by Young Oon Kim
The Creedal Portrait Of Jesus
It is surprising to see how the ecumenical creeds of the 4th and 5th centuries indirectly but decisively influenced the Christians' understanding of Jesus and their perspective on the New Testament. Instead of relying on the Scriptures alone, conventional churchmen interpret them in the light of the dogmas of Nicea and Chalcedon.
Since these church councils defined Jesus Christ as the eternal Son, who is consubstantial with the Father and very God of very God, laymen examine the New Testament from that perspective. C. S. Lewis, the well-known Christian apologist and science fiction writer, was a particularly persuasive exponent of this point of view. The son of the Blessed Virgin Mary is God, he wrote. 1 There suddenly turned up among the Jews a man who talked as if he were God. He claimed to have existed from the beginning of creation. He assumed the right to forgive men's sins. Jesus asserted that at the end of time he would come to judge the world. We cannot describe such a person simply as a great religious teacher. On the basis of his claims, one must conclude that he was God 2 or simply crazy or the Devil.
Furthermore, the New Testament reports -- according to Lewis -- that Jesus Christ's death has somehow put us right with God and given 3 us a fresh start in life. Christ was killed for us. His death washed away 4 our sins. And by his cross, we can become victorious over death.
Now since this is supposedly the core of the Christian message, it is natural to read the Gospels in that light. As the World Council of Churches defined Christianity in its original qualifications for membership, to be Christian is to believe that Jesus Christ is "God and Savior." When the New Testament is read with that mind-set, the main purpose is to see how Jesus was not human but divine. The Gospels then primarily serve to prove the doctrines of the incarnation and atonement.
How was this accomplished? First, before the rise of historical criticism, it was assumed that the Gospels gave us accurate first-hand knowledge of Jesus, written down by the apostles themselves or those who were in daily contact with them. Matthew and John were two of the original twelve disciples. Mark was the translator for Peter and may have been the young man who fled naked from the garden of Gethsemane when Jesus was arrested. Luke was a travelling companion of Paul. In other words, the evangelists were reliable historians because they participated in the events they described or they checked their reports with members of the apostolic community.
Second, the New Testament clearly demonstrates the supernatural authority and power of Jesus. He could not have been merely human because he performed such astounding miracles. What man can walk on water or feed 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two fishes? Who but a supernatural figure can change water into wine or raise the dead? Has anyone else been born of a virgin? And surely, as the apostle Thomas confessed, Jesus must have been both "Lord and God" because he appeared physically to his disciples after his crucifixion and burial. By thinking about the astonishing miracles in the Gospels, orthodox Christians conclude that Jesus Christ was consubstantial with God the Father, begotten, not made, God of God, as the creeds declare.
Third, the supernatural status of Jesus was recognized by those who were closest to him and knew him best. John the Baptist heard God call Jesus His beloved Son (Matt. 3:16,17) and he himself described Jesus as the Lamb that takes away the sins of the world (Jn. 1:29). Peter confessed that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God (Matt. 16:16). Matthew the publican heard Jesus correct and improve the revealed Torah of Moses (5:21,48). The disciples Peter, James and John saw Jesus transfigured and conversing with Moses and Elijah (Mk. 9:4). Mary Magdalene saw with her own eyes the risen Jesus and heard him say that he would soon ascend to the Father (Jn. 20:17). The Roman centurion who watched Jesus die praised him as surely a Son of God (Mk. 15:39). And Paul, who had long conversations with the original disciples, defined Jesus as one who was in the form of God and had now received a name that was above every name (Phil. 2:6-11). On the basis of these alleged first-hand testimonies, the New Testament bestows ten major titles on Jesus: Prophet, Suffering Servant, High Priest, Messiah, 5 Son of Man, Lord, Savior, Logos, Son of God and God.
Fourth, Jesus is unique because numerous details of his life represent precise fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies. As Bishop Fulton J. Sheen states, if someone is to come from God to save men, the least God could do would be to pre-announce his arrival. God should first let men know when His messenger is coming, where he would be born, what he would teach, the enemies he would make and the manner of his death. If someone then conformed to such predictions, we would be able to recognize that he was truly from God. In the Old Testament, Bishop Sheen states, we 6 can find just such prophecies which were exactly fulfilled by Jesus. In the Septuagint translation of Isaiah 7:14, the virgin birth was predicted. In the Matthaean Gospel especially, great stress is laid on the way Jesus' life conforms to Old Testament prophecies. He was born in Bethlehem to fulfill Micah 5:2, escaped to Egypt to fulfill Hosea 11:1, lived in Galilee to fulfill Isaiah 9:1,2, became a suffering servant (Is. 53), was betrayed by Judas for 30 pieces of silver (Zech. 11: 12), condemned to be crucified (Psalm 22:16), given wine mingled with gall (Psalm 69:21), died quoting the exact words of Psalm 22:1 and was resurrected after three days in the grave according to scripture (Jonah 1: 17). Hence, what separates Christ from all men is that he was expected: his advent had been predicted in great detail.
Fifth, when orthodox Christians study the life of Jesus, they concentrate upon his passion. In the Apostles Creed, all we learn about Jesus' earthly life is that he was born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate and was crucified. Since Jesus' sole purpose was to atone for the sins of mankind by dying on the cross, according to the traditional position, there is no need to bother much with his earlier life or teaching ministry.
Hence, for an Evangelical scholar the most important feature of the Gospels is their theology of Jesus' death. Did Jesus foresee his death? What meaning did he see in it? Professor George E. Ladd of Fuller Theological Seminary provides one of the most careful neo-Evangelical explanations of the old theology. In his view, Jesus understood his mission as a combination of the eschatological Son of Man and Suffering Servant. As God's obedient servant, Jesus expected some unusual fate that would bring great grief to his disciples. Mark tells us that Christians would fast because the bridegroom would be taken away (2:20). When the disciples James and John ask for places of honor in the Kingdom, Jesus told them that he came to give his life as a ransom for many (Mk. 10:45). Also, at the Last Supper Jesus looked forward to his death and described the wine he blessed as the blood of the covenant poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins (Matt. 26:28).
What can one conclude from Jesus' own attitude toward his death? According to Ladd, Jesus' death was an essential part of his messianic mission: "The Son of Man came to give his life" (Mk. 10:45). Since Jesus interpreted his mission as God's Suffering Servant, he believed that his soul would be poured out unto death in order to bear the sins of many (Is. 5 3:12). Jesus' death was substitutionary because he gave his life in the place of sinners. Jesus sacrificed his soul as an offering for sin (Is. 53:10), a death freely offered to provide forgiveness for others. Besides being a ransom and a substitutionary sacrifice, Jesus' death was also a victory over the kingdom of Satan. Because of the cross as a redemptive act, the ruler of this world was cast out of power (Jn. 12:31). By dying on the cross, Jesus has freed men from the law of sin and death 7 (Rom. 8:2).
1 C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (1960), p.8.
2 Ibid. pp. 54-56.
4 Ibid., p. 58.
5 However, see 0. Cullmann's historical study of these in Christology of the New Testament (1959) and F Hahn, The Titles of Jesus in Christology (1969). Cullmann and Hahn do not believe that these titles go back to the disciples but originated with the later church.
6 E. J. Sheen, Life of Christ (1959), pp. 1-4. This author finds additional predictions of Jesus' coming in Aeschylus, Virgil, Suetonious, the Sybilline Oracles, Tacitus, Socrates, Plato and Confucius.
7 G. E. Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament (1974), pp. 182-192.
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