The Deity of Christ
Four Sermons preached during Advent,
1921, in Grosvenor Chapel
The Faith of the First Disciples
"What think ye of Christ? whose Son is he?"
S. Matt. xxii. 42.
LAST Sunday I was talking to you about a like momentous question. I pointed out to you what an extraordinary question it is—I mean in the form in which it presents itself to us to-day. There is no other human being about whom we dream of asking a like question. We acknowledge others to be supreme in intellect, to be geniuses, great men, saints; but about no one of them does the question suggest itself to our mind, whether we are to call him God. I pointed out to you also how easy it would have been for the world which worshipped gods many—the whole Gentile world, for whom the word God was not at all a "reserved" term—how easy it would have been for them to call one so full of power and holiness, as Jesus was, God. But for the Jew how seemingly impossible. So it would have seemed, because the whole training of the Jew, under the teaching of the great prophets, had made the term God a reserved term indeed—the name of One only, the supreme, the maker of heaven and earth. Thus amidst all the varieties, higher and lower, of His creatures, from the lowest worm to the highest man—all these different elevations of dignity did not make even the highest creature anywhere nearer in essential being to his Creator. There was a difference than which no greater could be imagined, for on the one God all things hung in absolute dependence. He alone was self-existent.
Nevertheless, the God in whom the people of Israel had been taught to believe was not at all a God either inaccessible to man or indifferent to man; far from that. Rather, the God they believed in was one whose delight it was to be with the sons of men. He had made men with reason and freedom; that is, in His own image and likeness. He had made them to be His vicegerents for the carrying out of His purposes of love in this world. And when they disappointed Him by their sinful-ness—disappointed Him so that He could not use them for His purposes—and they would not listen to Him, then He had not abandoned His purpose, but pursued it by the method of divine election: He had chosen one among many, like Abraham, or one race among many, like Israel in Egypt, among the many children of Abraham. But still this narrow selection had no narrow purpose—always a purpose extending to all the world, the great purpose of redemption for all mankind. So He said that in Abraham all the families of the earth should be blessed. And the greatest visions which the Prophets offered to the mind and heart of Israel were visions of a spiritual extension which should embrace all the world. You remember these wonderful prophetic visions of the kingdom. Under all sorts of glorious imagery they express one idea, which is that God has a purpose for the whole world, and that in spite of all the rebellion of man His purpose is at last to be consummated. At the end of history God is to come into His own in the whole of His great creation; then shall be perfected the fellowship of God with man and man with his fellows. That is to be the end; that is the vision of the kingdom; and the centre of this kingdom is the anointed King of David's line—the Christ, as He alone came to be called—upon whom is named the very name of God. He is "Immanuel, God with us." "His name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, the mighty God, the everlasting Father."
Christians look back to those words and see in them the very prophecy of the Incarnation; but the Jews never apparently dreamed or imagined that they meant more than that the name of God was to be on the anointed King who was to bring in God's glorious kingdom. Still all their hopes—the hopes of the pious, and the hopes of the restive, who pined as keen nationalists for the redemption of Israel from the foreign yoke—all the hopes of Israel were fastened upon the promises of the coming of the kingdom and the coming of the Christ.
The first disciples of our Lord had, some of them, been disciples of John the Baptist, and the function of that wonderful prophet was to proclaim that now the time was come, and God's purpose was about to be consummated—the kingdom was at hand, and he was the forerunner of that kingdom. And he had pointed them to the yet unknown figure of Jesus of Nazareth as the Greater One, the One who was to come, the latchet of whose shoes he was not worthy to unloose. And they had joined the company of Jesus, after they had accepted His call.
