Theosis: Does Christmas Make Men Gods?

Sometimes you’re reading an old Church Father or something along those lines when you suddenly feel the need to stop in your tracks because you hit a quote like this one from St. Athanasius:

For the Son of God became man so that we might become god.

If you’re not from an Eastern tradition of Christianity, you might think that sounds heretical.Then there are other statements like of Irenaeus: “If the Word became a man, It was so men may become gods,” or of Augustine: “But he himself that justifies also deifies, for by justifying he makes sons of God. ‘For he has given them power to become the sons of God.’ If then we have been made sons of god, we have also been made gods.” 

So what does this all mean? Were the Church Fathers just raving heretics who missed important doctrines like monotheism and the Creator/creature distinction? Were they basically the predeccessors of New Age charlatans? I’m going to say “No,” and if that seems indefensible I will go on to explain why, and what the line of thought they’re talking about has to offer us today, specifically from a more Reformed perspective.

The doctrine we are specifically dealing with here is called theosis (also deification or divinization). Broadly speaking, the term just refers to a creature somehow becoming more like a god. For Christian theology in particular it is about a way of looking at salvation focused on our union with God. So what exactly does theosis mean in that context?

First, I should point out that despite the strong language in those quotes I just provided, none of these people thought that humans were somehow going to become equal to God, members of the Trinity, secondary deities, or anything along those lines. What they actually meant is more nuanced. They all believed that there is and can be only one true God, and that humans can’t just become another one, or something just like Him. So we can ignore the initial fear and try to find the reality that the writers were pointing toward by using deification language. Specifically, I will look at this from a Reformed perspective, through the lens of union with Christ.

In Reformed and Lutheran circles, doctrines of theosis are sometimes called Christification to emphasize that we are not dealing with some generic turing of men into gods but that what is happening in theosis is the transformation of humanity into the pure image of Christ, who is the image of God. Theosis means that through Jesus we participate in the life and glory of God, and that is where we find salvation.

What does this mean more specifically? I’ll break it down a little more clearly. Man by his mere flesh, his nature without God, has no true life or glory. He is little more than a smart and emotionally complex monkey. He will pass away after a brief, absurd, and often miserable existence filled with sin. His life and glory can come only from God, only from His ability and call to display the image of God. The glory of God is the true life of man. But because of sin, man is separated from the glory of God. This leaves him with only death and misery.

Jesus came in to resolve this problem. Being Himself God, He took upon human nature so that in His person there could be a humanity who is truly the image of the invisible God. Jesus, being that image unstained, lived a human life which was completely filled with the glory of God both in His power and in His holy character. Unlike Adam, He carried out that union of man’s life and God’s glory all the way to the grave and even back. Upon returning in a victorious resurrection, He was glorified as a renovated human being. His resurrected humanity far surpassed the old, mortal kind. It was and remains filled to the brim with God’s life and glory. Jesus is therefore what God looks like as a man. Jesus’ glory as the resurrected Lord is the human version of the glory of God. He is the image of the invisible God, and the only person in whom human nature has been able to align perfectly with divine nature (though without the two being mixed up together). To reiterate in one more way, in Jesus God’s glory has been translated into a human glory, a glory owned by the risen Christ.

The result with Jesus, then, is this: in Him there exists a form of humanity that far surpasses our fallen, sinful state, and even surpasses Adam’s state in Eden. It is filled with more life, glory, and power than man has ever known because of His union with God the Father through the Holy Spirit.This is humanity grown up, perfected, and exalted as God’s partner in love. This is not by any power inherent in mere humanity, but by grace alone, the free grace of the Son in choosing to become man, the free grace of the Father in resurrecting and glorifying His Son, and the grace of the Holy Spirit in binding this all together by His sovereign power. And by this grace Jesus has formed a kind of humanity which, compared to us in our current state, is so exalted and like-God to possibly justify calling it deified humanity, man become god.

Now, because of this new kind of human existence which Jesus alone possesses by nature, a special union between God and man, the rest of us are invited to join in. But we are called by grace alone through a union of faith with Jesus in the Spirit. And in this union we are transformed. We get to participate in the new, glorious humanity of Christ. We are conformed to the image of Christ (thus Christification), who is the image of God. So by the Spirit we become like the Son who is the exact expression of the Father. In this way we also come to be filled with and to express God’s life and glory. The glory of God became the glory of the man Jesus, and by our union with Him it becomes our glory as well. This is, in the end, our salvation. By our union with Christ through the Holy Spirit, we commune with God so much as to become like Him in a supernatural way which transcends the natural possibilities of anything else in creation. As Peter put it, we “become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4), not to become literal equals to God or sub-gods but to become in our human existence what Jesus is in His human existence, an existence which is created and animated by His divine nature.

The focus, then, is all about union with Christ. Theosis, in a Reformed key, is a way of saying, on the basis of Scripture alone, that by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone we are radically transformed and exalted from our totally depraved human existence to a state which lives by and expresses the glory of God alone. By the Spirit and word we know Christ, by Christ we know God, and by knowing God in Christ we are conformed to His image to His glory unto eternal life (2 Cor. 3:18, 1 Jn. 3:2, John 17:3).

This naturally makes for a great Christmas meditation. In theosis, everything has to go back to Christmas. If Jesus did not incarnate, if He did not enter our human existence as an infant in Bethlehem, then there would be no union between God and man, no restoration of human nature by the glory of God. It all began with the Son of God becoming a Son of Man, so that we might become sons of God. On Christmas, we find that by Jesus’ grace He partook in our nature, so that by the same grace we could partake in His.

Or, perhaps as Clement of Alexandria put it, “The Word of God became man, that thou mayest learn from man how man may become god.” Merry Christmas, children of God!

Theosis: Does Christmas Make Men Gods?

Evangelical Calvinism: I Suggest Four New Solas

One of the primary goals of Evangelical Calvinism is to further reform the Reformed tradition. As I mentioned the other day, the Reformation will never be truly over, and EC focuses on what work still needs to be done. And if we’re going to try to keep reforming the Reformation, we might find it useful to extend the iconic Five Solas, the defining marks of Protestant theology. Here, then, is my proposal for four additional, Evangelical Calvinist solas.

