Our Hills Of Difficulty
I’ve been reading through The Pilgrim’s Progress – again – (a book I highly recommend) and was reminded how often the Christian life is described as a journey.
The Pilgrim’s Progress (click for a free copy!) is the story of Christian’s journey from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City. To go from one to the other requires walking a long, strait, narrow road. All a pilgrim need do is walk straight. Simply don’t turn. But just because they are walking straight doesn’t mean they won’t come across problems.
In fact, that’s kind of the whole point of the book – the journey of the Christian life isn’t an easy one. Our faithfulness to walking the straight and narrow doesn’t deliver us from the problems of life – as the prosperity gospel preachers will tell you – but instead, a faithful Christian walk will often lead us to difficult places.
Yes, Christian saw some wonderful things, like the Interpreters House, the Cross at Calvary, the Palace Beautiful, the Restful Arbour, The Pleasant Meadow, The Delectable Mountains, and the Enchanted Grounds, and eventually the Celestial City — but to get there Christian’s path lead straight through places like the Slough of Despond, the Valley of Humiliation and the Valley of the Shadow of Death. He had to pass through Vanity Fair where he was arrested and his friend Faithful was killed. He went up the Hill of Lucre (or Dishonest Gain) and swam the Black River of Death. And all the way along he came across person after person who tried to tempt him to turn aside from the straight and narrow.
Near the beginning of his journey, Christian came to the Hill of Difficulty, placed there by The Lord as a test for the pilgrims. At the bottom was two roads that looked to go around the Hill of Difficulty, but the pilgrim was meant to stay on the straight road. So, the question was, would Christian turn away from the straight road to avoid difficulty, or would He trust the Lord of the Hill?
This is the motivation behind our Burning Questions series today. Over the past few weeks I’ve given the opportunity for everyone to submit personal and pressing questions that they want scriptural answers to. If you’ve been an Christian for any length of time then you know that along our journey we are inevitably going to come across tough times. Each person’s “Hill of Difficulty” is going to be a little different, and the temptation is always to avoid walking through that difficulty and try to circumvent it somehow.
These difficult times can be temptations, a great loss, something that we bring on ourselves, or something that just comes out of nowhere. But sometimes, as is the theme of this series, the difficulty is with an aspect of God, Theology, Church life, or the Christian walk that we just can’t understand or get past.
We, as a Church, are meant to walk together during those difficult times of temptation, loss, struggle and persecution – but we are also meant to share our theological struggles as well. It should be ok for us to say to one another, “I’m struggling with my faith today.” Or “I don’t understand this thing about God.” Or “My heart is getting bitter towards God because He allowed something to happen.” Or “I worry about my soul sometimes because I’m not sure if I’m saved.” Whatever the difficulty is, we are meant to walk together and seek to learn what God has said about such things so we can encourage one another.
I think of what Paul said to young Timothy about how he was to lead and encourage his church:
“Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.” (1 Tim 4:16)
We need to watch both – our life, as in our deeds and decision, and our doctrine, what we believe about God – because both are involved in our salvation and Christian walk. Paul said to the Colossians:
“Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.” (Col 3:16)
He reminded the congregation that they need to make sure that they are talking, singing, and encouraging each other with the “message of Christ”. To have it “dwell among them richly” means to have it be part of their everyday speech, to have it become part of their life. That way they don’t forget God’s love, are easily led astray, and can encourage others.
But the problem is that sometimes we get stuck. We hit a concept, a piece of theology, a bible verse, an activity, a temptation, a decision, a part of our life, that we just can’t get around. We hit the foot of the Hill of Difficulty and we are tempted to either quit and go back to the City of Destruction, or try to go around the Hill and ignore the problem – which solves nothing, because it nags at us and chips away at our faith.
My hope is that by answering some of these questions we can help one another press on past that hurdle, past that Hill, so we can move forward in faith together.
I received some really good questions that covered everything from how to live as Christians in a sinful world, to the doctrines of death, salvation and hell, to what makes a good church. But the question I want to answer today was one that really stuck out to me. It said this: “If God wore a superhero suit, what would it look like?”
Maybe that sounds like a strange question, but I loved it and want to take a look at it today – though, perhaps, not exactly in the way that the question-asker intended. It could be a fun mental exercise to try to pin down what God’s greatest attribute would be, and therefore what the crest on his super-suit would look like.
Would it be a heart because God is Love (1 John 4:16)? Would it be a dove because God is Spirit (John 4:24)? Would it be a Triquetra because He is triune (Matt 28:19)? Would it be a globe because He’s the Almighty Creator (John 1:3, Psalm 24)?
