Jesus’ Divine Identity


Every year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the Festival of the Passover. When he was twelve years old, they went up to the festival, according to the custom. After the festival was over, while his parents were returning home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but they were unaware of it. Thinking he was in their company, they traveled on for a day. Then they began looking for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they went back to Jerusalem to look for him. After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.”

“Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand what he was saying to them.

Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. But his mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.

–Luke 2:41-52


The story of 12-year-old Jesus disputing with the elders in the Temple is occasionally cited to show the precocious genius of Christ as a child holding his own with learned Jewish scholars, and to remind children that even Jesus ended up obeying his parents (at least, after giving them a scare that Passover). But when we come at this passage in the light of Epiphany, its primary thrust of unveiling Jesus’ divine identity shines through.

In the season of Epiphany, we celebrate the unveiling of God’s action in Christmas. The implications of the birth of the Messiah, who will be a light to the nations, are worked out. The reaction to God’s presence by the forces of evil are clearly seen. The role of the Messiah, as the substitute for Israel and the representative of a new humanity, is foreshadowed.

Luke 2 continues this unveiling. Luke 2 subtly shows that the light of the nations, who will drive out the forces of darkness, is not only a substitute who stands in for Israel and a new representative for humanity–instead, this “new Adam” and “true Israelite” also shares the divine identity with the God of Israel, YHWH. Provocatively, to some foolishly, Luke 2 sets us on the path toward recognizing that Jesus is God.

In Luke’s Gospel story, Jesus’ miraculous birth and messianic role were explained to Mary before she conceived in Luke 1. Earlier in Luke 2, Joseph and Mary hear both Simeon and Anna praise God and prophesy because the child Jesus will grow up to be the Messiah.

But it is clear that Mary and Joseph had no belief in Jesus being the Son of God in the sense that he was the Second Person of the Trinity. In fact, any conception of Trinity would challenge Jewish monotheism.

At the time of Jesus’ birth, the phrase  Son of God referred to the Messiah descended from the line of David; it was not understood to mean equivalence with the God of Israel, YHWH. This is why Mary and Joseph did not understand Jesus when he said, “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?”

I want to reflect on how culturally disturbing and alien it would be for 12-year-old Jesus to call the God of Israel his Father.

At the age of 12, Jesus would already have been through much training in Torah and synagogue practices, at the instruction of both his parents and especially by his father Joseph. The 12th year was the final year of preparation before he fully entered into adult religious maturity as bar mitzvah or “son of the commandment.” In this final year, it would be Joseph’s special obligation to pass on to Jesus the ways of their Israelite ancestors. This adds special poignancy to Mary’s complaint, “Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.”

But Jesus’ answer, that he must be in His Father’s house, suggests that he was already conscious not only of his messianic vocation, but also his divine identity. He had a personal awareness of a special relationship with God that was so intimate that he did not think it inappropriate to call the Holy Creator of the Universe his Father.

For Christians, it is easy for us to read into the text our confessed (and true!) understanding of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But we have to remember that while there were a number of ways Jews of this time period expressed the presence and identity of God (Torah, Temple, Presence, Glory, Wisdom), all of these expressions were fundamentally viewed through the framework of Jewish monotheism.

Richard Bauckham explores the features of Jewish monotheism in his book God Crucified: Monotheism and Christology in the New Testament, where he identifies 3 key distinctives: The God of Israel is the sole Creator of the world (creational), the God of Israel will one day bring His Kingdom over all the nations (eschatological), and the God of Israel alone deserves worship (cultic).

We see that the early church re-works each of these distinctive features in and around Jesus. The apostles write of Jesus as the agent and telos, or purpose, of Creation (John 1:1-18Colossians 1:17).  The apostles testify that Christ has been given authority over the nations to establish God’s reign (Matthew 28:18-20, 1 Corinthians 15:25-26). And from the early beginning of the church, worship of the One God was reoriented around Jesus (Luke 24:51-53, Philippians 2:5-11).

Further, NT Wright explores the theme of God coming in person to redeem His Covenant with Israel in Scripture, writing in Paul and the Faithfulness of God that:

Israel’s God, having abandoned Jerusalem and the Temple at the time of the Babylonian exile, would one day return. He would return in person. He would return in glory. He would return to judge and save. He would return to bring about the new Exodus, overthrowing the enemies that had enslaved his people. He would return to establish his glorious, tabernacling presence in their midst. He would return to rule over the whole world. He would come back to be king.

