The two natures of Christ

When Christian leaders met in the Council of Nicaea, they prayed and studied the Bible and discussed its message to determine whether the Son of God is equal to the Father or is less than the Father; whether he is eternal like the Father or created by the Father. Their study and discussions convinced them that Jesus is, as they declared, “God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father.” This was no new teaching; it was a summary of what the Bible says about God. Christians continue to believe that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are one God, not three gods; that each is a distinct Person loving the others and speaking to the others, and doing things for the others; that each is almighty, all-knowing, present everywhere, eternal, unchanging, and holy. Yet there is one God, not three gods; one Lord, not three lords; one almighty Being, not three almighty beings; and so on.

When other questions arose about the Christian faith, new councils formed to learn the truth the way the truth about the Triune God was learned at Nicaea. They gathered, they prayed, they studied Scripture, they discussed, and they reached an understanding. Most of the questions they sought to answer were about Jesus. Knowing that he is God and also that he is human, Christians struggled to comprehend and to communicate how the two natures (divine and human) work together in one Christ. Many false ideas were suggested about the two natures of Christ. Some suggested that his body is human but that his mind and soul are divine. Others suggested that the two natures dwell in one Christ without interacting, like two boards glued together. Still others suggested that the two natures combine into something unique, like two liquids blended together to create a drink or a dressing. Some thought that the human nature was something acquired by the Son of God at his incarnation which he can remove at will, leaving it aside when he does not need it, and resuming it when required. Some suggested that the divine nature of Christ so overwhelms his human nature that his human nature must always be controlled by the divine nature; they said that Jesus has one divine will and no human will. By studying the Bible and discussing its message, Christians were able to conclude that all these beliefs are untrue.

Jesus Christ remains one hundred percent God and one hundred percent human, but he also remains one Christ, not two christs. Therefore, anything true about the one nature is true about the entire Christ: the divine nature of Christ experiences humanity, and the human nature of Christ experiences divinity. The test word used at some of these Councils was Theotokos: “Mother of God.” They asked, can Mary the mother of Jesus be called the mother of God, or is she only mother to the human nature? From their study of the Bible, Christians concluded that Mary is rightly called the mother of God, because she gave birth to Christ Jesus, who is fully God as well as fully human.

So if Jesus was hungry, God understands hunger. If Jesus was thirsty, God understands thirst. If Jesus was anxious about what he was about to face, God understands anxiety. And yes, through the human nature of Christ, God experienced suffering and death. Likewise, the human Jesus of Nazareth knows all things, has all power, runs the universe, and has authority to judge all people, because he is the Son of God.

If Jesus was not fully human, his obedience to the Law would be meaningless. God cannot be tempted to sin. God is unchanging, pure, and holy. But the human nature and human will of Jesus were tempted to sin. He resisted temptation, obeyed his Father’s will, and so earned for all sinners the rewards that belong only to those who faithfully obey the entire will of God. If Jesus were not fully human, his death would have been merely a ruse, a trick, meaning nothing. But the human nature of Jesus experienced death; his human soul and human body were separated—the body buried in a garden, the soul committed into the hands of the Father. Any Christian who dies experiences the same separation of body and soul, with the body left on earth and the soul taken to Paradise to await the resurrection.

There are two kinds of death: physical death and spiritual death. Adam was told that the day he ate the forbidden fruit he would die, but Adam lived physically more than nine hundred years after that sin. Adam and Eve died spiritually that day. Their sin created a barrier between them and God, a barrier they could not remove. Jesus died physically, but did he experience spiritual death? Did the barrier caused by all the sins he was bearing on the cross come between him and his Father?

The divine nature of the Son of God cannot be separated from the Father. They are eternal and unchanging, in perpetual fellowship with one another—they are one God. The human nature of Christ can and did face spiritual death. For this reason, Jesus cried out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Some people say that he was praying Psalm 22, and in a sense he was. But Psalm 22 is a vivid prophecy of what happened to Jesus on the cross. His agony at the separation was so deep that it echoed a thousand years into the past to be quoted by David in the Psalm.

As I wrote in my last post, different aspects of the crucifixion reach different people in their needs and in their faith. Some time periods in Church history have gravitated more to one aspect or another of the Passion of our Lord. But none of them is to be rejected. All of them are Biblical, whether their imagery is military or financial or legal. And Christ did indeed bear the burden of our sin and the spiritual death which sin causes, as Paul wrote, “For our sake he [God the Father] made him to be sin who knew no sin [Jesus] so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (II Corinthians 5:21). This is an essential part of our salvation, that God loved the world so much that he gave his Son—he even turned his face away from his Son for a time—so that whoever believes in him will not perish but has eternal life (John 3:16). J.

Advertisements

Why the cross?

