Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Jesus as Man: The Continuing Significance of the Incarnation

Much has been said and written defending the divinity of Jesus Christ according to the Scriptures.  So much that it has become easy to overlook the importance of the duality of Christ’s nature.  His humanity is less controversial, but holds a great deal of weight in understanding who He was, and what the New Testament claims about Him.  Jesus at the Incarnation became fully Man while retaining the fullness of the Godhead.  He continues to be fully Man as well as fully God, which has significant implications for His followers at the time the New Testament was written and now.
The writers of the New Testament clearly looked to the Old Testament writings, as well as the Gospel accounts, to understand the nature of Jesus Christ and prove who He was and what He came to do.  In the Gospels, Jesus Himself quotes from the Law, the Prophets and the Psalms to defend His own divinity (Matthew 22:44, for example).  The Gospels also quote directly from the Law and the Prophets to show who Jesus was; like Matthew 21:5 quoting Zechariah 9:9.  Even after Christ’s ascension into heaven, Acts records the apostles heavily relying on Old Testament Scripture to prove the truth of the Gospel.  The epistles also quote extensively from the Old Testament writings.  The first chapter of Hebrews alone quotes Psalm 2, Psalm 89, Psalm 97, Psalm 104, Psalm 45, Psalm 102, and Psalm 110, all to illustrate Christ’s supremacy over angels.  Jesus was regarded as the fulfillment of the Old Covenant (as He claims for Himself in Matthew 5:17), and also as God (John 8:58; John 10:30, 36; Colossians 1:15-17, Acts 20:28, 1 Timothy 3:16, John 14:9, John 20:28, to name a few references).  The New Testament gives us to understand that God is Trinity (John 15:26, Matthew 28:19); that is, that He eternally exists as three distinct Persons with one Nature or Form.  John 1 suggests this by describing Jesus Christ as the Word, who was with God in the beginning and who is God, and through whom all things were made.  Jesus claims unity with the Father in John 17:11.  The clearest description of God’s Trinitarian nature is described in 1 John 5:7, “For there are three that bear witness in heaven: the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit; and these three are one.”  God’s Trinitarian nature is also implied in the Old Testament; in Psalm 110, in prophecies by Isaiah (9:6 and 48:11), in the pluralistic language used in the first few chapters of Genesis (in the original text “God created” is plural; “Let Us make man in Our image,” etc.).  There are also several instances in which the “Angel of the Lord” appears, foretelling Isaac’s birth to Abraham and Sarah, wrestling Jacob, giving instructions to Joshua on how to defeat Jericho, which may be manifestations of the pre-incarnate Son of God.  Taken with Jesus’ repeated affirmations of His oneness with God the Father, it would be hard to take these as indication of multiple or separate gods, especially with proclamation to Israel: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God; the Lord is One.”  However, given the clear relationship of Jesus to the Father, His obedience and dependence on the Father in prayer, the Persons of the Trinity must also be understood to be distinct in relationship to each other and in their roles, though they are equal – as Jesus has the fullness of the Godhead (Col. 2:9).  Since the fullness of the Godhead dwells in Christ, it follows that every attribute ascribed to God belongs equally to the three Persons of the Trinity, who are also cited as present and active at the beginning of creation (John 1, plural language of Genesis 1, Jesus the Creator and Sustainer of all things as in Colossians 1:16-17, etc.).   The three Persons of the Trinity exist eternally as non-created beings.  Mankind, on the other hand, was wholly tainted by the fall of Adam and so was rendered incapable of attaining holiness (Romans 3:23).  Because humans are created beings, they can never become God (See Isaiah 43:10).  Only God, Who is eternal, can restore mankind into right relationship to Himself and give them righteousness (Acts 4:12).
The Incarnation of the second Person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ, was the means of accomplishing this restoration.  He, being fully divine, became Man “made a little lower than the angels” (Psalm 8:5), born of a virgin (Isaiah 7:14, Matthew 1:18-20), whose life was recorded by eyewitnesses to His ministry, His teachings, and His power as God embodied in a Man.  He became the perfect sacrifice, foreshadowed by the sacrificial system of the Law of the Old Covenant, Whose death paid for mankind’s transgressions once for all.  This was God’s plan.  To accomplish this, He had to become Man, for several reasons.  The payment for mankind’s sin required death (Hebrews 9:22), and God who is eternal cannot die.  To become the perfect sacrifice, He had to live a perfect human life under the Law (Galatians 4:4 together with 1 Corinthians 5:21).  He had to be a Man to intercede for mankind.  He had to fulfill prophecy (Isaiah 7:14, among many others) and Abrahamic Covenant (Genesis 22:18), coming from his seed as the “Son of Man” (Daniel 7:13-14).  He had to identify with Adam, so that sin could be taken away by one Man as it came into the world by one man (Romans 5:12-20).  Where seeing the holiness of God had become lethal for humanity, He had to make direct, right relationship with God possible again (Romans 5:9-11).  It is clear that Jesus was a Man and the New Testament writers had reason to believe He was also God incarnate, and also that they believed He continued to be Man after His death and resurrection.  He was seen by over five hundred people (I Corinthians 15:6), and the Gospel accounts given by eyewitnesses record Him eating and being touched by the people who saw Him (Luke 23:39-43).  He also disappeared from people’s sight, as when He was revealed to the disciples with whom He had walked to Emmaus, but this is not indication that He was no longer a Man.  There is precedent in the Old Testament for God taking people, like Enoch (Genesis 5:24) and Elijah (2 Kings 2:11).
