Friday, February 22, 2008

The Pre-Incarnate Christ

Where did Jesus come from? A person reading the Bible for the first time could easily finish the last verses of Malachi and begin to read Matthew only to feel somewhat blindsided by the sudden announcement and birth of Jesus, called Immanuel, "God with us." From one page to the next, the Messiah appears out of the blue, as it were, the divine abruptly breaking into human affairs.

Of course, this is only a perception by some, not reality. In fact, many Jews of that day, watching the signs of the times, were expecting the Messiah at any time. First-century ad Judea was awash in Messianic expectation and fervor. Every few years, a new Messianic candidate would arise, gather a following, revolt against the Romans, and be executed (see, for instance, Acts 5:36-37; 21:38). Between the death of Herod the Great in 4 bc and the suppression of the Bar Kochba Revolt in ad 135, as many as eighteen men, including Jesus of Nazareth, were acclaimed Messiah in the region of Roman Judea.

In the midst of this period, the apostle Paul writes in Galatians 3:24, "Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ," a principle suggesting that the Old Testament is a guide in preparation for Messiah. In this context, it implies that the Old Testament is full of references, allusions, prophecies, and instructions concerning the true Christ. In other words, far from being mostly silent about Jesus, the Old Testament is a vital source of revelation about Him! Jesus verifies this Himself in Luke 24:44, "These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me" (see also Acts 18:28; 28:23).

Most people realize that the Old Testament contains many prophecies of Christ, and in fact, Jesus fulfilled about 300 individual prophetic details. More broadly, however, the Old Testament chronicles, not just prophecies of His coming, but also the historical activities of the One who became Jesus Christ. Unlike other humans, Jesus was not a created Being but God the Word who "became flesh and dwelt among us" (John 1:1, 14). In short, He pre-existed as God—with all that entails—before His physical life and ministry.

In the famous passage in Philippians 2:5-8, Paul declares:

. . . Jesus Christ, . . . being in the form of God, did not consider it [a thing to be grasped] to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.

Clearly, Paul believes that Jesus had existed as a divine Being before His birth, and that He volunteered to divest Himself of much of His glory, power, and prerogatives to become a lowly human being and to die to redeem humanity from its sins. Moreover, the apostle asserts in other places that the pre-incarnate Christ was Creator of all things (I Corinthians 8:6; Colossians 1:16; Hebrews 1:2), that He led Israel through the wilderness (I Corinthians 10:1-4), and that, as "Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of the Most High God, . . . [He] met Abraham returning from the slaughter of the kings and blessed him" (Hebrews 7:1-3).

Did Jesus makes similar claims about Himself—that He had existed as God before His birth to Mary? Yes, many times! The Synoptic Gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—contain many claims of divinity and pre-existence, though few of them are explicit. In Matthew 12:8, He proclaims, "For the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath," equating Himself with the Creator, who "rested on the seventh day" and hallowed it (Genesis 2:1-3; Exodus 20:11). When Jesus drove out the moneychangers, He claims the Temple to be "My house" (Matthew 21:13). In lamenting over Jerusalem, He grieves over how He wanted to comfort and protect the people "often" throughout history, but they resisted (Matthew 23:37). After the scribes argue, "Who can forgive sins but God alone?" Jesus specifically says, ". . . the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins," a not-so-subtle declaration of His divinity, which He backs up with an astounding miracle of healing (Mark 2:7, 10-12). In Luke 10:18, He tells His disciples, "I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven," referring to an event that occurred before man was created (see Isaiah 14:12; Ezekiel 28:12-16). Later, under arrest and facing the Sanhedrin, He answers the question, "Are You then the Son of God?" with a firm, "You rightly say that I am" (Luke 22:70).

In contrast, the gospel of John proclaims the divine nature of Christ from its opening salvo: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God" (John 1:1). John shows Jesus doing little to obscure His divinity. Before the first chapter ends, He is acknowledged as "the Son of God" and "the King of Israel" (verse 49), and He Himself declares, "Most assuredly, I say to you, hereafter you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man" (verse 51). When in John 5:17 Jesus asserts, "My Father has been working until now, and I have been working," the Jewish authorities "sought all the more to kill Him, because He . . . said that God was His Father, making Himself equal with God" (verse 18). In John 5:26, He claims to have "life in Himself," that is, inherent life as ever-living God. He informs the Jews that He knew Abraham, who "rejoiced to see My day" (John 8:56), and when they protest that He was far too young, He announces, "Most assuredly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM" (verse 58), taking upon Himself the divine name of the Eternal God. Later, He tells His disciples, "He who has seen Me has seen the Father" (John 14:9), meaning that Jesus is "the express image" of the Father (Hebrews 1:3). In His final prayer with the disciples, He asks, "And now, O Father, glorify Me . . . with the glory which I had with You before the world was" (John 17:5).