Last Sunday we sought to estimate the impression which in the years of His public ministry Jesus made upon these first disciples. It was an impression of unbounded authority; a wonderful authority of love and power which absorbed their very souls, and which they could not resist. They saw His wonderful works, they heard His wonderful words; they had at first no theory about His person, only they felt that there could be none greater than He. He came, as I said, to occupy the place of God in their mind and thought and heart. At last, at a critical moment, Jesus tested them with a great question. He had asked them first, "Whom do men say that I am?" and it was easy to answer that He was regarded as some wonderful prophet, about whom some supernatural account must be given; and many and various were the accounts given. But they had- been closer to Him, longer with Him, and no such vague description was enough for them. Thus again He asked them, "Whom say ye that I am?" And then Peter uttered the great confession, "Thou art the Christ," and Jesus accepted it with His solemn benediction, "Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-jona." Already it was for them a time of great anxiety; already the clouds had begun to lower, and their hearts were sorely stricken; already it was obvious that the religious leaders of their people were against Him, the Scribes and Pharisees; already also it was obvious that, if the common people heard Him gladly and were glad enough to receive His miraculous benefits of healing, yet there were very few of them who were at all disposed to become His disciples. What was going to be the end of it? It was with anxious hearts that they made their first confession; and at once He began to tell them the worst, and you remember with what dramatic suddenness this disclosure follows Peter's confession. "From that time began Jesus to show unto his disciples how that he must go up to Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed and the third day raised up." "The third day raised up"—they quite missed that; but that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer and die, that they understood, and it was too much. Peter took Him and began to rebuke Him, and said, "Be it far from thee, Lord: this shall never be unto thee." But He turned upon Peter and said, "Get thee behind me, Satan; thou art a stumbling-block unto me; for thou mindest not the things of God but the things of men." Let us follow out this great tragedy of misunderstanding. Judea and Galilee were seething with nationalism, and chief of these nationalists were the Zealots, the most fanatical and extreme, and there was a Zealot amongst our Lord's disciples, and they were all of them inspired with these nationalist aspirations. They wanted success; but Jesus pointed them to quite another picture, the picture which is to our minds very prominent in the Old Testament, but which the Jews had apparently left quite out of sight—that picture of the Servant of Jehovah, of which the central expression is in the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah which you know so well, and which we cannot hear or read without feeling that it is simply a history written beforehand of Jesus Christ. "He was despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief. . . . Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows. . . . But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all." Therefore through sacrifice, through death, through the offering of His soul as a ransom, He shall find Himself the head of the new Israel, He shall become the head of a new race, the diffuser of the new righteousness. Again and again Jesus presses on them this picture. That was the destiny of the Son of Man; that was what was to happen to Him.
There was another current picture of a Son of Man in glory, closing the history of this world in tremendous judgement upon the wicked and opening the world to come to all the righteous—a picture based upon the famous vision of the Book of Daniel—and He pointed to that picture also; but as yet they had no ears for anything except the gloomy message of failure and death, and they could not bear it. There is no tragedy in the world more moving than the tragedy of the failure of these disciples' faith. We ought not to be amazed at it: it is the same with innumerable human souls. What is it that makes faith difficult, that glorious faith of the Bible and the church? Well, it is the oppressive sense of weakness in our own souls and in the world about us. These glorious promises seem to come up dead against a brick wall. The brick wall which seems to resist this faith is the brick wall of seeming failure within and without, and the appalling weakness of God and His cause. So it is that there are multitudes—both orthodox and unbelieving multitudes—whose faith (in the real sense of faith) has failed under this tragedy of God's seeming weakness. The cry of Christ, "My God, my God, why didst thou forsake me?"—the utter seeming failure and shame is too much for them. They cannot believe in Him; they cannot see the glory hidden in the suffering Christ. So it was with the disciples.
And then you know how the great tranformation came about. He rose again the third day from the dead. On that third morning they found the tomb empty. I think, if you are prepared to believe in God and in history, you must believe that they found that tomb empty. And more than that, you must believe that, only a few weeks after the desperate failure of their courage and their faith, you find that same band of men quite tranformed in spirit. They were not imaginative men, not visionary men, but sturdy working men of an unimaginative kind, as the records show us; and they were men differing in character, given to jealousies among themselves, which Jesus rebuked. Well, this whole group you see in a few days totally transformed, from the weak, vacillating failures they had proved, into a group which can confront the world for a seemingly impossible task with unswerving and undying courage.
What was it that had brought about the great change? They all gave the same testimony. This change in themselves had been wrought by an experience which had forced itself upon them—the experience of the appearances of the Risen Jesus. The tomb was empty; they had wondered; but He had come among them here and there—not as in His old natural body when He had lived in one place, in Jerusalem or Galilee, and had walked from place to place like any other man, but as one who had passed to a higher sphere and yet could materialize Himself amongst them so as even to eat and drink with them. And it was all with one object—to make it clear that through failure and through death He was risen, and was passing to the glory of God at the right hand of the Father. And so at last they saw Him go, and they faced the world with a frank, indisputable courage bred of the conviction that "Jesus was Lord." Again it was a few days, and lo! the Spirit, which He had promised, came down upon them with intoxicating power, and they knew that He, the living Jesus, at God's right hand was working within them to make them His organ and instrument for the conversion of the world.
Well now, it is very interesting to read the record of the early chapters in the Acts and see what they believed about Him. Their whole souls were absorbed in the thought of the Risen Jesus, whom God had exalted by His right hand and made both Lord and Christ. At present they had apparently no thoughts about Him except as the glorified Christ. Had He existed before He was born as a child in Bethlehem? They do not seem yet to have asked themselves that question.
