Sunday, December 17, 2017

A Rebuttal to Martin Zender’s “The Preexistence of Christ, Part 2”: Philippians 2:5-8 Revisited

"A Rebuttal to Martin Zender's 'The Preexistence of Christ, Part 1'" can be found here: http://thathappyexpectation.blogspot.com/2017/12/a-rebuttal-to-martin-zenders_10.html


Introduction

Even apart from the somewhat vitriolic, mocking tone that seemed to characterize parts of Martin’s second rebuttal, I found reading it a rather frustrating experience for at least two reasons. First, Martin seems to have completely misunderstood one of the points I was trying to make in my explanation of what Paul wrote in Philippians 2:5-8. And, having misunderstood this point, Martin proceeded to mercilessly thrash a straw-man. What made Martin’s straw-man thrashing such an unpleasant spectacle to watch (rather than simply something by which to be amused) is what it could be understood as implying (I’ll have more to say about this later, in part two of my rebuttal).

Second (and this is related to the first reason), I, myself, am not 100% satisfied with everything I wrote concerning Philippians 2:5-8, and feel that (to a certain extent at least) my defense of how I believe these verses should be understood fell somewhat short. Not only were there points I could have (and should have) made but didn’t, but there were certain thoughts I expressed and certain points I did make (or at least tried to make) which ended up “muddying the waters” a bit, and which I’ve come to realize were not necessary to understanding what Paul wrote (and which, I believe, served to complicate more than simplify). Ironically, one of the very points that I believe Martin so badly misunderstood is one that I no longer believe even had to be made (again, more on this later).

At the same time, if I was at all guilty of “muddying the waters” of Phil. 2:5-8 somewhat (and if my original explanation of this passage was in need of some refinement), I believe Martin is guilty of draining the passage of its actual meaning and then refilling it with a completely foreign substance. As much as my understanding and explanation of Phil. 2:5-8 was in need of some “tweaking,” I remain convinced that Martin’s interpretation of the passage is not even salvageable (being informed, as it were, by dubious assumptions that are based on the very doctrinal position that he feels is being so clearly revealed in the passage).

In light of what I perceive as being certain shortcomings in my original remarks on Philippians 2:5-8, I want to first present what I believe to be a less “muddied” interpretation of Philippians 2:5-8 than that which I articulated in the article to which Martin was responding. My approach this time around will involve simply quoting each verse and then commenting on it. After “revisiting” this passage and commenting on it verse-by-verse (which I believe will serve to remedy the deficiencies in my original exposition), I’ll then respond to those parts of Martin’s article that I feel need to be addressed in light of my (slightly) revised explanation of Phil. 2:5-8.

Part One: Philippians 2:5-8 Revisited

Philippians 2
5 For let this disposition be in you, which is in Christ Jesus also…

In reading Philippians 2:5-8, it’s important to keep in mind that the entire passage is based on Paul’s exhortation in verse 5, which itself is a continuation of what he’d said in the preceding verses of this chapter:

If, then, there is any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any communion of spirit, if any compassion and pity, fill my joy full, that you may be mutually disposed, having mutual love, joined in soul, being disposed to one thing -- nothing according with faction, nor yet according with vainglory -- but with humility, deeming one another superior to one's self, not each noting that which is his own, but each that of others also.

In light of how Paul wanted the saints to relate to each other (vv. 3-4), he presents Christ Jesus as the ideal example of someone whose disposition (or mindset) was - and is - characterized by humility and a willingness to serve others. Presenting Christ as an example for the saints to follow is, therefore, the primary aim of the passage. Moreover, given the practical basis for what Paul went on to say in verses 6-8, it may be helpful to consider the degree to which one’s interpretation of verses 6-7 best answers the practicality of Paul’s exhortation to the saints. Although such a consideration cannot, of course, be a determining factor in how we understand the verses that follow, I think it’s an appropriate mindset to have as we approach the text in order to figure out just what, exactly, Paul was saying.

6 …Who, being inherently in the form of God, deems it not pillaging to be equal with God…

Before we consider the meaning of the above words, let’s first consider what it is that Paul didn’t write. We’re not told that Jesus Christ “preexisted inherently in the form of God.” If one believes that Paul had in mind Christ’s preexistence in this verse, it’s not because this is actually stated in the verse. The concept of preexistence must be imported into this verse by those who, for other reasons, already believe (or are inclined to believe) that it’s true. Neither the word translated “inherently” in the CLNT (huparcho) nor the word translated “form” (morphe) tells us when Christ came into existence. Thus, this verse is entirely consistent with the view that Paul was talking about what was true of Christ Jesus as “the Man, Christ Jesus” (i.e., the fully human being who was generated by God in the womb of his mother), as opposed to a pre-human celestial being which most Christians believe Christ Jesus existed as before he became a human being.

