As we prepare to enter into the holy season of Lent it is important to reflect deeply upon the Passion of He who is and forever remains the only Lord and Savior of the world, Jesus of Nazareth and what He endured to Atone for the sins of the world for all time, including ours.
We continue to believe, teach and confess that the Lord Jesus is precisely what the words of the ever-unchanging and infallible Bible reveal Him to be, God Incarnate. Thus it is that the following words of the Nicene Creed expresses divine truth: “I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made; who for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man, …” This is Jesus of Nazareth. This Creed along with the other two Catholic (universal Christian, not Roman) Creeds confess likewise: The Apostles Creed , “And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary…” And lastly, but only in order not in Catholicity the third ecumenical creed named after the faithful confessor and uncompromising defender of the Nicene faith and creed, Athanasius: “Furthermore, it is necessary to everlasting salvation that he also believe faithfully the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. For the right faith is, that we believe and confess that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and Man; God of the Substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds; and Man of the substance of His mother, born in the world; Perfect God and perfect Man, of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting….”
It’s so clear – to those who are so blessed to have God the Holy Ghost indwelling and doing His Sanctifying work in their lives. The beginning words of the paragraph quoted from the Athanasian Creed sums up the Biblical truth in a most unequivocal manner: “Furthermore, it is necessary to everlasting salvation that he also believe faithfully the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
The skepticism that we now hear so often in relation to the Christological truth in all three of these ancient, Catholic an Apostolic confessions is really not new. Indeed, the skepticism, rejection and ridicule of the Incarnation of the Only-begotten Son of God, Jesus of Nazareth were being expressed before, during and after all three of these ecumenical Creeds were formulated. Let’s consider a few comments from “the beginning.”
Around 170 A.D. a Greek philosopher whom we know by the name of Celsus wrote a major pagan apologetic work against Christianity entitled True Doctrine. Though this work is not preserved in its entirety there is enough of it preserved in the Christian apologetic response by Origen (ca.185-230 A.D.) to reconstruct it with fair accuracy. This is because the form by which Origen answered the challenges and charges of Celsus is a line-by-line quote and response. Thus it is that we may be fairly confident that we have a pretty accurate idea of what the educated pagans of Celsus’ time thought of Christian doctrine and practice. The topics Celsus addressed, and the opinions he expressed are both important and enlightening because we hear many of the same in the resurgence of paganism now going on all around us.
The charges of Celsus and the ridicule and rejection that he poured forth against both the doctrine and practice of the only true and saving faith cover almost all of the key doctrine of Biblical Christianity.
It seems almost poetical that, as the last part of the divine economy of God the Holy Trinity began with the Incarnation we confess in the words of the above cited Creeds, so in like fashion did Celsus mount a written assault against the Incarnation of the Only-begotten Son of God. Given the fact that Celsus’ “spirituality” was a form of pagan Hellenism, the claim that a god would become incarnate – was incredibly wrong and highly offensive, too him! Celsus was most willing to equated Jesus with the “lesser gods” (of which there were “legion”) of the civic religions pantheon, but he simply could not be the son of the “supreme” god.
Thus it was that the Incarnation of the Jesus whom those increasingly troublesome Christians contended was the Only-begotten Son of the “one” God, in particular according to the Gospel account of Matthew and Luke was certainly not to be believed by a reasonable person. Celsus wrote: “With regard to this fact about some of the Christians and Jews: some say that a certain god or son of God has come down, or (as others say) will come down to earth as a judge of all here – this is a shameful claim, and the refutation does not require a long argument” (Against Celsus, hereafter abbreviated: c.c..4.2). Celsus was by no means alone in his refusal to believe in the Incarnation of “a son of god.” Another Christian Apologist, Arnobius the Younger (X ca. 330 A.D.) cites a pagan who claimed that Jesus was born as a man but who, in like fashion, doubts that He is a “god.” The pagan asks for proof that god sent him. Celsus harbored the same belief. In Book 5.2 Celsus writes: “Jews and Christians, no god or child of god descended or would descend. If you speak about some angels, say what these are, god or another species. Probably another one – the demons.”
