The Gospel according to Mark records possibly one of the most significant questions that Jesus ever asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” This question has received as many responses throughout history as it did in the first century when it was asked, “John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.” In our own time, people herald Jesus as a great teacher, on par with Ghandi and Buddha; or one of the great prophets, such as Islam teaches; even in Jewish scholarship there has been a great revival in seeing Jesus as one of the great teachers of Israel. But then Jesus asked his disciples a second question, “But who do you say that I am?” And it is upon the answer given to this question that the entire Christian faith hinges. Here truly, as we would say in South Africa, “the tekkie hits the tar.” Mark simply records Peter as declaring, “You are the Christ,” while Matthew adds, “the Son of the living God.”
The next article of the creed deals with what we call Christology. Last time we did a short summary of the doctrine of God, concluding the first article of the Apostle’s Creed, and this week we shall give a short introduction to the second article of the Apostle’s Creed. In one sense, I would like to present the question Jesus asked to his disciples again, looking at the questions that faced the early Christians through the first four centuries, and hopefully introduce the question that we will be spending the next term on in a manner that piques your interest in the question afresh again. So, who do people say that Jesus is?
Is Jesus Human?
What many people don’t realise, is that one of the main questions toward the end of the first century and into the second century revolved around Jesus’ humanity. We can already see hints of this combatted in the questions which John addresses in his gospel and epistles, “For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh” (2 John 7). This is why John emphasized, "That… which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and have touched with our hands…” (1 John 1:1). Two early heresies were combatted by the use of such texts and eyewitness accounts of the apostles: Docetism and Gnosticism.
Docetism: Jesus only appeared human.
Possibly one of the first early heresies, and likely the heresy combatted by John in his letters, is what has come to be called Docetism. The term Docetism is derived from the Greek word dokein which means “to seem”. In this early position, those who taught this believed that Jesus did not come in the flesh, but rather seemed as though he had. The problems with this position can be discerned quite easily. If Jesus wasn’t actually human, and only an apparition of humanity, then his death did not accomplish anything, for he did not shed real blood for real sin. In this sense, it was absolutely important for those, such as John, who may have come into contact with some of these teachings to emphasize the true humanity of Jesus. This is why John employs all five of the sense when he describes his own experience of Christ, the one who was heard, seen, looked upon, and especially touched. Jesus was fully human and therefore shed real blood, and thus the blood he shed is sufficient for the cleansing of real sin.
Gnosticism: Jesus came to impart secret knowledge.
Possibly growing out of Docetism was the ancient heresy of Gnosticism, which has found a great resurgence in modern times with the discovery of many Gnostic texts at Nag Hammadi, Egypt. Thanks to this discovery, we can now understand very clearly what early church fathers such as Irenaeus was up against when he published his Against Heresies. Gnosticism was prevalent during the second century after Christ, and became popular through the circulation of alternate gospels called Gnostic Gospels, which portrayed Jesus as a heavenly figure who came down out of heaven to impart secret teachings to a select group of people who would accept this gnosis (secret knowledge), and by this knowledge be able to escape this wicked physical world and transcend to a spiritual abode in the heavens. For these gnostics, the man Jesus was not as important as the person Christ, who was the authentic teacher and saviour. One of the famous gnostic gospels to have been discovered in recent years is the Gospel of Judas, which portrays Judas as a hero who is the only one who understands the message of the Christ, and to whom the Christ has imparted secret knowledge. This knowledge is the reality that the Christ must escape the trappings of the physical body of Jesus, and Judas will be the means of escape by betraying him, which will lead to his eventual death. By this act, Judas becomes the hero and the only one to understand the divine language, showing himself to have the spark of divinity in himself which will lead to his deliverance from the trappings of his body. Gnostic teachings considered the physical body to be evil, and the spirit to be good, and so true salvation happened when we escaped the physical world and were taken up into the spiritual. Gnostic gospels, such as the Gospel of Thomas and Judas, contained many so called secret teachings of Jesus which, if grasped, brought about a spiritual salvation from the physical world, rather than redemption from sin.