So what does it mean for Christ Jesus to have been (and to be) in the “the form of God?” In his commentary on this passage, A.E. Knoch remarked that the word translated form denotes “outward appearance,” and referenced 2 Tim. 3:5 in support of this fact (“having a form of devoutness, yet denying its power”). I agree with Knoch, and believe there’s more than sufficient scriptural evidence to support this understanding of “form.” And given the assumption that God lacks a visible, “outward appearance,” Christ’s being in the “form of God” can’t be understood as involving anything other than Christ’s being the one who represents God to others. And this is precisely how I understand how Christ was (and is) “inherently in the form of God.” Being the Son of God, Christ Jesus was invested with the privileged authority to be his Father’s representative on the earth (which involved speaking and acting on God’s behalf), such that when one saw Jesus, one saw the Father (John 12:45; 14:9). It was this unique and elevated status that I believe Paul had in mind when he wrote of Christ’s being “inherently in the form of God” (and, as we’ll see, the words “equal with God” can be seen as supporting this understanding as well).

But what about the word translated “inherently” (huparcho)? Does this word suggest that Christ has, in a fully realized and active sense, been “in the form of God” since the very beginning of his existence? And if Christ’s existence began at the moment of his conception (as I believe), wouldn’t this imply that Christ was speaking and acting on God’s behalf from the moment he was conceived? Not at all. Using the same word huparcho, Peter declared that David was “inherently a prophet” (Acts 2:30). This, of course, doesn’t mean that David was prophesying from the moment he began to exist. Similarly, James declared that the believing Jews in Jerusalem were “all inherently zealous for the law” (Acts 21:20), while Paul elsewhere wrote that Abraham was “inherently somewhere about a hundred years” old when he received God’s promise concerning his son (Rom. 4:19). There are other similar examples that could be provided in which someone is said to have been “inherently” something without there being any implication that they were, from the beginning of their existence, actively being or doing whatever is associated with what they were “inherently” said to be. Thus, when used in reference to Christ’s being “in the form of God,” the word translated “inherently” simply means that Christ was (and is) in the form of God “in a permanent, essential, or characteristic way” (which is what the English word “inherently” means). Understood in this way, the word is easily applicable to Christ during his lifetime on the earth.

As far as Christ’s being “equal to God,” this is, I believe, connected with his being “inherently in the form of God.” Contrary to the beliefs of Trinitarians and Modalists, we shouldn’t understand Christ’s “equality with God” in an absolute sense; the meaning of this expression (or, at least, an important clue as to its meaning) can, I believe, be found in John 5:18: Therefore, then, the Jews sought the more to kill Him, for He not only annulled the sabbath, but said His own Father also is God, making Himself equal to God.I think both the context and the verse itself give us enough information to draw some conclusions concerning what sort of “equality” is in view here. It would seem that this “equality” has primarily to do with Jesus’ being the Son of God, and God’s being Jesus’ Father (and, in connection with Jesus’ being the Son of God, it most likely further involves Jesus’ having been invested with the authority and prerogative to speak and act on God’s behalf). In any event, I think it’s reasonable to conclude that Jesus’ being “equal with God” has to do with Jesus’ superior status as the Son of God. That is, Jesus’ equality with God (as referred to in both John 5:18 and Phil. 2:6) should best be understood as involving the status that belonged (and belongs) to Jesus, and which is based on his unique relationship with God (a relationship that the rest of humanity didn’t – and doesn’t - have).

So far, then, we have seen that there is no reason whatsoever to believe that Paul was trying to say anything at all about Christ’s having preexisted the time when he was generated by his God and Father. But what about verse 7? This is, apparently, when those who affirm the doctrine of Christ's preexistence think the doctrine virtually “jumps off the page.” However, as I hope to demonstrate, those who see this verse as implying preexistence have completely missed the point here, and are simply reading their own doctrinal bias into the text.

7 …nevertheless empties Himself, taking the form of a slave, coming to be in the likeness of humanity…

What does it mean for Christ to have “nevertheless emptied himself?” We know that the expression “empties himself” is not to be understood literally, for no one can literally “empty themselves.” It’s figurative imagery. Strong’s defines the word translated “empties” (kenoō) as,to make empty, that is, (figuratively) to abase, neutralize, falsify.” The first definitions provided by Bill Mounce  (a scholar of New Testament Greek) are, “to empty, evacuate;, αυτόν, to divest one's self of one's prerogatives, abase one's self, Phil. 2:7” (emphasis mine). What Paul went on to say immediately after declaring that Christ “empties himself” can be understood as further clarifying what he had in mind here, and as giving us the sense in which Christ “emptied himself”: Christ took “the form of a slave.” But what does it mean for Christ to have taken “the form of a slave?” As noted earlier, “form” refers to “outward appearance.” But if this is the case, then how does a person come to have the “outward appearance of a slave?” Being a slave is not about having a distinct physical appearance or particular physical constitution, and so “taking the form of a slave” has nothing to do with that. Rather, having the form of a slave concerns one’s actions in relation to others. The “job description” of a slave is to serve the one to whom one belongs as a slave. Merriam-Webster defines “slave” as “a person held in servitude as the chattel of another.” Slavery is all about servitude, and the lack of liberty that a slave has is only a means to an end (the end being, of course, servitude). For someone to take the “form of a slave,” therefore, is for them to serve others, treating them as if they were superior to oneself in status. It is, therefore, serving others that gives one the “form” (or “outward appearance”) of a slave.

