There are a lot of things that people don’t understand about Christianity.

About This Sermon
Rev. Mark Schaefer
Cheltenham United Methodist Church
May 17, 2020
Acts 17:22–31; John 14:8–21

Do you really believe that you’re eating the flesh of Jesus when you have that little piece of bread? What does that rabbit have to do with Jesus coming back from the dead? What on earth is a narthex? But perhaps the biggest source of confusion is what it is we say about Jesus: How is Jesus both human and divine?

Of course, that’s not a question limited to people outside of Christian faith; plenty of Christians wonder this same thing. After all, that’s why it’s in a sermon series entitled, “Questions of Faith.”

And so, this is a question that both Christians and non-Christians ask and one that goes right to the heart of our faith. For, in can certainly be said that this is the question that divides us from the other Abrahamic faiths. This is the issue that separates us most profoundly from the other monotheistic traditions.  This is the one where our Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters draw the line: the Divinity of Christ.

For our Jewish brothers and sisters, it is not just that we declare Jesus to be the Messiah; all manner of messiahs were proclaimed in First Century Judaism (and continue to be proclaimed). The mere declaration that any particular individual was messiah was not enough to be kicked out.  Declaring that person to be God Incarnate: that was a different matter.

In the same way, Muslims also reject Jesus’ divinity.  They accept that Jesus was the Messiah—in fact in the Qur’an, Isa ibn Maryam, Jesus son of Mary, is referred to as the Masih, messiah, and is even declared to have been born of a virgin. But again, Muslims draw the line with equating Jesus with God, or attributing to him divinity, or arguing that he is in any way God’s “partner” in salvation.

So, this is the one.  This is the issue around which is the most disagreement with our fellow members of the Abrahamic faiths. And it’s one of the questions that causes the greatest amount of confusion within the church.

So how do we begin to understand this question?


A. The Enduring Tension

Christ on the cross next (the human Jesus) to the exalted Christ in Heaven (the divine Jesus)

There is definitely a tension in the claim that Jesus is both human and divine. If Christianity claimed only that Jesus was merely a human prophet, we could attribute his miracles and foreknowledge to the gift of God.

On the other hand, if Christians were just following a common pagan traditionof having God come to earth in some kind of avatar, the way that Krishna is an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu, then we could explain his apparenthumanity in light of his divinity. Or if, as some people charge, Jesus is merely another demigod myth like that of Hercules and Achilles, born to one human and one divine parent, we could resolve this tension easily.

But none of those is what Christians are claiming.  Christians do not claim Jesus is a demigod, nor do they claim he is simply an avatar of God. He is a flesh and blood human being who is also divine.  In the words of the ancient creeds, Jesus is “light from light, true God from true God.” Which is all well and good except for one thing: we have a fair amount of other information about this same Jesus that makes Christians wonder. A lot.

And so, as we did last week in looking at the question of the fate of people who practice other religions, we start with the Biblical text. And once again, we find that we cannot resolve the question easily.

B. The Humanity of Christ

We can find plenty of texts that affirm the humanity of Christ.

We start with the lesson from the Book of Acts that we read earlier. This is Luke’s telling of an encounter Paul had at the Areopagus—Mars Hill—in Athens at which he addresses Greeks perplexed by this strange new teaching. In the course of his speech, he says:

While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.

Acts 17:31

It is clear here that Paul is differentiating between “God” who “will have the world judged” and the “man whom he has appointed” whom he has raised from the dead. There are a lot of verses like this that make a distinction between God and Jesus.

  • Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” (Mark 10:18)
  • And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor. (Luke 2:52)
  • Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” (John 20:17)
  • But [Jesus] would withdraw to deserted places and pray. (Luke 5:16)
  • “…and he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man.” (John 5:27)
  • “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” (Mark 13:32 CEB)

We frequently encounter texts in which Jesus makes explicit distinction between himself and God, prays to God, and describes authority has having been given to him from God, and a clear distinction between the things that God knows and the things that Jesus knows. All of these emphasis Jesus’ humanity over his divinity.

And then most powerfully, we encounter this verse in Mark’s gospel and its parallel in Matthew’s:

At three, Jesus cried out with a loud shout, “Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani,” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Mark 15:34

We might be able to reconcile Jesus’ regular habit of prayer with the idea that it represents the communication between and among the persons of the Trinity.  But Jesus’ desperate cry that God has abandoned him really gives us pause.  How does God abandon God?

