Last week we started a teaching series on the 39 Articles – ie, the 39 statements of belief that the Church of England is founded on. George Bernard Shaw, the playwright, was once invited to supper by a Church of England bishop. And the bishop, in a rather ungodly way, was boasting about the size of his residence. ‘So how many rooms do you have?’ said Shaw. ‘Forty,’ said the bishop, proudly. ‘Oh dear,’ said Shaw (quick witted as ever), ‘And only 39 articles to fill them.’
Well they’re actually articles of belief, not furniture. They’re what Anglican churches should stand for. And they’re what I assented to when I was ordained as an Anglican minister – so that you can kick me out if I start teaching something different.
Last week we did Article 1 which says that God isn’t some solitary being (like Muslims believe about Allah) but that he’s Father, Son and Spirit – which means he’s relational and loving (and which explains why we are – since he created us in his image). And today we’re doing Article 2 which is about God the Son becoming human in the person of Jesus. And the aim is to see:
• Where that comes from in the Bible
• How the article sums up what the Bible says, and
• Why it matters.
So would you turn in the Bible to Philippians chapter 2. And then here is what Article 2 says:
Of the Word or Son of God, which was made very Man
The Son, which is the Word of the Father, begotten from everlasting of the Father, the very and eternal God, and of one substance with the Father, took Man’s nature in the womb of the blessed Virgin, of her substance: so that two whole and perfect Natures, that is to say, the Godhead and Manhood, were joined together in one Person, never to be divided, whereof is one Christ, very God, and very Man; who truly suffered, was crucified, dead, and buried, to reconcile his Father to us, and to be a sacrifice, not only for original guilt, but also for all actual sins of men.
So, let’s think about:
Firstly, THE SON OF GOD BEFORE HE BECAME MAN
I was born in April 1966, so conceived mid-1965. And before my conception, I didn’t exist. There was no such person as me. But you can’t say the same of the person born to Mary in Bethlehem that first Christmas. And to see that from the Bible, just look down to Philippians chapter 2 and v3. Paul was writing here to a church where some people were so self-important that they wouldn’t serve others or even think about their needs – certainly wouldn’t help out when their Home Group were doing Tea & Coffee, or anything like that. So Paul says, v3:
Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. (Philippians 2.3-4)
And he then reminds them of the greatest example of that – read on, v5:
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. (Philippians 2.5-7)
Now just think about that. That’s talking about what went through Jesus’ mind before he was conceived. So it’s saying that he existed before he was conceived – and that he was ‘in the form of God’ and had ‘equality with God’ (ie, he was fully God and shared his Father’s position and glory in heaven). So the Bible is saying that the person born to Mary in Bethlehem had always existed in eternity as God’s Son, before this created universe of time and space ever did. And if you look at the first chunk of Article 2, you’ll see that’s what it’s saying:
The Son, which is the Word of the Father, begotten from everlasting of the Father, the very and eternal God, and of one substance with the Father…
Now let me just explain ‘begotten from everlasting’. For us, when it comes to begetting a boy, the father exists before the son and then the son is begotten at a certain moment in time and starts to exist. But God the Father and the Son have both always existed, eternally. So ‘begotten from everlasting’ doesn’t mean that one day God the Father suddenly produced a Son. It’s a way of describing the fact that God has always had a Son, who depends on him. And that is exactly what the Jehovah’s Witnesses and other Bible-twisting cults deny.
So look back to Philippians 2, v5:
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped…. (Philippians 2.5-6)
So that’s describing God the Son before he became man. And what did he have in mind about his position? If he’d been like us in our fallenness, he’d have seen it as a ‘thing to be grasped’ – ie, held on to and used for his own sake. He’d have said, ‘I don’t want to lose my glory. I don’t want to enter that fallen world and not be recognised for who I really am.’ But he’s not like us in our fallenness. So, instead, v7:
[he] emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. . (Philippians 2.7)
So, let’s have a quick pause for the application Paul makes from that. Paul is saying to us: next time you’re feeling too self-important to let someone else’s needs trump your own; or next time you’re being too proud to back down and let the other person have their way; or next time you’re tempted to think that your position (at home or church or work) means others should serve you rather than you serve them…next time that happens, just remember how God the Son, before he became man, decided to put you before his glory – and have the same attitude:
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus (Philippians 2.5)
Like the hymn says:
When I survey the wondrous cross,
On which the prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.
Isaac Watts (1674-1748)
Our pride is an ugly thing – but especially when seen against the humility of God the Son.
So that’s the first point: the Son of God before he became man.
