The Deity of Christ: Some Important Terms

Introduction: Does it really matter what we believe?  One person believes this, another believes something else—”so what?–as long as they are sincere, that is all that matters.” This is a fairly typical response to the question of religious beliefs.  “To each his own” is the motto heard most often in our society.[i] Christianity—biblical Christianity, that is—does not allow such liberty of opinion.  The God of the Bible is not an abstract concept. He (and God is He, not She) is not” the man upstairs” nor is He simply a super-being alongside other beings (cf. Num. 23:19; I Samuel 15:29; Hosea 11:9).  God cannot be identified with anything in creation.  To do so is to lapse into idolatry (Ex. 20:4,5; Deut. 5:8,9).

C. Fitzsimons Allison in a remarkable little book appropriately titled The Cruelty of Heresy, correctly observes:” We are susceptible to heretical teachings because, in one form or another, they nurture and reflect the way we would have it be rather than the way God has provided, which is infinitely better for us.  As they lead us into the blind alleys of self-indulgence and escape from life, heresies pander to the most unworthy tendencies of the human heart.  It is astonishing how little attention has been given to these two aspects of heresy: its cruelty and its pandering to sin.”[ii] We cannot simply worship God as we like nor can we choose[iii] to think of God as we like. Likewise, we are not allowed to choose to think about Jesus anyway we like. The Bible expresses serious concern over false doctrine (heresy) and its counterpart idolatry (I Tim. 1:3; 6:3; note the emphasis on sound teaching in 2 Timothy 1:13).  We are exhorted to be on guard against idolatry (I John 5:21) and alert to doctrinal deception, especially as it touches the content of the gospel (Matt. 24:4; I Cor. 11:2; Gal. 1:8). In light of this, it is imperative that we have right (orthodox) beliefs about God. “There is only one question,” said Emil Brunner, “which is really serious, and that is the question concerning the being and nature of God.

From this, all other questions derive their significance.”[iv] This knowledge of God, as the Puritan Stephen Charnock long ago wrote, is more than mere head-knowledge. “This knowledge of God is not only a knowledge of God and Christ in the theory, but such a knowledge which is saving, joined with ardent love to him: cordial trust in him, as I Cor. 13:12, ‘Then I shall know even as also I am known,’ i.e. I shall love and rejoice, as I am beloved and delighted in by God.  It is not only a knowledge of God in his will, but a knowledge of God in his nature; both must go together; we must know him in his nature, we must be obedient to his will.  The devil hath a greater knowledge of God’ s being than any man upon earth, but since he is a rebel to his will, he is not happy by his knowledge. It must be such a knowledge as leads to eternal life, and hath a necessary and infallible connection with it, as the effect with the cause, which is not between a speculative knowledge and salvation. It must be therefore such a knowledge which descends from the head to the heart, which is light in the mind and heat in the affections; such a knowledge of God as includes faith in him.”[v] The deity of Jesus Christ is taught on practically every page of the N.T. Every attempt to rid the N.T. of His deity is a hopeless and impossible task. Men do, however, attempt the impossible. In their blind rage they will seize any and every possible text that they think will lend itself to their purposes. Usually they focus upon certain words or phrases that on the surface can be construed to teach Jesus Christ is something less than deity. This study will seek to examine some of the terms that are often put forward as evidence that Jesus Christ is not God.

I. Terms Used by Gospels

A. Son of Man: Jesus used this term in reference to Himself more than any other. If frequency is any guide, (this phrase occurs over 80 times in the Gospels), then this was Jesus’ favorite term or title. It is usually stated that just as Son of God refers to his deity, so “Son of Man” refers to his humanity. This is an over-simplification and is very misleading. In fact, the term really is not a description of His person per se, but rather emphasizes His work and function as Messiah.

1. O.T. Usage: There are passages in the 0. T. where this simply means “man” (cf. Ps. 6:5) it is used extensively of the prophet Ezekiel (cf. Ezk. 2:1). Its N.T. usage, however, is based upon Dan. 7:13f., where “Son of Man” is a heavenly being who is clothed with majesty. This is the way the term is to be understood in reference to Christ, (cf. Mt. 13:41, 16:27, 24:31, where Jesus refers to Himself as the “Son of Man” with the additional suggestion of His glorious majesty, i.e.. He has “his angels” and “his kingdom” and “he Judges”.)

