Toward Understanding the Bible by Georgia Harkness
Georgia Harkness was educated at Cornell University, Boston University School of Theology, studied at Harvard & Yale theological seminaries and at Union Theological Seminary of New York. She has taught at Elmira College, Mount Holyoke, and for twelve years was professor of applied theology at Garrett Biblical Institute. In 1950 she became professor of applied theology at the Pacific School of Religion, in Berkeley, California. Published by Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1954. Copyright, 1952, 1954, by Georgia Harkness. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Chapter: 5: The Great Ideas of the Bible
In the third and fourth chapters we traced how the Bible came to be written, over a period which stretches from the tenth century before Christ to the second century after, in the midst of widely varying situations. We have seen how different types of literature emerged out of differing circumstances and out of the diverse purposes and temperaments of the authors. We have noted its "infinite variety," which, to adapt the words of Shakespeare, "age cannot wither, nor custom stale." It must be evident by now that to put the Bible all on one level, to be accepted or rejected without regard to what each particular author is trying to say, is not only to do violence to the historical method but also to lose much of the great spiritual truth and meaning God is seeking to have us grasp.
But now appears an important paradox. The Bible is sixty-six books; yet it is one book, and has been so considered and read for many centuries. The Bible expresses many ideas; yet it all centers around one great idea. This grand theme, which runs throughout the Bible and binds it into a unity, is the activity of the living God.
This activity of the living God takes many forms. He creates, commands, rebukes, judges, forgives, redeems, guides, enlightens, strengthens, consoles, saves, and delivers his people. There is no single way in which he does this, though there is a great central unity in his sending his Son Jesus Christ to be the Way, the Truth, and the Life. But what the Bible deals with throughout, and what Christian theology must deal with if it takes its rise as it should from the Bible, is this work of the living God in human history.
What we shall attempt in this chapter is to discover the biblical basis for our Christian faith in God, and then suggest the bearing of this faith on certain other great convictions of our Christian heritage.
We have spoken of the "living God." Why call him this ? Certainly not because he has biological life such as we have in our physical bodies. Though he is spoken of anthropomorphically (as a being in human form) at some points in the Bible, particularly in the early "J" stories of the Old Testament, this is not the normal biblical understanding of his nature. Rather, the great affirmation attributed to Jesus in the Fourth Gospel, "God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth," (John 4:24, R.S.V.) is presupposed throughout the greater part of the Bible.
We speak of the living God to stress what in more philosophical language is called a personal God -- one who loves and cares, who thinks and wills, who created the world and who continuously acts within it. This becomes clearer in contrast with what God is not. Most of the religions and many of the philosophies of the world have had a Supreme Being as their center, and God has been variously thought of as the Highest Good, or the Unmoved Mover, or the First Cause, or the Absolute in whom all contradictions are reconciled, or an impersonal cosmic force or process at work in the world, or the personification and projection outward of man’s own high impulses. Biblical faith, on the contrary, is centered in the existence and activity of a deity who is infinite in wisdom, power, and love, but who nevertheless cares personally for each of us, a God whom we can approach in prayer and from whom we can receive help and strength, a God who is always acting within the human scene and is known to us by his acts. The "God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ" is never a philosophical abstraction nor an impersonal force; he is the living God on whom our lives depend.
The existence of this God is never argued about in the Bible; we find nowhere a list of proofs. His reality is simply affirmed, and all the rest of the Bible hinges on this great affirmation. The idea of Yahweh, as we have seen, grew in the minds of the Hebrews from the conviction that, though there were other gods, supreme loyalty was owed to him, on to the clear-cut universal monotheism of the Second Isaiah. But during this development, and later, there is surprisingly little change in what was believed about the nature of God himself. There are shifts of emphasis, as from God’s relation to the nation, which predominates in the Old Testament, to his loving care for each individual in Jesus’ favorite symbol of God as Father. Whereas God’s covenant with Israel stands out in his dealings with the "chosen people" in the Old Testament, his revelation of himself in Jesus and his presence as Holy Spirit in the Christian fellowship are central in the New. But while these changes in emphasis appear, it is still the same God "yesterday, today and forever," who is worshipped, prayed to, feared, trusted, and in some measure obeyed.