Sola Incarnatio: The Incarnation Alone

The Incarnation alone is the meeting point between God and man, the only possible connection between the Creator and His human creatures. Jesus of Nazareth isn’t just in fact the only way to God, but He is in principle the only way to God. No other way could exist for God and man to have a relationship. There can only be communion between God and man because of the hypostatic union between God and man in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. This all is meant to apply even to sinless man. Had Adam never sinned, his destiny would still have been found only in Jesus taking on flesh. Had man never chosen death, his life would still only be fulfilled by coming of Life Himself in human nature. Why? Because God is above, we are below, God is Creator, we are creature, God is infinite, we are finite, God is transcendent, and we are dust. There is an infinite qualitative difference between God and man, a gap that could only be bridged by God’s omnipotent power in becoming one of us.

Sola Apocalypsi: By Revelation Alone

God can be known by revelation alone, His personal self-revelation. The idea of general revelation is a mixed bag: surely the whole creation testifies to its Creator, but among fallen, fleshly men this means little or nothing. There are no ears to hear. If we are to find God at all, if we are to reliably know anything true and certain about Him, we need to be directly confronted by His personal Word. This happens in Christ, the Old Testament preparations which were bound up with His Coming, and the Apostolic witness to Him in the New Testament, by the Spirit.

Sola apocalypsi means that we can’t trust things like natural theology, general revelation, or philosophical arguments to know anything about God except in retrospect. We can see light in these ways through Christ, but apart from Christ it is all darkness. 

Solius Benevolentia: Of Goodwill Alone

All things, particularly all men, have been created by God of goodwill alone. There is no malice, no darkness, and no deviousness in God’s plans for His creation. This is meant specifically in contrast to the doctrine that many people have been created not out of God’s kindness per se, but instead were created specifically for God’s wrath or (in a more positive framing) to glorify God by highlighting His justice in punishing their sins. God’s eternal design and desire for no man is doom. He takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked.

This may seem like a polemic especially against classical Calvinism, but it is not unique to Calvinism. It also applies to the theology of election (actually, for him it was more about providence) in Thomas Aquinas and Augustine. As Evangelical Calvinists, we deny that God’s will for any man terminates in their eternal destruction, regardless of who says otherwise.

Sola Vita: Life Alone

Closely related to the last suggested sola, we affirm that life alone is the end to which God has predestined all people. There is only one singular destiny God has created for His creation, and that is eternal life by the glory of God. No one is predetermined apart from their actual rejection of God to anything else. As Irenaeus said, “The glory of God is living man.” Thus this follows from the traditional soli Deo gloria. God’s glory is the end of all things, and He has sovereignly chosen to manifest His glory precisely in giving His eternal, imperishable life to human creatures.

This destiny, of course, has been proved in Jesus Christ, the archetypal human and new Adam. In raising Jesus from the dead, God has displayed before the world His singular plan for the world. The resurrection and restoration of all things, but particularly humanity, is His design. Anyone who is damned and lost (and there will be many such people) are not so because of God’s will but their own.

Evangelical Calvinism: I Suggest Four New Solas

The Apostles’ Creed: I Believe in Jesus Humiliated

My series on the Apostles’ Creed must now move on to perhaps what might be regarded as the central section, the section on Christ’s humiliation. This part is gold:

who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended into hell.

The life of the Jesus described so well in the previous line, the Son of God and one Lord, is now described up to the point of His death. So what does the Creed teach on this?

Conceived by the Holy Spirit – Before even the article on the Holy Spirit, He is mentioned as the one by whom Jesus was conceived. This shows that Jesus’ entrance into human life is a miracle, not just any miracle but a miracle performed by the same Spirit who originally created the world. This signifies that the power which brought Jesus into the world is in fact the power of divine creation itself. Jesus is the beginning of the new creation. In Jesus God has acted to begin creation over again with His only-begotten Son in place of Adam, the old son (Luke 3:38). With Jesus the human race is to be reborn.

Born of the Virgin Mary – We also see that Jesus, though conceived by the Spirit, was born of a human woman, the Virgin Mary. Jesus was not purely an interruption and replacement for the existing humanity, but in fact He was the beginning of the new creation in the midst of the old and broken one. Through Mary Jesus was born still a part of the natural human race. If it were not for this He would be some kind of alternate kind of human unrelated to us, one who could be of no use in saving our kind. Through Mary Jesus is the kinsman-redeemer, the one who shares the actual flesh and blood of His people that He may redeem their flesh and blood. This in fact makes the Catholic notion of Mary’s immaculate conception (remember this means that she was born graciously saved from original sin) entirely unnecessary. Jesus from Mary received His original contact with human corruption and sin, and like in all of His other dealings began from that very point His work in healing and sanctifying it. In this line we fine that Jesus entered humanity even in its deadness in order to raise it to new life.

Suffered under Pontius Pilate – We see that the Creed moves immediately from His birth to His sufferings of His trial. This should not be taken as an indication that nothing in between these events mattered or that Jesus’ ministry is ultimately secondary to His death. Instead, we should recognize that Jesus’ entire life before His death was bound up with His impending death, and His death was the climax of the entire life that led to it. Thus the Creed does not simply leave out Jesus’ life, but rather makes its significance inseparable from His passion. In truth, Jesus’ death belonged to His life and His life belonged to His death.

Also important is that we find Jesus’ chief accomplishment, the defining act of which the Creed is compelled to speak, to be His suffering. Suffering is to be understood as essential to what Jesus did. This is startling given the identity the Creed assigns to Jesus. He is the quite divine Son of God. Yet how can God, the eternal Creator who stands above all puny things, suffer? Who can afflict the one who is greater than all? But there is a great mystery and glory in the statement agreed on by the early church fathers that in Christ, “the Impassible suffered.” This is also startling given that Jesus is identified as Messiah. What Jew would have believed that their Messiah would be forced to suffer at the hands of a pagan ruler? These seemingly blasphemous paradoxes are at the heart of the Gospel.