A year ago I posted the following message about the significance of the cross. Because of an ongoing conversation (which you can find here), it seemed worth repeating. Christians sometimes differ from one another over the theology of the cross and the theology of glory. Those who reach for glory without the cross are mistaken. In this world we need the cross in our lives; only through the cross can we be carried to glory.

What did Jesus accomplish on the cross, beyond his own suffering, bleeding, and dying? The Bible provides several analogies of what Jesus accomplished, explaining it from several points of view. When Christians limit themselves to one analogy and treat it as literally true, they miss the fullness of the gospel message. Moreover, mockers are able to take the analogies literally and extend them beyond the Bible’s intended meaning, twisting the beauty of God’s Word in their mockery.

The most common analogy of the cross is financial. By his suffering and death, Jesus paid the price for sins, rescuing sinners from their debts. The beauty of this analogy is that we understand debt and payment. We understand how our sins place us in debt to God, a debt we cannot pay. Jesus paying in our place is a beautiful image of his love for us. But to whom did he pay the debt? Did he buy us from the devil, or pay his Father for our sins, or purchase redemption from a power higher even than God? Each of these explanations has problems when the analogy is treated literally and left as the only explanation of the cross.

A second common analogy of the cross is military. On the cross Jesus fought a battle against all the forces of evil. These forces include the devil, the sinful world, sins committed by people, and death itself—the ultimate result of sin. Becoming a victim of these enemies, Jesus also defeated them. His resurrection on Easter morning is a declaration of victory, and the Church continues to share that news of victory with sinners who have been enslaved by their sins and by the power of evil. We were prisoners of war in the Great War between God and evil, but the victory of Jesus rescues us from prison and puts us on the winning team.

Yet another analogy of the cross is healing. Through his time on earth, Jesus healed many people, often with just a word or a touch. He never seemed to be harmed by any of his miracles of healing. But in those physical healings, Jesus was simply treating the symptoms of evil. To fully heal the damage caused by sin and evil, Jesus had to bear that damage in his own body. What he endured on the cross gives him the power to heal every consequence of sin and evil: leprosy, blindness, paralysis, and even death. His own suffering and death provides the remedy that reverses all the damage caused in this world by sin and evil.

Still another analogy of the cross is rescuing what was lost. This is why Jesus is called a Savior and Christians describe themselves as saved. C.S. Lewis adapted this metaphor by describing Jesus as a diver who descends to the bottom of a muddy pond to unearth a treasure. The diver becomes thoroughly dirty digging in the bottom of the pond, but when he ascends to the surface he carries his treasure with him. So Jesus humbled himself, obedient to death, even death on the cross, to claim us as his treasure. Though we were buried in sin and evil, Jesus takes us out of the mud through his own suffering and death. In his resurrection, Jesus lifts us also to new life in a perfect new creation.

A similar analogy of the cross is fixing what was broken—which can also be described as reconciling or uniting. Like a shepherd going into the wilderness to find a lost sheep, Jesus comes into this sin-stained world looking for his lost people. He rescues us from the mouth of the wolves. Even in the dark valley of the shadow of death, he finds us and brings us home. We were separated from God by our own rebellion, but Jesus has restored us to the family of God through his expedition into suffering and death.

One more analogy of the cross is adoption. In modern society, the process of adoption is difficult and expensive. In our relationship with God, the process of adoption is even more difficult and expensive. We are not God’s children because he made us. Even if that was once true, it is true no longer. By breaking his commandments, we have forfeited our place in God’s family. Jesus, the only-begotten Son of God, personally pays to adopt us into his family. He gives himself as the cost of our adoption so we can be children of God and can pray to the Father of the eternal Son as our Father. Baptism is the personal ceremony by which this adoption is made certain, just as in baptism each Christian dies with Christ, is buried with Christ, and rises again with Christ.

Finally, an analogy of the cross is cheating justice. We broke the rules. We rebelled against God. We declared our independence from God and said that we wanted to be separate from him. Justice would have God say yes to our rebellion. Justice would have God abandon us to our sinful choices. But God’s love is greater than his justice. He allows the world to be unfair. He allows evil people to prosper, and he allows good people to suffer. By letting evil be unfair, God makes it possible for good to be unfair. Now Jesus can suffer in our place so we can be rewarded in his place. Now his Father can abandon him instead of us so he can claim us for his kingdom.

Each of these analogies is true. All of them are supported by the writings of the apostles and prophets. All of them are enacted in the history of God’s people. When we cling to one analogy and neglect the others, we weaken the message of God’s grace and allow mockers room for their opposition. When we see all these analogies as pictures of the cross from different points of view, we begin to comprehend (albeit dimly) the true glory that Jesus revealed by his sacrifice on the cross. J.

Forgiveness

Why is the concept of forgiveness so difficult for Christians to grasp? On the cross Jesus paid in full for sin. The debt is covered. Christians are called to forgive others as Christ has forgiven us. God’s forgiveness is unlimited, so forgiveness from Christians is unlimited. We do not stop at seven times, or at seventy-seven times, or at seventy-times-seven times. We forgive to the seventy-eleventh time, a number that does not exist, so we can never stop forgiving.