The central categories around which the biblical writers conceived of God -- though of course never in a formal systematic classification such as we must use for convenience in analysis --are as Creator, Judge, Redeemer, Father. Let us see what is implied in each of these terms.
That God is the Creator is affirmed in the first verse of the Bible. The majestic account of creation found in Genesis 1:1 -- 2:4 is in the "P" literature; hence we conclude that it was written late. Nevertheless what it affirms about the transcendent power of God to bring the world into being by his will, and call it good, is presupposed much earlier. The biblical writers were not concerned, as we have to be, with scientific processes. What they were concerned about was the holiness of God. When Isaiah in the temple vision heard the seraphim crying to one another, "Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory," (Isa. 6:3) this hymn of praise to God’s glory reflected the prevalent idea about God’s relation to his world. There is less said in the Bible about creation than either judgment or redemption. Yet it did not occur to the biblical writers to doubt that this is God’s world, and many times they affirmed it, as in Second Isaiah’s grateful and joyous exclamation:
Hast thou not known? hast thou not heard? The everlasting God, the Lord, the Creator of the ends of the earth, fainteth not, neither is weary; there is no searching of his understanding. He giveth power to the faint; and to him that hath no might he increaseth strength, (Isa. 40:28, 29, A.S.V.)
or the psalmist’s paean:
The heavens declare the glory of God;
or Jesus’ calm assurance that the God who feeds the birds of the air, clothes the lilies of the field, and makes his sun to shine and his rain to fall, will do for us what we need. (Matt. 5:45; 6:26-30)
This biblical certainty of God as the Creator ought to mean a number of things to us. It means, obviously, that whatever science may tell us about the processes by which creation takes place, science can never take the place of the Lord of heaven and earth by whose wisdom and power the processes were initiated and continue. It means, furthermore, that we ought not simply to think of the Creator as a First Cause who started things, but that like the biblical writers we too are obligated to bow in reverent awe before "the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is Holy." (Isa. 57:15) The more we learn about our world, the more we should be prompted to exclaim with the psalmist,
Wonderful are thy works;
Creation means that contemplation of the majesty of God’s work and the holiness of the Creator ought to make us very humble about ourselves, remembering that he still says to us, as to the people of Israel:
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways. . . . For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isa. 55:8, 9, A.S.V. Note also the beautiful nature imagery which follows.)
In a secular age, when we are accustomed to take great pride and place great confidence in what man can create by his own knowledge and skill, such a reminder that we have not the final wisdom is much in order. And finally, the awareness that our existence and whatever we have are God’s gifts, and whatever control we have over the world is a delegated responsibility -- in which, to use the Genesis phrase, God has made us to "have dominion" over the things of nature -- ought to give us a wider, deeper sense of stewardship.
The idea of God as the righteous Judge is in general harder for the modern mind to grasp than that of God as the Creator. Not that righteousness is hard to conceive of in God. If the Bible says anything, it says that God is good, and righteousness is another word for goodness. What we balk at in the idea of judgment is the idea of sternness implied in it, and its association with punishment, wrath, and indignation. Also, though we may not realize it, we do not like to think of ourselves as sinners who fall under God’s righteous condemnation.
We have to move carefully here, and put together two basic biblical ideas which, though they may seem contradictory on the surface, are not, actually. It may be helpful to note what mistakes arise if we do not keep them together.
In an earlier day, much was made of the wrath of God and his punishment of sinners both on earth and in the fires of hell. A desire "to flee from the wrath to come" was made a crucial test of Christian experience and even of church membership. Jonathan Edwards preached a famous sermon on "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." Then, because this did not seem to square with the loving Father God of Jesus, we swung completely around, and the goodness of God became a sort of sentimental benevolence. Also, with the advance of scientific achievement and progressive education, and a new psychological knowledge of human motivations and drives, the whole idea of sin fell into disrepute. Judgment went with it, and came to be thought of as an antiquated Old Testament idea, which we did not need any longer to accept.
