Paul’s letter to the Colossians is a short letter with a singular focus. He wants us to see that Jesus is enough for God’s people. In the middle of Chapter 1 he goes to some length to explain to us who Jesus really is in all his glory. In looking at what some have deemed the “Christ Hymn”1 of Colossians, we quite literally come to one of the mountaintop vistas in the entire Bible. As Jesus is the central focus of the Bible (Luke 24:27) such clear and airy Christology2 found Colossians 1:15-20 is indeed one of the high points of the Bible. This passage has been central to the church’s understanding of Jesus and has been part of a robust theological discussion over the years.
The Identity of Jesus in Early Church History
The identity of Jesus was of extreme importance to Christians in every era of history but was especially central to his earliest followers. Jesus himself walked on the earth, lived his life with a community of people, preached, taught, was crucified and raised from death. Jesus is truly a complex person. In the New Testament he is at once a very human, human being. At the same time he claimed to be God striding upon the soils of planet earth. After his life, Jesus’s apostles and their associates wrote down his story, his teachings and eyewitness accounts3 of his death and resurrection in what we call the “Gospels” of the New Testament. There are four of these—Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.4 In addition to these gospels there are various sections of the other New Testament writings which speak to the identity of Jesus.
There was some debate among the early Christians as to whether Jesus was “more human” (ala Arianism—he was not fully God) or “more God.” (ala Docetism—a view that said he just appeared human). Some wanted to focus more on his humanity, others on his divinity and some wanted to keep the divine and human separated. There is good reason for this debate. The Bible is vehemently and without equivocation monotheistic. There is only one God (see Deuteronomy 6:4; 2 Samuel 7:22; Isaiah 44:6-8, 45:5; Romans 3:30; Ephesians 4:4-6; James 2:19) and yet Jesus claims to be God and prays to God as his Father. Something wonderful and different is up here!
Historically, the truth of Jesus is found in the New Testament teaching. Clarity on all this matters took some time, but a strong unity was forged in the early creeds and councils of the church. The major controversy was between followers of Arias (who taught that Jesus was a created being and not eternal God) and those following the New Testament in holding God/Humanity of Jesus together in one person. This position’s leader was an Egyptian named Athanasius. These two positions were debated at the Council of Nicea in AD 325. This council was to resolve this debate about the nature of Jesus Christ and was not in any way a council that “gave the church the Bible” or any other of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code speculation.5
The council of Nicea resulted in a big thumbs down on Arias’ doctrines declaring them to be heresy. The council also affirmed the biblical teaching with an early formation of the Nicene Creed. This document was the statement around which Christians unified in relationship to the unique identity of the God of the Bible as a Triune being existing eternally as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The following is just a snippet that may sound familiar to those who grew up in liturgical church traditions.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father. Through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.
The Nicene creed simply articulated the teaching of the Bible that Jesus was indeed God. More doctrinal precision was provided by the Chalcedonian definition in AD 451 which clarified the biblical teaching that Jesus was fully human and full God in one person. He was not sort of human and really God or sort of God and kinda human. The definition reads as follow.
Therefore, following the holy fathers [early church leaders/pastors], we all with one accord teach men to acknowledge one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man, consisting also of a reasonable soul and body; of one substance with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his manhood; like us in all respects, apart from sin; as regards his Godhead, begotten of the Father before the ages, but yet as regards his manhood begotten, for us men and for our salvation, of Mary the Virgin, the God-bearer; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence, not as parted or separated into two persons, but one and the same Son and Only-begotten God the Word, Lord Jesus Christ; even as the prophets from earliest times spoke of him, and our Lord Jesus Christ himself taught us, and the creed of the fathers has handed down to us. 6
Though we might need a dictionary along with us to read the above, it is indeed an awesome statement. The teachings of these creeds about Jesus are simply articulations of the teaching of Jesus and the apostles and have played a unifying role in church history.7 In fact, all Christians from every tradition—Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Protestant, Evangelical8 are in agreement on the truths of these creeds. Why? They come from the Bible which bears witness to this unique person. In fact, Jesus is revealed in the Scripture as the most unique person who ever lived. The following will be but a simple survey of some of the biblical teaching.