Confusion comes when we use the word “forgive” to cover two distinct actions. One is to forgive silently, “from the heart.” This the Christian is always required to do. There is no revenge from the Christian, no “getting even,” no holding grudges. The other is to absolve, to announce forgiveness. This the Christian does for repentant sinners, but not for unrepentant sinners. Christians do not withhold God’s forgiveness, but they withhold absolution from any sinner who does not want to be forgiven.

To approach an unrepentant sinner with the news, “I still forgive you,” or, “God still forgives you,” is a mistake. It might seem loving and Christian to speak those words; but in those circumstances, those words could be viewed as microaggression. The unrepentant sinner does not want forgiveness, not from the Christian and not from God. The unrepentant sinner loves his or her sin more than he or she loves his or her Savior. Offering unwanted forgiveness cheapens God’s grace; it makes a mockery of the love of God and of the cross of Christ.

When Jesus said, “Do not give what is holy to dogs, and do not cast your pearls before swine,” he was speaking about the announcement of forgiveness. Before we can tell a sinner that his or her debt is paid, we must first inform that sinner of his or her debt. Only when sinners understand the cost of their sin can they also understand the glory of Christ to pay that cost in full. Handing out forgiveness like candy does not glorify the Lord.

But if absolving an unrepentant sinner is bad, casting doubt on the forgiveness of a repentant sinner is far worse. As soon as sinners realize the wickedness of what they have done, they should also be assured that their debt is paid in full. Christ’s sacrifice is sufficient payment to cover any debt; it is more than enough to compensate for all the sins of history. Staying angry, seeking revenge, holding a grudge, or making the sinner pay for the sin is not an option for the Christian. When we cast doubt on the ability of any sin or any sinner to be forgiven, we cast doubt on God’s gift of forgiveness to us as well. God’s forgiveness does not simply flow into the life of a Christian; it flows through that life and into the lives of others.

Jesus said to Peter, “I give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you lock on earth is locked in heaven, and whatever you unlock on earth is unlocked in heaven.” The night after his resurrection, Jesus breathed on all the apostles and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; it you withhold forgiveness, it is withheld.” Not just Peter, not just the apostles, not just pastors, but every Christian holds those keys and has that power. Being remade in the image of Christ, we always want to forgive. But as Jesus did not speak words of forgiveness to the stubborn scribes and Pharisees, so we do not absolve unrepentant sinners.

Christians forgive. Forgiveness is found in the Church. The government has no obligation to forgive criminals, not even if they repent of their sins. Indeed, the government must punish criminals for the good of all citizens. The government must restrict chronic abusers and protect vulnerable citizens, even if the abuser has repented and has received Christ’s forgiveness. The ability of the President and governors to pardon criminals should never be mistaken for forgiveness. A pardon ends punishment and sets a criminal free, but forgiveness removes guilt and changes a sinner into a saint. Paradoxically, in this world the Christian remains both sinner and saint, but in God’s eyes the sin has already been removed; the life of a Christian is already pure and blameless and holy in the sight of God.

Forgiveness should be easy to understand and to discuss. Because of the sinner-saint paradox, our eyes and minds are dimmed, and sometimes even forgiveness seems confusing. Each of us can take that confusion to the cross, where we see the price of our sins paid in full, and we know that Christ’s forgiveness belongs to us—and to whoever has sinned against us. J.

Sons of David

The New Testament stresses that Jesus Christ is “the son of David.” This label refers to a conversation between King David and the prophet Nathan, recorded in II Samuel 7 and I Chronicles 17. David wanted to build a Temple for the Lord, but God responded that David would not build him a house; he would build David a house. The message continued that one of David’s sons would rule an eternal kingdom. David had several wives and at least nineteen sons, but four of those sons particularly stand out as predecessors to Jesus, the ultimate son of David.

A son was born as a result of David’s adultery with Bathsheba. Nathan challenged David with a story about a rich man who stole a poor man’s only sheep, and David said, “That man deserves to die!” “You are that man,” Nathan replied, but then he said, “You will not die, but the child will die” (II Samuel 12:13-14).When the child was born and became sick, David wept and pled for the infant’s life, but the baby still died. David ended his mourning after the death of the child. “I shall go to him,” David said, “but he will not return to me” (II Samuel 12:23).

David sinned and deserved to die. David did not die. God was gracious and forgave the sin of David. But the son of David died as a consequence of David’s sin. The son of David was just a baby. He had done nothing wrong. Even so, his death followed David’s sin and, in a way, rescued David from the death he deserved. Later, the Son of David would be born in Bethlehem—David’s hometown—so he also could die in payment for David’s sin. He also was without sin and did not deserve to die. His life was threatened by King Herod when he was very young, but God protected him at that time, sending him to Egypt to escape Herod’s plot.

