“Who do you say that I am?” This is the question Jesus asked the disciples before beginning the final part of His earthly ministry.
Peter’s response to His question is well known: “You are the Christ.” Peter recognized that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah, the Christ promised throughout the Old Testament. Of course, Peter was not yet able to reconcile in his own mind how the promised Messiah could also suffer and die. He had yet to realize that the exalted figure of Daniel 7 was the same as the suffering figure of Isaiah 53. This truth would become fully clear to him only after the resurrection and ascension of Christ.
One thing that the disciples did recognize very quickly was that Jesus was no ordinary man. They saw Him do things and say things that indicated He was fully and truly human. He hungered and thirsted. He grew weary and slept. He suffered and died. But they also saw Him doing things that only God could do. They heard Him saying things that only God should say. With Thomas, they were brought to confess that Jesus is Lord and that Jesus is God (John 20:28).
For the first disciples, who were Jews steeped in the Old Testament, this would raise important questions. Every Jew had been taught from childhood the fundamental confession of faith:
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. (Deut. 6:4-5)
There is only one God. Yet this Jesus was doing and saying things that only God can do or say. And He was doing and saying things that are only appropriate of human beings.
How do we reconcile this?
The Pharisees reconciled it by concluding that Jesus was a blaspheming liar, and they condemned Him. His followers, on the other hand, reconciled it by concluding that He was who He said He was—the Word who was with God and who was God (John 1:1), the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14).
It was not long, however, before teachers arose who reconciled the various facts in ways that either distorted or destroyed the truth. Before the New Testament was even completed, for example, there were those who were denying that Christ came in the flesh (1 John 4:3). How important is Christology? Well, John refers to this particular christological error as “the spirit of the antichrist.” Things cannot get much more serious than that.
In the centuries after the completion of the New Testament, many would attempt to explain how we can confess that God is one and also confess that Jesus is God. Many would attempt to explain how this One we confess to be God could suffer and die given the fact that God cannot suffer and die. Many would attempt to explain how this One could exhibit characteristics of both God and man.
The struggle to find the biblical answer to these questions and others is the history of the Trinitarian and Christological debates.
One’s answers to these questions determine whether one is worshipping the triune God revealed in Scripture or an idol of one’s own imagination. One’s answers determine whether one is a follower of Jesus Christ the Son of God or a follower of one of the multitude of false christs.
Over the coming months, we will examine the historical struggle to state the biblical doctrine of Christ. We will look closely at those creedal statements that have been regarded as authoritative expressions of what Scripture teaches. We will also look closely at the erroneous views that have been rejected as unbiblical.
Our goal is to answer clearly the most important question any human being will ever face: “Who do you say that Jesus is?”
This article is part of the Introduction to Orthodox Christology collection.