Jesus’ repeated reference to God as “Father”and his need to be at the Temple reveals that even at the age of 12, he had an understanding that he would be continuing and bringing to fulfillment the work of Israel’s God in establishing God’s glorious, personal, and royal presence over the whole world.

The story of Jesus disputing with the elders at the Temple is an early clue in the Gospel of Luke that the birth of the Messiah was also the Incarnation of God. Incarnation, the embodiment of a pure and holy God in carnal flesh. Jesus was not just a great prophet or the new Davidic king–he was the true Son who was God Himself, come to complete His Redemptive Project of Reconciliation. And he embodies that reconciliation even at the level of his own flesh and blood.

We can’t know what was going on in Jesus’ mind at the age of 12. But Presbyterian minister Tim Keller goes so far as to suggest (starting at 25:24) that at the same time Joseph was training up his son in the vocation of faithful Jewishness, God was training up His Son in the divine vocation:

It’s hard for me to imagine that Jesus would have stayed behind, would have been able to contend with those folks, would have stayed in the Temple courts, unless something happened besides Joseph walking him around Jerusalem and telling him who he’s going to be. See Joseph was going around saying you’re going to be a carpenter, see Joseph was going around saying ‘You’re going to be a faithful Jew and you’re going to go to the Temple and you’re going to do the Passover, and this is what these things mean.’ But what if, what if –and Jesus virtually hints at this–his Real Father was doing that too. What if his Real Father was walking him around Jerusalem and going about a million levels deeper. And that when he went to the Temple, his Real Father says ‘You’re the new Temple, and you’re going to make this place obsolete.’ And when he walked around the streets of Jerusalem, his Father said ‘You’re going to be walking on these streets, but you’re going to be carrying a Cross.’ But certainly, almost certainly, that when he sat down at the Passover and he looked at the lamb, his Real Father said, ‘You’re going to be the Lamb.’

Though it sounds foolish and remains a stumbling block for many, the apostles confess that Jesus was not just a special or especially good person–Jesus is God. He shows God’s character, He fulfills God’s purposes, and He shares God’s Identity.

I believe in God, the Father almighty, 
    creator of heaven and earth; 
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord. 
    He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit 
        and born of the Virgin Mary. 
    He suffered under Pontius Pilate, 
        was crucified, died, and was buried. 
    He descended to the dead. 
    On the third day he rose again. 
    He ascended into heaven, 
        and is seated at the right hand of the Father. 
    He will come again to judge the living and the dead. 
I believe in the Holy Spirit, 
    the holy catholic Church, 
    the communion of saints, 
    the forgiveness of sins
    the resurrection of the body, 
    and the life everlasting. Amen.
–The Apostles’ Creed

Out of Egypt I Called My Son


When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.

–Hosea 11:1

So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” 

–Matthew 2:13-14

We are continuing our blog series on the Church calendar, and we are in the season of Epiphany, where we wrestle with the implications of God’s Incarnation in Jesus the Messiah.

Last week, we read about how the forces of evil gathered to murder the Christ child in his crib, and how this reminds us that though Christians are assured a final victory over evil, evil will not back down without a fight.

Herod’s attempt to murder Jesus was unsuccessful; Joseph was warned by an angel, and he fled with Mary and Jesus to Egypt. When Herod dies, Joseph and family make their return to Judea, and Matthew writes that this is in accordance with the writings of the Prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

Matthew is quoting Hosea 11:1 here, but this presents a puzzle. It is clear that the “son” Hosea is referring to in that passage is Israel. Hosea in chapter 11 is writing to an Israel scattered through conquest and exile, and he is assuring the people that God’s faithful love to Israel will call them back out of the nations as he once before called them out of Egypt. Why would Matthew then use this passage to refer to the child Jesus’ return from Egypt?

The key to the answer is to understand the biblical themes of representation and substitution.  Adam was not only the first man, but a representative head who summed up all of humanity in himself. As a result, his faithlessness is our faithlessness. Not only that, but Adam’s vocation was to represent God’s rule to creation as the image of God, and to represent creation’s praises back to God. Adam was the first royal priest. But the sin of Adam corrupted not only his ability to exercise his vocation, but the very nature of creation itself.

