Who Was Jesus? God? Man? Or Both?

Who was Jesus? Can you think of a more important question? After all, it’s hardly controversial to suggest that he’s the most significant figure in history. And, I dare say, it’s not even close. Yet much confusion exists over his nature. This confusion, of course, dates all the way back to Jesus himself. In Matthew 16, he asked his disciples, “who do people say that I am?” The answers were all over the board.

hypostatic union

Today, some suggest he was God. But how can that be since he was confined to a human body and experienced death? Isn’t it basic knowledge that God is omnipresent and can’t die?

Others suggest he was just a man. But if that’s the case, why did he claim deity and allow others to worship him? And on what authority was he able to forgive sins? Wouldn’t that be blasphemy and imply he wasn’t a great moral teacher as some claim?

These are complex issues to say the least. Yet, if Jesus is, in fact, the most important person in the history of the world, it’s worth thinking deeply about him. Scholars have dedicated volumes to expounding all the complexities that relate to the nature of Jesus — often known as Christology. The conversations can get really deep and technical in a hurry. The purpose of this post, however, is to provide a general overview of what the Bible teaches about the nature of Jesus, and to look at how the church has thought about him throughout the centuries.

Jesus, God the Son Eternal

The Scriptures teach, and the church has affirmed that Jesus is God the Son. That is, he’s the second member of the eternal Triune Godhead. John 1:1-3 emphatically declares this point: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.”

Notice how John describes the Word — a clear reference to Jesus. First, he was “with” God. The Greek word for “with” is pros which literally means “before the face of” or “face-to-face.” So John declares that this Word, from the very beginning, was face-to-face with God. Moreover, John states that this same Word “was” God. Clearly, John is planting Trinitarian seeds already in his prologue.

Verse three also highlights the fact that it was the Word who created the world. The author of Hebrews made a similar claim when he wrote that God “appointed [the Son] the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world” (Heb. 1:2). Furthermore, Paul wrote, “For by [the Son] all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible” (Col. 1:16).

Who alone can create space, time, and matter, except someone who is transcendent beyond space, time, and matter? If it’s through the Son that all things were created, that means he himself was never created, but is instead eternal.

Let me offer a few more supporting texts. In John 8:58, Jesus tells the Pharisees who were questioning him, “Before Abraham was, I AM.” This is a significant claim by Jesus. Not only does he claim preexistence, he claims the divine name for himself. You’ll recall that when God spoke to Moses from a burning bush in Exodus 3, God declared that his personal name was I AM. So by claiming the name I AM, Jesus was claiming to be the God of the Old Testament.

Paul also refers to the deity of Jesus in Romans 9:5. He declares, “To them (the Jews) belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen.” It’s hard to get any clearer than stating Christ is “God over all.”

I could give other examples, but that should suffice for now.

God the Son Became Man

We’ve already established that Jesus is God the Son — the eternal Word who created the world from the beginning. At the same time though, we know that Jesus was a man of flesh and blood. For example, he got tired and hungry, experienced pain and sadness, and ultimately died on a Roman cross — all activities that only humans can do.

John 1:14 describes this transition to manhood when it announces, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Traditionally known as the incarnation, God the Son became a human in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

Today, in our anti-supernatural biased culture, it’s common for people to embrace the fact that Jesus was truly human. They have a hard time, however, believing that Jesus was truly divine. Interestingly, the exact opposite was true in the early church.

One of the earliest heresies in the church was known as Docetism — taken from the Greek word dokein which means “to seem” or “appear.” This view taught that Jesus wasn’t really human, he only appeared to be human. The rationale for this view was that it seemed impossible for someone who is so powerful, holy, pure, and spiritual to be mixed up in something so vile and shameful. Crucifixion was, after all, the most degrading and shameful way to die. Thus, in order to protect the integrity of the divine Jesus, many in the early church believed his human nature was merely a facade.

The apostle John encountered this heresy near the end of the first century. Listen carefully to his words: “Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God.” That is to say, John had to combat those who denied Jesus was really “in the flesh”— a clear defense against Docetism.

Divine Emptying?

Perhaps no other text in the New Testament highlights the beauty and majesty of Jesus better than the Christian hymn in Philippians 2. Despite its beauty, much debate surrounds its contents. Paul writes:

Have this mind among yourself which is yours in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God something to be grasped. But he emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men (Phil. 2:5-7).

The hymn goes on to describe Jesus’ death, resurrection, ascension, and exultation. Much could be said about this text, but I want to focus in on only one word — emptied. What does it mean that Jesus emptied himself? The text clearly affirms that Jesus existed as God and was equal with God in eternity past, but in the incarnation, he emptied himself.

Scholars have written volumes and debated vociferously over the meaning of this word. Many theories exist about its meaning, but I think the meaning of the word is pretty straight forward.

When the Son emptied himself, he didn’t empty himself of any of his deity, as if he became less divine in the incarnation. The text doesn’t tell us that. Instead, the text tells something completely different. It says that Jesus emptied himself BY taking the form a servant being born in the likeness of men. For Paul, emptying didn’t mean less deity. Rather it meant an added human nature. It was a subtraction by an addition. The Son, who eternally existed with a divine nature, added a human nature to himself in the incarnation.

One Person with Two Natures — The Hypostatic Union

So far, we’ve established that Jesus was both God and man. But how does this all work together? As you can imagine, the early church had lots of disputes over how to synthesize all of the biblical data. In the end, the church agreed at the Council of Chalcedon (AD 451), that Jesus was one person who subsisted in two natures. Here is an excerpt from the creed:

Our Lord Jesus Christ is one and the same Son, the same perfect in Godhead and the same perfect in manhood, truly God and truly man…one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only-begotten, made known in two natures without confusion, without change, without division, without separation… coalescing in one prosopon and one hypostasis — not parted or divided into two prosopa.

The creed is much longer than this, but notice a few key phrases:

“Truly God and truly man” indicates that the early church believed that Jesus was both God and man. He didn’t cease being God in the incarnation. Furthermore, he wasn’t half God half man. He was fully God and fully man.

“Two natures without confusion” meaning the church didn’t believe that the divine nature blended together with the human nature to form a new quasi divine nature. This was in direct response to the heresy monophysitism which taught that Jesus only had one blended nature.

“Coalescing in one prosopon (person) — not parted or divided into two prosopa (people)” meaning they believed that even though Jesus had two natures, he was only one person — or one acting subject. This was in direct response to the heresy Nestorianism which taught that Jesus was two separate persons.

In sum, the Scriptures teach and the Church has affirmed that God the Son has existed from eternity past with a divine nature, but in the incarnation he added a human nature to himself. Thus, he’s one person (God the Son) with two distinct natures (divine and human).

Theologians have labeled this union of two natures in one person as the hypostatic union.

Thinking Deeply about the Hypostatic Union

More questions exist with respect to the hypostatic union. How do we explain that the Son knew all things as God but at the same time grew in wisdom? How should we think about Jesus still maintaining full deity as the eternal creator and sustainer of the universe while simultaneously being in the manger? Since Jesus was God, could he really sin?

Theologians debate all these various questions, but understanding all the different nuances and, at times, mysteries isn’t a requirement for orthodoxy. What is necessary, though, is that Christians affirm the Chalcedonian Creed (AD 451) which declares that God the Son exists as one person with two distinct natures. Once you get that down, you can study all the different complexities later.

The Trinity Explained

What is the Trinity? Think about it for a minute. How would you explain this doctrine to someone who’s never heard of it? It’s pretty difficult right? Are there three Gods or only one? Is the Father the greatest God? Did he create the Son and the Spirit? Is each person one-third God or fully God? The questions are almost endless.

