Who is Jesus and why does he matter? It is perhaps the most significant issue we can deal with and it is a question set that we wrestle with, if we are lucky, for the rest of our lives. Jesus significance lies in his being who he is, both fully human, fully divine and, as such, the very enfleshment of the Kingdom of God. These three things cannot be fully explicated in this paper, but they are a general summation of who Jesus is and why he matters. He matters because he is our Lord God, because he is simultaneously completely human and because he brings the Kingdom of God to reality.
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. Colossians 1:15-17
Jesus is a person of the trinity and, therefore, truly God. In the previous paper, The Doctrine of the Trinity, we dealt with the issue of how Jesus is one with the Father. By virtue of this oneness, his being of one ousia or essence with the father, he is God. This begins to answer our questions about Jesus’ divinity. However, we must also ask what does this matter to us?
The question is answerable in many ways. As scripture tells us, (John 1, Colossians 1, etc) all creation was made through Jesus and for Jesus. All creation includes us and is, therefore, more that a little important to us since these statements make it clear that our very existence is not only through Jesus but for him as well. Additionally, God is so very much beyond us by virtue of the fact that we are his creatures and in our humanness we cannot fully experience God. Even Abraham saw only the back of God. It is, however, through Jesus that we can fully experience God because Jesus is, in all truth, God. We will return to this for further discussion when we address the issue of Jesus being God and human at the same time because much of the significance of his divinity lies in his simultaneous humanity.
The next natural question we have is related to Jesus’ humanity. We say that Jesus was a human. Who was Jesus the man? A particular man, a particular human being, lives in a particular time and place, grows up in and is formed by a particular family and culture. The scriptures do not teach us that Jesus was some type of symbolic man or generic humanity figure, but rather a truly human individual. In the creeds we confess that Jesus was incarnate, made concrete, real and in a body, from the Virgin Mary and was made man. He was a baby like any other human baby and was born like every other human has been born or will be born throughout time. To be sure, it was a special birth in that his mother was a virgin and his birth was annunciated to her by and angel of the Lord. However, along with this spectacular conception, it was still a human birth from a human mother. This speaks volumes, because this Jesus, whom we say is the same as the God who created time itself and exists outside of and beyond time, was born like every other living child on a specific day and hour in time.
He lived a human life. In that life he ate and drank, walked around on human feet, had friends, lost friends, had feelings, suffered greatly with both physical pain and tears, bled real human blood and died a real human death. There were miracles and other amazing facts about this man and, to be sure, he was no ordinary person, but he was most certainly a particular human in the truly concrete sense of that word.
He was part of a family and this family was part of a nation of people called the Israelites. They were worshipers of Adonai. This matters in particular because this Adonai that was worshiped by Jesus’ people is the God he called Father. Jesus was not born into a family of Inuits or Maori or Lakota Souix or Celts or any other people because they did not call Adonai their God and he did not make a covenant with them as he did with the Israelites. Not only did the group of people from whom Jesus was descended worship Adonai, but they also had a covenantal relationship with him that included their being blessed as a blessing to the entire world. This people were a people chosen by God for a specific type of relationship with him and, in turn, with the world. This means that Jesus was the inheritor of this culture and this relationship and it was into this specific culture and relationship that God chose for his Son to be born.
If we establish that Jesus is God and that Jesus is human, then how do we understand him to be fully God and fully human at the same time? What is the relationship between the God Jesus and the man Jesus? The answer to that is simple, though the explanation is not. There is no relationship because that would imply some type of separation between the two and there is no separation between the God and the man. Jesus is one in the same manner that we determined in the previous paper on the Doctrine of the Trinity that God is one. The distinction between the two natures of Jesus is made conceptually and not in any way that it would be possible to dissect Jesus to find the God-part and the man-part. Jesus can not be cut up into a God Half and a human half. At the same time, these two natures are not mixed up together to form a new type of existence. These things may be distinguished from each other in the sense of characteristics that are divine or human, but the person of Jesus, Son of God, unites the two natures.
“The whole reality of being-God and the whole reality of being-human are manifested at the same time in the one story of Jesus of Nazareth.” (Yeago, pg. 219) Both natures are complete, meaning that there is not some mixture of the two, nor is there one that is more dominant than another. There is not a point at which the man Jesus becomes God or is adopted by God to be his Son. This is significant to us in one very important way: Jesus being completely human allows his salvific action to be for the complete human. St Gregory of Nazianus said that “The unassumed is the unhealed” (Yeago, pg. 219) meaning that because the whole of humanity fell from fellowship with God, it is Jesus’ full humanity that is able to fully reconcile that relationship.
In complement to this is Jesus’ full divinity. It is only God and not merely a really good man or even a God-like man who can restore this broken relationship humanity has with our God. Jesus tells us this in several places in scripture, one of which is in the Gospel of John “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9) This is a truly unambiguous and startling phrase. Looking at Jesus is looking at God and that would be possible only if Jesus is fully God. Another place where Jesus ties his physical flesh and blood human body inextricably to the eternal life given to us by God is also found in John. “Those who eat my flesh and drink by blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.” (John 6:54-57) This, too, is remarkably blunt, unambiguous and shocking. It binds tightly and inextricably together the salvation given only by God to the human flesh and blood of Jesus.
He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. Col 1:18-20
Jesus humanity and his divinity are both significant aspects of who he is and why he matters. However, a discussion of Jesus identity and significance would not be complete without addressing his sacrificial action on the cross and his resurrection. Jesus practiced what he preached in every aspect of life and this included his death. He begins his earthly ministry with the message to repent because the Kingdom of God is at hand and proceeds to demonstrate this kingdom in a living, breathing fashion. The Sermon on the Mount is one of many ways in which he describes the Kingdom of God, along with many parables and, perhaps most significantly, the manner in which he moved through the world and interacted with others.
More than just proclaiming that good news, Jesus’ message that the Kingdom had drawn near referred to his presence in the world in a real, living and breathing way. As Origen said, Jesus is Autobasileia, the very reign of God in his person. Jesus act of complete self sacrifice and utter obedience to the Father’s will in his suffering and death on the cross is more than just an illustration of the way to live or the way to die. It is a turning point for the entirety of creation. Jesus fulfills God’s law in his perfect obedience to the Father and does so in a way that we can never accomplish on our own. Through the sacraments, we are united to Jesus in that perfect death and to his perfect obedience and therefore share in this fulfillment of and obedience to God’s will.
It is not Jesus’ death alone to which we are united, but also to his resurrection to new life. The crucifixion is not merely revealing God’s great love for us nor is it God’s way of telling us that he accepts us as we are. Rather, it is God’s way of radically changing the world from the way it is, full of corruption, destruction and decay (basically, fully of sin) into the very Kingdom of God where all people can obey God willingly and with a glad heart. Colossians tells us that Jesus is the first born of the dead and we know his resurrection to be the resurrected life we look forward to in him. It is in this way, through the blood of Jesus’ cross, that God fills all creation with his peace and reconciles all things, on earth and in heaven, to him.
To talk about Jesus and why he matters is an enormous undertaking, one that cannot be accomplished in a few pages. In choosing to emphasize certain points of Jesus life, ministry and work, certain other valuable points must be left out. This is very frustrating to me because there are so many reasons why Jesus matters and so much to describing who he is. It is my hope that I will continue to think on and explore these thoughts, ideas and facts for many years to come.