In order to rescue creation, God called Abraham and formed a nation from him, which He named Israel. Israel was a substitute for Adam–where Adam had failed as a royal priest, Israel was to be a nation of royal priests. As a substitute, the nation of Israel would then represent all the world to God, and be the means of the healing and restoration of Creation. But, as the Hebrew Scriptures sorrowfully recount, Israel too fails in its vocation. In its selfishness and idolatry, Israel reenacts the sin of Adam.

But just as all hope seems lost, in comes Jesus Christ, the true Israelite. He is the substitute for Israel, who was the substitute for Adam. And where Israel and Adam failed, Jesus succeeds! His entire life is one devoted act of worship to God the Father, and he is obedient even to the Cross and death. Therefore, God vindicated Jesus and raised Him up after three days, to be the representative head of a New Creation. All those who are joined to Jesus through faith now have the vocation of the royal priesthood, set to combat evil and love justice.

When Matthew sees Jesus as the “son” in Hosea 11:1, he is telling his readers that Jesus was who Israel was pointing to all along: The Perfect Human who is the exact Image of God. Jesus fulfills Israel’s vocation as the true substitute and New Adam. In Jesus, our long exile from God’s presence is finally ended.

But there’s more. In Jesus, we see the depths of God’s identification with humanity. Jesus was born to a poor family in an oppressed nation. Jesus spent formative years as an immigrant and a foreigner in Egypt. Even when he returned to his homeland, he returned as a stranger, a former refugee who still had to be careful and avoid the murderous intentions of the ruling Herodian dynasty.

When Christians see the plight of the immigrant laborer or the refugee child, we have no warrant to be callous or unfeeling. Our precious Lord and Savior was an immigrant and refugee. While political decisions should always be made with prudence and wisdom, we must realize that when we look at the face of the foreigner fleeing oppression, we look at the face of our God.

Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

–Matthew 25:34-40

Evil is real…and the Empire always Strikes Back

CA.Empire20.0211.6.Q––In the aftermath of their dual, Darth Vader beckons Luke Skywalker in a scene from ” The Empire Strikes Back Special Edition”

When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”

So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:

A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.”

–Matthew 2:13-18

As we continue our series through the Church Calendar, during the season of Epiphany, we can unpack the explosive implications of Christmas.

Christmas is not just a celebration of Jesus’ birth. Christmas is also God’s declaration of War against Evil. Christmas means War.

The season of Epiphany invites us to investigate the logical outworking of Christmas. With Jesus’ birth as Messiah, God announced that all other rulers of the world are illegitimate. This is why the non-Jewish Magi come to adore the newborn Jewish King who would bring God’s rule to earth.

The nations are not ruling the world according to God’s Principles of Justice and Holiness. And so Jesus’ birth was God’s declaration of war against all evil–human evils, the evils of sin and disease and death, and spiritual evils.

But evil does not go away quietly. The forces of evil–of sin, death, and empire–always strike back. Every part of Jesus’ mission was met by opposition from the forces of evil. This included Roman opposition, Jewish opposition, Satanic opposition, and even opposition by Jesus’ own disciples, like when Peter denies him and Judas betrays him.

This opposition started at the very beginning of Jesus’ story. In Matthew 2, when the Wise Men come following the sign of the star to Bethlehem, they stop in Jerusalem and ask where they can find Messiah. King Herod learns of this and is alarmed–his reign is illegitimate and he knows it–and he orders the death of every male baby in Bethlehem so that no new King from the line of David can take his throne away from him. Innocent children are slaughtered so that one man can secure his power. This is what Evil’s Reign looks like.

This world is under captivity to evil, dark forces. Perhaps that sounds ridiculous to modern ears, but the Bible is clear: Evil is real, and it wields seductive power. It’s a power that turns brothers and sisters against each other–Cain against Abel. It’s a power that causes nations to war against one another. And it’s a power that corrupts each and every one of us–no matter how good we are, no matter how moral we may think ourselves to be, there is a spiritual force of evil that crouches at our door, that lies waiting, seeking to destroy us and take everything good from us.

And the thing evil wants most of all is ourselves. It wants our minds and our hearts, corrupted and selfish and hardened and closed to joy. It wants us grasping for lesser things so that we cannot be free to enjoy the fruits of love that God wants us to bear. And the final desire of evil is destruction–it wants us to destroy one another with our jealousy and our rivalry, and it wants us to destroy ourselves.

The simple truth is, we cannot defeat evil on our own. We are too weak. And so, for most of human history, all of mankind has been enslaved to the Kingdom of the Devil. Brother is pitted against brother, parent against child, rich against poor, black against white, the strong against the weak–this is the history of our world.

