This is another in a series of excerpts from “What Every Christian Should Know About the Trinity,” available through Amazon and other booksellers.
Lorenzo Snow, fifth president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, once claimed the Spirit of God fell upon him and revealed a principle that has become an apt summary of Mormonism: “As man now is, God once was; As God now is, man may be.”
In other words, the LDS god of this world once was a mere human who attained deity, showing us the path to our own godhood. This principle of “eternal progression” is a stunningly unbiblical doctrine that sets Mormonism outside the boundaries of historic Christianity. At the same time, it raises questions, not only about God, but about the Son of God: Who is Jesus? Where did He come from? Why and how did He become human?
The doctrine of the Incarnation – God becoming a human being in Jesus of Nazareth – is central to Christianity. Get it wrong and many other non-negotiable doctrines of the Christian faith quickly veer into counterfeit territory.
When we talk about the “Incarnation,” we mean the eternal Son of God took on human flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. As such, Jesus is one person in two distinct but undivided natures: human and divine.
These two natures work together as the eternal Son of God adds sinless humanity to His deity via the miracle of the virgin birth, which we celebrate tomorrow.
Let’s briefly explore six key passages of Scripture that help us understand what it means when the apostle John writes, “the Word became flesh.”
John 1:14 – “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. We observed his glory, the glory as the one and only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
The eternal Son of God always had a divine nature. He was with God in the beginning, and John makes it clear He was God (John 1:1). In the Incarnation, He added a real human nature and thus became both God and man.
The word “dwelt” may be translated “tabernacled.” Just as the divine presence was with ancient Israelites in the pillar of cloud and fire, the tabernacle, and the temple, Yahweh now manifested Himself in the person of Jesus Christ, the God-Man.
Rom. 1:3-4 – “concerning his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who was a descendant of David according to the flesh and was appointed to be the powerful Son of God according to the Spirit of holiness by the resurrection of the dead.”
Paul recognizes Jesus’ humanity through His ancestry as a descendant of King David. His divine nature as the unique Son of God, however, is proven through His miraculous resurrection from the dead.
Rom. 9:5 – “The ancestors are theirs [Israelites], and from them, by physical descent, came the Christ, who is God over all, praised forever. Amen.”
Jesus’ human nature is linked to His Jewish lineage, and His divine nature makes Him “God over all.”
A few translations try to soften this clear claim of deity. The Contemporary English Version, for example, renders it, “I pray that God, who rules over all, will be praised forever!”
However, as Kenneth Samples points out in God Among Sages, “Contextually, this reference to ‘God over all’ applies to the person of Christ and is not a separate doxological reference to God.”
With respect to Jesus’ ancestry, we should note that Matthew and Luke list different genealogies. While much has been written about this, it may help to consider that Matthew is writing to a predominantly Jewish audience and thus follows the line of Joseph (Jesus’ legal father) through David’s son Solomon. Meanwhile, Luke has a broader audience in mind, so he follows the line of Mary (Jesus’ blood relative) through David’s son Nathan.
Phil. 2:5-7 – “Adopt the same attitude as that of Christ Jesus, who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to be exploited. Instead he emptied himself by assuming the form of a servant, taking on the likeness of humanity.”
This passage reflects a primitive Christian hymn. From all eternity, Jesus is of the same essence as God and thus is God. Even though, in eternity past, Jesus possessed the nature and prerogatives of deity, He did not cling to His privileged position at the Father’s right hand. Rather, He humbled Himself, adding sinless humanity to His deity and thus becoming the God-Man.
Col. 2:9 – “For the entire fullness of God’s nature dwells bodily in Christ.” As the NIV renders it, “all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form.”
In this passage, the apostle Paul responds to heretical views that later found their place in Gnosticism – namely, the categorical denial that Christ had come in the flesh. Paul emphatically states that Jesus is full divinity wrapped in human skin. The Incarnation is central to Paul’s writings here and elsewhere.
1 John 4:2– “This is how you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God …”
The apostle John counters first-century Docetics, a heretical group that embraces the deity of Christ but denies His humanity, arguing that Jesus only appears to be human (from the Greek dokeo, “to seem”). John makes “God in the flesh” a true test of Christian orthodoxy, arguing that every true “spirit” – a person claiming divine gifting for service – upholds the doctrine of the God-Man.
These verses illustrate the significance of the Incarnation. As theologian Gerald Bray writes, “The Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father and fully equal to him in every respect, became a man so that he could unite us to himself, pay the price for our sins, and bring us back to God.”