Trouble and strife entered David’s family following his sin. Amnon, the son of David and heir to David’s throne, attempted to seduce his half-sister Tamar and instead raped her. As a result, Tamar’s brother Absalom murdered Amnon when he had the opportunity. Amnon was guilty of sin, of course, but instead of being put on trial, condemned, and sentenced, he was struck down by his own brother and died. Another son of David had died, this time rejected by his own family. Later, the Son of David would also be rejected by his own people, first in Nazareth and later in Jerusalem. The people of Nazareth, who had known Jesus since he was a child, rejected his teaching and tried to throw him off a cliff and stone him to death. At that time, Jesus walked safely through the crowd, because his time to die had not yet come.

Absalom was punished with exile from Jerusalem, but later he was allowed to return. When he returned, he began to plot against his father. He tried to steal the kingdom from his father, and he nearly succeeded. David had to flee Jerusalem, but his faithful soldiers stayed with him. Israel fought a civil war between the forces of David and the forces of Absalom. David begged his soldiers to be gentle with his son, but when the leader of David’s forces found Absalom caught in a tree, he thought that the opportunity for victory was too good to miss. Joab killed the son of David while Absalom was hanging on a tree. David wanted to mourn over the death of his son, but Joab persuaded David to thank the soldiers who had fought for him and to celebrate their victory.

 The ultimate Son of David, who is also the Son of God, also died hanging on a tree. He was arrested in Jerusalem, turned over to the Roman authorities, and crucified. Jesus was guilty of no rebellion against his Father, but while hanging on the cross he was treated as guilty for all the sins of the world. Though he might mourn the death of his only-begotten Son, God the Father still accepts the sinners whose wrongdoing brought about the death of Jesus. As Absalom’s death meant victory for David, so the death of Jesus means eternal victory for all those who trust in him. Their sins are forgiven, and they are welcomed by God into an eternal Kingdom, an eternal celebration of the victory Jesus won.

Solomon replaced his father David on the throne of Israel and built the Temple David had wanted to build. Solomon was a son of David, but he was not the promised Son of David. Solomon ruled Israel for forty years and then died; his kingdom was not eternal. Jesus, the Son of David and Son of God, rules an eternal kingdom. His death means forgiveness and life for all God’s people. Those who trust in Jesus are not merely servants of God and citizens of his Kingdom; we are royalty, for the King has adopted us into his family. His victory is our victory, and because of his death we will live forever. J.

(adapted from a post first published August 2, 2015)

 

Is the same message in all the world’s religions?

My seven “Conspiracy Theories about Christianity” posts provided an opportunity for an interesting conversation which included the question above. Are all the religions of the world essentially saying the same thing, or is there a difference among them?

I suppose to answer that question, one must first define religion. Is religion worship of a God or gods? Is religion a collection of moral guidelines? Is religion an attempt to understand the surrounding world and its history? Is religion a way of life?

If the core of religion is morality, then most of the world’s religions have almost the same message. Indeed, many secular philosophies agree on a moral code. Nearly every religion has some version of the Golden Rule (“Do unto others the way you would have them do unto you”). With the exception of Friedrich Nietzsche and Ayn Rand, people all over the world believe that kindness to others is essential for a moral life. This includes respecting the lives, families, property, and reputations of others. Caring for the world in general is often a religious principle. Not being obsessed with worldly things such as wealth and political power is generally recommended by religions and by philosophies. Most religions would also add reverence toward holy things, including God or the gods.

How do people explain a common moral code throughout humanity? A secular thinker might claim that this moral sense evolved to protect the survival of the human species. A religious thinker might respond that the Creator embedded these morals in all people, giving us a conscience to guide us, to condemn us when we do wrong, and to defend us when we do right and are accused of doing wrong.

Religious practices are very diverse, but they can be diverse within religions as well as between religions. The four services of an Eastern Orthodox congregation, a high-church Anglican congregation, a rural Baptist congregation, and an inner-city Pentecostal congregation might each seem foreign to visitors from the other three congregations, even as they honor the same God and proclaim the same faith in Jesus Christ while reading from the same Bible. One truth can be stated and celebrated in a variety of ways.

For Christians, however, the core truth of their religion is neither moral codes nor worship practices. The core truth is Jesus Christ, crucified to atone for sin and risen to proclaim victory over evil. The core truth is salvation by grace through faith in Jesus. True, some Christian groups veer from the core truth into distractions: works righteousness, political activity (whether right-wing or left-wing), help for the poor and afflicted, or making the worship experience just right. These distractions—some from bad things and others from good things—may make people inside the Church and people outside the Church confused about the purpose of the Church. The Church does one thing that no one else in the world can do. That one thing is not to teach morality or to help the poor or to provide an inspiring and uplifting experience. The one thing that happens only among Christians is forgiveness of sins through Jesus Christ.

