Prior to the Christmas celebrations of 2009 in Auckland, New Zealand, a billboard outside the St. Matthew-in-the-City Anglican Church portrayed Mary and her betrothed, Joseph, together in bed. Above them was the slogan “Poor Joseph. God was a hard act to follow.” The innuendo appeared to portray Jesus as the product of a premarital sexual relationship between Mary and Joseph. This incident reminds us afresh of why it is important to understand who Jesus is.
The nature of Jesus as God Incarnate is perhaps the most important of all Christian doctrines. Jesus is everything to us. Without Him, there is no go-between between God and sinful man (1 Tim. 2:5), no hope of finding our way to Him (John 8:12; 10:9; 14:6), no resurrection (John 11:25), and no salvation (John 3:15, 16, 36; Acts 4:12). What we think of Jesus today is crucial in the reckoning of our eternal destiny (Matt. 22:42; 1 John 5:11). Yet, what we now know about the person of Jesus was arrived at only after protracted and violent debate in the history of Christianity.
ERRORS TO WATCH
Three major heresies regarding the nature of Jesus have plagued the Christian church since its inception. All three errors are detrimental to faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior of the world.
1. Denying the divinity of Jesus. This heresy, taught by the Ebionites, an early ascetic Christian sect, rejected the basic tenets of Scripture, such as the pre-existence, divinity, virgin birth, atoning death, and physical resurrection of Jesus Christ.1 The apostle John doesn’t hold back in condemning those who subscribed to this error (1 John 2:22, 23). Jehovah’s Witnesses today hold aspects of this view about Jesus Christ.
2. Denying the two natures of Jesus. This error contradicts the clear teachings of the Bible (John 1:1-4, 14) that Jesus is God, the Word who in the beginning spoke the world into existence—albeit, God Incarnate, who chose to live among us in human form. Monophysiticism, Eutychianism, and Monothelitism all teach that at some point in time, one of Christ’s natures was absorbed into the other. Various forms of this heresy continue in some churches today.2
3. Denying the humanity of Jesus (1 John 4:1-3; 2 John 7). Since apostolic days, this teaching has been the seedbed for heretical beliefs such as Docetism, Marcionism, Gnosticism, Apollinarianism, Monarchianism, Patripassianism, Sabellianism, Adoptionism, and Dynamic Monarchianism. Present-day groups that hold to forms of this error are the United Pentecostal and United Apostolic Churches.3 The Bible reiterates that these erroneous views of Jesus are indicative of the “anti-Christ (s)” (1 John 2:18, 22; 2 John 1:7), driven by satanic forces to “divide” the theanthropic (God-Man) Jesus Christ!
THE JESUS OF SCRIPTURE
We can be 100 percent certain about one fact regarding Jesus Christ: He was not an imaginary man. He was authentic and real. His life and teachings are well attested-to in Scripture and by writers of antiquity. He denied Himself of the form of God and became a man (Phil. 2:5-11).4 Like us, Jesus was born with mental and physical susceptibilities that were affected by thousands of years of sin.5 He experienced pain, grief, and suffering (Isa. 53:3). And, like Adam, He stood at the head of the human race, to endure where Adam had failed, so that through His obedience many would be saved (Rom. 5:12, 19).
Yet, while Christ incarnated in a form similar to sinful men, He was not in the absolute sense the same as those He came to save. Scripture confirms that He “knew no sin” (2 Cor. 5:21). He “did not sin” (1 Peter 2:22). And “in Him is no sin” (1 John 3:5).6 Speaking of the great mystery of godliness, the apostle Paul says, “He [Christ] appeared in a body” (1 Tim. 3:16), yet only in the “likeness of sinful flesh” (Rom. 8:3).7 Sin was not innately His. Taking upon Himself the “likeness of sinful flesh” was something He did voluntarily or vicariously as our Substitute. The union of His divine and human natures is a mystery that far exceeds our human comprehension. Jesus is truly God (Heb. 1:2, 3) and truly man (Heb. 2:5-18).
But was there really no other way for God to deliver us from the predicament of sin? Why go to all that trouble?
