The heart and center of the Christian faith is that we worship Jesus. We don’t simply remember him with reverence or take special interest in the historical figure called Jesus of Nazareth who walked the earth two millennia ago, but we worship him as God. And in our day, it is an increasingly radical thing to believe, and to confess. Indeed, many of the most radical things we believe as Christians relate directly to the person of Jesus who is the heart of our faith.
We believe that a real flesh-and-blood human from first-century Palestine was God himself, who created everything, come down as one of us. And not only did he come, but he came to rescue us, not just from evil in the world, but the evil inside us called sin. And not only did he come into our realm with such concern and love, but he even gave his own life to make the ultimate sacrifice for us. Then, he rose again and ascended to heaven, and now as man he sits on the very throne of the universe — and not only will he come again to banish all evil and usher in true peace and human flourishing like we’ve never seen, but through his word in the writings of his apostles and prophets, and by the power and ministry of his Spirit, we can actually know him and enjoy him today. This is the very heart and center of what we believe, and what it means to be authentically “Christian.”
Yet we live in a society that makes very different (and often surprisingly heated claims) about Jesus. As much as the social elites may say we can have our private religious beliefs, just simply state your belief that Jesus is not just fully human but fully God — and that he was not just fully dead but is fully alive — and watch the emotional bombs go off.
Jesus asked his disciples in Matthew 16:13, “Who do people say that I am?” Ask the question today, and consider the spectrum of answers. Muslims answer that he was a divinely appointed prophet, and no more, in a line that culminated with Muhammad. Modern Jews say he was a false prophet who claimed to be the Messiah who has not yet come. Hindus and Buddhists will say he was a spiritual guru. Even secular Westerners, by and large, will say he was a good moral teacher who stood for love. Day in and day out, Jesus may not feel like a hot topic in our increasingly post-Christian society, but the true identity of Jesus is always an incendiary topic, no doubt. However indifferent they may be to Christianity, the people of the Twin Cities are not indifferent to Jesus, at least their own version of him.
This is the second message in a series of “hot topics” we’re tackling here in January and February. Today we turn today to what is called “Christology.” Which means simply means the study of Christ. Christology has always been important, but it will be increasingly important in our increasingly post-Christian city.
Christology is a somewhat broad heading in Christian theology under which many topics cluster — like the virgin birth, the pre-existence of Christ, the sinlessness of Christ, and more, but at the heart of “Christology” is the claim that Jesus is fully God and fully man in one person. The time-tested synthesis handed down to us by the early centuries of the church (councils at Nicaea in 325, then Constantinople in 381, then Chalcedon in 451 ) — not just weeks or month or years, or even decades, but centuries — is that the one person of Christ has two natures: he is fully divine, and always has been fully divine, in perfect Trinitarian relationship with his Father and the Holy Spirit, and he also took a fully human nature in history, more than two thousand years ago, and remains fully human today. He is fully God and fully man. Two natures in one person.
Pray and Prepare
One of our big, recurrent prayers as a church is that Jesus would be the issue in our metro. That our neighbors and coworkers and friends and family wouldn’t be able to ignore the true Jesus, and his claims, and his grace, but be compelled to ask hard questions about who he really is, and not hold on to what they simply prefer him to be. Nothing matters more. And when they do ask, we want to be ready to answer. We don’t want to force-feed them answers before they’re asking, but when they do ask, oh how we want to be ready.
And we want to do all we can to incline them to ask by talking about Jesus explicitly, regularly, naturally, reverently, and winsomely.
So the course we’ve set this morning is to rehearse who Jesus is as fully God and fully man by looking at this remarkable Christological sentence in Hebrews 1:1–4. It is one sentence. Some have called it the most magnificent sentence in ancient Greek. I’ll read it again, and then I’d like for us to look briefly at the seven claims it makes about Jesus — sevenfold affirmations — and get to know him better in his full manhood and full godness.
Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, [now the seven claims:] whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs. (Hebrews 1:1–4)
Let’s walk together through these seven claims (I’ll batch the first two, so we’ll have six total points below), and when they say to us, “Tell me about Jesus,” here’s one place we’ll go.
1. Jesus is the heir of the universe. (end of verse 2)
After Hebrews introduces Jesus as God’s “Son” — “in these last days [God] has spoken to us by his Son” — the first description that follows is “whom he appointed the heir of all things.” Is this the first thing you’d say about Jesus? “God made him the heir of all things.” Such a strange place to start. Why say this first? And then he adds “through whom also [God] created the world.” Wouldn’t it make better sense to start with creation? Why heir first, then creator thrown second as an “also” statement?