We should also note that this is the second and last time any human besides Jesus is mentioned in the Creed. There are only three humans at all in the Creed: Jesus, Mary, and Pilate. Jesus is the one affirmed as the true subject, God Himself. Mary connects Jesus with the history of humanity and of Israel. And Pilate can be seen to have two major uses. On the one hand, Pilate shows that Jesus, the Jew born of Mary, suffered under pagan rules. God’s Messiah raised up to save His people died under the same hands which they had expected Him to crush. This tells us already that Jesus was suffering as a substitute and representative for Israel, for whom this punishment was outlined in the Torah. God’s covenant with Israel dictated that if they were unfaithful, they would suffer many judgments, climaxing in destruction by pagan nations and exile. This we see that Jesus suffered for them. He suffered under a pagan ruler while cut off from the people of God, accursed on a tree outside the city. In this act Jesus was truly standing in for Israel, and as a good theology of Israel’s election would then add, through Israel He stood in for the world.

The other note about Pilate is that tying Jesus’ death to this particular ruler, Jesus’ death is set in real world history. Jesus suffered at a specific time in a specific place under specific historical and political conditions. In addition to the basic apologetic thrust (which is important; we can iInvestigate the history, for this really happened), it also testifies to how God always deals with man. He deals with us in real history, using historical events. God does not work for us in the abstract or the “spiritual” (if by that we mean non-physical) realm. Time and space and matter are not irrelevant to God’s purposes but are made the context for them by grace. God comes to us in our history to bring redemption to it, and He has done this most fully and climactically in first century Palestine with one single instance of Jewish flesh.

Was crucified – Now the mode of Jesus’ execution is specified. It is crucifixion. This reinforces what was just said regarding the judgment Jesus suffered vicariously for His people. Crucifixion is the ultimate symbol of what Israel was condemned to under the Torah. Crucifixion was a Roman device and represented pagan oppression. It took place outside the city gates, symbolically cut off from the people of Israel and the presence of God. It was associated with the statement in the Torah, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.” And of course it was brutal and painful in every way. Nothing would better summarize the curses of the Torah than crucifixion, and this is what Jesus suffered as the true representative of Israel, as their Messiah.

Died – The most impossible statement in all of human history. Jesus, the only-begotten Son of the Father who has life within Himself, died. The immortal God perished as a mortal man. This is at the center of the Creed, both theologically and nearly visually. Jesus died, and on this everything else hinges. Yet the meaning of this death is fleshed out by all of the other statements in the Creed. Death appears not as the significant part in and of itself, but what matters was this particular death filled to the brim with meaning and placed in rich context. Had Jesus died by tripped into a river, none of this would matter. But this death, the one described in the four Gospels in detail, is uniquely redemptive as a one-of-a-kind sacrifice.

Was buried – Finally, the death completed, Jesus was buried. This is significant for many reasons, but l will highlight one of them. In this burial we find that there is a lapse between suffering and vindication. We know that Jesus will be raised before this little story is over. But He did have to wait in the grave, and this corresponds to an ongoing theme of Scripture. God makes promises, but His people must suffer for some time before experiencing the redemption. There is a limbo period where it seems as though God is unfaithful. Jesus by all accounts seemed to be the Messiah, so why did God leave Him in the grave? Why did God let Him die at all? This questions would have been teeming in the minds of the disciples. There seemed to be a paradox, a problem involving the faithfulness of God and His salvation. Israel spent many years in such periods, so did Jesus, and so do we. We have the promise of redemption, and in fact for us even Easter has already happened, but we still live in a limbo period in which God’s salvation is not revealed and the world keeps on going in apparent meaninglessness and death. We wait for God to deliver us. But the burial of Jesus reminds us that there must be such times, and that God will not be unfaithful but in His own time will fulfill all He has promised.

He descended into hell – This statement has been a source of much confusion and debate within the Church, especially in Protestantism. Alas, in this post I have no time or room to address it. I personally read “hell” here as meaning something akin to Sheol in the Old Testament, basically “the realm of the dead.” But I will have to wait to cover this statement in another post, one which will actually be separate from this series. In the meantime, I will simply suggest that this shows the depths to which Jesus penetrated in saving us. He experienced all the deepest pains and suffering, death and alienation included, which plague humanity so that He might redeem us. Whatever “hell” means here, Jesus submitted to it for our sake, out of love, to save us from it.

The Apostles’ Creed: I Believe in Jesus Humiliated

Jesus the Prophet and the Word

A sermon I preached this morning. I pray it will be of some edification.

So, I am not one to get too political in the pulpit for the sake of simply avoiding unnecessary strife. Christians can and do disagree on political issues, though I do believe that Scripture and Christian preaching can and does have some things to say to politics. I’m also not intending to make political point here or offend anyone. But I wanted to menion a funny story I’ve run across about Donald Trump because it is related to what I’m preaching on this morning.

In an interview a while back, Trump was being asked about his relationship with God. He was asked this question: “You have said you never felt the need to ask for God’s forgiveness, and yet repentance for one’s sins is a precondition to salvation. I ask you the question Jesus asked of Peter: Who do you say He is?”

Trump’s first response originally was mostly irrelevant and ignored the issue to point out how much support he has from Christians. But then he was asked the question again to get back on track, and he said this: “Jesus to me is somebody I can think about for security and confidence. Somebody I can revere in terms of bravery and in terms of courage and, because I consider the Christian religion so important, somebody I can totally rely on in my own mind.”

Now, obviously this is a silly answer. It’s nearly a joke. It doesn’t tell you who Jesus is, just how Trump supposedly feels about Him. I bring this up not to Trump-bash, but to make a point. The identity of Jesus is important. Even crazy Presidential candidates are forced to reckon with it. Jesus left the earth 2000 years ago but people still have to answer the question, “Who do you say that I am?”

