The Trinitarian Controversy, the Deity of Jesus Christ and the Great Hymn

Was Jesus created or is He the Creator? On this doctrine, eternity depends. Is He the Messiah and is the Bible true?

If Jesus Christ is God and if the Bible is inspired – literally “God-breathed” by the Holy Spirit – then everything Jesus said and taught is true. If everything He said is true, then Christians had better understand what the Scriptures say about Him and obey his teachings. Jesus stated:

Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will not pass away. (Luke 21:22)

For this study, we are well beyond the ridiculous claim some people make that Jesus was a myth and never existed. One young woman said He was “made up by religious people in order to control society.” This is complete ignorance of the evidence, history, archaeology, prophecy, and of course, hundreds of eye-witnesses who saw the risen Christ.

And what about the Holy Spirit? That is for a whole other study, but here’s some food for thought:

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters; …26 Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; (Genesis 1:1-2, 26)

Then there are those who say, “That’s your truth, not mine. I evolved, I wasn’t created.” Are there many ways to the only living God or is there a narrow path we must take by faith?

Breakpoint’s John Stonestreet recently said, “These four things are true for all people: Christ is risen, Christ is Lord, Christ will restore all things, and we are called to this time and place in history.”

Sermon video from Freedom Fellowship Church, Kaukauna, WI

We know and believe Jesus Christ is both Savior and Lord, and our faith is based upon not only His finished work on the cross, but on His divinity and humanity. Let’s dig-in to the doctrine of the God-Man.

For example, in Colossians 2:9, Paul writes about Christ:

For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form,”

“Fullness” is from the Greek word, “plērōma, a recognized term in theology denoting the totality of divine powers and attributes found in Christ. The verse further adds “all fullness.” Jesus was and is 100% God — not 99.44%. 

But why did Paul add, in bodily form? In Greek philosophical thought, matter was evil; spirit was good. It was unthinkable that God would ever lower Himself to take on a human body. BUT He did! The false teaching threatening the Colossian Christians was something like an early form of the Gnostic heresies that would come later. These heresies made a radical separation between the spiritual and the material.

Prior to that verse, Paul warned about man’s wisdom and worldly traditions:

See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ.

Do not allow deception no matter the form.

So then – what does it mean to worship Jesus as God? What did it mean to the early Christian church? Who is the Word prior to the Word’s relationship with the Father?

This doctrine is vital to our faith because if Jesus was not both God AND Man, the gospel is compromised.

Doctrine comes from the Latin word, “doctrina” which means teaching. Doctrine is not something ‘extra’ the successors to the Apostles of Christ added to their beliefs. It was not added by bishops in the early church age to give them something important to do.

John begins his gospel with statements that are difficult to misinterpret: 

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 came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being;  And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:1-3, 14)

Jesus was with the Father in the beginning, He created all things, and He took on human form. The more of Jesus and His word we get in us, the more full we will be of Christ. One more thing to note here is Jesus is the perfect combination of grace and truth! Churches today can often be 80% grace and 20% truth, so we need to encourage a proper balance, the whole counsel of God, and challenge seeker-sensitive fluff.

Next, we read in the Old Testament, “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one!” (Deuteronomy 6:4)

And yet, in John’s gospel (10:30), Jesus states that “I and the Father are one.” (And also, “Before Abraham was born, I AM.”)

Some in the early church thought the idea of Christ as Son of Man and as Son of God compromised the integrity of the Trinity. Therefore, there was wrangling over words in the first several centuries which is why early church successors to the Apostles struggled to define and clarify this doctrine. Still today, mockers insist Jesus was just a man; a good man perhaps, but certainly not God.

The third and fourth century Trinitarian Controversy focused on the mystery of the incarnation and the relationship between the Father and the Son (both of Whom were called ‘God’ by Christian monotheists). What does it mean regarding the divine nature that the Son had taken on flesh, died, and was raised for the sake of humanity?

For the growth of Christianity, this was a historical moment of intense struggle in church history to establish a common language by which to state the doctrine of faith without distortion, and in a manner that would do justice to the God Christians worship.

