March 20, 2011

Savior and Lord

When I was in my last year in seminary, I had the great fortune of working as a research assistant for my New Testament professor, Craig Blomberg.  Craig is a world renowned scholar with some thirty plus books in three languages to his name who was most recently part of the panel of Greek scholars tasked with renewing the NIV translation.  In other words, if you pick up a copy of an NIV Bible in the next two or three years, you will encounter some of his work.  The man knows the ancient Greek language so well he can play Scrabble in Greek.  Now, this may sound like it was a great opportunity and a position with at least a reasonable amount of prestige in some circles.  Well, if you thought either of those you would be correct at least about the first.  So then, surely this must have been a glamorous position that made me the envy of the campus, right?  Meh.  Great opportunity, yes.  Glamorous, no.  Much of the work involved my looking through lots and lots and lots of books and articles written about the Gospels in the last ten years so that he didn’t have to.  I developed a small reputation of being the guy who was always lugging big stacks of books across campus from the library to his office and back.  I also made several trips to Iliff Seminary across town because they had a bigger library.  I told you all of that to give you some context on this next thing.  It was during one of my trips to Iliff that I saw something I had never seen before.  Sitting on the check-out counter in the library was a Jesus action figure.  Perhaps the best official title for it would be the “Buddy Jesus action figure.”  It was a little figure with a big head, an even bigger grin, and both thumbs up.  Let me tell you something, you know you’ve arrived as a cultural icon in this particular culture when you’ve been made into an action figure.

I think we can safely say, however, that Jesus isn’t merely a cultural icon in our culture.  The person of Jesus has had more of an impact on history than any other single figure.  It is impossible to adequately account for history today apart from the impact of Jesus.  And yet, who is this figure?  Who is this man?  Who is this person who singlehandedly changed the face of human history?  What should we think about Him?  With so much ink spilled how do we know what’s true?  I mean, there are few people today who would reject Jesus personally.  All but the most hardened and angry atheists count Him among the world’s greatest moral teachers.  But, the problem we as Christians face at this point is how or even if we can really take Him further than that.  Do we have the theological and rational basis to call Him anything more than a great man?  Again, the world’s opinion aside for a moment, what should we think about Jesus?  What does an acceptable, orthodox Christology—doctrine of God the Son—look like?  What should we believe about Him?  And does this really matter?  I mean, as good as Jesus’ moral teachings are, do we really need Him to be anything more than this?

In order to answer these questions, the best way forward is to stick our toes into the debate over Jesus’ nature and draw some conclusion from there.  You see, the greatest debate regarding the person of Jesus throughout history has been His nature.  Is He human or is He divine or is He some combination of the two?  Groups of interpreters have offered a number of different answers to this question.  Some have argued that Jesus is mostly human, some that He is mostly divine.  Many have argued for some combination of the two, but the percentages of each have varied from person to person.  Historically speaking, and so that you have an ace-in-the-hole next time you play Trivial Pursuit, Church History Edition, the most famous of these groups are the Ebionites, Docetists, Arians (early Jehovah’s Witnesses), Apollinarians, Nestorians, and the Eutychians.  These groups each denied Jesus’ humanity or divinity in part of in full.  They were all power-brokers in the early church and it was a dicey thing for orthodoxy to navigate these waters in the church’s earliest days without crashing against their shores or being sucked into their maelstroms.  Let’s spend just a bit of time then, taking a look at Jesus’ humanity and Jesus’ divinity to see if we can’t ferret out exactly what we should be believing.

Let’s begin this exploration by taking a look at Jesus’ humanity.  Was Jesus really fully human?  Somewhat ironically, critics of the faith today answer this question very differently than their ancient ideological kin.  Today, most folks have no trouble accepting that Jesus was fully human.  The very idea that someone could be both human and divine doesn’t fit with the prevailing worldview.  On the other hand, throughout history more folks have struggled with the idea that Jesus was totally human.  In cultures dominated by a worldview that was not fundamentally anti-supernatural, it just didn’t make sense to people that someone fully or even partially human could do the things Jesus did.  Humans simply don’t walk on water, still storms, feed thousands of people with a small meal, rise from the dead on their own power.