This fact should have led A.E. Knoch to question his belief (as expressed in his commentary on Phil. 2:7) that Christ’s “taking the form of a slave” took place “at His incarnation” (i.e., when Jesus was conceived and his mother became pregnant). Knoch should have reasoned, “Since taking the form of a slave involves having the outward appearance of a slave – and since having the outward appearance of a slave involves serving others as if they were superior to oneself – then how could Christ have taken the form of a slave “at His incarnation?” But apparently, Knoch was too in the grip of his theory, and was reading this verse through the lens of his doctrinal bias concerning the preexistence of Christ. The fact is that a human’s being conceived and their “taking the form of a slave” have nothing to do with each other, and such an interpretation only introduces confusion and absurdity into what Paul wrote. To refer to a human zygote (or an unborn child at any stage of development) as being “in the form of a slave” - i.e., as having the “outward appearance of a slave” - is to empty the words “form of a slave” of any clear and intelligible meaning. And yet, this is precisely the interpretation that Knoch’s doctrinal bias forced him to adopt when commenting on this particular verse.

In contrast with Knoch’s interpretation (according to which an unborn child is to be understood as being in “the form of a slave”) Christ’s “taking the form of a slave” is better understood as involving the way in which our Lord voluntarily conducted himself during his time on earth, and which was so clearly put on display during – and especially at the end of - his public ministry, as described in the four Gospel Accounts. Again, to “take the form of a slave” involves assuming the outward appearance of a slave with regards to how one relates to others. It involves treating others as if they were superior to you, and serving them rather than expecting - and demanding - that they serve you. Despite Christ’s superior, elevated status as the Son of God (a status which was expressed in the words “being inherently in the form of God” and being “equal with God”), our Lord emptied himself (i.e., abased himself), living a life of humility and servitude (John 13:1-17; Luke 22:27; Matt. 20:26-28; Mark 9:35). Christ’s taking the form of a slave (which, again, meant serving others) was no more clearly manifested than Christ’s death on behalf of sinners:

And, calling them to Him, Jesus is saying to them, “You are aware that those of the nations who are presuming to be chiefs are lording it over them, and their great men are coercing them. Yet not thus is it among you. But whosoever may be wanting to become great among you, will be your servant. And whosoever may be wanting to be foremost among you, will be the slave of all. For even the Son of Mankind came, not to be served, but to serve, and to give His soul a ransom for many.Matthew 10:42-45

“The Son of Mankind came, not to be served, but to serve, and to give his soul a ransom for many.” The very one whose elevated status made him deserving of being served by humanity chose to "abase himself" and humbly “take the form of a slave” on humanity’s behalf, and - in the words of Paul - give himself as “a correspondent Ransom for all.” And by taking the form of a slave, Christ came to be in the likeness of those who were (and are) inherently inferior to him.

In light of what has been said above, we are now in a better position of understanding the last part of verse 7: “…coming to be in the likeness of humanity…” The word translated “humanity” in the CLNT (anthrōpos) is simply the plural of “human” (or “man,” considered as a kind of being) and is translated “men” in the Dabhar translation, Rotherham’s, Young’s, and in nearly every other translation I’ve looked at (the NET Bible translates it as “other men,” which – although not literal – is, I believe, accurate with regards to the meaning). The word translated “humanity” in Phil. 2:7 is also the same word found in 1 Tim. 2:5, where we read that “the Man, Christ Jesus” is the “one Mediator of God and mankind.” The “humanity” in whose “likeness” Christ came to be is the same “humanity” or “mankind” of which Christ is the Mediator. It is that group of people constituted by every human being except Christ himself (hence the translation “other men” in the NET Bible).

The humans for whom Christ died (and of whom the “humanity” of Phil. 2:7 is constituted) are, of course, inferior to Christ with regard to status and rank. Despite being himself a human (as Paul notes in v. 8), Christ is on a completely different level than every other human; no other human could, for example, be said to be “inherently in the form of God,” or could “deem it not pillaging to be equal with God.” And yet, Christ Jesus - the one who was and is inherently superior to all other humans ("humanity") - conducted himself in such a way that he took “the form of a slave.” And, in doing so, he “came to be in the likeness” of those inherently inferior to him (which, again is the same “humanity” or “mankind” of which Christ is the “one Mediator”).

This, I believe, is the simple and beautiful truth being expressed by Paul here, and powerfully illustrates the humble disposition of Christ that Paul wanted to be in the saints. Despite being superior in status to the rest of mankind, the Man, Christ Jesus, lived in such a way (expressed in the words, “taking the form of a slave”) that gave him the “likeness” of those who were inherently inferior to him. Rather than expecting and demanding that humanity serve him during his time on earth, our Lord “emptied himself” and became like a slave to the very ones whose sins were the reason he had to ultimately lay down his life in obedience to God (“And whosoever may be wanting to be foremost among you, will be the slave of all. For even the Son of Mankind came, not to be served, but to serve, and to give His soul a ransom for many). That is true humility.

