Know What You Believe: Chapter 3 Jesus Christ

Source: Know What You Believe Book by Paul Little

First edition published in 1970 by Scripture Press Publications, Inc.

Dr. W. H. Griffith Thomas wrote a book entitled Christianity Is Christ. This title sums up the heart and uniqueness of Christianity.

Buddha is not essential to the teaching of Buddhism, or Mohammed to Islam, but everything about Christianity is determined by the person and work of Jesus Christ. Christianity owes its life and character in every detail to Christ. Its teachings are teachings about Him. He was the origin I and will be the fulfillment of its hopes. He is the I source of its ideas, which were born of what He said and did. The strength of Christ’s Church is the strength of His own Spirit, who is omnipotent.

But who is this Man, Jesus Christ? He Himself made His identity the central question of His ministry: “But whom say ye that I am?” (Matt. 16:15). To be wrong at this point is fatal, as the history of the Church has shown.

We must be clear, first, that Jesus Christ was fully God. He is expressly called God in various passages of Scripture, of which the following are a few examples: “The Word was God” (John 1:1; that the Word is Christ is confirmed in v. 14); “the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13); “His Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God” (1 John 5:20).

Christ Claimed Deity

Jesus claimed Deity for Himself in a way quite clear to His listeners. He said, on one occasion, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). His claim to Deity was considered by the religious leaders to be blasphemy, and led to His crucifixion: “We have a law, and by our law He ought to die, because He made Himself the Son of God” (John 19:7). The high priest expressly asked Christ, “Tell us whether Thou be the Christ, the Son of God,” and Jesus answered, “Thou hast said” (Matt. 26:63, 64). This was a clear affirmative answer, and the high priest said there was no further need of witnesses because they had heard His “blasphemy” with their own ears. He had said “that God was His Father, making Himself equal with God” (John 5:18).

Jesus Christ claimed the prerogatives and authority of God. He said He had authority to forgive sins (Mark 2:10) and that He would come in the clouds of heaven, sitting at the right hand of power (Mark 14:62), implying authority to judge men: “For the Father judgeth no man, but hath committed all judgment unto the Son” (John 5:22). Several times Jesus asserted that He Himself had the authority and power to raise the dead (John 6:39, 40, 54; 10:17, 18).

Jesus possessed attributes which belong to God alone. He claimed omnipotence, or all power (Matt. 28:18), and during His life He demonstrated this power over nature by stilling the stonny waves (Mark 4:39) and by turning water into wine (John 2:7-11); over physical disease (Mark 3:10); over the spirit world of demons (Luke 4:35) ; and over death by raising Lazarus from the grave (John 11:43, 44). He has also been designated as having power over all the heavenly hosts (Eph. 1:20-22).

He is omniscient, or all-knowing. He knew, as only God could know, what was in men’s minds before they spoke (Mark 2:8; John 2:25). He was omnipresent, and promised to be with all His disciples to the end of the age (Matt. 28:20).

Christ the Creator

He is the Creator (John 1:3) and Sustainer (Heb. 1:3) of the universe. Perhaps the most comprehensive statement about the Deity of Christ is that “in Him dwelleth all the fullness of the Godhead bodily” (Col. 2:9).

Christ accepted the worship of men, which is due to God alone. He commended rather than rebuked doubting Thomas, who fell at His feet and declared in awe, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28, BERK) This was the same Jesus who scorned Satan’s invitation to worship him by replying, “Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and Him only shalt thou serve” (Matt. 4:10; cf. Deut. 6:13).

Another dimension of Christ’s Deity to be kept in mind is His preexistence. He did not become the Son of God, either at His birth or sometime during His earthly life. He was and is the eternal Son, coexistent and coeternal with the Father. John declared, “In the beginning was the Word,” and, “without Him was not anything made that was made” (John 1:1, 3). Jesus made clear reference to His own preexistence when the Jews challenged Him concerning His age. “You’re not 50 years old yet,” they said; and He replied, “Before Abraham was, I am” (cf. John 8:57,58).

The Deity of Christ is woven into the warp and woof of everything He said and taught. It is confirmed by what others clearly understood Him to say. The things that He did were conclusive evidence that His words were not clever deceit or the babblings of a demented person.

