Who Was Jesus Christ?
Dr. S. Lewis Johnson, Jr. is a Bible teacher at Believers Chapel, Dallas, Texas. A well-known conference speaker, he is also a visiting lecturer at Tyndale Theological Seminary, Amsterdam, Holland.
With sincere appreciation to Dr. Johnson, we commend to your careful reading this fourth and final study on the theme of “Who Was Jesus Christ?”
We have completed our study of the deity of Jesus Christ, and we have seen that the evidence overwhelmingly points to the fact that Jesus of Nazareth is God incarnate. And if Christians are asked, “Why do you Christians assert that Jesus Christ alone is the Redeemer?,” there is no need for us to stutter in our reply.
Christians affirm that Jesus Christ is their Savior from the penalty of sin and the judgment of eternal death. That in itself demands a conviction that Jesus Christ is God, for only God can save from sins (cf. Isa. 43:11). In fact, one might say simply that the doctrine of the deity of Jesus Christ is the theological expression of the evangelical experience of redemption.
The Council of Chalcedon, convoked in 451 A.D., affirmed our Lord’s true humanity. And, further, that the deity and humanity exist “without confusion, without change, without division, without separation.” The two natures coalesced in one person (prosopon) and one substance (hyposatasis). As to His deity our Lord was of the same nature as the Father, but as to His humanity of the same nature with us. He is like us in all respects apart from sin.
It might seem strange to twentieth century religious men and women to hear that the true humanity of Christ has been denied. In the early periods of the history of the church, however, at times there was little doubt of the deity of Christ, but serious questions existed concerning the humanity of Christ. It has been necessary for the church, therefore, to defend His humanity also.
Some errorists have denied His true humanity altogether, such as the Docetics of the first two centuries of the Christian era. They conceived of the incarnation as something of an illusion. In one form of the heresy it was said that the divine Christ descended upon Jesus of Nazareth at His baptism and left Him at the cross. The real Son of God simply used the human Jesus for His purposes. This denial of the incarnation and true humanity of our Lord is reflected in the New Testament in such passages as 1 John 4:2-3, “Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: and every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come: and even now already it is in the world.” Cf. 2 John 7. Some of the Docetics denied the real flesh of our Lord’s body, thinking of it as made of psychic substance, as something of a phantom. Our Lord, then, would be similar to a divine being walking the earth in disguise.
Others denied the humanity of Christ in part, such as the Arians, who denied His soul, Apollinaris, who denied that He possessed a rational human soul, or spirit, and the Monothelites, who said He had no human will.
In the light of these views of the humanity of our Lord let us now turn to the Bible for its view of the matter.
The Testimony of the Biblical Texts
(1) First, we turn to John 1:14, where in his prologue to his gospel the apostle writes, “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.” Here is one of the great texts on the incarnation of the divine Son. “In one short, shattering expression,” Leon Morris says, “John unveils the great ideal at the heart of Christianity that the very Word of God took flesh for man’s salvation.” The One who had been “with God” is now “with us.” It is no wonder that Luther said that we need “new tongues” to set the event forth properly. I think it was Dorothy Sayers who said, “If this is not exciting, then what in heaven’s name is exciting?”
The term “flesh” is a very strong, almost crude, way of referring to human nature. The immutability of the Son, as well as His deity, is not compromised by the text. The being of the Word does not have a new existence, but He does with the assumption of a human nature in addition to His divine nature enter into a new form of existence.
There is a remarkable contrast between verse one and verse fourteen in John’s prologue. In verse one we read, “The Word was (en)”, which contrasts with verse fourteen’s, “The Word became (egeneto)”. Second, in verse one we read that the Word was “with God,” while in verse fourteen the Word came to be “with us.” And finally, in verse one we have, “The Word was God,” while in verse fourteen we have, “The Word became flesh.” The eternal being stands in contrast with the temporal becoming.
We conclude, then, that John 1:14 is a clear statement of the fact that the divine Son became man.
(2) Second, John 8:40 is one of our Lord’s plain statements of His true humanity. There we read that He said to the men of Jerusalem, “But now ye seek to kill me, a man that hath told you the truth, which I have heard of God: this did not Abraham.”
(3) Third, the Apostle Paul’s opening words to the Romans contain a text about our Lord’s humanity. He wrote to the Romans and stated that he was an apostle separated unto “the gospel of God,” adding, “Concerning his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, which was made of the seed of David according to the flesh; and declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead” (Rom. 1:3-4).
(4) Fourth, in Romans 9:5 there is another reference to His humanity. The text has been hotly debated with respect to its statement of our Lord’s deity, and I believe that it plainly does affirm His deity, but there is no debate over its substantiation of His humanity. Paul is speaking of the people of the Messiah, and the text reads, “Whose are the fathers, and of whom as concerning the flesh Christ came, who is over all, God blessed for ever. Amen.”
(5) Fifth, in Philippians 2:6-8 there is another Pauline confession of His humanity. Listen to the passage, “Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.”