2. Usage of the Term in the Gospels: The immediate connection with Dan. 7:13 is to be understood. In fact, the term was a synonym for “Messiah” and was understood as such by the Jews (cf. Jn. 12:34). Further, when used by Jesus, He applied the expression to Himself as the Christ (cf. Mk. 8:38, 13:26, 14:62). Taken as a whole, the term involved FOUR distinct, but interrelated, ideas:

a. Suffering: The Messiah suffers vicariously (Mt. 20:28; Mk. 10:45; Lk. 19:10; 6:53, 8:28).

b. Vindication: The suffering Messiah is resurrected (Mt. 20:19; Mk. 10:34; Lk. 24:7; Jn. 12:23).

c. Glory and Power: The victorious Messiah (Mt. 24:27, 30, 39, 44; Mk. 13:26; 14:62; Lk. 22:69; Jn. 13:31.

d. Judgment: The ruling king (Mt. 16:27,28, esp. 25:31-46; Mk. 8:38; Lk. 21:36; Jn. 5:27.

3.   The Meaning of the Term in the Gospel:

“The church,” writes Strimple, “has traditionally understood these sayings as the ipsissima vox Jesu and the phrase Son of Man as Jesus’ foremost self-designation, chosen precisely because the title, although assuredly Messianic (cf. Dan. 7:13), was ambiguous. Its “mysterious” character enabled Him to reveal as well as conceal His Messianic identity, to claim to be the Messiah with little danger of then-current erroneous perceptions of the office being read into it before He could infuse it with the full-orbed content of the Messianic task foreshadowed in and predicted by the Old Testament.”[vi] The chief thing to note regarding the phrase “Son of Man” is that it implies humiliation, a voluntary self-abnegation for a specific purpose. It designates the Messiah’s mission. Upon the accomplishment of His initial mission (redemption) He returns to His original place (Jn. 6:62) not in humiliation but in vindication and victory. He is vested with all authority and judgment and will return to the sphere of His humiliation as sovereign judge and ruler. Therefore, the primary import of the term Son of Man has to do with the One who inaugurates the Kingdom of God, first by His vicarious atonement and then by His authority to rule and reign. It places a greater emphasis upon the work and function of the Messiah than upon His immediate Person. Jesus used this term constantly (rather than “King of Israel” or “Son of David”), especially when addressing the populace who failed to see the suffering Messiah of the O.T. (Jn. 12:34). The cross must precede the crown (Lk. 24:26).

B. Only Begotten: This is the KJV translation of the Greek word MONOGENĒS, which occurs nine times in the N.T. Five times it refers to Jesus Christ (Jn. 1:14,18, 3:l6 18; I Jn. 4:9). The other four instances refer to the children of men (Lk. 7:l2 8:42, 9:38, and Heb. 11:17). It is unfortunate that this word has been translated “only-begotten”, since the Gk. MONOGENES is not derived from GENNAŌ “to beget”, but from GENOS “origin, race, stock”. It, therefore, does not refer to begetting at all, but stresses uniqueness, and is best translated “unique” or  “one of a kind”. It thus implies the idea that Jesus is all that God is and He alone as a Son is this. The various instances of the term in John’s writings carry the following stress: (1) Christ is uniquely God’s Son, (2) Christ is God’s unique revelation to man (Jn. 1:18), and (3) salvation is uniquely through or by means of the Son – Jn. 3:l6; I Jn. 4:9. John wishes to stress that Jesus is God; not in the sense that He only is God, but that He alone is God the Son. The relationship that He sustains to the Father is unique. It is not one of personal or essential subordination.

