Category Archives: Christology
Why do heroes ride off into the sunset? Wouldn’t it be better if they stayed? Who wants a hero who skips town as soon as the crisis is over? The hard stuff is what comes next. Sure you beat up the big bad guy, but what about all the little ones? What about all the problems you didn’t fix? What about the daily grind of living in a broken world? Look at you on your cool horse. Who do you think is going to clean up all that poop it left behind?
Forget the sunset. I want a hero who sticks around, not one who takes off.
But isn’t that exactly what Jesus did? His people waited thousands of years for him to come. And finally, the Messiah arrived. Then….bam! He’s gone. One minute he’s there with the disciples, and then “he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight” (Acts 1:9).
He ascended. He left.
I can just picture the disciples standing there, staring into the sky like a bunch of kids watching all their balloons float away.
The Messiah rode off into the sunset.
What is that all about? Why wouldn’t Jesus stick around? You’d think a few thousand years would be enough waiting already. Did he really need to take off and make us wait longer? That’s like telling the kids on Christmas morning that they’ll need to wait until New Year’s to open their presents.
That’s just mean.
So something must be wrong with how I’m telling this story. The ascension isn’t a mean trick that God played on us. And it certainly isn’t about Jesus leaving us just when we needed him most. The way the Bible tells it, the ascension is fundamental to God’s story.
5 Reasons the Ascension Matters
Luke begins the book of Acts with the ascension for a reason. In Luke’s story, which includes both the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts, the Ascension is the critical hinge between the life/death/resurrection of Jesus (Luke) and the story of his Spirit-empowered people at work in the world (Acts). And that’s because, for the biblical authors, the Ascension is critical.
1. The Kingdom
It’s really with the ascension that Jesus establishes the Kingdom. Although Jesus lived his entire life in fulfillment of God’s Kingdom promises, the ascension is key. That’s why the Bible pictures the Ascension as Jesus going up into heaven leading a host of captives (Eph. 4:8), the defeated enemies of the Kingdom. And, arriving in heaven, he sits down at the Father’s right hand (Ps. 110:1; Heb 1:3). His rule has begun. The Kingdom is here! With his birth the King arrives. With his life, death, and resurrection the King redeems. With his ascension the King rules. If you stop short of the ascension, the story dies.
2. The Priest
And, having returned to the father, Jesus also serves forever as our true High Priest (Heb. 9), the perfect priest who cleansed the people from their sins and will always represent them before the Father. The ascension breaks the cycle of God’s people continually needing a new priest to offer a new sacrifice. With the ascension, Jesus becomes our true priest forever.
3. The Spirit
In one of the most amazing statements in the Bible, Jesus says that “it is to your advantage that I go away” (Jn. 16:5). I can think of several people who could make the world a better place just by leaving it. But Jesus? How can his departure be good for us? Because the ascension is when Jesus sends the Spirit to God’s people. His departure is good news because the Spirit is good news. So, having promised to send the Spirit once he was gone, that’s exactly what he did. After Acts 1 comes Acts 2 – Jesus ascended and the Spirit came. Good news.
4. The People
But now for an interesting question: Why did Jesus need to leave in order to send the Spirit? Couldn’t the Spirit have come while he was here? To be honest, I have no idea if God could have done things differently. Probably. So why do it like this? As I’ve said before, I try to avoid answering “Why did God…?” questions. But I do wonder if Jesus ascended and sent the Spirit to empower God’s people so that we could do what we were always supposed to: image God in creation as his people. Jesus could have continued doing that for us. He does it far better than we ever could. But God’s plan was never to carry out our role for us. He wants us to do it. So I wonder if the ascension is about God creating space for his people to be his people and carry out their calling in the world. I don’t know, but I wonder.
5. The Future
Finally, I think the ascension is a powerful reminder of our destiny. Here it’s important to remember that Jesus did not stop being human when he ascended. It’s not as though his humanity was a costume that he put on at Christmas and hastily discarded at the ascension. Jesus represents us as our High Priest forever specifically because he remains one of us forever. So the ascension points to our destiny as humans – ruling over God’s creation and manifesting his glory everywhere.
The ascension is not an optional add-on to the story, a piece that we may choose to discuss if we have any time after dealing with the more important parts. The ascension is critical. The ascension is when the King rules, the Priest represents, the Spirit comes, the People serve, and the future shines with the brilliance of God’s plan.