Trinity

Despite the difficulty, Christians should seek to understand the Trinity because it’s the doctrine that makes Christianity unique. It’s so fundamental to the faith that to miss it means to miss Christianity. That’s not an overstatment. It’s that important.

So, in the remaining space, I’d like to provide an elementary introduction to the Trinity. My hope is that you will both understand this doctrine and delight in it at the same time. After all, God doesn’t simply want us to understand his nature. He wants us to love him — to enjoy him. My prayer is that this brief article will help lead you to do just that.

The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are Each God

Christians have affirmed, dating back to the earliest centuries that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are each God. The ancient Nicene Creed affirms this claim, but the church fathers who wrote the creed reached their conclusions based on Scripture. That is to say, Scripture was and is the final authority for Christian dogma.

The Father is God

What does the Bible say, then, about the deity of each person? It unequivocally declares that the Father is God. So much so, that hardly anyone denies this. For example, 1 Corinthians 8:6 affirms, “for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist.” Additionally, in John 17:3, Jesus prays to the Father and declares, “And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God.”

The Son is God

The Bible also affirms that the Son is God. John 1:1 asserts, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” We know that the Word refers to the Son because just a few verses later John tells us, “And 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” (Jn. 1:14).

Notice John 1:1 asserts that the Son is both with God — that is, he’s distinct from God — and, at the same time, he is God. John doesn’t give us the full Trinity here, but he declares that the Son is on the same level with the Father. He, likewise, has existed from the very beginning — an obvious reference to Genesis 1:1. In fact, two verses later John tells us “All things were made through him (the Word), and without him was not anything made that was made” (Jn. 1:3). That is, the Son played a critical role in creation along with the Father.

The Holy Spirit is God

Finally, Scripture teaches that the Holy Spirit is God. In Acts 5, Peter confronts Ananius and Sapphira for their deceit. He asks, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land?… You have not lied to man but to God” (Acts 5:3-4).

Notice that Peter accuses Ananius of lying to the Holy Spirit and, at the same time, tells him that he lied to God. That is to say, the Holy Spirit is God.

Additionally, Paul affirms the Holy Spirit’s deity in 1 Corinthians 3:16. “Do you not know,” he asks, “that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” Notice specifically who dwells in the Christians. On the one hand, Paul can say God dwells in you, when he says you are God’s temple. And on the other hand, Paul can say the Holy Spirit dwells in you. In other words, God and the Holy Spirit are one and the same.

There is One God

If we stopped right here, we might be tempted to think that the Bible teaches three Gods. But that would be a mistake. Scripture uniformly teaches that there is only one God.

Take Genesis 1:1 for example. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Which God? The text implies that there’s only one. It doesn’t distinguish between different Gods because the one and only God created all things.

Several times throughout the Old Testament, God affirms that he’s the only God. He declares in Isaiah 45:5, “I am the LORD, and there is no other, besides me there is no God.” Elsewhere he proclaims, “I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no God” (Isa. 44:6).

Perhaps the most quoted Old Testament text among the Jews teaches that there is only one God. Deuteronomy 6:4 exclaims, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.”

Trinitarian Texts

So far, we’ve observed several texts that indicate the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God. And we’ve looked at several texts that affirm only one God exists.

With the exception of the John 1 text, though, none of these texts by themselves give us a robust representation of the Trinity. Therefore, in this section, I’d like to highlight two different texts that put the Trinity on full display.

Matthew 28:18-19

In the Great Commission, Jesus proclaims, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

A few quick observations are in order here. First, notice that Jesus says we are to baptize in the “name,” that is the singular name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Not “names” but “name.” So, on the one hand, Jesus affirms there’s only one name. On the other hand, however, he affirms that all three persons of the Godhead are part of that name. Additionally, he implies each are co-equals. There’s no hint that one is more God than the others.

Matthew 3:16-17

We read, “And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.'”

Notice that this text presents all three members of the Trinity as simultaneously distinct from one another. One of the more popular Trinitarian heresies, known as modalism, teaches that God is only one person who manifests himself as different persons — or modes — throughout history. For example, modalists say God manifested himself as a Father in the Old Testament, as a Son during the Gospels, and now as the Spirit after Jesus’ ascension.

The problem for modalism, though, is it ignores texts like this one which affirms that all three persons exist simultaneously and relate to each other.

The Trinity Defined

At first glance, it looks like we’re bad at math. Three entities are God, but there is only one God. It’s head-scratching stuff no doubt. It’s easy to see why the early church wrestled over this. They rightly saw that the Father, Son, and Spirit were all God. But at the same time, they recognized the Bible taught that there’s only one God. On the one hand, they saw “threeness,” and on the other hand they saw “oneness.” This is where we get the term Trinity. “Tri-unity” meaning three in one.

In order to maintain the “threeness” and “oneness” of God at the same time, the early church had to define certain terms. First, they declared that the “threeness” referred to the Persons of the Trinity. That is, three distinct Persons — or acting subjects — exist co-eternally in the Godhead. We should recognize, they said, that the Father is not the Son or the Spirit, the Son is not the Father or the Spirit, and the Spirit is not the Father or the Son.

Second, the early church expressed that the “oneness” referred to God’s essence or his nature. That is, the different persons of the Godhead — the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — all share the exact same nature with each other. Just as the Father is eternal, the Son and Spirit are eternal. Just as the Father is love, the Son and Spirit are love. As the Father is all-knowing, the Son and Spirit are all-knowing. You get the idea.

Thus, the early church affirmed, as they saw it in Scripture, that the Father is fully God, the Son is fully God, and the Spirit is fully God, yet there is one God.

So how should we define the Trinity? Here’s a good definition:

There is one God who exists eternally as three distinct persons — the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit — and each of those persons is fully and equally God.

Love the Trinity

Imagine one day your spouse informs you that there is something really important about them that is difficult to understand. They recognize that you might not fully grasp all the details, but because they love you, and they want you to love them for who they are, they share the difficult details with you.

What kind of spouse would you be if you said, “you know what, this is too hard for me to understand. I’m not even going to try”? I’d say you’d be pretty terrible. Because a loving spouse desires to know everything they can about the one they love.

In the same way, if we say we love God, we should strive to know everything we can about him. This doesn’t mean we’ll fully understand everything. After all, the Trinity is really difficult to grasp. But at the same time, God has chosen to reveal himself to us as a Trinity which means he thinks it’s really important for us to know that about him.

So, consequently, you should attempt to understand the Trinity. Unless, of course, you don’t love God. But what Christian is going to admit to that?

Abortion and the God Molech

History is filled with barbaric cultures. One of the worst, though, has to be the ancient Canaanites. As was customary in that culture, parents offered their newborn children as sacrifices to their god Molech. Most depictions of Molech include large metal statues of a man with a bull’s head. Usually these statues had outstretched arms to hold the baby sacrifices.

abortion

During the sacrificial process, the Canaanites would light a fire inside or around the statue to heat up the statue as hot as they could. Then they would place their newborns into the red-hot arms of Molech and watch the children sizzle to death.

During this gruesome event, the Canaanites would play flutes and bang on drums to drown out the sound of their shrieking children. It’s truly awful stuff. No wonder God ordered the Israelites to destroy them.

