“What is Truth?”

Pilate asked a battered and bleeding Jesus that question, as the Son of God stood before him in chains. From what we know of Pilate’s character, it was probably an expression of cynicism rather than a genuine seeking. But the question is just as valid as ever in an age where truth has become relativised and we have “no right” to impose our views on others. Within Christianity there is a spectrum of positions with respect to how rigorously we should define saving truth. At one end we have churches that ascribe to doctrinal rigor. They alone have “the truth,” and the rest of Christendom is astray from biblical teaching and the original apostolic faith (or, for Roman Catholics, the mother church and her apostolic authority). At the other end we have the very ecumenical churches, which have a brief and perhaps flexible doctrinal position.

Unity and purity are a paradox. To have unity, causes of disunity must be dealt with; either reconciled or overlooked. But if the differences are seen as integral to saving truth rather than just a manifestation of traditional values, they become a question of purity of the faith. But going too far in the endeavour to create a truly pure church inevitably results in division over matters of indifference and conscience. The church becomes an exclusive fortress of “saints” rather than a refuge for sinners. Yet it can’t be a free-for-all either; you don’t get to believe whatever you like and still meet the criteria of “Christian.” The word Christian is, at the fundamental level, the label applied to a follower of Christ. So at one end of the spectrum we could have a legalistic, tightly defined and controlling Christian cult where the smallest dissent in doctrine or practice would result in disfellowship, but at the other extreme, nothing much more than a club that happens to meet in a particular building. Both of these have crossed a line and are well outside the boundary. But where is the boundary? More importantly, where is the optimum point? Where is the correct balance between unity of the followers of Christ, imperfect as we are, and purity of the faith?

The Bible has quite a bit to say about unity, and also about purity. These passages designate the boundary, or envelope, outside of which a church has ceased to be biblical. Unity of brothers is a good and pleasant thing (Psa 133:1). Racial and gender differences are dissolved; we are all one in Christ Jesus (Gal 3:28). The unity of the church comes about by the unifying effect of the death and resurrection of Christ. By being united in him we share the unity of love that characterises the Godhead (John 17:11, 21–23). God who is love in relationship extends the beauty of that unity in distinctiveness with his creation through the work of Christ (1 John 4:7–11). The church then is the body of Christ and we are all members of the one body, despite our individuality and the gifts which God the Spirit distributes according to his will. The Spirit unifies the body of Christ and sanctifies it (Rom 12:5, 16–18; 1 Cor 12:11–14; Eph 4:1–16). The unity which we have in Christ is precious and is to be safeguarded by our loving behaviour to one another (Eph 4:2–3; 1 Pet 3:8; Rom 12:16–18; 15:5–7). Those who would disrupt the unity of the church have forgotten that there is only one foundation; Jesus Christ, upon which we humbly build and plant.

So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building. According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 3:7–11).

Because our unity is based on the saving work of Christ, we must not cause our brothers and sisters, for whom Christ died, to stumble. That means that when it comes to beliefs and practices that are not essential to the faith, we must give way. We must agree to differ. We must deprive ourselves in order to serve our brothers and sisters and to build them up. Unity must not be achieved by forced conformity, and to squeeze out a brother or sister because of a difference on non-critical matters is a dreadful sin (Romans 14:7–19; 1 Cor 8:5–11). The more rules a church imposes for behaviour and the more detailed a set of beliefs to which its members must subscribe, the closer to legalism and the further from grace that community becomes. To try to force unity on the basis of an over-defined purity will cause a church to implode, and will destroy brothers and sisters for whom Christ died.

On the other hand, there must be common ground for there to be unity. That common ground is our connection to Christ. It is only because we have fellowship with God through Christ, that we have fellowship with each other; NOT the other way around! (1 Cor 1:9–10; 1 John 1:3) The New Testament is full of warnings about false teachings. As early as the first century there were creeping apostasies such as Judaising, Ebionism, Docetism and early Gnosticism. These either denied the humanity of Christ or his deity, and we catch hints of such specifics, as in

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already” (1 John 4:1–3).

False teachers and grievous wolves would penetrate the flock; impurity of doctrine would lead to disunity and schism (2 Pet 1:1–2; 2 Tim 4:3–4). It does matter what we believe. God was angry with Job’s three companions because they did not speak of God what was right (Job 42:7) Jesus said that to know the only true God is eternal life (John 17:3). The writer to the Hebrews makes it clear that to please God we must have faith that he is and that he rewards those who seek him (Heb 11:6) To deny that Jesus is the Christ is to be a liar and the antichrist (1 John 2:22). The New Testament is also full of imperatives as to what Christian life should be, how we are to present our bodies as living sacrifices which is our logical and reasonable response to what Christ has done for us (Rom 12:1–2; John 15:1–14; Eph 4:1–7). Furthermore, we are to encourage and exhort one another to remain true to Christ (1 Thess 5:11; Titus 2:11–15).

The elder to the elect lady and her children, whom I love in truth, and not only I, but also all who know the truth, because of the truth that abides in us and will be with us forever: Grace, mercy, and peace will be with us, from God the Father and from Jesus Christ the Father’s Son, in truth and love. I rejoiced greatly to find some of your children walking in the truth, just as we were commanded by the Father” (2 John 1:1–4).

Truth is fundamental, essential to our unity in Christ, to our relationship with him and with each other. There is no other name by which we can be saved (Acts 4:12). Jesus is full of truth; he is the origin of truth and he is the truth (John 1:14–17; 14:6). True worshippers must worship in Spirit and in truth (John 4:23–24). Truth sets us free (John 8:32). In Jesus’ physical absence we receive the Spirit of Truth as a Helper just like him (John 14:16–17). The truth sanctifies, and God’s word is truth (John 17:17–19). Truth is the opposite of unrighteousness (Rom 2:8). The word of truth is the Gospel of salvation; those who love the truth are saved, those who love unrighteousness are condemned (Eph 1:13; 2 Thess 2;10–12; 1 Tim 2:4). The church, as the household of God, is to be a pillar and buttress of the truth (1 Tim 3:15).

Which brings us back to the question, what is truth? What are the essentials of what we must believe? Are they written in the 30 detailed items of the Christadelphian Statement of Faith and 36 Doctrines to be Rejected? Is that what saving truth was for Jesus and Paul and the early church? What about the 39 Articles of the Church of England, or the Westminster Confession or the Heidelberg Catechism? Or the simple confession of the Apostles’ Creed? Or even the Bible itself;

Undeniably great is the mystery of godliness: [God] was revealed in flesh, was declared righteous by (the) spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory” (1Tim 3:16 literal translation)

The essentials of saving truth reside in the person and work of Jesus Christ. This is the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. God’s word is truth, and Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. Any “Christianity” that is not centred on the person and work of Jesus Christ is not Christianity. Any church that tries to add things to the all-sufficient work of Jesus is not walking in the truth. No human works, no rules, no exclusivity can replace the unity and purity that comes from being part of the body of Christ, wholly reliant on him for our justification. United in him we stand, divided by matters of indifference we fall.

Look through the New Testament afresh and list the things that are central to the apostolic faith, central to the Gospel. Look at the definitions of truth and how truth fundamentally relates to the person and work of Christ. Examine anew the actual deficiencies of false doctrines; they all revolve around false concepts of Christ and his sufficiency and saving work. God in love sent his Son, that whoever believes in him would be saved. Not, whoever believes in a complex set of doctrines and rules beyond the fundamentals of Christ’s person and work. Not, whoever interprets the Bible through a specific formula or lens such as the works of pioneer writers or a central Society. Not, whoever lives in a certain prescribed way. No, whoever believes in Christ will be saved. The question, therefore, is not, “what is truth?” but Who is truth.

The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” (Rom 10:8–11)

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Jeremiah and the New Covenant

Jeremiah prophesied during the reigns of the last four kings of Judah and witnessed the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians in 586 BC. Unlike his predecessor Isaiah, Jeremiah was reluctant to be called as a prophet, and his career certainly wasn’t easy. He preached an unpopular and pessimistic message of God’s judgement on his sinful, rebellious people that was seen effectively as treason. He was persecuted, his written message burned, he was imprisoned, put in stocks and thrown into a well. Even after his prophecies of Jerusalem’s destruction were fulfilled, his words were still disregarded and he was hauled off to Egypt by a rabble in direct disobedience to God. In many ways the suffering of Jeremiah for his message of truth was typical of the suffering of Christ.

Yet Jeremiah’s message was not all doom and gloom. Even though Judah passed over the opportunity for repentance and sealed their fate, it was not to be final. In a symbolic act of future hope, Jeremiah bought his cousin’s field at a time when no one in their right mind would invest in the doomed kingdom — as a sign of hope that “fields and vineyards will again be purchased in this land” (Jer 32:15). He wrote to the exiles telling them the exile would not be permanent and encouraging with the message that God had not forgotten them; “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope” (Jer 29:11).

But Jeremiah’s message of hope went beyond the restoration of Judah from exile. It centred on the coming of the one called the Branch, introduced by Isaiah (4:2; 11:1, 10) and continued by Zechariah (3:8; 6:12).

Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The LORD is our righteousness’ (Jer 23:5–6; see also 33:15–16).

The Lord Jesus is indeed our righteousness; in the Gospel “the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith” (Rom 1:17). “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it — the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” (Rom 3:21–22). “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Rom 10:4). “Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Cor 1:30) “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21) “[That you may be] filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God” (Phi 1:11). “Not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith” (Phil 3:9). “To those who have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet 1:1).

A number of Jeremiah’s predictions concerning how God would act are seen to be fulfilled by Jesus. These are but a few of many Old Testament references to the character and deeds of God that are claimed for and by Jesus in the New Testament. One of these acts is God’s unique ability to judge righteously. Jesus said, “The Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son” (John 5:22). In Jeremiah, the LORD is the one who judges righteously, who searches the heart and mind and will give to everyone according to his deeds (Jer 11:20; 17:10). In Revelation, Jesus claims this for himself; “I am he who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you according to your works” (Rev 2:23) and “Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay everyone for what he has done” (Rev 22:12).