Jesus didn’t just ride off into the sunset, leaving us to clean up the mess he left behind. Jesus ascended to the right hand of the father so that God’s plans could be accomplished. Once we really understand that, we’ll agree that it truly was better for us that he go.
[I asked someone to read through my gospel book, and he pointed out that I didn’t have anything in there on the ascension. What a tragic oversight! So this is my first shot at addressing that omission. Let me know what you think.]
My daughters don’t believe in Santa Claus. They never have. That’s mostly because my wife and I are evil and we told them from the very beginning that Santa Claus wasn’t real. (If this is news to you, please accept my apologies for breaking the news in such a heartless way.) We made sure they knew that many people like to pretend that Santa is real. And, since we don’t want to ruin their fun, we shouldn’t tell other kids the truth about Santa. The last thing we wanted to deal with were a bunch of angry parents wanting to know why our kindergartener had ruined their holiday traditions.
Although I like how we’ve handled the Santa Claus issue, and I wouldn’t want to do it differently, it’s hard not to notice that my daughters never approached Christmas with the same kind of anxious anticipation as other children. There were no eager questions about “When will Santa be here?” or whispers of “I think I hear him.” An element of expectation comes with the story of Santa Claus that has a nearly irresistible sense of childish delight. And, when he’s finally arrived, all of that pent up expectation–all the anxious hours of waiting, all the uncertainties and anxieties–explode in the delighted yell, “He came!”
To some degree, that’s what the Advent season is all about.
[The following is a section from the Gospel book where I’m trying to deal with the concept of “substitution” in the atonement. I’d love to hear what you think about how I’ve approached this one.]
How well do you think this would work as a threat: “If you don’t behave, I’m going to spank your brother?” I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure this would make me want to misbehave even more. Not only am I not going to be punished for this, but you’re going to punish him instead? Outstanding! Sign up me.
I actually use this threat with my high schools guys sometimes. If one of them is acting up, I’ll tell him that if he doesn’t start behaving, I’m going to beat up one of the other guys. They usually stop for a second and then laugh at how absurd that sounds. It’s such a stupid threat that it makes them pay attention just long enough for me to get them back on track. Punish someone else for what I’ve done? That’s just dumb. It doesn’t make any sense.
If you think about it, punishing another person for my actions isn’t just dumb; it’s unjust. Think about all the stories we’ve heard in the last few years of people who were on death row, about to be executed for some crime, and then it was discovered that they were actually innocent (of that crime at least). Every time that happens, the country is outraged. We were all set to kill these men for crimes someone else had committed. That’s not just. It’s not right.
But isn’t that exactly what God did with Jesus? According to Paul, Jesus “gave himself up for us” as a “sacrifice for God.”[i] In other places, he says that Jesus “died for our sins.”[ii] He even goes so far as to say that though Jesus himself “knew no sin,” God “made him to be sin” so that his people could be made righteous. Elsewhere, we find Peter talking about the “just” dying for the “unjust,”[iii] and in Isaiah we have a promise that someone would come and be “crushed or our iniquities.”[iv]
How can this make any sense? If we’re the ones who sinned, how does punishing Jesus accomplish anything? Isn’t that like getting angry at someone you work with, and then coming home and taking it out on your kids?
And yet we know something deeper must be going on here. The Bible makes it clear that God is a God of justice and righteousness: “His work is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he.”[v] God is so concerned about justice, that he routinely commands his people to live just and fair lives.[vi] So we must be missing something here. If it’s unjust, God wouldn’t do it. If God did it, then it’s not unjust. Those are our only options.
The problem is that we’re probably looking at Jesus’ death the wrong way. It’s not as if God suddenly reached the point where he was ready to fix the whole sin problem, so he looked down at Palestine and thought, “Hmmm, that carpenter looks nice. I think I’ll kill him.” And then, after killing some random person, he went on to forgive the rest of us. That would be unjust.
This is different. Jesus isn’t just some carpenter; he’s the second Adam.