Molech in the Bible

The Bible mentions Molech or at least references him about ten times. Here are a couple examples:

“Any Israelite or any foreigner residing in Israel who sacrifices any of his children to Molech is to be put to death. The members of the community are to stone him.” — Leviticus 20:2

“They built high places for Baal in the Valley of Ben Hinnom to sacrifice their sons and daughters to Molech, though I never commanded — nor did it enter my mind — that they should do such a detestable thing and so make Judah sin.” — Jeremiah 32:35

You might wonder why the Israelites would be tempted to sacrifice their children to Molech. As was the case with other ancient gods, Molech offered them some kind of benefit in exchange for their devotion. By offering up their children to be burned on the golden statue, the Canaanites believed Molech would cause them and their future children to prosper.

Our Molech Today

I don’t know a single person who hears about the horrors of Molech and doesn’t cringe at the gruesomeness. Brutally murdering babies in the name of Molech for future benefits is evil in the truest sense of the word.

Yet, at the same time, a large number of people today believe this ancient practice would be fine, so long as the baby was still in the womb. Just yesterday, New York legislators passed a law that allows for abortions up until birth. After the vote, this video circulated the internet showing hundreds of people cheering loudly in favor of this decision. It’s honestly one of the most disgusting scenes I’ve ever witnessed.

What kind of sick and twisted mind does one have to have to applaud the killing of unborn babies? These are babies after all. As I watched the video, I couldn’t help but think about the loud drums drowning out the babies’ screams.

“It’s Not as Bad as You Say it Is”

Since this new law allows women to abort their babies right before they go into labor, a woman can literally kill her baby one day and have people cheer for her, but if she kills her baby less than twenty-four hours later when it’s made it outside her womb, she’ll go to prison. It’s mind blowing.

And let’s not pretend like the babies don’t feel a thing either. More studies than I can count demonstrate that babies at a very early stage can feel pain, not to mention taste food, hiccup, smile, dream, kick, and bond with their mother. So, when the abortion “doctor” injects the baby’s head with poison, know for sure the baby feels it and dies a horrifying death.

But they say, the law doesn’t allow for “any old abortion.” After all, the law says that only if the woman’s “life and health” are in jeopardy may she have an abortion up until birth.

The problem with this is that “health” could qualify for almost anything. It could mean physical health, but it could also mean psychological, mental, or financial health. In other words, it’s so vague that someone could get a late term abortion for almost any reason. All the woman needs to say is that the baby would cause too much stress in her life because of added financial responsibilities, and she’s got her ticket to an abortion. Plain and simple.

Unborn Babies in the Old Testament

Though anyone with a first grade knowledge of biology can see that a newborn and a full-term baby are scientifically the same, Christians have extra motivation to reject abortion because of Scripture’s clear teaching on the issue. Take Exodus 21:22-25 for example:

If people are fighting and hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows. But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.

In short, no one should ever harm an unborn baby. If they do, the law calls for a strict penalty (life for life, eye for eye, etc.).

It’s interesting to note, that according to Old Testament law, accidentally killing someone did not result in “life for life.” Instead, accidental killers were sent to a city of refuge to stay away from the rest of the population (Num. 35:9-15). Meaning, God had an even stricter warning for accidentally killing unborn babies than people outside the womb.

Are you following the logic? If God had strict warnings against accidentally killing unborn babies, he must despise the fact that we kill them intentionally and then celebrate it to boot. So, when the mayor of New York lit up the World Trade Center in pink to celebrate more murder, we can rest assured that God doesn’t take it kindly. I mean, if that’s not a symbolic middle finger to God, I don’t know what is.

The Unborn Jesus

The birth of Jesus is a familiar one. The angel Gabriel appears to Mary and says that she’s going to conceive and give birth to a son. During her pregnancy she visits her sister Elizabeth who was also pregnant at the time. Luke 1:41-44 reports:

When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.”

First, we notice that the text refers to the unborn child in Elizabeth’s womb as a baby (Greek, brephos). It’s the same Greek word used to describe children outside the womb (Lk. 18:15). And we see that this same baby was already able to recognize Jesus’ presence. In other words, he’s not just a lump of tissue.

Furthermore, Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, recognizes that Mary is the “mother of my Lord.” That is, she recognized Mary’s status as mother despite the fact that Jesus was still in the womb.

While commenting on this text, Christian ethicist John Jefferson Davis writes:

The significant point is that God chose to begin the process of incarnation [in the womb], rather than at some other point, thus affirming the significance of that starting point for human life.1John Jefferson Davis, Evangelical Ethics, 152.

Davis makes a good point. Since Jesus’ birth was miraculous, God could have chosen to start Jesus’ life at any point. He could have dropped him down from the sky and left him at someone’s door step. But instead, God chose to begin Jesus’ life in Mary’s womb demonstrating the value of unborn babies. I think we can all be glad that Mary didn’t have an abortion.

The Irony of Abortion

To date, Americans have slaughtered millions upon millions of unborn babies. Think about all those little innocent, vulnerable people, killed before they were even given a chance. And at the same time, we judge other nations for their less than humane practices. Who are we to talk?

But the greatest amount of irony is that every person in favor of abortion made it out of the womb alive. Every. Single. One. I dare say, they’re all grateful too.

Abortion and the God Molech

Truth is, we aren’t any better than the ancient Canaanites. Instead of sacrificing our children to the god Molech in exchange for future prosperity, we sacrifice our children in exchange for better career paths, financial security, and convenience.

While abortion apologists try to sanitize abortion by using terms like “tissue” instead of “baby” or “end the pregnancy” instead of “killing,” there’s no denying what’s going on when we inject poison into babies’ heads. We’re brutally murdering them. And we’ve done it millions of times. Lord, have mercy on us.


Crucifixion Earthquake and Darkness Referenced Outside the Bible

One of the best attested events in the entire Bible is the death of Jesus. Not only do we have four different Gospel writers testifying to it, we also have writings from Paul, Peter, and the author of Hebrews. Additionally, we have several crucifixion references outside the New Testament from people like Josephus, Tacitus, Lucian of Samosata, and Mara Bar Serapion.

earthquake and darkness

These sources are well documented, and I’ve written about them here. The evidence for Jesus’ crucifixion is so strong that skeptics like Bart Ehrman admit it’s a matter of fact. John Dominic Cross — another skeptic — affirms, “Jesus’ death by crucifixion under Pontius Pilate is as sure as anything historical can ever be.”2Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, 145.

Be that as it may, what does this prove? Does this prove that Jesus’ death was for the sins of the whole world? Not necessarily. The evidence simply proves that the Gospels, at minimum, report Jesus’ crucifixion accurately.

But what if we had evidence for other supernatural events that coincided with the crucifixion? Wouldn’t this be a strong indicator that something more than a physical death occurred on the cross? In other words, wouldn’t the surrounding supernatural events indicate that what happened on the cross was also supernatural? I believe it would.

Earthquake and Darkness

When you read the Passion narratives in the synoptic Gospels, you’ll notice that each of them reports unusual events surrounding the crucifixion — midday darkness (Matt. 27:45; Mk. 15:33; Lk. 23:44) and an earthquake (Matt. 27:51).

Earthquakes and darkness aren’t necessarily supernatural events. The timing and location of them, though, with respect to Jesus’ death is highly coincidental if these are just random events.

We should also remember that these events didn’t occur in a vacuum. Keep in mind, Jesus publicly taught that he had come to “die as a ransom for many” (Mt. 20:28). Furthermore, he had the reputation as an authoritative teacher, a miracle worker, and someone who claimed to be the Son of God. When you consider the context, the earthquake and darkness are difficult to brush aside as mere coincidences..

But are we even sure the earthquake and darkness happened? The skeptic argues that the Gospels are unreliable and can’t be trusted. But we’ve already established that the Gospels are accurate with respect to Jesus’ crucifixion. Why wouldn’t they report the surrounding events accurately as well? Furthermore, what if we had a non-Biblical source corroborating these details? Wouldn’t that be a strong indicator that the earthquake and darkness occurred? Well it just so happens that we have one such source.