Christ Also Fully Man

But Jesus was not only fully God – He was also fully man, fully human. This is a vital aspect of the person of Christ. If He were not fully human, He could not have represented us on the cross and He could not be the High Priest who comforts and strengthens us. But He has gone through our human experience (Heb. 2:16-18) and is fully able to understand us and sympathize with us.

Though His conception was supernatural, Jesus’ birth was that of a normal child born of a human mother (Matt. 1:18).He is spoken of as being born of the seed of the woman (Gen. 3:15) and of the seed of Abraham (Heb. 2:16). In this way, in the Virgin Birth, “The Word became flesh” (John 1:14, NAS).

Jesus, as a normal child, grew physically and mentally. “And the Child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, filled with wisdom…and Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:40, 52).

Jesus referred to Himself as a man: “Ye seek to kill Me, a man that hath told you the truth” (John 8:40). He was recognized by others as a man (Acts 2:22). He had a body, soul, and spirit, and shared our physical and emotional experiences.

Jesus got hungry (Matt. 4:2) and thirsty (John 19:28 ). His feet ached and He got weary from traveling (John 4:6). He needed sleep and refreshment (Matt. 8:24). He experienced and expressed love and compassion (Matt. 9:36). He was angry at those who defiled His Father’s house (Matt. 21:13) and who deliberately refused the truth of God (Mark 3:5). He wept at the tomb of a dear friend (John 11:35), and as He faced the agony of the Cross, He was troubled within (John 12:27).

The Son of Man

Jesus calls Himself the Son of Man 80 times in the Gospels. Though He claimed attributes of Deity as Son of Man, He at the same time asserted His identification with us as sons of men. His humanity, in fact, was unique in that it was complete. Our Lord, as a man, was “free from both hereditary depravity and from actual sin, as is shown by His never offering sacrifice, never praying for [His own] forgiveness, teaching that all but He needed the new birth, challenging all to convict Him of a single sin.”17

Christ’s humanity was as real and genuine as His Deity. Both must be maintained and neither may be emphasized at the expense of the other.

Mostly Man or Mostly God?

A brief review of Church History will illustrate how easy it is to emphasize one aspect of Christ’s nature over the other. Some of these tendencies are with us to this day and we must guard against them. Heresies forced the Early Church to define clearly her belief in the Deity and humanity of Christ. These definitions were not innovations, but merely crystallized what was already held to be biblical truth.

The Ebionites, early in the Second Century, denied the Deity of Christ. They maintained He was merely a man, though perhaps supernaturally conceived. They conceded that, though a man, He held a peculiar relationship to God, especially from the time of His baptism – when, they held, the fullness of the Holy Spirit rested on Him.

On the other hand, the Docetists, later in the same century, denied the true humanity of Jesus. They rejected the reality of His human body and suggested that it was merely a phantom and only appeared to be human. This view was the logical conclusion of their assumption that matter is inherently evil. They implied that the divine Christ was not hungry and thirsty, nor did He suffer and die. Jesus’ life on earth, they maintained, was largely an illusion.

The Arians, forerunners of today’s Unitarians, mistook the biblical statements about Christ’s subordination to the Father as teaching His inferiority. They taught that Christ was somehow created by the Father as the first and highest of created beings, but that He Himself was not eternally self-existent. This belief is current today in several major cults.

Another deviation was that of the Apollinarians, who were condemned at the Council of Constantinople in A.D. 381. Heavily influenced by Greek philosophy, Apollinarius taught that Christ had a true body and soul and that in Him the place of the human mind or spirit was taken by His divine being. If this were true, however, it would mean that Jesus was not fully human and therefore was not tried or tempted in every respect as we are.

In the Fifth Century, Nestorius so emphasized the distinctness of Christ’s two natures that he denied the real union between the divine and human in our Lord. He made this union a moral one rather than an organic one. Nestorians virtually believed in two natures and two persons instead of two natures in one person.

The Eutychians, on the other hand, were on the opposite extreme, denying the distinction and coexistence of the two natures. They said that the divine and the human natures in Christ mingled into a third sort of nature, peculiar to Christ. They seemed to believe that Christ’s human nature was really absorbed into His divine nature, though the divine nature was, by this “merger,” somewhat changed from what it had been before the union. This group was condemned as heretical at the Council of Chalcedon in A.D. 451.