And yet there are some claims of Christianity that become tough to buy if He is not fully human.  Most notably, He could not have been an adequate sacrifice to take away the sins of humanity if He was not totally and completely human.  The Bible—which we established two weeks ago is accurate and authoritative—makes clear that the penalty for sin—which we’ll deal with in two weeks—demands a human life as its price.  Furthermore, not just any human life will do.  A broken and incomplete sacrifice is not acceptable to God.  Only a spotless, perfect sacrifice will meet His standards.  Remember, He is just and holy.  In His grace, however, for a long time God the Father accepted bulls and lambs and a variety of other substitutions for this until a perfect sacrifice could be found.  Yet these never really got the job done.  The writer of the book of Hebrews makes this clear in chapter 10: “For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sin.”  And again, “…every priest stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins.”  Thus, establishing Jesus’ total humanity is important if our theology of God the Son is to be up to the task of supporting the weight of salvation.

The question we need to answer here is what is it that makes someone human?  Humans are physical creatures.  We have physical births.  We have physical limitations.  We have physical desires.  Well, Jesus had all of those.  He was born just as you or I were.  Yes, His conception was miraculous in that Mary was a virgin at the time and remained so until He was born, but He entered this world in a manner no different from any other human.  The Gospel’s understated story of His birth highlights this in its reserve.  Luke 2:6-7 says: “While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child.  And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger…”  When Josiah was born, Dr. Smith pulled him out, Taylor wrapped him in a blanket, and she and Shirley laid him in a little bassinet where they could get him cleaned up (and Shirley did his hair up like a Kewpie doll).  These two births were different only in location and instrumentation.  In fact Josiah’s birth was probably a bigger ordeal than Jesus’ was (not a bigger deal, mind you, just a bigger ordeal).  Jesus also had physical limitations and desires.  He experienced hunger when He fasted.  He experienced fatigue when He traveled.  He was every bit as physical as you and me.

Humans are more than merely physical, though, so we can’t try and define Jesus’ humanity strictly in such terms.  As we read through the Gospels it is clear that Jesus experienced the full range of human emotions.  He loved.  He experienced sorrow (at Lazarus’ death in John 11), joy (over Satan’s fall in Luke 10), anger (over the hardness of the Pharisees’ hearts in Mark 3), compassion (for Jairus when his daughter died in Matthew 9), loneliness (as in the Garden of Gethsemane in Mark 14), and a variety of others.  Now, experiencing emotions doesn’t prove Jesus’ humanity as from our discussion last week we know that God experiences a range of emotions.  But, Jesus experienced some emotions God does not experience like being astonished in certain situations (like when the Roman Centurion expressed great faith in Luke 7).  Jesus also experienced intellectual limitations.  He asked people questions because, as the context indicates, He didn’t know the answers.  Sometimes He explicitly declared He did not know something (like the timing of His return in Mark 13).  One other uniquely human quality is Jesus’ dependence on God for just about everything.  He worshiped as regularly as He could in the synagogue (Luke 4), He fasted and prayed for forty days before beginning His ministry (Matthew 3), He prayed for a whole night before choosing the twelve disciples (Luke 6), and He cried out to God for help and comfort before and during His experience on the cross (Mark 14 and 15).  Putting all of this together with the explanation of the author of Hebrews that only a perfect human could pay sin’s price, we have a picture of someone who was absolutely human.

With Jesus’ humanity thus established, we must now shift gears to His divinity.  Again, our world has little problem accepting Jesus as fully human.  The problem comes when we try to explain Him to be anything more.   But, the problem with trying to claim that Jesus was merely human—even a really, incredibly, awesomely, amazingly successful human—is that if we are going to take the Bible seriously (and our Bibliology suggests we are), Jesus’ own words destroy our case.  Jesus said and did things which consciously communicated His belief that He was fully God.  As C. S. Lewis famously wrote, given Jesus’ claims, saying he was merely a great moral teacher doesn’t work.  He was either a liar (and thus not moral), a lunatic (like Jim Jones or David Karesh), or He was telling the truth.  Let me give you a couple of examples.  In the ancient Jewish mind, God was the only one who could forgive sins.  People could forgive someone for offending them, but this wasn’t forgiving the sin involved, only the offense.  And yet Jesus looked people in the eye and said things like, “Son, your sins are forgiven” in Mark 2:5.  We look at a story like that and think, “No big deal,” but look at the text there.  The Jewish leaders present knew exactly what He was doing and immediately wrote Him off as a blasphemer.  Another time, Jesus was debating the source of His authority with the religious leaders of the Jews.  They traced their position and authority to Abraham.  Jesus responded with confidence: “Before Abraham was, I am.”  And again, many folks might read this and think John made a grammatical error.  But what did I say last week was the name God revealed to Moses as His personal name?  Yahweh.  I am.  This was as clear a claim to deity as Jesus could have made and His opponents knew it.  As soon as the words were out of His mouth they picked up stones to put Him to death as a blasphemer.