Earthquake and Darkness Corroborated

Understandably, most of the works of ancient antiquity are lost to us. Frequently, however, we find bits and pieces of these lost works quoted in other ancient writers. One such example comes from the pen of Julius Africanus writing around AD 221.

Though writing in the third century, Africanus quotes from an ancient history book on the Eastern Mediterranean world written by a historian named Thallus around the year AD 52.3Gary Habermas, The Historical Jesus, 196. That is to say, Thallus wrote his history even before the Gospels were written, and thus, he’s reporting independent of them.

Other ancients reference this same work by Thallus also, so we know Africanus isn’t making up this source. Interestingly, Thallus happens to reference the earthquake and darkness at Jesus’ death. The quote reads:

On the whole world there pressed a most fearful darkness; and the rocks were rent by an earthquake, and many places in Judea and other districts were thrown down. This darkness Thallus, in the third book of his History, calls, as appears to me without reason, an eclipse of the sun.4Julius Africanus, Extant Writings, XVIII in the Anti-Nicene Fathers, vol. VI, 130.

Not surprisingly, Thallus — who’s not a Christian himself — rationalizes the darkness by stating it was an eclipse. It’s unfortunate that we don’t have more context for this quote. We don’t know if Thallus mentions Jesus or not, but the events he describes in “Judea” certainly corroborate the Gospel accounts.

Supernatural Event

When you consider the earthquake and darkness surrounding Jesus’ death, it’s hard to deny that something of cosmic proportions took place on the cross that day. After all, we don’t have any record of earthquakes or midday darkness for any other crucifixions. It seems reasonable to suggest, then, that Jesus’ death was truly significant. Namely, his death was for the sins of the whole world.

The Abrahamic Covenant and the Cross of Christ

Take a quick survey of Christians and you’ll discover that most of them don’t read the Old Testament. And who can blame them? One quick glance at Leviticus or Ezekiel, and it’s easy to see how readers get bogged down in all the obscure details. Readers ask themselves, “do we want to read details about Jewish dietary laws or the Sermon on the Mount? Sermon on the Mount please!”

Abrahamic Covenant

I understand the struggle. Reading through endless genealogies, detailed plans of the tabernacle, or the numerous ways to offer a sacrifice can be challenging. But this shouldn’t deter us. After all, the Old Testament was Jesus’ Bible that he quoted dozens of times in the Gospels. It’s also the Scripture Paul referred to when he said “all Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable” (2 Tim. 3:16). You get that? The Old Testament is profitable.

Contrary to what some think, the Old Testament is a gold mine. Not only does it tell us a great deal about the character of God, it anticipates his rescue plan. That is, the entire Old Testament points to the coming of the Messiah. Jesus rebukes the Pharisees for missing this very point. He declares, “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me” (Jn. 5:39).

In the remaining space, I want to highlight an Old Testament text that anticipates the coming of Jesus, but, because of its unusual nature, we often gloss over it. My hope is that in looking at this passage, you will see one small example of the immense value of the Old Testament.

The Abrahamic Covenant

The opening portion of the Bible describes God’s creation, human’s rejection of him, and the subsequent curse on the world. As a result, the human population, as a whole, rejected God and pursued their own way of living. Instead of leaving them to their own destruction, God mercifully reached out to a pagan worshipper named Abraham in Genesis 12 and promised to establish his rescue plan through his family line.

The only problem was that Abraham and his wife Sarah were childless and already beyond the conventional child-rearing years. If God was going to keep his promise, he would have to perform a miracle. As you read the story of Abraham, you find that his trust in God was a bit of a mixed bag — sometimes he trusted, and sometimes he wavered.

In Genesis 15, God reaffirms his commitment to Abraham despite the fact that Abraham and Sarah still remained childless. We can imagine that after several years of infertility, Abraham and Sarah had their doubts and questions about God’s faithfulness surfaced in their minds. So Abraham asks God for another show of good faith. He asks, how is this going to happen since we’re only getting older and we still haven’t had a son?

God responds with a vision — an obscure one at that. In Genesis 15 we read:

So the LORD said to him, “Bring me a heifer, a goat and a ram, each three years old, along with a dove and a young pigeon.” Abram brought all these to him, cut them in two and arranged the halves opposite each other… When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking fire pot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces. On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram and said, “To your descendants I give this land.”

What is going on here? Cutting up animals? Smoking fire pots floating between the animals? This is bizarre stuff.

The Abrahamic Covenant and Smoking Fire Pot Explained

I must confess, I missed the significance of this vision the first several times I read this text. In my mind, God had given a vision to Abraham, and that was enough to confirm God was going to keep his promises. But I discovered that much more was going on here.

What I failed to realize initially was that cutting animals in half and walking between the two parts was a common way ancients performed covenantal ceremonies. And the symbolism is hard to miss too. If either of the contractual partners didn’t hold up their end of the covenant, they would meet the same fate as the animals.

We see an example of this type of covenant in Jeremiah 34:18. It states, “Those who have violated my covenant and have not fulfilled the terms of the covenant they made before me, I will treat like the calf they cut in two and then walked between its pieces.” Did you get that? Those who violate the covenant will be treated like those torn-apart animals.

The Abrahamic Covenant and the Cross of Christ

If you know the story, God fulfilled his covenant to Abraham. He gave him a son which ultimately led to the nation of Israel. But while God was faithful to keep up his end of the agreement, Abraham’s descendants weren’t faithful keep up their end. Instead, they rejected God and pursued idols repeatedly. Under normal circumstances, this would result in their death. But the Abrahamic Covenant wasn’t normal.

You see, it was customary for both parties to walk through the animals indicating that they both were going to hold up their end of the agreement. In Abraham’s vision, however, only God — in the form of a smoking pot — passed through the animals. It’s as if God was saying, “I will be responsible to make this covenant happen for the both of us. So even if you don’t hold up your end of the agreement, I will suffer the consequences.”

I hope you’re beginning to see the significance of the Abrahamic Covenant by now. Even though God remained faithful to Israel, they were unfaithful to him and, therefore, deserved to die. But, since God was the only one to pass through the animals, he would die in their place. In other words, by making this covenant with Abraham, God was pronouncing a death sentence on his Son. What an incredible act of love!

The Abrahamic Covenant for Today

At first glance, this text is a bit obscure. Apart from cultural understanding of ancient covenants, we might miss its point. But once the point is clear, we see how significant the Abrahamic Covenant is for today.

God made a promise that he would rescue the world through the line of Abraham. And ultimately, this is precisely what he did. One of Abraham’s descendants — Jesus of Nazareth — rescued the world from their sin and death while at the same time suffering the consequences for Abraham’s descendants’ unfaithfulness.

What a beautiful story. But sadly, if you never read the Old Testament, you’ll miss it and so many more just like it that point to the promised Christ.

So the next time you’re tempted to skip over the Old Testament because you think it’s too difficult to read or irrelevant, I hope you’ll be reminded of the smoking fire pot. Because it was that fire pot that ensured that Jesus would die on the cross instead of you.

Jesus’ Brother James and the Resurrection

James

Lots of different arguments exist for Jesus’ resurrection. One of the more persuasive, in my estimation, comes from Jesus’ brother James. While other lines of evidence receive more attention, e.g., women eye-witnesses to the empty tomb, the disciples’ willingness to face persecution, and the resurrection appearances, I believe James’ life provides yet another compelling argument.