Second, THE SON OF GOD BECAME MAN
Look down to Philippians 2.7 again:
[he] emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. (Philippians 2.7)
And that’s what the second chunk of Article 2 is about, if you look at that again:
The Son... took Man’s nature in the womb of the blessed Virgin, of her substance…
Now earlier we sung that hymn ‘And can it be’. And the second verse of it goes:
He left His Father’s throne above
So free, so infinite His grace –
Emptied Himself of all but love,
And bled for Adam’s helpless race:
C Wesley (1707-88)
And ‘Emptied himself of all but love’ is good poetry but dreadful theology. Because God the Son didn’t empty himself of any of his divine nature and qualities and powers. He didn’t stop being anything he already was. Instead, to use the word in Philippians 2 and Article 2, he took man’s nature as well. So don’t think of it as Jesus emptying himself of something – think of it as Jesus emptying himself into something, into our human nature. So he was still the fully divine person he’d always been. But from the moment of conception in Mary’s womb, he accepted all the conditions and limitations of real human existence. And the jargon word Christians use for that is ‘the incarnation’. So, eg, last Christmas we sung a song that put it like this:
The hands that once split night from day
now feebly clutch a blade of hay…
Majestic king, now small and weak,
the Word of God must learn to speak.
Taken from the song 'On Christmas Day' by Matt Osgood ©2008 RESOUND worship CCL No 2054
And that captures something of what the incarnation meant: God the Son accepted all the conditions and limitations of real human existence.
Now, how did that happen? Well, turn next to Luke chapter 1.31, where God’s angel-messenger tells Mary:
“And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”
And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God. (Luke 1.31-35)
So since Mary was a virgin, Jesus’ conception wasn’t the result of human procreation but divine creation. Back in Genesis 1 you may remember that it says ‘the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters’ when God was creating from nothing. Whereas here, God by his Spirit was creating from something – presumably taking an ordinary human egg within Mary and miraculously creating the other 23 chromosomes and everying else that was necessary – although ultimately the ‘How?’ is a mystery.
But there are two important things to say here. One is that Muslims – and that may be you – have often thought we’re saying that God somehow had sex with Mary. And that is absolutely not what the Bible says. You’re right to think that would be blasphemous, but that’s absolutely not what we’re saying.
The other thing to say is that whatever miraculous creating work the Holy Spirit did in Mary’s womb, the result was that God the Son took sinless human nature. As the angel said:
“therefore the child to be born will be called holy” (Luke 1.35)
Ie, he’ll be absolutely like God – sinless. And if you look at that second chunk of Article 2, that’s what it implies:
The Son… took Man’s nature in the womb of the blessed Virgin, of her substance: so that two whole and perfect Natures, that is to say, the Godhead and Manhood, were joined together in one Person….
So Jesus had a sinless human nature. And that wasn’t because Mary was sinless and he inherited that from her (along with eye-colour, etc), as official Roman Catholic teaching says – no, she was as sinful as you and me. It was because of whatever miraculous creating work the Holy Spirit did in her womb. So Jesus didn’t have the inherent tendency to sin that makes us unable to stop sinning. Instead, he was unable to sin. And as we’ll see next time, on that fact hangs our salvation. Because we needed someone sinless to be our substitue on the cross.
Now you may be thinking, ‘But doesn’t the Bible say somewhere that in Jesus,
we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.
And the answer is: yes – in Hebrews 4.15. But that begs the question, ‘Was he really tempted, and can he really understand and sympathise with us, if he was unable to sin? Well, just turn on Luke 4.1f. Jesus here had just been baptised, alongside all who, in response to John the Baptist’s preaching, had acknowledged their sin and need of forgiveness. And Jesus was baptised as a sign that he’d come to identify with us sinners, so as ultimately to take our place on the cross. His baptism was a way of saying, ‘I’ve stepped into this world to be one of you, so that I can ultimately step in instead of you.’ And his baptism was the ‘starting gun’ of his mission that led him to the cross. And the person who most wanted that not to happen was the devil – whose ambition is to see us all condemned along with himself. So, Luke 4.1:
And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness for forty days, being tempted by the devil. And he ate nothing during those days. And when they were over, he was hungry. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” And Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone.’” (Luke 4.1-4)
Now I don’t know about you, but among the many temptations I stuggle with, turning stones into bread isn’t one of them. I’ve pretty much done the opposite by forgetting to put yeast in the bread maker. But turning stones into bread is not one of my temptations – because I’m just not able to. Whereas Jesus was, because he was God the Son. And, as I said earlier, in becoming man he didn’t empty himself of any of his divine nature, qualities or powers. He didn’t stop being anything he already was – which included being able to create out of nothing – let alone out of stones, or out of five loaves and two fish, when he miraculously fed the 5,000. But he did that for the sake of that crowd, to give them a sign that he could feed their spiritual need, and lead them towards salvation. Whereas here in Luke 4, the devil is tempting him to use his divine powers for his own sake – to get out of hunger and hardship. But if he’d started out using his powers to avoid hunger and hardship, he’d have ended up by using them to avoid the cross – and so saving no-one but himself.