These few examples only scratch the surface of the Bible's claims to the divinity and pre-existence of Jesus. Our salvation, in fact, depends on it, for if He were merely human, His death would be insufficient to pay for others' sins, even though He never sinned. However, if He were more than human—say, the Creator of all things—His sinless death would be priceless, more than enough to atone for the sins of all humanity for all time. Only the sacrificial death of the blameless Creator God makes redemption possible, and only His resurrection to life makes salvation and eternal life available to the called and chosen (Romans 3:21-26; 5:6-11). For this, we can truly be thankful.

Friday, February 15, 2008

False Christs and the True

One of the fiercer debates among early adherents of Christianity centered on the person of Jesus Christ Himself. Various groups held widely divergent views on just who He was. In ignorance or in stubborn refusal to accept the testimony of the apostles, first-century groups from Alexandria to Antioch began to teach a slew of different Christs. In Galatians 1:6-7, only two decades removed from Jesus' death on Golgotha, Paul warns the church against false gospels, perversions of the message preached by Jesus and His apostles. Many of these false Christianities became apostate in large part because they changed the teaching about Jesus Christ Himself.

These different Jesuses came in various forms. Some denied His pre-existence, teaching that He was simply a righteous man whom God accepted and glorified as the Messiah. Others advocated a Jesus who was the first creation of God. Early Gnostics of the Docetist persuasion conceived of Jesus as a normal man whom a spirit, Christ, inhabited upon His baptism—and who left Him to return to a pure spirit form before His suffering on the cross. Similarly, others thought of Him as only coming in the appearance of a man of flesh and blood, while in actuality He was of pure spirit essence, not even making footprints when He walked! An element among the Jews, eager to dissociate themselves from Him, even spread the rumor that they had it on good authority that He was really the bastard son of a Roman soldier, so how could He be the Messiah, much less divine?

This proliferation of false Christs became so widespread that by the end of the first century, the aged John son of Zebedee was forced to lay down an unambiguous rule to help the church recognize true from false: "By this you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God" (I John 4:2-3). He then proceeds to say that this perversion of Jesus' true nature "is the spirit of the Antichrist." In other words, changing the revealed truth about Christ changes Christianity, turning it against (anti-) Christ. By teaching falsehood about the Savior, no matter how sincerely, a group becomes His enemy.

Over the centuries since, Christian theologians and scholars have tried to figure out—even in some cases, to quantify—Jesus and His nature, and it has led to little more than continuing confusion about Him. The real cause of the confusion is that these very intelligent and devoted people have not truly accepted the revelation of Jesus in Scripture. Instead, they have trusted more in scholarship and their own abilities to reason out an answer.

During one of His encounters with the Pharisees, Jesus tells them, "Why do you not understand My speech? Because you are not able to listen to My word" (John 8:43, emphasis ours). These Jews could not understand or believe the truth Jesus taught because they were not spiritually equipped to handle it. Even Jesus' own disciples could not really understand Him until "He opened their understanding, that they might comprehend the Scriptures" (Luke 24:45). As Paul explains in I Corinthians 2:10-11, 14:

But God has revealed them to us through His Spirit. For the Spirit searches all things, yes, the deep things of God. . . . Even so no one knows the things of God except the Spirit of God. . . . But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.

Human conceptions of Christ are not enough; the real Jesus Christ of Nazareth must be revealed by God's Spirit through the Scriptures.

The New Testament, of course, presents Jesus Christ primarily in the four gospels, giving us four slightly different perspectives—eyewitness accounts—of Him and His ministry. Each author presents Him in a different manner, with a different intention, and to a different audience. In aggregate, they display a complete, rounded portrait of His personality, message, and purpose.

Matthew writes to a predominantly Jewish audience with the aim of persuading them that Jesus of Nazareth is the promised Messiah of the Old Testament, the true heir of David and King of Israel. He tends to emphasize Jesus' authority and fulfillment of prophecy.

Mark, a protégé of Peter, produces perhaps the simplest gospel, a fairly straightforward account of Christ's ministry. He highlights Jesus as the Servant of God, working steadily and diligently on behalf of mankind—all the way to His suffering and death and beyond.

Luke, the longtime companion of Paul, addresses a mostly Gentile audience. Downplaying Jesus' Jewish origins, he presents Jesus as the model Man, the greatest Son of Adam—in fact, the Second Adam—who came to save the whole world from its sins and to found a new, better world, the Kingdom of God.

Finally, John, writing last of all during a time of increasing apostasy, pens his gospel directly to the mature Christian, remembering scenes from Jesus' ministry that the other gospel writers left out. His shows Jesus Christ as God in the flesh, a Teacher of deep spiritual truth and the Way to eternal life.

