The nature of Christ: Four measures of a mystery

A review of the Seventh-day Adventist understanding of the divine-human nature of Jesus Christ

Roy Naden, Ed.D. {retired) is a professor of religious education at Andrews University. He lives in Bainbridge Island, Washington.

Seventh-day Adventist Statement of Faith #7: "Man and woman were made in the image of God with individuality, the power and freedom to think and to do. Though created beings, each is an indivisible unity of body, mind, and spirit, dependent upon God for life and breath and all else. When our first parents disobeyed God, they denied their dependence upon Him and fell from their high position under God. The image of God in them was marred and they became subject to death. Their descendants share this fallen nature and its consequences. They are born with weaknesses and tendencies to evil. But God in Christ reconciled the world to Himself and by His Spirit restores in penitent mortals the image of their Maker. Created for the glory of God, they are called to love Him and one another, and to care for the environment. (Gen. 1:26-28; 2:7; Ps. 8:4-8; Acts 17:24-28; Gen. 3; Ps. 57:5; Rom. 5:12-17; 2 Cor. 5:19, 20; Ps. 51:10; 1 John 4:7, 8, 11, 20; Gen. 2:15).

Thanks to the Romans, life flourished during the second century in the city of Aries, in Gaul, today's southern France. When they arrived from Italy, the Roman soldiers brought their taste for fierce amusement and erected a 20,000-seat amphitheater to display and experience it. Among other so-called "sports," they introduced bull fighting, which still flourishes in the same well-preserved amphitheater.

A five-minute walk away is the town square. As I walked into that square in 2001, my focus went immediately to St. Trophime's Church, named after a third century bishop of the city. Above the twin entrance doors, divided by a slender red-marble pillar, I saw what brought me to Aries. Carved from stone in the tympanum above the doors is depicted John the revelator's vision of Jesus surrounded by a lion, an ox, an eagle, and a man. The Church Father Augustine understood these four creatures to represent the four portraits of Jesus presented in the four Gospels. He wrote:

"We concur... [that] the Four Living Creatures in the Apocalypse . . . represent the Four Gospels, . . . Lion, the King of Beasts . . . St Matthew; ... Ox, the Sacrificial Victim . . . St Luke ....[And] St Mark . . . relates what Christ did in His Human Nature. . . . These three Living Creatures the Lion, the Calf, the Man walk on the earth. The first three Evangelists describe specially those things which Christ did in our flesh. . . . But St John soars to heaven as an Eagle, above the clouds of human infirmity, and reveals to us the mysteries of Christ's Godhead."1

How can we understand?

How can we understand Jesus' divine nature and His intimate connection with us in His human nature? The reality is we can't. The apostle puts it accurately when he declares it a mystery (1 Tim. 3:16). Theologians have traditionally sought to understand Jesus' nature by searching the Scriptures, finding a phrase or verse here and another there. This is because Scripture simply does not address the theme comprehensively in any one place.

Canvassing the Scriptures we deduce that Jesus has all the characteristics of God, for He is God (Luke 1:35; Mark 1:24). First is His unfailing love (John 3:16), then omnipotence (Matt. 28:18; John 17:2), omniscience (Col. 2:3), omnipresence (Matt. 18:20; 28:20), and an eternal life preexisting Creation (Isa. 9:6; Col. 1:17). We also learn that He is rightly worshipped as God (Heb. 1:6; Phil 2:10, 11), for He and the Father are One (John 14:9), and He is the great "I AM" of the Old Testament John 8:58).

On the reverse side of the coin, we know something of the human nature of Jesus, which He took at His incarnation and will retain for all eternity (Luke 22:18; Acts 11). More than 80 times in the New Testament we read the title, Son of Man. And just as He is perfect in His divine nature, He is perfect also in His human nature so He could be our Savior. He "knew no sin" (2 Cor. 5:21), He "did no sin" (1 Peter 2:22), "in Him is no sin" (1 John 3:5). So there is no reason for us ever to have the slightest question about "the perfect sinlessness of the human nature of Christ,"2 for He was unquestionably without "a taint of corruption."3 And unlike us in our sinful state, Jesus had not the slightest inclination or desire to sin.4 But vicariously He took upon Himself our sins and atoned for those sins in which He had no part just as we enjoy His righteousness in which we have no part.5

Jesus becoming human; what does it mean?

But what does it mean that Jesus became a human being, as fully human as we are, and still remained as fully God as before the Incarnation? Again it is no ordinary mystery, it is a "great" mystery beyond our understanding (1 Tim. 3:16)!

The disciples had no reason to doubt the humanity of their Master. Some of them first met His human mother Mary at the wedding celebration in Cana. So they knew the person that carried Him to term to begin His human life on earth. There's nothing more thoroughly human than that!