In common with Ezekiel, Jeremiah spoke of the failure of the leaders of Israel to shepherd God’s flock. “’Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!’ declares the LORD. Therefore thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who care for my people: ‘You have scattered my flock and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. Behold, I will attend to you for your evil deeds, declares the LORD’” (Jer 23:1–2). Jesus claimed that “All who ever came before me were thieves and robbers,” (John 10:8) and that he was the Good Shepherd, who would truly care for the flock (Jer 23:3; John 10:11–16).

There are a remarkable number of parallels between Jeremiah’s prophecies and those in Revelation. Clearly, Christ will fullfil all that Jeremiah said that God would do. The nations will drink from the cup of the wine of God’s wrath (Jer 25;15; Rev 14:10; 15:7; 16:19); Babylon will fall (Jer 50–51; Rev 18), to name just two.

The most detailed and specific link between Jeremiah’s prophecies and Jesus’ fullfilment is the New Covenant spoken of in Jeremiah 31 and 32.

Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jer 31:31–34).

And they shall be my people, and I will be their God. I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear me forever, for their own good and the good of their children after them. I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them. And I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me” (Jer 32:38–40).

This New Covenant is a covenant of the heart; God’s laws written on the heart, so that all will truly know God. It is a covenant of forgiveness. It is also an everlasting covenant that binds God’s people to him. The first century Jews would have known these prophecies and looked for the restoration of Israel under God. Perhaps they expected some grand ceremony as occurred when God descended on Sinai before the Israelites and proclaimed his covenant with them (Ex 19:1–6). Instead, the New Covenant was announced during a simple but profoundly significant meal on the anniversary of the Israelites’ departure from Egypt:

And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, ‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood’ (Luke 22:19–20).

Paul reminded the Corinthians of this: “In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me’” (1 Cor 11:25) “[God] has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor 3:6).

Jesus’ blood is “the blood of the eternal covenant” (Heb 13:20) by which we have the forgiveness of sins: “To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (Acts 10:43). Jesus is the means by which God dwells amongst and within his people; “For we are the temple of the living God; as God said, ‘I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people’” (2 Co 6:16). It has always been God’s intention to dwell among his people (Ex 29:45; 1 Kings 6:13; Ezek 37:26–27) and the tabernacle was a type of his more permanent dwelling (Ex 29:46). Now, Jesus has enabled this permanent indwelling; “In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit” (Eph 2:22) culminating in “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God” (Rev 21:3). Immanuel, God with us.

This covenant is not a covenant for the Jews only, but for the Gentiles, which had always been God’s plan (Gen 11:2–3; 17:4-5; Psa 22:27; 96:10–13; Isa 42:1, 6; 49:6; 60:1–3; Jer 3:17; Mic 4;1–3; Zech 2:11). All nations would be blessed through the Son of Abraham, Jesus Christ, the righteous Branch of David (Matt 12:18–21; Acts 13:47; Rom 15:8–12; Eph 3:6; Rev 7:9)

Abraham ‘believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness;’ Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘In you shall all the nations be blessed.’ So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith” (Gal 3:6–9).

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith’” (Rom 1:16–17).

For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (Gal 3:26–29).

The New Covenant brings together all these threads; justification by faith, the imputation of righteousness, forgiveness, the blessing of all nations, God dwelling among his people. No longer do we seek favour from God by obedience to the Law, because full obedience is simply not possible. Instead, God has worked on our hearts, through his love and grace. It is an inward change, enabled by the Spirit through the work of Christ. We have become new creations (2 Cor 5:17). “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2Co 4:6). This is a heart knowledge, not a mere head knowledge or lip service, and it comes through the indwelling of Christ through his Spirit (Rom 8:9–11; 1 Cor 3:16; Eph 2:22; 2 Tim 1:14). It is through Christ that we are made the people of God, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Gal 4:4–7; Eph 1:3–5; 1 Pet 2:9–10; Rev 1:6; 5:10).

Through the lens of the New Testament, or more correctly, New Covenant, we see the absolute centrality of Christ to not only Jeremiah’s prophecies of hope to a disobedient Israel, but to every covenant God made with his people. The Old Testament is incomplete, partially empty. Only in Christ is it full-filled; only through Christ do we really come to know God. God himself, the Shepherd of Israel, the only righteous judge of our hearts and minds, has always been committed to his people. And that people has always included Gentiles, because it is not through the works of the Law that we are redeemed, nor in any sense by our own strength. Rather, salvation has always been about faith, faith in the One who alone is righteous and faithful, whose covenant is everlasting.

Isaiah sees Christ’s glory

The message of the eighth century prophet Isaiah spoke again to first century Jews eagerly awaiting the intervention of God and the coming of Messiah. The coming of the Lord Almighty and the suffering servant were one and the same, but when both arrived in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, they were blinded to his identity, just as Isaiah foretold. Isaiah is the Gospel of the Old Testament. Handel’s magnificent 17th century oratorio, Messiah, takes 16 of its 53 movements from Isaiah. The Old Testament is fulfilled (completed) in Jesus Christ; only through the lens of the Gospel can we see what many of the Jews of Jesus’ day could not.

Isaiah’s commission occurred in 740 BC, through an extraordinary vision. Isaiah saw the Lord himself, a privilege reserved for very few (Ex 24:9–11; Ezek 1:1–28).

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!’ And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. (Isa 6:1–4)

Moses had asked to see God’s glory, and God replied that he would let all his goodness pass before Moses and would proclaim his name “The LORD” (The Being One). Moses hid in a cleft on the mountain as the LORD descended in cloud and proclaimed his Name; “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness…” and Moses bowed and worshiped (Ex 33:18–34:8). Isaiah too was awestruck; he cried, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” Then he was ritually cleansed from his sin with a live coal from the altar. (Isa 6:4–7).

The apostle John states that this vision of God’s glory and cleansing work which Isaiah saw was in fact the glory of Jesus Christ. He is the Lord on the throne; “Isaiah said these things because he saw his glory and spoke of him” (John 12:41) What things? The context provides the answer. The Pharisees and leaders of the Jews did not believe in Jesus, even though he had done many signs before them, and in spite of Jesus’ plea, “While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light.” John says this unbelief was in direct fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy; “Lord, who has believed what he heard from us, and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” and also, “He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, lest they see with their eyes, and understand with their heart, and turn, and I would heal them.” Isaiah said these things because he saw his glory and spoke of him. The reason John gives is that they loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God. These are direct citations of Isaiah 6. John further associates the Lord Jesus with glory, light and rejection in the prologue to his gospel. He also associates the glory of God with his grace and truth.

The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:9–14)

Uzziah’s wicked son Ahaz scorned the Lord’s ability to fight for Israel. God gave Ahaz a sign, which probably had initial fulfilment in the birth of Ahaz’s son Hezekiah, in whose reign God would defeat the Assyrian foe. But the prophecy had a much greater meaning: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Isa 7:14). In Matthew 1:23 we are told “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel, which means, God with us,” for his conception was from the Holy Spirit, in direct fulfillment of Isaiah. The child would be God, with us, by miraculous conception and incarnation.

Isaiah 8 continues the theme of God’s intervention for his people, instructing them not to dread what ordinary people dread, but to fear the Lord of hosts.

But the LORD of hosts, him you shall honor as holy. Let him be your fear, and let him be your dread. And he will become a sanctuary and a stone of offense and a rock of stumbling to both houses of Israel, a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem. And many shall stumble on it. They shall fall and be broken; they shall be snared and taken… Behold, I and the children whom the LORD has given me are signs and portents in Israel from the LORD of hosts, who dwells on Mount Zion. (Isa 8:13–18)

This passage is also specifically applied to Jesus. The Lord of hosts, whom they must honour as holy, is both the sanctuary and the stone of offence and rock of stumbling; Jesus (Matt 21:42–44; Luke 20:18–19; Acts 4;11; Rom 9:32–33; 1 Peter 2:6–8).

Isaiah 35 is a magnificent poem about the restoration of the people of God, full of beautiful imagery.

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad; the desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus; it shall blossom abundantly and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the LORD, the majesty of our God. Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who have an anxious heart, ‘Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you.’ Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy. For waters break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert” (Isa 35:1–6).

Isaiah again speaks of the glory of the Lord, the majesty of God, and the passage directly refers to Jesus. Hebrews 12:12–14 takes up the exhortation to “lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees,” and reminds them that without holiness no one will see the Lord. Isaiah was made holy so that he might stand and behold God’s glory (Isa 6:6–7). Jesus’ response to John’s query of his identity lays claim to this passage in Isaiah as proof of Who he is; “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” (Luke 7:22–23) “Your God will come! He will come and save you!” The coming of Jesus is nothing less than the coming of God, the Lord of Israel. In Luke 7:27, Jesus proclaims John as the one who would prepare the way for the Lord (Isa 40:3).

Isaiah 40 is another well known and well-loved chapter proclaiming the coming of the Sovereign LORD God as none other than Jesus.

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins. A voice cries: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.’ A voice says, ‘Cry!’ And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’ All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the LORD blows on it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever. Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good news; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good news; lift it up, fear not; say to the cities of Judah, ‘Behold your God!’ Behold, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young. (Isa 40:1–11)

The Lord God who would come with might, his reward with him (Rev 22:12) is the one who would tend his flock like a shepherd (Ezek 34:11:16; Matt 2:6; John 10:11–16). The way is prepared for the Lord; Jesus claims that John is the preparer and he is the Lord who would come; the Lord whom they seek would suddenly come to his temple (Mal 3:1; Matt 3:1–3, 11–12; Mark 1:2–3; Luke 1:76–79; 3;1–6). This astounding passage in Isaiah, which is speaking of the God of Israel, is unequivocally applied to the Lord Jesus Christ. The aged Simeon, beholding the baby Jesus in the temple, was one of the few to recognise who he truly was (Luke 2:29–35).