Well, that’s my theme today, and for the next however many times I get to preach here. I want to look at the different Biblical angles for understanding who Jesus of Nazareth, called “Christ” and “Son of God,” is, and I want to see what focusing on these different angles can tell us about our relationship to Him and how we ought to live as His people.
So for today I want to start with something very basic, an aspect of Jesus’ identity that almost anyone could agree on from simple history. This is Jesus as a prophet. It cannot be denied that, whatever else Jesus was, He was a prophet. Everyone is willing to concede that, whether atheists, Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, or random people off the street. Some might think He was a false prophet, and some might think His prophecies came from delusions or evil schemes, but it is uncontroversial to say that Jesus lived as a prophet. It is also the first in most orderings of what people like John Calvin have called the “threefold office of Christ” as prophet, priest, and king. So I’d like to look at Jesus’ prophetic role according to Scripture, and then to see what we can learn from that.

But in order to do that, I will actually also have to go deeper, because a prophet cannot be understood apart from his message, his word. In the case of Jesus, He Himself is a word, actually the Word of God the Father. Because of this any attempt at explaining Jesus’ prophetic office apart from His being the divine Word can only be incomplete. But with both of these in mind, Jesus as prophet and as Word, we will be able to see just how knowing who Christ is can change our lives as His followers.

So, with that goal in mind, on to what Scripture says about Jesus as a prophet. The first thing to notice is that, with our order of the Old Testament canon, Jesus in the New Testament comes right after the prophets. I’m not convinced that this is any arbitrary coincidence. I think it matters. Throughout the OT prophets we see Israel struggling with God, sinning and begging for help and almost repenting but still sinning more, and God kept sending them prophets. These prophets brought God’s word to Israel, usually warnings of judgment or promises of restoration, and in fact most of the time both are mixed. Then there is silence for 400 years. The last prophet writes and dies, and no word from God comes to Israel for centuries.

It is at this point that John the Baptist shows up, the first prophet in a very long time. He announces that the Lord is coming and that the people need to get ready and repent. Then Jesus comes to Him and is baptized, and immediately begins His own prophetic ministry. The very first words we here from Jesus in the Bible are in Matthew 4:17, and they are words of prophecy. He starts preaching, “Repent, because the kingdom of heaven has come near!”

At this point it would be useful to clarify what the prophetic office is. Essentially, to be a prophet is to hear God’s word and relay it faithfully to men. This is a human task, something which humans do for God and for their listeners. It is a kind of work as a mediator, in this case mediating messages, as opposed to the priest who mediates blessing or cursing, or the king who mediates justice. God elects a man as a prophet, calls him to obedience, and entrusts him with a word for God’s people.

Part of the reason for this need is that God transcends us. He is Creator and we are creature. There is an infinite qualitative distinction between God and man. We quite literally have nothing in common with God by nature. Some people would say that we’re like ants or cockroaches compared to God, but even that makes us seem more like Him than we really are. It takes omnipotent power to bridge this gap. Because of this humans can only hear from God if God first puts His words into a human mouth. Otherwise His word, as pure and holy and omnipotent as it is, would be a poweful terror for us, like when God spoke to Israel from Mt. Sinai and they begged Him to stop and speak only to Moses.
But what makes a prophet able to hear God’s word if others cannot? This is the role of the Holy Spirit. This is why in the Old Testament in the few occasions that people are filled with the Spirit, many of them are prophets. The Spirit fills the prophet with the word of God, and the prophet speaks the word of God using his human words. This means that ordinary people can then hear the word of God and respond to it.

This brings us to Jesus’ baptism, the start of His prophetic ministry. At His baptism, according Matthew, Luke, and John, the Spirit came and dwelt in Jesus. We must remember that Jesus’ humanity was truly and fully human in a normal sense, and so in His human life He also needed the Spirit to empower Him for His prophetic ministry. So once He was baptized, anointed as a prophet, He was filled with the Spirit and began preaching.
This actually now brings us to my main text on Jesus’ prophetic office. What matters most for prophets is the message they preached, so I want to go to Luke 13 to find a summary of basically Jesus’ entire message, beginning in verses 1-5.

There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

What Jesus says here is actually in His preaching all of the time in all of the Gospels. Roman oppression has killed some Jews. That’s a normal part of the background of the day, and one of the main concerns of the Jewish people who were waiting for their Messiah to rescue them. But of course there was a tendency to view the people who suffered most as the worst sinners, as though the people who Pilate killed were special targets of divine judgment. Jesus corrects them by saying that unless they repent, they will all suffer the same fate. He brings up another example of a tower which fell in Siloam and killed people. Those people weren’t any more guilty either. Unless they repented, they would all likewise perish.

Now, it is important to realize that this isn’t just Jesus saying, “Everyone’s a sinner.” Jesus was a prophet to Israel specifically, just like most the prophets before Him. Israel needed to repent, and Israel was in danger of coming judgment. It’s also important to realize that Jesus isn’t saying, “These people died, and if you don’t repent you will go to Hell.” The word for “likewise” in “likewise perish” means “in the same way.” These people died by Romans violence and falling buildings. Here Jesus prophesies not just any judgment, but the judgment coming on Israel through Rome. This is, again, just like the prophets before Him. They prophesied coming judgments by God through the armies of Babylon, or Assyria, or other nations. Jesus prophesied a coming judgment by Rome. Unless they repent, they will perish under Roman violence and collapsing buildings, a prophecy which was fulfilled when Titus destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple in AD 70.
This is a constant theme of Jesus, and it is core to His message. It is the point of parables like that of the wicked tenants and the of the talents. We see it pop up again immediately in our chapter, verses 6-9. The fig tree, a figure used in the OT for Israel, has no fruit, and it must be cut down unless it bears fruit very soon. At the end of this chapter, in verses 33-35, Jesus makes the meaning of this message explicit. He says:

It cannot be that a prophet should perish away from Jerusalem. O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! Behold, your house is forsaken.

The message is clear, and it is repeated throughout all of the Gospels over and over again as Jesus battles with the Pharisees, the Saducees, the zealots, and the Herodians. Israel is about to be judged, and God will use Rome, the very nation they expect God to rescue them from, to do it.