This verse, then, need not be understood as having anything at all to do with a celestial, non-human person becoming a human. It was those humans who did not share Christ’s superior status whose likeness Christ came to be in by “taking the form of a slave,” and humbly serving those inferior to himself. Thus, in whatever way that Christ can be understood as having “taken the form of a slave” during his mortal lifetime (and as having acted as a servant on behalf of those who were inferior to himself), he thus came to be “in the likeness of humanity,” resembling those inherently inferior to him (which, again, is in accord with Paul’s words in verses 3-4: “…nor yet according with vainglory…but with humility, deeming one another superior to one's self, not each noting that which is his own, but each that of others also”).  

8 …and, being found in fashion as a human, He humbles Himself, becoming obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.

I feel that what’s been said so far has sufficiently demonstrated that the common use of Phil. 2:7 as a “proof text” for the doctrine of the preexistence of Christ is completely unjustified. It is simply not necessary to understand v. 7 as having anything at all to do with Christ’s having preexisted the life that began when he was generated by his God and Father. What Paul wrote in this verse makes perfectly good sense apart from the doctrine of preexistence being read into it. And if v. 7 doesn’t support the doctrine of the preexistence of Christ (and it doesn’t), then verse 8 certainly doesn’t.

After referring to Christ’s “taking the form of a slave” and “coming to be in the likeness” of those inherently inferior to himself (i.e., “humanity” or “mankind”), Paul then makes the point that Christ was no less human in nature than those individuals constituting the “humanity” on whose behalf he took “the form of a slave.” That is, despite his superior status as the Son of God (being “inherently in the form of God”), the one who humbled himself by “becoming obedient unto death” was just as much a human being as the humans of inferior status on whose behalf he died. Thus, rather than having anything to do with Christ’s having preexisted his life on earth, the words “being found in fashion as a human” have everything to do with the simple fact that Christ was, and is, a human. Moreover, had Paul just gotten through explaining that a pre-existent Christ became a human (as most Christians understand v. 7), it would be redundant for him to then add that Christ was “found in fashion as a human.” Only if the words “being found in fashion as a human” are making a point that Paul wasn’t making in v. 7 (and which couldn’t be directly inferred from the point made in v. 7) is this sort of redundancy avoided.

In conclusion, Philippians 2:5-8 has to do with the fact that Christ Jesus - the (human) Son of God - humbled himself rather than exalted himself, and became a servant to those of inferior status who ought to have been serving him. Jesus exalted his God and Father, but humbled himself. He humbled himself by “taking the form of a slave” on behalf of humanity, both before, during and at the end of his public ministry (when he voluntarily submitted to a humiliating death on the cross). And it is this humble and servant-minded disposition that belonged to Christ which Paul wanted to be in us as well.

Part Two: A (Direct) Response to Martin Zender

I want to begin part two of this rebuttal by commenting on one of Martin’s cartoons (which appears toward the end of his article). In the cartoon (which, although intended to mock my position, was sort of funny), Martin has John the baptist telling Jesus after his baptism, “Okay, now get yourself out of here and get human.” The biggest problem with this little jab at what I believe is that Paul didn’t say that Christ “became human,” or that he “came to be a human.” Rather, Paul wrote, “…taking the form of a slave, coming to be in the likeness of humanity….” These statements are grammatically parallel in structure and in the tenses used, and can be understood as referring to the same event (whether understood as occurring in a single moment – as Martin apparently believes - or as occurring over a period of time, and as descriptive of Christ’s conduct during his lifetime).

When explaining how he understands what it means for Christ to have come to be “in the likeness of humanity,” Martin stated that this involved “the coming of Christ’s literal human body (Philippians 2:7)—not the mere existence of that body but the coming of it.” However, this interpretation simply betrays Martin’s doctrinal bias. Paul did not say that Christ “came to be a human” or that Christ’s “literal human body came into existence” in Phil. 2:7. This is nothing more than Martin’s own interpretation (which he is trying to pass off as something that he says Paul was “anxious to describe to us”). If Paul was so anxious to describe what Martin interprets him as having said in this verse, then he could’ve easily said exactly that. He could’ve easily written in Phil. 2:7 that Christ “came to have a human body,” or simply that Christ “came to be a human.” However, he didn’t write either of these things.  

Instead, Paul linked two statements together (“taking the form of a slave, coming to be in the likeness of humanity”) - such that the latter must be understood in light of the former – and worded the last statement in a way that does not at all have to be understood as meaning what Martin interprets it as meaning. As argued in part one of this rebuttal, Christ’s “taking the form of a slave” should best be understood as referring to the way in which Christ voluntarily conducted himself on earth (And whosoever may be wanting to be foremost among you, will be the slave of all. For even the Son of Mankind came, not to be served, but to serve, and to give His soul a ransom for many”). Given this fact, Christ’s “coming to be in the likeness of humanity” refers, not to his “becoming a human” and “coming to have a human body” (as Martin interprets Paul as saying), but rather to his coming to be in the likeness of those who were inherently inferior to him (i.e., by "taking the form of a slave" on their behalf).

Martin went on to attempt to defend his interpretation of Phil. 2:7-8 as follows: The only way that our Lord could have chosen to take the fashion of a human (for, as Paul writes, He “empties Himself, taking the form of a slave, coming to be in the likeness of humanity and being found in fashion as a human...’”) was if He preexisted His arrival in Bethlehem. Which He did. For it was in Bethlehem that He came to be in fashion as a human.”