Isaiah 41 through 55 carries two major parallel themes. One is the repeated declaration of God, “I am,” in Hebrew YHWH, the name of the LORD. The other is the description of the enigmatic Servant who would come. The memorial name YHWH, “I am,” occurs throughout the Hebrew scriptures, not only as God’s name the LORD (kyrios in the LXX) but to stress who God is, especially in Isaiah. (Isa 41:4; 43:25; 44:6 — compare Rev 1:17; 2:8; 21:6; 22:13; Isa 46:4; 48:12, 17; 51:12 — see John 14:16; Isa 52:6). The Greek translation of YHWH, “I am/ I am the being-one” (ego eimi) is spoken by Jesus of himself. This is especially prominent in the writings of John, who seems to draw a lot from Isaiah (John 4:26; 6:20, 35, 41, 48, 51; 8:12, 18, 24; 28, 58; 10:7, 9, 11, 14; 11:25; 13:19; 14:6; 15:1, 5; 18:5, 6, 8). No first century Jew, familiar with the Greek Old Testament, could have failed to notice the referrence to Isaiah. Then there are even more explicit connections, such as between Isa 41:4 “I, the LORD, the first, and with the last; I am he,” comparing Revelation 1:4, 8, 17–18; 2:8; 4:8 and 22:13.

This section of Isaiah also presents the Servant. Although the Servant is sometimes explicitly equated with Israel (Isa 41:8–9, 44:21; 45:4; 49:3) it becomes evident that he represents the ideal Israel, but also transcends what Israel ever did or could ever do. In that sense he is the fulfilment of what Israel was supposed to be, in terms of a light to the Gentiles, a kingdom of priests and holy nation. In fact, the Servant is destined to bring Israel back to God as well as drawing the Gentiles to him.

The LORD called me from the womb, from the body of my mother he named my name. He made my mouth like a sharp sword; in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me a polished arrow; in his quiver he hid me away. And he said to me, ‘You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.’ But I said, ‘I have labored in vain; I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity; yet surely my right is with the LORD, and my recompense with my God.’ And now the LORD says, he who formed me from the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him; and that Israel might be gathered to him — for I am honored in the eyes of the LORD, and my God has become my strength — he says: ‘It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.’” (Isa 49:1–6)

Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice… ‘I am the LORD; I have called you in righteousness; I will take you by the hand and keep you; I will give you as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness. I am the LORD; that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to carved idols’” (Isa 42:1–8)

The Servant is one in whom the LORD delights, upon whom God’s Spirit rests (Matt 3:16–17) who would bring forth justice (righteousness) and be a light to the Gentiles, opening the eyes of the blind, setting free the captives (Matt 12:17–21; 15:30–31; Luke 4:17–21; 7:21–23; Rom 3:21–22; Heb 8:6–11; John 1:1–9; 8:12). What is also interesting is God’s adamant declaration that he will not share his glory with another. Jesus, however, does share God’s glory, and has from eternity (John 8:54; 13:31–32; 17:1, 5,24; Heb 1:3, 13:21; Rev 5:13). “We have seen his glory,” said John.

In Isaiah 45 we have several more declarations of the uniqueness of God, including

Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other. By myself I have sworn; from my mouth has gone out in righteousness a word that shall not return: ‘To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear allegiance.’”

Where do we find this fulfilled? Paul specifically applies this to Jesus, the servant who is Lord, having the very name of God, to the glory he shares with his Father. This passage explains how the Servant can be the Lord, the “I AM” and share in the glory of God.

[Jesus] who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross .Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:6–11)

This passage also explains the reason for the suffering of the Servant, and the means by which he brings salvation. Isaiah predicted this in detail. In Isaiah 50 we learn that the Servant will not be rebellious (as Israel had been). He would give his back to those who strike and his cheeks to those who pull out the beard, and not hide his face from shame or spitting. Yet The Lord God would help him and he would not be disgraced, but be vindicated and not declared guilty. (Isa 50:5–10). In Isaiah 52 we learn that God’s Servant will act wisely, and be lifted up (John 13:14–16; 8:28–29). His appearance would be astonishing; marred beyond human semblance and yet he would sprinkle (cleanse) many nations (Isa 52: 13–15; Heb 12:24; 1 John 1:7–9). But it is when we come to chapter 53 that Isaiah sets out the substitutionary sacrifice of the incarnate Servant of God in all his glory. He bore our griefs and carried our sorrows; he was wounded for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities, upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed (Isa 53:4–5). The innocent was slain for the guilty; it was our sins he bore on the cross. We had all gone astray like sheep, but God laid on him the iniquity of us all (v6). The apostle Peter refers to this;

He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls” (1 Peter 2:22–25)

The Lord Jesus is indeed the good and divine Shepherd, but as one of us in his humanity he was also a sheep, the Lamb of God’s provision (Isa 53:7; Gen 22:8; John 1:29). He was stricken for the transgression of God’s people (Isa 53:8, his soul an offering for guilt (Isa 53:10) he would bear their iniquities (v11) and he “bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors” (v12). By his sacrificial death, he justified many, so their faith in him could be counted as righteousness and there would no longer be condemnation (Isa 53:11; Rom 3:22–24; 4:24–25; 5:8–1; 8:33–34).

As a result of this astounding work of grace, the glory of the Lord has been revealed; his gracious and forgiving, yet totally just character, just as he proclaimed to an awestruck Moses. “Arise, shine, for your light has come,” encouraged Isaiah, “and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you. For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you. And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising” (Isa 60:1–3; Matt 4:14–16; Luke 1:78–79; 2:30). The Lord himself would be their everlasting light (Isa 60: 19–20) and in Revelation we learn that this is the glory of both God and the Lamb (Rev 21:22–26; 22:3–5). There will be new heavens and a new earth, created by the one who makes all things new, Jesus (Isa 65:17; 2 Pet 3:13; Rev 21:1–6).

The book of Isaiah reaches its stirring conclusion with a promise that “behold, the LORD will come in fire, and his chariots like the whirlwind, to render his anger in fury, and his rebuke with flames of fire.” Just as the coming of the Servant was the coming of God, so will his second coming be, “when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels, in flaming fire.. when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marvelled at among all who believed” In answer to Isaiah’s rhetorical question (Isa 53:1) many are saved, “because our testimony to you was believed.” (2 Thess 1:7–10). “For as the new heavens and the new earth that I make shall remain before me, says the LORD, so shall your offspring and your name remain. From new moon to new moon, and from Sabbath to Sabbath, all flesh shall come to worship before me, declares the LORD” (Isa 66:22–23).

Isaiah is the gospel of the Old Testament. The coming of God to save his people was the coming of Christ. The prophet reveals to us Jesus, who is the Great I AM, the Messiah, the suffering Servant. The one who shares the glory of the only God, who is God and man, God with us, the true light, who shines in darkness and draws Jew and Gentile into the people of God, who opens the eyes of the blind and sets the captives free, the one who makes all things new. As Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 4:6, “God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”

In Praise of Jesus Christ

Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created… Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” (Rev 4:11; 5:12)

If there was ever any doubt in the minds of the first century Christians as to whether Christ should be praised, worshiped and adored alongside God the Father, it would have been dispelled by the astounding visions related by the Apostle John. In the very presence of the Almighty Father, sharing his very throne, the Lamb receives the adulation of every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, living creatures, elders and angels of the heavenly court, numbering myriads upon myriads. Creation is here ascribed to God, but the early Christians were also well aware that by Christ “all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities — all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col 1: 16–17). Christ shares the unshareable; all glory, the glory that belongs to God alone (Isa 42:8; 48:11; John 8:54; 11:4; 13:31–32; 14:13; 17:5; 2 Cor 4:4–6; Heb 1:3; 13:21; 1 Pet 4:11; 2 Pet 3:18; Jude 1:25).

The earliest Christian writings are the letters of Paul, in which we find passage after passage extolling the supremacy of Christ, his heavenly authority and honour and his worthiness to be worshiped and to share the honour and glory due to God. In many of these, the titles and prerogatives of God from the Old Testament are clearly ascribed to Jesus. One of the most explicit examples is in Paul’s letter to Titus. Titus 1:3 refers to “God our Saviour,” and 1:4 to Christ Jesus our Saviour. Titus 2:10 again speaks of “God our Saviour” and in 2:13 “our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ. Titus 3:4 has “God our Saviour” and 3:6 “Jesus Christ our Saviour.” As Bowman and Komoszewski explain,

These three contextual factors — that Jesus receives an array of divine names, often in the same passage; that Jesus often receives these divine names in allusions to, or quotations from, Old Testament texts speaking about God; that Jesus receives these designations in reference to his divine honors, attributes, works and position, in relation to all creation — are closely related. They converge in such a way as to prove that when the Bible calls Jesus by such names as Lord and God, it is applying those names to him in the highest possible sense.” (Putting Jesus in His Place 128–29)

The practice of the devotion to Christ in the early church continued beyond the time of the apostles, but in continuity with apostolic teaching. Preoccupied with worship, godly living and patient endurance in a hostile environment, it would be a couple of centuries before the church produced comprehensive theological treatises about the relationship of Jesus to the Father and the persons of the Godhead. Most of the earliest extant post-apostolic writings are apologetic (defence of the Christian faith to pagans and Jews) or polemic (addressing contemporary heresies such as Gnosticism). Yet scattered amongst these writings we see, almost in passing, a consistent reference to Christ as divine, and devotion to him in a context of worship. The ancient church writings are saturated with scripture, illustrating continuity with the traditions established in the New Testament regarding worship of Jesus alongside the Father.

Robert Wilken, who has extensively researched pagan perceptions of early Christianity notes that “To pagan observers… Christian identity centred on the worship of Christ.” This can be seen in the writings of Pliny, Lucian, Celsus, Porphyry and even in ancient anti-Christian graffiti. What these learned pagans found objectionable was that a crucified criminal was an unworthy object of such cultic worship, especially such exclusive worship. Origen cites Celsus as stating that Christians “worship to an extravagant degree this man who appeared recently and yet think it is not inconsistent with monotheism if they also worship his servant.” Christians “want to worship only this Son of man, whom they put forward as a leader under the pretence that he is a great God” (Against Celsus 8.12, 15). Ireneus, bishop of Lyons (c130 to 202) maintained that Christian doctrine and practice was enshrined in the Rule of Faith handed down from the apostles themselves and their words committed to writing in the scriptures.

Embedded in these scriptures we find credal statements such as Romans 10:9–10: “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.” The following verse notes this equates to Old Testament promises that those who believe, trust and hope in God will not be put to shame. Another such statement is found in 1 Timothy 3:16: “Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.” The “he” who was manifested, vindicated, seen, proclaimed, believed and taken up in glory is the living God of the previous verse.