In an earlier post, I argued that Adam and Eve’s sin impacted all of us because we were “all in it together”? Although it’s hard for us to understand, their actions in the Garden affected us all. Standing at the beginning of the story of humanity, their decision shaped the story for everyone who followed. Every human since then has been “in Adam.” That means that we are in the family that Adam began, part of the story he created. And, as we’ve emphasized throughout this book, being “in Adam” means being east of Eden, in the darkness of the fall.
So what we need is another Adam, someone who can start a new story—one with a much better ending.
And that’s exactly what we have with Jesus. He’s the “last Adam” who has come to include all of us in a new story, a new humanity.[vii] Jesus didn’t replace us when he died for us on the cross, as though God just picked some random victim to abuse, he included us in his death on the cross so that we might experience the new life of being “in Christ.” Everyone who belongs to Jesus died with him on the cross.[viii] But we died with him so that we might be raised with him into the new life of the people of God.[ix]
Our problem is with thinking that Jesus was just our “substitute” when he died on the cross. He didn’t just take our place, but he made a place for us within him so that we might all be included in his death and the blessings that flowed from that act of loving faithfulness.
That’s why the New Testament places such strong emphasis on the fact that God’s people are now “in Christ.” Jesus is the “last Adam” who has come to bring life and recreate humanity after God’s image.[x] Both “Adams” made decisions that affected everyone, but in very different ways. All of those who are “in Adam” experience sin, death, and condemnation; but those who are “in Christ” receive grace, righteousness, and forgiveness.[xi] Or, as Paul says elsewhere, “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.”[xii]
If you want to sink your teeth into this one, I strongly recommend spending some time reading Ephesians 1. Just notice all the times that Paul emphasizes that God’s people are “in Christ” or “in him,” and consider the tremendous blessings that come as a result of being a part of that new family, that new story.
The good news is that Jesus included all of God’s people “in him.”
[i] Ephesians 5:2
[ii] 1 Corinthians 15:3; cf. Galatians 1:4
[iii] 1 Peter 3:18
[iv] Isaiah 53:5
[v] Deuteronomy 32:4
[vi] e.g. Deuteronomy 16:20; Leviticus 19:36; 1 Kings 10:9
[vii] 1 Corinthians 15:45
[viii] Romans 6:8; Galatians 2:20
[ix] Ephesians 2:4-6
[x] 1Corinthians 15:45
[xi] Romans 5:12-21
The more I study Christian history the more I’m convinced that every Christian needs to have a solid foundational knowledge of it in order to guard themselves from bad theology, understand the origin of their own beliefs, and better realize the forgotten concept of what it means to be the universal church. We stand on the shoulders of faithful men and women who have gone before us, many times without realizing it. Thus, Wednesday (sorry I’m late on this) should officially have been “Thank a Dead Guy Day.” On June 22, 431 Cyril of Alexandria called the Council of Ephesus in order to address the teaching of the Patriarch of Constantinople, Nestorius. Nestorius had been wrongly teaching that there was a division between the humanity and divinity of Christ. The way he spoke of Jesus made it sound like there were really “two separate sons”: the Son of God and the Son of Man, the human being the part that the divine Son dwelt in intimate association with. For Nestorius this helped explain several Scriptures that spoke of divine as well as human attributes when speaking about Jesus. After all, how could God be hungry or tired (Matt. 4). Furthermore, people were speaking of Mary as the theotokos (Mother of God) and Nestorius felt it his duty to stop such talk. Enter Cyril! He saw the danger of Nestorius’ teaching. If Jesus was not fully divine, he could not redeem sinners. If Jesus was not fully human, he could not represent man. If Jesus was only a human being with an intimate divine connection, how was he any different from Old Testament prophets? He rightly saw the Jesus was not a split person, but one person with two natures. Jesus was fully man AND fully divine. Cyril referred to the union of deity and humanity in Jesus as the “Hypostatic Union.” Furthermore, since Jesus was God in the flesh, one could, strictly speaking, talk of Mary as the Mother of God. At the end of the Council of Ephesus the teaching of Nestorius was condemned and he was excommunicated for his refusal to recant his false teaching. The decision of the council in 431 has been the orthodox view of the church ever since. Seems fitting to remember this in a day when people want to speak of Jesus as merely a good prophet, teacher, or even divinely inspired human being. He was much more than that!
The king is dead.
That’s a problem.