James Didn’t Believe Initially

Scripture doesn’t tell us much about James in his early years. We know he was Jesus’ younger brother, grew up in his same household, and had the closest interaction with Jesus one could possibly have.

Despite the close proximity, the Gospels tell us that Jesus’ own brothers didn’t believe that he was the Son of God. After witnessing the large crowds who followed Jesus, Mark 3:21 reports, “And when his family heard it, they went out to seize [Jesus], for they were saying, He is out of his mind.”

Additionally, John 7:5 admits, “For not even his brothers believed in him.” It’s hard to mistake what the Gospel authors report here. Jesus’ closest family members — James included — were skeptics. And who can blame then?

Anyone ever involved in a sibling rivalry can no doubt sympathize with James here. Imagine being the younger brother of Mr. Perfect! Think about the animosity he must have felt every time Mary and Joseph compared him to big brother. Talk about middle-child syndrome! It’s not hard to see why James would have rejected his brother’s claims. After all, if my older sibling said they were divine and the promised Messiah, I would think they were crazy too!

Criteria of Embarrassment

Because these reports of Jesus’ family hurt Christianity rather than help it, we have no reason to believe the Gospel writers lied about them. In fact, I recently came across a skeptic’s blog who referenced these two texts and then asked, “Why should we believe in Jesus if his own family didn’t?” He makes a good point.

Historians refer to this as the criteria of embarrassment. That is, if the authors report embarrassing details that makes them or their movement look bad, those details are more than likely true. After all, people don’t invent stories that make themselves look bad. If the Gospel writers had fabricated this story to gain a following, saying that Jesus’ family thought he was nuts wouldn’t help their cause.

James Changes his tune

Fast forward to Acts 15, and we suddenly find that James is now the leader of the Jerusalem church. In fact, Paul came to get James’ advice on how the Gentile Christians should relate to the Jewish Law. Furthermore, in Galatians 1:9, Paul even refers to James as an apostle. Talk about a drastic change! But wait, there’s more.

We read from secular Jewish history, that James eventually paid the ultimate price for his role in the Christian church. First century Jewish historian Josephus reports on his death:

But this younger Ananus, who, as we have told you already, took the high priesthood, was a bold man in his temper, and ever insolent; he was also of the sect of the Sadducees, who are very rigid in judging offenders, above all the rest of the Jews, as we have already observed; when, therefore, Ananus was of this disposition, he thought he had now a proper opportunity. Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the raid; so he assembled the Sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others, and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned.5Josephus, Antiquities 20. 197-203.

This report is telling. Not only did James convert to Christianity as an adult, he became a leader in the Jerusalem church. And not only did he become a leader, he willingly died for his Christian faith. What could possibly explain this metamorphosis?

James was an Eye-Witness to the Resurrection

The Apostle Paul gives us some insight into James’ transformation. In 1 Corinthians 15:3-7, Paul quotes an early Christian creed that mentions James. It reads:

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.

Most historians believe this is the earliest written material we have on the Christian faith and date it to within a couple of years of Jesus’ resurrection. And thus, not enough time has gone by for legend to develop.

Based on this early creed, James was one of the eye-witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection. This would explain his radical change. Once he saw Jesus back from the dead, he turned from skeptic to devout Christian.

James Humbled Himself

As I think about James, I’m amazed that he humbled himself to accept that his older brother was who he said he was. In fact, of all the people who had to swallow their pride, I believe James had to swallow the most. I can’t imagine how many times James scoffed at Jesus’ followers who were so “naive” as to think that Jesus was the promised Messiah. And now that the resurrection vindicated Jesus’ claims, James had to admit he’d been wrong all those years.

What about you? Are you willing to swallow your pride? Can you admit that the evidence points toward a risen Jesus? If so, Paul claims, “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Admitting you’ve been wrong is never easy, but it’s worth it in the end. After all, God rejects the proud, but gives grace to the humble. James humbled himself, and I would encourage you to do the same.

Why Every Christian Should Celebrate Santa Claus

Now that Christmas season is in full swing, you’ve no doubt experienced your fair share of Santa Claus sightings. You’ve encountered him outside people’s homes as you’ve driven down the road, seen him in the local mall, heard him in Christmas songs, and seen him in lots of Christmas movies (but not in Die Hard shockingly). Suffice it to say, Santa is a pretty big deal this time of year.

Santa Claus

With all the Santa hype, though, predictably comes outrage from certain Christians. After all, it’s Christ-mas, not Santa-mas, they say. This much is true, and, in a sense, I commend them for their convictions. Jesus’ birth should be the focal point of all Christians this time of year. But this doesn’t mean Christians should be curmudgeons about jolly old St. Nicholas.

Even worse, we shouldn’t obnoxiously remind our non-Christian friends and neighbors who celebrate Santa Clause that “Jesus is the reason for the season ya know.” We don’t need to make ludicrous comments like “if you rearrange Santa’s name is spells Satan” or “it’s not about presents but about HIS presence.” I agree that most of the world misses the point of Christmas. That’s not the point. The point is that Christians can celebrate Santa Clause too without feeling like we’re not giving proper credence to Jesus. Let me explain what I mean.

The Generosity of St. Nicholas

St. Nicholas — the real man behind the legend — was born around the year AD 280 in modern day Turkey. When he reached adulthood, he became the bishop of the church in Myrna. One of St. Nic’s lasting legacies was his overwhelming generosity. Despite inheriting large sums of money from his wealthy parents, he gave most of it away.

The most famous story of his generosity tells us that St. Nicholas snuck into a poor family’s home one night and dropped off three large monetary gifts for the three girls who lived there. He did this so they wouldn’t feel pressured to sell themselves into prostitution. It’s easy to see how this incredible story led to our modern Santa Claus coming down the chimneys at night.

For centuries, Europe celebrated St. Nicholas day (Dec. 6), but all that changed with the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther loathed the idea of celebrating a Catholic saint so he changed the celebration to Christ Child — or Christkindl — to keep the focus on Jesus rather than St. Nicholas. Interestingly, Chris Kringle has now become synonymous with Santa Claus. I guess that’s one thing Martin Luther couldn’t reform.

Much of Europe followed Luther’s lead except the Netherlands. They continued to celebrate St. Nicholas Day and referred to him as Sinterklaas. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how we get Santa Claus from Sinterklaas. So basically, we have the Dutch to thank for the man in red.

St Nicholas Persecuted for His Faith

In the early fourth century, emperor Diocletian sponsored an empire wide persecution of Christians. While several recanted, Nicholas stood firm in the faith. Therefore, the Roman officials tossed him in prison and possibly tortured him.

The church gave the title “confessor” to anyone — like St. Nicholas — who confessed the faith despite persecution. As you can imagine, this title certainly added credibility to Nicholas both as a Christian and as a bishop.

St. Nicholas Defended Christian Orthodoxy

Nicholas was apparently one of the bishops present at the most important church council in the history of the church — the Council of Nicea (AD 325). This council’s purpose was to iron out what the Bible taught about the nature of Jesus.

You see, a group of four bishops, led by a man named Arius, had been promulgating the idea that Jesus, though an exulted being, was not of the same nature as God the Father. They said things like, “there was a time when he was not.” They suggested that Jesus was the greatest of all created beings, but he was created nonetheless, and not to be placed on the same level as God the Father.

In response to Arius’ claims, the Bishops wrote what is now known as the Nicene creed. The creed declares:

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten of the Father, that is, from the same substance of the Father, God of God, light of light, true God of true God, begotten, not made, of one substance with the Father, through whom all things were made, both in heaven and on earth…

But those who say that there was when He was not, and that before being begotten He was not, or that He came from that which is not, or that the Son of God is of a different substance, or that He is created, or mutable, these the Catholic Church anathematizes.