Paul told the Ephesians to “be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph 5:18–20). He exhorted the Colossians to “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col 3:16–17). To sing to and about Christ is to sing to God; to praise Christ is to praise God, to honour Christ is to honour God (John 5:23; 1 Pet 4:11; 1 Tim 6:15–16; Eph 1:6, 12). Hymns to and about Jesus were evidently part of the earliest Christian worship traditions. Pliny, governor of Bithynia wrote to Trajan (98–117AD) concerning the Christians’ own testimony that they met regularly “to chant verses… in honour of Christ as if to a god.”

Scholarly consensus is that the New Testament contains fragments of hymns, either cited by Paul or arguably composed by him. These are segments of narrative praise similar in form to hymns of praise of God for his saving acts in the Old Testament. Similar Christological hymns are found in the writings of Melito of Sardis (d. 180). Two well known examples are

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.
For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible,
whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities–all things were created through him and for him.
And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.
For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.” (Col 1:15–20)

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,
but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.
And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name,
So that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Phil 2:5–11)

Other passages are likely to be fragments of hymns, such as Ephesians 2:14–16; 5:14; 1 Timothy 3:16; 1 Peter 3:18–22 and Hebrews 1:3. Revelation contains hymns sung to God and Christ, which may or may not have been copied over into the earthly worship of the community (Rev 4:8, 11; 5:9–10, 13–14; 7:15–17; 11:15; 15:3–4; 19:1–8) The New Testament writers also interpreted some Psalms as specifically addressed to Christ (e.g. Heb 1:8–12 use of Psa 45:6–7; 102:25–27). Finally, there are doxologies and blessings such as 2 Cor 13:14; 2 Thess 3:16, 18; 1Tim 6:15–16 (c.f. Rev 17:14; 19:16); Heb 13:20–21; 2 Pet 3:18; 1 John 5:21 and Jude :24–25.

Did the early Christians pray to Christ? On the one hand, prayer was primarily directed to the Father through Christ (e.g. Rom 1:8–10; 1 Cor 1:4; 2 Cor 1:3–4; Phil 1:3–5; 1 Thess 1:2–3; Phm 4). On the other hand, there are examples of short addresses to Christ and a strong sense that Christ was somehow acknowledged, involved, participatory, with prayer to the Father. After all, Jesus is regularly envisioned and spoken of as sharing the Father’s throne and at the Father’s right hand, so he would hardly be excluded from communication with the Godhead. Jesus taught, “Pray then like this: ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name…’” (Matt 6:9). Nevertheless, it is only by Jesus’ blood that we have access to the Father; he alone tore the veil of separation (Heb 4:15; 10:19–22; 9:12; Gal 4:6–7; Eph 2:18). Prayer is made in Jesus’ name, not as a mere appellation, but by the grace of his work on our behalf. Likewise, we are to pray in the Spirit, who in some way enables our prayers (Rom 8:26–27). It is through Christ that we praise and glorify God, as the hymns abundantly illustrate. God is glorified when we ask in Jesus’ name (John 14:13–14; 15:16; 16:23–24).

The Lord Jesus is directly addressed when seen in vision alongside the Father. Stephen, as he was being stoned, saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at God’s right hand. Stephen calls to Jesus, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit,” and adds, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:55–60). Saul, blinded on the Damascus road, hears the voice of Jesus, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” and Paul directly asks him, “Who are you, Lord?” to which Jesus replies, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (Acts 9:4–6). Paul regarded himself as having actually seen the Lord (1 Cor 8:1). The assembled disciples implored the Lord to show them his chosen candidate for apostleship (Acts 1:24 in context with 1:21). Paul pleaded with the Lord to remove the “thorn” from his flesh, which Christ denied so that his power might be made perfect in weakness (2 Cor 12:7–10).

Apart from these specific instances of direct communication with Christ, there are the short prayers which seem to have been part of corporate worship. Two Aramaic invocations, “Abba” and “Marana-tha,” addressed to the Father and to Christ respectively, have been preserved untranslated in Paul’s Greek epistles. “Abba,” Jesus’ beloved personal address to his Father has been graciously permitted to the lips of those adopted through Christ (Rom 8:15; Gal 4:6). Marana-tha means “Lord, come!” and is a petition for the return of Christ, addressed to Christ. It was probably translated into Greek in Rev 22:20; “Amen, erchou kyrie Iesou.” Evidence strongly suggests it was an invocation used in worship gatherings such as the Lord’s supper where Christ’s death was proclaimed “until he comes” (1 Cor 11:26; Didache 10:6). The Aramaic title mareh, like its Greek counterpart kyrios, could refer to any master or superior, but did have particular application to Lord God in Aramaic Christian writings.

Even though the formula of baptism invoked the triune name (Matt 28:19; Didache 7), baptism was described as “into the name” of Jesus; believers were baptised “into Christ” and “put on Christ.” Conversion was a calling on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, in direct fulfilment of the Old Testament calling on the name of the Lord, confessing with the mouth that Jesus is Lord (Acts 9:14, 21; 22:16 (Joel 2:32); 1 Cor 1:2; 6:11; Rom 10:9–13). It was for the name of the Lord Jesus that the early Christians suffered persecution (Matt 10:22; Luke 21:12–17; Acts 5:41; 1 Pet 4:14–16). Tertullian, writing in the late second century observed, “The one thing looked for is that which is demanded by the popular hatred, the confession of the name, not the weighing of a charge” (Apology 2).

In summary, if “worship” can be described as praise, exaltation, prayer, singing and invocation of the Name, the early Christians worshiped Christ. It was through Christ that they worshiped the one true God, without contradiction. The Lord Jesus Christ was, as Richard Baukham describes, incorporated into the divine identity. Larry Hurtado is a scholar who has extensively studied the evidence for the veneration of Christ in early Christianity and how that accorded with the Christians’ monotheistic heritage, and I shall let him have the last word. (One God, One Lord, 11)

The evidence suggests strongly that, well before [the later developments leading to the Nicene Creed] Jewish Christians gathered in Jesus’ name for worship, prayed to him and sang hymns to him, regarded him as exalted to a position of heavenly rule above all angelic orders, appropriated to him titles and Old Testament passages originally referring to God, sought to bring fellow Jews as well as Gentiles to embrace him as the divinely appointed redeemer, and in general redefined their devotion to the God of their fathers so as to include the veneration of Jesus. And apparently they regarded this definition not only as legitimate but, indeed, as something demanded of them.”

 

References and Further Reading
• Larry W. Hurtado, One God, One Lord, Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism, 3rd ed. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2015.
• Larry W. Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003.
• Richard Baukham, Jesus and the God of Israel, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008.
• Robert M. Bowman & J. Ed Komoszewski, Putting Jesus in His Place: The Case for the Deity of Christ, Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2007
• Robert L. Wilken, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, 2nd ed. Yale: U.P., 2003.
The Didache c. early 2nd Century AD http://web.archive.org/web/20101009033540/http://ivanlewis.com/Didache/didache.html

Participation, Substitution, Representation

Do “modern scholars” largely reject substitutionary atonement in favour of a representative atonement theory? Does substitutionary atonement do away with the idea of “participation” in Christ because we are mere passive recipients of grace? Christadelphian apologist Jonathan Burke makes these assertions in his “Apostolic Teaching Series” http://Berea-portal.com, but there are several problems with his thesis.
• Burke’s decontextualised quotations do not necessarily represent the consensus he claims (and especially not a movement toward “the Christadelphan position”)
• That substitutionary and representative aspects of the atonement are not mutually exclusive (Christ both represents us and substitutes for us in his incarnate divinity) is not acknowledged
• Substitutionary atonement is misrepresented as having the effect of changing God and initiating his love for us, when in fact it results from God’s love for us and effects a response in Christians
• What Burke means by “participation” is not consistently defined, and could be construed in either a biblical way (which is consistent with substitutionary atonement) or a dangerously non-biblical way.

Burke asserts, “The dominant Christian understanding of the atonement is the penal substitution theory, which states that Christ was punished by an angry God as a substitute for those he came to save.” This is a simplistic and inaccurate caricature of atonement theory. Propitiation is an aspect of atonement that is biblical and which cannot be ignored, but it is overly simplistic to say that “God punished Jesus in our place” and leave it at that. Because Christadelphians see Jesus as a mere representative human being, albeit righteous, they are forced to regard substitution in this context as unjust, which indeed it would be on those terms. This is the argument in John Launchbury’s Change Us, Not God: Biblical meditations on the death of Jesus.[1] . Most Christadelphian arguments against substitutionary atonement rest on non-trinitarian assumptions and a misconception that “punishment” or satisfaction was a prerequisite for God’s love. But God’s love was the cause, not the result of the atonement (John 3:16; Rom 5:8; 1 John 4:10). To suggest that Christian theology teaches otherwise is to misrepresent it. God did not delegate the salvation of the world to a third party; God’s own arm wrought it (Isa 59:16). As John Stott explains,

It is God himself who in holy wrath needs to be propitiated, God himself in holy love who undertook to do the propitiating and God himself in the person of his Son died for the propitiation of our sins. Thus God took his own loving initiative to appease his own righteous anger by bearing it in his own self in his own Son when he took our place and died for us. There is no crudity here to evoke our ridicule, only the profundity of holy love to evoke our worship.” [2]

Was [the substitute] just a man? If so, how could one human being possibly — or justly — stand in for other human beings? … [we are] to think of Christ neither as man alone, nor God alone, but rather as the one and only God-man who because of his uniquely constituted person was uniquely qualified to mediate between God and man. Whether the concept of substitutionary atonement is rational, moral, plausible, acceptable, and above all biblical, depends on our answer to these questions. The possibility of substitution rests on the identity of the substitute… We must not, then, speak of God punishing Jesus or of Jesus persuading God, for to do so is to set them over against each other as if they acted independently of each other or were even in conflict with each other… The Father did not lay on the Son an ordeal he was reluctant to bear, nor did the Son extract from the Father a salvation he was reluctant to bestow.” [3]

Nevertheless, it is clear that Christ is also our representative; he became incarnate in order to share our nature, conquer sin in the flesh it which it normally reigns and be the second Adam, achieving what Adam failed to do. This qualifies him to be our representative, our Advocate and mediator, the parakletos or Counsellor for the defence (Rom 5:15–19; 8:3; 1 Cor 15:47–49; Heb 2:9, 15–18; 4:15–16; 1 John 2:1). For Christ to be our Passover (1 Cor 5:7) the Lamb of God (John 1:29) the atoning sacrifice (propitiation; 1 John 2:2) and bear our sins, being made sin for us (Isa 53; 2 Cor 5:21) and our example (1 Pet 2:21–24) he had to be a genuine representative of humanity. But representation is not the whole story, and that’s where Burke and other Christadelphians make the mistake, in not understanding that being our representative does not preclude Christ also being our substitute. To set these aspects of the atonement against each other is a false dichotomy that has its roots not only in a misunderstanding of the breadth of the atonement but in the nature of Christ. It is because Jesus is divine as well as human that he could bear the sins of the world and overcome sin. Otherwise any mere man could have been the scapegoat, and the result would have been no more effective an atonement than that which came by the blood of bulls and goats.