So was Jesus really tempted to go against his Father’s will? Yes, he was – and to an extreme beyond anything we’ve experienced, because, unlike us, he never gave in. You see, we tend to think, ‘He never gave in – which must go to show that it was really easy for him’ – like the sickening maths genius in your class at school who could do his homework standing on his head. But that thinking is exactly the wrong way round. Think instead of the Great North Run. Think of two runners who, the moment they’ve crossed the Tyne Bridge, get a stitch for the rest of their run. And one gives in half way through Gateshead; while the other keeps running against the stitch all the way to the finish. Who has the harder time?
You see our tendency is to give in to sin, because that’s easier – as Oscar Wilde said, ‘The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it.’ But Jesus never did. Which is why he does understand and sympathise with us in all our struggles.
So, we’ve looked at:
• The Son of God before he became man
• The Son of God became man
Third, A FEW IMPLICATIONS OF JESUS BEING GOD AND MAN
I’ve just mentioned one – which is that the Lord Jesus can understand and sympathise with us when we pray to him and his Father out of our weakness and our struggles with temptation and our perplexity over circumstances and suffering. So does he know what it is to be tempted? Yes. Does he know what it is to be betrayed and mistreated? Yes. Does he know what it is to anticipate and face physical suffering and death? Yes. Does he know what it’s like to die? Yes. Does he know what it is to lose all sense of God’s presence and goodness in the darkness of his present situation? Yes – ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ And he doesn’t just know what it’s like to go through those things. He can and will sustain our faith in the thick of those things even when we feel utterly weak and on the brink of packing in believing in him.
Another implication is that Jesus shows us what God is truly like. So if you’re still wondering, ‘How can we know what God is really like?’, the answer is: ‘He’s like Jesus.’ So look in the four Gospels, and where you see Jesus’ compassion on the sick and bereaved, you’re looking at what God is truly like. Where you see Jesus’ willingness to forgive the worst of sinners, you’re looking at what God is truly like. Where you see Jesus weeping over those who refuse to accept him as Lord and who’ll face the eternal consequences if nothing changes, you’re looking at what God is truly like. And that’s why we encourage anyone looking into the Christian faith to do our Christianity Explored course. Because it gives you the chance to look first hand at Jesus in Mark’s Gospel and to make up your mind for yourself: was he the Son of God become man, or not?
So he shows us what God is truly like. But he also shows us what we were truly meant to be like – what it means to be truly and fully human. And of all the things I could say on that, I’ll just point out that he was single. Which shows that you don’t have to experience sex or marriage or parenthood to be ‘fully human’. To be fully human means to be like Jesus in his relationships with God and other people – whether God has put those people around you in the circumstances of singleness or of marriage.
The last implication I’ll mention is tucked away in that little phrase in Article 2, ‘never to be divided.’
The Son… took Man’s nature… so that two whole and perfect Natures… the Godhead and Manhood, were joined together in one Person, never to be divided.
The Christmas Carol ‘Once in royal David’s city’ says:
He came down to earth from heaven
Who is God and Lord of all
il F. Alexander (1818-1895)
And the danger of that language is that it creates this picture of God the Son leaving planet heaven, climbing into his human nature spaceship, coming down to earth, living, dying, rising again, blasting off back to heaven and finally climbing out of his human nature spaceship now the job is done. But that’s not true at all. The truth is that from the moment God the Son took our nature in Mary’s womb, he has been man and will now be forever. So ever since the Gospel events, there has been a man in heaven, with what Paul calls a ‘glorious body’, a glimpse of which was given in the transfiguration. And Jesus’ presence today in heaven, bodily, as a man is the guarantee to us that we can be taken there, body and soul. So in the full quote, Paul says: he will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself. (Philippians 3.21)
And as you get older and your body gives you more hints and reminders of your own mortality, and as death takes your parents, and then your peers, like an ever-advancing tide that’s steadily eroding the cliff you’re standing on, that is the promise that those who trust in Jesus can hold onto. What happened to his human nature as it passed through death and resurrection can and will happen to ours.
But the biggest implication of all I’ll leave Ramzi to unpack next time – which is that only if what I’ve said this morning is true could Jesus’ death do anything for us at all. He had to be God to be sinless, and he had to be man to be our substitute, if we were to be forgiven. And unless he was both, he can do absolutely nothing for us.
But more of that next time.