The early church worked extremely hard to show that even though God the Son is a different person than God the Father, they consist of the exact same nature. That is, they are both fully God. In the end, 218 of the 220 bishops present at the council signed their affirmation to the creed.6Henry Chadwick, The Early Church, 130.

Legend has it, that as Arius stood up to make his case at the council that Jesus was not, in fact, God, St. Nicholas got so upset he marched over to Arius and smacked him in the face. Nicholas’ actions put the entire council on hold, as officials had to restrain and remove him from the council for the remainder of the proceedings.

Celebrate the Real Santa Clause

By now, I hope it’s abundantly clear, the man behind Santa Claus — the real St. Nicholas — is someone worthy of our admiration. While he’s not worthy of our worship like Jesus is, we can still look back at the positive example he set for Christians. He was generous with the resources God provided, endured persecution for his faith, and was willing to stand up for one of the most important doctrines of the Christian faith.

Next time you’re tempted to scorn all the Santa Claus craze, I hope you’ll consider it an opportunity to think about the real Santa Claus. More than that, I hope you’ll remember back to the time when he put Arius on his naughty list.

Lessons from It’s A Wonderful Life and Jesus

I grew up in Indiana, Pennsylvania — a small town just northeast of Pittsburgh. It’s a quaint town without much hustle and bustle. At Christmas time, however, Indiana transforms into Bedford Falls — the town from the famous Christmas film It’s A Wonderful Life. The reason? Because Indiana, PA happens to be the hometown of the movie’s great star, Jimmy Stewart. 

It's A Wonderful Life

Every year around Christmas time, all the local stations showed It’s A Wonderful Life. And to this day, the movie remains one of my favorites. Not only is Jimmy Stewart a phenomenal actor, the movie teaches a valuable lesson.

The Lesson from It’s A Wonderful Life

A little over halfway through the movie, Stewart’s character — George Bailey — experiences a crisis. His business faces the threat of bankruptcy and he faces arrest because his clumsy uncle accidentally hands over eight thousand dollars to the rich businessman in town that everyone hates — Mr. Potter. 

The weight is too much for George to bear. He runs down to a bridge, is about to jump off and kill himself, when, suddenly, his guardian angel Clarence jumps in the water before him. Bailey snaps out of his stupor and jumps in to save Clarence.

As they’re drying off, Bailey tells Clarence that he wishes he was never born. Clarence grants this wish, and erases George Bailey’s life from the record. As Bailey heads back in to town, he suddenly realizes that life in Bedford falls was dramatically different from what he remembered.

For starters, the town itself is no longer Bedford Falls, but Pottersville — named after the evil rich businessman. His business no longer exists because he wasn’t there to save it after his dad passed away. His brother was dead because George wasn’t around to save him from drowning when he was nine years old. All the people he helped get nice homes were living in the slums because George didn’t stop Mr. Potter from taking advantage of them. His mom and wife have no idea who he is, and his children don’t exist. And the list goes on.

Eventually, the significance of his wish hits him. If he didn’t exist, there would be horrible ramifications. The world, as he knew it, would be far far worse.

As I watched the movie recently, I got to thinking. How different would our world be if Jesus never existed? Did his existence, like George Bailey, change the landscape of the world as we know it?

Babies Before Jesus

Prior to Jesus’ life and ministry, the world looked radically different. For example, ancient Romans often committed infanticide — the practice of leaving one’s baby out in the elements to die by exposure or be eaten by wild animals. One man, named Hilarion wrote a letter to his wife, in 1 BC, to encourage her to commit such a travesty. He wrote:

If — may you have good luck — you should give birth; keep it if it is a boy; if it is a girl, throw it out.

The Roman Philosopher Seneca also promoted infanticide when he retorted:

Unnatural progeny we destroy; we drown even children who at birth are weak or abnormal.7De Ira 1.15.2 (LCL, 329)

This is the “civilized” world from which Christianity emerged. If you didn’t want the baby, whether it’s a girl or looks to have some kind of deformity, just toss it out with the trash.

Fortunately, the early Christians used to roam the streets at night looking to rescue discarded babies. The Romans ridiculed the Christians for this, and falsely accused them of  snatching up the babies so they could eat them.

Sickness Before Jesus

Archeological remains suggest that on any given day in the Roman Empire, one in four people were in need of medical attention. We also know that three out of four people never reached adulthood.8John J. Pilch, Healing in the New Testament: Insights from Medical and Mediterranean Anthropology, 2000 In other words, sickness was rampant and medical assistance didn’t exist. In fact, the exact opposite was usually the case. People fled from sickness because they didn’t want to catch it themselves.

Jesus, however, turned this mentality on its head. Instead of running from the lepers, Jesus approached and healed them. And the early Christian movement followed his example.  They were the only known group to care for the afflicted. Instead of running away, they ran toward the sick, putting themselves at risk. They built special communal shelters and provided nurses in what we would consider the first ancient hospitals. 

Slavery Before Jesus

Statistics vary on the Roman slavery population ranging from 50-90%. Regardless of the exact number, slavery was prevalent among the ancient world. With the birth of Jesus, though, came a movement that would put it to an end. 

The Apostle Paul’s words in Galatians 3:28 affirmed that “there is neither slave nor free… for we are all one in Christ Jesus.” It’s hard for westerners to realize the radical nature of Paul’s claims here. It’s even more radical when you consider the Roman backdrop. 

The great philosopher Aristotle considered slaves as “living property,”9John F. DeFelice Jr., “Slavery” in Edwin Yamauchi and Marvin Wilson, ed., Dictionary of Daily Life in Biblical and Post-Biblical Antiquity, Volume 4, 191-215. and he himself had fourteen slaves. Plato didn’t consider a person wealthy unless they owned fifty slaves.10Plato, Respublica 9.578.d. That is to say, slavery was not only acceptable, it was encouraged.

It’s interesting to note that slavery all but ended in the West in the fourth century once Christianity became the dominant cultural force. Slavery didn’t reemerge until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with the Transatlantic slave trade.

Although atheists, who rejected that all people were created equal, initiated this awful institution, Christians in the American South participated for far too long. While skeptics like to point this out, it’s worth noting that these colonial Christians are the exception, rather than the norm in church history.

What Would the World Look Like Without Jesus Today?

Despite Christianity’s benefit to society, several civilizations have rejected it and adopted godless schemes. Let me give you two modern examples.

First, we have the Communist regime under Joseph Stalin in the former Soviet Union. Building off the enlightenment philosophies of Marx and Nietzsche, Stalin established an official atheistic regime that would itself control morals, education, families, and the economy. The result? 

Millions upon millions died from overwork, starvation, exposure to the cold, or execution — all because Stalin embraced Karl Marx’s utopian communist vision and pushed God out of society. 

Another example comes from Communist China and their dictator Mao Zedong. Like Stalin, Mao strongly opposed Christianity. He expelled missionaries, imprisoned and tortured Christians, and destroyed all existing Christian churches. 

Due to his godless policies, at least thirty million people perished from 1959-1962. Countless more died during his rule as a direct result of his Communism. 

What would the world look like without Jesus? We don’t need to wonder. We’ve seen it in the Soviet Union and China — not to mention North Korea.

Jesus in America

It’s no secret that Christians haven’t always lived up to Jesus’ message. And despite the American South’s insistence that the Bible supported the slave trade, they were sorely misguided. The nation, however, is undeniably better off because of a man named Jesus.