The question of the two natures of Christ is obviously complex, with numerous subtleties. The orthodox doctrine, promulgated at Chalcedon in 451, says that “in the one person, Jesus Christ, there are two natures, a human nature and a divine nature, each in its completeness and integrity , and that these two natures are organically and indissolubly united, yet so that no third nature is formed thereby. In brief, to use the antiquated dictum, orthodox doctrine forbids us either to divide the person or confound the natures.”18

The Deity and humanity of Christ’s one Person is admittedly a profound subject, and it raises many questions. This concept is similar to that of the Trinity  – we know by revelation that it is true, but have no satisfactory explanation.

In an attempt to explain Christ’s two natures, some have suggested various “kenosis” theories. The term kenosis comes from the Greek word for “emptied” (Phil. 2:7). Some have contended that Christ totally emptied Himself of Deity and was limited to the natural knowledge and ability of an ordinary man. Others have held that though He renounced His divine attributes, He still somehow possessed them. Still others have suggested that our Lord suspended His divine consciousness at His conception and reassumed it in manhood. Hammond comments that, “our Lord’s attributes of Deity were at no time laid aside. Any ‘explanation’ of His divine-human nature which violates the integrity of His Deity is obviously to be rejected, and there seems to be no explanation that is without grave difficulties. The nearest we can get is that our Lord’s perfect divine nature (with the possession of all its attributes) was so united with a perfect human nature that a single divine-human Personality developed with the divine element (if such a distinction can be made here) controlling the normal development of the human. Beyond this we cannot safely go.”19

The Early Church creeds did not try to explain the mystery of how Christ’s two natures were united in one Person. They recognized His full manhood and His true Deity, but they did not solve the problem of bringing the two modes of His self-manifestation – manhood and Deity – into the unity of a single person. From the beginning, it must have been obvious that the truth lay between two unacceptable tendencies – to break the Person into two, or to mingle the natures so that the result was neither truly human nor truly divine. In a statement which the Early Church found acceptable, and which has been used ever since, Athanasius said, “He became what He was not; He continued to be what He was.” This is really a terse affirmation rather than an explanation.

In an effort to eliminate the difficulties that arise from the problem of Christ’s two natures, theologians – as we have seen – go to either of two extremes. Some exalt Christ’s human nature to a level that would separate Him from the rest of humanity. For example, they say His nature was that of unfallen Adam. For this, there is no evidence in the Gospel records of His earthly life. Others, on the other hand, water down His Deity, defining the Incarnation as involving a kenosis or self-emptying, for which the word used in Philippians 2:7 gives no support. This view makes our Lord, on earth, subject to all human limitation – with, of course, the exception of sin.

“The factor that is forgotten, and may well be the only key to the problem, is the ministry of the Holy Spirit in the Person and life of Christ. That Spirit, who had prepared His humanity and kept the unborn Child free from the taint of a mother’s sin, never left Him, but throughout all the temptations and sufferings of His life and death brought to His human soul the light and comfort and strength which He needed to accomplish His task. In the light of that gracious ministry, we can understand, in some measure, how the divine nature was acting under human conditions, and how the human nature was acting in the fullest unity with the divine. That Spirit, who shared the eternal counsels of the Godhead, unified the consciousness of Christ so that there could be no possibility of division or dualism within Him. For this reason we can understand how there was nothing unnatural or unhuman about the self-consciousness of Jesus, even when He was in unbroken communion with the supernatural and eternal.

“However we explain it – and a full knowledge passes our comprehension  – saving faith has always reached out to One who is perfect man, true God, and one Christ, and in the strength and fellowship of this faith we as Christians are called to abide.”20

A proper knowledge of Christ’s Person is crucial in understanding His work. If He were not the God-man, His work could not have eternal and personal significance for us.

What Christ Did

We have already considered the claims of our Lord to Deity and the way He vindicated His claims by an authority over natural forces which could only have been supernatural. While fully appreciating who Jesus is, however, we must not overlook the equally important significance of what He has done – and is doing — for believers.

If Jesus were not fully God, He could not be our Saviour. But if He were God and yet did nothing on our behalf – that is, did not do something to bring us to God – He would not be our Saviour. Being God qualified Jesus Christ to be Saviour, but His atoning death for us made Him our Saviour. Jesus not only could save men; He did.