Other religions offer ways to become connected to God or to the gods. These ways generally include various human acts: prayers, incantations, sacrifices, self-harm, and others. Christianity teaches that reconciliation with God is accomplished by God as he enters the world as Jesus of Nazareth, keeping God’s promise of a Savior, living a sinless life in the place of every sinful life, paying a ransom on the cross—giving his own life to purchase sinners for the kingdom of God, and defeating every form of evil—including death—by his death and resurrection.

Imagine a group of people gathered from the various religions of the world. Imagine each of them being asked to list what is wrong in the world. Compare the lists. They would probably be very similar. They would include such problems as war, crimes, violence, hatred, disrespect for authority, pollution of the environment, loss of awe toward the holy, and the like. Now ask them what should be done to improve the world. One Hindu might say, “Accept it and learn from it—it’s karma.” Another Hindu might say, “But my karma is to be a good person and make the world better.” A Buddhist might say, “Do the right things—the Eight-Fold Path—without becoming attached to the things of the world.” A Daoist might say, “Just go with the flow.” A Confucianist might say, “Learn the rules and do what is right.” A Shintoist might say, “Be in harmony with all the spirits and living things that surround you.” A Jew might say, “Obey the commandments and honor the Holy One.” A Muslim might say, “Praise Allah and live according to his instruction.” But a Christian would say, “All those things are well and good, but we cannot fix the world. Evil is too big for us to fight it alone. Jesus has already come to fix what is broken. He has forgiven sinners. He has rescued victims. He will make the world new. He is waiting now for more to learn what he has done and come to faith in him before he reappears to make everything new.”

That Christian is not going to despise obedience to the moral code. That Christian is going to try his or her best to honor God, help his or her neighbors, improve the world, and fight evil. But that Christian does not count his or her works as the real answer to evil. The real answer is that the good and holy God has already defeated evil, not as a warrior, but as a victim. His love and his forgiveness are for all people. God does not want to punish any sinners; he wants the entire world to be reconciled to him.

When evil first entered the world, God promised our ancestors a rescue mission. The serpent’s head would be crushed. God would prevail over evil. This promise was for all people. C.S. Lewis has proposed that the theme of a hero who dies and returns to life, found in so many cultures all over the world, is a dim memory of that promise. I suggested last week that the same theme might come from the natural cycle of planting and harvesting, but that God placed that cycle into our world as a picture of the death and resurrection of Jesus, who said, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24).

Again, God does not want to judge and condemn sinners. He wants to rescue sinners. He promises that the citizens of his kingdom will come from all the nations and tribes and languages of the world. But they cannot come from all the religions of the world. All those in the new creation will be reconciled to God through Jesus Christ. Those who say, “There is no God” or “there are many gods” cannot be reconciled until they learn the truth. Those who say “God has no Son” or “I am my own savior” cannot be reconciled until they learn the truth. Jesus wants all people to know the truth. He sent his apostles to preach the Gospel to the entire world. The Church continues today to reach out to the entire world. We do not say “only Christians will be saved” because we want to close heaven to others. We say “only Christians will be saved” because we want others to come to know Jesus and to trust in him. We look forward to the beautiful harmonious diversity of the new creation, in which people from every culture gather together, united by our Savior, Jesus Christ. J.

Conspiracy theories about Christianity: #7: Did the Council of Nicaea invent the Trinity in the year 325?”

A great amount of information about the Council of Nicaea (325) is easily available on the Internet and in many books. Given that fact, it is surprising that conspiracy theories about the Council continue to be shared and believed. Dan Brown’s character Teabing manages to make more false statements in one page of The Da Vinci Code than I have included in entire true-false quizzes used in my college history classes.

The Roman Emperor Constantine had a vision which led him to become a Christian. He delayed his baptism until the day of his death, not because he was insincere in his faith, but because he wrongly thought that Baptism would remove only past sins and was therefore best delayed to the end of life. Constantine made many public confessions of his Christian faith. He was well-informed about the doctrines of Christianity, and he supported all the teachings of the Church.

Constantine was appalled to learn of a controversy among Christians in Egypt over the divinity of Christ. Arius held that Jesus was created by God the Father and therefore a lesser being to the Father. Athanasius held that the Father and the Son were equally God with the Holy Spirit, all three eternal and unchanging and divine, equal in power and authority and glory. Arius had a pleasant personality and good rapport with other Christians; Athanasius was a bit more unlikeable, but he happened to be right. To clear the air of this controversy, Constantine summoned a council to meet in the town of Nicaea. He invited all the bishops of Christianity to attend. At least 250 arrived. (The traditional number is 318, but 250 is the lowest estimate.) The Emperor, the bishops, and their assistants prayed, studied the Bible, and discussed what it says about the Father and the Son. The Council wrote a document, the Nicene Creed, which was approved by all but two of the bishops in attendance.