I submit, that outside of some Gnostic heretics, Jesus’ humanity has never really been in doubt. We know that he was a human being. We know that the central act of his life for us was dying, as any human would, on a Roman cross.

So, how then do we understand the divinity?

C. The Divinity of Christ

For one thing, nowhere in the Bible does it say, “Jesus is God.” New Testament interpreter and theologian Raymond Brown notes that there are only three verses in the entire New Testament that can be considered as attributing the title God to Jesus, one of which, the prologue to John’s Gospel, we read earlier but none of them comes right out and says, “Jesus is God.”[1]  Unlike the movie The Last Temptation of Christ, where Willem Defoe’s Jesus somewhat awkwardly says, “Hey, I’m God,” the New Testament is not so explicit.

There are passages like the one we read earlier from John’s gospel:

Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?

John 14:8–9

And of course, the prologue to that very gospel:

“In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. … And the Word became flesh and made his home among us.” Jesus is the Word of God made flesh and the Word of God is God. The transitive property of mathematics makes this pretty clear: If Jesus is the Word and the Word is God then Jesus is God. If a = b and b=c then a = c. “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.”

Add to that, the great number of verses that show things like Jesus’ foreknowledge of events, his ability to raise the dead, his many miracles.


Even after turning to the scriptures, the questions remain.

Now, it should not be a surprise to us that we are not the first people to raise these questions.  In fact, they have continued to surface throughout Christian history.

A. Arians

In the early Fourth Century, a priest from the city of Alexandria named Arius picked a fight with his bishop whom he believed had erred in claiming that the Father and the Son were “co-eternal.” This touched off a major theological controversy throughout the Christian world. This Arian Controversy was only settled by the Council at Nicea, called by the Emperor Constantine who was tired of these newly legal Christians arguing over arcane points of theology.  The resulting creed contains the words stating that the Son of God was “begotten not made, of one substance with the Father, light from light, true God from true God.”

B. The Chalcedonian Formulation

Now, of course, this did not settle the question, much to Constantine’s and everyone else’s chagrin. Because the Biblical witness was still pretty clear: there are things that Jesus claims not to know, his learns and grows, he doubts, he weeps.  In short: he clearly has a human nature and a divine nature.  Did the human nature belong to the human being Jesus and the divine nature belong to the Divine Christ who dwelled within him? Did they dwell side by side? Did they blend together?  How do we understand “True God from True God” and the fact that Jesus is obviously human?  Well, the Council at Chalcedon eventually resolved this controversy by declaring that Jesus was “one person in two natures.” The reality is, they solved nothing but came up with language that everyone could agree with.  Because the problem didn’t go away.

C. Unitarians

In the 16th century in Europe, a growing movement called “Unitarianism” began to grow that challenged traditional Christian Trinitarianism and argued that the doctrine of the Trinity could not biblically be supported. While eventually violently suppressed (a leader of the movement, Michael Servetus, was burned at the stake in Calvin’s Geneva), the ideas persisted.

Unitarianism would reemerge in Britain and America, initially as a Christian denomination that rejected the Trinity. In the words of William Ellery Channing in a sermon delivered in 1825:

“With Jesus, we worship the Father, as the only living and true God. We are astonished, that any man can read the New Testament, and avoid the conviction, that the Father alone is God. We hear our Saviour continually appropriating this character to the Father. We find the Father continually distinguished from Jesus by this title. ‘God sent his Son.’” [2]

Unitarian Christianity, William Ellery Channing

This Unitarian movement, which felt it more fitting to follow Jesus than to worship him, would eventually part ways with the Christian tradition altogether, taking with them a number of Christian Universalists and they exist as the Unitarian Universalist Church today.

D. Liberal Protestants

But they did not leave Christianity without those who still felt there was something amiss with the traditional formulation.  The Liberal Protestantism of the 19th and 20th Centuries never rejected outright the language of the traditional Trinitarian formulations, but it became clear that Jesus’ divinity was not its main emphasis.  Liberal Protestantism tended to emphasize Jesus’ humanity and example.  In fact, the way that Jesus saved us in the estimation of Liberal Protestantism, was through his example: he showed us the way to live and this was what saved us, not a divine self-sacrifice.

Throughout Christian history, then, Christians have wrestled with one of the central claims of the faith: the Divinity of Christ. They have read the competing witnesses, they have struggled with the creeds.  But as much as Christians have struggled to regularize it or to solve this problem, the assertion of this central claim has endured.


