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  • Writer's pictureElijah Blalock

What Is Jesus?

For my thoughtful high school students.

What is Jesus? It's an odd question since normally we'd ask, "who is Jesus?" But while you can take it for granted that you and I are humans, normal humans don't calm seas or raise the dead. What is Jesus, exactly? If you go to church, you would probably say Jesus is fully God and fully man. Knowing that might have won a game of trivia in Sunday School, but it's not obvious to many why that statement matters, or even what it means. How can someone be two things at once? If I told you I was fully man and also fully tree, you'd call me insane! Jesus is certainly a complex person. We should expect it to be difficult to explain something that is utterly unlike anything else in human experience, but we should not be dismayed! Christians throughout history have wrestled with and answered this question biblically, and not for the sake of mere trivia! What believers have long recognized is that this question is critical to salvation. Many erroneous understandings of Jesus result in a Christ who cannot save, but if we search the Scriptures for the answer, we will not only come to the truth, but also to a deeper love and appreciation for Christ.

Natures vs. Persons

Before we can get our head around the problem, there are two terms that we need to understand: nature and person. While we might use both of these words in everyday language (nature meaning something like the outdoors, and person meaning simply a human), when we talk about Christ, these words take on much more technical meanings. Jesus is one person with two natures. What does that mean? Consider human nature. What is that? There have been almost as many answers as there have been thinkers, but we are all probably thinking of something along the lines of a creature with a soul, a particular kind of body, and the ability to reason. It is the nature that we all share in common. But here's another question: where is human nature? It is not out floating around in the air. Human nature is found in humans. You can't point to human nature; you can only point to humans. A human is a person with a human nature. Human nature does not think or speak or walk around, though it has all of these qualities; humans think, speak, and walk around according to their human nature.

Do you see the difference? A nature describes a set of characteristics that define a particular kind of thing. Human nature, for example, includes things like thought, emotions, speech, and the ability to change. However, human nature itself isn't some kind of being out there doing anything. On the other hand, persons may do all of those things. Persons act, but according to their nature. A human person can do human things, like think, speak, and feel pain, though they may or may not do any or all of those things at a given time depending on what the person is doing and what is being done to them. There are other kinds of persons, such as angels. Angels do some things like humans, such as think, but there are some things angels can't do, like eat. We eat because our human nature makes it possible and requires that we eat, but angels are spirits without material bodies, so they can't eat. Both angels and humans are persons, but they have different kinds of natures that limit the sorts of things they can and cannot do. I am a human person. According to my human nature, I could sleep if I wanted to. However, my human nature doesn't sleep or do anything. It just grants the ability—and eventually the necessity—to sleep. Human nature doesn't sleep; I sleep, in accordance with my human nature. That's an example of what it means to be a person with a human nature. Also, note that I can't ever change natures. I will always be human. Though we can distinguish between nature and person, the two are inseparable; there are no persons without a nature or vice versa. I can't ever drop my human nature. If I did or changed my natures somehow, I wouldn't be me anymore. I'd be a new person.

What Jesus Is Not

Let's return to Jesus. Saying that Jesus is fully God and fully man is true, but saying that Jesus is one person with two natures—divine and human—is better. Still, this doesn't take us far enough. Within the boundaries of that statement, we could still make a devastating error. Sometimes, seeing what Jesus is not is the best way to understand what Jesus is.

We could make a mistake related to the two natures of Christ. For example, one ancient heresy called docetism held that Jesus only appeared to be human. Of course, this means that Jesus' body and therefore his crucifixion was only an illusion. Another heresy called Apollinarianism held that while Jesus' human body was real and that he had a lower human soul (the part of the soul that feels emotions), Jesus had a divine mind, but no human soul or mind. In other words, it is as though the Son of God possessed and inhabited a human body. The problem with docetism and Apollinarianism is that Jesus is not fully human. He may appear human, or have human parts, but he is not fully human. In response, the early church adopted a maxim that said, "what has not been assumed has not been healed." In other words, to heal a part of humanity, the Son must actually take on (assume) that thing. If humans have souls, but the Son does not take on a human soul, then he has not healed human souls (Heb. 4:15).