Neither of these extremes is biblical, and neither is true to human experience. What the Bible teaches, throughout the Old Testament and the New, is that man is a rebellious sinner; that God cannot countenance sin; that he has to punish us to get us to mend our ways. These teachings run through the message of every one of the prophets. Furthermore, since God is the Lord of history, even the enemies of Israel could be used by Yahweh as the instruments of his righteous judgment. Others might think of the Day of the Lord as "sweetness and light" with prosperity just around the corner; not so the true spokesmen of Yahweh. Amos put it with tremendous vividness in his warnings against the people’s boasted security:
Woe unto you that desire the day of the Lord! to what end is it for you? the day of the Lord is darkness, and not light. As if a man did flee from a lion, and a bear met him; or went into the house, and leaned his hand on the wall, and a serpent bit him. Shall not the day of the Lord be darkness, and not light? even very dark, and no brightness in it?. (Amos. 5:18-20)
While this message is less conspicuous in the New Testament, it is there. Not only did John the Baptist call his hearers to repentance because "the ax is laid to the root of the trees," but Jesus also preached, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." (Matt. 3:10; 4:17, R.S.V.) In one of the most poignantly beautiful passages in the Gospels, Jesus, directly after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, wept over the city because his countrymen were failing to see "the things which belong unto peace," and gave a terrible warning of impending disasters "because thou knewest not the time of thy visitation." (Luke 19:41-44, A.S.V.)
But are such warnings in the mood of pure pessimism ? Or do they reflect a vindictive deity? By no means. It is basic to the biblical idea of judgment that God punishes in order to redeem. "For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth." (Heb. 12:6) Judgment is linked throughout with the possibility and promise of salvation to those who repent and turn to God. "Seek the Lord, and ye shall live" (Amos 5:6. Note how warning and promise are interwoven in this chapter) is as central to Amos’ message as his warnings of doom. The positive side of judgment by a loving God has been marvelously expressed in the Gospel of John where the author says:
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. . . . And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. (John 3 16, 17, 19, R.S.V.)
This biblical note of divine judgment has a particular pertinence in our own day, when so much chaos has come upon the world because of personal and national sin and the flouting of the ways of God revealed to us by the light of Christ. Even the acts of enemy countries today, like those of Assyria and Rome, may be used by God to bring judgment without his sharing in their sin. But beneath every note of judgment found in the Bible or in contemporary life must be seen, if we are Christian, God’s redeeming love and a divine sorrow that is seeking always to save us from our folly and misdeeds.
This brings us to God as the Redeemer. Herein lies the heart of the biblical message.
The idea of God’s saving mercy and help, which is what redemption means, is found throughout the Bible. Although other notes are mixed in with it, including not only divine judgment but also occasionally the attribution to God of petty anger and jealousies and the need to be appeased, the main stream of the Bible’s message is of a God who loves men, even sinful men, enough to yearn to save them from their sins.
The message of God’s redeeming love is centered in four great concepts which move into one another by a natural sequence. These are God’s covenant with Israel, the promise of the Messiah, the incarnation of God in Christ, and his presence in the Christian Church as the Holy Spirit. Each of these is a very large idea at which we shall look briefly.
Israel’s sense of nationhood, and of being a chosen people with a great destiny, begins with the establishment of the covenant. This is best dated from the time of Moses and the deliverance from Egypt, which makes Exodus a very important book. Possibly it goes back to Abraham as recorded in Genesis 17, though this is more likely a later adaptation of the patriarchal stories to the covenant idea. In any case, from the moment the people of Israel saw themselves as God’s people, adopted by Yahweh not only for special favors but also for great demands, it made a difference that stamped their whole history. In this is rooted their sense of sin, not simply as ordinary infraction of the moral standards of a primitive society, but as rebellion against God and an affront to his holiness. In it is rooted also their trust in God through the worst vicissitudes of their struggle against nature, against their enemies, against strange gods that competed with Yahweh for their loyalty. This sense of God’s lovingkindness and protecting care is the background of the way their history is told, of the messages of their prophets, and of the great poetry of devotion that we find in the Psalms.
