Cover artwork by Abigail Jeyaraj (@handsxpens)
Written By Richard Goetz
Dr Richard Goetz is a professor of theology at TCA College, Singapore. He has a passion for learning and then sharing that knowledge, information and understanding with others. Dr Goetz studies and teaches widely in the areas of theology, ethics, philosophy, and church history, having earned his PhD in theology from Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA. Dr Goetz and his wife, Tammy, have been married for over 30 years and have two grown daughters.
Christmas is fast approaching. It’s the time of the year when Christians commemorate the birth of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. I enjoy Christmas a lot, not just because it’s a time when we give and receive gifts, but especially because of the many beautiful Christmas carols we get to hear and sing.
One of my favorites is Charles Wesley’s “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” Not only is it easy to sing and remember, the lyrics tell us the entire message of Christmas. The latter part of the second verse goes:
Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see;
Hail, th’incarnate Deity:
Pleased, as man, with men to dwell,
Jesus, our Emmanuel!
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the new-born King!”
With these words, Wesley describes the Incarnation or the biblical idea that in the person of the baby Jesus, God became human, or as John’s gospel declares “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14). But this raises two important questions: how can someone be both God and man at the same time, and why did Jesus need to be both?
The reason Jesus needed to be both God and man is that God designed humans for relationship with Himself, but ever since Adam’s fall, our sin has corrupted us and broken our relationship with God. Yet, in His infinite love, God still wants a relationship with us; He wants us to be reconciled to Him. But in our sinful condition, that is impossible. We need our sin removed but we are not capable of doing it—it would be like a medical doctor trying to perform open heart surgery on himself.
For that reason, we need someone else to perform the surgery and remove that sin for us, someone who by himself is not corrupted by sin. The only person who meets that condition is God Himself. Thus, Jesus had to be God in order to die on our behalf as a sacrifice for our sins.
But if Jesus were only God then what He accomplished on the cross in paying the penalty for our sins couldn’t be applied to us; He might be the perfect sinless sacrifice but He couldn’t really be our substitute; in order to substitute for us He needed to be like us. Thus, Jesus needed to be man, too, in order to apply the benefits of His death to us and on our behalf, to cover our sin.
It is one thing, though, to confess or to acknowledge that Jesus was simultaneously both God and man, and understand why He needed to be both. But it is another thing entirely to try and understand how Jesus was both God and man at the same time.
God is infinite, man is finite; God is morally perfect, man is morally flawed; God is all-powerful, all-knowing and all-good, man is limited in power, knowledge, and goodness. Yet, the disciples saw Jesus eat, sleep, walk, talk, laugh, get tired, get hungry, be beaten, bleed, and die as a man. They also witnessed him heal the sick, cast out demons, raise the dead, calm the seas, walk on water, forgive sins, teach new truth with authority, and rise from the dead, which all testify to His also being God. How are we to explain this?
The definitive early church statement or confession regarding who Jesus was is found in the Chalcedonian Creed. This creed, or confessional statement, crafted by bishops of the church in 451 AD, declares that Jesus was fully (truly) God and fully (truly) man, “like unto God as to his divinity, like unto us as to his humanity”.
When trying to explain difficult concepts, it can be helpful to first explain what it is not. Firstly, Jesus is not half God, half man; he is not alternately God and then man; and he is not a synthesis of God and man combined into something new. He is also not just a man with a superior God-consciousness, or a man with some superior new moral teaching, or a man who happened to have some right ideas about God; He was not a ghost or angel. Jesus is fully God and fully man; in other words, He is both at the same time.
What this means is that Jesus had two natures, not just one; a divine nature and a human one, combined in the same person, Jesus. The divine nature added human nature to itself and the human nature was in submission to the divine. While on earth, the divine nature of Jesus also voluntarily gave up the use or exercise of some of His divine attributes, such as knowing all things and existing everywhere, in order to be in union with His human nature.
How do we know that He was both God and man? Because it is a precise description of Jesus as recorded in Scripture, drawn from biblical data, which is itself based on the eyewitness testimony and accounts of the apostles.
Nineteenth century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard declared the dual nature of Christ to be a paradox, which means something which appears to be contradictory but nonetheless can be true. Because he saw it as a paradox, he concluded that it required a leap of faith to confess or believe.
Kierkegaard would seem to be right; at the very least we would have to conclude that Jesus as simultaneously God and man is a profound mystery. The Apostle Paul declares as much in his letter to the Colossians where he wrote, “in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ” (Colossians 2:2).
Confessing this mystery, that Jesus is both God and man, by a “leap of faith” is arguably the single most important decision a person can make. I know it has been for me. This “leap of faith” has brought me into a personal relationship with God and given me forgiveness, freedom and hope for both this life and eternity.
In this Christmas season, truthfully, we won’t really be able to fully grasp or understand how Jesus was both God and man at the same time. But not understanding, or not being able to understand, does not mean it is not true; we must simply believe and confess it as true within the limits of our knowledge and understanding. For that is the very nature of faith: putting our trust in a just and loving God.
Editor’s Note: This is the third article in a four-part series on who Jesus is. Read the first article, “Why Do We Even Need A Savior?” here, and the second article, “Why Did Jesus Have to Come As A Human?” here, and the last article “What Difference Does Jesus Make?” here.
Got more questions about the faith? Head over to YMI Questioning the Faith to explore more questions about Christianity.