I think it’s a great question, but let me go at it from another angle.
The truth is that God has revealed Himself a lot of different ways. We see God manifest, or become apparent, quite a lot in the Bible. He came as a group of three people to Abraham in Gen 18. He came as an Angel to Hagar, Jacob, Moses, and Joshua. God walked in the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve, and when they sinned, they heard His footsteps – that implies He at least had feet. Later, God became a man who actually wrestled with the patriarch Jacob.
Some people call these Christophanies because they see it as Jesus coming to earth before He was born of Mary. Why do we think this was God or Jesus? Well, the big reason is that He accepts worship.
In Joshua 5:14-15 God says,
“‘I am the commander of the army of the LORD. Now I have come.’ And Joshua fell on his face to the earth and worshiped and said to him, ‘What does my lord say to his servant?’ And the commander of the LORD’s army said to Joshua, ‘Take off your sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy.’ And Joshua did so.”
God is very clear that we are to worship Him alone, so let’s contrast that with Revelation 19:10 where the Apostle John falls down before an angel. It says,
“Then I fell down at his feet to worship him, but he said to me, ‘You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your brothers who hold to the testimony of Jesus. Worship God.’”
But these Theophanies aren’t just God showing up as a man – more often God reveals Himself using forces from nature, teaching us about His power and His glory. He led the Israelites away from Egypt as a pillar of Cloud and Fire. When God came to Sinai the people heard thunder, saw lightning, smoke, fire and the sound of a trumpet.
Sometimes God’s presence was simply a blinding light – the Shekinah Glory of God – seen by Moses, Elijah, Ezekiel, and Isaiah. This was a light so dangerous that if humans saw it they would die – and so we read about the light being covered for people’s protection. Sometimes by clouds (Exo 24) or even by God’s hand as Moses was in the cleft of the rock waiting to see God’s back. We see a lot of these types of descriptions again in the New Testament, especially in the book of Revelation.
All of these Theophanies were meant to assure people of God’s presence with them, inspire a sense of awe and majesty, fear and reverence. It’s often associated with a divine revelation – God is about to say or do something, and so He shows up as fire, wind, lightning, or light to show people that they better listen because God is talking.
Jesus – God’s Greatest Revelation of Himself
Let’s go back to the question for a minute: “If God wore a superhero suit, what would it look like?”. Why do superheroes wear suits? A few reasons.
First, to conceal their true identity – Superman didn’t want to be Superman all the time, so he lived as Clark Kent. Matt Murdock didn’t want to be DareDevil all the time, so he pretended to be a blind lawyer named Matt Murdock. Batman was Bruce Wayne. concealing identity is one of the main reasons why superheroes have a suit.
Second, I think, is so they can show people what they’re all about just by looking at them. Thor is clearly a powerful demi-god that uses a hammer to smash bad guys. Spiderman is covered in webs. Batman wants people to be scared so he dresses as a bat. The flash has a lightning bolt. Captain America wears the American flag. Captain Canuck wears a better flag! All of these suits give a visual message of what the hero is all about before they say or do anything.
Now, God isn’t about concealing His identity – though obviously because He’s God we’ll never figure out the whole picture – He’s all about revealing Himself and His plan to us so we can know Him, love Him and fear Him. And God’s greatest, most personal, and most instructive revelation of Himself was when He came as the second person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ.
Puritan Theologian Thomas Goodwin said it this way:
“More of God’s Glory shall instantly shine forth in… the Man Christ Jesus, having the God-head dwelling in Him personally, than by making Millions of worlds… furnished with Glories.”
Another Puritan Theolgoian named John Owen said simply:
“The Glory of God is seen in the Face of Jesus Christ.”
That’s where I want to park for the rest of our time here, because that’s the best answer to the question. If God wanted to put on a super-suit, it would look like Jesus? Because Jesus is the perfect, yet mysterious, manifestation of God.
In 1 Timothy 3:16 (NIV) Paul admits that though He knows the Bible inside and out, has met Jesus personally, and understand the Gospel of Jesus Christ more than anyone, parts of it are still a mystery to Him because it’s so big. He says,
“Beyond all question, the mystery from which true godliness springs is great: He appeared in the flesh, was vindicated by the Spirit, was seen by angels, was preached among the nations, was believed on in the world, was taken up in glory.”
