by ProfDave, ©2020
(Dec. 23, 2020) — Celestial Mechanics? You don’t have to know how the world turns in order to live on it without falling off, but what about the unseen world? It might help. You don’t have to know much about auto mechanics either in order to drive, but it helps to know the basics. Cars are for driving, but there is an engine under the hood. Christmas is about God and mankind, love and relationship – so is Christianity. Is there an engine under the hood of Christmas?
OK. Christmas (and Christianity) 101. Key terms: theology, revelation, trinity, incarnation. Theology is the human science of trying to explain what God has revealed to mankind. To love someone, you need to know them. Frankly, there is a lot more theology – and it is more important – to Christianity than to other major faiths. Because Christianity is more about what you believe than keeping rules or making sacrifices. Revelation is the data, theology is the theory. The theory is not entirely infallible, but there is broad agreement on the basics among faithful Jesus-followers.
Revelation is what God has unilaterally communicated to us. Creation is sometimes called general revelation, but revealed religion (if it can be called religion at all) is not anything someone discovered in a laboratory or thought up while sitting under a banyan tree. It is revealed not discovered. We don’t find God; He finds us. When they speak of revelation Jews usually mean the Tanakh (aka Old Testament); Christians mean both the Old and New Testaments.
Trinity is not an idea human beings could have come up with on their own. Roughly it means three-in-one-ness, tri-unity. Early Christian theologians agreed upon the term to define what they found in the New Testament. Jesus of Nazareth clearly taught that there was only one God (the Hebrew YHWH), but claimed not only to be uniquely the son of the One true God, but that he himself was YHWH – “I and the Father are one.” “He who has seen me has seen the Father!” Yet he prayed to the Father many hours and obeyed Him to the death. Some of his disciples claim to have heard the Father speak to him from heaven and seen the Holy Spirit (aka the Spirit of God) descend upon him like a dove. All four Gospels agree.
That he was not a blasphemer or insane was proved by his flawless character and his resurrection. Nobody but God could conceivably raise a thoroughly dead man to robust life. Would God raise a blasphemer or a madman?
Once you accept the testimony of Jesus himself and the New Testament as revelation, it is quite easy to find hints of the Trinity in the Hebrew Scriptures as well – and to contradict popular misconceptions. Misconception #1: three gods. No Biblical or historically connected Christian believes in three gods. Whatever the Trinity is, it is not tri-theism! “Hear O Israel! The LORD, the Lord your God is One.” He is not a committee. He is not a family (father, mother, and son) – as some Muslims mistakenly think Christians believe.
So Christians, although they cannot find adequate physical analogies, are compelled to believe that the Father is God, Jesus Christ (aka Messiah, aka the Word of God) is God, and the Holy Spirit (aka the Spirit of God, aka the Spirit of Christ) is God, but there are not three gods but profoundly One. If you think you can understand that, you’re a heretic! I guess that would be misconception #2 – that mortals can understand the Trinity. This is way beyond quantum mechanics. I call it celestial mechanics.
Incarnation, literally in-flesh-ment, assumes the three-fold being of the Righteous One, the broken image of God in mankind and the broken world. The prologue of the Gospel of John reveals it best: “In the beginning was the Word [Logos in Greek], and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. . . . He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God – children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God. The Word became flesh and lived a while among us.” John 1:1-3, 10-13.
Or, as the writer to the Hebrews put it, “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days He has spoken to us by his Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, and through whom He made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of His being, sustaining all things by His powerful word.” Hebrews 1:1-2.
Or, as Jesus himself put it when challenged, “Before Abraham was I AM!” (John 8:58). And that, dear friend, is what Christmas – and Christianity – is all about. If we accept what God has revealed in the Bible, Christ is the eternal God-the-Son, the Word of God, before time and space, by whom God spoke it all into being. But born into time and space [gasp!], in a stable [gasp!], in the days of Herod the puppet king of Judea! He was given the name “Jesus, for he shall save his people from their sins.” He was born to die on the cross for me [gasp!]! Not something anyone could think up under a banyan tree!
Misconception #3: Jesus is a demigod or half-god. Not! Greek and Hindu and other polytheistic Indo-European mythologies have gods coming down and seducing human women, producing super-heroes (or Titans) who are half god and half men. That is not incarnation. The God of the Hebrews is not like that. For one thing, the Holy One is Spirit, not material of any kind, and spoke the cosmos into existence by His Word. Virgin birth? No problem. He spoke the whole human genome into Adam. Speaking a Y-chromosome into a zygote would be less than half the job. Mary remained un-violated, but pregnant with a totally human and totally divine fetus.
Misconception #4: Jesus of Nazareth was just a man filled with God. Not! He was God. He said so. That’s what Christmas means. God-the-Father directed his every word and deed, God-the-Spirit filled him at his baptism – as he will fill you, if you let Him. But he really was God-the-Son, laying aside his prerogatives for human form, living, breathing, suffering and dying and rising again to reconcile broken, rebellious mankind to their Maker – to Himself!
Misconception #5: Jesus just appeared to be human. Not! He was completely human. He said so. He loved to call himself “the son of man” (alluding to the prophet Daniel). Otherwise, how could his sacrifice – as the death of the one completely obedient, un-broken man in history – redeem all mankind, reversing the rebellion of Adam and of the rest of us? That’s what Christmas means.
So, through the centuries we have celebrated the invasion of time by eternity, the invasion of the finite – a single human cell – by the Infinite God. The Word of God speaking what no human language or imagination could express. The complete God in complete man, perfect God in perfect man, to reconcile mankind to divinity. God in a manger. God on a cross. God in a tomb. Death working backwards. Man – and with him all redeemed mankind – in Heaven, seated on the throne of God. Redeemed. Resurrected. Restored. Made holy and fit to live with God.
Of the Father’s love begotten,
Ere the worlds began to be,
He, the Alpha and Omega,
He the source, the ending He
Of the things that are, that have been,
And the future years shall see,
Evermore and evermore.
He is here, whom seer aforetime
Chanted while the ages ran;
Whom the faithful word of prophets
Promised since the world began;
Long foretold, at length appearing.
Praise Him every child of man,
Evermore and Evermore! (Prudentius, 348-c.413 AD)
Is any celebration too much?
David W. Heughins (“ProfDave”) is Adjunct Professor of History at Nazarene Bible College. He holds a BA from Eastern Nazarene College and a PhD in history from the University of Minnesota. He is the author of Holiness in 12 Steps (2020). He is a Vietnam veteran and is retired, living with his daughter and three grandchildren in Connecticut.