And perhaps it has endured because it speaks to an experience that is central to Christian faith, even more central than the scriptures themselves.

See, what Christians often forget is that our faith does not come from the Bible, the Bible comes from our faith.  There were Christians spreading the Gospel for a generation before anyone set out to write down a single verse of scripture. And when they did, what they produced was not the author of faith, but the product of it.

From the very beginning, the disciples knew that to encounter Jesus was somehow to encounter God. This was an article of faith as sure as anything that they believed.  Somehow, in Jesus of Nazareth, God was at work. And what we see throughout the scripture is the church wrestling to answer the how of that question.

A. Mark

In Mark’s gospel we encounter a very human Jesus. There is no miraculous birth story or record of divine origins. He does refer to himself as “Son of Man” or as “the Son” but it appears that he is declared to be God’s Son at his baptism, when he hears a voice from heaven say, “You are my Son, whom I dearly love, in you I find happiness.” Were we to have Mark’s story alone, we would conclude that Jesus is God’s Son by adoption.[3] His is the story of one who comes among us with great authority doing deeds of power but who rejects the power structures of the world and is willing to suffer for the sake of his message. One who dies with the words, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” on his lips.  A very human story of very human suffering, but touched, somehow, by the power of God.

B. Matthew & Luke

Matthew and Luke relay to us the story of Jesus’ sonship through narratives of his conception by the power of the Holy Spirit.  For these two evangelists, Jesus’ divine character is established at his conception through a powerful miracle of God.

C. John

And then we come to John. John draws on a tradition about the Divine Logos, the Word of God, the Divine Reason and Divine Wisdom that underlies all creation.  John builds on this and writes that this divine wisdom, this Word of God, that pre-existed all creation, is what became incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the Son of God because Jesus is the Word of God made flesh, sharing in the Divinity of the very self-communication of God that is at the heart of God’s own being.

And so we have four different attempts to understand this mystery, through adoption, conception, and pre-existence. But it remains a mystery for us.


But perhaps it’s John’s language—Jesus is the Word of God made flesh—that gives us a way forward.

Much of human language, far more than we realize on a daily basis, is metaphor.  And our religions are full of metaphors: Lamb of God, True Vine, Good Shepherd, True Door, Narrow Path. Included on that list is Son of God. Even the most Orthodox Christian does not assert that Jesus somehow has inherited half his DNA from God or that he is biologically related to God. So, even with this term, Sonship means something different than when we use it in the ordinary sense. It is a term that is meant to convey intimacy, closeness, and resemblance in essence.  When we speak of God as father, king, lord, master, shepherd, and potter, we are repurposing human language to describe something that cannot be perfectly described. No one claims that God is actually sitting on a throne or that God is actually herding sheep. The language we use is attempting to convey something that cannot be perfectly captured or understood. All our language for God, ultimately, is metaphor. How could it be otherwise?

So it is with Word of God. When John tells us that jesus is the word of god, John gives us a very powerful metaphor. But what does it mean?

The Word of God can mean many things but it becomes clear that what it means in this context is the self-communication of God: how it is that God reveals God’s self to the world.

And we come to understand that word refers not only to God’s speech, but alsoGod’s deeds. What God says and what God does are the same thing. In fact, this is sometimes quite literal: when God creates, God creates by speaking. God declares Godself to be the people’s God. God pronounces forgiveness and mercy. God declares a new covenant. God provides a vision. All of these things are done through speech, which means that God’s words are God’s deeds. Unlike the case with human beings, who say one thing and do another, God’s speaking is God’s doing. But even more to the point— God’s self-revelation is who God truly is. God’s communication, God’s Word, is God.

Word cloud of the text of the sermon "How Is Jesus Both Human and Divine?"
image courtesy Wordle

See, we don’t have true alignment between our self-revelation and our reality—just looking at our Facebook profiles will tell us that much—God is described in scripture as being identical to God’s self-revelation. God’s word is as God does. It is as God is. “. . . and the Word was God . . .” And here we begin to understand the metaphor.

The metaphor Jesus is the Word of God declares Jesus as one who reveals God’s nature through his actions. If what God says, does, and is are the same thing, then the claim that Jesus is God’s word is a statement about the nature of God. Jesus extends mercy to those who have wronged him and tells us that we should do likewise. Jesus speaks truth to power and commands us to place our loyalties not in the things of the world. Jesus heals the sick, feeds the hungry, casts out our afflictions, eats meals with the disreputable. Jesus lives out a way of living that models an alternative to the self-interested, power- and possession- seeking lives that we are inclined to live. And most of all, Jesus comes to us where we are. Or as John’s gospel puts it: “. . . and the Word became flesh and set up a tent among us . . .”