Nevertheless, the people did not keep their side of the covenant. Even at the moment the covenant was being made between Yahweh and Moses on Mount Sinai, the people, under Aaron, set up a golden calf to worship, and only Moses’ intercession, so the story says, prevented Yahweh from consuming them forthwith in anger. (Exod. 32) This was only the beginning of a very long series of transgressions which displeased Yahweh and caused the prophets roundly to chide the people. But amazingly, the more discerning the prophet the more clearly he saw the mercy of God and the promise of a deliverer shining through the darkness. Among the many passages which foreshadow the coming of such a messiah, these from Isaiah are among the earliest and most vivid:
The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined. . . .
And there shall come forth a shoot out of the stock of Jesse, and a branch out of his roots shall bear fruit. And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord. . . .(Isa. 9:2; 11:1,2, A.S.V.)
Then follows the picture of the righteous, peace-giving reign of such a deliverer, with God’s promise to a war-weary world.
They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea. (Isa. 11:9)
The coming of this Deliverer is what the New Testament is all about. Does the Old Testament directly predict the coming of Christ? Yes and no -- and as so often happens, an extreme position on either side leaves out important truth. These messianic prophecies are certainly present in abundance, and looking back at them from the perspective of what we know about Jesus we see that he fits them wonderfully. But there is no inherent reason why he had to be born in Bethlehem, or be a descendant of David. If we trust the genealogy in both Matthew and Luke which traces his ancestry through Joseph’s line, he was. (Note that the two genealogies differ, Matthew tracing his descent from David through Solomon, and Luke through David’s son Nathan. From David back to Abraham there is close agreement.). But his messiahship was not that of a political king, and although he was a loyal Jew his vision of God’s universal love far transcends Judaism. Had not the gospel writers, particularly Matthew, inserted so often, "that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet," we might be less inclined to look for exact predictions and be captured rather by the wonder and glory of God’s redeeming love which Jesus came to bear.
Then came the crucifixion, and the resurrection, and the establishment of the Christian community in the Church. He who gave as his parting word, "Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world," (Matt. 28:20, A.S.V.) was with them still. And he lives with us, as the Spirit of life and truth. Through him our lives are made over, and by his Spirit our spirits are nourished and led. Through him we have our best knowledge and approach to God the Redeemer, the Christlike God.
The Bible, then, gives us the basis of our Christian doctrines of creation, judgment, and redemption. But what of Jesus’ name for God, by which he taught us to pray, "Our Father"? The fact that he thought of God as Father led the early churches to do so, and through his example and the New Testament writings (It is in most, but not all, of them. It occurs most often in the Gospel of John.) it has become our most familiar and beloved word for God.
This it should be. No understanding of God that leaves out his fatherly love and care for all his children, and with it the implied brotherhood of all men, can be fully Christian. However, it stands in a special relation to the other three terms we have looked at, for it gathers up in one word the meaning of all of them. Like a father, but far beyond any human father in wisdom, power, goodness, and understanding love, God brings us into existence, disciplines us to live as we ought, forgives us when we go astray, and loves us enough to help us to go forward to more victorious living.
Besides summing up in one great word what the Bible is trying throughout to say, to call God Father, in addition, shifts the emphasis from God’s concern for the nation to his love for the individual. God is referred to as Father very few times in the Old Testament, (Note references in Hos. 11:1-4; Isa. 1:2; 63:16; Jer. 3:19; Ps. 89:26.) and the rarity of its use there in contrast to its central place in Jesus’ thought marks the difference between God’s covenant with the chosen people and the new covenant, written in men’s hearts and open to all men everywhere. It is no accident that the basic roots of democracy are in human brotherhood, and brotherhood is meaningless apart from the divine fatherhood. This we need to realize in a day when many people are trying to have the fruits of democracy without its roots.
The Christian View of Men
We come now to an aspect of biblical thought that is very important for us to understand, and to put in its right relation to modern ways of thinking. What does the Bible tell us about ourselves?
There is no point on which theologians are so much divided, and, in turn, no point on which Christian thinkers in general are so well agreed as over against the current naturalistic assumptions of the secular world. Even to state what the biblical view is, is to lay oneself open to the charge of being biased. But let us see.