The Roman Catholic Church traces its beginning to the apostle Peter, claiming he is the rock upon whom Jesus built His church (Matt. 16:18). As the first pope, Peter is followed by an unbroken line of successors stretching to Pope Francis today. Non-Catholics establish the beginning of the Roman Catholic Church at A.D. 590 with Gregory I, who consolidated the power of the bishopric in Rome.
In any case, the Catholic Church is the world’s largest Christian church, with 1.2 billion members. The Catholic hierarchy includes cardinals and bishops and is led by the bishop of Rome, also known as the pope.
The Catholic Church teaches that it is the one true church divinely founded by Jesus Christ. In addition, it teaches that its bishops are the successors of Jesus’ apostles, and that the pope, as the successor to the head of the apostles (Peter), has supreme authority over the church.
Categories of Catholics
While the Catholic Church claims to be the one true church, Catholics worldwide hold to a diversity of beliefs. Researcher Ken Samples has concluded that there are six primary categories of Roman Catholics:
Ultratraditional Catholics defend historical Catholicism and are critical of recent changes such as those coming out of Vatican II in the 1960s.
Traditional Catholics resist liberalism and modernism within the church, yet they generally accept the reforms of Vatican II.
Liberal Catholics celebrate human reason over the authority of the church; they also question the infallibility of the pope, church councils, and the Bible
Charismatic/evangelical Catholics emphasize the gifts of the Holy Spirit, the importance of being baptized in the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit-filled life.
Cultural Catholics are “womb-to-tomb” Catholics – born, baptized, married, and buried in the church. However, they essentially go through the motions of their faith without much regard for its meaning.
Popular folk Catholics predominate Central and South America. They combine elements of animistic or nature-culture religion with traditional medieval Catholicism (Christian Research Journal, Winter 1993).
Muslims have a high regard for Jesus. They believe He was born of a virgin, lived a sinless life, performed miracles, and spoke prophetic truth. He is in heaven today and is poised to return triumphantly to earth.
Yet it is Muhammad to whom Muslims pin their hopes. While they confess Jesus as a prophet, they say Muhammad is the greatest of Allah’s messengers and the one through whom Allah chose to reveal supreme truth in the Qur’an. Therefore, Muhammad, not Jesus, is the ultimate role model.
Okay. So let’s look at the record. We’ll focus on three areas.
Where we are:
Part 1: Judgment
Part 2: Historical Interlude
Part 3: Salvation
When this takes place:
Chapter 7 is set in the days of King Ahaz, specifically when Israel and Syria are poised to attack Judah in an effort to unify the three kingdoms against the superpower Assyria.
Isa. 7:14: Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: the virgin will conceive, have a son, and name him Immanuel.
Rezin of Syria and Pekah of Israel are determined to replace Judah’s king Ahaz with a puppet king who will cooperate with them in an alliance against Assyria. When Ahaz resists, Syria and Israel invade Judah and crush her. Ahaz pleads for help from Assyria, which comes to Judah’s assistance, defeating Syria and Israel, and then turning on Judah, which becomes an Assyrian satellite. In the midst of all this, God provides one of the most noteworthy signs of His faithfulness through Isaiah’s prophecy of Immanuel.
The Messianic prophecy in 7:14 requires special attention. When Isaiah says the Lord will give “you” a sign, the “you” is plural and refers to the believing remnant of the house of David, not Ahaz. God remembers His covenant with David and remains faithful to it.
The word “virgin” in Hebrew speaks of a young unmarried woman, implying one who has never had sexual relations. However, the New Testament Greek and the rabbi’s translation of the Septuagint both use a word that definitely means a true virgin. As for the identity of Immanuel, more information will be provided in Isa. 9:6-7 and 11:1-5. While Ahaz is concerned with raising an army, God directs our attention to a child.
War against Jerusalem (Isa. 7:1-9)
Israel and Syria are desperately trying to unite their neighbors against Assyria. Judah has refused to join the alliance. As a result, the armies of Israel and Syria have arrived in force to conquer Judah and replace Ahaz with a puppet king.
Judah’s Jotham, son of Uzziah, has ruled well, but Jotham’s son Ahaz is a notoriously wicked king who is about to draw God’s wrath down on the nation. We are told in 2 Kings 15:37 that during his reign “the Lord began sending Rezin king of Aram and Pekah (king of Israel) against Judah.” Ahaz and the people are terrified. As Matthew Henry writes, “They had made God their enemy and knew not how to make him their friend, and therefore their fears tyrannized over them” (Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume, S. Is 7:1).
