This Christmas we will be singing again Charles Wesley's great carol Hark! the herald-angels sing. But why do we sing in the second verse the words:
Late in time behold him come,
Offspring of a virgin's womb.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see!
Hail, the incarnate Deity!
Pleased as Man with man to dwell,
Jesus, our Emmanuel?
That is an amazing statement that Jesus, the baby in Bethlehem, is God incarnate - God come in the flesh. He is "Emmanuel"; that means "God with us."
Many people find it difficult believing in the deity of Christ. But that is right at the heart of the Christian faith - that God himself came into the world as a man one, to show us what he is like; two, to show us what we, as men and women, should be like; and three, by his death, to save us from the mess we are in.
Gandhi once said (and millions like him have said): "I cannot ascribe exclusive divinity to Jesus. He is as divine as Krishna or Rama or Mohammed or Zoroaster." Jesus, they say, is just one among others. Some then try to say that the bible did not really teach that Jesus was God incarnate. That belief, together with the doctrine of the trinity, they say, came from the influence of Greek thinking on the early church. Such "orthodoxy", they conclude, is not biblical.
That is clearly wrong. The bible does teach the deity of Jesus. He was most certainly a man. But the bible teaches most certainly he was also "God come in the flesh" - God incarnate.
The Old Testament
Jehovah is the traditional translation of the Hebrew consonants YHWH - the special name for the one true God. The Jews said that this name was too sacred to be pronounced. So they replaced it by a variety of names - such as "Lord" or "the Name".
From Exodus 3.14 we know that YHWH was derived from the verb "to be":
God said to Moses, "I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: 'I AM has sent me to you.'"
But on a number of occasions Jesus refers to himself by using "I am". In John 8.58, for example, he says in controversy with the Jews:
before Abraham was born, I am!
Had he been saying he was merely a pre-existent being he would have said, "before Abraham was, I was." The Jews realised the implications of what Jesus was saying. "They picked up stones to stone him" for blasphemy (v 59).
At the time of his trial, Jesus was asked by the high priest about his messiahship. He replied, "I am. And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven" (Mark 14.62). The violent reaction from the high priest can only be explained if this was a claim to deity. He said, "you have heard the blasphemy" (v 64).
And there are many other roles or titles of Jehovah (Yahweh) from the Old Testament used of, and by, Jesus - author of eternal law, light, rock, bridegroom, shepherd, forgiver of sins, redeemer, saviour and judge.
In Isaiah 45.23 God says of himself (through the prophet):
before me every knee will bow; by me every tongue will swear.
But in Philippians 2.10 Paul says:
at the name of Jesus every knee should bow ... and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.
Jesus was indeed "making himself equal with God" as we read in John's Gospel (5.18). He was beginning to teach that the "unity" of God involved a true uniting of three "persons" in the Godhead or in the divine nature; and he was claiming to be one of them.
The New Testament never systematised the many statements of Jesus about his relationship to the Father. This happened years later in the early church. So the word "trinity" never appears in the New Testament. But the reality is there. In the last book of the bible, Revelation, there is a vision of the Lamb (Jesus) sitting on the one throne with God. It is "the throne of God and of the Lamb" (Rev 22.3). There was an essential oneness.
The "trinity" means "three in one" and "one in three" - "trinity in unity" and "unity in trinity". This is not "tri-theism" or "three Gods". Nor is it simply three aspects of God. Rather there are three "persons", where the word person applies to the distinctions within the one Godhead - "Father", "Son" and "Holy Spirit". Within the "oneness" there is communication, fellowship and identity.
The "trinity" is clear in the baptismal formula that the risen Jesus tells his disciples to use in Matt 28.19:
Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
At the end of 2 Corinthians Paul pronounces a benediction in which the three persons of the trinity are named as partners with co-equal power to bless:
May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all (v 14).
The "trinitarian" pattern is elsewhere in the New Testament. And in Romans 9.5 Paul is quite explicit about the deity of Christ:
from them [the Jewish nation] is traced the human ancestry of Christ, who is God over all, for ever praised! Amen.
Then in Colossians 2.9 Paul writes:
in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form.
In Titus 2.13 he writes:
we wait for the blessed hope - the glorious appearing of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ.
The bible clearly teaches the deity of Jesus Christ. The doctrinal formulas of the early centuries were simply systematic reaffirmations of the bible in the face of similar denials as are made today. There is nothing new under the sun!
At the time of the Reformation in the 16th century Martin Luther said:
he [Jesus] ate, drank, slept waked; was weary, sorrowful, rejoicing; he wept and he laughed; he knew hunger and thirst and sweat; he talked, he toiled, he prayed ... so that there was no difference between him and other men, save only this, that he was God and had no sin.
Earlier this century Archbishop William Temple said:
it is now recognised that the one Christ for whose existence there is any evidence at all is a miraculous Figure making stupendous claims.
the discrepancy between the depth and sanity, and (let me add) shrewdness, of his moral teaching and the rampant megalomania which must lie behind his theological teaching unless he is indeed God, has never been satisfactorily got over.
What is to be our conclusion this Christmas? Doubting Thomas at first could not believe in the resurrection of Jesus. Subsequently he had the evidence and met the risen Jesus. His conclusion, and the submission his conclusion required, were so clear: "My Lord and my God" (John 22.24-29). It was Paul who said:
If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved (Rom 10.9).