“The Nature(s) of Jesus”
John 1:14-18, Hebrews 2:14-17, Colossians 1:15-20
June 25, 2017
You can have complete confidence in a Savior who is fully God and fully man.
I. Incarnate (John 1:14-18)
II. Fully Man (Hebrews 2:14-17)
III. Fully God (Colossians 1:15-20)
We’re talking this summer about the foundations of the church, the historical truths that allow us to look back not to the founding of this church 25 years ago, or the Protestant reformation, 500 years, but to Jesus, the apostles and the church fathers, 2000 years. In the early centuries, the truths given to the apostles were challenged and refined by heresies, and then expressed in creeds. The first great heresy was Gnosticism, which shows up in early forms even in the New Testament. Gnosticism was heavily influenced by Greek philosophy and terminology and thus radically altered most aspects of Christianity, removing God from his role as creator, denying the importance of the material world, rejecting the Jewish Scriptures, and making Jesus the source of an unrecorded mystical knowledge that led to salvation. Two weeks ago when we noticed that God is named as “creator of heaven and earth” in the creeds, we were seeing a response to the Gnostics. The early church apologists clung to the Scriptures as the source of truth, to a creator God and the teachings of Jesus.
Variations and developments of Gnosticism continued for centuries, and prompted thinking on the Biblical nature of God, of Jesus, of the Spirit and His work. It also prompted the recognition of the canon, the true books of the Old and New Testament, because the heretics were often guilty of rejecting Scripture, or modifying it to suit their beliefs. But as the Gnostic heresy subsided new ideas rose up, many of them focused on the Trinity. How can three persons in the New Testament be called God, have the attributes of God and be worshiped as one God? We saw that the teaching of Scripture, one God in three persons, is quite clear. But it wasn’t until monarchianism, adoptionism, modalism, and Arianism began to challenge the deity of Jesus that a formal doctrine of the Trinity was needed. The church thought deeply about these things and at the council of Nicea in 325 A.D. and Constantinople in 381 A.D. accepted the truth that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were truly One God. This was the great victory of orthodoxy with a small o. A few weeks ago we read from Athanasian creed which says “We worship one God in trinity and the trinity in unity, neither blending their persons nor dividing their essence.”
Harold O. J. Brown, who was one of my seminary professors, wrote a book called “Heresies,” where he walks through the ways that various heresies allowed the church to understand its true doctrine better. After the great Trinitarian victory, he says, “the deity of Christ was no longer questioned. What was disputed? The way in which the divine Son, the second Person fo the Trinity, fully God, could be united with the historical being, Jesus of Nazareth.”
That’s the doctrinal issue we want to take up from Scripture today, and while it did not provoke rioting in the streets, as the issue of the deity of Jesus did, it was still important and controversial for a few generations after the Nicene Creed was established. It wasn’t until a council in Chalcedon in 451 A.D. that the church fathers put into beautiful words the resolution of this question. Here’s part of what they said “We, then, following the holy Fathers, all with one consent, teach people to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a rational soul and body; consubstantial with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood.”
This truth, that Jesus was truly God and truly man, one person in two natures took a while to formulate. But like the Trinity, it’s important. And church history has proven, over and over that if we don’t get Jesus right we don’t get anything right. People and movements who have denied either the deity or the humanity of Christ have inevitably lost their hold on salvation. But you can have complete confidence in a Savior who is fully God and fully man.
So does Scripture affirm the two natures of Christ in one Person? It does. Our task, as with the Trinity, is pretty simple in hindsight. We want to show that Jesus is fully God, that Jesus is fully human, and that we are talking about the same person when we say these things. We want to place a special emphasis on what this means for salvation. Each of these Scriptures will touch on that.
I want to start in the prologue to the Gospel of John, which is well known and a clear affirmation that the same person who was fully God became incarnate as a man. Before I read John 1:14-18, we should remember what John 1:1 says. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” So the first equation is Word = God. When we talked about the Trinity it was very important to notice in this verse that the Word existed in the beginning, just as God did in Genesis 1:1, and that although he was God he was also with God, which is how we think about the persons of the Trinity: one God, three persons who are with each other in relationship.