Christ was the perfect Man. As such, He was without sin in thought, word, or deed. He was able to challenge His enemies with the question, “Which of you convicts Me of sin?” (cf. John 8:46, NAS). His foes had no reply. He was totally obedient to the Father. “My meat,” He told His disciples, “is to do the will of Him that sent Me, and to finish His work” (John 4:34).

There are three reasons why our Lord’s perfect life was a necessity.

1. It qualified Him to become the sacrificial offering for sin. Old Testament types all insist on the purity of the victim for sacrifice.

2. It meant that perfect obedience was rendered to God, in contrast to Adam’s disobedience. Scripture emphasizes this repeatedly (Rom. 5:19; Heb. 10:6, 7).

3. By it He became a qualified Mediator and High Priest for His people (Heb. 2:11-18).21

Our Lord was, par excellence, “a Man with a mission.” He frequently said, at a point of crisis, “Mine hour is not yet come” (John 2:4; cf. 7:6). Finally He said, “The hour is come that the Son of Man should be glorified” (John 12:23). A little later, as He contemplated the awfulness of the cross, He said, “Now is My soul troubled; and what shall I say? Father, save Me from this hour. But for this cause came I unto this hour” (John 12:27). The reason He had come, as He had said, was to “seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10) and to “give His life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). So central is the death of Christ to an understanding of Christianity that we will discuss it more fully in a later chapter.

Christ Left the Grave

But not only did our Lord live and die. The triumphant dynamic of Christianity is that He arose from the dead. The common greeting of the Early Church was the dramatic reminder, “He is risen!” The thing that changed a handful of cowardly, frightened disciples, who denied that they even knew their leader (Matt. 26:56, 70, 72, 74), into roaring lions proclaiming the faith, was the fact that they had seen Jesus, alive from the dead. Peter declared in Jerusalem, at the risk of his life, and just 50 days after the Resurrection, “This Jesus hath God raised up, whereof we all are witnesses” (Acts 2:32). Both the death and the resurrection of Christ show His supremacy and His uniqueness among all the religious leaders of the world.

A number of times Jesus predicted both His death and His resurrection (Mark 8:31; 10:32-34; cf. Matt. 16:21, etc.). But such a statement was so fantastic that the disciples didn’t believe it until, after his entombment, they had the firsthand evidence of seeing Him themselves.

It is important to understand that the resurrection of Christ was a bodily resurrection, not one of “spirit” or “influence,” as is sometimes suggested. The disciples, on first seeing Jesus after He rose, thought they were seeing a ghost and were terribly frightened. Our Lord had to say to them, “Behold My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself: handle Me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones as ye see Me have” (Luke 24:39). He proceeded to eat fish and honey with them to further demonstrate His physical reality. He invited doubting Thomas to put his finger in the nailprints and put his hand in the pierced side (John 20:27), so giving further testimony to the physical nature of His resurrection body and also indicating that this was the body that had been crucified and buried.

His risen body, however, differed from our bodies and from His own previous body. For instance, our risen Lord passed through closed doors when He met with the disciples for the first time in the Upper Room (John 20:19). Paul discusses at some length the subject of the Resurrection and the resurrection body (1 Cor. 15).This passage should be studied carefully.

Resurrection Implications

The implications of the Resurrection are enormous. We should understand them as fully as possible – and enjoy them.

First, as we have seen, the Resurrection fully confirms the truth and value of what Jesus taught and did. Paul says, “If Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins” (1 Cor. 15: 17). Because of the Resurrection, we know we are not trusting in a myth; we know that our sins are actually forgiven through the death of Christ. Certainty and forgiveness are based on the empty tomb! Christ is the only One who has ever come back from death to tell men about the beyond. In His words we know we have the authoritative Word 0£ God Himself.

Second, Christ’s resurrection is the guarantee of our own resurrection. Jesus said, “Because I live, ye shall live also” (John 14:19). We know with assurance that the grave is not our end, and that we shall be raised as He was.

Third, we know that the body is in itself good, not inherently evil, as some have mistakenly thought. The fact that our Lord became flesh and took a physical body in the Incarnation shows this. It is confirmed by the Resurrection, which tells us that in the eternal state, body and soul will be reunited, though the body will, of course, be a glorified body like our Lord’s. Christ is the One “who shall change our vile [weak] body that it may be fashioned like unto His glorious body” (Phil. 3:21).