1. The Bible makes no apology for emphasizing the essential role of the Incarnation. This step was necessary for Jesus to bridge the chasm created by sin. Like one of us, He took upon Himself flesh and blood (see Heb. 2:9, 10, 18; 5:7, 8; 9:26; 13:12). Like us, He was tempted and tested in every way (Heb. 2:15, 18). But He overcame. While the manner and occasions for His testing may have been different than ours, the underlying issues that Jesus faced transcended all times and cultures: allegiance to the will of God or to Satan. Hence, like Jesus, we also may become victors.
2. The incarnation of Jesus also meant that one day He would die. His death played a pivotal role in God’s purpose of saving us (John 3:16; Eph. 1:7-10; Heb. 2:9b). There was absolutely no other way. God could not die. Thus, for Jesus to become our substitute, He had to be made a little lower than the angels and, by dying in our stead, subdue all things under His feet (Heb. 2:7, 9). No angel or man could have accomplished this massive task. By entering Satan’s own turf, Jesus turned the tables on Satan and defeated him (Gen. 3:15). By doing so, Jesus was able to remove the terrors of death from those who accept Him.
3. The Incarnation (Heb. 2:11) qualifies Jesus for His highpriestly ministry on our behalf in heaven (Heb. 4:14, 15). His humanity was a prerequisite for His intercessory work of atonement (Heb. 2:17). But Jesus’ sacrifice had to be sinless. Had Jesus possessed a sinful human nature precisely the same as ours, He would have been in the same predicament as all of humanity: destitute and in need of salvation. The opposite is confirmed by Scripture: “Such a high priest meets our needs—one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, [and] exalted above the heavens” (Heb. 7:26).
You may have heard the saying “It’s in the blood!” This statement simply reiterates the fact of corporate solidarity. As children of Adam, we all inherit his sinful nature. Not one of us is sinless or innocent before God (Rom. 3:23). At some point, we all have disobeyed the commands of God, and we deserve to die (Rom. 6:23). This corporate solidarity makes it impossible for any hope of salvation to take place within ourselves. The only way for us to be saved is by divine intervention. Jesus Christ is the solution. He condescended to this world as our Savior. And, this was made possible only through the Incarnation.
Jesus’ incarnation, humanity, nature, and experiences were all part of the unfolding of a cosmic plan of salvation. Jesus had to be truly man (Heb. 2:17); at the same time, the sacrifice of Himself had to be unblemished of the original corruption with which all of us are born (Heb. 4:15). So, Jesus was like us and also unlike us. He was unique. He was not the product of a premarital sexual relationship between Mary and Joseph, nor was He just any man. He is God incarnate, the Savior of the world. By contrast, our sinful disposition is a constant reminder of our need for Him. Only when we come to that realization will we begin to appreciate the wonder of the Incarnation and catch a glimpse of the tremendous sacrifice of Jesus Christ on our behalf. Amazing grace!
* Unless otherwise stated, Scriptural references are taken from the New International Version.
Dr. Limoni Manu O’Uiha lives in Palmerston North and pastors the Wanganui and Masterton Seventh-day Adventist Churches in the North New Zealand Conference, New Zealand.
1 Historically, this view of the nature of Christ was the embryo out of which later heresies such as Arianism, Nestorianism, Socinianism, Liberalism, Humanism, and Unitarianism developed.
2 For example, the modern Abyssinian, Armenian, Coptic, and Jacobite churches are all Monophysitic bodies. See “Monophysitism,” Microsoft® Encarta® 98 Encyclopedia. Copyright 1993–1997, Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.
3 Theopedia: An Encyclopedia of Biblical Christianity, s.v. “Modalism.” Retrieved March 1, 2010, from http://www.theopedia.com/ Modalism.
4 Ellen G. White, “Christ: Man’s Example,” in Review and Herald, July 1887, Personal Library Software, Inc., 1994.
5 Ellen G. White, “Notes on Travel,” in Review and Herald, February 1885, Personal Library Software, Inc., 1994.
6 Pilate’s wife cautioned him to “have nothing to do with this just man” (Matt. 27:19). Pilate said, “I find no fault in Him” (Luke 23:14). The angel Gabriel proclaimed Jesus as “that holy thing” (Luke 1:35). Even Satan himself called Jesus “the Holy One of God” (Mark 1:24).
7 Here, the Greek word used by Paul is sarx, not soma, the word for body. As in 1 Timothy 3:16, sarx merely means “enfleshment,” not “sinful.”