(6) Sixth, in the second chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews there are two texts that suitably form a conclusion to this section of the paper. The reality of the human nature of our Lord is emphasized in the first passage, “Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part of the same: that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil” (2:14). Two verbs represent the concept of sharing in the verse. The first, rendered by the words, “are partakers,” suggests the idea of nature that human beings possess. The tense of the verb suggests that they have always shared this common lot.
The second verb, rendered by “took part,” referring to our Lord’s incarnation, suggests that the nature He took was an additional nature for Him, something with which by nature He had nothing in common. The tense underlines the historicity of the assumption of the nature. However, while the connection with humanity remains, the connection with humanity under the condition of transitoriness, that is, in the form of blood and flesh, was historical. Marvelous is it to reflect upon the fact that He betrothed Himself to the human race, — for better, for worse, and forever. There is no place here for a Docetic phantom Son of God!
(7) Seventh, a few lines on in the same chapter is the final text. The author writes, “Wherefore in all things it behoved him to be made like unto his brethren, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make reconciliation for the sins of the people” (v. 17). The phrase, “in all things,” puts the capstone on the edifice of His genuine humanity. Chalcedon was right. He is “truly God and truly man.” And the Anthanasian Creed (likely composed after Chalcedon) is also correct in adding, “yet he is not two, but one Christ; one, not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh: but by taking (assumption) of the manhood into God.”
Indirect Scriptural Evidence of Christ’s Humanity
(1) First, a human name is given our Lord. In the opening of Matthew’s Gospel the author in setting out His genealogy writes, “The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the Son of Abraham” (Matt. 1:1). A few verses later in the account the angel of the Lord instructs Joseph to give the Son the name “Jesus,” a human name, the Greek equivalent of the Old Testament Joshua. In 1 Timothy 2:5 Paul writes, “For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus,” clearly linking His name and title, Messiah, with humanity.
(2) Second, the Scripture presents Him as having a human descent. In the Matthean genealogy to which we have just referred the genealogy of Jesus Christ is traced by the author to human persons, David and Abraham (cf. 1:1-17). At the conclusion of the birth narrative He is described as the offspring of Mary (cf. v. 25). Cf. Rom. 9:5.
(3) Third, the biblical description of His conception and birth describes it as a human, though miraculous, conception (cf. Luke 1:35, 42).
(4) Fourth, our Lord possessed the constituent parts of a human personality and anatomy. He is said to have had a body, a soul, a spirit, hands, feet, vocal cords, and a will (cf. Matt. 26:38; Luke 22:42; 23:46; 24:39; John 2:21).
(5) Fifth, the Scriptures picture Him as exercising human emotions. He is seen at times as angry (Mark 3:5) and as sorrowful (14:34).
(6) Sixth, He is portrayed as having human physical wants, such as hunger (Matt. 4:2), thirst (John 19:28), and weariness (4:6; Luke 8:23).
(7) Seventh, and to climax it all, He is most fully portrayed as experiencing human suffering and death. It is hard to see how His humanity might be described more clearly and definitely.
The Resultant Person
His make-up. Our preceding studies have shown that the Bible portrays Jesus Christ as both God and man. One might ask at this point, “In what ways was He different from other men, for surely He is seen as different?” We might answer it theologically and say that He was different in three ways, although the three ways do not in any way contradict His full deity or complete manhood. First, He had a supernatural conception (Luke 1:35; Matt. 1:18, 20). Second, He was the sinless Son of God (Luke 1:35; 2 Cor. 5:21). There is a universal saying that no man is a hero to his valet, but in the case of our Lord the situation is unparalleled. “The Jesus of the gospels,” McDonald points out, “knew more about sin than anyone; yet He Himself never betrayed the least consciousness of it. Sin in others He saw, He rebuked, He forgave; He grieved over it, He suffered for it; He knew what was in man yet could issue the challenge, ‘Which of you convinceth me of sin?’ (John 8:46). With Him there was no memory of sin’s defeat, no trace of sin’s scars, no shame of a bad conscience.”
Third, Jesus Christ was different in a final way: He assumed an impersonal human nature (enupostasia). His personality was His divine and eternal personality, His two natures being united in one undivided and indivisible person. That follows from the incarnation, for He did not assume then a human person, but only human nature (anupostasia). The human nature was received into the person of the Logos.
To sum up His make-up, then, He is not God indwelling man, nor man raised to the power of deity, or deified, but the God-man. “In Him,” as Paul put it, “dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily” (Col. 2:9). To repeat: He is not God in man, nor God and man, but one person, the God-man.
The Thirty-Nine Articles of the Anglican Church has it nicely put, “The Son… took man’s nature in the womb of the Blessed Virgin, of her substance: so that two whole and perfect natures, that is to say, the Godhead and Manhood, were joined together in one Person, never to be divided” (Article II).
Perhaps this seems to admit of no rational explanation. We should not be surprised. That is what we expect of the infinite. In fact, its very insolubility is compatible with its divine source.
