“Hear of Israel, Yahweh our God, Yahweh is One.” (Deuteronomy 6:4)
“You believe that God is one? You do well; the demons believe that also…and they tremble.” (James 2:19)
“A mediator means there is more than one, but God is one.” (Galatians 3:20)
“And now, Yahweh our God, please save us from his hand, that all the kingdoms of the earth will know that you, Yahweh are God and you alone.” (2 Kings 19:19)
“One who sacrifices to a god shall be destroyed; Yahweh alone — to Him alone!” (Exodus 22:20)
The Bible is clear that while God exists in three persons, he is one and exists over and above all things both that he has created and that has been created in the imaginations of men. The question sometimes gets asked, “Aren’t there other gods that people worship?”
To answer that question properly, one must first offer a definition of what constitutes a “god.” If, by a “god,” what you mean is anything that people worship (rightly or wrongly), then I suppose that we could say that there are many gods. There would be the obvious things that come to mind: images of Buddha or of the Catholic saints (or Mary), Asherah or Totem poles, and idols to Hindu gods like Shiva. Money falls into this category as people will pursue it with all of their energy rather than pursuing God with all of their energy. Famous people are another illustration of the gods people bow down before and fawn over.
Self also can be defined as a god by this standard. We live in a culture of narcissism and people obsess over their looks, their image, their pleasure, and their self-gratification. Body art, plastic surgery, and even “gender re-assignment” have become commonplace and drug use has become an epidemic. On one extreme, people are working to genetically modify embryos to emphasize “more desirable” traits and on the other hand, children are being murdered in the name of “Family Planning.” Worse yet, like the Israelites in Canaan who ignored and participated in the paganism in their midst rather than pushing it out of the land, the Church largely ignores these false gods in our midst rather than pushing these false gods out of our churches.
And further, when you broaden the definition of a word so much that it can mean almost anything, then the word ultimately means nothing. To put it another way, our ability to communicate with one another is predicated on the idea that words have a limited semantic range. If “god” is defined as anything that man bows down to, everything becomes a god and the word is ultimately meaningless.
To this end, let me offer a more narrow definition from a Christian perspective. And this is to borrow the definition that St. Anselm used when he was devising his “Ontological Proof” for the existence of God. His definition is: “God is a being which no greater being can be imagined.” To narrow that down even more, one might point out that this definition demands that God not be one of a subset of gods but instead, that God is in a class of his own — the being par excellence. By this definition, there can only be one God — and this is the definition found in the Bible. Whether people worship themselves, the works of their hands, or demons, none fo these are in the same class as God — he is truly unique and alone in terms of his person and character; none is like him, no not one.
And to this end, both Christian theology and Hidelberg Catechism, question 25 insist on God being defined as One being even when we are defining him as three persons. It is an essential of the faith and non-negotiable in Christian theology.
There are many different religions in this world of ours and sadly, there are many different people who claim that all religions are simply different cultural expressions of the same faith. Of course, the latter portion of that statement is utterly irrational as all of these different religions are mutually exclusive in nature, but that is not my focus this morning. My focus this morning is on the nature of our Triune God (Three Persons but one Divine being) and how our theology reflects that reality.
You see, when the Heidelberg Catechism begins to explore the Apostles’ Creed, it asks, “How are these articles (the Articles of the Apostles’ Creed) divided up (Question 24)? The answer, of course, looks back to the nature of the Trinity and states that they are broken into three parts based on the person and work of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
For most of us who grew up in traditional churches, this is pretty straight-forward language. We speak of the Trinity because that is how the Bible presents our God and those people who reject the doctrine of the Trinity reject the God we worship and are thus not Christian (again, this is why the Christian God is not the God worshiped by the non-Christian tribes and nations). But the question I would like to explore is why it is important that our theology reflect the Trinitarian nature of our God.
Again, we could approach this from a number of different angles. We could explore all the texts of the Bible that support the Trinity — there are many. We could point out that our Baptisms are to be in the Triune name and that the Christian benediction also employs the Trinitarian name of God (2 Corinthians 13:14). But even more basic than that, what is our starting point for theology? The answer to that question needs to tie in with the essential nature of our God.
God is both one and three — one in essence and three in person. Thus our theology (which literally means, “Things about God”) needs to be essentially a reflection of our three in one God. Wherever the Father is, so too is the Son and the Spirit. Wherever the Son is, so too is the Father and the Spirit. And, wherever the Spirit is, so too is the Father and the Son. These three persons are not truly separable from one another in their works or in their attributes though each tends to be described in the Bible as being a primary actor in certain ways: God the Father in Creation, God the Son in our Redemption, and God the Spirit in our sanctification. And hence, the Apostles’ Creed is designed to reflect this reality. A theology that does not stress and protect this united nature of our Godhead leads people into error of one sort or another.
In the end, both Heidelberg and the Creed seek to preserve this tension and keep us focused on our Triune God. Hence its answer and hence a starting point to ensure that our theology is Christian by ensuring that our Theology is Triune in nature.
“who, though he was God in essence, did not regard it as something to be grasped — to be equal to God — ”
This is one of those verses, when taken in isolation of the teachings of scripture and not with an understanding of the Greek language, has led people down the road to heresy, for some will read this verse as saying that Jesus gave up his divinity to become human and such could not be further from the truth. In addition, there are also some who will read this verse in a way that implies that God the Son and God the Father are separable. Similarly, this is not the testimony of scripture as a whole.