How do you fix a story when your main character dies? If I was writing a comic book, I’d just come up with some fantastic explanation of how the character never really died in the first place. Maybe he actually had special mutant powers that allowed him to regenerate his torn and battered flesh, eventually regaining consciousness, tossing aside the stone blocking his tomb with superhuman strength, and wreaking dreadful vengeance on his enemies.
Wolverine Jesus anyone? I’d read that.
But this isn’t a comic book.
The Messiah really died.
Just imagine the disappointment for those who had followed him, believing his promises, anticipating shalom. Where’s the Spirit? Where’s our forgiveness and healing? Where’s the new kingdom and the new creation? Where’s the peace and joy of the new community imaging God’s glory forever? We believed you! How could you leave us like this?
The king came offering shalom, and shoah killed him.
So, his followers scattered. What else could they do? How would you have reacted?
What do you do when God fails?
[You can read the rest of the posts in this series on the Gospel book page.]
Jonathan Morgan, a doctoral student at Marquette, presented a paper titled, “Christus Victor Motifs in the Soteriology of Thomas Aquinas.” The paper argued that people have wrongly associated Aquinas almost exclusively with Anselm’s satisfaction theory of the atonement, neglecting the many ways in which he affirmed victory as an important aspect of the atonement. Rather than neglecting this motif entirely as many do or seeing it as merely tangential to his true understanding of the atonement as Gustav Aulen does, Morgan argues that it is fundamental for understanding Aquinas’ soteriology.
Morgan offers three lines of evidence to support this conclusion:
- Aquinas’ interpretation of Scripture. The first part of the paper offered several examples of Aquinas interaction with Scripture, noting that he regularly identifies Christ’s victory over death and the demonic as fundamental for understanding the atonement.
- Aquinas’ dependence on the patristics. Morgan rightly points out that Aquinas interacts extensively with patristic writers. And, he also points out how odd it is that people routinely see the patristic thinkers as affirming a “classical” understanding of the atonement (victory), but seldom see the influence that this had on medieval thinkers like Aquinas who were so keen on interacting with and remaining faithful to earlier thinkers.
- The theological necessity of the victory motif. Finally, Morgan points out that Aquinas’ understanding of sin requires more than the satisfaction theory alone suggests. Aquinas sees sin as a condition of bondage that has enslaved all human persons to the demonic, and Morgan argues that the satisfaction theory really does not address this aspect of the sin problem. So, the victory motif is soteriologically necessary given the nature of Aquinas’ view of sin.
The paper was somewhat interesting in helping me recognize the importance of the victory motif in the medieval period as a whole. Many have critiqued Aulen over the years for an overly schematized understanding of the atonement through history, one that regularly forces people into simplistic categories that are simply inadequate for the complexity of their theology as a whole. Aquinas is definitely the kind of person who cannot be simply categorized as “classical”. And, this is true of most great thinkers.
Thanks to Rod Decker for pointing out Moises Silva’s review of The Faith of Jesus Christ: Exegetical, Biblical, and Theological Studies edited by Michael Bird and Preston M. Sprinkle. As Decker notes, the most interesting part of the review is Silva’s own conclusion:
If some scholars are to be believed, Paul did not have enough sense to realize that the phrase pistis Christou is ambiguous. And to make matters worse, he unwittingly misled his readers by using the verb pisteuō with Christos as direct object again and again in the very same passages that have the ambiguous phrase! His bungling proved spectacularly successful, for in the course of nearly two millennia, virtually every reader—including ancient scholars for whom Greek was their native language—understood the phrase to mean “faith in Christ” and gave no hint that it might mean something else.
I haven’t been following this debate as closely as I should, but this sounds like a great, concise summary of the objective genitive view. If anyone knows of a similarly concise summary of the opposing view, let me know.
Given recent discussions regarding the relationship between the Father and the Son in the Trinity and whether this relationship should be understood as one of “eternal functional subordination,” this quote from B. B. Warfield seemed appropriate. In this section, Warfield is arguing that sonship is about likeness rather than subordination.
‘To be the Son of God is any sense was to be like God in that sense; to be God’s own Son was to be exactly like God’, and ‘Here [I Cor. II. 10-11] the Spirit appears as the substrate of Divine self-consciousness, the principle of God’s knowledge of Himself: He is, in a word, just God Himself in the innermost essence of his being….How can He be supposed then, to be subordinate to God, or to derive His Being from God? If however, the subordination of the Son and Spirit to the Father in modes of subsistence and their derivation from the Father are not implicates of their designation as Son and Spirit, it will be hard to find in the New Testament compelling evidence of their subordination and derivation.