Let me share some statistics from recent research:11“What Would America Look Like, If We Were A Nation Without Faith?” Republican Study Committee, 2016, http://rsc.walker.house.gov/Americawithoutfaith/. [/mfn]

Over 60% of all food banks are faith-based organizations.[mfn]Ibid.

Faith-based organizations provide a safety net for over 70,000,000 people with some kind of need.12Ibid.

Twenty of the top fifty charities are faith-based and raise $45 billion annually.13Ibid.

During disaster relief efforts, 59% of the organizations providing relief services are faith-based.14Ibid.

Clergymen save America $216 billion in mental health fees each year with free or low-cost counseling.15Rodney Stark, America’s Blessings, 109.

The US Catholic Health Association operates more than 1,600 care facilities including hospitals and clinics for low-income families.

Through all their ministries, non-profit faith-based organizations save the US government $2.67 trillion every year.16Rodney Stark, America’s Blessings, 168.

Simply put, Christianity feeds the poor, helps those in trouble, provides mental health, gives medical assistance, and saves the American Economy trillions of dollars.

Jesus Transforms the World

If Jesus didn’t exist, the world as we know it would be completely different. We see what it looked like in the Roman Empire prior to Jesus’ arrival — infanticide, slavery, high mortality rates — and we’ve seen what it looks like in modern civilizations who have systematically rejected Christianity — Communist Soviet Union, China, and North Korea.

English minister James Russell Lowell was so confident of Christianity’s positive influence that he penned:

I challenge you to find on the face of the earth a single place ten miles square where a decent man may live in safety and happiness where the Bible has not gone before to make that security and morality possible.17Ferdinand S. Schenck, Christian Evidence and Ethics, 85.

I’d encourage you to take up this challenge. I think you’ll be hard-pressed to find a place. Truth is, all across the world in countries where no Christian influence exists, oppression, slavery, mistreatment of women, and low wages are the norm. 

As westerners, we take for granted things like hospitals, libraries, universities, and individual freedoms. These luxuries, however, did not always exist. Christians started them. 

Like George Bailey, Jesus’ existence has made the world a better place. At the end of the day, he’s the one who’s made it possible to have a wonderful life. 


Were Jesus’ Temptations Real If He Couldn’t Sin?

temptations

Historic Christianity affirms that Jesus Christ, though fully human, is also fully divine. He is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end (Rev. 22:13) — the eternal creator of all things (Jn. 1:3). The Nicene creed (AD 325) declares of Jesus that he is:

God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made; of the same essence as the Father. Through him all things were made.18https://www.crcna.org/welcome/beliefs/creeds/nicene-creed

With Jesus’ deity established, can we honestly say Jesus could experience genuine temptations? After all, James 1:13 declares that “God cannot be tempted by evil.” Doesn’t this present a bit of a dilemma for the biblical Christian? If Jesus was impeccable, that is, he was unable to sin, to what extent can we say that his temptations really affected him?

On the surface, it seems that Christians can’t take much comfort from Hebrews 4:15 which reads, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are — yet he did not sin.”

Can we really say he was tempted in every way as we are? I experience temptation all the time and give in to those temptations more than I’d like to admit. That wasn’t a problem for Jesus, though. He couldn’t give in to his temptations. Doesn’t this seem like apples and oranges to you?

While I affirm that Jesus was unable to sin due to being fully divine, in the remaining space, I want to demonstrate that he experienced genuine temptations as a human. And I want to show that we can believe both truths simultaneously.

A Spirit-Filled Human

I contend that the reason Jesus could not sin and the reason he did not sin are for different reasons. I believe Jesus could not sin because he is the second person of the Triune God who is incapable of sinning (Js. 1:13). The reason he didn’t sin, however, was because, as a human, he was filled and empowered by the Spirit. That is, Jesus lived his life on earth fundamentally as a human and relied on the Spirit to perfectly obey his Father. Let me give you a few texts of Scripture to support this claim:

And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon [the Messiah], the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD (Isa. 11:2).

The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me (the Messiah), because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound (Isa. 61:1).

And Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee, and a report about him went out through all the surrounding country (Lk. 4:14).

But if it is by the Spirit of God that I (Jesus) cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you (Mt. 12:28).

How God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him (Acts 10:38).

I believe this small sample size of texts demonstrates that Jesus lived his earthly life fundamentally as a human. If, in the incarnation, Jesus lived primarily as deity, the filling of the Holy Spirit would have been both redundant and unnecessary for his mission.

Jesus’ Sinlessness Illustrated

A few years back, daredevil Nik Wallenda tightroped across Niagara Falls on national television. As I watched Wallenda make the successful 1,800 foot journey across the falls, I remember feeling nervous for him, but I wasn’t worried he was going to die. Why? Because the television producers forced him to wear a safety harness to ensure he wouldn’t fall to his death while the entire world watched.

Now, could Wallenda have died on his walk across the tightrope? No, the safety harness protected him from falling. But, how did Wallenda make it across the tightrope? He balanced himself and walked across. The harness didn’t help him one bit. You see, the reason he could not have died and the reason he made it across are for two completely different reasons.

In the same way, Jesus could not have sinned because he was fully divine. This was his safety harness, if you will. But Jesus didn’t sin because he perfectly obeyed the Father as a human in the power of the Holy Spirit. That is to say, he experienced genuine temptations but never once did he give into them.

The Extent of Jesus’ Temptations

Some still object and say Jesus’ temptations were of a lesser nature than ours. After all, he didn’t have a sin nature. He didn’t battle the same kind of internal temptations we do. This much is true. But it doesn’t mean his temptations were less severe than ours.

Think about it. Whatever internal temptations Jesus didn’t experience, he more than made for up it by going toe-to-toe with Satan. Satan gave Jesus his best shot. He knew what was at stake during Jesus’ life. If he could get Jesus to sin, he wins. Game over. You and I probably won’t ever get Satan’s full onslaught like Jesus did.

Also, consider the fact that you and I often break in the face of temptation. Whether we’re tempted to lust, lash out in anger, or grow impatient, we typically can only handle so much before we eventually give in. The temptation builds and builds until we can’t withstand any longer and we snap. Jesus, on the other hand, saw temptations all the way through to the very end, and even as the pressure built, he never once sinned. He stood firm in the face of the most intense feelings of temptation — something we often don’t get to because we cave earlier.

Consider, as an illustration, the world’s strongest man. He picks up a twig, holds it by both ends, and snaps it with ease. Next, he picks up an iron bar and attempts to do the same. He bends with every bit of force he can muster for a few minutes, but the bar remains unscathed. As you think about twig and the iron bar, which of the two faced more intense pressure from the world’s strongest man? The iron bar of course.

Well we’re like the twig and Jesus is like the bar. We snap before we can feel the full force of the temptation. Jesus, however, experiences the full-force of the temptation and never once snaps. It seems naive, therefore, to suggest that we face more difficult temptations than he did.

Why This is Important

When God the Son took on human flesh — or emptied himself according to Philippians 2 — he set out to live as much like a human as was possible for him to do. This means, he couldn’t conjure his divine powers every time he got himself in a quandary. For example, when Satan tempted Jesus to turn the stones into bread, he tempted him to rely on his deity instead of his humanity in that situation.

Think about the problem we’d have if every time Jesus faced a difficult situation he simply performed a miracle to make his life easier. If he healed himself every time he got sick, or if he teleported to Jerusalem instead of taking the long journey just like everyone else, in no real sense could he be one of us and represent us as our high priest before the Father (Heb. 4:15). Jesus, however, can be our faithful high priest because he lived his life on earth fundamentally as a human (Heb. 2:17-18). And as a human, he perfectly obeyed his Father because he was filled completely with the Spirit.