Fourth, we have assurance of the contemporary power of Christ in life today. We do not believe in a dead Christ hanging on a cross or lying in a grave, but in the risen Christ of the empty tomb. Christ gives us His life in salvation. This is the contemporary power, the dynamic, of Christian faith.

Many attempts have been made to explain away the Resurrection. A full discussion cannot be gone into here.

In summary, we can say that some false theories of the Resurrection (such as the swoon theory ) revolve around denial of Christ’s actual death. Other views hold that the disciples made an honest error which led them sincerely but wrongly to proclaim that Jesus had risen from the dead.

But all attempts to explain away the Resurrection founder on the rocks of the actual evidence. Christ would have been a deceiver had He only swooned and allowed the disciples to think He had actually risen from the dead. The disciples were not prepared for a hallucination. They didn’t expect He would rise and they didn’t believe He had risen from the dead. They had to be persuaded against their “better judgment” that it was so (Luke 24:36-45). Furthermore, Christ appeared ten different times, in different places, and in one case to more than 500 people at once. Such an event cannot be explained by “hallucination.” The disciples would have been deceivers at best if they had stolen Christ’s body. Nearly all of them died for their faith, however, in martyrdom. People will die for what they mistakenly think is true, but they don’t die for what they know is false. The inability of the enemies of Christ to produce His body is further evidence that it had not been stolen.

The empty tomb, the revolutionized lives of the disciples, the Lord’s Day (worship being shifted from Saturday to Sunday because of the Resurrection),  the existence of the Christian Church (which can be traced back to approximately A.D. 30) – all are conclusive evidence that the Resurrection is fact, not fiction. The final evidence is the transformation of those today who have met and been given new life by the risen Christ.

Ascension, Exaltation

Jesus not only predicted His death and resurrection, but also His ascension and exaltation (John 6:62; 17:1). In the ascension, He visibly left His disciples and the earth and returned to heaven, 40 days after His resurrection. His exit from this life was as miraculous as His entrance. The account of it is given in Acts 1:9-11.

Christ having ascended, God the Father has given Him a place of exaltation in heaven. God has “set Him at His own right hand in the heavenly places, far above all principality and power and might and dominion, and every name that is named” (Eph. 1:20,21). Christ has a position of power and glory. His ascension and exaltation were necessary for the completion of His work of redemption. As the ascended and exalted Christ, He has entered heaven as a forerunner for us (Heb. 6:20). We are to follow Him. He is able to enter into the heavenly counterpart of the holy of holies in the earthly tabernacle because of the merits of His atonement. Believers will be able to follow Him because the blood of His atonement has been applied to them.

Christ is now before God as our High Priest and Advocate. He appears “in the presence of God for us” (Heb. 9:24). “If any man sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 John 2:1). As our Mediator, Christ is now active for us before the throne of God.

Christ has gone to prepare a place for us in heaven. He clearly told the disciples that He would do so and come again “and receive you unto Myself, that where I am, there ye may be also” (John 14:3, 4). Every Christian should look forward with deep anticipation to the return of his Lord for him.

Because of the ascension and exaltation of Christ, we have free and confident access into the very presence of God. We can “come boldly unto the throne of grace” (Heb. 4:16). In Old Testament times, access to the presence of God was limited to one person – the high priest; to one place – the holy of holies in the Tabernacle (or the Temple); and to one time – the Day of Atonement. But because Christ is our High Priest and has passed into the heavens, each of us has access to the Creator at any time and at any place. How the angels must wonder that we make so little use of this privilege of audience with the King!

Christianity is Christ from beginning to end. To know who Christ is and what He has done is to increase our awe, wonder, and appreciation of the One who, though He was rich, for our sakes became poor, that we through His poverty might be rich (2 Cor. 8:9).

For Further Reading

Anderson, J. N. D. Evidence for the Resurrection. Chicago: Inter-Varsity Press, 1966.

Berkouwer, G. C. The Person of Christ. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1954.

Harrison, E. F. A Short Life of Christ. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968.

Little, Paul. Know Why You Believe. Wheaton, Ill.: Scripture Press, 1967.

Morris, Leon. The Lord From Heaven. London: Inter- Varsity Fellowship, 1958.

Warfield, B. B. The Person and Work of Christ, ed. s. G. Craig. Nutley, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1950.

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