1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.6There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. 10He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. 14And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. 15(John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’”)16From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.
In the late 18th century, Nicolas de Chamfort made an insightful statement that has since been attributed to many famous people. He said, “One would risk being disgusted if one saw politics and one’s dinner in the making.” I would add this statement could equally be used to describe in the assembling of Christian theology.
The Southern Baptist Convention has just formed a new committee and you will be amazed what it is for… Right now Southern Baptists are struggling with what they believe about how salvation happens. The number of Calvinists in the Southern Baptist church is growing. Calvinists believe God predetermines who is going to heaven and who is going to hell. One’s personal decision doesn’t have anything to do with salvation. One the other side, the majority of Southern Baptists still believe that people must accept Jesus into their hearts to be saved – it is a decision one must make. As they are talking about these two positions, there have been some problems. Rather than lovingly discuss theology, there have been personal attacks and political subterfuge. The new committee they just formed? You might think it was formed to spell out their theology. No. It was formed to help them figure out how the two sides can get along in order to even discuss the topic. Unfortunately, this is how Christian theology has always been done.
The creed we recite every week, was a struggle and debate for the first 500 years as the early church fought and fussed about what it is that we believe about Jesus.
When we declare that we believe “and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord” in the Apostle’s Creed, or in the Nicene Creed which is a little more descriptive, “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.” By declaring Jesus is Lord, we declare that Jesus IS God, not just a good man created by God. This is extremely important for us as we live out our faith.
Fundamentally, the early church wanted answered two simple questions: Who is Jesus? And What did Jesus come to do?
The early church had a hard time figuring out if Jesus was God or if Jesus was human – and who he was had everything to do with why he came. At the beginning of the 4th century, around 315 AD, a teacher from Alexandria, Egypt named Arian was teaching that Jesus did not always exist but was created by God the Father. He developed his teaching from John 14:28 that said, “the Father is greater than I.” The idea that there was a time that Jesus did not exist would undermine the understanding of the Trinity and the divine nature of Christ. The early church declared Arian a heretic twice (they forgave him once!).
The early church believed Jesus was divine, but they struggled to go too far in that direction as well. The other side of the coin stressed that Jesus had no human form to him at all – Jesus just appeared human. This teaching, called Docetism, is from the Greek word meaning “phantasm or apparition”. One early teacher wrote, “the Word of God was not incarnate (taking on human form) but only seemed to take it on.” They believed Jesus was an apparition, just floating around.
At its core, the first argument about Jesus was this: was he a work of God (created by God), or was he the substance and extension of God.
Through 500 years of Councils, meetings, and debates, the Church finally declared in both the Council of Nicea in 325 and the Council of Chalcedon in 451 what we see reflected in the creeds we recite each week. Jesus was not created (made) by God, rather Jesus is an “extension” (begotten) of God. Jesus was fully divine and fully human. One early church father described the relationship as the sun and its rays. The ray of the sun is an extension of the sun and shares its substance. This is what Jesus was – an extension of God, not something different.
Why does this matter? Remember our original two questions: Who is Jesus? And What did Jesus come to do?
The great church father Athanasius in the early 4th century AD declared that Jesus is the Word of the Father who has always existed, that Christ was above all. This was necessary because only Jesus (fully divine and fully human) could re-create fallen humanity and fallen creation. This matters because only Jesus Christ as God could redeem and recreate humanity. This matters because only Jesus Christ as human could suffer and die on the cross for our salvation.
Deny the divine nature of Jesus, and he was just a man…with no power to redeem you, or me, or this world.
Deny the human nature of Jesus, that he was God only, a phantasm…then he never shares our sufferings. He never gives his life. The sacrifice for our salvation is never made.
It may be more than our heads can get wrapped around, but the importance of understanding that Jesus was fully divine and fully human makes all the difference and means we can stand confident that “God so loved the world, that He gave us His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him may not perish but have everlasting life.”