Paul’s words in this verse begin with, “though he was God in essence.” Some of our English translations render this: “though he was in the form of God,” which is good Greek, but can be misleading in English. For us, something that takes the form of something else is a doppelgänger of sorts — a mimic or a copy, but not one with the original. The term that Paul uses here is morfh/ (morphe), which refers to the basic essence of something. Essentially what Paul is writing here is that all of the essential attributes of the Godhead were and are fully present in Jesus. In fact, given that the verb in this clause is in the imperfect state, the implication is that these divine attributes continue even into his dual nature. Jesus is God…he is the second person in the Triune Godhead, and he did not consider, reason, or think that his rightfully revealed glory was something to be clung to but he came to this world in the essence of a servant…a slave even.
Interestingly, Jesus’ behavior is just the opposite of Satan who was willing to sacrifice everything in the hopes of becoming equal in status with God yet was thrown down because of his rebellion. Satan demonstrates the results of pride; Jesus demonstrates a life of humility. How often, in life, even professing Christians pursue a life that looks more like Satan’s than Jesus’. And what is this language of equality at the end of the verse? It speaks not to ontological equality (equality in essence, something that has already been established) but to equality in status or glory…such would be the contrast that Paul is establishing in the following verse. There is an exchange not in essential Godhead but instead a willingness to veil his glory in the flesh of humanity for a season and for the purpose of saving humanity. What a mighty and great God we serve!
and the exact image of his essence…
The early church fathers faced a lot of challenges as they sought to defend believers from heretical teachings and to define the boundaries of what may be described as “orthodox” Christian theology. Probably the two most important areas in which they were required to work was in the area of defining the doctrine of the Trinity and the doctrine of the dual nature of Christ. Both of these doctrines are clearly affirmed in scripture as a whole, but neither doctrine has a nice neat prooftext that one can go to for the purpose of articulating said view. As a result, there were many who put forward views of both of these doctrines that were either heretical in themselves or would lead another to heresy. Hence, the church fathers needed to find a way to Biblically and clearly articulate what scripture presents as true, but in a precise way that did not leave room for error. All four of the early church creeds, called the “Ecumenical Creeds” (The Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Chalcedonian Christological Statement, and the Athenasian Creed) come out of this struggle within the early church.
With that in mind, this verse is one of the important passages that were used by the Fathers in defining the dual nature of Christ—in what we technically refer to as “Hypostatic Union.” The word Hypostatic comes from the Greek word uJpo/stasiß (hupostasis), which refers to the basic structure or most essential nature of something. In terms of Christ, we recognize that he had two distinct and unconfused natures—one human and one divine. He had within his human nature everything that makes one human, for he is in essence human. In addition, though, Jesus had within his divine nature everything that made him God, for he is in essence divine. These parts are not confused in any way within Christ; Jesus is not some sort of Greek demi-god or amalgamation of God and man, but his being is marked by a perfect union of a fully divine nature with a fully human nature.
One may wonder why this degree of precision is so important for us as Christians. To begin with, were Jesus not fully human, he could not be described as having suffered in this life and died on the cross as a bloody sacrifice. Also, were he not fully human, he could not have fulfilled the failed role of Adam as covenant mediator for his people and could not have been tempted and tried in every way as we are (Hebrews 4:15). Were Jesus not fully human in every way, he could not have redeemed every aspect of fallen humanity. In addition, were Jesus not to have died, he could not have been resurrected and thus, we would have no hope of a bodily resurrection ourselves. At the same time, were Jesus not fully God, he could not have done for us what he did. He would not have been sinless, and thus could not have entered guiltless before God to mediate a new covenant. Nor could Jesus have made atonement for sins, for a guilt sacrifice had to found as faultless and without blemish before God. Were Christ not fully God he could not be said to be pre-existent as scripture presents and thus could not have entered into a covenant to save the elect from before the foundations of the earth (see Ephesians 1).
Now that we have the technical language before us, sensing the theological importance of making sure that we articulate correctly the nature of our Lord, I think that it is important for us to stop here for a minute and dwell on just what this means. Here is one who is, to use creedal language, “very God of very God.” This is the second member of the divine Trinity, the Son of the Father, the Living God. Everything that makes God, well, God, belongs to God the Son as well as to God the Father (and Spirit for that matter). Jesus is the very word which God used to bring existence into being—to form everything from nothing and to bring about life. Here is the Son of God, worthy of all praise and glory and honor by the very principle of who he is. And it is this one—one whose very presence and name defines the very meaning of glory itself—one who is exalted on high—who chose to veil that glory in flesh and descend to earth not simply for the purpose of communicating with us, but to suffer and die in our place. Loved ones, that is incomprehensible. That the King of Glory would become flesh cannot be simply rationalized and put to the side. It is an overwhelming reality that we must deal with, and when we understand this reality, there are only two possible responses for us to take: falling on our faces awestruck in humble worship or fleeing in sin and shame. One cannot remain ambivalent when it comes to this mighty act of our Lord—one must respond, but which response will it be? Knowing what you know, will you commit yourself to a life of praise of our God? Will you adore him with your words as well as with your actions? Will you adore him even in crowds where it might be unpopular to do so? Will you lead your family in adoring him, and will you seek to live your life as a living sacrifice, seeking to be blameless so as to honor him, for He is holy and he calls us to be holy as well. Will you be deliberate in the way that you order your days, your accounts, your plans, and your careers, so as to honor Him with them? Will you cherish his word as the very word of life? Or, will you go on living for yourself in guilty fear, bound in sin and hatred, and continue to rebel against the one who gave more than you can comprehend to offer life to those who come to him in faith? Beloved, there are two responses to this truth about Christ, and only two responses; which will you choose? And, dear ones, knowing this, what must change in your day to day life so that your life reflects this choice?