Jesus, the man we confess.
So when the Creed affirms, “I believe in Jesus,” the use of Jesus’ actual name is affirming his full humanity, and is a very significant point of confession late in the second century when the Creed was first used, for these heresies flourished during this period. Early Christian orthodoxy affirmed the full humanity of Christ, and so affirmed his real suffering and actual death, and therefore the blood of Christ that was shed was his blood. Furthermore, the creed also affirms the actual death of Jesus for the remission of sins, and will also affirm the resurrection of his physical body. This was in contradiction to the Gnostic teachers who merely affirmed his teaching role as imparting mystical meaning in order to escape the physical world, and they certainly did not affirm his physical resurrection from the dead, but rather only his spiritual resurrection. This idea has resurfaced among scholars such as Marcus Borg who denies the physical resurrection of Jesus, and argues that Jesus rose “in the hearts of his disciples.” Now, while Borg will by no means say that he is a Gnostic teacher, the reality is that his denial of the physical resurrection of Jesus places him in the same camp as them. Jesus thus becomes the “Lord” through his teaching, and is present only in a mystical sense. But the early disciples and apostles, as well as those who followed them, were convinced on the point that Jesus actually rose physically from the dead, and it was on this point that the gospel was based (see 1 Corinthians 15). The creed affirms what the early apostolic church taught, and that was Jesus’ full humanity, his actual suffering on behalf of sin, and his physical resurrection from the dead.
Is Jesus God?
The battle over Jesus’ humanity was won already by the fourth century, and since then it has not become a major dispute. Apart perhaps from some fringe ecstatic groups through the centuries, no one denies that Jesus was an actual person who walked, talked, ate, and lived in Palestine during the first century. But starting in the late third to early fourth centuries, the question over Jesus’ divinity became of central concern, and this has lasted even into our own time. Now, while the Apostle’s Creed didn’t necessarily deal with this question primarily, it certainly did affirm the nature of Jesus as God’s “only Son,” and as with early Christian affirmation this is an affirmation of his eternal nature as divine. But how exactly is Jesus God’s Son? This became the focus of discussions during the third and fourth centuries as people tried to reconcile the evidence of Jesus’ own identity as the eternal Word made flesh (John 1:14) and his humanity. Two problems occurred that tried to reconcile these two.
Adoptionism: Jesus is adopted by God.
This early view which found it’s root possibly in the late second century, but came to full bloom in the third century, taught that “Jesus was merely an ordinary man of unusual virtue or closeness to God whom God ‘adopted’ into the divine Sonship.” It taught that the man Jesus was adopted when the Christ or Logos came upon him through the Spirit either at his baptism, or when he was declared to be the Son of God at his resurrection. It was here that upon the ordinary man Jesus divine status was conferred. Wayne Grudem writes, “Many modern people who think of Jesus as a great man and someone especially empowered by God, but not really divine, would fall into the adoptionist category.”
The problem with adoptionism is that it doesn’t take into account the apostolic teaching about the pre-existence of the Word (logos) which, as John wrote, “was with God, and was God” (John 1:1). John continues and writes that not only was the Word from the beginning, echoing Genesis 1:1, but that “all things were made through him.” This very Word “became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). Or even the author to the Hebrews who writes in 1:2 that the Son was the one “through whom also [God] created the world,” and then goes on to speak of the person of Jesus, as a result, being greater than Moses and even the angels. Furthermore, the fact that this Jesus was conceived of the Holy Spirit in the womb of the virgin Mary shows that his coming into this world is supernatural, and that though the Spirit came upon him at his baptism, this was not to say that this is the first time the Spirit was with him. The great hymn of Philippians 2 speaks of Jesus being in the form of God prior to his incarnation, and then speaks of his incarnation as his humbling himself to the place of a servant. Paul also speaks of Jesus’ pre-eminence through whom all things were created and for him (Colossians 2:16). So from this early apostolic record we can see that there was no indication that the early witness about Jesus contained any notion of adoptionism. Therefore this view did not take root.
Arianism: Jesus is an exalted creature.