Burke cites Leon Morris, “Most scholars today accept the view that the death of Christ is representative. That is to say, it is not that Christ died and somehow the benefits of that death became available to men… It is rather that he died specifically for us. He was our representative as he hung on the cross… The death of the Representative counts as the death of those he represents.”[4] What Burke doesn’t present is Morris’ full exposition of the atonement. In the same article Burke cites, Morris writes significantly more in support of substitutionary atonement! Clearly Morris finds the two aspects compatible.  Further, in his seminal work on the Atonement, Morris’ expanded treatment  encompasses covenant, sacrifice, Passover, redemption, reconciliation, propitiation and justification, which culminates in:

There are many facets to the atonement. It may be viewed from any one of a number of angles, each of which brings us to an individual insight into the way of salvation. Some of them emphasize that Christ took our place. We are the sinners. We deserve the punishment. But we do not undergo it. Christ stood in our place and we are free. The New testament witnesses to a many-faceted salvation, one which may be regarded in many ways and which is infinitely satisfying… Each of the ways of looking at the cross then underlines the fact that the way of salvation is not a way of human merit. All is of grace, for all is of God.” [5]

Burke does not clearly define what he means by “participation” in atonement. The scholars he quotes do not seem to be making exactly the same points, and care should be taken with any decontextualised citation. If by citing “It is not so much atonement, as it is ‘sharing in Christ’s death’ that brings salvation,” [6] Burke means we have to be “in Christ,” buried with him in baptism, believe in him, be branches of the true vine, to receive the benefits of Christ’s atoning work — then substitutionary atonement is in no way at odds with this. But if Burke means that we must “participate” in the sense of “contributing” to our atonement, we must part company. Each of these perspectives needs to be addressed. Burke seems to think that only a representative theory involving a non-divine human could accomplish “participation” in Christ’s atoning work. Assuming for now he means the “being in Christ” type of participation, he has not proved his case. Understanding that participation in Christ is essential to our apprehension of his atoning work, in no way undermines substitutionary atonement, nor does it force a dichotomy between Christ as our substitute and Christ as our representative. To assert that anyone can be saved without participation in Christ, being “in Christ,” is universalism. It is not mainstream Christianity.

Christ’s death was sufficient to atone for the sins of the world (John 1:29; 3:16–17; 1 John 1:2) but not everyone accepts this atonement. Not everyone abides in the vine; not all people will be saved (Matt 7:13–14, 21; Luke 10:16; John 3:18–19; 12:46–48;15:6). Only those who accept Christ as Lord and Saviour (John 20:31; Acts 2:21, 38; Rom 10:13), who believe in him (John 1:12–13; Rom 3:21–24; 10:9–13) who “receive him,” are saved (John 1:12–13; Gal 3:26–27). Such are “in Christ.” In Christ we receive justification, propitiation, reconciliation, salvation (Rom 5:8–11; 2 Cor 5:17–21; Eph 2:13–14 1 John 5:20). We share in his death, having died with him, and so will be raised with him (Rom 6:3–11; 7:4–6; 8:1–4, 9–17; 2 Cor 15:14; Gal 2:20; Col 3:3–4). That is what it means to be in Christ rather than as we were, in Adam (our natural state, the universal state of all who are unredeemed; Rom 5:14–21; 1 Cor 15:21–22).

Does Burke really believe that Christians who accept the substitutionary basis of the atonement do not think that they need to be united with Christ, believe in him, be “in him” in order to be saved? If Burke genuinely does think this, then he is way off the mark and knows nothing about the doctrines he seeks to refute. If he doesn’t think this is what Christians believe, then he has  misrepresented those he attacks. His real problem with substitutionary atonement is a Christ who is divine, as well as human. The Christadelphians’ merely human Christ can only be representative and the doctrines tend to stand or fall together. A low view of Christ leads to a low view of his work. And here’s the real rub; if Christ’s work is seen as only representative, not substitutionary, it is incomplete; it requires the believer to conform to what Christ represents. This is the “we must contribute” definition of “participation.” If Christ is merely our representative, then we have to imitate him in order to be accepted by God. It is a very short step from the “representative only” model of the atonement to a denial of the all-sufficient grace of God and the imposing of a requirement for works.  As Christadelphian pioneer Robert Roberts asserted,

This passing by of our sins is the act of His forbearance; that no debt of ours has been paid or can be paid; that what the death of Christ has done has been to declare God’s righteousness that we may, by taking part in it, receive God’s forgiveness through him… The idea that Christ has borne our punishment and paid our debts, and that his righteousness is placed to our credit, and that the only thing we have to do is to believe it, is demoralising… He only is righteous who doeth righteousness… we have to ‘work out our own salvation’ by a ‘patient continuance in well doing.’” [7]

Accepting that God himself had to step in to effect our salvation, by substituting for us, to do what we could not and cannot possibly do, actually is “demoralising” — in a sense. Our righteousness is as filthy rags and we cannot save ourselves. We cannot boast in our works. If “participation” means contributing somehow to our salvation or helping Christ do his job, then it’s definitely not compatible with substitutionary atonement, or indeed the New Testament. Salvation is from God and by God alone. What feeble works we can achieve are in grateful response to our undeserved salvation, and only by the Spirit’s enabling.

But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved — and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.(Eph 2:4–10)

“I am the true vine,” said Jesus, in one of the divine “I am” sayings, “and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit… Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:1–5). What is “abiding in the vine” and thus “bearing fruit” if not “participatory”? But Burke also asserts that substitutionary atonement neglects any consequences of daily life for the believer. That would require a rejection of most of the New Testament, with its commandments of Christ, emphasis on the new life in Christ and Paul’s imperatives for living, which follow so closely on his theological expositions. It also runs counter to mainstream scholars and preachers who diligently uphold the tension between our receipt of the gracious gift of atonement and our response as those “in Christ.”

The great thing about the cross is that God saves us by his grace. We do not merit our salvation, but receive it as a free gift. But every one of the categories [of atonement] at which we looked reminds us that this has implications for the way we Christians are to live. The cross is the making of a new covenant, but this means we are to live as the people of God. It is the perfect sacrifice, but we are to present our bodies as living sacrifices. If Christ died for us, we are to live for him. He has carried our sins away, as the Day of Atonement reminds us, and won for us access into the presence of God… Reconciliation is a process in which we are not to be passive, even though we do nothing to bring it about. We receive it as a free gift, but this way of looking at the cross reminds us that it must be received… an understanding of what the cross means has effects on the way we live.” [8]

John Stott’s classic work on the centrality of the cross and the meaning and implications of substitutionary atonement emphasises the participatory aspect of atonement and its implications for the life of the believer.

The victory of Christians, therefore, consists of entering into the victory of Christ and of enjoying its benefits. We can thank God that ‘he gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.’ We know that Jesus, having been raised from the dead, is now seated at the Father’s right hand in the heavenly realms. But God has ‘made us alive with Christ… and raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms.’ In other words, by God’s gracious power we who have shared in Christ’s resurrection share also in his throne.” [9]

“Christ has redeemed us from the law’s curse by becoming a curse for us. It is in this sense that ‘Christ is the end of the law’ and we are no longer ‘under’ it. It emphatically does not mean that there are now no moral absolutes except love… or that we have no obligation to obey God’s law… for those who are in Christ there is ‘no condemnation’ (Rom 8:1) for God has already condemned our sins in Jesus Christ (Rom 8:2).” [10]

Scripture is clear, repeatedly, that Jesus Christ bore our sins. He didn’t just represent them, he bore them, carried them, nailed them to his cross and died for them (Isa 53; 1 Pet 2:24). All the benefits of his atoning work, in their richness and sufficiency are ours, if and only if we belong to Christ and are “in him.” Substitutionary atonement is participatory in its apprehension and application. Substitutionary atonement is a powerful and loving work of God himself and not a mere shifting of blame in a parody of justice. It works hand in hand with a high view of Jesus Christ, Son of God made flesh for our salvation. It required divinity and humanity in one great conquering Lion who is also the Lamb. Forgiveness is possible because God himself, the one who is owed the debt, has paid it, which IS the process of forgiveness.

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself… For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:17–21)

 

 

References

  1. John Launchbury, Change Us, Not God: Biblical meditations on the death of Jesus (Charleston: WCF Publishing, 2009).
  2. John Stott, The Cross of Christ. Leicester: InterVarsity, 1986, 175.
  3. Stott, Cross of Christ, 176–178. My italics.
  4.  Leon Morris, “Atonement,” in Wood & Marshall, eds. New Bible Dictionary, 3rd ed. 102-4.
  5. Leon Morris,  The Atonement: Its Meaning and Significance. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1983,  203-4 (my italics).
  6. Attributed to Sanders in in Finlan, “The background and content of Paul’s cultic atonement metaphors” (2004) 117. (incomplete citation)
  7. Robert Roberts, The Blood of Christ, 1895. Repr. Birmingham: The Christadelphian, 1980,  23.
  8. Morris, Atonement, 204–5.
  9. Stott, Cross of Christ,  279.
  10. Stott, Cross of Christ, 281.

