I remember the remarkable success of a little book published by J.B. Phillips entitled Your God Is Too Small. It was a ringing challenge to seek a deeper understanding of the nature and character of God. It obviously struck a nerve as multitudes of people devoured the book in a quest to expand their knowledge of the majesty of God.
I wish that someone could provoke the same response with regard to Christ. In my years of publishing and producing educational materials for Christians, I have been puzzled by something strange. I have noticed that books about Jesus do not do well in Christian bookstores. I am not sure why this is so. Perhaps it has something to do with a widespread assumption that we already know a lot about Jesus or that there may be something irreligious about studying the person and work of Christ too deeply. Perhaps such study might disturb the simple faith we cling to.
My teaching career has spanned many decades. And though I have taught in the formal setting of colleges and seminaries, the bulk of my time has been devoted to adult lay education. This emphasis began in Philadelphia in the sixties when, while I was working as a seminary professor, I was approached by the pastor of the church my family attended to teach an adult course on the person and work of Christ. My class was composed of housewives, professional people, business people, and more. As we got into the material, I discovered a more passionate response to the content of my teaching than I had ever witnessed in the academic classroom. These people had never been exposed to any serious teaching of theology beyond what they had experienced in Sunday school. It was this class that pushed a button in my soul that catapulted me into the full-time endeavor of adult education.
Gentle Jesus, Meek and Mild
There seems to be something wrong with our understanding of Jesus. We speak in saccharine terms of “gentle Jesus, meek and mild,” and of his “sweetness,” but the depth and riches of his nature remain elusive to us. Now, I love to speak of the sweetness of Christ. There is nothing wrong with this language. But we need to understand what it is about him that makes him so sweet to believers.
When we consider Jesus as the second person of the Trinity, the eternal Logos who became incarnate, we note instantly that in any attempt to plumb the depths of his person we are stepping into the deep waters of searching for the nature of God himself. The Scripture says of Jesus in Hebrews 1:1–4:
Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He 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. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.
Here the author of Hebrews describes Christ as “the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature.” Imagine someone who not only reflects the glory of God as Moses did after his encounter with God on Mount Sinai, but who actually is the very brightness of the divine glory.
The Very Glory of God
The biblical concept of divine glory is reiterated again and again in the Old Testament. Nothing can be likened to that glory that belongs to the divine essence and which he has placed above the heavens. This is the glory manifest in the theophany of the shekinah, the radiant cloud that displays the pure effulgence of his being. This is the glory of the One who dwells in light inaccessible, who is a consuming fire. This is the glory that blinded Paul on the Road to Damascus. The glory of Christ belongs to his deity as confessed in the ancient hymn, the Gloria Patria, composed by Trinitarians as they resisted the heresy of Arianism: “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost. As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.”
Athanasius in commenting on Hebrews 1 declared, “Who does not see that the brightness cannot be separated from the light, but that it is by nature proper to it and co-existent with it, and is not produced after it?” Or as Ambrose proclaimed,
Think not that there was ever a moment of time when God was without wisdom, any more than there was ever a time when light was without radiance. For where there is light there is radiance, and where there is radiance there is also light. For the Son is the Radiance of his Father’s light, co-eternal because of eternity of power, inseparable by unity of brightness.
The Very Revelation of God
But what can be said of Christ’s being “the exact imprint of his nature”? Are not we all created in the image of God and does not this reference merely speak of Jesus’s being the perfect man, the one in whom the imago Dei has not been besmirched or corrupted? I think the text means more than that. Phillip Hughes says,
The Greek word translated “the very stamp” [“exact imprint”] here means an engraved character or the impress made by a die or a seal, as for example, on a coin; and the Greek word translated “nature” denotes the very essence of God. The principal idea intended is that of exact correspondence. This correspondence involves not only an identity of the essence of the Son with that of the Father, but more particularly a true and trustworthy revelation or representation of the Father by the Son.
We remember the request made to Jesus by Philip when he said, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us” (John 14:8). We need to meditate upon the response of Jesus in John 14:9–11:
Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, “Show us the Father”? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else believe on account of the works themselves.
He who would taste the fullness of the sweetness of Christ, and perceive the total measure of his excellence, must be willing to make the pursuit of the knowledge of him the main and chief business of life. Such pursuits must not be hindered by sentimentality or season.