The Council did coin new words to summarize what the Bible says about God, but it was determined to stick to what the Bible teaches and not to create new doctrine. The most controversial word at the time was not Trinity (meaning three in one), but homoousios, translated into English as “being of one substance.” The entire phrase that contains that word identifies Jesus as “God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father.”

Was this idea new? Even the Torah identifies the Trinity, consisting of the Lord, the Angel of the Lord, and the Spirit of the Lord. In passages such as Genesis 22 and Exodus 3, the Angel of the Lord speaks of God in both the third person (he, him) and the first person (I, me). In the creation account at the beginning of Genesis, God speaks to himself in the plural (“Let us make man in our image”). Many messianic passages in the Hebrew Bible identify the Messiah as God or as the Son of God. (Psalm 2 is a good example of this.)

The New Testament is not shy about declaring Jesus to be the Son of God. Paul uses that phrase about Jesus many times (Romans 1:4, for example). John beings his Gospel by writing, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Later he quotes Jesus as saying, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father… I am in the Father and the Father is in me…” (John 14:9-10) Much of the letter to the Hebrews was written to assert the equality of Jesus with his Father.

Why, then, does Jesus say, “the Father is greater than I”?(John 14:28)? The most succinct explanation comes from another document, written well after the Council of Nicaea. Jesus is equal to the Father in regard to his divinity and less than the Father in regard to his humanity. It took several Church Councils to sort through the language needed to talk about Jesus. He is one Person but has two natures—a divine nature and a human nature. The human nature is part of creation and subject to the will of the Father, but the divine nature is equal to the Father in every way. Because Jesus is without sin, his two natures are in complete agreement with each other.

“God is love” (I John 4:16). A Unitarian God can only possess love; He/She/It could never be love. But the Trinitarian God has love as the very basis of his being. The Father loves the Son and the Spirit. The Son loves the Father and the Spirit. The Spirit loves the Father and the Son. This God who is love created the universe as a gift of love. Into this universe he placed individuals whom he could love; individuals who could love him and could love each other. True love makes one vulnerable. By giving humans the freedom to love, God also allowed the freedom not to love. Humans have taken that path. But the love of God has not failed. God the Son entered creation to be a Ransom; to pay the price that frees humans from their failure to love. The Son became human—the Father and the Spirit did not. The Son was required to obey the commands of his Father, and he did so. The Son exchanged places with each human, clothing sinful humans in his perfection while taking the punishment sinful humans deserve on himself. The Son died on a Roman cross—the Father and the Spirit did not die. Human death separates the spirit from the body. The body of Jesus was buried; his spirit was in the hands of his Father in Paradise. But that spirit returned to his body on Easter, promising a resurrection to eternal life for all who trust in him.

The Council of Nicaea invented none of these teachings. They found all of them in the Bible and they summarized them in the Nicene Creed. Eighteen centuries later, Christians still use that Creed to summarize what we believe. We believe it because God said it through his prophets and apostles. The message has never changed. It will never change. The Word of God stands forever. J.

Advent thoughts: December 19

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah” (Jeremiah 31:31—read Jeremiah 31:31-34).

God’s love is more important to him than his justice. God has justice and righteousness, but God is love. His grace is greater than his law. He prefers rescuing sinners rather than punishing them.

Therefore, God’s new covenant is older than his old covenant. The old covenant comes first to diagnose our need for a Savior, but the new covenant was in God’s mind when he began to create the world. God knew that his people would sin. He knew they would need a Savior, because they would not be able to rescue themselves from sin and evil. He knew that he would have to pay the full price to redeem sinners. Knowing these things, God chose to create the world and chose to continue his plan of redemption.

So, God gave the old covenant to his chosen people. He said, “I will be your God, and you will be my people.” He told them what it meant to be his people: to have no other gods; to honor his name and his time and the earthly authorities that represent his authority; to love their neighbors and respect their neighbors’ lives, marriages, property, and reputations; and to be content with what God provided them, not coveting what belonged to their neighbors. He said that if they kept their side of the covenant, he would provide them with safety and prosperity. If they broke the terms of the old covenant, he would cause famine and drought and poverty, and he would allow them to fall into the hands of their enemies.

The old covenant is conditional. The new covenant is unconditional. Because his people broke the terms of the old covenant, he allowed them to be afflicted by drought and famine. He allowed them to be afflicted by Midianites and Philistines and Assyrians and Babylonians. He allowed them to be captured and carried off into captivity. Even the holy city Jerusalem and the Temple of the Lord were destroyed under the terms of the old covenant because his chosen people were unfaithful to the Lord.

At the same time that they preached about the old covenant and the consequences of breaking God’s commands, Moses and the prophets also spoke of a new covenant. Moses prepared the people for a king and priest and prophet. Isaiah repeatedly told of the coming servant who would be Immanuel, God with us. Jeremiah specifically promised a new covenant that would be different from the old covenant, because it would be based on God’s faithfulness and not on the faithfulness of the people.