There are, though, two major differences between Jesus’ message and the messages of the prophets before Him. First, this is not just one more judgment in an ongoing cycle. This is Israel’s last warning. If they do not repent now, they will not be given another chance. This is most clear in the parable of the wicked tenants. The owner sends messengers and servants, and finally his own son, but the tenants kill the son, so instead of giving more chances the owner destroys them. Israel has been sent many prophets, but Jesus will be the last, and if they reject Him, as Jesus knows they will, then they will be desolated. This exile will be permanent, and Israel will ever be under the curse of the Torah which they disobeyed.

But, despite all of this negativity, there is a strong positive side to Jesus’ message. On the one hand, He preaches coming judgment, but just like the other prophets He preaches with it coming restoration. Unlike the other prophets, He preaches that the restoration is now. This is what we see when we move back to the middle of this chapter. In verses 10-17, Jesus heals a disabled woman and brings glory to God on the Sabbath. He then moves on to talk about the Kingdom of God breaking in small at first but certain to grow into something massive. These are also major themes in His ministry elsewhere. His first prophecy was that the Kingdom of God was coming. These healings are all signs of it. The loose attitude towards Sabbath regulations is also a sign, a sign that the weekly Sabbath law is now being fulfilled in the great Sabbath of the Kingdom of God.
This Kingdom is the Good News of Jesus’ Gospel. Even though there is a coming judgment, there is also a way for forgiveness of sins, healing, and restoration. This way is in following Him, the Messiah. This is what Jesus preached from the beginning, like in Luke 4:18-19:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

The year of the Lord’s favor had arrived, and if anyone would repent of their sins, their attempts at establishing their own justification though stricter Torah observance or revolutions against Rome, but instead simply follow God’s Messiah, they would enter into this year, the age to come. This was to be the way out of the judgment. Israel as a whole was ready to reject the Messiah and be judged by God, but those who would instead repent and believe that Jesus is the Messiah would find that they could follow Him into a new way of being God’s people which would survive even the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. This was ultimately the way into the resurrection, the regeneration of the world. Jesus said, “Follow me, and I will give you life in the age to come.”

This all, then, comes back to the belief in Israel since they were originally exiled into Babylon that Yahweh their God had departed from them, especially from Jerusalem and the Temple. The glory which used to fill the Holy of Holies had disappeared, and they suffered constant subjection under the pagans. They had been waiting on God to return to them and rescue them again, to bring His glory back into Israel. Jesus preached just this: the return of Yahweh to Zion, a return which would lead to judgment for the wicked and salvation and resurrection for those who embraced Him.

This actually explains some of Jesus’ more odd prophetic actions like whithering the fig tree or cleansing the Temple. He symbolically announced that judgment had arrived, just as the prophets in the OT performed strange actions to illustrate their points.

But, the way Jesus did these things was all even more odd. His healings, His control over nature, His forgiving sins, riding triumphantly into Jerusalem after declaring maternal care, His cleansing the Temple–all of this almost makes it look as though Jesus were Himself acting as Yahweh returning to Zion. You get the impression that these acts are divine acts. Jesus appears to have considered Himself to be not just Yahweh’s prophet, but in some sense an embodiment of this God Himself.

This could, of course, have been passed off as lunacy or maybe something more devious, especially once Jesus was hung on a cross to die. If Beau were to start acting like he’s God, I think we’d all suspect that he’d gone crazy. So it seemed that way for Jesus, too. If He was in any sense God, or an agent of God, the Cross made no sense. God is the judge, not the judged. He is the life-giver, not mortal.

Yet then after three days Jesus rose from the dead. It would seem that this means Jesus was right. In some sense He was truly acting God’s acts. And it is the Gospel of John which helps us understand this, for in John we find that Jesus is not only a prophet, but the divine Word of God Himself.

This brings us to John 1:1-18, the text where we can see most clearly that Jesus is a prophet who reveals Himself as God. John 1:1 tells us that in the beginning the Word was with God and was God. It tells us that Jesus was and is this Word, the Word of creation, of light, and of life. This Word is not merely from God, but is of the very same being, the same essence as God. Verse 14 is key: “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.” This Word is God as He knows, sees, and proclaims Himself. The Word of God is God speaking God, and this is precisely who Jesus was. This Word became a human being, and as a human being He became a prophet.

The prohetic office and Jesus’ divine person as the Word of God work together in a unique way. This why is Jesus is not merely another prophet, but the last and the greatest prophet whose coming marks the climax of Israel’s story. The word from God which Jesus spoke in His life was not merely any message, but in fact His own person as God’s self-revelation. Basically, Jesus as a prophet preached the Word of God, but unlike every other prophet Jesus was the very same Word of God which He preached. The judgment Jesus warned Israel about was His own judgment, a judgment He made Himself and suffered Himself. The Kingdom of God He said was coming was in fact His very own authority, His own reign over all the earth. And the return of Yahweh to Zion He announced was literally His coming to Jerusalem as the Word of God.

What we understand from this is something which is elsewhere described in John, namely that the word and act of Jesus the prophet from Nazareth are literally and directly the word and deed of God. There is no difference. In John 5:19 Jesus says it simply: “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise.”

So Jesus as a human prophet is somehow from within His human life and nature doing the very work of God. The call to repentance was Gods’ last call to Israel. His healings were not just signs of the coming Kingdom but part of the way God was actually calling the new creation into existence. The judgment He proclaimed would be a judgment He Himself would execute and suffer.

All of this, when brought to the Cross, means that Christ’s suffering, being executed as a false prophet and revolutionary, is in fact the act of God. Jesus died for the nation, for the world, which means that God Himself took upon all of this for us. This means we are assured that at His very core, in the depths of His being, God is for us, a God who self-sacrificially loves us. What Jesus did in His whole life and ministry, but especially on the Cross, is what God does. We know God because we know Christ, and knowing God in this way means that His love for us goes all the way down even into Hell. And this is who God really is. The fact that Jesus is both God’s prophet and God’s Word means that, as Scottish theologian T. F. Torrance liked to say, “There is no God behind the back of Jesus.”