The Biblical Teaching
Jesus is not normal. Never was, never will be. In fact, he is the most startling, unique, mysterious, glorious, compelling, magnetic, loving and true person who ever lived. The Scriptures reveal to us both truths that Jesus was God and man. The following will be a listing of some of the biblical teaching.
He is man
In the Old Testament we are taught that the coming Messiah/Christ would be a human being (Isaiah 7:14; 9:6,7). Jesus fulfills this in every way. First, he was born into and grew up in a human family (Luke 1-2). Second, he exhibits the full range of human emotions in the gospels. He was tired, hungry, thirsty and in his humanity he had limited knowledge (John 4:6-7 and 19:28, Mark 13:32). Third, Philippians 2:6-8 clearly teaches that Jesus, though was in very nature God, humbled himself and became human. Fourth, He was tempted just as we are yet did not sin. (Matthew 4, Hebrews 4:15) Some erroneously teach that to be human means to be sinful. Yet we see Jesus fully human without sin. Finally, all the gospels record that Jesus bled and died on the cross. It is simple for us to understand Jesus was an historical human being, yet some question whether this man was truly God incarnate. The amount of biblical testimony to this second claim is actually massive in detail. On we go to that happy trail.
He is God
Here we will provide a sketch of the testimony of Scripture as to the deity of Jesus along five major lines. For those who desire more I refer you to a couple of clear recent works that cover the issues in some detail.10
#1 He is clearly called God and divine names are attributed to Jesus
First, Jesus is called theos the Greek word for God in many places in the New Testament (John 1:1, John 20:28, Romans 9:5, Hebrews 1:8, Titus 2:13, 1 John 5:20, 2 Peter 1:1). Second, he is called the Son of God in the gospels. This is sometimes a misunderstood concept where many think this distinguishes Jesus from being God. Philosopher Peter Kreeft makes the following observation that sheds light on how this title was understood. Kreeft writes: Son of a dog, is a dog, son of an ape an ape, son of God, is God — Jews were Monotheistic, only one God—Son of God is the divine title of Jesus and everyone at his time understood this title to mean just that.9 Third, Jesus is called the Son of Man some 84 times in the gospels and is his most used title for himself. This title represents the perfection of humanity in the person of Jesus in contrast to the sinful nature of humanity in Adam.11 It is also a direct reference to the divine figure in Daniel 7 of the Old Testament. Jesus used this to describe both his first and second coming. About his first coming he said, the Son of Man came to give his life as a ransom for people (Mark 10:45 and Matthew 20:28). As to his second coming, in direct reference to Daniel 7, he tells the high priest at his trial that the Son of Man will come again on the clouds of heaven. At this he is accused of blasphemy because he had claimed to be God. See dialogue in Matthew 62-65. Finally, Jesus is called LORD, kurios, which is used for Yahweh in Greek translations of the Old Testament (Philippians 2:11, 1 Corinthians 2:8).
# 2 Certain attributes of God are used to describe Jesus
There are certain characteristics about God that theologians calls his divine attributes. Some of these are directly predicated to Jesus as well. Jesus is said to be unchanging (Hebrews 1:12, quoting Psalm 102:25-27, Hebrews 13:8) and all powerful (Philippians 3:20,21, Revelation 1:8) and eternal (Isaiah 9:6,7; Micah 5:2).
# 3 Jesus does the works of God
Jesus is said to be the creator and providential sustainer of all (Colossians 1:15-20, Hebrews 1:1-3). Furthermore, he is said to give eternal life and forgives sins that are against God (John 10:28, John 17:2, 1 John 2:25, Mark 2:5-12, Colossians 1:14, 3:13). Jesus’ miracles also confirm his power over nature, disease and death itself.