There are at least two problems with the above statements (one being, admittedly, more trivial than the other). First, it’s simply not the case that Jesus “came to be in fashion as a human” in Bethlehem. Even according to what Martin himself believes, it was in Bethlehem that Christ was born, and not where he was “incarnated.” Surely Martin believes that Jesus had human DNA and “was found in fashion as a human” before his actual birth in Bethlehem (i.e., while he was being carried in Miriam’s womb for approximately 9 months). If so, then Martin’s claim that it was “in Bethlehem that [Christ] came to be in fashion as a human” is surely the result of some careless thinking on his part.

A more serious error than this, however, is Martin’s claim that, in v. 8, we’re being told that that Christ chose to “take the fashion of a human.” We’re not being told that at all. The fact that Christ was “found in fashion as a human” is a fact that was just as true of Christ when he humbled himself and became “obedient unto death” as it was at any time before his crucifixion. Paul was simply stating that Christ was, in fact, a human. Had Paul just finished saying that Christ had become a human (as Martin thinks he was saying in v. 7), then going on to add that Christ was “found in fashion as a human” would be completely unnecessary and redundant (as argued toward the end of part one of this rebuttal). Martin’s interpretation essentially involves Paul’s pointing out to his readers something that would’ve been obvious from what he’d just said in v. 7. On the other hand, if Paul was previously emphasizing the fact that Christ came to be in the likeness of those who were inferior to him (by his “taking the form of a slave” on their behalf), then it makes sense why he would go on to point out that Christ was just as human as those on whose behalf he took “the form of a slave.”

Martin: “It is this second-greatest glory that Aaron Welch robs from Christ, torturously interpreting the above passage and others so that misguided expositors attempting to prove the Trinity might have less ammunition. Yes, this is Aaron’s chief motivation—to rob Trinitarians of an already illicit “proof text.” Trinitarians require the preexistence of Christ as the foundation of their fallacy, so Aaron says, “Oh, no you don’t.” But instead of merely saying “Oh, no you don’t” and setting the truth of the preexistence of Christ away on a high shelf—away from the Trinitarians—he attempts to blow up the truth of the preexistence of Christ so that no one can misuse it. This is akin to punching one’s fist through the Mona Lisa so that no one will steal it.”

Martin misunderstands my “chief motivation” for believing what I do concerning when Christ’s life began. However, I can’t say that it’s all his fault. In response to a similar assertion made by another believer on Facebook (who agrees with Martin’s position), I replied as follows:

“I agree that arguing against the doctrine of the preexistence of Christ is not at all necessary to refuting the doctrine of the trinity, and I'm pretty sure I never said that it was. What I believe I said (or at least should have said, if I didn’t) was that, if the doctrine of the preexistence of Christ is unscriptural, then it would be further evidence against the doctrine of the trinity (since the doctrine of the trinity depends on it). But I want to emphasize that the implications which my position has regarding the doctrine of the trinity is not among my reasons or “motivations” for believing what I do on this subject. That was simply one of my reasons for deciding to share what I believe on my blog.

“However, in retrospect, I regret my decision to introduce the subject by talking about its implications concerning the trinity, because it seems to have given people the impression that it’s the main reason (or at least a reason) why I believe what I do. It’s not. I came to reject the doctrine of the trinity about a year before I came to reject the doctrine of the preexistence of Christ (which was more than 10 years ago). My reasons for believing what I do are, and always have been, based on what I believe scripture teaches (and what I believe scripture doesn’t teach). So whether I’m sincerely right or sincerely wrong (and I’m sure you’d say it’s the latter), I hope you and others will understand that I sincerely believe that my position is scripturally-based, and that this is the primary reason I’ve taken the time to put my thoughts out there for others to read and consider.”

Martin: “In fact, Aaron’s argument is so back-asswards that the very opposite of what he insists, is true. Up until age thirty, Jesus Christ fits the very definition of what Aaron says didn’t happen until after He was thirty: He refuses to use “His God-given power and authority in any way that would elevate Himself above the rest of humanity, and above all the various evils that are common to humanity, including death itself” and He also “chose to live and act in such a way that gave him the ‘likeness’ of the rest of humanity (i.e., humanity in general).” This describes His life to a T from His birth to the time of His baptism, but certainly not after.”

In my introduction, I expressed my frustration that Martin had badly misunderstood a point I was trying to articulate in my original explanation of Phil. 2:5-8. This is what I had in mind. Based on how Martin contrasts Christ’s public ministry with Christ’s life prior to this 3 ½ year-long period of time, he seems to be saying that my argument was that Christ never (or perhaps only rarely) exercised his God-given authority by performing miracles during his public ministry. If so, then I’m honestly surprised that Martin thought that I was attempting to argue for this. One would think that, rather than lambasting me for trying to defend a position that he refers to as “back-asswards” (a position which even the most casual reader of the Gospel Accounts couldn’t mistakenly come to believe), Martin might’ve given me the benefit of the doubt and sought to understand what I was trying to say in a way that was consistent with the obvious and undeniable fact that Christ did, in fact, exercise his God-given authority and use his power to perform many miracles during his public ministry. This certainly would’ve been the most charitable thing for Martin to have done. Unfortunately, it would seem that Martin’s great zeal to defend, at all costs, his position against my “evil doctrine” (and to attempt to undermine any possible influence that I might have on other saints in the body of Christ) simply could not coexist with such a charitable disposition, and consequently precluded him from considering that, maybe - just maybe - he’d simply misunderstood the point I was trying to make.