This is the ground of all of our assurance. The prophet who said “Neither do I condemn you” is the same God of the universe who will judge the world. There is no division, or even a true distinction, between the mercy we see in Jesus, the gracious promises He offers to those who follow Him, and who God is toward us. This is how we know that there is absolutely no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. We do not know everything about God by looking at Christ, simply because of human limitations, but because the prophetic word of Christ comes from His person as the Word of God who is God, what we see in Christ is true all the way down into the depths of who God is. To quote Torrance again, “God is deep but not devious.” We can have confidence to follow Jesus wherever He leads because we know that the words by which He leads us is the Word of God, and whatever He tells us about our destination is exactly where we will end up. If we are in Christ, then we are in God, and if we are in God, we have every reason to hope.

But to mention being in Christ brings us to the question of what a life in Christ looks like. This in turn brings us back to Jesus the prophet. When Jesus left His disciples, He did the same thing for them that the prophet Elijah did for his successor Elisha. He left behind His Spirit. At Pentecost, Jesus poured out His own Spirit on the Church, so now by the Spirit we are called to continue Jesus’ ministry as prophets. It is our job to be prophets like Jesus, continuing to proclaim His message. Jesus told everyone about the Kingdom of God wherever He went and whatever He did, and this is how we are also called to live. This is why we must evangelize: we share in the ministry of Jesus as prophet. We have to spread His message in the power of His Spirit now that He has been taken to heaven. Obviously not all of us are prophets in the common sense of receiving direct, personal messages from God and being called to preach them and perform signs to confirm them. Yet in another sense we are all prophets now. We’ve received a direct message from God in the prophetic Word of Jesus. We are called to share this Word, and if nothing else we are supposed to use our lives as signs to confirm it. In Jesus we all become prophets, and as prophets we must share the Word of God, who is Jesus, with the world around us.

Now, if we’re going to be prophets like Jesus, our message needs to match up with His. But there are differences. Much of what Jesus preached was directly to a unique moment in Israel’s history. They were about to be judged, the Old Covenant would end, and the Kingdom would come through Jesus’ own life, death, and resurrection. In our day, all of that has already happened. So how do we carry on Jesus’ message in our AD world? We have to look back, see Jesus’ message, and how He has fulfilled what He preached, and then apply the new situation created by His fulfillment to our message. What does this look like?

To begin with, the whole world today is in a similar situation to Israel. At Pentecost God began to invite all the nations into His covenant. He called the Gentiles to repent and submit to Jesus. But the world in large part hasn’t repented. They’re still sinning and rejecting God’s purposes and calling. They’ve been doing this all since Jesus came on the scene, cooperating with the Jews to kill Jesus. But God has raised Jesus from the dead. That proves all He said was true, and God has now put Him over all the world as its judge. Unless they repent, they will all perish under Christ’s judgment, just like they killed Him under their own.

But even so, the Kingdom of God has entered the world in Jesus, especially in His resurrection. The risen Christ offers eternal life as the source of salvation, a way of escape from the coming judgment and a path into bliss of the age to come. This marks the beginning of a new creation, which will eventually set all the universe free.

So now Jesus is set to return, and when He does judgment will come, but those who believe in Him will find that He has already suffered judgment for them. The wicked will perish and the righteous, specifically those who find righteousness by trusting in Christ, will be raised just like He was.

This is, at least, one possible way to tell the story, a sample of how we carry on Jesus’ message in view of the world’s changed situation after He fulfilled His work. And this king of message is what we need to proclaim. It is what we need to tell our neighbors and friends and coworkers. We have all been called to be prophets of Jesus, following in His footsteps as a prophet, by our union with Him.

So how can we really, practically do this? That’s a great question, and if any of you know the answer I’d be glad to hear it. But seriously, we need to think about that and do what we can to proclaim the word about the Word. Some of that might be personal evangelism, talking one-on-one to people we know. Some of it might be Bible distribution or street preaching. Personally, I would like to see especially here a way to get involved in more canvassing and survey evangelism. And of course there are actual mission trips, and there is VBS and community outreach. We must do all of this, and anything else we can come up with, to be prophets of Christ, sharing His Word with the world.

Our lives must also match our message, just like Jesus’ did. Jesus preached that the time of God’s favor had come, and He proved it by healing, forgiving, and redeeming broken lives. He also preached that the time of judgment had come, and He acted it out in the Temple, on a fig tree, and in His harsh condemnations of the religious elites who were leading people astray. He lived the life He said that God’s people must live in this new time: a life characterized by love for enemies, trust in God, patience under persecution, and compassion and mercy to those in need.

If we are going to be Jesus’ prophets, we have to live the same way. If we don’t, we make our message look fake or powerless. For Jesus there was no difference between the life He lived as a prophet and the divine Word which He was in His person. In the same way, we can’t let there be any difference between our lives and the Word of Jesus that we preach. Of course we will fail at this over and over again. We sin daily, and we fail to be the prophets we are supposed to be. We don’t share the message of Jesus enough or well enough, and we don’t live the kind of way that backs up even what we do say. But Jesus anticipated that from the start, and our union with Him includes our dying with Him, so that our sins are already dealt with. His “Neither do I condemn you” is assured for us. Confident that Jesus will keep His word, since He is God’s Word, we can try again, repent daily, and continue to press on in our lives as prophets of Jesus.

The goal of all of this, of course, is for us to make Jesus visible in both our words and our deeds. We want to direct people away from us and to the Word of God, who Himself was a prophet of His own Word. We basically just want people to see and hear Jesus when they see and hear us, because whoever has seen Jesus has seen the Father. We do and say what Jesus does and says which is what God does and says to reach our final end. We want the world to find life in knowing God. So I encourage all of us, myself more than all of you combined, to take this call to heart and do anything we can to be prophets of Jesus. If we combine our witnesses as the Body of Christ, then one day Isaiah 11:9 can be fulfilled, and “the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” This future, the hope of the Kingdom of God, is our call and mission. So let us take up this mission, and follow after our leader, a prophet called Jesus of Nazareth.