Society is much more individualistic today than it once was, and the possibilities for financial mobility are much greater. In ancient times, and even in not-too-distant history, possessions and the resources needed for human life were more visibly and manifestly transferred from one generation to the next. Your inheritance — not just what you got when your parents died, but also their generationally accumulated resources which you benefited from your whole life — had a greater felt significance than it does today. Or at least to those of us who have had ample resources at our disposal since birth. (When I asked my six-year-olds sons if they know what an heir was, one said what we breathe, the other said when you mess up in baseball.)
Long before Jesus came, Psalm 2:8 spoke to King David’s heir about God making “the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession.” There’s an interesting connection here between the opening lines of the two great epistles of the New Testament. Romans 1:1–4 reads,
Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, 2 which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, 3 concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh 4 and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord.
Like Hebrews, Paul mentions the prophets and Scriptures, introduces God’s Son, and then celebrates two characteristics of him: he was descended from David according to the flesh, and he was declared (in public) to be God’s Son by his resurrection from the dead.
So back to Hebrews 1:2. If the question is when did God plan for his Son to be heir, the answer is before the foundation of the world. But if the question is when did God publicly coronate him king as David’s heir — when did he become king — the answer is when he rose, ascended to heaven, and was officially crowned as king of the universe.
But what of this second phrase “through whom also he created the world”? Not only is he the heir to David’s throne and, according to God’s promises, the heir of the nations, but he is more. Other humans sat on David’s throne, but no other human has stood in this place with Jesus. He is not only David’s heir, but through him also God made the world. God created all things for Jesus.
All history (not just “the world” but “the ages”) is the Father giving his Son an inheritance fit for God. It’s not that God created the world, humans messed it up, and then God decided his Son should go in for the rescue. Rather, Jesus was the planned heir first. God created the world not out of any need, but to do what happy fathers do for their sons: give them gifts. The universe, and all its history (“the ages”), is the Father giving his Son the gift of all gifts. God created the world to give his Son an inheritance.
(Colossians 1:16 also speaks of all things existing not just in him and through him, but “for him.” Also, Jesus’s relationship to creation being characterized with the preposition “through” is consistent in the New Testament: not just Hebrews 1, but Colossians 1:16, as well as John 1:1 and 1 Corinthians 8:6.)
2. Jesus reveals God, and is God. (first part of verse 3)
Verse 3: “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature.”
That he is “the radiance of the glory of God” means he is the shining forth, or the out-streaming, of God’s glory. He is what humans see of the sun of God. He is what we humans feel and smell and touch and ultimately taste of God. And he is what we hear of God: he is the “Word” which is the main point of this whole section, that Jesus is the final and decisive revelation of God.
But he is not just radiance, but “the exact imprint of [God’s] nature.” Just as a stamp makes the same mark each time, so he and his Father are from the same mold, so to speak. The Son is the exact imprint of his Father’s nature. Jesus is every bit as much God as his Father is — “self-same perfect in Godhead,” as the ancient creed says. Jesus is God in his own right, and no lesser in essence than his Father.
Radiance expresses distinction in persons; exact imprint stresses sameness.
3. Jesus holds the universe in existence. (middle of verse 3)
Verse 3: “he upholds the universe by the word of his power.”
Lest we think because he is God’s heir and God’s radiance that he is somehow lesser than or not fully God, take note: not only is he “exact imprint” of the divine nature, as we’ve seen, but he holds the universe together moment by moment — and does so with such authority that he accomplishes it by his word. As the apostle Paul confesses in Colossians 1:17, “in him all things hold together.”
How unspeakably great is the supremacy of Christ. Not only is he the Word and perfect revelation of God, and not only the heir of all things, but he even holds the universe in existence, and does so by the authority of his word. And it gets even more remarkable.
4. Jesus gave his own life for his people. (middle of verse 3)
Verse 3: “After making purification for sins . . .”
Now we turn a corner. This is not just about his identity and ongoing function. This is about something he accomplished decisively. Something he did once for all. And something that he did directly, personally, lovingly, for us.
As Hebrews will make very clear later on, unlike revealing God and holding the created world together, Jesus does not ongoingly make purification for sins. This he did once for all.
- Hebrews 7:27: “he did this once for all when he offered up himself”
- Hebrews 10:12: “Christ . . . offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins”
And how was it, then, that he offered himself? Hebrews 12:2: “Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, . . . for the joy that was set before him endured the cross.”
The fundamental difference, at the human level, between the person of Christ and the rest of humanity is that Jesus never sinned. He never found himself in need of purification. Hebrews 4:15: “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.”
