I recently posted a review of a book that I couldn’t recommend, and have found the responses to that review on social media and in private correspondence very interesting.
A trusted friend, with vastly more wisdom and learning than I, encouraged me with their email, and introduced me to an American idiom that I hadn’t heard before ‘burying the lede’
According to google, this is what that means: “To begin a story with details of secondary importance to the reader while postponing more essential points or facts”
In my review of Live Like Jesus, I alluded to problematic teaching around what it means to be human, the person of Jesus, and a theology of dominion. I didn’t go into great detail about what a less problematic understanding might look like. Teaching is one thing, but it is important that seemingly abstract ideas are connected to the practice of ministry.
The previous post focused on what it means to be human, made in the Image of God. I closed the post by drawing on Paul’s mind-blowing teaching in Colossians 1:15:
“The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation”
The image of God. The firstborn. God himself identified with us, and identifies with us, in tying the ultimate means of salvation and revelation, Jesus Christ, with the language and basic human experiences essential to our human existence. Jesus was born. Grew up. Was educated. Tempted. Made sad. Made hungry. Mocked. Beaten. Whipped. Bled. Cried. Died.
This Image of God, this Jesus, in dying for the world, for every Image-bearer who would recognise him, started as a baby born to a virgin, mocked even then.
Recognising who Jesus is forms the very core of the Christian faith.
The historic Nicene Creed, agreed on as a beautiful summary of core Christian truth says this about Jesus:
“We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father;
through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven,
was incarnate from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary
and was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.”
The incarnation is a confusing, rich and beautiful truth, expressing the extraordinary mystery that Jesus is God and man.
The apostle Thomas put it a different way, as recorded in John 20:28: “Thomas said to him, ‘My Lord and my God!’”
Since the earliest days of the church there has been agreement on the mystery of the incarnation. Whenever we try to explain it, outside of recognising both Jesus’ humanity and Jesus’ divinity, we will fall short. When we try to innovate, or make it simple, we can miss the point, sometimes dangerously. One popular author wrote, as I quoted in a blog post a while ago,
““He performed miracles, wonders and signs, as a man in right relationship to God… not as God. If He performed miracles because He was God, then they would be unattainable for us. But if He did them as a man, I am responsible to pursue his lifestyle.”
As humans, we like to make theological truth neat and simple. We simply cannot do this with Jesus. We must recognise, as the early church did, that Jesus is fully human and fully God. He is both God with us and God for us. He was not a man apprehended by a story bigger than himself, or God coming on holiday, to see what it would be like.
The incarnation is confusing because we cannot humanly conceive of a human being (With all the limitations and frailty that implies) containing God. So, too, we cannot naturally conceive of God squeezing himself into a container. Fortunately, the Bible offers a far more expansive vision of God, which is found in the beautiful doctrine of the Trinity, which allows us to make sense of the incarnation.
A brief comment on Philippians 2, where Paul appears to teach an understanding of Jesus that might fit with a ‘humbling’ or ‘squeezing’ view. Theologian John Frame, in his brilliant Systematic Theology says:
“Jesus’ self-humbling is an example for the believers in Philippi, to serve one another rather than themselves. This is an ethical point, not a metaphysical one. Paul is telling them to behave differently, not to divest their metaphysical status (finite humanity) to become something else”
If we say that Jesus was ‘only’ divine, then we push God away from us, and we deceive ourselves. If we say that Jesus was ‘only’ human, then we ignore Jesus’ teaching, the witness of the apostles and church history, and we are left without a meaningful understanding of the Gospel.
Let me sum up.
If we believe in the rich, true and historic orthodox view that Jesus is both God and man, then we can enjoy all the benefits of God with us and God for us.
At the heart of the Gospel are these two great truths. God is with us, and God is for us.
At the heart of human response to – and understanding of – the Gospel there are two great facts: we are great sinners, but Christ is a great saviour. The Gospel confronts these facts with the truth of God’s love. God is with us – he was with us in the person of his son, Jesus Christ, and God is with us by the person of the Holy Spirit. And God is for us – as Jesus was on the Cross and is for us in his intercessions, and as the Holy Spirit is as God indwells us and transforms us into who God longs for us to be. The Gospel is a rich story – not one-dimensional or mired in blood, nor contemporary and about transformation. The Gospel is about all that – and more than that. The Gospel is seen in the God who is with us, and for us, the Christ who died on the Cross, ascended unto life, and yet lives today.
When we try to reduce Jesus to one or the other, we miss the richness of reality, and we end up in either a disconnected and disengaged set of ideas, or an experience driven and bluntly human religion.
All we can do is show up, be present, love people, and ask Jesus to do things that bring his kingdom a little more into this world. We can do this confidently – because it is not us that do the ministry of Jesus but Jesus himself. John puts it perfectly, in 1 John 5:14-15:
“And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears in us whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him”.
Healing, prayer, prophecy, whatever your favourite part of the Kingdom of God is, is not about us. It is about Jesus and the Father’s glory by the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. Because it is not about us. It is all about Jesus. We don’t do it, Jesus has done it, is doing it, and will continue to do it because of who he is.