“I will be their God, and they will be my people,” God said. Those words belong to both the old covenant and the new covenant. Under the terms of the old covenant, the thoughts and words and actions of the people determined whether they remained God’s people. Under the terms of the new covenant, the thoughts and words and actions of God determine whether we remain God’s people.

Old Testament believers were saved by faith through grace under the terms of the new covenant. They believed the promise of a coming Savior. New Testament believers are saved by grace through faith under the terms of the new covenant. We believe that the Savior has come—he is Christ, the Lord—and he has kept all the promises upon which the new covenant depends. He has lived a life of perfect righteousness, earning rewards which he shares with his people. He has offered that life as a sacrifice, removing the sins of his people. He has risen from the dead, victorious over all enemies, sharing that victory with his people.

“For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” God knows everything, but he is able to forget. Between his birth and his resurrection, Jesus forgot the date of his glorious appearing on the Day of the Lord. God has forgotten the iniquity of his people because Jesus paid in full for those sins. God has forgotten the iniquity of his people because our sins were killed with him on the cross, buried with him, and left dead and buried when Jesus rose from the dead. God has forgotten the iniquity of his people because he has removed our sins from us “as far as the east is from the west.” We belong to him forever. Thanks be to God! J.

Advent thoughts: December 15

“Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins” (Isaiah 40:1-2—read Isaiah 40:1-11).

As a prophet of the Lord, Isaiah frequently had to deliver bad news to Israel and to Judah. In Deuteronomy, Moses’ farewell message, God had spoken about the covenant he made with Israel. If they were faithful to him and kept his commandments, he would bless them with peace and prosperity. If they turned away from him and worshiped other gods and broke his commandments, he would bring judgment on them and punishment. Throughout the time of the judges and the kings of Israel, the terms of this covenant remained in effect. The people fluctuated between unfaithfulness, which brought punishment, and repentance and faith, which brought relief. Eventually, the sins of the nation piled up so high that, under the terms of the covenant, God had to bring the Assyrians and Babylonians to the Promised Land to punish his people for their sins.

When Isaiah preached about the covenant, he could only offer bad news to the Lord’s people. But something bigger than the covenant also existed: the love and mercy and grace of God. Along with warnings of God’s punishment, the prophet could also share God’s comfort. The people had declared war upon God by worshiping false gods, but God in his grace declared the warfare ended. The people had acquired a debt to God by their sins, but God in his mercy pardoned their debt. In his love, God sent his Son to pay that debt—not only to pay it in full by his sacrifice, but to pay more than the full cost, to pay double for their sins, so no debt would remain outstanding.

Isaiah contrasted the covenant’s demands with the Lord’s grace. Under the covenant, the Promised Land became a wilderness; but under grace, a highway was built through the wilderness to bring God’s people home. Under the covenant, the people were like grass withering in the heat of the sun; but under grace they were sustained by the Word of the Lord, which stands forever. Under the covenant, the people received bad news from the Lord’s prophets; but under grace they heard good news of rescue and redemption. The good news was so good that they were to shout it from a high mountain—to “Go, tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere.” God would come with might, not to punish sinners but to rescue his people from sin, to redeem them and to comfort them with his mercy and love and grace.

The glory of the Lord was revealed as a baby was born in Bethlehem, wrapped in cloths, and placed in a manger. The glory of the Lord was revealed as angels shared the good news with shepherds watching their flocks by night. The glory of the Lord was revealed as wise men came bearing gifts for the King. The glory of the Lord was revealed as the Son of God was sentenced to die on a Roman cross, paying double for the sins of his people so they could be ransomed.

“The grass withers, the flower fades, but the Word of our God will stand forever.” This Word is his promise of peace, of forgiveness, and of new life. No power in all creation can take away this promise, for God has spoken, and his promises cannot be revoked. Even as sinners living in a sinful world, we have this comfort that God has made us saints. Thanks be to God! J.

Advent thoughts: December 13

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined… For to us a child is born, to us a son is given….” (Isaiah 9:2, 6—read Isaiah 9:1-7).

We all began in darkness. We all started as enemies of God, blind to his truth, unable to comprehend the things God was saying to us. Our nature was to be selfish, to demand what we wanted when we wanted it, to be unconcerned about the inconvenience we caused anyone else. We were at the center of the world. We were our own gods, and we demanded that everyone worship us and serve us.

It is one thing to teach people to be polite, to say “please” and “thank you,” to have good manners both in public and at home. But good manners do not dispel the darkness. They may hide our selfishness from others, but they do not cause our selfishness to disappear. Only the light can dispel the darkness. Only the light can clear away sin and cause people to be truly loving, true servants to God and to their neighbors.

