One day Jesus and his disciples were entering Caesarea Philippi. Jesus asks his disciples a question; “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” They answer “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” The variety and uncertainty (“some say”) may suggest that it is the disciples themselves who are still unsure of how to answer, not so much what the people are saying. The first question sets the scene, though, for the next, more personal and very direct question. In fact, this is arguably the most important question of all time.
Simon Peter jumps in with confidence;
As we read this passage we too are confronted with this same question, and it is the topic for our discussion today. “Who do you say I am?”
It is helpful if we use some shared terms when answering this question. To start with, the term “Word” or “Logos” is used to name the second person of the Trinity. When this term is used we are discussing the Divine nature of Jesus Christ.
Next the term “Jesus of Nazareth” is used to name that human being who was born in Bethlehem, walked the lanes and streets of Galilee, ate and drank with friends and died on a Roman cross outside of Jerusalem around 2000 years ago. This terms is used to discuss the human nature of Jesus Christ. The relationship between these two “natures” has been a topic of intense debate, particularly in the late third and into the fourth centuries A.D.
Some suggested that Jesus was only Divine. That is, what people saw when they looked upon Jesus was not really a human being at all, but rather a ghost or phantom of sorts. This suggestion stemmed from a foundational belief that created matter was evil. If this is the case then how could the God of the universe unite himself to it? Rather, these people suggested that Jesus only appeared as a male human so as to save humanity from creation itself (the cause of evil in the world). This view was refuted strongly and is considered a heresy.
Others suggested that Jesus was only Human. That is, all that people saw was a human man, nothing more, nothing less. There is no relationship here between the Divine Logos and the human Jesus of Nazareth. Rather, Jesus was just a human being who lived a good life, showed us how to live as well, and died on a cross outside Jerusalem. Again, this was strongly refuted and is considered a heresy.
On top of this, the relationship between the second person of the Trinity, the Logos, and God the Father was also a topic of intense debate. Was the Logos “created” by God the Father? If so, then he is to be considered a lesser being. Such a belief creates a hierarchy within the Trinity. This becomes problematic when we consider the work of Jesus Christ and the effectiveness of that work for salvation. If the Logos is not “created” (as the Father is not created) then how are we to understand the relationship between the persons of the Trinity? Here the term “begotten” was used in distinction from “created” in order to avoid a hierarchy within the Trinity, but preserve distinction between the persons of the Trinity. In a similar way, the term “proceeded” was used in reference to the Holy Spirit.
There are many other variations on these debates and it can be easy to sit in our detached position 1600 years later and breathe a sigh of relief that we don’t have to worry about these things. It is important to remember, though, that what was considered “orthodox” was not yet formally defined. In fact, it was as a result of these debates that “orthodox” belief was indeed defined. Furthermore, orthodoxy is not just a matter of believing the right things, it impacts the way we worship too, since orthodoxy comes from ortho – right, doxa – glory. For example, if we believe that Jesus was only a human, then he is not worthy of worship.
In addition to this it is worth noting that the distinction between heresy and orthodoxy on many occasions was only a very minor distinction (sometimes just one letter!), but as with most debates each party prefers to distance itself from the other so as to avoid being “tarred with the same heretical brush”.
Creedal statements have always formed a part of the Christian church. Indeed the earliest known Christian creed was simply “Jesus is Lord” (Romans 10:9; 1 Corinthians 12:3). Over time, though, and in light of some of the debates named above, these creeds were developed in order to outline and affirm orthodox Christian belief. Whilst there were have been many councils, synods and the like throughout church history, each with their own kind of creedal outcome, there are three highly significant creeds that impact our discussion today. The Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed and the Creed of Chalcedon.
3.1 The Apostles’ Creed
The Apostles’ creed reads as follows
Whilst Trinitarian in shape, much of the attention of this creed is upon Jesus Christ. Even then, the attention is drawn to the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus, with only a comma used to contain all that existed in his life and ministry between his birth and suffering on the cross!
3.2 The Nicene Creed
Arguably the most significant and important of all Christian creeds, it reads as follows
Once again, as a result of the nature of the debates taking place at the time of the Council of Nicaea (325A.D.) the focus of this creed is upon Jesus Christ, seeking to define who he is and what he has done.
3.3 The Creed of Chalcedon
The Creed of Chalcedon (451A.D.) reads as follows
There is no doubt that the focus of this creed is solely upon Jesus Christ. What is significant in this last creed is that whilst it clearly defines that Jesus is both fully human and fully Divine, it is still a very inclusive creed since it does not specify how this relationship is to be understood. As a result, a number of Christological models are permissible as long as they affirm what is essential; that is, that there are two natures in Jesus Christ, one human and one Divine, but both natures are permanently united within his incarnated self. This is known as the “hypostatic union”. We affirm this belief amongst our own creedal statements. Most specifically in our fourth Article of Faith:
The importance of the hypostatic union within Jesus Christ cannot be understated and is to where our attention turns now. We will assume this Chalcedonian Christology (summarised in our fourth doctrine) from hereon for the purpose of simplicity and focus.