His ascension into Heaven, then, does not necessarily suggest that His humanity ceased there.  God glorified Him and the Bible says He put off the His mortal body and put on the Spirit, meaning He now exists, still in human form, with a glorified, incorruptible, spiritual body (1 Corinthians 15:44-48).  If these passages were taken to mean He ceased to be Man and became purely Spirit, this would necessarily blur the distinction between the second and third Persons of the Trinity.  Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is not the Holy Spirit, though He is one with Him.  Jesus sends the Holy Spirit (John 16:7-8), whom He calls a “Helper,” and speaks of His own return at a later date to judge the world (John 14:3, Matthew 16:27).  Jesus cannot send Himself as a Helper, and claim He is going to the right hand of the Father to return later.  His role is different from that of the Spirit, because He has a form that is distinct from the Holy Spirit.
This glorified, incorruptible, spiritual body, which Christ has, is emphatically proclaimed throughout the New Testament epistles to be the example of what His followers will become (as in 1 Corinthians 15:49).  They are said to be conformed to the image of Christ, transformed into His likeness (Romans 8:29, 2 Corinthians 3:18, Philippians 3:20-21, etc.).  How could this be if Jesus became just like the Spirit of God, since man can never become God?  He is spoken of as the Firstfruits, like the best of the crop which Jews would have offered to God to signify what the rest of the crop would be like (1 Corinthians 15:20-21.  And the rest of the chapter.).  He is also referred to as the Firstborn among many brothers, meaning His disciples, who are expected to be like Him (Romans 8:29).  If He is their example of future glory, expecting to be like Him, He must still be Man – but a glorified, perfected Man.
Likewise, because of His continued role in the lives of those who believe the Gospel message, He must continue to be Man.  Jesus is referred to as Intercessor, meaning one who sees the need of the people He intercedes for, acts for them, and pleads for them (Hebrews 7:25 and elsewhere).  Intercessor seems to carry a connotation of duality or inbetweenness, which fits well with Christ’s dual nature as God and Man.  He is also referred to as a great High Priest who intercedes.  This is in reference to the sacrificial system of the Law of Moses.  The High Priest would have been a man designated to intercede before God and offer sacrifices for Israel’s sin.  However, Christ’s sacrifice, which was Himself given once for all, because He is immortal and eternal makes Him High Priest forever (Hebrews 7:26-28).  Like the verse that says, “You are priest forever in the order of Melchizedek” (Psalm 110:4).  Hebrews makes this point very strongly.  Since this office never ceases from the time He died on the cross onward, there is no reason to suppose He would cease to be a Man, able to intercede for mankind and fulfilling the office of High Priest of the New Covenant.  Even though the Old Covenant was fulfilled and the authority of the Law superseded (Galatians 3:24-25), the New Testament says it is a shadow of things to come (Hebrews 10:1), meaning Christ’s claim to High Priesthood is still legitimate in the New Covenant, the perfecting of the imperfect ministry of former high priests of the Old Covenant.
However, if Jesus Christ, at His ascension had ceased to be Man, this would not only lessen the glory of what He did in becoming Man, it would drastically change His post-ascension relationship to His disciples.  If Christ had returned to being just Spirit, even if He had died for mankind and risen again, it is hard to conceive that it would have left mankind in much different a state than they were before.  Christ came to restore mankind into right relationship with God; this includes tearing the veil and making direct interaction with Him available to those who believe (Galatians 3:9-12).  He makes this possible by remaining Man, High Priest, Intercessor, and pattern for humanity.  As the Scriptures say, what hope, if there is no resurrection from the dead (See 1 Corinthians 15:17-20)?  Yet Christ is said to have risen with an incorruptible body.  If He had not, the resurrection promised to those who believe in Him would have to be either a very temporary reward, or much of the language of the New Testament would have to be taken as figurative, which the writers do not seem to intend. 
This understanding that Christ must remain fully Man as well as fully God has serious implications for His followers.  This centers the religion of the Gospel on a relationship with a Person forever able to sympathize even with our weaknesses (Hebrews 4:15).  This means that those in the New Covenant have a constant Intercessor who understands and relates to every need.  To believers in Him, Jesus is not “Space Ghost,” out there somewhere, who was just human for a little while, but a very real Leader who is wholly worthy of worship but also gives them a very real hope of becoming like Him.  This means His followers have a hope of one day seeing and knowing Him as a glorified Man.  It also suggests prophecies in Revelation concerning His return and reign on earth may be taken literally, without having to deal with the difficulties of a Spirit being the head of a government or anything like a second incarnation.
The writers of the New Testament clearly took a view of Jesus Christ as a very personal Savior, who not only was to be worshipped as fully God, but also to be admired and imitated as a perfected Man, able to sympathize with humanity, still interceding before God the Father, and the example of their future glory.  It is reasonable to conclude that the second Person of the Trinity, the Son of God, is also eternally the Man Jesus called the Christ.  And His being perfected Man is part of what makes Him Messiah.

No comments:

Post a Comment