In any case, the point I was trying to make was that, after Christ began his public ministry, he did not use his God-given power to serve himself, or use it in a “vainglorious” way (I have in mind here Paul’s exhortation in Phil. 2:3-4, where he wrote, “…nor yet according to vainglory…but with humility…”). When I wrote that Christ didn’t use his power to “elevate himself above the rest of humanity and above all the various evils that are common to humanity, including death itself,” I simply meant that Christ, during his public ministry, didn’t use his God-given power to make his own life more comfortable and free from suffering than those around him. The one anointed and empowered by God – the Messiah - didn’t use his God-given power to live like a king or demand that others serve and honor him as such. That’s all I meant here. I even tried to further clarify my point with the words, “[Christ] didn’t use his unique status as God’s only begotten Son to his own selfish advantage.” Unless Martin believes that Christ did, in fact, exercise his authority and use his power to his own selfish advantage (and by this I clearly mean something that would've been unbefitting - and even sinful - of Christ to have done), then he very much misunderstood my point.

So, irrespective of whether or not Martin thinks that this point has anything at all to do with what Paul was saying in Phil. 2:6-7 (and even I think that I was “muddying the waters” a bit here), one would think that Martin would’ve at least tried to understand what I was trying to say in the best possible light rather than in the worst (but, again, I suspect that Martin’s intense hostility toward my position simply precluded any charitable inclination on his part to try and understand what I wrote in a way that at least makes some sense, even if it’s somewhat beside the point with regards to what Paul wrote in Phil. 2:6-7).

Another point that needs to be made (despite the fact that it’s a moot point in light of my updated remarks on Phil. 2:5-8) is that Martin is simply mistaken in thinking that Christ’s life before the start of his public ministry involved his refusal to use his God-given power (or that a refusal to use his God-given power “describe[d] His life to a T from His birth to the time of His baptism”). Just so the reader knows that I’m not misunderstanding Martin’s position here, Martin made the same point earlier, on the same page: “Did not Jesus, between the ages of twelve and thirty, refuse to use His God-given power and authority in any way that would elevate Himself above the rest of humanity? He certainly did.”

The reason I believe Martin is mistaken here is that scripture doesn’t reveal that, before Christ was anointed by God at his baptism, he possessed the God-given power which he is described as using during his public ministry. In fact, not only does scripture not reveal that Christ had the God-given power to perform miracles before he was anointed by God at the start of his 3½ year-long public ministry, but Peter’s words in Acts 10:36-38 seem to confirm that Christ’s power to heal (and, by implication, perform other miraculous works) was derived from the spiritual anointing he received from God immediately after being baptized by John:

"Of the word He dispatches to the sons of Israel, bringing the evangel of peace through Jesus Christ (He is Lord of all),37 you are aware, the declaration coming to be down the whole of Judea, beginning from Galilee after the baptism which John heralds: Jesus from Nazareth, as God anoints Him with holy spirit and power, Who passed through as a benefactor and healer of all those who are tyrannized over by the Adversary, for God was with Him."

Contrary to what Martin seems to believe, Christ’s power to do what he did was not innate or a natural capacity that he had from the start. His power was given to him by God at a certain point in his life, and this took place immediately after he was baptized by John. It was at this point that God anointed his Son and equipped him for the work to which he’d been called. Moreover - and even apart from the clear statement from Peter above - it could be reasonably inferred that Christ’s power to perform miracles was derived from God’s spirit descending upon him after his baptism, for scripture elsewhere associates the descent of God’s spirit upon men (or of the spirit’s coming to rest on men) with the receiving of special powers/abilities from God. A number of examples of this could be given from the Hebrew scriptures (e.g., Ex. 31:3, Numbers 11:25, Judges 14:6, 15:14, 1 Sam. 10:6-10, 1 Sam. 16:13-14), but probably the most well-known example is found in Acts 2:1-4 (where we read of the holy spirit descending upon the twelve apostles). In short, the descent of God’s spirit upon people is consistently described as resulting in their being endowed with some sort of power or gift. And - Martin’s contrary opinion notwithstanding - I believe scripture supports the view that, for Christ, it was no different.   

In light of the above, I think that the correct, scripturally-informed answer to Martin’s above question (and to which he provides the answer, “He certainly did”), is, “No, he most certainly didn’t, because Jesus didn’t actually have this power yet.” It would seem, then, that Martin’s zeal to refute my “evil teaching” and defend his own doctrinal position not only caused him to completely misunderstand a rather non-controversial point I was trying to make in my original comments on Phil. 2:5-8 (as unnecessary as the point may have been), but that his attempt to expose and refute my “blunder” ended up involving him in an error concerning when, exactly, Christ received his God-given power to perform the miracles he performed during his earthly ministry.