They observed Him during His short public ministry when He got hungry, tired, and thirsty like the rest of them. They saw Him cry in His sadness at the tomb of Lazarus. They knew of His intense prayer life, revealing His complete dependence on the Father. And in the Garden of Gethsemane three of them heard Him beg for human sup port in the intensity of beginning to take upon Himself the sins of the world. It was soon painfully observed that He bled when whipped, and staggered under the weight of a load too heavy for His weakened body.

So His intimates knew that He had accepted our humanity with the physical limitations which thousands of years of sinful disintegration had imposed, but He took human nature without in any way inheriting the sinfulness of being human.6 Mystery!

The four creatures and the four Gospels

But perhaps there are other ways for us to "discover" the God-Man Jesus than assembling isolated Bible texts as legitimate an approach as that is. Perhaps we can best bring Him to life in our hearts by looking at the four complementary portraits of Jesus in the Gospels, those images depicted in the carving above the doors of St. Trophime's Church in Aries.

Near the end of His public ministry. Philip spoke for the disciples when he asked Jesus to show them the Father. Jesus showed His anguish at this request when He exclaimed, "Have I been so long time with you, and yet hast thou not known me, Philip? he that hath seen me hath seen the Father" (John 14:9).

But how revealing of our humanity is Philip's question! In our humanity we seek not so much a cognitive response to our questions about the nature of bur Lord as an experiential one. And that quest is wonderfully satisfied by exploring the experiences described by the four Gospel writers that "show" Him to us in the fullness of both His deity and His humanity.

Matthew's Jesus is like a lion, the king of the animal kingdom. Reading Matthew's Gospel we see a portrait of Jesus as the promised King of the Old Testament prophets. This is the New Testament's first portrait of Jesus. It is a very human role, a very human metaphor.

One readily deduces Matthew's primary goal in writing his Gospel. He wished to persuade his fellow Jews that their Messiah had come in the person of Jesus. So he begins his book with a genealogy. As you read the names, you are powerfully reminded of what a sinful line it is. But Matthew shows Jesus as a descendent of King David from whom the prophets predicted the Messiah would come. In the great poet-king we see a key person with a key foundational role in the genealogical line of Jesus' humanity.

David's life story reveals the vastness of self-deception, the very worst form of deception. But under King David's leadership, the Jewish nation saw some of its most memorable times, years to which the Jews constantly looked nostalgically. Matthew wants us to know that in Jesus we have our King the Son of King David. Yes, He inherited our human nature, but not the sinfulness of this exceedingly sinful human heritage. Mystery!

In Matthew's account of the three temptations we see Jesus fresh from His immersion in Jordan's waters con fronting Satan over the "kingship" of the world. When Jesus asked John to baptize Him, He threw down the gaunt let to Satan.

Through baptism He said in effect, "Satan, I'm challenging you. You won a battle in Eden with the first Adam. You'll lose the same battle with the Second Adam. I stand here like the first Adam before you tempted him. I, too, have never sinned. And I have a sinless nature like the first Adam at his creation. And I'll demonstrate God's power to sustain Me through all your temptations. . . .

"Where Adam failed, I will succeed. And in my success I'll redeem his failure and lay the foundation stone for the rebuilding of a perfect world. All that was lost in Eden I will regain. And it starts now!" And immediately the Spirit led Him into the wilderness and the great battles began.

In the Bethlehem story Mathew reminds us that King Jesus was born in the place predicted by the prophet Micah. There He was visited by princes from the East with "treasures" fit for a king. And at the end of His earthly ministry, Mathew reminds us, the people took up the refrain sung by angels at His birth, and sang "Hosanna to the Son of David."

According to Matthew's account, Jesus is the ultimate "Royal," Lion of the tribe of Judah, who invites us to find the fulfillment of our greatest hopes and dreams as princesses and princes of the King.

Mark's Jesus is a man, and he portrays the human nature of Jesus by showing His complete understanding of the human nature Jesus shares with us. One of the stories that shows it convincingly is his account of Simon's feast.

Mary took her life savings to a per fume dealer. After some haggling, she walked away with an alabaster bottle of the most expensive spikenard. The night of the party, she knelt before Jesus and poured the beautiful aromatic per fume over His feet. Rivulets poured to the floor, so Mary dropped her head to let her long hair fall so she could wipe His feet with her hair.

As the rare scent filled the room, Mary suddenly became the focus of everyone's attention. Judas castigated her for what he called "a waste!" But Jesus' human nature completely under stood what was going on, and He instantly came to her defense. He protected her, honored her, affirmed her, and predicted that wherever the gospel would be preached, her story would be told.

The Scriptures note that in conversation with Simon, Jesus emphasized that at His arrival, no one had washed His feet, and no one had given Him the traditional greeting of a kiss. In His humanity, Jesus missed these human touches! How thoroughly human He is! He feels as we do, understands our thoughts, can empathize and nurture us through the most dire of human predicaments, because He's been there.

Luke's Jesus is a sacrificial ox, revealing Jesus as our Burden-Bearer. Luke illustrates this aspect of Jesus' nature in numerous stories including the account of His return to Nazareth.

