Bird’s Eye View of Paul (17) the identity of Jesus the Christ

The next chapter of Michael Bird’s excellent book on Paul is ‘One God, One Lord: Monotheism and the Messiah.’

There can be no more important question within the Christian faith than that of the identity of Jesus Christ.

I am teaching a course on Christology [the person of Jesus] next term. This chapter is a really helpful summary of the astonishing things Paul says about Jesus the Messiah.

Larry Hurtado and Richard Bauckham have been two influential writers arguing that the NT shows how the first Christians came to understand Jesus as being included in the identity of God. [Hurtado is lecturing in Dublin this evening – sadly I can’t go).  In other words, the NT holds absolutely to monotheism, yet speaks of Jesus in remarkably unambiguous terms as one who shares the functions and status of God himself. Bird works off Bauckham’s conclusions and discusses (briefly) some key texts.

I’ll just mention some:

1 Corinthians 8:6

This text mirrors the Shema of Deuteronomy 6:4 “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” Paul re-phrases it as “There is one God, the Father … and one Lord Jesus Christ through whom are all things and through whom we live”. Clearly, Jesus is described as within the framework of the Shema, yet carefully distinguished from the Father.

1 Cor 16:22 “Our Lord Come!” uses the Aramaic Marana tha where mara stands for Lord or Yahweh (kyrios in the Greek translation of the OT, the Septuagint).

Phil 2:5-11 a poem of messianic monotheism which places Jesus within the divine identity and reveals the depth and purpose of his incarnation. Bird highlights four points:

i. Phrases like ‘in the form of God’ and ‘equality with God’ indicate the characteristics of deity. The theme is gracious condescension of the servant.

ii. That Jesus does not ‘grasp’ onto equality with God means that his very identity as the pre-existent Son uniquely qualifies him for the role of saviour

iii. He ‘empties himself’ refers not so much to what is emptied but how – pointing to his incarnation and ultimately the cross.

iv. Verses 9-11, speaking of Jesus, say every knee will bow before him and every tongue confess him as Lord. This is an obvious reference to Isaiah 45 which says the same things about Yahweh. The implications are clear – Jesus is being talked of in parallel ways to Yahweh, the Lord.

Colossians 1:15-20

A classic Christological text

Jesus is involved in creation and redemption

  • – Sovereign over creation [the meaning of firstborn is rank not a created being]
  • – Supreme; pre-existent
  • – Bird even calls Jesus ‘the intergalactic glue that holds the universe together’
  • – In whom redemption is found
  • – In whom the fullness of God dwells
  • – Ruler over all powers and authorities through whose work on the cross cosmic reconciliation occurs
  • – The entire created order is set in motion by him and for him

Even from these snapshot sketches it is clear that Paul and the early Jewish Christians had such a remarkable experience of Jesus that they could, without hesitation worship him as the resurrected Lord and the incarnate Son. Yet they did so with theological subtlety, maintaining a monotheistic faith in the one God of Israel who acts through his Son, in the power of his Spirit, to redeem the world. Thus for Paul, God is known “in the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ , in the love of the Father and in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.”

Bird’s focus is simply on Paul so of course he doesn’t get into how these claims for centuries have been, and are, the subject of fierce debate and ongoing ‘quests’. One thing is clear. Just as the gospel is all about the good news of Jesus, so Christianity itself is ‘all about Jesus’ – who he is and what he has done. Yet this christocentricism should NEVER be divorced from monotheism and Trinitarianism. Paul held them together, so should we. This is the wonder and mystery of the triune God.

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