From the beginning of the genealogy of Jesus provided in the Gospel to His “alleged Ascension back into heaven” it was all basically foolishness to Celsus, and he clearly wrote about it in that fashion. The claims about Jesus’ virgin birth were simply incredible to him, certainly not to be seriously believed in! Celsus summarized his conviction in these words: “He made up the story of the virgin birth…he was from a Jewish village and from a rustic, poor woman who spun for hire… she was put away by her husband whose skill was carpentry because she was proved to have committed adultery…after being cast out by her husband and wandering dishonorably she gave birth to Jesus in secret” (c.c. 1.28). He also adds the following: “a god would not have had such a body as yours…the body of a god would not have been born as you, Jesus, were born” (c.c. 1.69). Celsus in turn attacks the Magi; Jesus’ flight into Egypt; the Baptism of Jesus; Jesus’ ministry and most stridently, His disciples. Also the miracles of Jesus; Satan and Jesus. He attacks with special vigor Jesus’ teaching and, interestingly and perhaps most intensely, Jesus’ foreknowledge of His Passion.
Of all the narratives of the Gospel, Jesus Passion is the focus of Celsus’ most intense scrutiny, and strident rejection! He begins by clearly denouncing the teaching that Jesus had divine foreknowledge, writing: “Even though I have many true things to say concerning what happened to Jesus and not at all like what is written by the disciples of Jesus – these I willingly leave aside … [He then accuses] the disciples of having fabricated that He knew all that was going to happen to Him beforehand and predicted it” (c.c. 2.13). Celsus continued with his attack writing: “Since even the disciples of Jesus had nothing to cover the notorious fact with, they contrived the notion of saying that He knew all things beforehand” (c.c. 2.15). Celsus was probably refereeing here to Jesus very public crucifixion. Determined to undermine the fable that Jesus’ disciples kept spreading, of Jesus’ foreknowledge, Celsus includes Jesus with what he calls unrighteous people and even murders: “the disciples wrote such things in apology for what happened to Jesus. [He says] it is like someone who says that somebody is just and then shows the person to be unjust, and while someone saying someone is holy shows the person to be a killer, and while saying someone is immortal shows him to be dead, adding to all these things that the person happened to have foretold them…. For you did not say that He appeared to impious people to suffer these things, but did not suffer. Rather, you openly confess that He did suffer…Why then is it credible that He foretold all? How can a dead person be immortal?” (c.c.2.16).
Celsus focused intently on what he considered the irrationality of the Gospel account of Jesus’ life, one of those being His being God become Man: “Being a god [he says] he foretold these things, and it was certainly necessary that what was foretold came to pass. A god, therefore, led his disciples and prophets – with whom he ate and drank – round and around with the results that they became impious and unholy. Above all he ought to have been a benefactor to all people and especially to those who lived with him. One who shared table with a person would not continue to conspire against him. Would one who feasted with a god have conspired against him? And what is even more absurd, God himself conspired against those who were at table with him making them betrayers and ungodly” (c.c.2.20).
Dear saints, this is the same Jesus we will be reading about, singing about, confessing to and hearing His saving Absolution from in the Holy Season of Lent as we have each season since He baptized us along with God the eternal Father and God the Holy Spirit, three divine Persons, yet but one eternal God, as the words of both Holy Scripture and the creeds declare. We know the real Jesus, the One divinely revealed in the pages of an infallible and ever-unchanging Bible because of the Sanctifying presence of God the Holy Spirit in our lives. This – is what was missing in the life of Celsus and thus which caused him see Jesus “through” the flesh instead of “in” the God Holy Spirit.
The holy season of Lent helps us to focus even more intently upon the divinely-revealed truth that: “it is necessary to everlasting salvation that he also believe faithfully the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. For the right faith is, that we believe and confess that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and Man; God of the Substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds; and Man of the substance of His mother, born in the world; Perfect God and perfect Man, of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting” (The Athanasian Creed, para.3). It is certain that we will again be given opportunity to see and hear of the Jesus of Celsus during the holy season of Lent, but as it was in Celsus’ time so it still is, he’s false Jesus, fashioned after fallen man’s image and likeness who never has and never will be able to give the forgiveness of sins and thereby the gift of salvation.
The words of Jesus as He hung suffering and dying on that Cross are as true today as on the Friday He spoke them as He was making the final Atonement for the sins of the world for all time: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” We are so incredibly blessed because we know, we know – what Jesus did, and that for our salvation! Celsus was so tragically wrong and we are right, but only because of the saving grace of God the Holy Trinity at work in our lives. May it continue to be so both now and forever in the life of each one of us.
To Jesus be all the glory for the salvation He earned and has freely given to us. Amen and Amen.
Pastor C.D. Hudson