Confusion About Jesus
This was the biggest, most consequential, most important event in Human history – and therefore it has created a lot of excitement, controversy and confusion about it. Even when Jesus was on earth, walking among them, people didn’t quite understand what they were looking at. It’s one thing to see a pillar of fire shooting out of the Tabernacle of God, or a blinding light accompanied by peals of thunder – but the way Jesus came was so different.
He came as a person – a human. Yes, we just said that He did it a bunch of times in the Old Testament, but the coming of Jesus was different. It wasn’t a one shot, super rare, special revelation thing. He came as a baby, born to a human woman, had a family and friends, grew up to adulthood, and stayed for over thirty years. Unprecedented before or since. And it’s created a lot of confusion and a lot of debate.
Since the first century the church has been discussing the nature of Jesus, fighting heresy and writing creeds to answer the question: Who is Jesus?
Jesus was a study in contrasts and seeming contradictions. To get an idea of this, let’s read the first chapter of the Gospel of John:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
That’s John’s brief explanation of who Jesus was before He came as a human. He was with God, was God, created all things, and is the light of the world. Those are all divine terms. This is a special description of Jesus, written to make us think back to the book of Genesis, the very beginning, the “in the beginning” part, so that we understand that the story we are about to read about Jesus didn’t start in Bethlehem or Nazareth, or with John the Baptist – but way, way before. Keep reading.
“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light. The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”
Next we see John address the confusion and controversy that Jesus created. He’s the Creator God coming into the world. Yet, He would be rejected. He came to serve and save, but He was murdered instead. He offered salvation, but not everyone would accept it. Keep reading, because this part is really important:
“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John bore witness about him, and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.’”) For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known. ”
That last line there super critical, so let’s read it again: “No one has ever seen God” meaning that no one has ever seen God and lived, and also that no one can fully understand Him.
“…the only God”, which could also be translated “the only One, who is God”…. “who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.” Who is the only one, who is God, but is also at the Father’s side? If there is only one God, then how can God be at God’s side? That’s the whole point.
Jesus is the One who is God, who is with God, who is the Creator, is the Light, is at God’s side in the Trinity, and He is the one who makes God known. Jesus is the best revelation of God, and the best teacher of who God is – because He’s actually seen – and actually is, God!
That’s the big mystery that people can’t wrap their brains around, and that which spawned so many false theories and heresies about Jesus. It’s all there, but as Paul said, “Beyond all question, the mystery… is great…”
Contrasts of Jesus
Jesus was God, but as He walked the earth, He presented Himself in a very non-fantastic way. Isaiah 53 says:
“He had no beauty or majesty that we would be attracted to Him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire Him.”
When the Pharisees were confronting Jesus, they called Him every name in the book (John 8) – even calling him an illegitimate child, too young to teach, and a friend of sinners, and accused Him of working with Satan.
Instead of seeking worshippers and demonstrating His power, Jesus would escape to lonely places, refused public appearance and told people to keep His miracles a secret. He spoke in parables that could be misinterpreted. He wasn’t even from a decent town. When the Apostle Nathanael was first told about Jesus, his brother said, “We found the Messiah, His name is Jesus and He’s from Nazareth!” And Nathanael’s response was, “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” (John 1:46)
The One who Created the universe and stood at God’s side allowed Himself to stand trial before a corrupt human courts, didn’t say a word when accused, was mocked, flogged, insulted, and then died alongside traitors.
But at the same time, Jesus commanded demons to go wherever He wanted them to, and they were terrified of Him. Jesus said that He is the One who fulfills all the scriptures, who wrote the Law of Moses and has the right to interpret it, who was with God before time, who will divide saved and unsaved, who can forgive sin, accept worship, prepare a place for us in Heaven and intercede for us before God. Jesus goes so far as to use God’s name as His own – John 8:58, “Truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM!” When they came to arrest Him in the Garden of Gethsemane, He said it again, “I AM He” and they drew back and fell to the ground.
People have a hard time with reconciling those things. They wrack their brains to come up with some kind of excuse why the Glorious One, the God of the Angel Armies, the Fairest of Ten Thousand, would condescend so radically and suffer so much. And their solution is to deny His true nature. They can’t wrap their heads around it.
To come back to our question, they won’t accept the super-suit that God choses to present Himself in. They reject it because they don’t understand it. So they fashion one of their own and try to cram Jesus into it. But it never fits what Jesus has revealed about Himself.
The HYPOSTATIC UNION
Theologians call this “The Hypostatic Union”. The word Hypostatic comes from the Greek word HUPOSTASIS which simply means “Nature”—the united nature of Jesus. It is most clearly used in Hebrews 1:3 where it says Jesus “is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.”
