Thursday, March 26, 2009

How did he become the man he was? Part Two.

NOTE: This week’s post is part two of an article begun last week (see below)

How did Jesus become the man he was? As the record of his life unfolds in the gospels we are faced with an unspoken question: how did Jesus do the things he did? If we choose to say simply, “he was the Messiah, God come to earth,” how can we explain his statement in John 14:12? “I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.”

His earliest followers understood that Jesus lived a life which demonstrated full reliance on the Holy Spirit, and a life in perfect submission to the Father’s will. True, he was without sin and in his perfection Jesus‘ sacrificial death paid the price for our pardon. But his life was more than a substitution, more than payment for our sin--as great as that sacrifice is. His life was a model for anyone who would follow him, a model of both moral excellence and ministry in the power of the Holy Spirit.

But how can his life be a model for anyone if his character and power cannot be imitated? Whether we articulate the question or not, each of us is forced to wrestle with the nature of Jesus--was he God or was he man? If he was only a man, how can his death pay the price for all mankind? If he is God, how can he reasonably expect his followers to live up to his example? It is an important wrestling match because our answer may well determine our own progress as a follower of Jesus.

Jesus clearly expected his followers to do the same kind of works he did. The instructions to the twelve in Luke 9:2 are clear, “he sent them out to preach the kingdom of God and to heal the sick.” Just one chapter later he widened the commission to at least 70 of his followers. In short order they returned joyfully, "Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name." (Luke 10:17) Even as Jesus was pleased with their works he reminded them of their own need for redemption, and then--filled with Holy Spirit-inspired joy, made a most startling statement: "I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure.”

The “wise and learned” debated the nature of Jesus the man and Jesus the Son of God for nearly 400 years. Finally, in 431AD at the first Council of Ephesus the church settled on this formulation: Jesus was one person, not two separate people: complete God and complete man, all wrapped up into one person.

Both aspects of his nature are important for everyday living. Only God’s own Son can purchase the redemption of all humanity--no human sacrifice will do. Our forgiveness rests completely in the sufficiency of God’s own sacrifice. We need to approach him as the only one capable of dispensing divine mercy and grace. At the same time, Jesus is the example of a human life lived in full accordance with the Father’s will. We must see (as was pointed out in Part One) that his miracles were accomplished through the power of the Holy Spirit, not by virtue of some divine standing as the Son of God. When Jesus operated under the power of the Holy Spirit, he was showing us how it was done. That is, he was calling us to be like him in every way.

Simple passages like Luke 2:52 point to the fact that Jesus lived a very human life. Other, more enigmatic verses like Hebrews 5:8 seem to point to the fact that Jesus modeled obedience--an obedience he had won by suffering the same difficulties we face. Perhaps most challenging of all, verses like Matthew 10: 7-8 seem to indicate that he had higher expectations for his followers than we have today.

Throughout the 20th century, skeptics and scholars alike attacked the divinity of Jesus. In the academy Jesus’ identity was deconstructed and the gospel record was regarded with suspicion. The miracle accounts were explained away. We were asked to accept the idea that the miracles were not true in any concrete sense, but mythical illustrations of spiritual points.

The evangelical church responded with a vigorous defense of the gospel record and of the truth regarding the divinity of our Lord. The world at large denied the divinity of Jesus in the 20th century, and the church held fast to the truth--Jesus is God come to earth. However, as we rose to his defense we fell prey to a subtle over-emphasis. The church stood firmly on the divinity of Jesus at the expense of asserting his humanity as well. While maintaining the miracle accounts in the gospels were true indeed, we lost sight of his teaching that his followers would do his works.

Some 21st century Christians vigorously defend the miracles of Jesus' day without recognizing his call to do the very same works in our day. Some 21st century Christians vigorously defend the holy and blameless life of Jesus twenty centuries ago without sharing the good news that, by the grace of God, we can live lives of substantial holiness today (see, for example Eph. 5:27 or I Thess 3:13).

To ignore the humanity of Jesus is to ignore his call to be like him in every respect. To over-emphasize his divinity is to give ourselves an excuse to live powerless lives. Lives powerless over sin or powerless over the sicknesses and demonization so prevalent in our world today.

How did he become the man he was? The simple answer is he lived in the presence and the power of the Holy Spirit. The more difficult answer is that he calls us to live the same way.

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