II. Terms Used in the Rest of the N.T.

A. Begotten: The Apostle Paul, in Acts 13:33, cites Ps. 2 in reference to Christ’s being begotten of the Father. What does this mean? The word Paul used, GEGENNEKA (perfect active of GENNAŌ) does mean  “to beget”, but in what sense? To begin with, we are not to think in terms of  “being born” (comp. w/lsa. 9:6 and Mic. 5:2) but of “generating”. The Father will generate according to His nature. He is eternal, infinite and is Spirit. But what is spoken of here is not the begetting of the divine nature of the Son. The great Baptist Theologian, John Gill, summarizes it this way: “The divine essence neither begets nor is begotten. It is a divine Person in the essence that is begotten. Essence does not beget essence, but person begets person; otherwise there would be more than one essence; whereas, though there are more persons than one, yet there is no more than one essence.”[vii] Thus the expression begotten does not imply that Jesus then began to be the Son of God, but only that His being so was then declared to the world (comp. Rom. 1:4).

B. First Born of All Creation: This expression is found in Col. 1:15 and is in context with the statement that Jesus Christ “is the image of the invisible God.” The Greek word for image is EIKON. Christ is the exact representation of the invisible God (comp. Heb. 1:3). Image refers to likeness and contains the concept of derivation. In a word, He is the exact copy of God. This word “image” tells us three things: (1) Jesus is THE Son of God, (2) He is the ETERNAL Son of God, and (3) He is GOD (cf. II Cor. 4:4 [I Cor. 11:7–man is called “the image and glory of God”–man’s image is by creation]). The expression “First-born of all creation” (Gk. PRŌTOTOKOS PASĒS KTISEŌS) is Messianic (cf. Ps. 89:26). It declares that the Messiah is an eternal being. He has a priority to all creation. It states a relationship between Christ and creation. He is the Creator, the Sovereign Lord over all creation by His own virtue and authority. Paul declares the Deity of Christ first by His relation to the Father (His image) and to the universe (the first-born).

Note: Such expressions as “the First-born from among the dead”(Col. 1:18), “the First-born of the dead”(Rev. 1:5) and “The Amen, the Faithful and True Witness, the beginning of the creation of God” (Rev. 3:14) are all soteriological designations that advert especially to Christ’s resurrection and not to the nature of His person.

Conclusion: The failure to grasp the significance of Christ’s work usually leads to defective views of His person  (and, naturally, vice-versa). Our eternal destiny depends upon the person and work of Christ. Our election was made in Christ in eternity past, before the foundation of the world (cf. Eph. 1:4, comp. w/Jn. 17:24 and II Tim. 1:9).  If Christ is not eternal, then neither is our election. God the Son sustains an eternal relationship to the Father by way of His nature. If there is not an eternal Son, then there is no eternal Father. The Father as God begets. The Son as God is begotten; the Holy Spirit as God proceeds. We cannot call God, Father, and deny that He begets; and the One that is begotten is the Son. Jesus Christ has always sustained this relationship to the Father as the Son. It is part of His glory, which He has always possessed (cf. Jn. 17:24). The terms we have covered in this section are words that relate in one way or another to the work of Christ. They set forth the character of His work in the incarnation and redemption. To those who have been redeemed by the Redeemer there is the witness of the Spirit (cf. Jn. 14:15-26, 15:26, l6: 13-15). Those who deny the Deity of Christ’s evidence only that they do not have the Spirit. There is a pressing need today to return to historic Christian faith as it is expressed in the creeds of the early church and the confessions of the Reformed faith. In particular, as Gerald Bray writes, “The creeds of Christendom are basic statements of belief which take up these questions and answer them in the context of the Person of Christ. There is a great need today to return to these foundations of our faith and probe just how they can help us to answer the doubts of our time and bring the gospel of Christ to bear once again on the affairs of men.”[viii]

References

[i] The great Scottish preacher, Thomas Boston, in his sermon “Directions How to Guard Against Atheism” warned his listeners about the insidious nature of such opinions: “Another opinion is, that men of all religions shall be saved; so that it is no matter what religion a man be of, if he walk according to the principles of it, and be of a sober moral life.  In these latter times some are grown weary of the Christian religion, and by an excess of charity betray their faith, and plead for the salvation of heathens, Turks, and infidels. But ye should remember that, as there is but one God, and only heavenly Jerusalem, so’ there is but one faith, and one way by which men can come to the enjoyment of God there.  Such libertine principles have a manifest tendency to shake people loose of all religion. To make many doors to heaven, as one says, is to widen the gates of hell.” The Beauties of Boston; A Selection of His Writings, ed. Samuel McMillan (Christian Focus Publications, 1979), p. 128.

