The theological event celebrated at Christmas is the Incarnation, when the Word took on flesh and became in every way human, calling us His brothers. With this, the Word taking on human form, comes the ever important necessity to then understand, from Scripture, what this means. The incarnation is crucial in answering Jesus’ famous question, “who do you say that I am?”
We call the study of Jesus Christology. Everyone has a Christology, as everyone believes something about Christ. While Christology can be pushed into very deep recesses of theology, there are certain things about Jesus that we must absolutely get right. For it was Jesus Himself who said:
“I told you that you would die in your sins, for unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins” (John 8:24).
Christology then becomes a life or death issue. To get Jesus wrong is to be “in your sins.” To get Jesus wrong is to believe in a god who cannot save, for no one can be saved by a Jesus that does not exist.
This is why I have decided to post a Christmas blog briefly outlining and rebutting common Christological heresies popular among some people today. I do not plan to refute every single one, and I do not plan to say anything new. This is a discussion the church has been talking about since it’s New Testament form. These are old heresies, and many brilliant men have addressed them at length. Unfortunately, many of them are still believed today. My hope here is to help you become more familiar with these ancient heresies.
Also, for purposes of this discussion, when I use the word “heresy” in this context, I am referring to a belief about Christ that prevents a person from being saved.
The God Before Bethlehem
Adoptionism is a 2nd century heresy that teaches the belief that Jesus was born perfect, but not divine. The core of this heresy is that Jesus became God’s Son and the Messiah, at his baptism. In other words, Jesus became God at some point during His ministry. (Some maintain this happened at His resurrection.)
Like most theological systems, not everyone who would fall into this camp necessarily agree on everything. Some teach that even at His baptism, Jesus did not become God, but was filled with a full measure of the Spirit. Essentially, Jesus had divine powers because he had so much God in Him. Other Adoptionists would be comfortable maintaining that Jesus became God.
The key to this heresy is that Adoptionists deny the pre-existence of Christ, though many deny His deity altogether. The refutation of this heresy lies in the clear testimony of Scripture that Jesus existed before the incarnation. Jesus was God before Bethlehem.
For example, John’s prologue, one of the premier texts on the deity of Christ, teaches this explicitly. John 1:1-3,
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.
The Word is defined by John as being both God, and being with God. We have a clear distinction between the Word and God, yet a clear unity between the Word and God. The point here is that this Word existed with God in the beginning. This clearly establishes that the Word existed prior to Bethlehem. The Word then is properly be defined as “God.” The Word was God before Bethlehem.
Notice that the Word is also described with personal, masculine traits. The Word is called “He,” and He is said to have created all things. Thus, the Word, is a Person, a Masculine Person, who is God, who was there in the beginning, and who created all things. The Jesus who was born in Bethlehem is the God who created Bethlehem.
If you need further proof that the Word is Jesus according to John, finish the prologue. 14-18,
He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John bore witness about him, and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.”) For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.
Another important text to turn an Adoptionist to is Colossians 1:15-20,
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.
The context prior clearly establishes the “He” of the text as being Jesus. And even if one were to dispute that, such a person would then be hard pressed to explain how the invisible Father is the image of the invisible Father.
With that out of the way, the text clearly indicates that Jesus, who is fully God, created all things, which means He existed prior to creation. Jesus did not find His genesis in Bethlehem.
This is consistent with the fact that Jesus was worshiped as God prior to His baptism (Matthew 2:11), and it is consistent with how a 12-year-old Jesus was able to sit in the Temple refuting and teaching the elders, and why He would call Himself the Son of God at that age, long before His baptism (Luke 2:41-49).
To finish the argument, take a look at what Paul says in Philippians 2:5-8,
“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, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
Jesus existed prior to the incarnation “in the form of God” and “equal to God.” He then, entered into history by emptying Himself into human existence. Paul could not be more clear: Jesus is the God before Bethlehem.
Adoptionists are not as prevelant today as our upcoming heretics, but it is possible you might come across one some day. Some Muslims even argue this viewpoint about Jesus.
If you know an Adoptionist, point them to these texts. Call them to repent and believe in the Jesus who was God before Bethlehem.
Both texts above also sufficiently refute our next popular heresy, Arianism.
Arianism, which arose early in the 4th century, is the belief that Jesus did in fact exist prior to the creation of the world, but is himself a created being. In other words, Jesus is god, not God. Jesus was created as a god, but he is not the eternal God over history. Jesus is a creature, a powerful creature indeed, but nonetheless, is still a creature.
The problem for Arians is that the texts already cited above clearly state otherwise. John 1 could not be more clear that Jesus existed “in the beginning” with God, and it leaves out any mention of Jesus coming in to existence there. The English is clear, whenever God was, Jesus was too. The Greek only further establishes the point that “in the beginning” is a reference to eternity.
The text also clearly identifies the Word “as God.” He is not a created divine being; He is God. He is the same God He was with. The Word is eternal, and the Word is God. That means, the Word was not created.
Likewise, our text cited above from Colossians makes an equally strong point. In order for Arianism to be true alongside Scripture, Jesus had to create Himself, which is obviously nonsensical.
Paul writes that by Jesus “all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” If Jesus created everything that was created, and He was created, then Jesus created Jesus, according to Arianism.
Paul also reveals that Jesus is the “image of God.” How can a creature be an image of a non-creature? How can Jesus perfectly image the Father, if they are so different on this point? The author of Hebrews says the same thing about Jesus,
“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” (Hebrews 1:3).
How can Jesus be the image of God, the exact imprint of God’s nature, if He is not also eternal? Jesus would be missing one of God’s most important attributes if He were a created being, and that would mean it would be dishonest for Paul to call Him the exact imprint of God’s nature. It would be dishonest for Jesus Himself to say something like:
“Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?” (John 14:9).
The most common form of Arianism today is the Jehovah’s Witnesses religion. They believe Jesus is a god, a created one. He is not the eternal God, but a lesser, created being. They have to distort the texts above in order to believe this, which demonstrates how clearly the texts speak to the issue of Jesus’ eternal nature.
Stay tuned for the next installation as we dive into a Christological heresy regarding the human nature of Christ.