Island Life

Christadelphians live on a theological island. They are a small denomination, perhaps 60 000 worldwide, with distinctive beliefs. Whilst a few other groups share a similar form of monotheism, these other groups do not share all the doctrinal distinctives of Christadelphia.[1] Christadelphian beliefs, both positive (what constitutes their view of saving truth) and negative (doctrines to be rejected as false) are found in their Statement of Faith. Some of the doctrinal differences from mainstream Christianity are significant; they are non-Trinitarian, deny the immortality of the soul and a personal devil. Other beliefs are shared with current or historical groups, such as believers’ baptism, annihilationism and a focus on the restoration of the kingdom of Israel. Still other doctrines arose from intra-denominational issues, are anachronistic or of minor contemporary relevance, and some arguably are not widely understood or believed within the denomination itself. Yet, at least in the more rigorist Christadelphian ecclesias, adherence to the complete Statement of Faith is a prerequisite for baptism, for continued fellowship, and for salvation.

How important is it that a denomination claiming to have “the Truth,” as opposed to the rest of “Christendom,” or the churches at large, is so tiny? Deuteronomy 7:7–8 states that God did not choose the Israelites because they were more numerous than other nations, but because he loved them and swore an oath to their forefathers. There is certainly a “remnant” theology within the biblical record, and sometimes true believers have been in the minority (2 Kgs 19:18, 31; Isa 10:22; 37:32; Luke 12:32; Acts 15:17; Rom 11:5). The majority is not always right! Nevertheless, Jesus predicted great things for his kingdom, that it would grow and fill the earth and comprise innumerable people from all nations on earth (Psa 22:27; 102:15; Isa 2:2–3; Matt 13:31–33; 16:18; Mark 13:10; Gal 3:8; Rev 7:9–10). On the other hand, Jesus also predicted a lapse in faith in the latter days and that the faithful would not necessarily be the most influential (Matt 24:10–13; Luke 18:8; 1 Cor 1:26–29). In the last days, perilous times would come; the Gospel would not be attractive. Furthermore, false teachers would come in, appealing to what people wanted to hear rather than teaching sound doctrine (Matt 7:15–23; 24:11; Acts 20:29–30; 2 Thess 2:10–12; 2 Tim 3:1–7; 4:3–4; 2 Peter 2:1–2; 3:3; 1 John 4:1–3).

Christadelphians will sometimes apply these verses to the “last days,” which they regard as the present time, but will also use them to support a theory of mass apostasy within the Christian church soon after the apostles passed from the scene.[2] It is outside the scope of this essay to argue about which verses might apply to persecution by Jews and Romans, early Christian heresies, the Roman apostasy or a latter day de-Christianisation of the world. Whilst it is reasonable to assume that different verses might apply to different periods and situations, it’s unreasonable to assume that they had no relevance at all to the early church (as opposed to an unimaginable time nearly 2000 years in the future). In fact, some of the false doctrines can be shown to be quite consistent with early heresies such as Judaizing, Ebionism, Gnosticism and Docetism. It is quite likely that the verses also have some timeless application to a number of periods in Christian history and that the worst may still be to come.

It seems, therefore, that whether a group is large or small is irrelevant to the issue of whether they have “the truth.” Nevertheless, traditional Christadelphian dogma is that Christendom went astray from apostolic teaching very soon after the death of the apostles. This allegedly coincided with the withdrawal of the Holy Spirit as a direct and obvious influence on the church, because the church now had the writings of the apostles (which it allegedly chose to ignore). Some Christadelphian writers like to trace the emergence of Roman Catholicism from a very early stage and effectively blame it for every doctrine with which they disagree, especially the Trinity and the immortality of the soul. [3] This historical syncretism is illegitimate. The doctrine of the Trinity  was articulated well before what could be regarded as the “Roman Catholic Church,” and it was accepted by both Greek and Latin thinkers.

Nevertheless, an important foundation of Christadelphian confidence that their small group possesses “the Truth” is the “widespread apostasy of Christendom” theory. What is seldom considered is that this would seem to negate Jesus’ promise that his kingdom would steadily grow and that the “gates of Hades” would not prevail against his church (Matt 13:31–33; 16:18; 28:19–20; Eph 3:21; 5:29; Heb 12:28). Rather, Christadelphians are happy to accept that Christian truth lay hidden for some 1800 years until one John Thomas rediscovered it. By his own and his followers’ assertion, John Thomas had no special theological training or gifting. He received no new revelation, had no Spirit empowerment, no special insight. Unencumbered by the baggage of church doctrinal authority and with no need of Spiritual guidance, he simply applied his intellect and reason to the Scriptures, as no one before him had done, and rediscovered Apostolic truth. It was simply a matter of approaching the Bible with an open mind, and apparently anyone can do this. And if they do, they should expect to independently come up with the full set of Christadelphian doctrines. The reason the great Reformers like Luther and Calvin and other theologians who applied themselves to Bible study, once the Scriptures became widely available, did not fully rediscover truth, was that they were still held in thrall by Roman Catholic doctrine and church tradition. This blinkered approach allegedly persists today across seminaries, theological colleges and most mainstream churches.

Whilst many Christadelphians have been comfortable with this explanation, particularly the Pioneers and early to mid 20th century proponents of the faith, this confidence has not been universal, even if the emperor’s nakedness is difficult to openly discuss. For Christadelphians who have much contact with mainstream Christians who have a genuine faith in Christ and love his Word, it seems difficult to understand how they could not see the Scriptures the way Christadelphians do. The traditional response was that such sincere Christians were under the “strong delusion” which enables them to believe a lie (2 Thess 2:11–12), or more likely they just don’t read the Bible as extensively and as often and as deeply or as independently as Christadelphians. That was certainly what I used to think (please God forgive my arrogance). But not all Christadelphians are prepared to completely disregard mainstream Christian theological learning, even if they are selective about what they accept and what they reject. The problem for some time, particularly before the internet but even now in the more closed Christadelphian communities, is a lack of understanding of what mainstream Christians actually believe, and why they believe it. When you only learn about someone’s views second or third-hand from a party who disagrees with those views, there’s a danger that the information is inaccurate. Traditional Christadelphian writings, and even contemporary ones, regularly misrepresent orthodox Christian doctrine. What is presented as Trinitarian belief might be Apollinarianism or even Docetism or Nestorianism. This misrepresentation is then torn apart with a few “proof texts” and it’s Game Over. Theological writings are dismissed as “unscriptural” without a rigorous and honest, engagement with their actual positions. All this results from living on the theological island, particularly if one never travels to the mainland, something difficult to avoid in the age of the internet.

There are two other ways to relieve the unease of island culture. The first became popular from the mid 1970s with the publication of Alan Eyre’s book, The Protesters.[4] This is the idea that the truth didn’t completely disappear between the first and nineteenth centuries, but was actually preserved from generation to generation amongst small faithful remnant groups. These groups, like the Bereans of old and like John Thomas, searched the Scriptures “independently” and rejected the doctrines of Christendom. They were little known because they were persecuted and their writings suppressed. But nevertheless, the Truth lived on and Christadelphians are the modern heirs of that legacy. Eyre’s book primarily focused on the Anabaptists and their views on baptism and the nature of the church, with an implication that their doctrines overall were very similar to those of Christadelphians — at least the main ones. The latter part of the book discusses the rise of unitarianism and concludes with John Thomas and “the Faith at the End of the Age.” The preface praises Eyre’s work, to which the small community of Christadelphians is indebted, for “It is a matter of great encouragement to us, whose religious views are regarded as unorthodox by our contemporaries, to find that in a number of cases where major doctrines are concerned, these early believers had come to the same conclusions as ourselves.”

There’s just one problem. The groups of “devout believers” discussed in the book shared hardly any doctrines in common with Christadelphians. The Anabaptists were Trinitarian and the unitarians had differing views on the nature of Christ, as well as other doctrines. The same unitarian forebears are claimed by groups significantly different from Christadelphians. None of these early “believers” would be welcome in fellowship with Christadelphians today. In fact, there is no extant evidence of any group, fellowship or denomination, or even prominent teacher, who subscribed to the majority of the Christadelphian corpus of beliefs, until the mid 1900s. Not Wycliffe, Hus or Tyndale, not the Vaudois, not the Waldenses or the Cathari. Not Servetus, not the Anabaptists or the Mennonites, not even the Socinians (although they were closest in their antitrinitarian views). The island is isolated, it is not part of a chain.

The other perspective has been advanced more recently. This is the view that a considerable number of mainstream theologians are now moving toward the “Christadelphian position,” having evidently seen the light. One Christadelphian apologist claims that what he has discovered “is already enough to demonstrate that mainstream Christian theology has been gradually moving towards Christadelphian theology over the last 40 years. We’ve been waiting for them for almost 100 years, and it’s good to see they’re finally catching up.” (J Burke, pers com. 7/9/17) In other words, Christadelphians have been right all along, and some enlightened individuals are now realising this. The mainlanders are moving to the island!

But this is really the “Protesters” problem all over again. Certainly some, perhaps even many, mainstream theologians hold opinions that cohere with some Christadelphian beliefs. This is not surprising given the same Scriptures are being discussed. But Burke goes too far in claiming “the majority of standard scholarly sources” cohere with his views. There is most definitely common ground, but this is hardly coherence with the whole “Christadelphian position.” Rather than a unidirectional movement from orthodoxy to Christadelphia, it is more a starburst of diversification, some of which intersect the Christadelphian trajectory. Burke also fails to note that (a) many “mainstream” or formerly mainstream theologians have been also proposing and promulgating theologies that are very different from the Christadelphian position, such as process theology, liberation theology, feminist theology, deconstructive theology, universalism, theology of community and so forth. For example, he quotes Clark Pinnock as an annihilationist, without noting that Clark is hardly “mainstream” in his process theology views, nor remotely “Christadelphian” in his denial of the foreknowledge of God. Departure from orthodoxy does not flow in one direction. Also, (b) Christadelphians are leaving the denomination, as presumably some always have. Where do they go? Some become atheists or agnostics, some get carried about by winds of doctrine, and some become mainstream Christians. What does that prove? Certainly, some give up on God, but others search the scriptures diligently for answers to doctrinal questions and find different answers from those they had previously been given. If the basis of John Thomas’ discovery of “truth” was independent scriptural study, why could not others’ independent scriptural study be equally valid?