In verse 14 we find another equation. The word is the incarnate Son, Jesus. Verses 14-18: And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. 15(John bore witness about him, and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.’”) 16For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.
We are told that the word, who we already know is God, became flesh. The literal idea of ‘flesh’ is ‘meat.’ He became something real and substantial, which the gnostics and some of the other heretics denied. But the word flesh also means a person. The Old Testament word refers to what people are made of but its most common use is to refer to people themselves. All flesh is grass, Isaiah says, but some translations say “All people are grass,” and that’s what Isaiah, and Peter who quotes him, meant. Later in John Jesus says that God has given him authority over all flesh, by which he means all people. So verse 14 is telling us that Jesus became a people, a person, like us, made out of the same stuff we are. He came and dwelt among us, and because he was “God with us,” we could see in Him God’s glory, the Glory of God the Son, full of grace and truth. The two natures are clear in this verse. Jesus is both God and Man.
At least, the Word is, and the only Son of the Father is. Jesus hasn’t been mentioned yet. That comes in verse 17 “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” There is no question about the equality here: God = Word = Flesh = Son of the Father = Grace and Truth = Jesus Christ. He is linked to everything by that phrase, grace and truth. This is where we start to see salvation because verse 16 tells us that we are the recipients of that grace, and back in verse 12 we learn that this grace, through faith, through believing in his name allows us to become children of God. So this Jesus, who exists as fully God and fully man came to bring salvation. The Nicene creed says “for us and for our salvation he came down,” “and was made man.”
But he was still God, verse 18 “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.” Notice the persons of the Trinity: he’s at the Father’s side. But he is also “the only God,” or the only begotten God, and he has made God known to us. Again, two natures. The Word became flesh, but the word was God, the one poured out for all eternity from the same essence as the Father. God the Son always existed in the nature of God, but since the incarnation he also fully wears the nature of man.
How do we understand this? The Chalcedonian confession, like others, is mostly concerned not with understanding the mystery of one person in two natures, but with telling us what we can safely say to affirm both sides. It says that Jesus is “to be acknowledged in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person.” Earlier I spoke to the kids about salt water. The properties of tho two natures, salt and water, are clearly preserved, and concurring. But it’s obviously a mixture, even though you can’t see the different components, even at a microscopic level.
A better illustration, one I really like, is the dual nature of light. You’ve probably heard of this. Like the ripples we’ve seen this morning, light acts like waves. The electromagnetic spectrum has frequency and wavelength. The two relate to each just as they do in sound waves or ocean waves. But light also seems to be made up of particles or packets of energy that behave like particles. This is quantum mechanics, in which statistical probabilities rather than little tiny marbles are the basic building blocks of the universe. Picture adding heat to an atom. The energy of its electron cloud increases until suddenly one unit drops back down to a lower energy level and gives off a chunk of energy. That is one quanta or photon of light. It behaves more like a particle than a wave.
Both wave and particle behavior can be shown by experiment. The most famous uses a diffraction grating, a series of slits which have different effects on waves or particles. Let me narrate a video that shows this. The experiment demonstrates that a quantum object, like light, is at the same time a wave and a particle. When particles are shot toward two slits, the particles touch the screen randomly. When waves are sent they interfere, reinforcing or canceling, and the result is fringed lines on the screen. But when a quantum object is sent the wave reduces to or becomes a particle as it hits the screen. The distribution of particles follows the pattern of the wave interference. So the light, while behaving like waves is also behaving like particles.
One point of all this is that God’s creation, as we saw two weeks ago, is awesome, and still beyond the grasp of the human mind. But the point today is that light has a dual nature, as waves and particles, and the two natures are both active in the behavior of light, both real though very different. In a similar way Jesus, in the incarnation is a person with two different natures that coexist without compromising or diminishing the properties of either. He is fully God, in all of God’s character qualities and attributes while at the same time being fully human in all of our limitations, weaknesses and temptations. This is ultimately shown in the fact that he, God, could die on a simple Roman cross.
But why did he have to be fully man? The Nicene Creed told us “For our salvation.” We see this is clearly in Hebrews 2:14-17 Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. 16For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham. 17Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. 18For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.