[ii] C.F. Allison, The Cruelty of Heresy; An Affirmation of Christian Orthodoxy (Morehouse, 1994), p. 17.

[iii] Our word “heresy” comes from the Greek word HAIRESIS, which, interestingly enough, has as its root meaning “to choose.”  A heretic is someone who chooses his own beliefs.  The adjective is used by Paul in Titus 3:10 in reference to a person who is divisive or factious. Thus, a heretic came to refer to someone who promotes false teaching and brings division.

[iv] As cited in Donald G. Bloesch, Christian Foundations; God the Almighty (IVP, 1995).

[v] The Works of Stephen Charnock IV (rpt. The Banner of Truth Trust, 1985), p. 10.

[vi] Robert Strimple, Jesus, Divine Messiah: The New Testament Witness (P & R, 1990), p. 55. He later concludes, “that when Jesus employed the title, He was self-consciously claiming to be the Danielic “man-like figure,” and hence the Messiah, uniting within the one Old testament figure two motifs: Isaiah’s Suffering Servant and Daniel’s Son of Man coming apocalyptically to judge the earth and complete the Kingdom of God.” P. 61; the expression ipsissima vox is Latin and refers to “the very words”/”the very voice,” the exact words or language spoken or written by an individual and preserved without any change. Especially applied to the actual words of Jesus as preserved in the Gospels as distinct from sayings attributed to Him by the early church; if the actual words are not preserved, one seeks the actual message or “the very voice.” Cf. The Student’s Dictionary for Biblical & Theological Studies eds. F.B. Huey, Jr. & B. Corley (Zondervan, 1983), p. 107.

[vii] John Gill, A Body of Divinity (rpt. Sovereign Grace, 1971), p. 138.

[viii] Gerald Bray, Creeds, Councils and Christ (IVP, 1984), p. 171.

Additional Resources

John: An Expositional Commentary

Click here to read a sample chapter.

by Dr. R.C. Sproul

In John, the second volume in the St. Andrews Expositional Commentary series, Dr. Sproul deals with major themes in his easily understandable style. Readers will find invaluable insights into the goals John had in writing his Gospel, the background for Jesus time, and the meanings of some of Johns most difficult passages. This introduction to the Gospel of John is packed with insights and exhortations that will draw the reader closer to the Savior and encourage him or her to a greater depth of love and devotion to Him.

John presents the fruits of Dr. R. C. Sprouls lifetime of biblical study as expressed in his most recent calling. After a long and distinguished ministry as a teacher in various settings, Dr. Sproul accepted a call in 1997 to preach at St. Andrews in Sanford, Florida. There, he adopted the ancient practice of preaching through books of the Bible, eventually working his way through several of them. He has now begun to adapt those sermon series in book form, and the result is the St. Andrews Expositional Commentary series.
Dr. Sproul confesses that he attained a new depth of understanding of the Gospel when he preached through the book. Nevertheless, he came to the Gospel after much study of it, and that familiarity is readily apparent from the first chapter on the Prologue of John’s Gospel to the final chapter on Peter’s restoration.

John includes fifty-seven chapters, each of which began as a St. Andrew’s sermon. Dr. Sproul deals with major themes as he moves through the book passage by passage. Though the book is an “expositional commentary” that is, it does not deal with each and every verse, it unpacks major themes in Dr. Sproul’s easily understandable style. Readers will find invaluable insights into the goals John had in writing his Gospel, the background for Jesus’ time, and the meanings of some of John’s most difficult passages. It is an easily readable introduction to this unique record of Jesus’ life, packed with insights and exhortations that will draw the reader closer to the Savior and encourage him or her to a greater depth of love and devotion to Him.

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