Creeds not chaos - Hebrews 1:1-13
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
A few years ago when we decided to enter the computer age, my wife Heather, and I visited Waterstones to see if there were any books which might help us master those skills which now every primary school pupils are able to exercise with ease. And in fact we did come across a book whose title was not aimed to massage the ego but was designed to spell out its purpose- it was called, ‘Windows for Dummies’. Well, we thought the description pretty well summed us up and so we decided to buy it. Of course you wanted the young sale’s assistant to stop smirking as he handed it to you, preferably in a brown paper bag to save on the embarrassment. Without doubt this was the book for us. In relatively simple and, as they say, ‘user friendly’ terms, the mysteries of word processors began to be unravelled. What was first of all thought to be beyond ordinary mortals soon became a universe ‘middlies’ could inhabit along with the young. How grateful we were for ‘Windows for Dummies’!
Now when you think about it, those documents Christians call ‘creeds’ are a bit like that. The word creed comes from the word ‘credo’ which means ‘I believe.’ What is called the ‘Nicene Creed’ (its correct title is a bit of a mouth full for it is the Niceano- Constantinopolitan creed-which sounds like a special flavour of Italian ice cream)- is designed not to say everything about what Christians believe, but to help Christians get a handle on the basics- especially when it comes to thinking about God as Trinity. These creeds were carefully and thoughtfully put together for two main reasons. The first was to express the essentials of the Christian faith. The second was to counter wrong views about the Christian faith which would soon lead people in a totally different direction, and so into different religion altogether. So the early Church had a straight choice- creeds or chaos. They went for the creeds.
Now, by the time the Bible was complete, when it came to beliefs about God Christians everywhere shared some basic convictions. First, that there is only one God- ‘You believe that there is One God’ says the apostle James-James 2:19. Secondly, our salvation has a threefold source- the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit- ‘To God’s chosen people-chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ, sprinkled with his blood- 1 Peter 1:2. Thirdly, Jesus Christ is God, so that the apostle Paul can write that Jesus human ancestry can be traced back to Abraham, and that this ‘Christ is God over all, for ever praised Amen.’ (Romans 9:5) Fourthly, the Holy Spirit is a person, not a power and he is God, so that when Ananias and Sapphira in the early church decided to sell some property and keep some of the money back for themselves and yet claimed they had given it to the church, the apostle Peter first says to Ananias ‘You have not lied to men but God.’ Then to his wife Sapphira, ‘How could you agree to test the Spirit of the Lord?’- Acts 5: 4/9. But finally, it was strongly believed that the Father is not the Son, nor is the Son the Holy Spirit-they are all distinct and yet one as God- hence the ‘grace’ of Paul in 2 Corinthians 13: 14, ‘May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.’ So far so good. But you would not be surprised to discover that it proved to be a bit of a brain teaser to see how all of this fitted together. And so you would not be further surprised to discover that very early on some folk started to go off the rails. Some said that Father, Son and Spirit were but different names for the same person, like Melvin Tinker, The Vicar and the Incumbent are different names for me. Others said that Jesus only became God’s Son by adoption after the resurrection. And so you can see why it was important to get down to some serious thinking about how basic beliefs could be put together in a way that made sense.
One of the earliest people God raised up for this task was a man who lived in North Africa between 160 and 220 AD called Tertullian. He was quite a brain box – a lawyer, a medical doctor, a writer and a wiz on military affairs. During his early life he was a bit of a waster, only coming to a saving knowledge of the Lord Jesus much later on in years. So if there is anyone here who has become a Christian well on in life, don’t be discouraged- God can and will use you and your experience. Well, that is what he did with Tertullian. And as is so often the case in church life it was a pastoral issue he had to deal with which got him thinking. These were not ivory tower academics, but by and large practical pastors. You see,there was a man called Praxeas who was going around teaching that the Son had no independent existence, that God the Father and God the Son were really one and the same. And Praxeas was pretty crude in the way he worked this out. He taught that it was God the Father who descended into the Virgin’s womb in order to become his own Son and so it was God the Father who died on the cross. Well, that is really getting your wires crossed isn’t it? For if Jesus is the Father then to whom was he praying while on earth- himself? Now Tertullian coming from North Africa could just as easily have come from North Yorkshire because his reaction was pretty blunt and to the point. He accused Praxeas of, ‘doing the devil’s work at Rome. That he had exiled the Holy Spirit and crucified the Father.’ You didn’t mess with good old Tertullian. And so Tertullian set to work laying the foundations for what we know today as belief in The Trinity. This was simply a bringing together in a thought- out fashion what the Bible taught- a ‘theology for dummies.’