The author of Hebrews has already been teaching, for several verses, that Christ was made like us, and specifically that he did not become an angel to save us, but instead, a man. In the words of verse 9 he tasted death for us and so identified with us that he says to the Father, “Here am I, and the children God has given me.” Verse 14: “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things.” It says ‘blood and flesh,’ in the Greek, which is somehow more startling. John told us that Jesus became meat, a human person of blood and flesh. Hebrews 4 says “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” Don’t miss this: he was tempted as we are. This fully human savior fully sympathizes with us.
But he did not become one of us just to sympathize. He took on blood and flesh, and lived a sinless human life that “through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil.” By dying for us he destroyed the devil’s power over us. Verse 15, “he delivered all who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.” He rescues or delivers us that we might no longer fear death’s sting. He had to be human to do this. Verse 16 “For surely it is not angels he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham.” The word ‘helps’ is another way to say ‘rescues,’ ‘delivers,’ literally ‘gives a hand up.’
Therefore, verse 17, “he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.” He was fully human, made like his brothers in every respect, so that first, he could be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God. The high priest was supposed to be holy, so that he could mediate between God and man, offer sacrifices on man’s behalf. Jesus was qualified to be a merciful and faith priest because he was human, but he was also qualified by his sinlessness. The high priests of Israel were ritually clean, sometimes, but Jesus was truly clean, kosher, holy, sinless. Verse 18: “For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.” He was tempted to the point of blood and tears, but he chose obedience and suffering. So he can help, same word, those who have been tempted and failed. That’s us. But he makes propitiation for the sins of the people. He became the sacrifice that turns aside God’s wrath and makes atonement, ransom for those who were like him, but sinful.
This is the work of Christ, salvation, which we will look at next week, studying this same word, propitiation. But this week the key is that he had to be human to be this sacrifice. Harold O. J. Brown says this well in Heresies. “The chief flaw in Apollinarianism [a heresy that denied the full humanity of Christ] is the fact that it seems to make the orthodox doctrine of salvation impossible.
If Christ is justly to earn the salvation of mankind, he must be a man. . . The opponents of Apollinaris had not yet developed the sophisticated treatment of Anselm, but already sensed that if he was to be our substitute for sin, there had to be a basic identity between Jesus Christ and the humanity he was to redeem. Salvation requires that the man Jesus die and be raised for us and then go on to make intercession for us at the right hand of God. It should be apparent that what we need to represent us before God is not mere human flesh, which is no different from that of the animals and which is not the essential element in man; we need a real, complete human being.” And Jesus was. As the later theologian Anselm said, he was fully human, and therefore able to die for our sins, because a man should die for the sins of men. But he was also fully God, because only God could pay the debt of sin that men owed and endure the wrath they deserved. This is the Jesus you and I needed.
We close with Paul’s description of Jesus from Colossians 1, which reveals Jesus in the fullness of Godhood. Colossians 1:15-20 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. 19For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.
You can preach a whole sermon on these verses. In fact I have, by the grace of God, preached this text on three continents. But in summary, we see in these verses seven ways that Jesus is shown to be God. First, Christ is the image of the invisible God. Just as the first man, Adam, was made in the image of God, so the perfect man, Jesus was made in that image. When Jesus came, God who had always been invisible became visible. Jesus himself said ‘anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.’ So everything great and wonderful about God is true of Jesus. God is infinitely powerful; so is Jesus. God knows all things. So does Jesus. God is eternal, existing from eternity past to eternity future. So is Jesus. God is perfectly just. So is Jesus. God is infinitely wise. So is Jesus.
This also means everything you see in Jesus tells you about God. When Jesus shows compassion, he is showing the heart of God. When Jesus sees the people as lost sheep, he is showing that the Lord is our Shepherd. When Jesus invites his followers to come unto him and find rest, he is making God’s offer. When Jesus asks us to believe and receive eternal life, he is holding out God’s own plan of salvation. Everything about Jesus reveals God’s saving love.
