situation. Since he is indwelt by the living God, he can choose to “put on the new man who has been created in God’s image – in righteousness and holiness that comes from truth” (Eph. 4:24).
However, because the flesh (what Paul calls “a different law in my members waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that is in my members” in Rom. 7:23) is still with us, the fact that we can choose not to sin on specific occasions does not mean that we can become sinlessly perfect in this life. The Apostle John makes it clear that until the flesh is removed from believers, we will continue to sin: “If we say we do not bear the guilt of sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8; see 1:10-2:2). But since we have access to the supernatural power of God by grace through faith, the life of Christ is still a valid example for all of God’s children to follow. “So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh” (Gal. 5:16). Jesus walked in the power of the Holy Spirit, and Scripture calls us to do the same.