Other heresies diminished the divine nature. One old one called adoptionism held that Jesus was a virtuous man who was adopted as the son of God at his baptism. This means that he is not fully God; he is just granted God-like attributes. Others diminish the nature of the Son in general. An ancient heretic named Arius taught that the Son was a created being who was very much like God but was not the same as God. "There was a time when the Son was not" was a popular mantra of his followers because they held that the Son was not eternal and uncreated, and thus not fully God. In more modern times, some have said that the Son is the eternal God, but that when he became man, he laid aside his divine attributes so that he could be fully human. In this way of thinking, Jesus is divine in name only—as though he cannot simultaneously be both fully God and man. However, the Scriptures teach that the man Jesus was truly God (Col. 1:15-20).

The upshot of all of these is that they fail to see how Jesus can truly be both God and man in the full sense, and so they diminish one side or the other or try to blend them together to create this new sort of thing that is a mixture of the divine and human. The result is something that is either not truly God or not truly human, or perhaps not truly either. And these teachings are not dead! Many today still view Jesus as a ghost in a shell; he is a human body possessed by the divine spirit. While they may say that they believe Jesus is fully God and fully human, this belief renders Jesus not fully human because a human soul is essential to human nature. You can't human without a soul! Others, perhaps more knowingly, see Jesus as a divinely empowered human—one who fully obeyed and honored God—but not as God himself. This Jesus is no savior! In the same way, believers are filled with and empowered by the Holy Spirit to obey and honor God, but we can't save anyone's soul. Reducing Jesus to a divinely empowered man makes him an example at best, but no savior.

All of these debates came to a head with a man named Nestorius. His error is one of the most subtle but pernicious. He got the natures right—Jesus is fully God and fully man—but he got the person wrong. Nestorius taught that Jesus was not only two natures, but two persons! Now, that doesn't mean that he thought there were two men, one divine and another human, pretending to be the same Jesus. What he believed is that Jesus was a human person indwelled by the divine person of the Son. He was trying to solve a problem. God cannot suffer, but people can. What, then, are we to make of the fully divine Jesus suffering on the cross? According to Nestorius, that's Jesus the man. The Son of God, however, does not suffer at all. However, when we see Jesus raising the dead or calming the seas, that's the Son of God working through the man Jesus. Hopefully, you can see the error here—this means that Jesus and the Son of God are different persons, much like how the Holy Spirit and I are different persons, though I am indwelled by the Spirit. According to Nestorius, Jesus is indwelled by the Son of God, but the man Jesus and the Son of God are not the same person, and therefore the Son of God has not died for our sins.

What Jesus Is, for Us and Our Salvation

So, if those are all the things that Jesus is not, what exactly is Jesus, and why should we care? To understand, we need to go back to the beginning of the Bible and consider who God is, what he made us for, and what was lost when Adam sinned. If we don't get that, we won't understand the kind of salvation we need and the kind of savior needed to provide it. Jesus, as our savior, is the answer to the big problem of the Bible that started all the way back in Genesis chapter 3.

In Genesis 1:26, God said, "let us make man in our image." Who exactly is this "us" and "our"? We believe in one God; who was he talking to? From the very first page of the Bible, God is in conversation with himself. God is eternally Father, Son, and Spirit. They are not in conversation as though they might have disagreed about what to do or like they needed to deliberate, but they are sharing among themselves perfect love and fellowship. As 1 John 4:7 says, "God is love." God did not begin to love after he created something to love, or else God would need something to be love. No, God in and of himself is love. God doesn't create because he lacked anything, but rather out of the overflowing abundance of love and goodness. In Genesis 1:28, after he made people, God speaks to them. In Genesis 2, we see this again when God speaks with Adam and Eve in Eden. What a marvelous truth! The uncreated, all-powerful, eternal, omnipresent God had fellowship with a creature formed from dust. This should have been impossible, but God made it so!

What was lost when humanity sinned in Genesis 3 was our relationship with God. It is not merely that we lost our innocence, ability to do good, or legal standing before God, though all of this is also true. We lost our fellowship with God and were thus condemned to return to the dust from which we came. Sin has cut us off from that relationship, and we need a savior to bring us back together. Salvation, then, is a restored relationship with God. Jesus confirmed this when he defined eternal life in John 17:3: "This is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and the one you have sent —Jesus Christ." Eternal life is not a status, a prize, or a place—it is a relationship. All the good things we associate with heaven flow out of God's presence.