And this is the good news of Christmas, unpacked and outworked in Epiphany. God did not abandon us to the power of the Devil and sin and death. Instead God, in an act of great love for us, became a human being–and not just any human being, but a human being who would suffer for us in our place to win us from the Devil. Jesus Christ is the perfect sacrifice who purchases us from the Devil and death. And those of us who believe in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ are now freed from the Kingdom of the Devil, and we become citizens of the Kingdom of God. Evil can try its hardest against us now, but we know that the final victory will be ours because of Jesus. Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ.

Christmas is God’s declaration of war because in Jesus Christ, God invades the Kingdom of the Devil and He immediately begins confronting evil. Look at Jesus’s life. Jesus battles the Devil by healing– he reverses disease and death. Jesus battles the Devil with his teaching–in the Sermon on the Mount he tells us that when someone strikes us not to hit back but to turn the other cheek.

Satan, through King Herod, was trying to squelch the in-breaking Kingdom of God by murdering the baby Jesus in the cradle. But God’s plan of redemption would not be frustrated. Joseph is warned, and he takes his family to Egypt, and so Jesus escapes Herod’s monstrous actions.

The Empire of Evil always fights back against God’s plan of redemption. Christians know the final victory is assured to us, but we must heed the warning that evil will not disappear without a fight.

The Devil will always try to seduce us, and turn us into monsters like Herod. None of us can serve two masters. Either we serve the Kingdom of God, or we serve the Kingdom of the Devil. Either we serve light, or we serve darkness. And there is a war that continues to today between these two realms.

What are you really living for? Is it security? Is it success for yourself or your children? Is it peace–you don’t want conflicts in your life?

Those are all good things. But the message of the Bible is that when you make good things ultimate things–when your main priority is security, or success, or peace, then the Devil will come in to subvert those good desires to serve evil purposes. You start to short-cut some moral principles to make sure you or your children get ahead. You refuse to show other people mercy if it means sacrificing your security. You hesitate to confront evil if it means a loss of your own peace. You murder children to preserve your own power.

The message of Christmas, unpacked in Epiphany, is that God has made a way for us out of slavery to the Devil by entering into this world as the perfect human being, the kind of human we can’t be. He has launched his rescue operation for humanity because He knows we cannot save ourselves. He has started this war, and He has struck the decisive blow in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

And now, we are invited into the battle against the Devil. But we don’t fight this battle by trying to destroy others–that is the way of the Devil. Instead we fight this battle in the way of Christ, who died out of love for his enemies.

If we are soldiers in the way of Christ, that means we fight this war by sacrificing our interests and dedicating our lives to serving others out of obedience to God, just like Jesus. Because of grace, we help others who we are tempted to think don’t deserve our help, and we even love those who hate us. We defeat the Devil by sharing in Christ’s love for the world, even when it demands everything from us.

Christmas is a declaration of war. And the question all of us need to ask ourselves in the season of Epiphany is this: Which side are we on?

What is Epiphany?

What is Epiphany?

As we continue to work our way through the Church Calendar, we note that the Christmas season ends with Epiphany. For the twelve days of Christmas, we celebrated the coming of the Christ who brings with him the messianic expectations of a Kingdom of Justice, Truth, and Healing. As Christians, we also confess that this same Messiah is the Incarnation of God Himself. Jesus reveals the full character and being of God; as stated in the Gospel of John, Jesus is the divine Logos, by whom, through whom, and for whom all things were made, he is the new tabernacle where Heaven and Earth meet in flesh and blood, and he shares the divine identity with God the Father.

January 6 ended the Christmas season with Epiphany. Some churches celebrate Epiphany as a single day–others celebrate an entire Epiphany season. But this begs the question: What is Epiphany?

As we’ve previously said, the purpose of the Church Calendar is to help us closely follow Jesus’ story, so that we understand the full scope of who God is, and who we are in Christ. This type of focus is a helpful tool for our spiritual formation, so that we can meditate on deep theological truths like the Incarnation, Transfiguration, Crucifixion, Resurrection, Ascension, and Pentecost, in a way that runs with the grain of Scripture and Jesus’ story, instead of abstracted away from them.

Epiphany means manifestation or revealing appearance. In Epiphany, we celebrate the revelation of Jesus as not only the Jewish Messiah, but also as the light for the entire world. This is why Epiphany is usually associated with the visit of the Magi, representing the Gentile nations, detailed in Matthew 2:1-12, and with Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan recounted in Matthew 3:13-17. How are these aspects of Jesus’ story connected to his revelation as the Light of the World?