“The Biblical Doctrine of the Trinity” in Biblical Doctrines (New York: Oxford University Press, 1929), 164-5.
I’ve recently had some conversations with some students who are wrestling with all of the Christian terminology surrounding the atonement. I believe this is a great teaching tool for Theology Professors, and would be worthy of having students memorize in order to get a better grasp on common terms and their definitions. Although N.T. Wright would not agree with some of the definitions……I don’t think he visits our blog much and many still see them as correct. If you don’t like rap, just mute and watch!
Recently, I read Stanley Hauerwas’ memoir Hannah’s Child. In it he talks about growing up Methodist in Texas. One of the things he was aware of was that there were primarily two kinds of Methodists – “Liberals” and “Conservatives.” A key point of theology that divided them was the Virgin Birth of Jesus Christ. Liberals, as you might have guessed, didn’t buy it. Conservatives did. Hauerwas did believe it – still does, it turns out – but the question he asked himself at the time was, “Why is the Virgin Birth so important?” He wasn’t asking, “Is something like this miracle possible?” It was a given that the God of the Bible could do anything He wanted to do. What Hauerwas was asking was, “What theological importance does the event of the Virgin Birth hold in God’s dealings with humanity?”
Often, the answer provided to the “why?” of the Virgin Birth is to address the problem of how could Christ be free of original sin, and therefore be fit to be our redeemer. Herman Bavinck nicely illustrates the point when he writes: “The exclusion of the man from His [Jesus’] conception…had the effect that Christ, as one not included in the covenant of works, remained exempt from original sin and could therefore also be preserved in terms of His human nature, both before and after His birth, from all pollution of sin.” (Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics – vol. III, 294). This obviously assumes that both the guilt and pollution of original sin is passed on from Adam to the rest of us “by natural generation” (cf. WLC 26). And indeed, within the architectonic of classical Reformed theology, this answer “works.” But for all of its usefulness, this answer about the Virgin Birth seems to miss something of the larger sweep of the good news. And here is where T.F. Torrance is nothing short of brilliant in his clarity, profundity, and pastoral sensibilities.
First, the Virgin Birth is a disqualification of human capabilities. Torrance writes, “The virgin birth is the doctrine that the movement of the Son of God to become man is one directional, from God to man: it cannot be reversed.” (99) Quite simply, it bears witness to God’s divine initiative in coming to man. It is an act of pure freedom on God’s part.
Second, the Virgin birth is the setting aside of human autonomy. In the birth of Jesus, God not only acts first, He acts alone so as to exclude any assertion of human will. For Torrance, the significance of Joseph’s non-involvement in the generation of Jesus lies in its value of showing that “man in the person of Joseph is set aside – he has no say in the matter, he exercises no act of self-will or of the flesh in order to bring about this act of God.” (100) It is an act of pure grace on God’s part.
Third, the Virgin Birth is the pattern of grace, and model of faith. God takes the initiative and approaches Mary through the word of His angel – “the word proclaimed to Mary is the word of election or grace: she is chosen and told of God’s choice. She has nothing to do in this matter except what is done in her by the Spirit. What Mary does is simply to receive the word, to believe, which she does not in her own strength, but in the strength given her by the Lord, and she is blessed because of that, not her virginity.” (101) What we see in God’s particular encounter with Mary is paradigmatic of His gracious action in the gospel for us as well. Torrance goes on to write, “As in the annunciation of the word to Mary, Christ the Word Himself became flesh, so in the enunciation of the gospel, we surrender in like manner to Christ the Word now made flesh, and there takes place in us the birth of Christ, or rather, we are in a remarkable way given to share in the grace of his birth and to share in the new creation in him.” (101) Just as there is no human activity in Christ’s birth to Mary, there is no prior human activity in our being brought to Christ either. It is an act of pure gospel on God’s part.
Divine initiative. Grace. Gospel. THAT is what the Virgin Birth is about, and what it teaches us. It not only “sets the stage” for Christ’s gracious acts on our behalf. It IS a gracious act of God on our behalf. It is the good news.