Theme: Born of a Woman: Atonement and the Incarnation
Leading Question: Why is it important that God himself came to earth to pay the price for our sins?
Seeing Jesus as the incarnate God is of crucial importance for both the major views of the atonement. For those who find the subjective atonement (John) meaningful, knowing that Jesus was God in the flesh closes the gap between a holy God and sinful humanity. Knowing that God himself came to earth to live and die for human beings means that there is no barrier on God”s side that would prevent him from welcoming his children home. God is not reluctant to save, but took on human flesh and came to earth, a powerful revelation of his love for his children.
For those who find the objective atonement (Paul) meaningful, knowing that Jesus was God means that God himself provided the sacrifice that satisfied the demands of the law, or even satisfied the “wrath” of God. Whatever one believes was “satisfied” by the death of Jesus it was God himself who provided the sacrifice. That protects against the view that God was “demanding” a pound of flesh as a pagan deity might demand it. No, orthodox Christian theology proclaims that it was God who provided the sacrifice; it was God who became the sacrifice.
- Establishing the Divinity of Christ. What kind of evidence is available that would confirm the claim that Jesus was God incarnate? One should consider OT, NT, and church history:
- Old Testament? Except for the honorific title “Mighty God” in Isaiah 9:6, there is no clear evidence in the OT that would suggest that the Messiah would be divine. He was the human son of David, not the son of God. That was part of the challenge that Jesus faced when it came to communicating his mission to his people.
- New Testament? According to the synoptic Gospels, Jesus began saying things that only God should say. Things like, “Your sins are forgiven you” (Mark 2:5). In John”s Gospel, the claims are more specific. “Before Abraham was, I am,” declared Jesus (John 8:58). His listeners understood his words to mean that he was claiming to be the great “I am” of the Old Testament. They were ready to stone him. The prologue to John”s Gospel (John 1:1-3, 14) is also clear about Jesus Divine credentials. And John also contains Thomas” confession, “My Lord, and my God” (John 20:28).
- Church History? It is generally agreed that the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE was the first time that the doctrine of the trinity was clearly formulated with its claims for full divinity for Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The elements for the claim that Jesus was fully divine are all there in the New Testament. But it took nearly 300 years before the Christian church formally adopted a creed that confirmed the full divinity and full humanity of Jesus.
- The Mystery. From our human point of view, is there any way to “explain” how Jesus could be fully human and fully divine? Will it remain a mystery through all eternity?
- The Baptism. The fact that Jesus was baptized reveals his intention to fully identify with humanity. He did not need to be cleansed from sin. But he set an example for us. Is his example in this respect instructive for us? Should we, too, be willing to perform certain deeds simply for the sake of providing an example?
- The Temptations. Of the three temptations that Jesus faced in the wilderness (Matthew 4, Luke 4), how many would be temptations for you and me? It is not likely that any of the three would have any particular “tempting” power for ordinary humans. No ordinary human, for example, would be tempted to turn stones into bread. An impossibility cannot be a temptation. But just before entering the wilderness, Jesus had been baptized by John and had heard the voice from heaven with the divine commendation: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Mat 3:17). Would Jesus seek to “prove” his divine status with a miracle? Since he was convinced that he had the power to turn stones into bread, it was a real temptation for him.
The other two temptations (cast himself from the temple; fall down and worship Satan) also had special meaning for Jesus in light of his convictions about his identity as the Messiah. His ability to resist the temptations had enormous implications both for his divine nature and his human nature. He could not be fully human if he succumbed to the temptation to use his divine power for personal benefit. That was a temptation Jesus faced every moment of his life on earth. On the other hand, he could not maintain the integrity of his divine nature if he entered into any kind of bargaining session with his great opponent in the Cosmic Conflict.
With reference to the atonement, Jesus” victory in the wilderness was crucial, for he could not be the perfect and sinless sacrifice unless he was victorious where Adam had failed.
Excursus: Jesus as our example. The nature of Christ has been an issue on the question of whether or not he could be a perfect sacrifice. That is crucial for issues of justification. But for sanctification the question focuses on the nature of Jesus” example. Two questions in that connection:
- Advantage or Disadvantage? It has often been claimed that Jesus had no advantage over us; our high priest is “one who in every respect has been tested [tempted] as we are, yet without sin” (Heb 4:15, NRSV). Would it be fair to say that Jesus did have significant advantages over us since he did not have the sinful taint which every sinful creature carries. But for every advantage, he had enormous disadvantages. No mere mortal has ever faced the temptation to use the unlimited power which Jesus carried within himself. And that was a temptation which Jesus faced every moment that he was on earth.
- Incomplete Example? In one sense Jesus was certainly tempted in all points as we are. Yet there is another sense in which he can never be an instructive example for sinners because he never new the crushing disappointment of broken promises and failed ideals. That”s why the Bible is full of stories about Jesus” followers, people who slipped and fell and knew what it was like to live with broken promises. David in the Old Testament and Peter in the New usually rank high on most lists of favorite Bible character because we can identify with them as saved sinners. They slipped and fell, but found strength and grace to rise again. We need that kind of help.