So, could Jesus have sinned? No. He was God. But did he experience genuine temptations as a human? Yes. Both are true at the same time.

Can We Trust the Gospels? Book Review

We put our trust in the hands of others every day. We trust restaurants to serve us non-contaminated foods, cars to get us safely to our next destination, and banks to keep our money secure. Trust, however, is never given without good reasons — it’s based on credibility. The moment the restaurants, cars, and banks lose credibility, we lose trust and take our business elsewhere.

Building off this theme, Peter Williams (PhD, University of Cambridge) has written a short book titled Can We Trust the Gospels? He asks if the Gospels are credible sources we can rely on, or wonders if they’re unreliable. Do they contain accurate history, or are they littered with problems? Should we trust them, he asks, or take our proverbial business elsewhere?

Summary

Williams’ purpose in writing is “to present a case for the reliability of the Gospels to those who are thinking about the subject for the first time” (13). It’s not an in-depth treatment or ground breaking work on the Gospels’ reliability. It’s a simplified version for the beginner. As Williams notes, “I have cut out everything unnecessary” (13). Thus, those looking for plenty of footnotes must temper their expectations before they pick up this book. After all, the target audience isn’t the expert, but the novice.

While Williams aims to assist the non-scholar, his work is based on scholarly research. It’s simple without being simplistic. It’s accessible without being too watered-down. In total, Williams puts forth eight key arguments in favor of the Gospels’ reliability. I’ll highlight three of them briefly.

1. Non-Christian Sources

Skeptics often accuse the Gospel writers of bias. They can’t, however, accuse non-Christian writers of the same thing. Why? Because non-Christians don’t have anything to gain by reporting the story of Jesus. Williams, therefore, examines three different sources — all written by non-Christians within ninety years of Jesus — to see if they corroborate the Gospel accounts. One such source is Cornelius Tacitus.

Tacitus is considered by many to be the greatest Roman historian of antiquity. While documenting the Great Fire of Rome in AD 64, he writes about the early Christians and Christ himself. One small section reports:

Christus, the founder of the name, had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilatus, and the pernicious superstition was checked for a moment, only to break out once more, not merely in Judaea, the home of the disease, but in the capital itself (20).

From this brief quote alone, we learn these corroborating details:

  1. Jesus Christ is the founder of Christianity.
  2. Christianity originated in Judaea.
  3. Jesus was crucified while Tiberius was emperor of Rome.
  4. Pontius Pilate sentenced Jesus to death.
  5. Jesus’ crucifixion didn’t stop the Christian movement.

Not bad considering I’ve only mentioned a small paragraph from one of the sources. Williams mentions three, but in reality, a lot more exist.

2. Familiarity with Palestine

Skeptics often argue that non-Jewish writers with no connection to Palestine authored the four Gospels we have today. They argue that Greek authors across the Roman Empire in places like Antioch, Asia Minor, and Rome itself penned the Gospels after they heard these stories passed down to them from others who heard the stories passed down to them — a lot like the game of telephone.

If it’s as the skeptic claims, one would expect to find all kinds mistakes with respect to Palestinian geography, names, and local customs. After all, resources like the internet, encyclopedias, and detailed maps didn’t exist back then. Imagine trying to write a story about a small country across the globe you’ve never been to, and you don’t have access to resources. Chances are you’d make a lot of mistakes.

Geography

But the Gospels are meticulously accurate with respect to these details. The authors, for example, mention twenty-six towns — many of which were small and insignificant (55). Williams argues that no known sources listed some of these towns, and thus, “it seems that the authors received the information either from their experience or from detailed hearing” (55).

Later gnostic Gospels — which we have good reasons to reject — only mention popular Christian places like Jerusalem, Judaea, Nazareth, and Jordan (63). One could easily write about those towns from a distance. But to write about small villages such as Cana, Bethany, and Salim, one would have to have either been there or received reliable eye-witness testimony (55).

Names

In addition to geography, the authors demonstrate familiarity with Palestinian names. That is, the names in the Gospels reflect an accurate representation of the names in the secular Palestinian record. For example, the most popular name on Jewish record during the first century was Simon. The most popular name in the Gospels? You guessed it. It’s Simon (65). Furthermore, the second most popular name in the Palestinian record and the Gospels is also the same — Joseph (65).

By contrast, the Gospel of Judas, written late in the second century, lists names such as Adamas, Adonis, Barbelo, Eve, Galila, Harmothoth, Sophia, and Yobel (69). None of these names are found in any first-century Palestinian record.

Based on this data, Williams deduces, “The resulting Gospels are not what we would expect from people who made up stories at a geographical distance” (62).

3. Undesigned Coincidences

Drawing on the recent work of Lydia McGrew, Williams argues that undesigned coincidences strengthen the case for the reliability of the Gospels. “In an undesigned coincidence”, Williams explains, “writers show agreement of a kind that it is hard to imagine as deliberately contrived by either author to make the story look authentic” (87). Allow me to illustrate.

All four Gospels report the miracle of Jesus feeding the five thousand. Since most of Palestine was rural, it’s hard to imagine why a crowd of about twenty thousand people was wandering with Jesus in the countryside. None of the synoptic Gospels explain this phenomenon. John, however, “coincidently” tells us the Passover was approaching (Jn. 6:4). As was customary, large crowds flocked to Jerusalem for their annual festival, thus explaining the massive crowd. John’s explanation of the coming Passover fills in the gap — or is an undesigned coincidence — and explains the large crowds found in the other Gospels.

Also, in the same miracle story, John tells us that Jesus asks Philip where they can buy bread to feed everyone (Jn. 6:5). One wonders why Jesus asked him since he wasn’t one of the leading disciples. Again, an undesigned coincidence fills in the blanks. Luke 9:10 tells us that this miracle took place near Bethsaida. That detail is important because John 1:44 tells us Philip’s hometown just happens to be Bethsaida. You see, when we piece these seemingly insignificant details together — the undesigned coincidences — we see that Jesus asked Philip where they could buy food because he would have known the area better than anyone else.

It’s hard to imagine how four different Greek authors, with no direct relation to Jesus, could have pieced together all the details like this.

Can We Trust the Gospels?

Space permits me from expounding on other chapters that address important issues such as authorship, dating, and textual criticism. You’ll simply have to read the book for yourself, but I hope this brief synopsis gives you a little taste of what to expect from it.

As I reflect on the book, its strength is in its accessibility and brevity (140 pages). Several have taken up the task of writing books on the reliability of the Gospels, and several have been excellent, but none have been this brief. There’s something nice about being able to read a book of this nature in a sitting or two.

Also, his chapter on the Gospel writers’ familiarity with Palestine (chapter 3) was by far the strongest part of the book. Williams is certain to teach you something new about Palestine that will bolster your confidence in the Gospels. For example, Williams calls attention to the fact that sycamore trees were common in Jericho — the town where Zacchaeus climbed one to see Jesus (Lk. 19:4) — but they weren’t common across the Roman Empire (82). How would someone writing from a distant land know this botanical detail? It must have come from eye-witness testimony. He gives several examples like this.

I’m so impressed that Can We Trust the Gospels? has now become my go-to recommended resource for others interested in this topic. Williams avoids getting bogged down in details like form and redaction criticism or Midrash arguments — something most other books of this nature don’t avoid. As Williams mentioned in the preface, he left out everything unnecessary. But despite its brevity, the book is still comprehensive in scope, covering the Gospels from a wide array of angles.

So, can we trust the Gospels? Williams’ answer is a resounding yes. And I happen to agree with him.