Jesus the Prophet and the Word

Assorted Thoughts on Christmas

The title here is as descriptive as they get. I basically have a bunch of random thoughts about Christmas. I could write them all as separate posts and try to elaborate and go into loads of detail, but why do that when it’s almost Christmas and you have people to see, presents to wrap, and plans to make? So here you go, assorted thoughts on Christmas from yours truly:

  • The way I see it, the question about “the meaning of Christmas” is rather pointless. Christmas is too big and straddles too many groups and cultures to even have a single meaning. It it’s not something laid out by God’s will in Scripture, so we have no basis for saying it even has to be about Jesus, though of course it’s great if it is. The more important question, in my mind, is “What will you make of Christmas?” or perhaps even, “What will you make Christmas mean to people in need?”
  • Following somewhat on that point, I personally tend to see basically two Christmasses as my personal framework. To me, there is the celebration of Jesus’ birth as one thing, and the common cultural traditions as another thing, both of which happen to be called “Christmas.” I enjoy each one in its own way and as its own thing. I love to think about the significance of Christ’s birth, and to call the world to think about the Savior. In a mostly independent way, I love the air of cheer, joy, friendliness, presents, trees, lights, and celebration. The two can overlap somewhat, but I nonetheless enjoy each part of Christmas in its own right.
  • I think Christmas is a very interesting phenomenon. What drives massive portions of the human race to calm down a bit on the hostility, celebrate peace, exchange gifts, and try to be a little happier than usual? It seems to be something that came along apart from the celebration of Jesus’ birth, so what led everyone to do this once a year? Why aren’t we mostly the same all year long? What power lies behind this kind of global day of the good that something like the Christmas truce could even happen? It’s all rather odd to me, and I cannot help but think that God intervenes, at least a little bit, to give us this time of year. Who’s to say that snow angels aren’t really angels?
  • Why was Jesus born? “To save us from our sins” is the usual answer. So I’d like to ask next, “Would Jesus have come if the Fall never happened and we didn’t have sin?” This is an interesting question, and I believe myself that the answer is “yes.” A neglected part of our theology of salvation is how essential it is for God and man to be united in the person of Jesus Christ, the God-man. Eternal life is not merely the biological reality we would have if we never sinned; it is the life of eternal communion with the Triune God, a life given to us through the Holy Spirit and created by the life of Jesus, the only person in whom divine life and human life are always and completely united and reconciled. So even without sin, I’m convinced that we would not have eternal life without Christmas. Jesus was always destined to be the one Mediator, the Reconciler, the Firstborn over all creation, God’s Word in flesh.
  • I think most churches should take a far more active role in bringing Christmas blessings directly and personally to the people of their local communities. Not just giving money and/or outsourcing to another organization. Not just contributing to a Christmas charitable thingo. Not just shoeboxes. Actually getting out, taking gifts of many different kinds, and sharing the love of Christ face-to-face with loads of people. Not just cheap gifts, either. Nice gifts. Gifts like you would want someone to give you. It’s like that one rule Jesus taught. What was that, again?
  • “Away in a Manger” seems to imply the heresy of Docetism. Just sayin’.
Assorted Thoughts on Christmas

Using Psalms: Psalm 84 and Jesus as Our Temple

Time for the second entry in my Using Psalms series. If you missed the first, you can find it here. Today I’ll be looking at Psalm 84, a psalm probably meant to be sung during pilgrimages to the Temple in Jerusalem. I wanted to look at it to highlight a certain interesting theme involving Jesus and the Temple. So here’s the text:

How I love your Temple, Lord Almighty!
    How I want to be there!
    I long to be in the Lord‘s Temple.
With my whole being I sing for joy
    to the living God.
Even the sparrows have built a nest,
    and the swallows have their own home;
they keep their young near your altars,
    Lord Almighty, my king and my God.
How happy are those who live in your Temple,
    always singing praise to you.

How happy are those whose strength comes from you,
    who are eager to make the pilgrimage to Mount Zion.
As they pass through the dry valley of Baca,
    it becomes a place of springs;
    the autumn rain fills it with pools.
They grow stronger as they go;
    they will see the God of gods on Zion.

Hear my prayer, Lord God Almighty.
    Listen, O God of Jacob!
Bless our king, O God,
    the king you have chosen.

One day spent in your Temple
    is better than a thousand anywhere else;
I would rather stand at the gate of the house of my God
    than live in the homes of the wicked.
The Lord is our protector and glorious king,
    blessing us with kindness and honor.
He does not refuse any good thing
    to those who do what is right.
Lord Almighty, how happy are those who trust in you!

Psalm 84

These psalm, as I just mentioned, was probably a pilgrim song. Israelites would sing it on their way to Jerusalem for the major festivals such as Passover. They all knew they were going to the Temple of their God, where they could be in His presence. Rejoicing like this was only to be expected.

The psalm begins with the psalmist wishing he could be in God’s Temple (other translations will use through the psalm “house” or “dwelling place”). He is ready to praise His God, and wants to be in God’s house to do so. Then he notes with some envy that there are even birds who make nests near the Temple and get to live there. He fantasizes about how great life is for the priests and Levites who serve in the Temple daily. If only, the psalmist feels, he could also be in God’s presence so often!

Then he moves on to celebrating the pilgrimage. After all, even though he isn’t in the Temple already, the people are all going there! Every step brings them closer to their God, which is cause for more and more celebration. He even describes their joy and blessedness poetically as refreshing the lands the pilgrims pass through. He then offers a brief prayer on behalf of the king, who represents Israel as a whole by virtue of being their leader. 

Finally, the psalmist concludes with a final praise of God and His Temple, telling of how much better it is to be in Yahweh’s presence than anywhere else on earth, because of how great He is. He is the protector, king, and refuge to all who trust in Him. Amen!

So how does this all become relevant to us? We, after all, no longer have a Temple. We do not make pilgrimages to Jerusalem to worship God, and instead find His presence through the Holy Spirit everywhere on earth. How then do we offer a pilgrim song like this to God in this era?

The key is to realize where the Temple has moved. The Temple building in Jerusalem played two major functions for Israel: it was where God’s glory and personal presence could be found, and where their covenant provided for them forgiveness of sins and atonement. If you wanted to find or worship God, you had to go to the Temple. If you wanted cleansing from sin, you had to go to the Temple. So where do we find these things now? Where does God dwell and forgive sins?