SOME BRIEF CHURCH HISTORY

Alexander, Bishop of Alexandria (250-326) understood Jesus and God the Father to be equal in their divinity, though separate persons. He believed Jesus was always with God (John 1:1-2) and that there never was a time Jesus did not exist. In the early fourth century church the heresy of Arianism was starting to poison the well of sound teaching, and some disagreement arose about the nature of Christ’s divinity and humanity.

Two key figures were instrumental to church history – but for different reasons:

Arius, also of Alexandria, (256-336) was a priest and teacher claiming Jesus was a lesser divinity; that there was a time Jesus didn’t exist. His famous doctrine about the Christ can be paraphrased, “There was once when He was not.” He believed that Jesus was a creature exalted to his high position because of his obedience to God in redeeming man.

Arius argued for the worship and supremacy of God the Father alone, and that the Son had a beginning as a chronological “Firstborn.” Present-day Jehovah’s Witnesses hold some of the same positions as Arius, and in some ways Arian beliefs underlie Mormon (LDS) teachings of Christ as well.

Althanasius of Alexandria (296-373) was a Christian theologian, a Church Father, the chief defender of Trinitarianism against Arianism. He served Alexander from a very young age, and three years after the Council of Nicaea, Althanasius succeeded his mentor as archbishop of Alexandria. Nearly all of Athanasius’ works come after Nicaea, and were used to clarify, defend, and encourage the orthodoxy of the Nicene Creed.

There are some today claiming to be Christian who don’t believe Jesus is Lord and God, while world religions also claim He is not divine and hold other false teachings about the Messiah – often adding their own false teachings.

Along with other New Testament writers, the Apostle Paul shares the conviction that Christ existed before time began. We’ll examine some key Scriptures later, but this is another reminder of why we MUST strengthen our foundation on this important doctrine.

THE NICENE COUNCIL (June 19, 325 AD)

The Council of Nicaea was not the first time church leaders had met to decide on a controversial issue. We read about the Jerusalem Council led by James in Acts 15:1-35, deciding not to burden new Gentile believers with circumcision (keeping the Law) and demanding they convert to Judaism prior to converting to Christianity.

Nicaea was unique in that it was organized by Emperor Constantine (though his limited participation in the Council is debated) in an attempt to bring together elders and bishops from all known parts of the Christian world. This was not a regional council, then, but one that would attempt a universal answer to a theological issue.

The council gathered and heard the claims of both Arius and Alexander. Part of the council’s deliberations were spent trying to understand what Arius’ teachings actually were, since many were unaware of his theology.

In the end, they affirmed the doctrine of Jesus’ divinity. Bishops were nearly unanimous (something like 300 – 2) and the decision came down like a hammer on the false idea that the Son was created rather than Creator. 

This was to define and affirm what the Apostles taught and handed down; the full gospel. In order to make it unambiguous, the framers of the Nicene Creed introduced a Greek word that doesn’t appear in the actual New Testament, “homoousious.

*Homo-ousios, means “of the same substance; consubstantial.” The Nicene Creed describes this relationship of the preexistent Christ to the Father in this way:

“God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made; or “being of one substance (homoousios) with the Father.”

An early version of the Nicene Creed states it this way:

We believe in one God, the Father, Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all that is seen and unseen. We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father.  Through him all things were made.  For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.  For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried.  On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.  He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father.  With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified. He has spoken through the Prophets.  We believe in one holy *catholic and apostolic Church.  We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.  We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.  Amen.

*Note:  The word “catholic” with a lower case ‘c’ meant “universal” It does not imply today’s Roman Catholic Church in this context, but the Christian Church as a whole.

WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BEGET?

“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. 18 He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. John 3:16-18

*Jesus was the ONLY one to be born of God; of the same essence as the Father. Human beings are born of man prior to being born (again) of God. Let’s also discuss the meaning of Jesus being the first born or “first begotten” of God.