#4 He is worshipped as God by monotheistic people
The Scriptures are clear that the worship of anyone or anything is idolatry and the deepest of sins. Deuteronomy 6:13-15 teaches us that God’s people shall worship/fear only the Lord their God. Additionally, The Ten Commandments call us to worship only the God of the Bible and to reject idols and the worship of images (Exodus 20). Furthermore, the angels, various men and Jesus himself all understand that worship is exclusively for God (Angels in Revelation 19 and 22, Peter in Acts 10, Paul in Acts 14 and Jesus himself quotes Deuteronomy 6:13 to Satan during his own temptations in Matthew 4). So we find something amazing happening in the New Testament. Jesus is worshipped and he accepts worship without any hesitation at all (Matthew 2:11, John 9:35-39, Matthew 21:9-16, Luke 19.37-40 and Matthew 28:9,10, 17). Even more amazing is that God the Father actually commands angels to worship Jesus (Hebrews 1:6) and Jesus will be clearly worshipped in Heaven (Revelation 5).
#5 He directly claimed to be God
His own testimony is that he is the pre-existing great I AM of Exodus 3 (John 8:58), he is one in essence with the Father (John 10:30), he existed with the Father before the world began (John 17:5) and he claims to be the divine Christ (Matthew 26:63,64). His enemies wanted him killed for blasphemy because he, a mere man, was clearly claiming to be God.
The Unique Glory of Jesus
The wonder of Jesus Christ isn’t that he was a great moral teacher. He was. The wonder of Jesus Christ is not that he was kind, loving and compassionate to the poor. He was. The glory is found in that God became poor and one of us. He desires to walk with us, teach us and lead us. The glory is that Jesus is worthy of worship because as the unique Son of God he gave his life for us. Some might make him too exalted and far away—less human. Some might seek to bring him down from heaven and make him just a slob like one of us.11 Dear friends, the path he gives us is much better. He shares our humanity and lives with us by his Spirit as the divine, glorified and risen Savior. He is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords—he shall reign forever and we shall worship him. He is worthy of all that we are.
1. See discussion in Douglas Moo, The Letters to the Colossians and Philemon (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008) See introductory section on Colossians 1:15.
2. Christology is the theological discipline dedicated to the study of the person (who he is) and work (what he has done) of Jesus the Christ.
3. See Richard Baukham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006)
4. Matthew and John were among the twelve apostles. Mark wrote down the apostle Peter’s account (see my introduction to Mark here http://www.powerofchange.org/storage/docs/nt_web_jw.pdf) and Luke was the traveling companion and missionary secretary of St. Paul. Luke’s gospel, by its own prologue, was Luke’s job to pull together the Jesus story with some precision.
5. A simple, helpful book on all that schmack Darryl Bock, Breaking the Da Vinci Code (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2006).
6. Both the Nicene Creed and the Chalcedonian Definition can readily be found online. Use the Bing or the Google and you’ll find these. Or just go here—http://www.reformed.org/documents/index.html
7. For a thorough treatment on creeds and there use in the Christian tradition, see Jaroslav Pelikan, Credo-Historical and Theological Guide to Creeds and Confessions of Faith in the Christian Tradition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003). Good buy for the library.
8. For the continued Evangelical consensus on these issues see JI Packer and Thomas Oden, One Faith—The Evangelical Consensus (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2004) 71-75.
9. Geisler and Hoffman, Why I am a Christian, Part 5, Chapter 13—Peter Kreeft Why I believe Jesus is the Son of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2001) 222-234.
10. Donald Macleod, The Person of Christ, (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1998) and Robert Bowman, J. Ed Komoszewski, Putting Jesus in His Place, The Case for the Deity of Christ (Grand Rapids: Kregal, 2007)
11. Ben Witherington III, “The Christology of Jesus Revisited” in Francis Beckwith, William Lane Craig, JP Moreland, To Everyone an Answer – The Case for the Christian Worldview (Downers Grove, Intervarsity Press, 2004) 155
12. Lyrics by Eric Bazilian , One of Us, performed by Joan Osborne, 1995.