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This book answers the big questions that theologians have debated for many centuries in regard to the origin and nature of Christ. We start with the foundational issue of the virgin birth of Christ and the incarnation of Christ and then move on to the idea of the image of God and Christ's pre-existence. All of this leads to the Father-Son relationship and the discussion about the Godhead.
Category - Long Book
Paul quoted an early church hymn in 1 Tim. 3:16,
16 And by common confession great is the mystery of godliness:
He who was revealed in the flesh
Was vindicated in the Spirit,
Beheld by angels,
Proclaimed among the nations,
Believed on in the world,
Taken up in glory.
This hymn states boldly that Christ was “revealed” (or manifested) in the flesh. He did not come into existence at His birth. Rather, His prior existence was manifested on earth when He was born. If such manifestation were purely along the order of normal human birth, then there would be no purpose in singing about it. But He was unique in that He was not simply born in flesh but manifested (phanaroo).
John 1:14 supports this, saying “the word became flesh.” In other words, the word existed prior to becoming flesh, i.e., prior to being begotten and born in the earth. This is closely related to the idea of pre-existence, which will be covered in the next section.
The idea of the incarnation of Christ means that He took upon Himself a material body when He was begotten in Mary, and that His birth through the Virgin Mary was the moment that His body was viable and able to live separately. To study the incarnation properly, we must first separate Greek philosophy from Hebrew Scripture and then further separate Jewish traditions from real Hebrew truth.
While rejecting Greek assumptions of body and soul, along with the supposed “evil” nature of matter, we must also remain respectful yet somewhat suspicious of Jewish beliefs and thought patterns. Jesus contradicted many accepted Jewish teachings about the law in His “Sermon on the Mount,” and years later Paul also contradicted many tenets of Greek religion and culture.
What we hope to uncover is a third alternative, unique to Scripture. Conclusions depend upon premises, premises upon underlying assumptions, and assumptions upon culture. If we can somehow examine the core assumptions and culture on which our opinions are based, we might hope to reach better conclusions, if not ultimate truth.
The Jewish viewpoint of the first few centuries did not allow for any “incarnation” of Christ, for it was foreign to mainstream Jewish expectations of the Messiah’s origin and birth. Though there are always variant views and explanations for every doctrine, the Jewish view as a whole looked for a Messiah who was an anointed man—another “David,” if you please, born naturally.
The Jewish Christian view diverged from Greek Christianity (if I may call it that), and the very success of evangelism among the Greeks soon relegated the Jewish Christians to the back rows of influence. Jews of the second century found themselves vastly outnumbered by those who thought in Greek. Although John had taught from a Hebrew perspective and left them with a gospel and other letters, later generations interpreted his writings from the perspective of Greek word definitions common in their culture.
Furthermore, because the priests in Jerusalem had scattered many Jewish believers through persecution or excommunication, many moved away. Their children were raised among Greeks and Romans, they lost much knowledge of the Hebrew or Aramaic language, and ultimately began to lose their sense of Jewish identity as well.
Hence, most of the early Jews who accepted Jesus as the Messiah were absorbed into the rising Greek-speaking church. By the end of the second century, the main body of the Church was Greek, and the Jewish Christian communities were largely isolated and lost much of their earlier influence.
The gospels had been written under the backdrop of Judea and Judaism, but they ceased to be viewed as a Greek expression of Hebrew concepts. Much truth was discolored. On a more positive note, some incorrect Jewish traditions were also lost, most notably the idea that men were “chosen” (or elect) on account of the fleshly descent from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
From the book of Acts we can see that the 40 years from Christ to the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem saw Jewish Christians still attempting to remain loyal to Judaism, while considering themselves to be of an alternate Jewish sect. James, the first bishop of Jerusalem, went to the temple daily to pray for Jerusalem. As a Nazarite, he was allowed to enter the holy place itself to pray. It was on one of these occasions that he was stoned to death for bearing witness that Jesus was indeed the Messiah.
The Jewish Christians also continued keeping the feast days in the old manner, killing lambs and putting blood on the door posts at Passover, camping out in booths at the Feast of Tabernacles, and even offering or supporting the daily animal sacrifices in the temple. The splendid temple was a powerful psychological magnet that few wanted to abandon.
It was only when God sent “his armies… and set their city on fire” (Matt. 22:7) in 70 A.D. that they were forced to abandon the old system of Old Covenant worship and to seek a new and better way. Only then did they cease to think of themselves as a sect of Judaism.
In fact, Judaism itself had to accommodate itself to the new reality of a religion without a central place of worship. With no temple altar to make sacrifices, it was generally accepted that these should cease until the Messiah comes. They expected the Messiah to oversee a reconstructed temple and reinstate the Old Covenant forms of worship. Thus, even to this day they await the coming of a different Messiah, even as Christians await the second coming of Christ.
As I said earlier, Judaism had no expectation of God coming down to inhabit human flesh, wherein he would be called the Messiah. A virgin birth was not totally unknown, but those who believed this did not contemplate any “incarnation from heaven” as the church conceived of it.
When the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in the late 1940’s, much was learned about the beliefs of the Essenes, who were one of the top three sects of Judaism along with the Sadducees and Pharisees. The Pharisees and their followers were the largest group, but the Sadducees were in control of the temple during the first century until its destruction.