In the Old Testament, the first child to be born was given special privileges, honor, and a double portion of the inheritance. HOWEVER, one could be chosen to be elevated to the level of firstborn in what was called a “royal grant covenant.” David was firstborn among kings but he was youngest, not oldest, not the first born of his father, Jesse.

The Greek word, prototokos, translated as firstborn, can refer to order such as a first born child, or it could refer to someone who is higher in rank or preeminent.

Paul writes to the Colossian church referring to Christ: (Colossians 1:15-19)

Verse 1:15He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.

  • (Hebrews 1:3Jesus is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature😉
  • John 14:9 – Jesus told Philip, “He who has seen me has seen the Father.”

*Jesus is given preeminence over all created beings, and is of the same substance of the Father; first to be born of God. All human beings, even kings, were born only of man.

Acts 13:33-34 states:

God has fulfilled this promise to our children in that He raised up Jesus, as it is also written in the second Psalm, ‘You are My Son; today I have begotten You.’ 34 As for the fact that He raised Him up from the dead, no longer to return to decay, He has spoken in this way: ‘I will give you the holy and sure blessings of David.’ 

King David’s body decayed, but God promised the Son the eternal blessings of the Davidic covenant, and Jesus has both risen and ascended back to the Father. 

Psalm 89:27-29

“I also shall make him [David] My firstborn,
The highest of the kings of the earth.
28 “My lovingkindness I will keep for him forever,
And My covenant shall be confirmed to him.
29 “So I will establish his descendants forever
And his throne as the days of heaven.

Back to COLOSSIANS 1:16-19

For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him. 17 He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.

*Jesus Christ is Creator, so He could not possibly have been the first thing created! He is the highest authority, and sustains all things!

18 He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything. 19 For it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him, 

  • Firstborn from the dead = first to be glorified, to come back from the dead and never to die again; resurrected to eternal life. (A few people such as Lazarus were resurrected but they died again.)
  • We already mentioned “pleroma,” fullness, but Paul adds “ALL” fullness.

‘THE HYMN OF HYMNS’ IN THE EARLY CHURCH

Many regard Philippians 2:5-11 as a great hymn of the early church that Paul incorporated into his letter. Some commentators go so far as to suggest stanza and verse arrangements for the “hymn.” Most likely had it memorized.

Next to creation, the incarnation is the central miracle of Christianity, the most grand and wonderful of all the things God has ever done. This mystery and miracle of the Word becoming flesh is the theme of these seven verses in Philippians.

Matthew Henry Commentary:

Verses 5-11 “The example of our Lord Jesus Christ is set before us. We must resemble him in his life, if we would have the benefit of his death. Notice two natures of Christ; his Divine nature, and human nature.

You’ll also notice Christ’s two states, humiliation and exaltation. Christ not only took upon him the likeness and fashion, or form of a man, but one in a low state; His whole life was a life of poverty and suffering. But the lowest step was his dying the death of the cross, exposed to public hatred and scorn.”

The exaltation was of Christ’s human nature, in union with the Divine. At the name of Jesus, not the mere sound of the word, but the authority of Jesus, all should pay homage. It is to the glory of the Father, to confess Jesus Christ is Lord; it’s his will, that all men should honor the Son as they honor the Father, (John 5:23).

Now the hymn

Philippians 2:5-11 –

Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, 6 who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. 8 Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

  • Paul begins this great hymn by encouraging us to have the mind of Christ; then describes the state of the preexistent Christ.
  • The incarnation calls believers to follow Jesus’ incomparable example of humility, self-denial, self-giving, self-sacrifice, and selfless love as He lived on earth in obedient submission to the Father’s will.

Vs. 5-6… Have this same attitude: although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, 

  • It is all too easy for us to read this description of Jesus and admire it from a distance. God wants us to be awed by it, but also to see it as something that we must imitate. …it is something that we have choice about.
  • Remember, this attitude/mind is something God gives us. 1 Corinthians 2:16 says that we have the mind of Christ.

Next, He existed in the form of God: This clearly describes Jesus as existing prior to becoming man. Jesus did not begin His existence in the manger at Bethlehem, but is eternal God.