A comprehensive examination of all of the references and scholars Burke[5] enlists to support his “mainstream movement toward the Christadelphian position” assertion would require an extensive thesis in itself. A closer look at a few will establish the flimsiness of an argument for the validity of doctrinal claims on the basis of such an accumulation of “allies.” Burke cites Leon Morris,[6] as supporting a dichotomy between representative and substitutionary aspects of the atonement. But Morris’s position is much more nuanced than this, as his well-regarded book [7] presents in detail. Morris defends, against Dunn, the understanding of Christ’s propitiatory work as a turning away of God’s wrath (pp 151–176). He also emphasises the many faceted nature of atonement, which encompasses representation as well as substitution and by no means excises the substitutionary aspect, concluding “Christ stood in our place and we are free” (p203). Nor do Morris, or other mainstream atonement theologians, exclude a participatory aspect from substitutionary atonement, by which Burke misrepresents the doctrine. To quote John Stott, (whom Burke elsewhere recruits for his annihilationist stance) “Just so, as our substitute Christ did for us what we could never do for ourselves: he bore our sin and judgment. But as our representative he did what we by being united to him have also done: we have died and risen with him.” [8] The benefits of Christ’s atoning work are applied to us as we participate in him; to assert that substitutionary atonement denies participation is a gross misrepresentation. The published works of Morris and Stott should be uniformly investigated in order to see that their position on the atonement is quite different from Burke’s.

Granted, Burke does not, in the work under discussion, invoke Stott in support of Christadelphian atonement theology, but he does correctly note Stott’s support for annihilationism. Fair enough, but as with the old “Protesters” strategy, Stott’s theology has been selectively mined. Stott may agree with Burke on the principle of annihilationsim, but he is Trinitarian through and through. Furthermore, Stott, although an annihilationist, did not reject the concept of the intermediate state between death and resurrection [9] which Christadelphians do. James Dunn, with whom a number of “mainstream” theologians disagree, is a theologian who has come onto Christadelphian radar as a potential anti-trinitarian ally. But Dunn himself, when asked what are the three main misrepresentations of his position, replied “(1) That I deny or diminish the divinity/deity of Christ in questioning the usual concept of his pre-existence; (2) that in the ‘new perspective on Paul’ I deny Paul’s/the Reformation’s basic teaching on justification by faith’; (3) that I diminish or deny the authority of scripture.” [10] Reading Dunn’s actual works in full will show that his position is much more nuanced and “orthodox” than one might expect from Burke’s out-of-context quotation of Dunn’s statement on kyrios as a way of distinguishing Jesus from God. [11] My point is, coherence on one aspect of doctrine does not imply an endorsement of the whole spectrum or even a handful of Christadelphian central beliefs. Dunn, for example, in the same work argues that Paul believed in supernatural heavenly beings that opposed God (p 104–110). He’s not a Christadelphian advocate, far from it.

Burke also writes on early Christian baptism and cites many scholars who agree that the early Christians baptised predominantly by total immersion. There’s nothing new here. Many mainstream churches practice baptism by immersion. What Burke does not emphasise is that scholars endorsing immersion of believers would not necessarily advocate the full Christadelphian position, which is the absolute necessity of baptism for salvation, the absolute necessity for a full assent to a complex set of “correct” doctrines beforehand, and baptism’s regenerative character (i.e. that the act of baptism itself is the point of becoming a Christian). [12] Nor does Burke acknowledge that these advocates of the “Christadelphian” view of baptism hardly share Christadelphians’ other beliefs. For example, in Thomas Schreider’s book,[13] which Burke quotes in support of (obviously) adult baptism, “Baptism is to be administered in (eis, lit. into) the name (singular) of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, one of the most explicit Trinitarian formulas in the entire NT” and that “baptismal regeneration… clearly runs counter to biblical teaching.” The work also notes that baptism is one facet of becoming a Christian, as is the gift of the Spirit, which is received at conversion, contra Christadelphians. The implication, then, that agreement by mainstream scholars on selected aspects of theology constitutes a movement toward “the Christadelphian position” is unsustainable. There is no significant link between the Island and the Mainland and we should not pretend there is. Christadelphianism is novel and it is unique.

Why should anyone care about this (apart from Christadelphians themselves)? Christadelphians are virtually unknown to mainstream Christians, even well informed theologians. Christadelphians make little contribution to broader theological or biblical discussion, eschew theological academia and make limited social contribution (apart from that of individuals) beyond their own “missionary” efforts. As has been wryly observed, “Scholars out there are not debating the merits of Christadelphian theology, as they are with Catholic theology, Reformed theology, Orthodox theology, etc. No one is doing a doctoral dissertation on the theology of John Thomas or Robert Roberts… because Christadelphian theology is not on the radar. Christadelphians have not yet made the case that their theological system merits serious scholarly attention” (T Farrar pers. com 6/7/17).

I care about Christadelphian theology, because I have a personal investment, having undergone a major journey of faith, in which I studied these issues in depth. I care because I have good friends who are Christadelphians and who love the Lord. I care because when people leave Christadelphia they often forsake God, turning away from Christianity because they can’t accept the mainstream doctrines which have been thoroughly misrepresented and poisoned to their thinking. Christadelphians should question their island mentality if they are to survive as a denomination, and do their acknowledged duty to be lightstands; they should not adopt a defensive stance that assumes their small and recently emerged community exclusively holds “The Truth.” Nor should they seek legitimacy in the false assumption that they stand in continuity with other similar faith traditions.

Why don’t Christadelphians get theologically educated? Why not find out what others actually believe before assuming they are wrong? Are Christadelphians scared of what they might find? Surely, if they do have the truth, they have nothing to fear from engaging in study of original biblical languages, historical and contemporary theology, biblical studies, pastoral care and missiology. Are they so confident in their beliefs that they feel it is a waste of time to listen to anyone else’s, that all those centuries of scholarship and godly application to Scripture, the legacy of Christian history, count for nothing against the non-Spirit-inspired, tradition-rejecting reliance on human reason advocated by a nineteenth century doctor? There’s some very dangerous thinking underlying these isolationist attitudes and it’s a far cry from the Bereans searching the scriptures to see if what others said was true (Acts 17:11). Rather, “when they measure themselves by one another and compare themselves with one another, they are without understanding” (2 Cor 10:12).

Christadelphians may be happy on their island, but at the very least they should keep their heads out of the sand.

 

 

References
1. Rob J Hyndman, “Biblical Monotheism Today,” in Thomas E Gaston, ed., One God, the Father. East Boldon, UK: Willow, 2013. This author is no longer a Christadelphian.
2. This is the thesis of the seminal work by Robert Roberts, Christendom Astray From the Bible, 1884. Repr. West Beach, Aus: Logos, 1984.
3. Percy E.White, The Doctrine of the Trinity Analytically Examined and Refuted, 1913. Repr. Torrens Park, Aus: Christadelphian Scripture Study Service, 1996.
4. Alan Eyre, The Protesters. Birmingham: The Christadelphian, 1975.
5. Jonathan Burke, Apostolic Teaching Series; Modern Scholars acknowledging apostolic teaching; http://berea-portal.com; topics discussed are “The state of the dead: Modern scholarship” (although by modern he means works from as far back as 1976) “What do modern scholars say about the atonement?”(back to 1904) “Did the earliest Christians believe Jesus is God?” “The state of the dead: 20th century views” and “How did the early Christians baptize?”
6. Leon Morris, “Atonement,” in Wood & Marshall (eds.) New Bible Dictionary (3rd ed. 1996), 103
7. Leon Morris, The Atonement (Leicester, IVP, 1983)
8. John Stott, The Cross of Christ, 2nd ed. Nottingham: IVP, 1989, 320.
9. John Stott, “Judgment and Hell,” in DI Edwards & J Stott, Essentials: A Liberal–Evangelical Dialogue, London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1988, 317.
10. Interview with James DG Dunn http://frankviola.org/2012/06/25/ jamesdgdunn/ accessed 16/9/17.
11. James GD Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998, 254
12. Thomas Farrar, The Christadelphian Baptismal Examination (Interview) Purpose and Content 22nd June 2016; The Christadelphian Baptismal Examination (Interview) A theological critique; 26th September 2016. Dianoigo, http://blog.dianoigo.com/search?q=baptism accessed 16/9/17.
13. TR Schreiner & SD Wright, Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ, Nashville: B&H, 2006)

Divine and Human

How can Jesus Christ be both God and man? That he is both fully divine and fully human is the clear testimony of scripture. The Bible shows that the Son shares the attributes and authority of God, the divine names and prerogatives, the glory and honour due to God alone. He is “above the line” that divides Creator from creation. He was sent by the Father and has returned to the Father, with whom he has shared and will share eternity. The Bible’s testimony is equally adamant that Jesus Christ was fully human, exactly like us but for two important differences; he was born of a virgin, and he never sinned. He was capable of being tempted, and was truly tempted, yet he never succumbed to temptation (Heb 4:15). He defeated sin in the very flesh in which it normally reigned (Rom 8:3); this was his salvific triumph in which we are graciously invited to share. Jesus was born and grew, he experienced hunger, thirst and fatigue; he was fully and truly human (2 John 1:7). The Son is distinct from the Father who sent him (Eph 1:3; John 8:42; 1 John 4:10, 14). It was the Son’s task to take on flesh and die for the sins of the world (John 3:16–17). Although he is God, the Son willingly humbled himself, submitting to his Father and taking on the form of a servant (Phil 2:5–11). A correct understanding of Christian doctrine requires an acknowledgement of the full humanity and well as the full deity of Christ.

Comprehending how the Son, eternally one with the Father and Spirit, could become flesh, become fully human, is not easy. This should not in itself bother us, because there is very little about God that we are able to understand, yet which we accept because this is how God has revealed himself, and his most complete revelation is in Christ (Is a 55:8; Heb 1:1–2; Matt 11:27). God’s eternity, having no beginning, his perfection, his unlimited power unsullied by any corruption, his knowledge of our hearts and his ability to hear millions of prayers at once, his providence over the complexities of creation; these are all very hard to understand, yet we accept them on the evidence we have and in faith. Ridiculing doctrines because they don’t make sense to our limited understanding is essentially an attempt to tame God, to insist that he be at our level. Just because humans cannot become God, we have no right to tell God that he couldn’t become human, when he tells us that he did. The problem is compounded when a doctrinal position is willfully misunderstood and misrepresented, as happened in a recent on-line discussion. Here are some of the accusations levelled at the Trinitarian position:

If you ask a Trinitarian which part of Jesus actually made Jesus Jesus, the God bit or the man bit, they’ll eventually admit it’s the God bit. Then if you ask them which bit died, they’ll admit it’s the man bit.”
“For Trinitarians, ‘God incarnate’ and ‘God’ refer to the same thing” – therefore their God died and is not immortal.
“The God I worship is immortal and can’t die. Sorry to hear yours is not.”