The large battle was the Arian controversy in the fourth century, and is still prevalent today among the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Arius was an Alexandrian preacher who argued for a hierarchical order within the divine economy, of whom the Father was the only one who is fully divine. Michael Bird summarises his position, “So on Arius’s view, Jesus was a created being, the greatest created being by all accounts, but still a creature nonetheless.” For Arius, Jesus was in fact greater than the angels as the author of Hebrews argues, and through whom all else was created, because, arguing from Colossians 1:15, he said that the Son was “the firstborn of all creation,” and by this he understood that the Son was not the eternal Word of John 1, but rather the first creature to be created above all other creatures. So the Son did exist from the beginning, but not from before the beginning.
The church father, Athanasius, stood firmly against Arius, and at one time seemed to be the only one to stand against this controversy. There is a phrase in Latin ascribed to Athanasius which states, “Athanasius contra mundum,” which literally means, “Athanasius against the world.” Athanasius’ critique against Arius pointed out the impossibility for a creature, even a sinless creature, to pay the eternal debt of another creature's sin against the holy and righteous eternal God of heaven and earth. The sacrifice, if it needed to be once off for all eternity, had to be from an eternal being, and so it was necessary for God to become incarnate in Jesus in order to pay the debt on our behalf. Secondly, the plethora of passages that ascribes worship to Jesus which belongs to God alone was another devastating argument, because, as Bird points out, “The worship of an angel or even a super angel would be idolatrous and blasphemous because no one but God is worthy of the church’s worship.” And finally, the Jews had Jesus executed because they certainly understood that Jesus was making himself equal with God, not subordinated as a creature, even a highly exalted creature. Jesus was vindicated at his own resurrection, showing that the power of death could not hold him since he was no mere creature.
As we can see, the question Jesus has asked his own disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” has been a question of contention right throughout history, and remains so even in our own time. The difference between answering that Jesus is either a prophet, an exalted creature, a wise sage imparting secret knowledge, or God incarnate, is huge. C.S. Lewis' categories of liar, lunatic, or Lord still remains. Jesus was either a liar, a lunatic, or he is Lord. Either Christians worship an idol, or everyone who is not a Christian is worshipping something that is entirely false. The question Jesus posed, “Who do you say that I am?” remains one of the most important questions that you and I may face in this life. Christians are convinced that eternity hinges upon this very question.
Over the course of the next term, we are going to be looking at what The Apostle’s Creed affirms about the nature of Jesus’ identity, and we are going to attempt to answer the question in light of what we believe the Bible teaches about who Jesus is. I encourage you, regardless of how you answer the question at present, to continue reading and thinking, and allow the question that Jesus posed to his disciples almost two thousand years ago to confront you in our own time. Who is Jesus for you? Is he a prophet, a wise sage, or is he, as Peter said, “The Christ, the Son of the living God”?
 See this article by Craig Evans on the identify of Jesus in the ancient world and modern scholarship:http://www.craigaevans.com/Holmen-Porter_vol-2_13_Evans.pdf
 A “tekkie” is slang in South Africa for running shoes.
 McDonald, H.D. 1988. Docetism (in Ferguson, S. B. et al eds. 1988. New Dictionary of Theology. Grand Rapids: Intervarsity Press), pg. 201.
 See Marcus Borg’s article: http://www.marcusjborg.com/2011/05/16/the-resurrection-of-jesus/
 For an excellent defence of the physical resurrection of Jesus, see: Wright, N. T. 2003. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
 Kearsley, R. 1988. Adoptionism (in Ferguson, S. B. et al eds. 1988. New Dictionary of Theology. Grand Rapids: Intervarsity Press), 6.
 Grudem, W. 1994. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids: Inter-Varsity Press, pg. 245.
 Bird, M. F. 2016. What Christians Ought To Believe. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, pg. 80.
 See Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word.
 Bird, pg. 81.
I am the pastor/elder of a small suburban church on the outskirts of Cape Town. I enjoy coffee, theology, and fresh air. We are grateful to have all three in abundance.