Jesus’ words are not the only affirmation of His full deity.  Listen to the opening line of John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word (which was another name given to the Messiah in John’s day), and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  Literally that last phrase reads: kai theos ein ho logos, “and the word was a god.”  But, a number of years ago, a Greek scholar named E. C. Colwell did a detailed study of the Greek text.  What he discovered was that in grammatical constructions like this phrase from John’s Gospel where you have a linking verb (was) joining two nouns (Word and God) and only the second  noun is definite (is prefaced by the definite article “the”), the definite article actually governs both nouns 85% of the time.  This is something taught to any first year Greek student whether they are learning New Testament Greek or simply classical Greek.  In other words, according to Colwell’s Rule, this should be translated “and the Word was the God,” or simply, “and the Word was God.”  John is clearly claiming that Jesus and God the Father are one-and-the-same person.  The folks who did the New World Translation used by the Jehovah’s Witnesses didn’t use this rule resulting in a bad theology of Christ.  (And I’m bringing them up a lot because they are an example of a Christological heresy which most of you will encounter when they come knocking on your door.  So, next time that happens, kindly remind them that they don’t believe in the same Jesus you do and ask if they would like you to tell them about your Jesus.)  After John makes this incredible claim for Jesus’ full deity, he writes a few verses later that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” using the word flesh not pejoratively, but simply to say the Word became enfleshed as we are, that is, human.

Let me offer you one last affirmation of Jesus’ deity.  With the divine characteristics of God we talked about last week in mind, Jesus exhibited several of those during His time on earth.  Most notably, Jesus demonstrated the Father’s omniscience and omnipotence.  His omniscience was demonstrated when He did things like reveal people’s inner thoughts and back stories without having these told to Him somehow as in Mark 2 and John 4.  His omnipotence is clearly on display in the variety of miracles He works, but particularly in His nature miracles like stilling the storm (Mark 4), feeding the 5,000 (Mark 6), and walking on water (Mark 7).  Perhaps the clearest display of His omnipotence, however, is in the resurrection.  Jesus raised Himself from the dead.  He said He was going to do it and then He did it.  There is actually no clearer presentation of Jesus’ divinity than the resurrection.  The resurrection is what justifies everything else.  Apart from that the rest of it was just a cheap, if elaborate, parlor trick.  Everything about Jesus’ divinity hangs on the resurrection.

So then, let’s start putting these two pieces together.  How shall we think about Jesus?  What is most important?  Well, what we have said so far is that Jesus was totally and completely human.  But we have also said that Jesus was totally and completely divine.  So then He must be a 50-50 combination of the two, right?  No.  That would make Him something less than human and something less than divine which would be fully unable to accomplish any of the things we believe Him to have done.  No, Jesus’ nature is 100% of both.  Two natures dwelling in a single individual.  The technical word for this is the hypostatic union and how it works we simply don’t know.  It goes beyond logical explanation which is not to say that it’s illogical, but simply that logic as we currently understand it does not have a category or language with which to explain it fully.  It is a miracle of God’s inventive grace designed so that our salvation could be accomplished completely.  In His divinity Jesus was born through the virginal conception which kept Him unstained by the original sin that plagues you and me.  In His divinity He lived His entire life without ever sinning a single time.  In His humanity, however, He was subject to all the same pressures and struggles we face.  Hebrews 4:15 reminds us that Jesus “in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet [was] without sin.”  This means there is no temptation we face which He did not also stare down, struggle with, and walk away from cleanly.  And let us not fool ourselves with the lie that this was somehow easy for Him.  People falling into temptation are no longer struggling with it.  They are submitting to it.  Struggling with temptation only happens when we resist it.  Jesus struggled His whole life with temptation.  This means, by the way, that He can identify with us, support us, and empathize with us in our struggles with temptation.  He alone can say with perfect confidence, “You can get through this and remain righteous.  I did and I’ll help you.”  What a friend we have in Jesus.  Two more things here.  In His humanity Jesus died on the cross; a perfect and acceptable sacrifice to pay the price for sin.  In His divinity He rose from the tomb after three days defeating the power of sin and death once and for all time.