Think how S. Peter is content to preach Jesus of Nazareth—"the word that God sent unto the Children of Israel, preaching good tidings of peace by Jesus Christ (he is Lord of all)—that saying ye yourselves know, which was published throughout all Judea, beginning from Galilee, after the baptism which John preached; even Jesus of Nazareth, how that God anointed him with the Holy Ghost and with power: who went about doing good, and healing all that were oppressed of the devil; for God was with him." Not, you observe, "He was the Son of God," but "God was with him"—the man Jesus. "And we are witnesses of all things which he did both in the country of the Jews, and in Jerusalem; whom also they slew, hanging him on a tree. Him God raised up the third day, and gave him to be made manifest, not to all the people, but unto witnesses that were chosen before of God, even to us, who did eat and drink with him after he rose from the dead. And he charged us to preach unto the people, and to testify that this is he which is ordained of God to be the Judge of quick and dead. And to him bear all the prophets witness, that through him every one that believeth on him shall receive remission of sins."
You cannot but perceive that the question of pre-existence or divine personality does not seem yet to have presented itself to Peter's mind. And yet all these days or months, Jesus was holding the very position of God to the souls of the disciples. He is "Lord of all": on Him men are to believe: from Him they are to receive remission of sins and the gift of the Divine Spirit: He is the judge of quick and dead: to Him they pray, as Stephen did at the hour of his death, calling upon the Lord and saying, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. And he knelt down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge." This very word "Lord," by which they had learned to call Jesus—think of it. It was a vague word of respect in itself. But "Lord of all" was a title of God. And Lord was the word by which the Greek Bible translated Jehovah. As you read the New Testament you see how the one use passed into the other; sometimes it is hard to say whether by the Lord they mean Jesus or Jehovah. Finally both meanings coalesce—the two uses of the title have become one. It has passed into their minds that that self-revealing God, Jehovah, the God of their fathers, is the Lord whom they worship, Jesus their Master. But, as I suppose, Peter was no man to form a theory or doctrine about Christ. The man who, so to speak, explained the church to itself was the later-called and converted apostle, Paul.
S. Paul was a man of much higher education and intellect: intellect has its uses in religion as well as its abuses. After he was converted, and after his first bold witness that "Jesus was the Son of God" or "Jesus was Christ," he went into retirement, first in Arabia and then at his native town of Tarsus. People often forget that. He may have done some missionary work from Tarsus: but for some nine years after his conversion, S. Paul was apparently on the whole in retirement—I suppose thinking out his new position. And that is why his message afterwards was so consistent and so ready throughout all the days of his missionary life. He was not in a hurry to begin; he retired and thought it all out and saw the meaning of it all. Yes, he saw that this Jesus whom the church was worshipping and adoring as its Lord, who had for them (in our modern phrase) the values of God, could be so thought of and worshipped only because He really was so. He saw the meaning of it all; he saw the meaning of the term the Son of God, which does not appear in the Acts, till it is put in S. Paul's mouth after his conversion. It meant that Jesus did not begin to exist when He was born a human child; no, He had been the Father's very Son before that, all through the ages. He it was through whom God was always manifesting Himself; He it was through whom God made the worlds; He it was through whom He had been holding them together, for "in him all things consist"; He was the Lord always; He had been always coming. He had been present with God's people in the Old Testament; and now at the last He had come. ''In the fullness of time God sent forth his Son, his own Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem them that were under the law" and to bring in the universal Gospel.
So S. Paul saw it. He had thought it out; his doctrine is wonderfully accurate. Listen to what he says in the Epistle to the Philippians: "Have this mind in you, which was also in Christ Jesus"—that is His humility. And what does he find to be the essence of His humility? Why, that He, Jesus, "existing in the form of God," that means having the essential qualities or nature of God, "counted not this equality with God as a prize to be clutched at, but (abandoning those glorious privileges of His divine condition) emptied himself, taking the form of a servant (that is the essential character of the servile nature of man), being made in the likeness of men (not only really man, but common man, like other men), and being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, becoming obedient, unto death, yea the death of the cross; wherefore also God highly exalted him and bestowed upon him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven and things on earth and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father."
Yes, S. Paul saw it quite clearly—that glorious exaltation of the man to the throne of God could not have been, man could not have borne "the Name that is above every name," or become the object of universal worship, had it not been that before ever the world was He was in the being of God, in eternal fellowship as the Son with the Father.
I have said nothing about S. John's witness, because the learned world has in great part satisfied itself that S. John's Gospel was not written by John the apostle but was the work of some later disciple; not a history but an allegory, representing not the experience of the apostle but the later mind of the church. A great part of the learned world has made up its mind to that effect; so it is better to begin with the other Gospels and the Acts and S. Paul's Epistles. Nevertheless I do myself firmly, and after all examination, believe that it is only at the bottom the refusal of the supernatural which leads to that rejection of S. John's authorship. I think the evidence is fairly overwhelming that the Fourth Gospel was really written by John the apostle and that you must accept its testimony as John's.