Isaiah’s message in the midst of panic is significant. With his son Shear-Jashub, Isaiah implores the people to trust in God. Shear-Jashub (“a remnant will return”) is a living reminder of God’s judgment and salvation. Within a few years, the two “smoldering stubs of firebrands” (v. 4), Rezin and Pekah, will be snuffed out. Syria is crushed in 732 B.C. As early as 734 B.C. Israel loses her northern territories. By 722 she loses her racial identity, and by 669, according to God’s word, she is “too shattered to be a people” (v. 8).
God’s words through Isaiah will echo in the ears of the people for years to come, and they resound yet today: “If you do not stand firm in your faith, then you will not stand at all” (v. 9).
The child Immanuel (Isa. 7:10-16)
The Lord’s challenge to Ahaz to “ask for a sign” (v. 11) exposes the depths of the king’s rebellious heart. At first glance, it seems Ahaz responds humbly: “I will not ask. I will not test the Lord” (v. 12; see Deut. 6:16). However, to wave off God’s invitation is to reject God Himself. Faith played no part in Ahaz’s religion or his politics (2 Kings 16:3-4, 10-20). Besides, Ahaz has other plans in mind; he’s going to align with Assyria (see 2 Kings 16:7-10), which will come to Judah’s assistance and then turn brutally on its newfound ally (Isa. 7:17-25).
Despite Ahaz’s obstinacy, the Lord gives a sign of the coming Messiah. This sign is not for Ahaz but for a much wider audience – King David’s dynasty, and for us; the “you” in verses 13-14 is plural. While Ahaz looks to an army, God looks to a child (see Gen. 17:19). How the prophecy fits into the current crisis is much debated. As a straightforward prophecy of Christ (see Matt. 1:22-23), the sign seems to bypass Ahaz. Yet the sign is for the house of David, which has come under attack (see vv. 6, 13), and the promise of a coming prince in itself is reassuring.
This passage is fraught with difficulties. And while scholars continue to debate the best way to interpret the limited information about the young woman and her son, it’s important to see this prophecy in light of the complete revelation of Scripture. Gary V. Smith puts it in perspective:
This passage reveals that a Davidic dynastic replacement for Ahaz would come at some point after a time of defeat by the Assyrians and that ‘Immanuel’ would be a godly ruler who would make just choices. The possibility remains that this new ruler could be the Messiah or some other godly, righteous king, but this text alone does not give clear irrefutable evidence that points exclusively to a messianic ruler. Thus, this incipient messianic text needs greater clarification concerning the significance of this son named Immanuel. The word Immanuel occurs again in 8:8 and 10. In addition, 9:1-7 refers to a coming son who will be a future Davidic messianic ruler who will reign forever. These later passages serve as commentaries that clarify the identity of Immanuel through progressive revelation. Thus what was not completely clear in chap. 7 becomes very clear to Isaiah by chap 9. Later prophetic and New Testament texts further the interpreter’s insight into these themes by progressively uncovering more and more information about the person and work of the Messiah (The New American Commentary: Isaiah 1-39, p. 216).
Trials to come for Judah (Isa. 7:17-25)
There are four “on that day” oracles that provide more specific information about the coming devastation of Judah that is revealed earlier in 5:26-30:
- Assyria and Egypt will infiltrate the land (7:18-19). The reference to flies and bees appears to picture the manner in which Judah’s enemies will swarm over the land.
- Assyria will humiliate its Hebrew captives (7:20). It’s not clear whether the imagery of a barber should be understood literally as a description of the treatment of prisoners, or more generally as a pillaging of the land.
- People will eat nomadic food (7:21-22). While the food is sufficient, the reference to one calf and two goats denotes a small herd and suggests that grain farming and cities will see an end.
- Agrarian society will cease (7:23-25). Isaiah seems to compare the destruction of God’s vineyard (5:1-7) with the destruction God will bring through the Assyrians.
Gary V. Smith comments: “In spite of all the negative theological implications of Ahaz’s action, God did not totally give up on his plans for the Davidic dynasty. Out of the midst of suffering, another ruler unlike Ahaz will arise. Immanuel will choose the good and reject the evil. This unknown son, the child of a young woman, is a future Davidic figure of hope” (The New American Commentary: Isaiah 1-39, p. 218).
Copyright 2008 by Rob Phillips