Let us note, in the first place, that the Bible is opposed to the common idea that man is simply a complex physical organism, just like one of the lower animals except a little more intelligent. When the psalmist says,
Man that is in honor, and understandeth not,
what he is emphasizing is not that man is like the beasts but rather that, being different, he ought to use rightly the honor and understanding God has given him. In such passages as:
But there is a spirit in man,
or the beautiful proverb:
The spirit of man is the candle of the Lord, (Prov. 20:27)
or the words of the creation story,
And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul, (Gen. 2:7)
a view is expressed which is radically different from the idea that man is merely a biological organism with a complicated set of neutral reactions.
And in the second place, there is never any suggestion in the Bible that man, being mechanically determined by a complex set of forces in his heredity and environment, has to what he does without any freedom of choice. He is often represented as acting under the power of God, and again as being mastered by temptation he cannot resist without God’s power. He could be seized by an evil spirit, even by a legion of them, or be led and strengthened by the divine Spirit. But this is a very different thing from the current notion that man has no freedom of will because his every act and thought is determined by some previous element in a chain of natural causes. This idea would have been abhorrent to the biblical writers if they had thought of it, as of course they could not before - - the idea of a universal system of natural law had emerged. They would have repudiated it because it undermines the very thing they were most concerned about --man’s moral responsibility before God.
On these points -- the reality of the spiritual nature of man and the reality of at least a limited freedom of choice as basic to moral responsibility -- there is large agreement among Christians. It is held on the authority not only of the Bible but also of our own observation and experience. Though the opposite is taught in some universities, this does not make it true.
But now we come to points on which Christians do not agree. There is a divergence, on the one hand, between the fundamentalists and the liberals, and on the other, between the liberals and the neo-orthodox. Though there are meeting points along the way, and the divergence is not so complete as is sometimes supposed, there are, nevertheless, real differences.
The fundamentalists, who hold to a literal interpretation of the Bible as the only way to think of it as inspired, take the Genesis account of creation as accurate history. The world, from this view, was made by God in six days, with the creation of Adam and Eve as the final act. The evidence presented by geology, biology, and anthropology that the earth has been billions of years in coming to its present form, and that man as the product of a long evolutionary process has been on earth at least half a million years, is rejected as contradicting the Bible. The liberals, on the other hand, accept gladly all that science can tell us about the processes of creation, but agree with their conservative friends in holding that God is the Creator, that man is made in the image of God, and, as God’s supreme creation, is a living soul with a great, God-given responsibility to honor and obey him.
But where do the liberals and the neo-orthodox differ? They agree in viewing the creation stories as prescientific myths with great spiritual meaning. But they differ in that the neo-orthodox stress man’s weakness and sinfulness, while the liberals stress the fact that man is made in the spiritual image of God and, as the child of God, is a creature of infinite worth and dignity. There is no absolute difference here, for both schools of thought hold that man is made by God for a high destiny, yet is always a sinner. There is, however, a large difference in emphasis, and this emphasis affects the views one holds about Christian education, evangelism, the possibility of appealing to love in social action, and many other things.
There is no space here to trace these consequences. What does the Bible say about man’s sinfulness versus his dignity ?
It affirms both elements so unmistakably that we ought to have no uncertainty in affirming both. Man’s sinfulness and our tendency to rebel against God and follow "the devices and desires of our own hearts" is written on every page. Less is said about man’s dignity and greatness, for the biblical writers were for the most part concerned to exalt the holiness of God, protest man’s disobedience, and proclaim God’s saving mercy. Yet it is certainly there: in God’s great commission in Genesis 1:28; in passages such as those formerly quoted about man’s spirit and in Paul’s word to the Corinthians, "Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God?" (I Cor. 6:19, R.S.V.); in poetry of surpassing beauty where the greatness of God and man, his supreme creation, are affirmed together.
When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers,
Furthermore, it is not in any particular quotation, but in Jesus’ continual assumption that man -- every man, woman, and child --is infinitely precious in God’s sight, that we find our surest clue to man’s dignity and true greatness. We ought to be humble, knowing our own sin and weakness. We ought to be charitable, knowing the evil forces that play upon and within others. But we ought also to respect the native goodness and the infinite, God-given possibilities of every man. This we shall not do if we think meanly of those whom Jesus taught us, by a common prayer to our Father, to call his sons and our brothers.