The Book of Deuteronomy shows us that God had chosen Israel for a purpose–to fulfill God’s promise to Abraham to bless the nations through Abraham’s family. This promise is fleshed out as God reveals that Israel’s laws concerning worship of the one true God and justice for the vulnerable and weak are supposed to testify to the world that God is the true God. (See Deuteronomy 4:6, and Tim Keller’s helpful exposition here). In this way, Israel will participate in God’s reconciliation project with the whole world, which will finally lead to the New Creation.

The story of the Hebrew Scriptures is the tragic inability of Israel to live up to this vocation. But Isaiah promises Israel that God will raise up a suffering servant who will stand in for the nation, and whose total obedience to God will somehow mysteriously atone for Israel’s sins and inaugurate the arrival of God’s Kingdom. (See Isaiah 49).

In Epiphany, and in Matthew chapters 2 and 3, we see these themes rushing together. The Magi come to Jerusalem to pay homage to the King of the Jews, having seen the sign of the Star, because they somehow recognize that this king deserves their adoration and loyalty. John the Baptist calls the Jews to repent and wash themselves in the Jordan, because he knows that for Israel to return to its proper vocation it needs a fresh start where it must renounce its idolatry and unfaithfulness and, in a sense, cross the Jordan River into the Promised Land once again to prepare for a new campaign against and victory over sin. (See Joshua 3). This is why Jesus submits to John’s baptism, to accept Israel’s vocation as a new Joshua.

Epiphany highlights for us the tight connection between Jesus’ adoption of Israel’s vocation and his rightful place as King of the World. It is by acting as the true Israelite, the suffering servant of the Lord who stands in the place of his nation, that Jesus is able to conquer evil and inaugurate a Kingdom of Justice and Healing that encompasses the whole world. The Magi were the first Gentiles to recognize this new king, and because of his victory over sin and death all nations are brought under his reign. Epiphany reminds us that the arrival of the Messiah was not just good news for the Jews–it was good news for the entire world!

But as the gifts of frankincense, gold, and myrrh remind us, the arrival of the Messiah was bound to prompt a reaction by the principalities and powers that seek to run the world on their own authority. And that’s what we will explore in our next post.


Stewards, Not Owners

10 Therefore David blessed the Lord in the presence of all the assembly. And David said: “Blessed are you, O Lord, the God of Israel our father, forever and ever. 11 Yours, O Lord, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the victory and the majesty, for all that is in the heavens and in the earth is yours. Yours is the kingdom, O Lord, and you are exalted as head above all. 12 Both riches and honor come from you, and you rule over all. In your hand are power and might, and in your hand it is to make great and to give strength to all. 13 And now we thank you, our God, and praise your glorious name.

14 “But who am I, and what is my people, that we should be able thus to offer willingly? For all things come from you, and of your own have we given you. 15 For we are strangers before you and sojourners, as all our fathers were. Our days on the earth are like a shadow, and there is no abiding.[e] 16 O Lord our God, all this abundance that we have provided for building you a house for your holy name comes from your hand and is all your own. 17 I know, my God, that you test the heart and have pleasure in uprightness. In the uprightness of my heart I have freely offered all these things, and now I have seen your people, who are present here, offering freely and joyously to you. 18 O Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, our fathers, keep forever such purposes and thoughts in the hearts of your people, and direct their hearts toward you. 

1 Chronicles 29: 10-18

As we think on how to serve God this new year, the Word reminds us that everything we possess is God’s to begin with. The Earth is the Lord’s and everything in it (Psalm 24:1). Consider: our wealth, our belongings, our clothes, our health, our talents, our hobbies,our social media accounts, our creations, our families, friends, relationships, our churches, our jobs, our businesses, our spouses, our children- yes, everything- belongs to God. One of our greatest deceptions is that we believe we own what we have, that we are the source of what we posses. But scripture is clear that what we have, we have been given. Therefore, we are not owners, we are stewards. God has invested in us, but his investment is not only for his gain but our delight. 

I think knowing this truth will liberate us to serve God more willingly this new year. Our time, tithe, and talents all belong to God. What has God blessed you with today? How can you use it to glorify God? You are a story of grace and glory, and I pray that God would “keep forever such purposes and thoughts in the hearts of his people and direct their hearts toward Him.”