“Being made… being found…”

  • Being: This is from an ancient Greek verb which describes that which remains the same.” The use of the Greek word translated ‘being,’ informs his readers that the Lord’s possession of the divine essence did not cease to be a fact when He came to earth to assume human form…
  • This refutes the claim of Modernism that our Lord emptied Himself of His Deity when He became Man.
  • Form: (2nd use) From the Greek, morphe. The words mean the essential form which never alters; “‘God’ has a form, and ‘Jesus Christ’ exists in this form of God.”
  • In the form of God/In very nature God

Vs. 7-8  – “But made Himself of no reputation, (humbled Himself) taking the form of a bondservant,” can be translated, “emptied Himself,

From the ancient Greek word emptied (kenosis) came the idea that Jesus’ incarnation was essentially a self-emptying.

So – Jesus emptied Himself of His privileges, not deity!

  • He did NOT lose divine attributes but renounced His rights to them; attributes of deity – such as omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence; Jesus did not (and could not) become “less God” in the incarnation. Humanity was added to His nature.
  • A crude way to think of it is that Jesus added humanity to His stellar resume.

Vs 2:8Jesus humbled Himself and He became obedient. OBEDIENCE was something that Jesus could only experience by coming down from the throne of heaven and becoming a man. When God sits enthroned in heaven’s glory, there is no one He obeys. Jesus had to leave heaven’s glory in order to become obedient.

  • One key to Jesus’ obedience on earth was the endurance of suffering. As it is written:

“though He was a Son, yet He learned obedience by the things which He suffered (Hebrews 5:8).”

Consider the Suffering Servant passage, Isaiah 53:12 “he poured out himself to death.”  For a better understanding of Jesus’ humiliation, READ ISAIAH 53:3-12

Taking the form of a bondservant and coming in the likeness of men: This also describes how Jesus emptied Himself.

  • Taking (Greek word labon) does not imply an exchange, but an addition!
  • Coming in the likeness of men: Angels are servants, but not in the likeness of men. In fairy tales, Aladdin’s genie was a servant, but not in the likeness of men.
  • The word for likeness here may refer to merely the outward form of something. Jesus outward form reflected His humanity.

(Vs. 8b) “He was obedient…to the point of death, even the death of the cross: This states the extent of Jesus’ humility and obedience.

  • Crucifixion was such a shameful death that it was not permitted for Roman citizens (such as the people of Philippi). A victim of crucifixion was considered by the Jews to be cursed by God (Deut. 21:23, Gal. 3:13)
  • The death of the cross was “The bottom rung in the ladder from the Throne of God. Jesus came all the way down to the most painful, despised death of all, as a condemned criminal…”
  • The cross shows that there is no limit to what God will do to demonstrate His love and saving power to man; this was and forever will be the ultimate.

 Charles Spurgeon well stated:

“The lower he stoops to save us, the higher we ought to lift him in our adoring reverence. Blessed be his name, he stoops, and stoops, and stoops, and, when he reaches our level, and becomes man, he still stoops, and stoops, and stoops lower and deeper yet.”

What must sin have been in the sight of God, when it required such abasement in Jesus Christ to make an atonement for it and undo its influence!

NOW THE EXALTATION!

Verse 9  – Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name,

  • Why does this stanza of the hymn begin with “therefore“? It is best understood as God’s vindication of Christ’s humiliation unto a shameful death. It is God’s “yes” to Christ’s equality with God.
  • These words describe how God has exalted Jesus. Indeed, highly exalted could also be translated “super exalted.”

It wasn’t enough to be-

  • “Exalted … but to the highest place” (NIV) or “highly exalted” (KJV, NRSV) is the Greek verb hyperypsoō, “to raise to a high point of honor.” Here, “to raise someone to the loftiest height.”
  • Paul is referring to Christ’s resurrection from the dead, of course, but even more to his ascension into heaven, where “God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior” (Acts 5:31; cf. 2:33).
  • This verse, with its clear statement of Jesus’ deity, is powerful ammunition against those who deny the deity of Jesus Christ. There is no higher name than Yahweh, and Jesus has that name.

