The person of Jesus is at the heart of the Christian faith. In the early centuries of Christianity there were a number of different theories advanced concerning his nature. Most of these were ultimately branded as heretical, but the debate resulted in a number of creeds, or statements of faith, which defined what came to be known as the orthodox position of the person, or nature, of Christ.
Understanding the person of Jesus is challenging because he is not just divine or human, but is both. That relationship between the divine and human natures is what caused the early debates; debates which continue to this day in some places.
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- The Deity of Jesus
- The Humanity of Jesus
- The Unity of the Person of Jesus
- Related Posts
The Deity of Jesus
What Jesus Says About Himself
There are many who say that Jesus never made any claims to being God. That claims for his divinity came from his disciples after he was gone. And it is true that Jesus is never recorded as saying “I am God”. Yet in his recorded teachings it is clear that he did believe that about himself.
In John 10:30, Jesus claims that he and the Father are one; a clear indication that he believed himself to be equal to the Father. In John 8:58, Jesus tells the Jews that “before Abraham was born, I am!” The response of the Jews indicated that they took this as a claim to divinity. Jesus probably did not just mean to say that he existed before Abraham was born; more likely the term “I am” was intended to identify himself with the “I am” of Exodus 3:14.
As Jesus prayed to the Father in John 17:5, he asked that God would “glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began.” Jesus’ claim to have shared in God’s glory before creation is another clear indication that he believed himself to be God. He wasn’t just looking forward to what might be. He was also looking back to what was.
Doing What God Does
In Matthew 13:41, Jesus said that “The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil.” The Son of Man is a term that Jesus frequently applied to himself. And in this verse he referenced his angels and his kingdom; both of which belong to God.
And, in Mark 2:5-7, Jesus told a paralytic man that “your sins are forgiven.” The Pharisees who were present correctly responded with “who can forgive sins but God alone?” Jesus had taken upon himself a place that belonged to God alone. That he was forgiving sins is another indication that he believed himself to be God.
What Others Believed
John started his gospel off with “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). John later in this chapter identifies the Word with Jesus. So here he is clearly claiming that Jesus is God. Clearly when John wrote this he had no doubts as to the divinity of Jesus.
Paul and the author of Hebrews also clearly picture Jesus in relationship with God. In Hebrews 1:3 Jesus is described as being “the exact representation of [God’s] being.” Colossians 1:15 & 19 says that “the Son is the image of the invisible God” and that “God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in [Christ].” And in Philippians 2:6 Paul said that Jesus, “being in very nature God” did not hold on to that but became a man. All of these passages picture Jesus as sharing in the nature of God.
The Nicene Creed
In the early centuries of the church there were many making differing claims about the nature of Jesus. So representatives from all of the churches gathered at Nicaea in 325, and again in Constantinople in 381, primarily to try and resolve this issue. The result was what has come to be known as the Nicene Creed; a creed that defines the orthodox position concerning Jesus divinity and his humanity. This creed included the following concerning his divinity.
We believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.
The drafters of this creed identified Jesus as being of one substance with the Father and having eternal existence.
Early Heresies Concerning the Divinity of Christ
During the first few centuries of the Christian era there arose a number of differing beliefs dealing with the divinity of Jesus. These beliefs were each addressed by the church and many of them were ultimately labeled as heretical. Yet some of these heresies continue even to today.
Adoptionism was a doctrine that Jesus was a normal human conceived in the normal way and without any supernatural attributes. At Jesus’ baptism, the Christ descended on Jesus and worked through him. At Jesus’ crucifixion, the Christ departed from Jesus and he was once again just a normal human.
Arius and his follows taught that Jesus was the first and highest of God’s creations but that he did not share in God’s essence. Refutation of Arianism was a major focus of the Council of Nicea in 325 where Arianism was condemned. But that was not the end of Arianism. It continued to be a major force in the first millennium of Christianity, and even continues today. Jehovah’s Witnesses are a modern day version of Arianism.
The Humanity of Jesus
As you read the gospels it is clear that Jesus interacted with this world as a human. He was born (Luke 2:7) and developed physically and mentally (Luke 2:52). He knew hunger (Matt. 4:2), thirst (John 19:28), had human emotions (John 11:35), was limited in knowledge (Mark 9:11; 13:32), and grew weary (John 4:6). Jesus died (Matt. 27:50) and was buried (Matt. 27:59-60). And his disciples claimed to have seen and touched him (1 Peter 1:16-18, 1 John 1:1).
The New Testament writers also affirm that Jesus had a human nature. In 1 Timothy 3:16, Paul says that Jesus “appeared in the flesh”; he had a physical body. Paul also, in Galatians 4:4, says that Jesus was “born of a woman”; he came about his physical body in the same way that the rest of us do. John says that “the Word was God” (John 1:1) and that “the Word became flesh and lived for a while among us” (John 1:14). And in 1 John 4:2-3 we find John claiming that the acknowledgement of Jesus’ coming in the flesh is a test of right belief. Paul and John are clear in their belief concerning the humanity of Jesus.
The Nicene Creed
The Nicene Creed contains the following concerning the human nature of Christ and defines the orthodox position of the Roman Catholic, the Orthodox and Protestant churches.
Who, for us men for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.