That light has come. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome the light. Whenever light and darkness battle, light wins. It is the nature of light to shine and to remove darkness. It is the nature of darkness to be beaten whenever it confronts the light.

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given. He is not born only to Mary and Joseph; he is not given only to the two of them. He is born to all of us. The angel told the shepherds, “A Savior has been born to you.” As Mary represents all the believers of Old Testament Israel and the New Testament Church in declaring herself to be the handmaiden of the Lord, so she is in the place of all believers when she gives birth to her first-born Son. For the timeless Son of God was born once in time to redeem people from every time, beginning with Adam and Eve and continuing to the last child conceived before Christ appears in glory to make everything new.

When Handel wrote music for these words of Isaiah, he put a musical pause between Wonderful and Counselor. They belong together as one name: Jesus is the Wonderful Counselor who tells us the truth we need to know because he is the Truth. He deserves our wonder, our awe, our amazement at who he is and at what he has done for us. Because he has redeemed us, we now receive his counsel to guide our lives and to grant us eternal life.

He is also the Mighty God. The child lying in the manger is running the universe at the very same time. All things are possible for him, but he only does the things that are right, that match his Law, that benefit the people around him. When Jesus began to work miracles, he only worked them for other people in need. He fed thousands in the wilderness; but when he was hungry, he did not feed himself. He healed others, but he allowed himself to be arrested and beaten and killed. He stopped storms, but he did not stop the crowd from arresting him or the Roman solders from mocking him.

He is the Everlasting Father. In the timelessness of God, relations are changeable, so the Bride of Christ can also give birth to him. We are all children of God through the work of Jesus, making Christ our Father as well as our Brother. Because he is the Son of God, God calls us sons—we are adopted into his family through Christ’s work. Because we are children of the Church, Christ’s Bride, Jesus is our Father just as his Father has become our Father.

He is the Prince of Peace. His entry into this world meant war with the devil and with the sinful world and with sin in general, but Jesus won that war. We started out in darkness as enemies of God, but through redemption God has made peace with us. That peace is Shalom—not merely an absence of conflict, but the presence of goodness: a place for everything and everything in its place. Peace is not boring: it is harmony like a symphony orchestra; it is a blend of colors like a painting or like a flower garden.

All this Jesus has done for us. He is all these things to us. Because of what he has done, Jesus has claimed us for his kingdom, and we belong to him forever. Thanks be to God! J.

Advent thoughts: December 10

“The Lord said to me, ‘You are my Son; today I have begotten you’” (Psalm 2:7—read Psalm 2:1-12).

The doctrine of the Trinity was not invented in fourth-century church conferences, as some conspiracy-minded historians claim. Nor was the doctrine of the Trinity first revealed in the New Testament. The Old Testament is filled with Trinitarian language. Moses writes of the Lord, the Angel of the Lord, and the Spirit of the Lord in a way that shows that they are one God but three Persons. Psalm 2 also speaks of the Father-Son relationship in the Holy Trinity. As John describes Jesus as the only-begotten Son of the Father, so this Psalm also pictures the Messiah ruling on his throne while also being eternally begotten of the Father.

Among humans and in the animal kingdom, sons are born as babies and must grow up into adults to become the equals of their fathers. God is eternal and timeless. Jesus is always being begotten of his Father; but, as the Son of God, he is always fully mature, always equal to his Father. As a man he experienced moving through time, growing from a helpless baby into a boy, a teen-ager, and then a man. As the Son of God had had authority over the universe, yes, even as he lay swaddled in a manger in Bethlehem.

When it comes to Jesus, all people must take a side. You are for him or you are against him; there is no neutrality. You cannot say, “He is the Jewish Messiah, but I have my own religion.” Jesus rules over all the nations; the entire earth is his possession. Those who oppose him are rebels who will be crushed. Those who serve the Lord and kiss the Son are safe and secure; he is their refuge forever.

Yet all have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God. Christ alone is righteous; the rest of us are polluted by sin. We are rebels against the King, for we have not done all the things he commanded, and we have done many of the things he prohibited. His Law judges us and condemns us as sinners. We deserve to be told to depart from him and to spend eternity in the outer darkness, in Satan’s prison, in the place where rebels belong.

Jesus has the right to break us with a rod of iron and dash us in pieces like pottery. He would rather be our refuge. Because we could not come to him, he came to us. The Shepherd went into the wilderness, seeking his lost sheep. More than that, he became the Lamb of God to redeem his lost sheep. He offered his life as a sacrifice to take away our sins and to cleanse us from the pollution of sin. He defeated all our enemies. Now that he has found us, he carries us home with great joy, where our Father will welcome us with equal joy. A celebration of victory and reunion is planned, a celebration that will last forever in the new creation, the kingdom of God.

Even kings are warned to be wise. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of all wisdom. When Jesus makes himself our refuge, we take our shelter in him. Then we need to fear nothing. We are always safe in his loving care. Thanks be to God! J.