So affirming that God is one and yet the Father is distinct from the Son and the Spirit, Tertullian gave the church the tools to use in order to piece the picture together. He actually used the word ‘Trinity’ with its association of ‘Tri- unity’ not three-ness but three- in- one- ness.’ He also spoke of God’s ‘essence’ or ‘being’ or ‘substance’. That God the Father and God the Son and God the Holy Spirit all shared the same essence- or if you like that which made them God- their Godness.
But then he went on to use a very important term to help us distinguish the way in which God is one in such a way that he is also three- and the term was- ‘person’. He wrote ‘The three persons are of One, by unity of essence.’ As we now sing, ‘God in three persons, blessed trinity.’ But there was a problem which meant that Tertullian was not terribly happy with what he had written nor was the rest of the Church. You see, in Tertullian’s day, a ‘person’ was not an individual being as we understand a person today such as ‘Lee Mc Munn is a person.’ It originally meant a ‘mask’ that an individual actor would wear to perform a certain part. So you could have one actor playing several different roles in one play. He would just swap the mask. It is like when we speak of someone adopting a certain ‘persona’. Now you can see how this could be misunderstood when applied to God. It could be taken that there was only one solitary God but who according to what he was doing appeared in different guises- one moment as a creator, the next as redeemer or sanctifier. Of course Tertullian didn’t mean that- but it was the best on offer at the time. Today we can think of it more in terms of One God- but with three centres of consciousness all sharing the same being- Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
The next significant figure to appear on the scene was an Egyptian called Athanasius. And this was a man with guts because for years he stood more or less alone sticking to the belief that Jesus was God when most of the church leadership had ditched the idea. He too did most of his work to counter a heretic called Arius around 318 AD. Arius was the great granddaddy of the JW’s for he taught that Jesus was not eternally the Son of God. He said there ‘was a time when he was not’. Jesus was a creature, he argued, but not an ordinary creature- he was a kind of super-creature, not man, nor God, but the highest kind of creature through whom God related to the world. Well, Athanasius wasn’t going to have any of that and in 325 AD he and a group of church leaders gathered in the town of Nicea, now Iznik on the west coast of Turkey. Without going into all the detail they produced the Nicene Creed. The key phrase which nailed the lid in the coffin of Arius and all JW’s since is what we say in the creed- we believe,’ In one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, begotten of his 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…’ This meant that God the Son had always existed and was eternally begotten of the Father, so there never was a time (if there is time in eternity) when he did not exist. What is more he was of one substance with the Father- that is, he was equally God, not a different substance like God, but the same as God. This is Bible’s teaching. So in Hebrews 1 we read of Jesus in v 3 ‘The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being.’ Now those two statements balance each other perfectly, each emphasising a different aspect of the deity of Christ. On the one hand, there is an inseparable unity between God the Father and God the Son for he is the ‘radiance of God’s glory’ Now, can you imagine a lamp being lit without the filament glowing? Or the sun shining without its rays radiating? Of course not, the two always go together. So it is here. Jesus is co-eternal with God. There never was a time when the Father existed without the Son. God cannot be glorious without Christ being there for he is the radiance of his glory. But that truth of the co-eternal nature of Christ is balanced with what is stressed in the next phrase in v 3 ‘he is the exact representation of his being.’ The idea is that of a distinct personality. That word ‘representation’ speaks of a precise copy, like when you stamp a seal in wax. So whilst sharing the divine nature with the Father, Jesus is not the Father, by his own distinctive personhood he perfectly mirrors to us what the Father is like. Note that Jesus is ‘the exact representation of his being’ which means that every aspect of the divine character is embodied in Jesus. In Jesus do we see someone who is tender with the broken hearted? So is the Father. In Jesus do we see someone who has total control over nature? So does the Father. In Jesus do we see someone who hates sin and all that corrupts and demeans and is determined to do something about it? So does the Father. We are not to play one off against the other in our minds, as if God the Father is a bullying God associated with the OT and Jesus is the kind God we see in the new. Whilst distinct, they are yet one in their divine character. Jesus is the human face of God.