Another great note in Christian faith is the hope of eternal life. What the Bible says about it is not so clear or detailed as we could wish in our inquiring moments. It tells us, however, all we really need to know for our hope and comfort.
The idea of personal existence beyond the grave in any definite sense was a late development in Jewish thought, though apparently there was a belief in Sheol as a vague and shadowy place of departed spirits, good and bad alike. This is incorrectly translated "hell" in the King James Version. Toward the end of the Old Testament writing, but much more in the apocalyptic literature that emerged between the Testaments, the idea became current of a resurrection of the dead and a great last judgment, after which the faithful would be taken to dwell with God in heaven and the wicked consigned to eternal torment in hell. This was doubtless influenced by the Zoroastrian religion of the Persians though not entirely derived from it. It was the view commonly held in Jesus’ day, the Pharisees believing in such a resurrection and the Sadducees rejecting it, and against this background the apocalyptic passages in Mark 13 and Matthew 25 become easier to understand.
Jesus apparently accepted in the main this popular belief. But with a difference. There is nothing fatalistic or pessimistic or showily spectacular in his words; his emphasis is on our need to be watchful, obedient, and concerned to show our love and faithfulness to God by helping our fellow men. Note the ethical setting of the judgment scene which reaches its climax in "Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me." (Matt. 25:31-36 R.S.V.) If we do this, we can leave the rest in God’s hands, for time and eternity.
It was Jesus’ own resurrection, establishing the certainty that God was victor over sin and death, that did most to assure the early Christians of immortal life through his power. Since they were not concerned, as we have to be, about the relations of soul and body, resurrection meant to them God’s continuance of the whole person. We are not obliged to think exactly as they did, and we may well believe that the body perishes while the soul lives on in the nearer presence of God. No greater words on this subject have ever been written than Paul’s in I Corinthians 15, while the author of the Fourth Gospel cites in Jesus’ farewell message great promises of peace and joy in God’s eternal kingdom.(Especially John 14:1-3 but implied throughout chapters 14 --17) John’s Gospel also makes much of eternal life as a quality of life -- the life in God through the saving gift of Christ -- which begins on earth and endures forever.
Some theologians insist that for the life beyond the grave we must use the word resurrection, as the Bible usually does, rather than immortality, lest we arrogantly claim it as a human right. This distinction seems unnecessary, provided we recognize, as Jesus did, that it comes as the gift of a loving God. If the God of Jesus exists, his children are assured of life everlasting; if he does not, then it could neither be certain nor such as to be desired.
Jesus the Son of God
We must use these last few pages for a theme in which the whole Bible finds its meaning and center -- a theme for which there would not be pages enough, even if we were at the beginning of the book instead of at the end of it. The early Christians worshipping in the catacombs had the fish as their symbol because ichthas, the Greek word for fish, was what they got when they took the first letters of the words, "Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Savior." That is what he was to them, and what he is to Christians in every age.
The particular doctrines we must look at are the incarnation, the cross, the resurrection, and Christ’s continuing presence as the Holy Spirit. Opinions differ widely regarding these doctrines, and sometimes, unfortunately, Christians have become uncharitable toward other Christians holding different views. Even when one’s faith is grounded in the Bible, latitude must be left for differences of interpretation. Yet, to a surprising extent, Christians do agree on certain great central truths.
The incarnation means that "the Word became flesh" to dwell among us. That is, God sent his Son to live among us as a man, to show us his will and way. Whether Jesus was miraculously born is a question the Bible does not clearly answer for us; for while there are beautiful stories of a virgin birth in both Matthew and Luke, (Matt. 1:18-25; Luke 1:26-35) these writers trace the ancestry of Jesus through Joseph’s line. Mark, the author of the earliest Gospel, does not mention the virgin birth, as he almost surely would have if he had known of it, and Paul and John, though very sure of Jesus’ divinity, say nothing as to the manner of his birth. Jesus is elsewhere referred to as "the carpenter’s son," and this he was apparently in his lifetime thought to be. (Matt. 13:55; Luke 2:27, 33, 41, 43, 48; John 6:42) But the evidence remains divided. This is a matter on which Christians will doubtless continue to differ, and tolerance is in order. Yet on the question of Jesus’ divinity -- of his being in a true and unique sense the Son of God -- there is great agreement among Christians. This is what the incarnation means, and what really matters.