Part of Christ’s exaltation is God giving to him “the name that is above every name.” What is this name? There are two possibilities:

  1. Jesus. Certainly the name of Jesus is an exalted one. It means “Yahweh saves” (Matthew 1:21) and was similar to the name of Moses’ successor Joshua. “In the name of Jesus Christ…” is used with power and for baptism by the early disciples.
  2. Lord. What it means when every tongue confesses “that Jesus Christ is Lord” is “that Jesus the Messiah is Yahweh — God himself.”
  • The Hebrew word Adonai, “lord” was used in the Jewish reading of the Hebrew Scriptures to substitute for the Divine name, Yahweh. Thus “Lord” became equivalent to God himself. To call Jesus “Lord” is to declare him divine and due the same level of worship as God the Father.

“At the name of Jesus” means “at the name which belongs to Jesus,” that is, the divine title of “Lord”, which the Father has bestowed on him. Once identified with humiliation and shameful death, Jesus is now endued with the highest majesty and power.

Verse 10-11 – That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

  • That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow: When will they bow? When the Antichrist is dethroned (2 Thessalonians 2:8)
  • To bow before Him now means salvation; To bow before Him later means condemnation.
  • Paul does not imply by this a universal salvation, but means that every personal being will ultimately confess Christ’s lordship, either with joyful faith or with resentment and despair.
  • Not only is Jesus exalted by the Father, but the whole world is brought into submission to the Son.
  • Those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth: This conveys the absolute totality of all creation recognizing the superiority of Jesus Christ.

In this, Paul draws on the idea of Isaiah 45:23:

I have sworn by Myself; the word has gone out of My mouth in righteousness, and shall not return, that to Me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall take an oath.

  • Notice that in Isaiah, it is to Yahweh that all knees bow and tongues confess. In Philippians it is to Jesus, showing that Jesus is Yahweh.
  • Those under the earth: “Either the dead, who are hid in the earth, and shall be raised by the power of Christ… or, devils, and wicked souls.
  • Every knee should bow… every tongue should confess: The combination of tongues confessing and knees bowing gives evidence the idea is a complete submission to Jesus, both in word and in action, one that is required of all.
  • The totality of this recognition of Jesus’ deity and exaltation has caused many to envision this happening in a formal way after the final judgment, when every creature in heaven and hell is required to bow their knees and make the confession that Jesus Christ is Lord.

That Jesus Christ is Lord: there is a sense in which Jesus returned to heaven with more than He had when He left heaven. Not only did He return with His humanity still added to his deity (although a resurrected humanity), He also returned to Heaven with the recognition among men of who He was and the worship He deserved – something unknown until the Incarnation, and the full revelation of His person and work.

Let’s wrap this beautiful package up and put a bow on it.

…and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To Him who loves us and released us from our sins by His blood—Revelation 1:5

 There is only One who is the first begotten of the Father, only begotten of God, and firstborn of the dead. And since HE is the Resurrection and the Life, we have the promise that we will be raised, or born of the dead. The Bible says we will be like Him in glory.

“I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.”Revelation 1:8

Notice Jesus is often described in the sense of past, present, and future!

“Behold, I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me, to render to every man according to what he has done. 13 I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end;  16“I, Jesus, have sent My angel to testify to you these things for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.” Revelation 22:12-13, 16

Jesus said He is the root, which means “source.” The Creator and Sustainer of all things, He said in John 15 that He is the Vine and we are the branches. These verses provide important underpinnings to our understanding of the Trinity and of Christ as God.

UK minister, Alexander MacLaren once said:

“In Christ, as a great storehouse, lie all the riches of spiritual wisdom, the massive ingots of solid gold which when coined into creeds and doctrines are the wealth of the Church. All which we can know concerning God and man, concerning sin and righteousness and duty, concerning another life, is in Him Who is the home and deep mine where truth is stored… The central fact of the universe and the perfect encyclopedia of all moral and spiritual truth is in Christ, the incarnate Word, the Lamb slain, the ascended King.”

*featured photo: Sean McDowell

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