One Sabbath morning Joseph's and Mary's family went to synagogue. As the service got underway, Jesus stood, walked to the front, took a scroll of the prophet Isaiah and read: "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor" (Luke 4:16-19, NIV).

As Jesus sat down the congregation fell silent, intrigued. Then He spoke again, "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing" (Luke 4:21, NIV). He was telling the home crowd that no matter what their burden, He would bear it for them.

The burden of any physical disability like blindness, the burden of poverty, the burden of incarceration, sometimes of the innocent, the burden of relational or emotional oppression, whatever the burden, He bears it for us! Everything He had just read in Isaiah. That's the nature of Jesus, and the reason He invites all that are heavy laden with personal problems and sins to come to Him so He can lift them off our shoulders and carry them on His. Our very human Jesus bears all our human burdens.

John's Jesus is an eagle, whose farseeing sight, and heavenly flight are metaphors of His divine nature. As Augustine observed, three Gospels accent the human nature, one, the divine.

There's something mysterious and awe-inspiring about John's opening words. He writes that in the beginning of our world was the Word, Jesus, and the Word was with God the Father, and the Word was God. Nothing came into existence without the Word (see John 1:1-3). Like an eagle flying far out of sight in the heights of the heavens, Jesus lived and lives in full deity.

John continues in the opening chapter of his Gospel that all who believe in Him He gives the right to become His children, part of His family (see John 1:12). And after Jesus became a human being with human flesh, we were able to see the glory of the Father in Him, full of grace, the amazing grace that saves each one of us (see John 1:14). From the beginning John emphasizes the divinity of our Lord.

And in a story recorded only in John's Gospel7 we see a sublime illustration of Him as our divine Savior who does not condemn us but who alone can forgive our sins!

It is very early in the morning; cool, but sunny. Jesus has spent the night outside Jerusalem on the Mount of Olives in prayer. Another man had spent the night inside Jerusalem involved with illicit lovemaking. Long shadows from the rising sun stretch across the temple courtyard making contrasting blocks of darkness and light. It was still too early for the large crowds that would come as the day proceeded.

In the midst of this tranquil scene came a disturbance from a group of religious leaders, Pharisees and rabbis. They didn't come alone. They were herding a frightened, disheveled young woman. Her tresses had not been combed. Her robe had been hastily drawn around her shoulders. The dark shadows under her eyes reflected her lack of sleep. They shoved her in front of Jesus and commanded her to stand there.

She kept her head lowered in humiliation in front of the finely robed men that ruled her society. The spokesman described the problem. "This woman has been discovered while in the act of adultery. Under these circumstances, the Law of Moses demands that we stone her to death. Do You agree?" (see John 8:4, 5). She began to count her last moments on earth, sorrowful for her many failures at such a young age. She only hoped the first stone would knock her unconscious.

Then she hears Someone say, "Whoever is without sin, you throw the first stone." Then all she "heard" is silence.

Jesus bends low over the flagstones of the courtyard. The sweepers had not yet begun their work. The dust blown in overnight still lies undisturbed, so He begins to write in that dust. Then sound is heard of sandals on sand, the sound of someone disappearing from sight. Then another, and another.

Some time later Jesus stands and looks at the woman. Mercy looks intently into the eyes of Misery. "Where are your accusers?" He asks. She looks around to discover that not one of the arrogant gang that had grabbed her in a bed room and herded her to the temple court is still there. "There are none, Lord!" she replies in amazement. And then she hears inspiring words from the divine Word of God: "I don't condemn you either. Go and sin no more."

Her soul feels a relief and restoration she can't put into words. Her eyes fill with tears as she drops to the ground at Jesus' feet. She confesses her sins to Him, receives forgiveness, and is born again to become one of the most trust ed and loyal followers of Jesus for the rest of her life. 8 John's Jesus, the eagle, in His divinity made her a new person.

So what is the nature of our Jesus? The pictures painted in the four Gospels show Him to be fully, truly man, but without sin, and fully, truly God, who ransomed us and gave us everlasting life. Mystery!

It is the wonderful mystery of His dual natures, fully God and fully man, on which our personal fulfillment on earth, and our hopes of heaven are firmly based.

1 Quoted in The New Testament: A Commentary, Bishop Christopher Wordsworth (London: Rivingtons, 1874}, xlii.

2 Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, 5:1131.

3 Signs of the Times, Dec. 9, 1897.

4 Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, 5:1128, 1129.

5 Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1898), 25.

6 Signs of the Times, May 29, 1901.

7 It is well-known that this story appears in only one of the early uncia! manuscripts and that none of the early Church Fathers comments on it. But there is a high level of affirmation that it is nonetheless a true story.

8 The Desire of Ages, 462.

 

 


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Roy Naden, Ed.D. {retired) is a professor of religious education at Andrews University. He lives in Bainbridge Island, Washington.

June 2003

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