Martin: “Tell me if you think that any of the following could possibly be construed as Christ refusing to use His God-given power and authority in any way that would elevate Himself above the rest of humanity, and above all the various evils that are common to humanity, including death itself. And these are just a few examples
 
He turns water into wine
He walks on water
He raises the dead
He commands the weather and it obeys Him
He glorifies Himself on the Mount of Transfiguration
He miraculously feeds 5,000 people
He drives demons from the possessed
He makes blind people see
He makes deaf people hear
He makes crippled people walk

“Enough said? Rather than submitting Himself to the various evils common to humanity, “including death itself,” He exercises His power—almost daily for three years—over the various evils that are common to humanity—including death itself.”

I find it hard to believe that Martin seriously thought that, when I wrote, “including death itself” (for example), I was suggesting that Christ didn’t resurrect people during his public ministry, or that I’d somehow forgotten this basic fact. I assumed that I would be interpreted by those reading my article as referring to the fact that Christ didn’t exercise his authority to keep himself from dying on the cross (as he himself stated that he could’ve done; see below), but, alas, I was wrong. I suppose that’s what I get for assuming too much.

Had Martin understood the actual point I was trying to make, he would’ve realized that not one of the above examples of Christ’s exercising his authority and using his God-given power during his public ministry is inconsistent with what I said in my original article. For, again, my point was simply that Christ didn’t exercise his God-given authority or use his God-given power in a vainglorious way, or in a way that made his own life on earth more comfortable and suffering-free than that of those around him. In fact, one of the very things that was said to Christ while he was on the cross and close to death was, “Others he saves! Himself he cannot save!” (Matt. 27:42) Replace the words “cannot save” with “does not save” and the idea being expressed could be understood as summing up the point I was trying to make. Christ used his power to save others from death (and, in doing so, glorified his God and Father; John 11:40), but he didn’t use his authority and power to save himself from being arrested, beaten, spit on (etc.), and then, finally, from “the death of the cross.” And even during the years of his public ministry prior to his arrest in Gethsemane, Christ didn’t use his God-given authority and power to make his life any easier or more comfortable than those he ultimately died to save.

With regard to Martin’s 5th point above (i.e., “He glorifies Himself on the Mount of Transfiguration”), we’re not told that Christ “glorified himself” at this time. It is, I believe, far more plausible to understand Jesus’ God and Father as having been the one who glorified his Son at this time, transforming his appearance while he knelt praying (Luke 9:28-29). In fact, it’s possible that both the radical change in Jesus’ appearance and the appearing of Moses and Elijah in glory alongside him at that time occurred in a vision that was given to the three disciples who were present with him on this occasion (Matt. 17:8-9). In any event, we know for a fact that Jesus received “honor and glory” from God when he spoke to him (2 Pet. 1:16-18), so it’s likely that it was also God who glorified his Son by giving him the shining appearance he is described as having had at this time.

Martin: “How insulting Aaron’s unworkable theory is to Christ! According to Aaron’s theory, Jesus Christ was sent here involuntarily, just like the rest of us. He didn’t really sacrifice anything more than any other common human martyr.

“The baby that came into existence in Bethlehem had absolutely no intention of being here, or coming here, or doing anything noble or worthy. It’s divine task was forced upon it, just like any other human martyr’s. He walked toward death, just like any other human martyr….My main point is that, not only does Aaron insult our intelligence with this “I’m really going to humble Myself after my baptism” thing, but he destroys the beautiful truth of the willing (not forced) sacrifice of the Son of God…”

It’s unfortunate that Martin’s extreme doctrinal bias drove him to the position expressed above. Apparently, Martin would be unable to believe that Christ voluntarily sacrificed himself in obedience to God and on behalf of humanity apart from his belief in Christ’s preexistence. Based on the above, it would seem that it is only Martin’s belief that Christ preexisted as a celestial being who volunteered to become a human being that enables him to see Christ’s death for our sins as something more than the death of a “common human martyr.” No wonder Martin seems so emotionally invested in the doctrinal position he’s trying to defend; if he didn’t believe it was true, he would, evidently, no longer be able to see Christ’s death for our sins as a beautiful truth that involved a “willing (not forced) sacrifice.”

The view that Christ’s death on the cross would not be the beautiful truth that it is if Christ didn’t preexist his conception and volunteer to be transformed into a human zygote is, I believe, so far removed from what scripture actually says about the obedient (and thus voluntary) nature of Christ’s sacrifice for our sins that I am shocked that Martin holds to it. What Martin is saying above seems to have the following implication: To whatever extent Christ’s decision to be “incarnated” makes his sacrificial death something of greater value, beauty and consequence than the death of “any other common human martyr,” then any acts of obedience performed by Christ after his incarnation which led to his being crucified are, to that extent, trivialized and emptied of intrinsic value and significance. If, as Martin believes, it was Christ’s decision to become a human that makes his sacrifice something more than a “forced” sacrifice, then every act of obedience made by Christ after his “incarnation” would necessarily have to be considered of relatively minor consequence and importance in comparison to the voluntary act that Martin believes makes Christ’s death such a “beautiful truth.” What Martin’s position inevitably ends up doing, then, is belittling the voluntary acts of obedience that Christ performed during his public ministry – acts of obedience which led to the final act of obedience, on the cross (which was, of course, committing his spirit to God).