Early Heresies Concerning the Humanity of Christ
The Docetists were heavily influenced by Greek thought that spirit is good and the material is evil. If this is the case then God could not take on human form because then he would be evil. As a result they postulated that the divine Jesus only appeared to take on human form. Some early form of this heresy may be what led John to say that he had touched Jesus (1 John 1:1).
Apollinarius advocated that Jesus had a human body but that he did not have a human soul. Instead his soul was his divine nature. Ultimately though, the church determined that Jesus having a human soul was not incompatible with also having a divine nature.
The Sinlessness of Jesus
If Jesus was truly human, was he also subject to sin? Did he have the same sin nature that all other humans have? And if he did, was it possible for him to never surrender to it?
The writers of the New Testament are clear that Jesus was without sin. Hebrews 4:15, “we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin”; 1 Peter 2:22, “he committed no sin”; 1 John 3:5, “in him was no sin”; and 2 Corinthians 5:21, “[Christ] had no sin” all clearly declare that Jesus was without sin. Jesus faced the same temptations that we do, yet never did he surrender to those temptations.
But was it possible for Jesus to sin? The scripture never says that he could not sin, only that he did not. It would seem that if Jesus was subject to temptation like we are, then it must also have been possible for him to succumb to those temptations. If he could not sin, then was he truly human? And was he truly tempted? Hebrews 2:17 says that Jesus was like us in every way, implying that he could sin. Of course if Jesus had sinned, he could no longer be a spotless sacrifice offered for the sins of the world.
The Unity of the Person of Jesus
How can Jesus be fully divine as well as fully human? We can easily grasp being one or the other. Or being part divine and part human. But the Bible seems clear that Jesus was just as human as I am and yet was also fully God. The Bible affirms the incarnation, but the how of the incarnation remains a mystery. Perhaps the clearest statement of the incarnation is found in Colossians 2:9 where Paul says that “in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form.”
Two Natures in One Person
The challenge of the dual nature of Jesus is similar to the challenge we face when trying to describe the nature of the Trinity. Ultimately it appears to be beyond our understanding and a matter of faith. But there are some things to bear in mind concerning Jesus’ two natures.
In Philippians 2:6-7, Paul is likely using the words of an early creed or hymn when he says:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
The expression “he made himself nothing” is one that is challenging to us. Did Jesus set aside his divinity when he took on humanity? Paul answers this in Colossians 2:9 saying, “in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form.” Jesus did not set aside his divinity; rather all the fullness of deity dwelt within his humanity. The next expressions in the Philippians passage express how he made himself nothing, “by taking the nature of a servant” and “being made in human likeness.” His divinity, rather than being set aside, was wrapped in humanity.
Divinity Wrapped in Humanity
Jesus was not a human who took on divinity. He was divinity taking on humanity. Finite humanity does not have the capacity to absorb infinite divinity. But infinite divinity can easily add the attributes of humanity.
Because Jesus divine nature was wrapped in a human nature, that human nature imposed some limitations. Jesus could only be in a single place at one time. He got tired, hungry, and thirsty. He was limited in his knowledge. Jesus did not set aside omnipresence, omnipotence, and omniscience. Rather, the human nature he was operating in was incapable of exercising those attributes of divinity.
The Virgin Birth
The birth narratives in Matthew and Luke both affirm that Jesus was born of a virgin. But why? How important is the virgin birth, or conception, of Jesus?
Some will argue that only if God is his biological father could he have the divine nature of God. But while it was the Holy Spirit who fertilized the egg in Mary’s womb, it had to have been human DNA that did so. The Holy Spirit created that material; it was not his own DNA that impregnated Mary. Jesus divine nature had to have come about independently of his virgin conception.
Others will argue that the virgin conception was necessary for Jesus to not inherit the sinful nature that all other humans are born with. Yet even if Jesus did not inherit this nature from God as his father, he surely would have from his mother. Roman Catholics resolve this by claiming that Mary was born without a sinful nature to pass on, but how that happened is unknown to me.
The Importance of the Virgin Birth
So is the virgin conception essential for the work Christ came to do? The Scriptures do affirm that Mary was a virgin when she conceived Jesus, but nowhere beyond the two birth narratives is it ever mentioned. That would indicate that the New Testament writers did not view this as an essential doctrine, or that it was essential for Christ’s work of redemption.
In Isaiah 7:10-17 the sign of a virgin birth is prophesied to Ahaz, although it was probably a specific young woman rather than a virgin. This was to be a sign that the Assyrian army that was threatening Judah would not conquer them. In the same way it is likely that Jesus virgin conception was a sign to the world that Jesus was not just another child but was the Son of God.
Systematic Theology Post List
- An Introduction to Systematic Theology
- The God of General Revelation: What Creation Tells Us
- The Doctrine of the Bible
- The Nature of God: What Is God Like?
- The Doctrine of the Work of God
- The Doctrine of Humanity
- The Doctrine of Sin
- The Person of Jesus Christ
- The Work of Jesus
- The Holy Spirit
- The Doctrine of Salvation
- The Doctrine of the Church
- The Doctrine of Last Things
The views expressed here are solely mine and do not necessarily reflect those of any other person, group, or organization. While I believe they reflect the teachings of the Bible, I am a fallible human and subject to misunderstanding. Please feel free to leave any comments or questions about this post in the comments section below. I am always interested in your feedback.
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