The Essenes had given up on mainstream Judaism and had abandoned the temple altogether, believing it to be too corrupt to reform. They had formed their own communities in the caves near the Dead Sea, where they awaited the coming of the Messiah to vindicate their beliefs and to reform temple worship.
The Dead Sea Scroll 1QSa 11-12 mentions, “When God begets the Messiah.” The idea that God would beget the Messiah probably came from Psalm 2:7,
7 I will surely tell of the decree of the Lord: He said to Me, ‘Thou art My Son, today I have begotten Thee.”
Another important passage is 1 Chron. 17:13, a prophecy that Nathan conveyed to David, which spoke of his son, Solomon, saying, “I [God] will be his father, and he shall be My son.” There is no reason to believe that Solomon was literally begotten by God of a virgin. The “sonship” principle here only meant that God would treat him as a son. In other words, if Solomon fell into sin, God would discipline him but “I will not take My lovingkindness away from him, as I took it from him who was before you.”
Hence, the actual Messiah a thousand years later was qualitatively different from Solomon, even though Solomon, like Jesus, was a “Prince of Peace,” as his name implies. Both David and Solomon were imperfect types of Christ, and so the rabbis of the Second Temple era based their view of God’s begetting a future Messiah on partial patterns. Prior to the actual coming of the Messiah, their revelation was necessarily limited by the lack of clarity in the Old Testament.
This, along with their rather militaristic view of what a Messiah ought to accomplish, made it difficult for the Jews of the first century to recognize Jesus as Messiah when He arrived. Most of them looked for a great military leader who would deliver them from the yoke of Rome, but Jesus did not meet that expectation.
Another Dead Sea Scroll (4Q246) speaks of the Messiah, saying,
“Son of God he shall be called, and they will name him ‘Son of the Most High’… His (or its) kingdom is an everlasting kingdom… The great God will be his strength.”
This is quite similar to what Gabriel told Mary in Luke 1:32,
32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David; 33 and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever; and His kingdom will have no end.
With 20/20 hindsight, we look back at this and have no trouble seeing that Jesus fulfilled the Scriptural prophecies in the Hebrew Scriptures. But most Jews were steeped in their long-held traditions and did not see this at all. What is clear to us as Christian believers was not at all clear to most of them. They did not have the revelation that Mary was given in Luke 1:35,
35 And the angel answered and said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy offspring shall be called the Son of God.”
In other words, the term “Son of God” applied to Jesus specifically on account of His virgin birth. This revelation took the idea of sonship and the fatherhood of God beyond the current Jewish understanding of that time. In fact, Joseph himself needed his own revelation to be able to accept her story (Matt. 1:19, 20).
It was easier for a Greek to accept this account than for an average Jew, for such an event, though supernatural, was not outside the bounds of their religious culture. Hercules, for instance, was said to have been fathered by Zeus, through an adulterous tryst with Alcmene, the human wife of Amphitryon. So the Greeks already believed that the gods could beget children through human wives, a relic from the story in Gen. 6:4 where the “sons of God” took wives from among the daughters of men. Greek religion and culture thus included the existence of demigods.
As for the idea of the incarnation, unlike the Jews, most Greeks believed the stories about the gods taking human form and walking among men. So when Paul healed the man in Lystra, the people “began calling Barnabas Zeus, and Paul, Hermes” (Acts 14:12). The people presumed that Paul and Barnabas were gods in human form.
The Romans, too, were used to the idea of a god in the form of man. Not only did they share similar myths with the Greeks, their Caesars were God-men as well, deified either during their lifetime or after death. Going back further into antiquity, we should note in passing that the Egyptians too had a long history of deified pharaohs.
So the Jews understood that in some manner the Messiah was to be begotten by God, but they did not interpret this to mean that God would incarnate Himself in a man in the process. David, after all, was not a God-man. Being a son of God required neither a virgin mother nor did it indicate a divine incarnation where God would take human form.
The primary view of a son, other than the obvious literal meaning, is that it applied to one who followed the example of another. “Like father, like son,” was a common way of looking at it. So there were children of wisdom, children of light, children of darkness, children of the devil (or Belial), and, as Paul notes, the seed of Abraham. In each case, the “children” resemble their father insofar as their deeds, beliefs, characteristics, or faith was concerned.
The most basic characteristic of a son was that he would carry out the will of his father, doing only what his father would do, and speaking only what he heard his father say. If a son could do this perfectly, then it could be said that he was in the image of his father and was an ideal son.
To the Jews, a son of God was one who resembled God in some way, either in faith or righteousness or in power. Kings were seen as sons of God, especially heirs to the throne of Israel, which was filled by men who were supposed to rule as God’s agents or trustees. So Nathanael said to Jesus in John 1:49, “Rabbi, You are the Son of God; You are the King of Israel.” When he spoke those words, he had not yet learned of Christ’s virgin birth, but he knew that the Messiah, as the promised King of Israel, was to be known as Son of God.
In the end, Luke 1:35 solidly links Christ’s sonship to His virgin birth. But does this connection extend also to the idea of Christ’s incarnation?