The fact which Martin seems completely oblivious to is that Christ wasn’t a passive victim during the final 3 ½ years of his mortal lifetime on the earth. Everything that occurred to Christ during this time (as well as prior to it) involved his voluntary obedience to God’s will. This included the time from his betrayal and arrest in Gethsemane to the moment he committed his spirit to God and breathed his last on the cross. Everything that Christ allowed to happen to him during this dark time fulfilled prophecy, and was done in humble obedience to God. Christ had to die in the exact way and in the exact circumstances in order to remain obedient to God, and to fulfill all that was written concerning him. And while Martin’s position entails that Christ’s obedience to God during this difficult and trying time was a rather trivial and insignificant matter (at least, when compared to Christ’s supposed decision to be transformed from a celestial being into a human zygote), Christ certainly didn’t see it that way. I doubt, for example, that Christ understood his tearful and heartfelt yielding to God’s will while praying in Gethsemane as something other than a voluntary act of obedience, apart from which the prophecies concerning him would not have been fulfilled:

Then Jesus is coming with them into the freehold termed Gethsemane, and He is saying to His disciples, “Be seated, till I come away and should be praying there.” And taking along Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, He begins to be sorrowful and depressed. Then He is saying to them, Sorrow-stricken is My soul to death. Remain here and watch with Me…And coming forward a little, He falls on His face, praying and saying, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass by from Me. However, not as I will, but as Thou!” Again, coming away a second time, He prays, saying, “My Father, if this can not pass by from Me if I should not drink it, let Thy will be done!” And, coming again, He found them drowsing, for their eyes were heavy. And, leaving them, again coming away, He prays a third time, saying the same word. (Matthew 26:36-44)

In Luke’s account Christ explicitly acknowledged that what he was about to do would fulfill prophecy (Luke 22:37), which means that Christ was very much aware of the fact that his (voluntary) actions were completely necessary to the fulfilling of prophecy (and apart from which prophecy wouldn't have been fulfilled). We’re also told in this same account that, while praying to God to let the “cup” pass by from him, our Lord came “to be in a struggle,” and that “His sweat became as if clots of blood descending on the earth.” What could this struggle have involved if not the choice to be “obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” rather than avoiding it? Christ’s obedience was always voluntary, and the acts of obedience that resulted in Christ’s arrest and subsequent crucifixion were no different. Christ even acknowledged that, had he chosen to, he could’ve exercised his authority to avoid being arrested (and thereby avoid the “death of the cross’):

Then Jesus is saying to him, “Turn away your sword into its place, for all those taking the sword, by the sword shall perish. Or are you supposing that I am not able to entreat My Father, and at present He will station by My side more than twelve legions of messengers? How, then, may the scriptures be fulfilled, seeing that thus it must occur?” (Matt. 26:52-54)

Does Martin seriously believe that these voluntary acts of obedience to God’s will (which included Christ’s finally committing his spirit to God, and which Christ knew he had to perform in order to remain obedient to God, and in order that the Scriptures could be fulfilled) were insufficient to make Christ’s death a “beautiful truth” that involved the “willing (not forced) sacrifice of the Son of God?” If so, then I find this position to be far more shocking and outrageous (and, I dare say, insulting to Christ) than the doctrinal position which denies that Christ preexisted his conception as a celestial being.

Consider the following: If I’m wrong about when Christ’s life began, then I’m guilty of ascribing too much value, importance and consequence to the acts of obedience that Christ performed during his lifetime on earth (and especially the acts of obedience which most directly led to, and resulted in, his humiliating death on the cross). In other words, I’d be guilty of putting too much emphasis on, and ascribing too much worth and importance to, the very voluntary acts of obedience that Scripture so clearly emphasizes as being the very reason for our salvation and for Christ’s “greatest glory.” On the other hand, if Martin is wrong concerning his belief that Christ preexisted as a celestial being who volunteered to become a human, then he is guilty of believing that the only thing that makes Christ’s death “a beautiful truth” (and his death of greater value and consequence than that of a “common human martyr”) is something that never actually happened. I, for one, would much rather be guilty of the former than of the latter when I’m manifested in front of the dais of Christ.

2 comments:

  1. it is obvious you are far more studied than myself; whilst trying to determine the truth or error of Jesus being God I have asked a few learned men the following question with no reply: If God raised Jesus from the dead how am i to understand John 2:19 "and I will raise it up in three days" if Jesus is not God Appreciate any help nevbillett@gmail.com

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    1. Hey, thanks for reading my blog, and for the great question. My understanding of what Christ meant in John 2:19 hinges on the difference between a body being "raised up" (after being dead) and a dead person being "roused." Notice that Christ didn't say he would rouse himself - that was God's work (see verse 22; compare with Romans 10:9, etc.). However, after being roused by God, our Lord then raised up his body from the stone slab on which it lay when he was dead. This, I believe, is what Christ had in mind in John 2:19. Hope that helps.

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