No Mere God
The Fascinating Tension in Jesus Christ
Article by Marshall Segal, staff writer, desiringGod.org
They feared they were about to drown. Had I been in their shoes, ankle deep and rising in water, feeling their boat give way to an angry storm, I probably would have begun to think of loved ones, of the goodbyes I’d never hear. “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” (Mark 4:38). It was perfectly human to fear death, pervasively human even (Hebrews 2:15).
Except for one human, who had been sleeping through the storm. He may have missed the natural disaster altogether, even as the water began to fill the boat and winds threatened to throw them overboard. Had any nap ever displayed more power? Had any sleep ever shined with as much beauty? He could rest, of course, because he trusted God perfectly. Indeed, as his men would soon discover, he was God. What might be lost on us today, though, is that he had to rest, because he was truly human like us. In fact, he was tired enough to sleep not just through a storm, but in a storm. He could put the seas to rest, and yet his friends still had to wake him.
“He could put the seas to rest, and yet his friends still had to wake him.”
With three words, “Peace! Be still!” the waves gave way and the wind retreated. Imagine the disciples, in one moment frantically watching their lives pass before their eyes, and in the next witnessing the heavens suddenly wave their white flag of surrender. Confronted with his unparalleled power and manifest frailty, his Godness and his humanity, they asked what any of us should ask: “Who then is this?”
That terrible night at sea, while unmistakably magnificent, is eclipsed in our collective memory by another night, more than thirty years earlier. In Bethlehem a child was born, as millions of babies had been before him, and yet utterly and gloriously different. The Son of God, who held the universe in his hands (Hebrews 1:3; Colossians 1:17), laid in the arms of another — now fragile, vulnerable, needy. He never stopped ruling every molecule in every galaxy, yet he had to learn his letters, colors, and animals.
Before he made the world, he was already the “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6), but now he added a new title: newborn. We regularly stop to reflect and sing below the wondrous cross and before the empty tomb, but was the mystery of Christ’s majesty ever more poignant than in his infancy? How could God himself emerge from an ordinary womb without ceasing to be God? No one had ever seen God (John 1:18), and yet now we could hold him?
Beware of giving up too quickly before the mysteries of christology, of assuming these waters are too deep and choppy for you, and heading back to shore. None of us will fully grasp the depth and weight of his wonder — “the unsearchable riches of Christ” (Ephesians 3:8) — but that means all of us have more to see. And I believe harder-to-understand facets of who he is actually are fitted to the needs, wounds, and longings we all feel.
While the phrase may sound like something out of aerospace engineering, the hypostatic union is surprisingly, even intimately, personal: the Son of God, Jesus Christ, has a fully divine nature, and a fully human nature, wholly joined in one undivided person.
In early church discussions, the Greek word hypostasis came to refer to persons of the Godhead, in distinction from the natures (physis) of divinity and humanity. The hypostatic union, then, is the union in one person of two natures, human and divine. That any of us is just one person inspires very little, if any, controversy or confusion at all. Such is not the case with Christ. The Scriptures plainly attribute unmistakable facets of both the divine and human natures to him. We need a phrase like hypostatic union because of the fascinating tension we meet in Jesus of Nazareth: Was he truly God? Was he really man? We need some way of resolving, or at least labeling, what we thought we knew about God and humanity with what the Bible clearly says about the Jesus of history.
The tension, of course, is really no tension at all, but a mysterious, beautiful, and perfect harmony of two distinct natures in one person. Jesus is the Son of God, and he was never not God. And Jesus is human like us, and he, like us, will never not be human again. The hypostatic union is simply (and inexplicably) the union of Jesus’s two natures — his Godness and his manness — mysteriously, inseparably, arrestingly in one spectacular person.
“If we stay in the shallows of Christ, we should not be surprised if the truth has only shallow effects on our souls.”
Jesus did not become a person the day he was conceived, but he did add to his eternal person (or take on) a true and complete human nature. The Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, became human, making himself vulnerable to heartache, sickness, temptation, and death. He did not lay aside his divinity — as if such a thing were even conceivable — and he did not borrow someone else’s body. He was truly God, and then became truly man as well. If he were not truly God, then whoever died on the cross, God did not die for our sins, and no other blood would suffice (Hebrews 10:4). And if Jesus were not truly man, “in every respect,” then he could not be the sacrifice for our sins (Hebrews 2:17).