Second, Christ’s supremacy is shown in His relationship to Creation. He is firstborn over all Creation. The word ‘firstborn’ can mean the first in time or first in sequence, but usually it means first place. He is not the first thing God created, as some of the heresies still say, instead he has of pre-eminence over creation. Just as a conductor does not play an instrument, but is first over all the players, so Jesus is first over all creation. Jesus preceded the whole Creation, and He is Sovereign over all Creation. Psalm 89 says “And I will make him the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth.” This refers to King David, but also looks forward to the Messiah. In Revelation he is called “the Firstborn from the dead and the Ruler of the kings of the earth.” So “Firstborn” implies both that Christ existed before all Creation and that he is sovereign over all.
This leads to the third characteristic of Christ. He created all things. This includes all things in heaven and on earth, all things that we can see with our eyes or our senses, and all things that we cannot see, including all things in the spirit realm. The next four words, ‘thrones or power or rulers or authorities’ indicate that all the spiritual beings who either support or oppose God’s mission in creation were made by Jesus at creation. Therefore none of them can compare to him. None of them pre-existed the creative act, as he did. Satan is not somehow equal and opposite to Jesus. He was made by Jesus. And all the wonders of creation we saw a few weeks ago, all the mysteries of quantum mechanics are his handiwork and bring him glory. Jesus didn’t create the universe and give it away; it’s his. In the same way he didn’t create us and give us away; we are his; we were created by Jesus and for Jesus.
The last thing Paul says of creation is that Jesus was before all things and that all things hold together in him. This helps explain what ‘firstborn of creation’ means. Jesus is before all things, uncreated, living in eternity with the Father and the Spirit. And he holds all things together; I love that. The statistics of quantum mechanics are what the scientists use to try to explain the universe. But Einstein said he didn’t believe God played dice with the universe. And neither do I. Jesus, as God, stands behind quantum mechanics and holds all things together. So we can trust Jesus to hold us together as well.
Fourth, besides being Lord of the universe, He is also the Head of the church. His followers are scattered from Nepal to America, from Slovakia to South Africa, but there is only one true church and only one true head. Paul thought this truth was just as amazing as all the others. It’s just as important that Jesus is the head of the church as it is that he is the image of God, firstborn of creation and creator of all things. Fifth, Christ is the Beginning and the Firstborn from among the dead. We’ve already seen that Jesus is the source of all things and the ruler of all things. Everything comes from him.
And as firstborn from the dead, he is first in all creation to rise in an immortal body. Again, this is not so much about sequence in time, though he was first born of the resurrection in that sense. But he is really first in rank. He doesn’t just rise, he is the one who defeated death so that he and all his followers could rise. He was the first fruits of those who die. Paul says in Romans that he was “declared with power to be the Son of God by His resurrection from the dead.” In everything he is pre-eminent. He is the supreme Lord of the universe. He has first place. He made us and he rescues us. What’s amazing is that though we know these things about Jesus, we don’t give him first place. We allow other things, other people, worthless gods and pursuits to have supremacy.
The sixth characteristic that exalts Christ is that all of God’s fullness dwells in him. Later Paul wrote, “In Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form.” This is one of the most powerful descriptions of Christ’s deity in the Bible. The word fullness means completeness. God completely lives in Jesus. He is not part god and part man. He is fully God as well as fully man. This full and complete Deity dwells lastingly, permanently, eternally in Christ.
But Paul doesn’t stop there. Everything about Jesus relates to salvation. The seventh and last thing Paul says is that he is the reconciler. Through Christ God will reconcile to Himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven. ‘All things’ includes the beautiful restoration of his broken and groaning creation, but the focus is on people. God restores people to a right relationship with himself by making peace through the blood of Jesus, shed on the cross. As Anselm said, Jesus had to be fully human because only a man could die for the sins of humanity. But he had to be fully God because only God could pay the price for all things, all the sins of all time and all people from every tribe, tongue and nation. Only a man deserved to die and only God had the infinite resources to cover the infinite offense of our sins and emerge victorious.
So what have we seen? Anselm got it right because the early church got it right. The Chalcedonian Creed got it right. We stand on the shoulders of those giants, like a child held up by a father to see a great man. It’s Jesus, who is fully God and fully Man, two natures preserved and concurring in one person without confusion, without change, without division, without separation. You and I can have complete confidence in a Savior who is fully God and fully man.