For God in all his fullness was pleased to live in Christ, and through him God reconciled everything to himself. He made peace with everything in heaven and on earth by means of Christ’s blood on the cross.

Colossian 1:19-20

Jesus Himself is the replacement and fulfillment of the Temple. In Him alone can the glory of God be found (John 1:14, Col. 1:15, Heb. 1:3). In Him alone is there forgiveness of sins (Eph. 1:7, 4:32, Col. 1:14, 2:13). Jesus has taken over the role of the Temple for us, and therefore if we are to apply psalms about the “house of the Lord,” they must be applied to Christ.

So what do we now see for us in this psalm? I like this idea so much that I think I will simply paraphrase several verses with Jesus in mind.

How I love your Son Jesus, Lord Almighty!
    How I want to see Him!
    I long to abide in the Lord.
With my whole being I sing for joy
    to the living God…
How happy are those who are in Christ,
    always singing praise to you.

How happy are those whose strength comes from you,
    who are eager to follow the narrow road of Christ.
As they pass through the valley of the shadow of death,
    it becomes a place of springs;
    the Spirit rains down and fills it with pools.
They grow stronger as they go;
    they will see the God of gods on in His Son.

Hear my prayer, Lord God Almighty.
    Listen, O God of Jacob!
Bless our Messiah, O God,
    the Lord you have chosen.

One day spent in Christ
    is better than a thousand without Him…
The Lord is our protector and glorious king,
    blessing us with kindness and honor.
He does not refuse any good thing
    to those who have been made right in Christ.
Lord Almighty, how happy are those who trust in your Son!

Using Psalms: Psalm 84 and Jesus as Our Temple

Early Evidence for Belief in Jesus’ Deity

[This is an article I made for an apologetics forum. I decided I might as well post it here as well.]

An argument frequently made by those who deny orthodox Christianity is that Jesus was not believed to be God until a very long time after His death. Among those who have the Internet but nothing else to their credit, this development supposedly came as late as the Council of Chalcedon in AD 451, or at least the First Council of Nicaea in AD 325. Not everything is this absurdly extreme, of course. Among the more reasonable and learned of skeptics, Jesus’ deity is acknowledged to reach back to at least some time in the first century. The best example of this is probably Bart Ehrman, who believes that some kind of belief in a divine Jesus existed by the time John was written.

I do not intend to argue particularly against Ehrman’s account of belief in Jesus’ deity here. I merely intend to lay out some of the basic evidences from the New Testament that Jesus’ deity was already at least partially present, or perhaps strongly so, in Christian doctrine within a generation of Jesus’ death.

Paul

Paul’s epistles (mostly AD 50-60) do not often make any explicit statements about Jesus’ deity, though there are verses in the contested Pauline letters which make such a statement (Titus 2:13, 2 Pet. 1:1). However, in all of Paul’s letters Old Testament verses which spoke of Yahweh in the original context are applied to Christ, with YHWH appearing in the Greek citation as adonai, “Lord.” Examples include Romans 10:13 (cf. Joel 2:32, probably the strongest), 1 Corinthians 2:16 (cf. Isa. 40:13), and 2 Corinthians 10:17 (cf. Jer. 9:24).

Also in Paul we have the early Christian hymn in Philippians 2, which is difficult to interpret in ways which do not ascribe to Jesus in some way a preexistent divine nature. In 1 Corinthians 8:6, Paul reworks the Shema, which was the defining declaration of Jewish monotheism, around the Father and His Son Jesus in a way which applies the lordship, oneness, and role as creator to both of them (of particular interest would be the new developments on this by Crispin Fletcher-Louis).

Hebrews

The anonymous letter of Hebrews, most likely written sometime before the destruction of the Temple in AD 70, has an undeniably high Christology. While an exact and explicit identification of Jesus as deity is not present, the entire first chapter demonstrates a strong belief that Jesus shared a relationship with God that far surpasses the royal sonship in the psalms which he cites. He clearly sees in Jesus a nature as the Son of God. This appears to cross the line into affirming true deity when he cites Psalms 45 and 102. There he not only says that the Son is addressed by God as God (and in the context of his argument he seems to take this beyond the original sense of royal adoption), but even speaks of the Son as the Lord (YHWH in the cited verse’s Hebrew text) who created the universe and is eternal before and after it.

John and Revelation

Remaining to mention are John and Revelation, both supposedly the work of the apostle John, who tradition says died around the close of the first century. Both of these books are usually dated to the 90s, which is a little later than the rest of the New Testament evidence, though still just within a lifetime of Jesus’ death. Of particular interest, though, is the theory increasingly considered by even secular and liberal scholars that John was actually written in part before the destruction of the Temple in AD 70. This is argued mostly on the basis of John’s portrayal of the Temple authorities, along with a peculiar feature of John 5:2.

John opens up with what is arguably the highest Christological declaration in the New Testament: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Since, by the end of the passage, this Word is clearly identified as Jesus, there is no possible way of understanding this except to say that Jesus had, at least in some way, a preexistent divine nature. Even Ehrman admits this, though is careful not to anachronistically assume this takes a post-Nicene shape. Adding interest, most scholars think John’s prologue is came from earlier traditions. If this is the case and it were the case that John was written before the Temple fell, then we have an extremely strong statement of Jesus’ deity dating very early.

Revelation, although without doubt later than all of the other books in the New Testament, with consensus placing it during Domitian’s rule (AD 81-96), is nonetheless an interesting case. By this time there can be no doubt that, even if no one else agreed, the author held a view which somehow identified Jesus as God. The entire books operates on that assumption, repeatedly attributing to Jesus divine attributes and actions, especially in allusion to Yahweh’s roles in the Old Testament. Citing verses would be a tedious task here, but enough evidence can be found simply by reading the book with a good list of cross-references. A clear theme is that the Lamb who was slain shares in every way the life, names, character, and roles of God Himself.

Early Evidence for Belief in Jesus’ Deity