Chalcedonian Christology has important implications for how we interpret the person of Jesus Christ, his death on the cross, and his ongoing mediatorial work for us now that he has ascended to the right hand of the Father.
4.1 The Person of Jesus Christ
Chalcedon affirms that Jesus is fully human and at the same time fully Divine. It is an incredible thought when we think of the moment when the Holy Spirit came upon Mary, and within her womb began the formation of a real human being with Divine origins. That moment in time is the very moment when God (Logos) assumed humanity in an inseparable, eternal and unchangeable bond. Consider, though, that when the God of the universe united himself with the very creation he had created by assuming human form was, for a brief moment in time, no bigger than a single celled organism.
In Luke’s gospel we read that the child Jesus “grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was on him” (Luke 2:40). The word “grew” may seem to be a minor detail but it is significant that Jesus assumed the full meaning of what it means to be human; from the womb to the tomb. If he had somehow just “appeared” as an adult male and died on a cross then he would not have been “truly and properly man”. There is something important about considering the fact that Jesus would have tripped and skinned his knee as a boy, learned the skill of a trade from his father, and even considering that he needed to be toilet trained. This is not meant to be crass, but if we suggest otherwise then he was never truly human. He truly entered fully into what it means to be human and experienced all that this means, except for one thing – he did not sin.
4.2 His death on the cross
Paul, in Philippians 2, uses what appears to be an early Christian hymn to describe the work of Jesus Christ. A significant word in this hymn is the one translated “being” in the NIV. It is a difficult word to capture fully and so other translations have also used the word “although” here. Another alternative English word that could be used to translate this term is “because.” This word expresses something very important in regards to Jesus Christ.
If we use the word “because” here instead of “being” then we see that it is not that Jesus acts “out of character” when as God he becomes human and enters into every aspect of what it means to be human (“although” he was God”). Rather, he acts “in character” when as God he becomes human and enters into every aspect of what it means to be human (“because” he was God). In reality what we are seeing when we look at Jesus Christ, his life, ministry, suffering, and death, is not just him entering into the fullest experience of humanity, but also the fullest display of exactly what God is like. As Jesus “makes himself nothing” and “takes on the very nature of a servant” and “humbles himself by becoming obedient to death” he is showing us the full extent of who he is.
Jesus Christ shows us what true Divinity looks like.
Jesus Christ shows us what true humanity looks like.
This is who Jesus is and both natures are perfectly displayed in his life.
4.3 The Great High Priest
The writer of the book of Hebrews goes to great lengths to emphasise the ongoing Priestly ministry of Christ. Importantly, for the writer of Hebrews, Jesus is both the sacrifice (e.g. 10:10) and the Priest (e.g. 9:11) who offers that sacrifice. In the temple the Priest slaughters a lamb, takes its blood into the Most Holy Place, sprinkles it on the mercy seat in place of the blood of the people, then returns to the people with the word of forgiveness from God. This is a mediatorial role; this is the function of the priest. To act on behalf of both the people and of God. This is exactly what Jesus Christ does, and because he is truly and properly human and truly and properly God his perfect performance of his function means that it is effective once and for all.
So, now that he has ascended into heaven, the first resurrected human to do so, and is sitting at the right hand of the Father, he continues to perform this priestly function. He continues to offer on our behalf his own blood in place of our own. Because of his blood forgiveness of sins is given and so he continues to speak that word of forgiveness from God the Father back to us today.
For me, this is the most significant consequence of a Chalcedonian Christology that impacts our worship today. In the resurrected and ascended Jesus Christ we have a real human being, familiar with temptation, but one who overcame it. Familiar with suffering and death, but one who overcame it. One who shed his blood for the forgiveness of sin in a once and for all death, effective for even the vilest of sinners. That same person is the second person of the Trinity, the Logos, who, as God, when he speaks the words “you are forgiven” has “all authority in heaven and earth” (Matthew 28:18) to be able to do so, and so his words are true.
He therefore takes our feeble, imperfect, and flawed worship, unites it with his own perfectly obedient worship, sanctifying and cleansing it, presents it to the Father not in an earthly temple, but in the very heart of heaven itself. He then returns to us and speaks, by his Spirit, to our Spirit. Confirming and affirming that we are indeed forgiven, that we are adopted children of God, and because of this we too can join with Simon Peter and exclaim in answer to Jesus’ question;
“You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God” (Matthew 16:16)