In October of 451, church bishops came together to address serious controversies that had arisen over the person and work of Christ. The 521 participants wrote the Chalcedonian Creed, which has served as ground zero for the church’s understanding of the God-man ever since. The creed clarifies how Jesus’s two full and complete natures relate to one another in this singular person (and, in particular, how they do not relate to each other):
We, then, following the holy Fathers, all with one consent, teach men to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man . . . to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably. . . .
The creed confesses the two natures of Jesus Christ in one whole person — what we call “the hypostatic union” — and then rules out four prevalent misunderstandings about the relationship between the natures in four carefully selected adverbs: inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably.
First, the two natures of Christ come together in one person without confusion. His divinity and humanity did not produce a third nature, but remain distinct. His divine nature is truly, thoroughly divine — God in every way — and his human nature is truly, thoroughly human — man in every way.
Second, his natures also never change. By fully taking on the human experience — body and soul — he in no way stopped being divine. The Son of God never stopped being and acting as God. The incarnation was not an interruption but a new manifestation of one and the same Son — not a subtraction but an addition.
“Was the mystery of Christ’s majesty ever more poignant than in his infancy?”
Third, while the natures are distinct, they do not divide Jesus. Perhaps this is the hardest tension for us to hold together with our finite minds. We do not know how he continued upholding the universe in his divine mind while he was learning to build furniture out of wood in his human mind, but we know the Son of God did both simultaneously — no division — in a way that surpasses our experience and imaginations as mere humans. As Stephen Wellum writes,
Whenever we look at the life of Christ and ask, Who did this? Who said this? Who suffered death for us? the answer is always the same: God the Son. Why? Because it is not the divine or human nature which acts and thus does things; rather it is the person of the Son acting in and through the divine and human natures. It is the Son who was born, baptized, tempted, transfigured, betrayed, arrested, condemned, and who died. It was the Son who shed his blood for us to secure our salvation. It is in the Son that all of God’s righteous demands are met so that our salvation is ultimately of God. It is the Son who also rose from the dead and who now reigns as King of kings and Lord of lords. (God the Son Incarnate, 306–7)
Last, the divinity and humanity have not been and cannot be separated — not since he was conceived, not when he was crucified, and not now as he sits, fully human, on the throne of heaven. Jesus will always be God, always be human, and always be one person.
Not One of Us Is Simple
Maybe the hypostatic union would not feel so overwhelming if we wrestled more with how mysteriously complex we ourselves are. We are, after all, each of us made in the image of an infinite God who is one essence and yet three persons. John Piper writes,
We mere mortals are not simple either. We are pitiful, yet we have mighty passions. We are weak, yet we dream of doing wonders. We are transient, but eternity is written on our hearts. The glory of Christ shines all the brighter because the conjunction of his diverse excellencies corresponds perfectly to our complexity. (Seeing and Savoring Jesus Christ, 32)
If we mistake ourselves for simple humans, the supremely fascinating tensions in Christ may scare us away from deeper wonder and worship. We’ll stay near the shore of Jesus’s glory, rather than wading further out into all that he is. And we will inevitably miss or even avoid aspects of him, aspects that might heal or satisfy the deeper, more complicated places in us. If we stay in the shallows of Christ, we should not be surprised if the truth about him has only shallow effects on our souls.
We all subtly (or overtly) gravitate to his mercy or his justice, his sovereignty or his humility, his boldness or his compassion, his Godness or his humanness. If we see Jesus as more God than man, however, he will often feel too far away and impersonal. If we are prone to focus on his humanity, and are not regularly awed by his transcendence, he may feel close and relatable, but his holiness and majesty will slowly and tragically begin to feel like obstacles to our relationship with him.
While we will never fully understand all of the complexities and fascinating tensions in Christ, we need all of him — merciful and just, sovereign and humble, bold and compassionate, patient and full of wrath, true God and true man.
Marshall Segal (@marshallsegal) is a writer and managing editor at desiringGod.org. He’s the author of Not Yet Married: The Pursuit of Joy in Singleness & Dating. He graduated from Bethlehem College & Seminary. He and his wife, Faye, have a son and live in Minneapolis.