When he made purification for sins, it was not for himself, but he did for us what we could not do for ourselves. “There is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man1 Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5). He could be our mediator, and make purification for sins, because he is both one with the Father (John 10:30) and one with us (Hebrews 2:11).
It’s very controversial today to say that Jesus is the only way, but what’s so easy to overlook is the amazing truth that there is any way at all. It can sound like we’re saying, “Your way doesn’t count; only ours.” That’s not the Christian drift. What we’re saying is that we’re all spiritually, eternally, really and truly dead in the water, and the only chance for us is that God himself would become one of us to die for us and then bring us with him into his presence.
5. Jesus sat down. (end of verse 3)
Verse 3: “he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.”
When Jesus had accomplished his once-for-all work of making purification for our sins, he rested from his work. He sat down. Sitting down implies that his work was finished. This is not a break, then back to the work. This is the sitting down of the full work being brought to completion.
And in the context of Hebrews 1, there is even greater significance to his sitting down, because what does a king do? He sits on his throne. Hebrews chapter 1, then, is a kind of coronation ceremony for Christ as king of the universe. By virtue of his perfect life and sacrificial death and resurrection from the dead and ascension into heaven, he comes into the very throne room of the universe to the most momentous ceremony to date: the coronation of Christ. (We celebrate this when we sing “Crown him with many crowns, the Lamb upon his throne.”)
6. Jesus is better than the angels. (verse 4)
Verse 4: he has “become as superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.”
Finally, we’re at the end of the sevenfold affirmation (remember we . There’s much we could say about “angels” and why they appear here, seemingly all of a sudden. Hebrews will have more to say about angels into chapter 2, but suffice it so say for now that the angelic beings provide a helpful standard of comparison for what Christ accomplishes once and for all, as fully human, in making purification for our sins. The status of angels gives us a way to measure the progress and achievement of Christ, and the benefit we receive in him.
Angels, by all accounts, are higher, more powerful beings than humans. Psalm 8 says explicitly what many other texts imply, that God made humans with stunning dignity, yet “a little lower than the angels” (verse 5). So when the fully divine Son of God becomes man, taking on our full humanity, he also, as man, is lower than the angels. As God, he’s higher — always has been. But as man, he also has assumed to himself the lower position — that is, until he makes purification for ours sins, once for all. When he does, and rises again to new life, he ascends to heaven, and sits down, as man, on the very throne of the universe, he now, as man, has bypassed the angels. Right now, as I’m speaking, while we are gathered here, and every moment of your life — what a reality this is — there is a man seated on the throne of the universe. He outshines the worth and power of angels, and one day — this is almost too good to be true — we will be seated with him.
Name Above All Names
Let’s close with a final question: what is the “name” in verse 4 that Jesus has inherited? Notice, in talking about inheritance, we’re back to where we started. The most frequent answer I read and hear is that the name Jesus has inherited is “Son.” Verse 2 calls him “Son,” and verse 5 says, “You are my son,” some many assume it must be “Son.”
But consider this: “Son” is not a name, but a title. The one who inherits is the Son, but the name “Son” is not what he inherits. A Son inherits something that belonged to his Father. That name is not “Son,” but as Philippians 2:9 says it, it is “the name that is above every name” — God’s personal name Yahweh.
So as God answers our prayers, and as Jesus increasingly becomes the issue in these Twin Cities, and they ask us, “Who do you say that he is?” we will not be content simply to affirm that he is a prophet, or a good moral teacher, or an exemplary life. Rather, we will say, Jesus is Yahweh himself, the God who made you, come in the flesh, to save you. He is fully God and fully man in one person. He is Grace Incarnate, come from outside ourselves, to rescue us from the evil that is inside ourselves. And he gave his own life to make purification for your sins, rose in triumph, and now is seated on the very throne of the universe, and you can know him for yourself.
To the Table
As we come to the Table, I have one more important thing I just can’t preach on Christology without saying. You may often hear the phrase “Lord and Savior.” “First, let me thank Jesus Christ, my Lord and Savior.” He is Yahweh himself, and he is indeed Lord. And he made purification for sins, and he indeed is Savior. But at least one vital aspect of our Christology remains unspoken when he is only known as “Lord and Savior.”
This Table not only calls us to obey him as Lord and to receive him as Savior, but to enjoy him. We embrace these elements. We not only receive them, but taste them. Jesus is not only Lord and Savior. He is Lord, Savior, and Treasure.
This is a meal for the members of Cities Church, but if you’d say with us this morning, “This Jesus, fully God and fully man, two natures in one person, who was fully dead and is now fully alive — this Jesus is my Lord, my Savior, and my great Treasure,” then we’d invite you to eat and drink with us.