We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God…
For us men 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.
At the same time that the early church struggled with the concept of the Trinity, another discussion existed regarding the nature of Jesus. If Jesus was the Son of God, therefore being God, in what way could He be man? If He is both God and man, how do those two natures exist in one person?
The first heresy (false teaching) arose late in the second century. It taught that the Son of God did not actually become human, but only seemed to be human. In one version, the physical nature of Jesus was only an illusion; He seemed to be a man, but was always only God.
In another version, Jesus was fully human and the Son entered His body at His baptism (the Holy Spirit descending like a dove), but did not unite with His human nature. From this point on, the Son spoke through the human Jesus much like a ventriloquist “speaks” through his dummy. At the crucifixion, the Son left the body and only the human Jesus actually died.
This heresy was quickly condemned and didn’t gain much traction, although it was in the minds of those who wrote the Nicene Creed. In it, Jesus is the Son. And it is Jesus the Son of God who died.
After the Creed was in circulation, there were teachers who began to question how Jesus was both God and man. A form of the earlier heresy arose which declared that the human Jesus and divine Son lived side-by-side in one person, but that their natures did not unite in one person. The third all-church council, at Ephesus in 431, made no change to the creed, but declared that God the Son and the human Jesus existed as one person in the uniting of two natures. The issue was further clarified at the fourth council in Chalcedon in 451.
To summarize, the Nicene Creed, along with the statements made at subsequent councils, declared that Jesus was both fully God and fully human. This was not a case of two people sharing the same body; rather two natures existed in a single person.
This is important. If Jesus were not fully God, then His death on the cross would make no more difference than that of any other man. If He were not fully human, then His sinless life would have no meaning and His suffering would not be real.
Like the discussion of the Trinity, we are once again faced with a seemingly impossible situation. When a mother and father produce a child, that child is a blend of their genes. Hence, they have a group of features, some of which are passed down from one parent, the rest from the other. We do not say that the child shows all the traits of each parent.
Once again, we have some mystery. But we take what the Bible gives us as truth, recognize that we don’t have God’s mind to fully understand it, and believe what He says.
Note on the name Jesus Christ.
Many people speak of Jesus Christ as if those are his first and last names. That is not correct. Jesus is the name of the son of Joseph and Mary from Nazareth, a city in Galilee. There were no last names (also known as family name) in that time. A typical way of referring to Jesus would have been something like Jesus-son-of Joseph or Jesus-of-Nazareth.
“Christ” is a Greek word that means “one who is anointed.” In ancient cultures, it was common to rub or pour olive oil on the head or body of someone chosen to be king or prophet. This process was called anointing. It was a symbol of God’s power or authority coming upon that person.
In Hebrew, the equivalent word is “Messiah.” The Old Testament taught that God would bring a Messiah to build God’s Kingdom upon the earth. Jesus claimed to be that Messiah and the church understood that claim. Since the New Testament was written in Greek, Jesus was not called “Messiah” but rather “Christ.”
So when we speak of Jesus Christ (the letters of Paul sometimes say “Christ Jesus”), we are using his name and his title together.
Bob Caldwell, PhD, is Theologian-in-Residence at Network 211.