The implication of the metaphorJesus is the Word of God is that these deeds and teachings of Jesus are revelations of God’s nature: loving, merciful, forgiving, just, righteous, healing, caring, and present. As Jesus says and does, God is, because Jesus is God’s Word made flesh.

Nowhere in the scriptures do we ever encounter God’s Word in its original. That is, we never encounter God’s Word in the original God-ese. It comes in Hebrew, or Aramaic, or Greek, or Arabic. It comes to us in our idiom, limited though it may be. As a result, God uses a lot of metaphors when speaking in human language. Because our language can only approximate the divine reality, God makes do with the tools at hand. But this use of metaphor is not limited to language alone.

To understand Jesus is the Word of God is to understand Jesus as a metaphor in the flesh. To the extent a human being is capable of revealing the heart of God, the metaphor Jesus is the Word of God declares that that is what Jesus does. We can describe God in human words and human metaphors—love, Lord, King, Savior, Father, Mother, Spirit, Wisdom, Mercy, Grace, Shepherd, Bakerwoman,Vintner—and this ancient Christian metaphor is making that claim that by looking at Jesus, we encounter those other metaphors in the flesh. The Word of God made flesh. Jesus is God’s self-revelation in human-ese.


See, the thing about metaphors, the very thing that gives them their power is that that a metaphor simultaneously is and is not the thing it points toward. There’s an inherent tension in all metaphors like this. If we say life is a highway, we simultaneously affirm that life is indeed like a journey with many twists and turns and some side roads we wouldn’t have expected, while also affirming that, no, life is not a slab of asphalt. Saying Jesus is the Word of God simultaneously affirms that Jesus is truly what God is while also affirming that Jesus, as a flesh and blood human being cannot be God.

In the end, our language “Jesus is truly human and truly divine” is insufficient to the task. And any attempt to simplify it as “Jesus is God” becomes ridiculous. God is infinite, Jesus is finite.  God is Spirit, Jesus is flesh. God is omniscient, Jesus is limited in knowledge. And yet, what is not ridiculous is the experience of the Ancient Church continuing to this very day that to know Jesus is to know God. Somehow.

When we encounter Jesus’ love, we encounter God’s love. When we encounter Jesus’ mercy, we encounter God’s mercy. When we encounter Jesus’ grace, we encounter God’s grace. When we encounter Jesus overturning of the established order, his willingness to invite the marginalized to have a place at the table, his challenge to our own systems of power and oppression, we encounter they very heart of God.  If God’s self-revelation is found in God’s Word, then in Jesus we really and truly see the Word made Flesh.  In Jesus, we see God such that we have declared Jesus to be the Son of God.

We haven’t always worked out consistently what that means. We might declare sonship by adoption, or by conception, or by pre-existence. But it is only the ways we conceive of and express this truth that are limited. The truth that we give witness to, is broad and great.

In his classic novel Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert Heinlein presents a Martian religion whose central message is “Thou art God.” One of the characters explains that that’s not really what it means, but you have to learn Martian to really get it.  Human language is imprecise.

Our language is imprecise. And when it comes to religion it is unavoidably full of metaphor.  When we say that Jesus is the Son of God, or that Jesus is God, we are speaking in the limitations of our speech to hint at a deeper, ineffable mystery.  But it is that mystery, that deeper truth, that has brought us together as a people, that has inspired generations of Christians to dedicate their lives to the one in whom we believe God has been revealed, and in so doing, to join with him in the transformation of the world.

The Texts

Acts 17:22–31 • Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us.

For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’ Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”


John 14:8–21 • Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.

“I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”


[1] Theological Studies #26 (1965) p. 545-73, “Does the New Testament call Jesus God?”

  • Heb. 1:8 • But he says to his Son, God, your throne is forever and your kingdom’s scepter is a rod of justice. You loved righteousness and hated lawless behavior. That is why God, your God, has anointed you with oil instead of your companions.
  • John 1:1 • In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.
  • John 20:28 • Thomas responded to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!”
[2] http://www.transcendentalists.com/unitarian_christianity.htm

[3] Indeed, many throughout Christian history have concluded this and are known as “adoptionists.”

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