Now, so far a lot had been said about God the Father and God the Son, but what about God the Holy Spirit? Well, the only thing that was said in the creed Athanasius and others put together was ‘We believe in the Holy Spirit’ which was not all that much. So in 381 AD another meeting took place in Constantinople which was to give us the creed we use today in our communion service (which we refer to as the Nicene Creed, but its not as we have seen). And look at what it says, ‘I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. With the Father and the Son he is worshipped and glorified. He has spoken through the prophets.’ And there we have it for dummies. The Holy Spirit is a person- he has spoken-person’s speak. The Holy Spirit is God equal to the Father and the Son, for ‘He is worshipped and glorified.’ We are also told of the Spirit’s work, he gives life- natural life but also spiritual life, he is the one who gives people new birth as they turn to the Lord Jesus Christ. He is the agent of revelation- he has spoken through the prophets, and so in effect he is the ultimate author of the Bible- he inspired it, literally, ‘breathed out its words’, according to Paul in 2 Timothy 3:16. And he is the one who proceeds from the Father and the Son. And so although equal in being- equally God, there is nonetheless an order within the Trinity. The Son is eternally begotten of the Father, the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. The fact that there is order within the Godhead doesn’t mean there is inferiority; it is an order of equals, but still an order. And as we shall see in a few weeks time, this has implications for how men and women are to relate to each other in the home and in the church.
Now you may say, ‘Well all of this was so long ago. Can we improve on the creeds?’ I am not convinced that we can. However, some other people since have helped ordinary people like us to grasp a bit more firmly how God as Trinity can be understood. One such person was the writer C.S. Lewis. In his book ‘Mere Christianity’ he uses a very helpful illustration which I want to share with you. He says that in space we can move three ways- left or right, backwards or forwards, up or down. These are the three dimensions. If we were using only one dimension, we would only be able to draw a straight line. With two dimensions we can draw a figure- maybe a square. But with three dimensions you can build that up into a solid body- a cube like a lump of sugar. The point is you advance to more real and complicated levels, but not leaving the lower levels behind, rather they are taken up into the higher levels. He says, it is like that with God. The human level is if you like at the simple and empty level. On the human level one person is one being, any two persons are separate beings, just as in two dimensions, on a piece of paper, one square is one figure and two squares-two figures. But on the Divine level, it is like a third dimension, you still find the personalities but they are combined in new ways which we on our simple level can’t imagine. In God’s dimension, you find this wonderful being who is three persons while remaining one being, just as a cube is six squares while remaining one cube. Do you see?
But you then may ask, ‘Well, that might be interesting but it is not very practical.’ That is where you would be wrong. Can you think for example, of anything more practical than prayer? We think prayer is dead easy- you just talk to God. At one level that is true, that is what prayer is, but for prayer to take place it involves the whole of the Trinity- did you know that? From God’s point of view, getting you and me to pray requires some effort. The apostle Paul always addresses his prayers to ‘The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ’. It is to God the Father that we come, introduced, as it were, by his Son- Jesus Christ-he ushers us into his Father’s presence. But Paul also tells us that sometimes we don’t know how to pray and it is the Spirit who intercedes for us (Romans 8:26). So when you and I get down on our knees in prayer we are getting in touch with God. But the one who is promoting us to pray is also God, the Spirit within us pushing us on, and we also have the Lord Jesus in heaven who is the bridge to God leading us on, and we have God the Father who hears us and answers our prayers. So the Trinity is necessary for prayer.
Or what about love? Is there anything more vital than that? Because of the Trinity Christians can say that ‘God is love’ in a way that the Muslim cannot and for this reason: For someone to love, you have to have an object to love. So whom did God love before the world and human beings were made? For the Muslim the answer is no one, and so God cannot be eternally love. But the Christian, pointing to the Trinity can say , ‘Of course God is eternally love for the Father has always loved the Son with a burning intensity, and the Son has loved the Father with the deepest devotion possible and all of this united by the love of Holy Spirit. And when people become Christians they are caught up in the great dance of love which exists within the being of the Godhead. If you are here this morning as a believer, the Father loves you as much as he loves the Son for through him you have been adopted into his family. The Son loved you so much that he gave his life for you on a cross. And the Spirit has set his heart upon you and come into you so that one day when you die he will take you up into the very heavens itself so that you can experience that cascading divine love in ever increasing degrees of glory into all eternity. And this is the great God we worship.
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