I have elsewhere addressed the distinction between the Father and the Son and also the important question of how God the Son could die. Trinitarians do not believe that the Father died on the cross; this is “patripassianism” and has never been mainstream doctrine. It was a result of the early heresy of Modalism. Christadelphians claim that the deity present in Christ was that of the Father, not the Son, that he was the Father manifested in the flesh,  so it is they who come closest to patripassianism, not Trinitarians. However, Christadelphians vehemently deny that God could die, because they equate “God” solely with the Father. They do not knowledge that one person of the Godhead, the Son, could be distinct from another, the Father, and take on flesh, be “incarnate.” They seem to think it must be the whole Godhead, which for them means only the Father, who died, which is clearly not what Scripture teaches. God the Son became flesh in order to die; he took on mortality (John 1:14; 8:42; Matt 20:28; John 12:27; Acts 17:3; Gal 4;4–5). The Father did not.

But the Christadelphian doctrine of “God manifestation” never truly explains what “God manifestation” actually means in a concrete sense, that is, in what way divine attributes can be attributed to Jesus and in what sense the Father indwelt or influenced him. If the Father was “manifested” in Jesus to the extent that his human tendency to sin was completely controlled (even as a child) and he had the authority and self-understanding to do what he did and made the claims he made, then was God still in Christ when he went to the cross? Or did the Father leave his Son at this point, because “God,” (i.e. the Father) cannot die? This was what many of the Gnostics claimed, that the divine Christ left the body of the man Jesus at the crucifixion, because the divine could not be associated with fleshly death. If the Father was not truly “manifested” in Jesus as to afford him the ability to remain sinless and “do everything the Father does,” then was God truly manifest in Christ? But if “God manifestation” simply means Jesus demonstrated what God was like, or spoke as his representative, then what made Jesus who he was? You can’t have it both ways; enough divine influence on the man Jesus to ensure he achieved all he was destined to, yet that influence/ manifestation/ indwelling in no way connected with his death.

Yet Scripture says,  “Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory” (1 Tim 3:16) Who is the “he” here? If it is “the Father” manifested in the flesh, then it is “the Father” who was vindicated by the Spirit, “the Father” who was believed on in the world and “the Father” who was taken up into glory. Yet we know that all these things refer to the Son (John 1:14; Heb 10:5; Matt 12:28; Mark 1:10–11; Luke 4:8; John 3:34; 15:26; Rom 8:11; Heb 1:5–6; John 1:12; 3:15–18; 6:29, 40; 11:25–27; 14:1; 17:21; Matt 26:64; John 6:62; 17:5; Eph 4:8–10; Phil 2:9–11; Heb 2:9; 1 Pet 3:22; Rev 5:12). The word “manifested” (phaneroo) actually means nothing more than “appeared;”  “He (God) appeared in the flesh;” it actually carries no sense of indwelling or incarnation. God appeared, and he will do so again (Titus 2:13). So the God who appeared in flesh is not the Father, but the Son, which is consistent with the rest of the New Testament.

Christians have long wrestled with what it means for the Son of God to be both fully human and fully divine. For orthodox Christians, the non-negotiables are; that we cannot minimise or downplay the divinity of the Son, nor can we deny or minimise his full humanity. Reconciliation of the divinity and humanity of Christ must be done without making him two persons in one body, or by blurring the distinctions between the two and allowing one to overwhelm the other. The fourth century christological controversies that resulted in the Chalcedonian definition of 451 AD rejected a number of heresies along the way.

Adoptionism: Jesus was the natural son of Joseph and Mary, but became the son of God when the Holy Spirit entered him, and he earned the title of Christ
Arianism: the Son was pre-existent but was only a creature, on whom divinity was bestowed
Docetism: Jesus was fully divine but only seemed human; his humanity and suffering were merely in appearance
Apollinarianism: the divine Logos took the place of a human soul in Jesus so he was a divine mind in a fleshly shell
Eutychianism: Christ had only one nature, the divine
Nestorianism: Christ’s divine and human natures were not fully united

When Christadelphians ridicule the concept of the divine and human in Jesus, they usually attack one of these heresies rather than the genuine Trinitarian position. This is the straw man fallacy, to tear down a caricature or misrepresentation of something, and pretend that the actual true position has been defeated. If we were drafting the Chalcedonian definition today, perhaps we would use somewhat different vocabulary and phrasing. Nevertheless, credit where credit is due, the orthodox statement carefully and correctly delineates the boundaries of truth. It was a statement for its time, addressing the heresies of the day, but I doubt we really could do any better:

One and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of reasonable soul and body; consubstantial with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the manhood; in all things like unto us, without sin…one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably, the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and occurring in one Person and one subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ…”

The Chalcedonian definition set the boundaries, outside of which there is an unscriptural imbalance between the divine and human aspects of Christ; it is primarily a statement of who/what Jesus is not, rather than who/what he is. Philippians 2:6–8 explains that the emptying the Son underwent when he was sent was not an emptying of his divine attributes. He displayed those attributes in abundance during his ministry. Rather, he relinquished the rights of equality with God and submitted himself to the Father, taking on the form of a servant and being found in appearance as a man. In doing this, he accepted certain limitations on the functioning of his divinity; he held his divinity in check. He was, according to one analogy, like the world’s greatest boxer fighting with one hand tied behind his back. These limitations were not the result of a loss of divine attributes, but the addition of human attributes, so he could experience and learn dependency on the Father, overcome real temptations and effectively bear sin to the cross and destroy it (John 14:28 cf Luke 2:51; Heb 2:14–18; 5:7–8; 10:7; Rom 8:3).

The idea that divine nature could not assimilate with human nature comes from Greek dualistic philosophy, not from the Bible. God made mankind in his image in the first place; why should it be thought incredible that God could enter into humanity? (Gen 1:26–27; Matt 1:23; Col 1:15–20). Perhaps deniers of the incarnation not only limit God, but limit the brilliance of his creation as well. Jesus is more truly “human” than we are, in that he accomplished all that Adam was meant to do, and more, undoing the effects of Adam’s sin on us too, who fail to live up to the intended human standard (Rom 5:12–19; 1 Cor 15:21–22, 45–49; 1 John 3:2). He is what humanity was meant to be.

In the accounts of Jesus’ words and deeds we do not ever get the impression that his divine and human natures functioned independently, still less that there was a “God bit” that made Jesus the Christ and a “man bit” that died, as my correspondent claimed. Jesus functioned as a whole person. He referred to himself in the singular and was regarded by others as an individual. To claim that orthodox Christians teach otherwise is to misrepresent our position. He was the Word, who was with God and was God, made flesh (1 John 1:1–2, 14; 1 Tim 3:16). He, the Son of Man who came from heaven, has now returned there (John 3:13; 6:62; 7:28–29; 13:3). The brief and precious account of Jesus’ childhood describe him as growing, becoming strong and wise (Luke 2:40, 47, 49, 52). The same child who was proclaimed to be the Saviour, Christ the Lord (Luke 2:11) grew and learned, and never sinned.  Only by recognising the perfectly combined full humanity and full deity of Christ can the issue of Christ’s sinlessness be resolved.

The same man who hungered in the wilderness could have turned stones into bread to feed himself, but rather miraculously provided bread for thousands (Matt 4:2–4; 14:19–21). The same weary man who asked for a drink of water from a woman at a well told her everything she’d ever done (John 4:6–7, 39). The same man who slept, exhausted, through a storm was able to calm the winds and waves (Matt 8:24–27). Well might his awestruck disciples gasp, “Who is this man?” No one ever spoke like this man, or did the deeds of this man, but no one ever questioned that he was a man (Matt 13:54–56; John 7:46). Some of his divine prerogatives were directly connected with his being Son of Man (Matt 9:6; 12:8; 19:28; 24:27; John 5:26–27), and the necessity of his death was also a function of his Christhood as the Son of God (Luke 24:26; Rom 5:8; 8:3; Col 1:13–14; 1 John 1:7; Rev 19:13–16). The son of David is also David’s Lord (Matt 22:42–46; Luke 1:32, 35). The same man who wept for his friend raised him again to life (John 11:33–44). It was the Lord of glory himself who was crucified (1 Cor 2:8). The same man who bore the wounds of his crucifixion was addressed as Lord and God (John 20:28). The same Living One who died and is alive for evermore and has the keys of death and Hades is the First and the Last; the offspring of David is the Alpha and Omega (Rev 1:17–18, 22:13–16). Christ’s divinity and humanity are perfectly united.

Christ’s human nature and divine natures are inseparable, and both were essential to the task of redeeming his estranged creation (Col 1:22; Rom 5:1–2; 2 Cor 5:18–20). By his own blood, shed as a man on the cross, he justified, redeemed, reconciled, adopted and sanctified the children of God (Rom 5:9; Eph 1:7; Col 1:20; Heb 9:12; 10:19; 13:12). The reconciliation that occurred between God and man in the Lord Jesus has been made available to all who put their faith in him. The atonement is a work of God, from beginning to end and has been absolutely assured from all eternity. It did not depend on the tenuous ability of a gifted but merely human man. God’s own arm brought salvation (Isa 59:16), he reconciled us to himself in Christ (2 Cor 5:18–19) and purchased us with his own blood (Acts 20:28).

“Who do you say that I am?” is the essential question Jesus asked and continues to ask (Matt 16:15; John 3:36). Addressing the unbelieving Jewish leaders, who refused to accept Jesus’ divine claims, he stated, “You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world. I told you that you would die in your sins, for unless you believe that I am he (ego eimi, YHWH) you will die in your sins” (John 8:23–24).

Who do you say that he is?