#3  God is Fully Revealed in Jesus, but the Christ is not Limited to Jesus

THE TWO PREVIOUS CHAPTERS have emphasized the greatness of God. But if God is so great and, indeed, greater than we think or even can think, how can we possibly know God? While most would readily agree that we humans cannot know God completely, can we know God partially? While we looked at this matter briefly in the previous chapter, let’s consider this question more fully now.

One of the basic assertions of Christianity, especially in its traditional Protestant understanding, is that knowledge of God is not due primarily to human effort. Rather, our knowledge of God is the result of God taking the initiative to reveal Godself to human beings. Moreover, the central Christian affirmation is that God’s self-revelation took place primarily through Jesus of Nazareth.

Perhaps you have heard the old joke about the person who was asked if he had found God. He replied to the question by exclaiming, “I didn’t know God was lost!” A point well taken. It is we humans who lost our awareness of God, so God seeks to restore a relationship with us who have become estranged from God. Thus we can say that, as Abraham Joshua Heschel, the famous Jewish scholar has emphasized, God is in search of humans more than humans are in search of God.[1]

Christians have generally recognized the Israelites of Old Testament times as God’s chosen people, thus, a means of God’s revelation. That, of course, was a central point of Heschel. But Christians go on to assert that it was through one particular Jew, Jesus of Nazareth, that God has been most fully revealed to the world of human beings.

The Universal and the Particular

Christianity has long had to wrestle with what is called “the scandal of particularity,” and many have spurned Christianity because they considered such particularity unacceptable. There has been widespread rejection of the idea that the Jewish people are God’s unique “chosen people”—a sentiment expressed in the catchy couplet, “How odd of God / To choose the Jews.”[2]

Christians, generally, have agreed that the Jews were, indeed, God’s chosen people. They were chosen, it is believed, to be the ones to whom the Savior of the world would be sent. So, traditionally, many prophesies of the what Christians call the Old Testament are about the coming of the Messiah, a Hebrew title expressed in Greek as Christ and in English as Savior.

But to many contemporary people, as well as to some thinkers of past centuries, all of this smacks of too much particularity. Thus, part of the appeal of much so-called New Age religion, which in many ways is a recycling of the “old age” religious beliefs of India, is its universality or all-inclusiveness. God, or some alternative designation such as the Absolute, the Eternal, the All, is envisioned as being universally available to all persons, and, often, as existing in all persons.

To most proponents of New Age religion, God is not distant or remote from human beings, but a Being or Power one can “access” directly without any intermediary—or without difficulty, if the proper techniques, such as meditating, chanting, or the like, are used. Revelation is not necessary. There is no “savior” or mediator needed between humans and “God.” Unity with the Divine is possible through direct, personal encounter.

It is not surprising that traditional Christian thinkers have mostly rejected New Age religion or that New Age religionists have largely rejected Christianity. There are, indeed, great differences between the two. Christianity emphasizes particularity; New Age religion emphasizes universality. Is there any way the two can be brought closer together?

The previous two chapters have been about the greatness of God, which is another way of speaking about the universality or all-inclusiveness of God. But is it true that the universal, all-inclusive God has been revealed fully in Jesus Christ? Through the centuries that has been the stupendous claim of Christianity that sets it apart from other religious faiths. The universal was revealed in the particular, in a single Jewish man, Jesus of Nazareth. The universal God is known through the particular.

But a key question remains: Is God known only through Jesus, or can it be correctly asserted that God is fully revealed in Jesus but that the Christ is not limited to Jesus? I think it can, and my thinking is based largely on the first chapter of the Gospel of John.

The Importance of John 1

The first chapter of the Gospel according to John is one of the most important parts of the New Testament for our understanding of who Jesus is and how Jesus is related to God. That pivotal chapter begins with the affirmation of Jesus as the eternal Word. That term is the English translation of logos, a term pregnant with meaning.

In the Chinese Bible, logos is expressed by the character that means way and long rendered into English as tao (or dao). It is instructive to read the Tao Te Ching or other classical Chinese writings and to think of the tao being the same as the logos of John 1.

That which is expressed by tao in ancient Chinese religion is also expressed by the term dharma, a Sanskrit word expressing a foundational concept in the religions that sprang up in India. That term is often translated into English as law, with the idea being that this is the basic way of life that Hindus or Buddhists follow through life.

In the Greek world before and during the time of Jesus, logos was considered in somewhat the same way as tao was in China and dharma in India. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus established the term in Western philosophy as meaning both the course and the fundamental order of the cosmos.[3]. Further, Philo, the Jewish philosopher who was a contemporary of Jesus, identified logos with the Jewish law, the Torah.[4]

So the first chapter of John begins with this statement of great significance:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people (vv. 1-4).

But what is really significant, and problematical for many people, is the assertion that follows in verse fourteen: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” The Word (logos) who was with God in the beginning and through whom all things came into existence is identified with one particular human being, the one known as Jesus of Nazareth.

From this passage we are told that the universal is known in the particular, the eternal is known in the temporal, God is made known by a single human being. Further, John 1:18 states, “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” God is fully revealed in Jesus.

And yet, along with this particularity—but not in place of it—we also need to acknowledge the universality of God’s revelation. Or, to express the same idea in a different way, we need to consider the possibility that the Christ is not limited to Jesus.

The Christ is not Limited to Jesus

To many people, even to many Christians, Christ is thought of as a part of Jesus’ name—almost like it was his “last name.” We must recognize, though, that the particular Jewish man who lived some two thousand years ago and who became the key figure in a new religious movement that came to be called Christianity was Jesus of Nazareth. During his lifetime, except for the beliefs of a small number of followers toward the end of his public ministry, that is the only name he would have had.