Now, the question many folks still have at this point is how He could be both man and God.  How can we say He experienced the limitations of human intelligence and understanding and yet also was possessed of the Father’s omniscience?  This is explained by a principle called kenosis which is from a Greek word meaning “to empty.”  Jesus voluntarily emptied Himself.  He limited His use of His divine abilities except for the times He was specifically directed use them by the Father because of His functional subordination to the Father.  In other words, He is totally equal to the Father in all things but in order to fulfill His role in the process of salvation and because of His love for the Father, He graciously submits or subordinates Himself to the Father.  The principle of kenosis is derived from a beautiful passage of Scripture which was probably sung as a hymn in the ancient church.  Find Philippians 2 with me, let’s read these words, and then we’ll get down to why all of this matters.  Let’s start in v. 5: “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God [that is, of the same substance as God, or equal to God], did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant [that’s talking about this functional subordination], being born in the likeness of men [in other words, He was human].  And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”  What a beautiful picture of Jesus’ servant-like heart and an example for us to follow.  If Jesus could do all that in spite of being equal with God, should we not also, being infinitely less than God?  Indeed, God doesn’t ignore such efforts.  Look at the next part of the passage: “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Here is why all of this discussion of Jesus’ nature matters.  Here is why it is vital for us to have this straight.  Because Jesus was fully human, He was able to save us.  Because of this kenosis, this emptying of Himself to become as we are, He was able to fully pay the price for human sin.  Again, only a human could have accomplished that.  If He was anything more or anything less it would not have worked.  He could have paid the price of sin for some race of beings slightly more or slightly less than human, but not for us.  If Jesus were not absolutely human, we would still be lost in our sins without hope of reprieve.  On the other hand, because He is fully God, He is Lord.  As God His glory was only increased in His kenosis.  Because of His perfect obedience to the Father as human, God rewarded Him justly with the seat of highest honor in the universe.  If another human could have somehow attained such a level of faithful obedience then he or she would have received such a position instead.  But we couldn’t.  We can only share in Christ’s glory as we submit our lives to His direction.  So again, because He is fully God, He is Lord.  If He were not fully God He could not have lived a perfect life, could not have paid sin’s price, could not have raised Himself from the dead, and He thus would not be worthy of our devotion.  Jesus is Savior and Lord.  If He is not both, then He is not either.  Jesus is either Savior and Lord or nothing at all.

If Jesus is not Savior, we are without hope in this world for this is no other.  If Jesus is not Lord then He is not worthy of our obedience and we are wasting our time talking about Him.  Jesus is either Savior and Lord or nothing at all.  If Jesus is not Savior then His death was in vain and God is cruel to have allowed such a thing to happen to His Son.  If Jesus is not Lord then He has no power over sin and death and both should still be terrifying prospects for us.  Jesus is either Savior and Lord or nothing at all.  If Jesus is not Savior then we are incapable of living up to the standards of His ethical teachings and remain forever mired in the morass of immorality in which we swim each day.  He gave us a vision for what could be without a path to reach it and is merely a heartless charlatan.  If Jesus is not Lord then He is not able to back up His calls to holiness and righteousness with force thus they possess no real power over our lives.  They are merely empty platitudes that might be worth investigating as a curiosity, but not if they become overly demanding.  Jesus is either Savior and Lord or nothing at all.  If Jesus is not Savior then He is no friend to us.  If Jesus is not Lord then He is no help to us.  Jesus is either Savior and Lord or nothing at all.  My friends, if our theology is important, our theology of Christ is important beyond what I can really express to you.  Everything hinges on this.  If we don’t think about Jesus the right things, if we do not believe about Jesus the rights things, then we are not worshiping and serving the Jesus who can do anything for us.  That Jesus can’t save us.  That Jesus can’t help us.  That Jesus can’t love us.  That Jesus can’t call us forward to anything more than we currently are.  So let us put aside our images of Jesus that can be made into cute but worthless action figures and worship and serve the Christ who alone is both Savior and Lord.  Jesus is either Savior and Lord or nothing at all.