These thumbnail sketches are hardly sufficient to explain God's revelation of His Son in Scripture, but they provide a starting point for understanding the approaches of the four gospels. Only in them, and in the rest of the Bible, with the help of God's Spirit, do we see the true Jesus Christ: Savior-King, Suffering Servant, Ideal Man, and Almighty God.

Friday, February 1, 2008

The Historical Jesus

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In the academic world of biblical history and archeology, scholars of the "minimalist" camp are gaining increasing prominence. Essentially, minimalists give the biblical record little credence; they minimize the importance of the Bible to the historical record, placing more trust in evidence from other sources. They tend, then, to discredit the Bible's claims until an archeologist digs up confirmatory proof or until other manuscript evidence comes to light to corroborate Scripture. It seems that, according to modern critical scholarship, the venerable Bible is the ugly stepchild of history, an embarrassment to today's "scientific" study of the past.

Of course, minimizing the Bible's claims cannot help but bring its main Character, Jesus Christ, into question. Since 1985, the Jesus Seminar, a group of about 200 scholars and authors, has done just that. Its aim is to reconstruct the life of the historical Jesus by using modern critical methods, weeding out fact from fiction in the gospel narratives. Out of hand, the members reject all "apocalyptic eschatology," or prophecy concerning the end times. In addition, they say that He "healed" only psychosomatic illness, and so discard His miraculous abilities. They do admit that He was crucified—as a public nuisance—by the Romans, but they reject His resurrection as the visionary experiences of Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene. In the end, stripped of all the "fictions" His early followers spread about Him, Jesus is revealed as merely an itinerant Jewish peasant who mingled with the socially disadvantaged and uttered a few pithy sayings.

Yet, if they are to be believed, how did such a common fellow make such a huge impact on world history—to the point that two billion people presently profess to be His followers?

There is a disconnect somewhere, and it is not in the people of faith.

Granted, no serious historian can claim that Jesus Christ is not a historical figure. There is simply too much evidence from the early Christian era to show that He really did exist. As biblical theologian and historian F.F. Bruce has written, "The historicity of Christ is as axiomatic for an unbiased historian as the historicity of Julius Caesar" (The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? 5th ed., 1972, p. 119). Ancient documents from respected writers like Tacitus, Flavius Josephus, Suetonius, and Pliny the Younger—and others—refer unreservedly to Jesus of Nazareth as an actual person.

The Roman historian Tacitus, writing about the great fire of Rome in AD 64 during the reign of Nero (AD 54-68), tells of how the emperor blamed the Christians living in the city for starting the conflagration. Perhaps referring to extant Imperial records, he notes in his Annals, XV.44:

Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome. . . .

Josephus, a Jewish general and historian who lived into the early second century, penned a controversial paragraph about Jesus (yet attested as early as about AD 324 in the writings of Eusebius, a Catholic church historian):

Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful miracles, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. He was the Christ, and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principle men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and then thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians so named from him are not extinct to this day. (Antiquities of the Jews, XVIII.3.3)

Suetonius, an annalist of the Imperial dynasty and a court official in the reign of the emperor Hadrian (AD 117-138), writes in his Life of Claudius, XXV.4: "As the Jews were making constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus [an alternate spelling of Christus], he expelled them from Rome." This decree of Claudius can perhaps be dated to AD 49. In another work, Life of Nero, XVI.2, Suetonius observes, "Punishment by Nero was inflicted on the Christians, a class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition."

Finally, Plinius Secundus, more commonly known as Pliny the Younger, governor of Bithynia in Asia Minor, corresponded with the emperor Trajan in AD 112 (Epistles, X.96) about how to treat Christians who refused to pay homage to the emperor as a god. He admits, "Having never been present at any trials concerning those who profess Christianity, I am unacquainted not only with the nature of their crimes, or the measure of their punishment, but how far it is proper to enter into an examination concerning them." He mentions Christianity, Christians, and the name of Christ ten times in the short letter, even remarking that Christians "addressed a form of prayer to Christ, as to a divinity."

The Emperor's reply is also preserved, in which he commends Pliny for his actions:

You have adopted the right course, my dearest Secundus, in investigating the charges against the Christians who were brought before you. . . . If indeed they should be brought before you, and the crime is proved, they must be punished; with the restriction, however, that where the party denies he is a Christian. . . .

There are many other, later, secular attestations of Jesus Christ as a historical figure from antiquity, but just these four reveal Christ and Christianity as being known by Roman officials at the highest levels as early as the reign of Claudius (AD 41-54). Certainly, the Roman governor Pontius Pilate knew Jesus Christ and reported His trial and execution in his official records, which unfortunately have not survived.

If nothing else, these early mentions provide unbiased support for many of the biblical claims about Jesus, including His truthful teachings, His miracles, His crucifixion, His resurrection, and even His divinity! The truth is that the critical scholars do not want to believe these things, even from the pens of historians that they usually trust, because they know that believing them would bind them to following Christ's teaching—and they will do anything to avoid that!