Jesus has two natures, human and divine, inseparable and never in conflict. He is forever the God-man, two distinct natures in one person. Some confusion comes because there were times where we see that He limited Himself (or condescended) by getting tired, thirsty, and had to learn things as He grew up, obeyed human authority, was born and died. But then at other times He showed the power of His deity by raising the dead, reading people’s thoughts, or turning a kid’s lunch into a banquet for thousands. He always had access to His complete power – but He didn’t always use it.
Theologians have marveled at this forever. How can God be Triune? How can Jesus be both God and man? How can a person who is equal with God also be the “son of God” “conceived by the holy spirit” and born as a baby? The doctrine of the hypostatic union is an attempt to explain what is written in scripture, but is difficult to understand.
Basically, our understanding is that in His coming as a human, Jesus didn’t subtract from His divinity, but added something to Himself – He added humanity. One might think that Jesus subtracted from Himself when He came to earth, but that’s not quite the right way to see it. Jesus didn’t strip off His divinity; He added flesh.
Remember reading the first chapter of John where it said, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us”? That term “dwelt” is a really neat word. It’s the word for “spreading the tent”, which is a picture of the Tabernacle in the Old Testament. Jesus became flesh and spread his tent, or went camping, or tabernacled, among us. His flesh was His tent. When you get into a tent you don’t cease to be who you are – you’re just in a tent. Jesus made His tent with us.
Back in the Old Testament, the God of the Israelites, after they escaped from Egypt, were commanded by God to create a really big tent where He would come and meet with them. It would be at the centre of the camp where the king would normally live. God would be their King and would have the big tent.
Jesus came as our king and instead of having a big tent, He put on flesh. God wasn’t less God when He was meeting with Moses, appearing as a cloud or fire, or having His presence rest on the Tabernacle. Showing Himself in a special way didn’t subtract from His Godhood. No, God merely added to himself some light, some cloud, some sound, some physical presence – so that we could see and interact with Him.
Think of it the way that we play with our children. I don’t use my full strength when I’m wrestling with Eowyn – maybe with Ethan, but not with Eowyn. I hold back. That doesn’t mean I don’t have access to it – it means I don’t use it. Or when I try to explain something to my kids, I don’t speak to each of them using the same language or amount of information. I don’t lie to them, and leaving out some details isn’t wrong. I’m just giving them information appropriate to their ages and maturity level. God does the same for us.
Or think of it as the Queen of England taking off her crown and going for a wander around London in one of her fancy hats. She’s no less the Queen when she’s not wearing her crown. Just because Jesus wasn’t making people drop dead because of His glory everywhere He went, doesn’t mean He wasn’t just as glorious – He added the flesh tent so that we could be in His presence the way He added the cloud or the smoke in the Old Testament.
Or another way. Think of when we make a phone call, facetime or skype a friend. We are not any less of ourselves because we can only interact by voice, or be seen as a head on a screen. They didn’t remove their head and send it to you… they simply used a contrivance in order to communicate with you. That’s what God does, and what He did in Christ.
The Gospel Implications
These truths certainly have implications for the Gospel and our salvation.
Jesus added a contrivance, a thing, a form to Himself, so that He could be with us, teach us, and be one of us. That way we would know that He can identify with us in our struggles (Heb 2:17; 4:15). But even more, He added flesh to Himself so that, as a human, He could pay the debt of human sin.
Only a human could die for another human, so Jesus chose to put humanity on Himself and lived as one of us so He could take the penalty that was leveled against us. He was the One and only human who never sinned, and therefore never deserved death – which means He’s the only one with the qualifications to trade or exchange His death for someone else’s. He didn’t have a penalty to pay, which made it possible for him to pay someone else’s.
I can only die for my sin, but Jesus can die for anyone’s sin because He has none. He can pay the penalty because He doesn’t owe anything. So God poured all of His righteous wrath against sin on Jesus – because Jesus wanted Him to. He wanted to die for us. And God chose to accept Jesus’ death on our behalf, finishing the work of salvation, making us right with God.
Jesus died in the place of any human being who would turn from their sin, accept Jesus’ gift of dying on the cross for them, and making Him Lord of their lives.
That’s why understanding the nature of Jesus is such a big deal. If Jesus wasn’t both God and Man, the gospel falls apart, and the testimony of scripture is wrong. So let’s work hard to understand this and put our faith in Jesus Christ, the God/Man who became flesh and dwelt among us so we might be saved through Him.