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.
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.
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.