Was Jesus the Son of God and our Savior because God ordained that he should be? Or because he was perfectly sensitive to God’s call, perfectly obedient to his will? The answer is, both. Take out either the divine initiative or Jesus’ freely chosen response, and much that is important fades out of the doctrine of the incarnation. The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews says that Jesus, the Son of God, can sympathize with our weakness because he was "in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin." (Heb. 4:15) Yet try to make him simply a great prophet who went about doing good, and much of the power goes out of Christian faith. We call him Lord, as we call God our Lord, because we feel that in him God spoke, in him God acted for our salvation.
Bearing in mind the sequence in which the New Testament books were written, what do we find as to the growth of the idea of the incarnation? In Paul’s letters Jesus is not called God but the Son of God, this great fact being attested by his resurrection. This event loomed so large in Paul’s mind that, unfortunately for later thought derived from him, he did not give much attention to Jesus’ earthly life. Mark states that his purpose is to set forth "the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God," and he starts with Jesus’ baptism. The next stage was to push the matter of his divine sonship back to his birth, as in Matthew and Luke. Not stopping there, John views Jesus as the pre-existent Logos, the agent of God in creation, and identifies him with God. It is not surprising that different interpretations have emerged as one or another of these biblical foundations has been stressed. Yet through them all shines the great conviction that in Jesus we see God, his supreme revelation and our divine Savior.
The doctrine of the cross, or of the atonement Jesus made for our sins by his death on the cross, is so connected with the incarnation that the two must be viewed together. There have been held in Christian history various views of the atonement that are not very satisfactory: that Christ’s death was a ransom paid to the devil, that he had to die to propitiate the wrath of God or to uphold God’s authority, that he is our substitute in paying the penalty for sin -- or along another line, that his death was simply a good moral influence and example to us. Deeper and truer than any of these is the view that as God’s Son he revealed the love of God and brought to us the saving power of God through his entire ministry, with his death on the cross the great climax and focal point. Our Christian faith centers in the conviction that "the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many." (Matt. 20:28) This ransom is not to be thought of in any external sense but as reaching into the heart of God and the depths of our human plight. To save us from our sins and futility by showing us the way of love and giving us through Christ the power to love, God gave his Son for our redemption. This is stated many times in the Bible but nowhere more vividly than in the great words of Paul, "He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?" (Rom. 8:32)
After the cross, the resurrection. This, like the story of the crucifixion, is found in all four Gospels and is presupposed throughout the rest of the New Testament writings. There is nothing in the Bible we can be more sure did happen, though we shall never know exactly what happened. The transformation of the utter discouragement of the disciples into a flaming new hope and faith attest it. The numerous accounts of it vary in details, but all agree as to the great change which came over the disciples. What happened in them can be explained as mystical experiences, such as you and I sometimes have when we feel the real presence of Christ at the communion table or in some great moment. But what caused them to have these experiences is inexplicable unless the resurrection really occurred. In the faith that Christ had risen victorious over sin and death, the Church was born, and in this conviction it has found power through all the ages since.
And now, finally, what does this mean to us? In John’s Gospel there is a beautiful promise of the sending of the Holy Spirit to take the place of the earthly presence of Christ.
These things have I spoken to you, while I am still with you. But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. (John 14:25, 26, R.S.V.)
The Book of Acts opens with the disciples tarrying in Jerusalem for the coming of the Holy Spirit, and then being filled with a great new flood of joy and power on the day of Pentecost. From then on, there was no doubt about the vitality of that little band of Christians, a fellowship with a gospel which eventually was to encompass the earth.
We are the inheritors of that little company. We have the same God, the same Christ, the same Holy Spirit they had. We have what they did not have -- a body of Christian Scriptures in which the teachings and "mighty works" of Jesus are recorded. What shall we do with them ? God is with us today to enlighten our minds, to quicken our wills, to stir our spirits by his Holy Spirit, that we may be taught in the things of Christ and led more steadfastly to live as his disciples.
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