The human imagination can only rearrange known facts. In our study of mythology we remember reading of such fabled creatures as the centaur, the faun, and the mermaid. The centaur was a monster, half man and half horse, said to have inhabited a part of Thessaly. But such creation involves an anatomical absurdity. The arms of the man correspond to the forelegs of the horse, but a compound like this involves a double set of bones and muscles and organs, like those that pertain to the upper part of the trunk. All such inventions are preposterous. So, when man tries to create, even a fanciful being, by combining things that do not exist together, he blunders into grotesque nonsense.
His meaning. G. Campbell Morgan in a book of a generation ago said that man’s need was threefold: He is distanced from God by sin, he is ignorant of God through sin, and he is unlike God in sin. The glory of gospel of Jesus Christ, the God-man, and His atoning mediatorial work, is that God finds Himself in this person and is with men, for He is man, and man finds himself in this person and is with God, for He is God. Thus, he who was distanced from God by sin is restored to God by the gift of righteousness. He who was ignorant of God through sin comes to the knowledge of God through Christ. And he who was unlike God in sin shall come to be like Him in Christ.
Job spoke long ago of the need of a Mediator. He, reflecting upon his unworthiness to approach God in his sin, cried, “For He is not a man as I am that I may answer Him, That we may go to court together. There is no umpire (AV, “daysman”; NIV, “someone to arbitrate”) between us, Who may lay his hand upon us both” (9:32-33, NASB). Jesus Christ, being the God-man, qualified and has accomplished the work of union. He has borne the separating penalty of sin for His people, and He as the infinite sin-bearer has satisfied the claims of God the Holy One. Through union with Him, who has represented us in the atoning work, we are brought near by Christ, know Him through Christ, and shall be like Him in Christ. Job’s Daysman has been found (cf. Matt. 20:28; Acts 4:12) .
The message to us. We may best illustrate this by looking at our Lord’s life and ministry. Who is this at Lazarus’ tomb? One moment we read, “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). That is Jesus the man. At the next moment we read that Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come forth,” and the man dead for four days came forth from the dead (vv. 43-44). That is Jesus the God-man.
In Jerusalem He had preached, “Therefore doth my Father love me, because I lay down my life, that I might take it again. No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down,” — any mere man could say that, “and I have power to take it again,” — only God could say that. “This commandment have I received of my Father” (John 10:17-18).
The leper who came to Jesus at the mountain’s foot was convinced of His power, for he worshipped Him, saying, “Lord, if thou wilt, thou canst make me clean.” That was an expression of confidence in His deity. Jesus then put forth His hand, and touched him, saying, “I will; be thou clean.” Immediately the leprosy left the man (Matt. 8:1-4). Will you notice that Jesus “touched” the leper. Lepers were not touched, nor are they easily touched today. They were unclean ritually, and the disease was thought to be very infectious. Jesus did not have to touch the man; He often healed with only a word. But, to let the man and others know that there is a love back of His power, He touched him, saying, “I will; be thou clean.” That is Jesus the God-man. And in the light of both His deity and humanity we sing,
“He saw me ruined in the fall,
Yet loved me notwithstanding all.”
What shall we say, then, as we close our study of the question, “Who was Jesus Christ?” The Scriptures have spoken plainly and clearly: He is the God-man, the divinely promised Mediator sent to save the people of God. That is what the angel intimated to Joseph, “thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21) . And this is what those closest to Him in His earthly ministry confessed. Said Peter, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16). “My Lord and my God,” said Thomas (John 20:28). He is “our great God and Savior Jesus Christ,” Paul said (Tit. 2:13)
When Christ asked His disciples at Caesarea Philippi, “Who do men say that I the Son of man am?,” He received some significant answers that revealed quite a bit about the way His contemporaries felt regarding His person. Our Lord, however, was more interested at the moment in what His own apostles thought, and so He followed with the probing question, “But who say ye that I am?” It is then that Peter offered his great confession, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16). That is the question that we must all face, and to which we all must give response. It cannot be dodged, avoided, shunned, or evaded.
Many years ago I read an account of a well-known American scholar, who in his early ministry preached a course of sermons on the resurrection, in which he stated and tested the various arguments to the fullest extent of his power. There was present in his audience an eminent lawyer, the head of the legal profession in the city. He listened to the preacher Sunday by Sunday as he marshalled proofs, weighted evidence, considered objections, analyzed the stories of the Gospels, and stated the case for the resurrection. At length he drew the conclusion that Christianity must be true, because God raised Jesus from the dead.
At the close of the last sermon the lawyer went to see the minister and said, “I am a lawyer; I have listened to your statement of the case. I consider it incontrovertible, but this case demands a verdict. This is no mere intellectual conflict; there is life in it. If Jesus Christ rose from the dead, His religion is true, and we must submit to it.” W. H. Griffith Thomas, to who I am indebted for the incident, said that the lawyer was as good as his word and became a Christian. That is my prayer and hope for those who have read these studies.