In the well-known “final exam” that Jesus gave to his disciples, Jesus asked them what others said about him and then asked them directly, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter aced the exam when he replied, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:15-16).

As we have already noted, Christ is the Greek word for the Hebrew title Messiah, and according to Peter’s confession of faith, and the confessions of countless Christians through the centuries, Jesus is the Christ. But is the Christ limited to Jesus? Probably not. Even in the first chapter of John, there are the enigmatic words about the logos being life and also being light, the “true light, which enlightens everyone” (v. 9), as mentioned in the previous chapter.

New Age religion, and even some expressions of Christianity, talk about there being a divine “spark” or something of divinity as part of the essence of each person. That is not what I am suggesting here. Rather, there is some light of the eternal Word, some revelation of God, that shines universally. People generally may not have the full light of God’s revelation, but they are not in complete darkness either.

According to the first chapter of Romans, ever since the creation of the world God’s “eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made” (v. 20). The “things” God has made includes not just the physical universe but human beings also, people made in the image of God, according to traditional Christian teachings.

Further, according to the Apostle Paul in his famous sermon on Mars’ Hill in Athens, God is not a distant deity, as sometimes thought by some Christians as well as by those who are not Christian believers. Paul declared that God “is not far from each one of us” for “we are God’s offspring.” He apparently included the non-Christian Greeks in his statement in the “we” and “us,” for he was quoting the Greek poets who wrote, “In him we live and move and have our being” and, “For we too are his offspring” (vv. 27-29).

Yes, the Word became flesh in Jesus of Nazareth, but that Word is the eternal logos, understood as the tao in China, as the dharma in India, as the torah among the Jews. The light of the Word has enabled the Chinese to speak of Heaven, the Asian Indians to speak of Brahman, the Native Americans to speak of the Great Spirit.

For the Chinese, Indian, or Native American people, their awareness of Heaven, Brahman, or the Great Spirit was a part of the totality of their lives and their culture. It was an awareness that everyone in those cultures had to a greater or lesser degree. The Word (logos) is the true light that enlightens everyone in the world.

Is Jesus God?

What is the relationship of Jesus Christ to God, then? That question is one that has perplexed Christians, including the many learned theologians, throughout the history of Christianity. That question is also one that has been at the heart of the doctrinal tension especially between Christianity and Judaism as well as Islam.

The issue at stake is usually referred to as the divinity of Jesus. The strong monotheistic stance of Judaism and Islam has made it impossible for Jews or Muslims to acknowledge that Jesus is God. They had, or have, been brought up to believe with all their heart that “The Lord is our God, the Lord alone” (Deuteronomy 6:4). And from the beginning until the present day, the most fundamental Muslim statement of faith has been, and is, There is no god but God (Allah).

But Jesus’ first followers were Jews, too. They could not accept a worldview that rejected monotheism. And they did not. They did not worship Jesus Christ in place of the God whom Jesus taught them to address as Father (Abba). And they did not worship Jesus along with the Lord they had worshipped as Jews in some type of bitheism (a belief in two gods).

The early Christians’ rich experience led them to the conclusion that in some inexplicable way Jesus was God. The early formulation of what is generally called the divinity of Jesus was not originally worked out as a theological statement, carefully thought out. Rather, it was an expression of faith by those who had encountered God in and through Jesus in an undeniable way.

According to John’s Gospel, after Jesus’ resurrection, the Apostle Thomas initially doubted the veracity of the reports of that miraculous event. But upon seeing the resurrected Christ, Thomas exclaimed, “My Lord and my God!” In the contemporary world, many people use the words “Oh my God!” as an expression of surprise or amazement. While it is true that Thomas was both surprised and amazed when he saw the resurrected Christ, the words attributed to him by John were not just an exclamation. It was, most likely, a declaration of faith.

It was because of the first disciples’ encounter of the resurrected Christ that they saw him as more than just an ordinary human being. They had come to believe in him as the Messiah—but there was no necessity of considering a Messiah more than a man. But through the resurrection, they saw Jesus not only as the Christ but also saw Jesus Christ as God. That is why in the letter to the church at Colossae, Paul writes about Jesus Christ being “the image of the invisible God” and declares that in him “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (1:15, 19).

It was not Jesus of Nazareth, a Jewish man, who was God, though; it was Jesus Christ. The concept contained in the title Christ is broader than the reference to the man Jesus. And the religion that resulted is Christianity, not Jesusanity. Popular religion places much emphasis on Jesus, even to the point of worship. Strictly speaking, though, Jesus should not be worshipped; true worship is for God alone. But since God is fully revealed in Jesus, we can worship Jesus as Jesus Christ.

Still, it is important to remember that the Christ is not limited to Jesus—and neither is God’s Spirit, the subject of the next chapter. Present-day Christians need a greater understanding of the Creator God, a broadened understanding of Jesus Christ, and a deep understanding of the Holy Spirit.

[1] Heschel (1907–1972) was a Warsaw-born American rabbi and one of the leading Jewish theologians and Jewish philosophers of the 20th century. One of his best-known books is God in Search of Man (1955). One of the most powerful books I read in seminary was Heschel’s The Prophets (1962).

[2] These words are attributed to William Norman Ewer (1885-1967), a British journalist.

[3] Heraclitus (c.535-c.475 B.C.) was one of the first significant Greek philosophers, and his influence was felt by Plato and Aristotle as well as by the Stoic philosophers.

[4] Philo, born in Alexandria, Egypt, in 20 B.C., sought to fuse and harmonize Greek philosophy and Judaism. His influence probably lies behind the statement about logos in John 1. He died in A.D. 50.