Knowing Christ: The Incomparable Christ
In A.D. 325 the Council of Nicaea was convened by Constantine, emperor of the Roman Empire, to unify the Church’s teaching. Of its various accomplishments, it is best known for settling and formalizing the orthodox view of Christ; this was in response to the heretical teaching of Arius, a popular presbyter from Alexandria, Egypt.
At the center of the controversy was how one understood Jesus as the Son of God. Is he the Son of God in the eternal sense of possessing the same divine nature as God the Father (the orthodox position)? Or does his sonship come to him at a particular point in time, thus indicating that the second person of the Trinity was not always the Son of God and therefore possesses a nature that is similar to, but not the same as, God the Father (the Arian position)?
The fifth-century historian Theodoret put the significance of this assembly in its proper light, as he described the physical appearance of some of the church leaders who attended the Nicene council:
…many, like the holy apostle, bore in their bodies the marks of the Lord Jesus Christ…Paul, bishop of Neo-Caesarea,...had suffered from the frantic rage of Licinius. He had been deprived of the use of both hands by the application of red-hot iron, by which the nerves which give motion to the muscles had been contracted and rendered dead. Some had had the right eye dug out, others had lost the right arm…In short, the Council looked like an assembled army of martyrs.
What was it that caused this unsightly band of theologians to make the demanding journey to Nicaea? Simply put, it was their desire to defend the divine person of Jesus Christ by seeking to solidify the biblical teaching of the Son of God as binding doctrine for all those who would consider themselves Christians. And this article of our confession of faith, like those of other confessions from the past, is directly dependent on the work of these “living martyrs” as evidenced by the important Creed that was produced out of this gathering in the early part of the fourth century.
When we speak of the person of God the Son, this will involve not only his name, which is certainly of great importance in itself, but beyond that his nature. The Son of God is God, not in the sense in which Arius understood it, that the divine nature or substance is different because the Son has a special relationship with God the Father that at one time did not exist. Rather, when Scripture refers to the Son, it is seeking to show in the tightest possible way how the Son of God is at the same time God, and yet is not to be considered the same person as God the Father. For when we speak of God the Son, we are not only referring to one of the members of the holy Trinity; we are at once brought up against one of the great mysteries and wonders of the Christian faith: that in the one person of Jesus Christ there exist two natures, the human and the divine. These may be distinguished for the sake of theological understanding concerning the two natures and their respective necessities for the accomplishment of salvation; but they may not be separated, because if this salvation is going to be realized, it must be through this perfect union of the twin natures of Jesus of Nazareth.
By virtue of his deity, Jesus is God’s Son in a unique way, which he himself knows and which is crucial for his own understanding of his mission. He often speaks of God as “Father” or “my Father” (Matt. 11:27; Luke 2:49), and also knows that his Father is the one who has sent him to complete the Father’s work (John 5:36; 17:4). Jesus is the Son in a unique way because of the unique work the Father gave him to do. He is the one who reveals God in a way that no one else has (John 1:18; 12:47-50). And the reason why his work is unique is because his person is equally unique. Jesus can reveal God as he does because he himself is God. Of all the ways God had spoken in the past—such as through dreams, visions, divine appearances, and prophetic declarations—the preeminent way through which he has spoken is in his Son, who the book of Hebrews describes as the “radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (1:3a). Jesus performs as God performs because Jesus’ nature is as God’s nature.
All of this ties in with John’s reference to Jesus as the Word in the first chapter of his Gospel. God is a communicating God, and as such he desires to reveal himself to us. As we observed, he has done this through a variety of ways, the chief of which is in his revelation in Christ. Jesus, then, is called the Word because he is the living, personal message of God’s revelation. Both Jesus’ actions and words are God’s divine utterances for his people.
It is this eternal and true Word who took on man’s nature in the incarnation of the historical person of Jesus of Nazareth. Even his very name was of divine intention to mark out the saving work he was going to carry out. At the angelic appearance to Joseph concerning his decision regarding his treatment of Mary in the discovery of her pregnancy, he is told to marry her because the source of her conception is the Holy Spirit. Therefore, upon his birth the child was to be called Jesus, because “he will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). This is indeed the Messiah, the Christ who will come at God’s sovereign pleasure to bring to fulfillment all the covenant blessings promised to his people.
Since the Messiah is going to deliver his people from sin, for all time, it is necessary that he himself be without sin, even while he must also share in every other essential quality of what it means to be human. Hence the significance and absolute necessity of what is known as the hypostatic union. In the one person of Jesus there exist both the human and divine natures, both of which are needed if Jesus is going to take on his role of the sole mediator between God and man.
 Theodoret, "General Council of Nicaea," Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, ed. Philip Schaff, et. al., 38 vols. (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson, 1994), 2.3.6: 43. Original publication, Christian Literature, 1892.
Michael D. Roberts (DTh, University of South Africa) is assistant pastor at Grace Bible Fellowship Church in Quakertown, PA, where he also sits on the committee for the Quakertown Regional Conference on Reformed Theology. He also serves on the Christian Education committee of the Bible Fellowship Church.