The Deity of Christ (pt. 4)
During his long, fruitful ministry, Dr. John Gerstner, mentor to R.C. Sproul, wrote a series of primers on various points of theology which were later printed in Primitive Theology. Over the coming weeks we will be sharing his “Primer on the Deity of Christ” as a series of blog posts. Interestingly, the primer is in the form of a dialogue. The dialogue is between ‘‘Inquirer,’’ who is an educated, thoughtful person becoming convinced of the truths of the Christian religion (though not yet converted to them), and “Christian,’’ an experienced evangelical minister. Here is part four of that dialog.
I: Is there not an implication of eternality here?
C: How so?
I: Well, if a person suffered for His sake, that would suggest deity because people don’t suffer humiliation and slander and so on for anything other than what they regard as their God, or at least His representative.
C: That seems reasonable. They’re willing to suffer for this preexistent person, and such a willingness is almost always reserved for God, or as you say, one who represents God. So, I guess you’re right. There is an implication of more than the preexistence. The preacher’s words suggest eternal preexistence.
I: It’s strange how you can read a statement and not notice its significance the first time around. I’ve read that more than once and been impressed with what Jesus says about people rejoicing in suffering for Him. Yet I never thought that in mentioning the prophets’ suffering for Him, He must be far more than a mere man preaching on the mount. How blind I was.
C: The point is even more plain if you imagine an ordinary person making the kind of statement He does. Suppose, for example, I stood behind a pulpit and said, ‘‘Blessed are John Calvin and Martin Luther and John Wesley and Jonathan Edwards because they suffered for my sake.” It would not only be false, because, of course, they never knew me, or suffered for me, or would even think of suffering for me had they known me; it would also be absolutely absurd. I would have to be out of my mind to say a thing like that. But Christ says it as a simple matter of fact. In perfect calmness and secure rationality He casually remarks that men hundreds and thousands of years before suffered for His sake.
I: When you think of it, you realize what an overwhelming assertion of His deity that is. The fact that it comes in this veiled form (once the veil is penetrated) makes it all the more impressive.
C: The same thing is noticeable when Christ comments directly on the Bible. He says, “It is said by them of old time, ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ but I say unto you…” or “It is said by them of old time, ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery,’ but I say unto you…” Do you realize the significance of that?
I: You mean that He’s putting Himself on a level with Old Testament Scripture?
C: Yes. For Him and His audience the Old Testament was the Word of God. Granted that some of His comments were not directly aimed at the Old Testament, but at contemporary misinterpretations of the Old Testament; nevertheless, in the same breath that He cites what His audience regarded as the inspired Word of God, He calmly says, “But I say to you.”
I: In other words, by putting His word on a level with what was revered as the Word of God, Christ puts Himself on a divine level.
C: It certainly seems so. Again, I think we can get the impact of this all the better by comparing it with our saying such a thing. Suppose I, from the pulpit, said to a worshipping congregation, “Now, the Word of God says so and so. But I say unto you.” You know what that congregation would say to me. “Who do you think you are?’’ How dare I put my word on a level with what I and my listeners consider to be the Word of God. Only one person may properly do such a thing: God Himself. The only one equal to God is God. And Jesus Christ certainly sounds as if He is making God His equal. If He were not God. then, of course. He would be just as impertinent and blasphemous as I to say such a thing. His being a perfect man doesn’t change the fact that He’d be infinitely beneath the infinite God. Moreover, a perfect man would never utter such blasphemy.
I: Therefore, Jesus Christ is claiming to be God. I hear the argument.
C: There is more in the Sermon on the Mount, but let’s move to its conclusion to see what intimations of deity we have there. Notice, that is where Jesus tells the well-known parable of the two men who built their houses on differing foundations. One man built on a rock; the other on sand. One of the houses, you remember, collapsed during a storm; the other stood. Do you recall what Christ was driving at in that story?
I: I do remember that story. It’s even sung by kids in a simple chorus. The point of it is that the man who built his house on a rock really was building on Christ, is it not? And the man who built on sand did not build on Christ or His teaching. Am I right?
C: Yes, and you can see the implication.
I: I can indeed. Jesus is saying that if an individual believes in Him and His teaching and obeys Him, he will be able to go through the storms of life, and no doubt the storms of final judgment. If a person does not believe, he will be ruined in this world and the world to come. Knowing Jesus, that’s the sort of point He’s always making, is it not?
C: Yes. The people, no doubt, got that insinuation. This speaker was divine because no one other than God can assure that a person who does not follow Him will be ruined, and that a person who does will be saved. For anyone else to say that would be consummate arrogance and, again, blasphemy. And yet, what is more natural than for a divine person to say such a thing. If Christ is divine, you could never understand His not saying it; and if He were not divine, you could never understand His saying it. It’s that simple.
Probably the most definitive utterance of all in this sermon is at its very end.
I: What is that?
C: Christ ends the Sermon on the Mount by describing the final judgment: ‘‘In that day, men shall come before Me and say, ‘Lord, Lord. Have we not prophesied in Thy name? Have we not cast out devils in Thy name? Have we not done mighty works in Thy name?’ And I shall say unto them, ‘Depart from Me ye workers of iniquity. I never knew you.’”