The doctrine of John, then, about Christ's person, which he sums up in the prologue of his Gospel, is in effect the same as S. Paul's—that the Word or self-expression of the Father, who is also His only-begotten Son, was eternally with the Father, and was God, and from the beginning of time was the instrument of all creation, and the light lightening every man in reason and conscience: that the darkness of sin never overwhelmed the light: that all along He was coming into the world: and at last He came. And he gives expression to that coming in the words, "the Word was made flesh" (the highest took the lowest) "and tabernacled among us (and we beheld his glory, glory as of the only-begotten from the Father), full of grace and truth." And then he tells a story of the incarnate life which seems to me necessary at many points to make up a coherent picture, supplementing the other Gospels. And he lets us understand that Jesus did from time to time during His ministry bear solemn witness to His Sonship in a sense which left no doubt about His pre-existence, though it made no impression apparently on the disciples' minds at the time; and he tells us also how eight days after the resurrection Thomas, in reaction from his temporary refusal of belief in Christ's resurrection, had burst out into the full confession of faith in Him—"My Lord and my God!"
Well, is this the truth—that Jesus is the eternal Son of God incarnate? Or was it an imaginative invention of S. Paul's mind, adopted by the other leaders of the church? I cannot think so. I see in the records a wonderful growth in the faith of the disciples till it reaches the supreme point, and the facts by which it grew justify the resultant belief. No other belief really could account for them. S. Paul's service to the church was that he first was able to put it into words: but it was not due to him. This is plain to me in part for three reasons which I can only briefly mention.
1. In the Synoptic Gospels (as the first three are called) you find sayings of our Lord about Himself, of the most unquestionable genuineness, which cannot have proceeded from a mere man: and that although it was not our Lord's way to burst with dogmatic disclosures, like thunderclaps, upon the disciples' minds. It was His way not to assert, but to leave them to infer, the mystery of His person. But listen—"All things have been delivered unto me of my Father: and no one knoweth the Son save the Father, neither knoweth any one the Father save the Son and he to whomsoever the Son willeth to reveal him. Come unto me all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." He who here offers rest to men's souls by their coming to Him, can do so because at the ground of His being is a unique fellowship with God, a fellowship of mutual knowledge as of a son with a father, which but through Him none can share. Is not such exclusive mutual knowledge of Father and Son something which betokens identity of nature? Again, listen to the words in which He disclaims knowledge of the time of the end, in which He declares that He has not—as He then was, at least—the map of the future spread before His eyes. "Of that day or that hour knoweth no one, not even the angels in heaven, neither the Son." Is not this a superangelic sonship of which He speaks? Once more consider the parable of the husbandmen, in which He contrasts Himself as Son with the prophetic servants of God, differentiating and distinguishing Himself. Can you doubt the force of such words?
2. But the argument which impresses me more than particular words is what I have already suggested—that there appears in the whole narrative of our Lord's dealings with the disciples a deliberate purpose to train them to trust Him so unreservedly and so utterly, as that He came to hold towards their souls—increasingly before their faith failed them and completely after it was recovered—the place which God only can rightly hold towards the soul of man. It is not for a mere man to be the all-sufficient refuge and reliance of the souls of his fellows. But Jesus led His disciples so to believe on Him as that they must discover Him to be either God or one usurping His place.
3. And then, lastly, S. Paul was not very popular with all parts of the church. He was, in fact, even bitterly persecuted by the narrowly Jewish section, and his doctrine, in those respects in which men thought it dangerous or strange, was travestied and vehemently attacked. But about all this teaching on the pre-existence of Jesus and the incarnation there was not, as far as we can discern, a word of controversy or a murmur of dissent. It had been given to S. Paul first to give it clear expression; but all the apostolic fellowship seems to have recognized it and accepted it as the utterance of its own faith.
I do not know how it stands with you. It is not Jesus of Nazareth who will blame us for asking questions or for wanting to know the reason why. He will lead you gradually as He led His disciples. If you are in doubt He will deal with you gently as He dealt with Thomas. Only surely that record of the growth of the apostles' faith, and the sense (of which we shall be thinking later on) of the difference which it makes to human souls so to believe, will move you to your depths, and you will ask yourself in all seriousness that question—Can there be any other explanation of that person than the one which I find in S. Paul and S. John? And you will pray with all your heart that the almighty and ever-loving God, who for the more confirmation of the faith did once suffer His holy apostle Thomas to be doubtful, will grant to you at last, as to him, so to believe in His Son Jesus Christ that your faith in His sight may never be reproved.