But consider how difficult it is for a sinner to be in God's presence. Deuteronomy 34:10 says, "No prophet has arisen again in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face." Moses was the greatest prophet of the Old Testament and an extremely holy man by any account. And yet on Mount Sinai, when Moses asked to see God's glory, God said, "You cannot see my face, for humans cannot see me and live" (Exodus 34:10). Just to see the backside of God's glory as it passed by, Moses had to be hidden in the crack of a rock and covered up. For any sinner to see God was impossible, and therefore salvation was impossible. John 1:18 confirms this, but also gives us hope: "No one has ever seen God. The one and only Son, who is himself God and is at the Father’s side—he has revealed him."

Salvation is a restored relationship with God, and therefore a savior must be able to reunite sinful and finite man with the holy and infinite God. Therefore, the eternal Son of God took into his person a human nature. The person of the Son is eternal (John 8:58). He is God and is begotten and beloved of the Father from all eternity, and therefore did not begin to exist in Mary's womb. Without changing or diminishing his divine nature, he added to himself a second nature in Mary's womb and thus is one person with two full-complete natures. This one person, Jesus the Son of God, is at once begotten from all eternity according to his divinity and begotten in time by the virgin Mary. He is at once infinite according to his divinity and finite according to his humanity. He is at once unable to suffer according to his divinity and yet suffered and died according to his humanity. This does not describe two persons, but the one person—Jesus the Son of God. [1]

The cross is the ultimate test case. God cannot suffer, and yet there is the Son of God suffering on the cross. It would seem that this means that Jesus is either not really suffering or that he is not really God. However, we need to remember the distinction between nature and person. The divine nature cannot suffer but human nature can, but neither of these does anything in and of themselves. Persons suffer or are incapable of suffering depending on their nature. The Son from all eternity was a divine person and was therefore incapable of suffering. However, by adding a human nature to his person, he is now capable of suffering as a man. The Son of God experiences suffering and death as a man. His divinity remains unchanged and therefore he can't suffer according to his divine nature, but he has suffered and died according to his human nature. If that sounds strange, that's because it is! There has never been anything like it! It's a one-time, totally unique phenomenon. There is no analogy or metaphor we can make that adequately describes what happened in Christ. All we can do is acknowledge that somehow it did happen, and praise God for it.

Why did salvation happen in this way? Why couldn't salvation have come some other way? We were unable to see God and have a relationship with Him, so the Son of God became what we are. He shares in what we are so we can share in what he is. In his own person, Jesus reunites God and humanity (Eph. 1:9-10). Only he is capable of being the perfect sacrifice to atone for the sins of the world, thereby removing the hostility between God and man (Col. 2:14-15). Only he could perfectly reveal God to us so that we could know him again (Heb. 1:1-3). Jesus makes fellowship with God possible by taking away our sins, but he does more than that—He makes us God's children.

The Son of God came to be our brother. In the words of C. S. Lewis, "The Son of God became a man to enable men to become sons of God." [2] The Son, now sharing in our nature and having completed the work of redemption, sends us his Spirit so that we too can be sons of God by adoption. Romans 8:15-17 says, "For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear. Instead, you received the Spirit of adoption, by whom we cry out, 'Abba, Father!' The Spirit himself testifies together with our spirit that we are God’s children, and if children, also heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ—if indeed we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him." The Spirit has made us children of God. Still, we may somehow miss what a high calling this is, so Paul adds that we are coheirs with Christ. Christ is the Son of God by nature—eternal, uncreated, and all-powerful. We are by nature none of those things. However, we are sons of God by adoption, and though we do not share the divine nature, we do enjoy it. If we have become Christ's brothers and his coheirs, that means that we share in his inheritance—his life, joy, and love are eternally ours in Christ! To take it even further, Jesus prayed for us in John 17:21-23, "May they all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us, so that the world may believe you sent me. I have given them the glory you have given me, so that they may be one as we are one. I am in them and you are in me, so that they may be made completely one, that the world may know you have sent me and have loved them as you have loved me." We are being invited into the very life of God. The perfect union and love that is shared by the Father and the Son are extended to us. In his person, Jesus has reunited God and man.

[2] C.S. Lewis. Mere Christianity. Durham: HarperCollins Publishers, 2015. 102.

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