I: In other words, Jesus is saying He’s going to be the judge of the last day. He is going to reject some people at His judgment seat. I get the point. The inference is clear. How can anybody miss it? The judge of the last day, who will determine the destinies of men, must be God. Is that what you deduce from this teaching?
C: I can’t deduce anything else. There’s only one judge of the last day: God Himself. Christ says He’s the judge of the last day. Therefore, He is saying unmistakably that He is God.
I: I certainly see that. But something in what He says at the last judgment puzzles me.
C: I think I know what it is. It’s that He denies at the day of judgment people who say they were His servants in this world. He even calls them evil-workers, doesn’t He?
I: But why?
C: I could give you a flip answer here and say He calls them that because that’s what they are. You yourself know that whatever He calls them, that’s what they are. But what you’re really asking is how could they be what they are. Is that not the question?
C: Well, let’s see if we can get to His point. These people before the judgment seat of Christ are saying that they prophesied in His name and did many great things. Can we be sure they’re telling the truth? They wouldn’t try to deceive that Judge. So, let’s assume they really were prophets of Christ or preachers of the Word of God. They were even successful at casting out devils. We are assuming they did many mighty works, because they wouldn’t dare lie about a matter like that before the judgment seat. They may have been liars in this world, but not before the all-wise God in the next world.
I: You’re fixing the noose ever tighter by making my question all the more difficult to answer, aren’t you?
C: It would seem so, wouldn’t it? By my saying that they must have spoken the truth about having done mighty works in the name of Jesus Christ, the question is indeed sharpened. Why would Christ reject such persons? But, don’t you see, that’s the very point. They did these things in the name of Christ, no doubt. But they didn’t, apparently, do them in the Spirit of Christ. They could be preachers of the Word as, for example, I am one. They could declare the gospel, the true gospel, as I believe I do. They could even thereby deliver people out of darkness and into light, doing many other mighty works. Is that not so?
I: I guess it is. But, wouldn’t the Spirit of Christ be what motivates them when they do preach the gospel and are blessed by conversions?
C: Not necessarily. And according to Christ, apparently not.
I: You’re saying that people can preach Christ without loving Christ?
C: That seems to be the case, does it not? These people are witnesses of Christ and are even successful. Yet He disowns them. He never “knew” them. Now what can that mean except that they didn’t have communion with Him. They didn’t love Him and He was not in love with them. For some reason or other, they went about His business, maybe for gain or fame or a half-dozen other reasons.
I: But how could they be successful when they didn’t love what they were doing?
C: Well, you see, it’s the Word of God that the Spirit uses as His sword—not necessarily the one who voices the Word of God. Christ says His Word will not return to Him void. So when the Word goes out, even from an insincere heart and from lying lips, it’s nonetheless the Word. God may see fit to honor His Word regardless of the source through which it comes.
I: I see. And that must be what happened. It’s a very sobering thought, of course, even frightening. A person’s success would be no proof that God is pleased with him.
C: Yes. It means we must very carefully search our motives. If we do what’s right for the wrong reason, we’re up against what we call “bad good works.’’ The works are good, and God honors those works by benefiting others. The worker, however, is bad. And God gives him the punishment he deserves.
I: I see what I was missing before. And I thank you, though I must admit that I’m still reeling a bit from that observation.
C: Imagine the effect the Sermon on the Mount had on the hearers.
I: If they were anything like me, they must have been overwhelmed.
C: They were. Their response was most significant. The text says that the people marveled because He spoke “as one having authority and not as the scribes.” Considering the themes on which He was speaking and the manner in which He spoke about them, they realized that His was an inherent authority. In other words, Christ was God. The very comparison they made between Christ’s teaching and that of the scribes and Pharisees confirms this.
I: How so?
C: The Jews of that day had a very great veneration for their scribes and Pharisees. The scribes and Pharisees were the main teachers and champions of the law. The Jewish people venerated the law of God as the divine thing it actually is. They didn’t always understand it, and they seldom obeyed it, but they always recognized it for what it is. They were like a good many Christian people who keep the Holy Bible in their houses and revere it as inspired, only to dust it off occasionally for lack of use. That is how the Jews reverenced their Scriptures and those who were the official interpreters of them.
I: I see. And they recognized that Jesus spoke with an authority that was different from the scribes’ authority. The scribes had authority as the expounders of the authoritative Word. Jesus had authority in and of Himself. The people knew that a scribe’s authority was outside himself. But Christ’s authority resided in Himself. He did not need to appeal to another authority.
C: Well said. And so we have seen that in a sermon on morals, Jesus has a great deal to say about His own person, even when He is not talking directly about that subject. He assumes His deity here, as in other places He asserts it. Having noticed this tacit assumption of deity in the sermon, let us turn to a direct assertion of it in Matthew 11.
I: Granted I’m no expert on Matthew, but I don’t remember Jesus’ saying anything like “I and the Father’’ in that Gospel. As I recall, Matthew is more preoccupied with Christ as the Messiah and the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, and
so on. Is it not?
C: You’re quite right. That makes any direct statement by Christ about His deity in that Gospel all the more outstanding. In chapter 11, He makes a very significant declaration: “No one knows the Father save the Son, and He to whomsoever He reveals Him. No one knows the Son except the Father, and He to whom He reveals Him.’’ Do you get the point?
To be continued…
Excerpted from Primitive Theology