King Ahaz was enough of a good guy to at least have the prophet Isaiah trying to encourage him. Ahaz had refused to join in with an anti-Assyrian alliance, and Syria (also called Aram) and Ephraim (also called Israel) had attacked Judah for not joining with them. They failed in that attack, but succeeded gloriously in rattling Ahaz badly. Isaiah invites Ahaz to ask for a sign from God, but Ahaz (somewhat petulantly) declined to do so. And so Isaiah offered the sign—a sign with two layers.
“Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14).
Summary of the Text:
We are not told this explicitly, but the first Immanuel might well have been a son to Isaiah. In this section of the book, the prophet has had two other sons with names full of meaning (Is. 7:3; 8:1). And the word for virgin here is interesting. The Hebrew word almah means young woman or virgin, and so the sign for Ahaz was not one of a remarkable birth. The sign was that before a child could be conceived, borne, and grow to a rudimentary knowledge of right and wrong, the kings that he was so worried about would be long gone.
But then centuries after this, when the Old Testament was translated into Greek (starting in the 3rd century B.C.), the Greek word the rabbis chose to render the word almah was parthenos. Parthenos means virgin, only virgin, and nothing but virgin. So the first Immanuel was born of an almah, and the second Immanuel was born of a parthenos. The important point here is that, centuries before any Christians were arguing for the virgin birth of Christ, the rabbis had had no problem rendering Isaiah’s passage in this way. And when Matthew cites the passages, he makes the same choice—parthenos.
“Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Behold, a virgin [parthenos] shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us” (Matt. 1:22–23).
But the real sleeper in this passage in found in that word Immanuel. When you read this verse on a Christmas card, or hear it read at a Christmas program, the effect is profoundly comforting. God with us. But if your experience is anything like that of the early church, at some point you will have to say, “Hey . . . wait a minute.” How does this fit with our definition of God?
From the Very Start:
Jesus is the single most arresting figure in all of human history. And for His followers in the first century, the authority of His person translated immediately and naturally into responding to Him as God.
This in itself was really unusual, because Jesus was born in the tribe of Judah, in the nation of Israel, a people that had had pagan forms of idolatry painstakingly beaten out of them over the course of multiple centuries. From the incident of the Golden Calf down to the exile into Babylon, the people had repeatedly fallen prey to gross idolatry. But after the exile, the Jews had become fanatical about not allowing images in their midst—all their idols were now down in their hearts. In other words, if a man were to come to be treated as God, this is the last place on earth where you might expect something like that to happen.
“Then they that were in the ship came and worshipped him, saying, Of a truth thou art the Son of God” (Matt. 14:33) “And Thomas answered and said unto him, My Lord and my God” (John 20:28). “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made” (John 1:1–3). “For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him: And he is before all things, and by him all things consist” (Col. 1:16–17).
So from the very beginning, Christ has been worshiped by Christians as the Creator God (Rom. 1:4). That was the raw material that subsequent generations of Christians inherited.
The Nicea “Wait a Minute”:
But it did raise some thorny questions. And it did provoke some heretics, who denied it all and wanted to be accepted by the Church anyway. All these things took centuries to unfold, but by 325 A.D. it all came to a point. The question came to a head was this: homoousia and homoiousia—was Christ the same substance with God the Father, or of a similar substance with Him? This was actually a monumental question. The wiseacre historian who belittled it as a huge ruckus over the letter iota is just showing us how much he knows—that’s like saying the debate over atheism and theism is a debate over the letter a.
And Nicea settled the question definitively. Christ is God. He is not “like” God.
The Chalcedon “Wait a Minute”:
It took another century (451 A.D.), but there was another “wait a minute.” If Christ is God, then—the question naturally arises—is He really man then? And, if so, what is the relationship between His Deity and His humanity? And those are the questions addressed by the creed we recited this morning.
The Definition of Chalcedon affirmed, in unambiguous terms, that in the “hypostatic union” we find one person, the Lord Jesus, who has two natures that were united without confusing them, mingling them, or mashing them together. That which is predicated of one nature can be faithfully predicated of the person, and that which is predicated of the other nature can be predicated of the person, but that which is predicated of one nature cannot be predicated of the other nature.
So who cares? Let me make it concrete. Jesus is God. Jesus was 5’11” (say). Can we say that Deity is 5’11”? Jesus is God. Mary is the mother of Jesus. Is Mary the mother of God? No. She was the mother of the one who is God.
There are numerous implications, but one writer thinks (correctly, in my view) that this decision at Chalcedon was one of the most pivotal events in all church history. “Chalcedon handed statism its major defeat in man’s history.” In a world of undifferentiated being, the state can swell up to any size it wants. But not anymore. In a subsequent message we will unpack why this matters, why societies tend to conform to their views of ultimate reality.
To use the categories of the theologian Peter Jones, there are two basic approaches to reality—oneism and twoism. In oneism, all things are part of the same great chain of being. This makes room, in principle, for the most conceited ambitions. But in twoism, there is an infinite divide between Creator and creation. There is one (and only one) intersection between the two, and that intersection is our Lord Jesus Christ. But note, even at that intersection, the nature of humanity and divinity must never be muddled. In fact, coming to Christ is the only way to prevent them from being muddled.
Because of what happened at the first Christmas, and because of how it was defined and defended at Chalcedon, it is possible for mankind to be saved and glorified without being deified. The Incarnation brings us together with God, back into fellowship and union with God, but with a hard stop built into the system.
And the point of union and the point of distinction are forever and always the same, our Lord Jesus Christ.