As Christians we confess the reality of the true and living and triune God on two levels. The ultimate level is God-as-He-is-in-Himself, independent of any creation. The infinite God is revealed to us as Father, Son and Holy Spirit—God the Speaker, God the Spoken, and God the Interpretation. This is simply and solely the way God is without any reference to us or any other created thing. But the only reason we can know anything about this ultimate reality is because of the second level—how God revealed Himself to us through the incarnation of Christ. Our safest theological method is always and everywhere to look to Christ.
Do you want forgiveness and salvation? Look to Christ. Would you know the Father? Look to Christ. Would you obey the Spirit? Look to Christ. Would you grow in wisdom about what it means to be Godlike? Look to Christ.
And of course, looking to Christ entails paying close attention to His Word.
This means we must distinguish the obedience that Christ rendered as the incarnate servant, on the one hand, from the obedience that He rendered when He first came into the world on the other. The first was attended with bloody sweat and agonized prayer (Luke 22:44), not to mention loud cries and tears (Heb. 5:7). The latter was attended with nothing of the kind. Christ’s entry into the world was attended with everlasting joy, supreme happiness, and eternal love. Christ’s obedience here was made up of frictionless joy. There was no agonistic Gethsemane within the Godhead—there could not have been. But there was authority and there was obedience. This is because there was a Father and there was a Son.
How can this be? What basis do we have for distinguishing the two kinds of obedience?
“And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8, ESV). This was the obedience of the incarnate servant, the suffering servant, the God/man, our Lord in the flesh, Jesus of Nazareth. This obedience is why He set His face like flint when He turned toward Jerusalem (Is. 50:7). It is an obedience that presupposes the Incarnation already happened.
But when the decision was made to save us, that decision was made before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4). Before there was a world for God to love, God loved us within His own eternal and compassionate purposes. Before there was a world to enter, a decision was made within the Godhead that the Second Person of the Godhead would be the one to accomplish that entry. The eternal Word of God was sent into the world.
Now because God is one, His will is one. Some might ask how this can make any sense—how can there be authority and obedience both when there is only one divine will? It seems a reasonable question, but before we attempt to answer it, we might also ask how we can have a Father, Son, and Spirit with only one divine will? These things are revealed to us; we do not know them because we have triumphed over theological ignorance with our astute analogies. When unfruitful debates break out among orthodox theologians, the one thing you can be assured of is this—no one will have taken his shoes off beforehand. But if we are discussing these things on holy ground, we ought to remember that fact, and act as though we have.
Remember we learn by looking to Christ. We admire Him for His courage on the way to Jerusalem. But we are also taught about His total commitment to the authority of the Father before He was from Nazareth. We are told this repeatedly. He obeyed in His flesh when He went to Calvary. But He also obeyed when He came into this world, a world with Calvary in it.
“For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved” (John 3:17).
What I say about the Greek in all this applies equally to the passages that follow. The word for sent is apostello, the verb form of the word for apostle. An apostle is a sent one, under the authority of the sender, and carrying the authority of the sender. The word for world is kosmos. Before the Incarnation, Christ was not in the world. This means that the sending had to happen before He entered the world. And the world eis means into. You can’t be sent into a place if you are already there.
The Incarnate One was certainly sent to Jerusalem to complete His mission. But before that, the pre-Incarnate One was sent to assume the form of a servant, so that He would then be in possession of that mission.
We are told this same thing in multiple places.
“Say ye of him, whom the Father hath sanctified, and sent into the world, Thou blasphemest; because I said, I am the Son of God?” (John 10:36).
“As thou hast sent me into the world, even so have I also sent them into the world” (John 17:18).
“In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him” (1 John 4:9).
And here is a passage with both senses of sending in view.
“And we have seen and do testify that the Father sent the Son to be the Saviour of the world” (1 John 4:14).
Scripture speaks of such things naturally, easily, readily. But we know we must be careful because we are finite little things talking about ultimate and infinite things, which is more than a little bit like roly-poly bugs having heated debates about astrophysics. Our best protection is to understand the limitations of anthropomorphic language, couple that with the necessity of scriptural anthropomorphic language, and to use it all merrily.
Speaking of anthropomorphic images of God, C.S. Lewis put it this way:
“I suggest two rules for exegetics: 1) Never take the images literally. 2) When the purport of the images—what they say to our fear and hope and will and affections—seems to conflict with the theological abstractions, trust the purport of the images every time. For our abstract thinking is itself a tissue of analogies: a continual modelling of spiritual reality in legal or chemical or mechanical terms. Are these likely to be more adequate than the sensuous, organic, and personal images of Scripture—light and darkness, river and well, seed and harvest, master and servant, hen and chickens, father and child? The footprints of the Divine are more visible in that rich soil than across rocks or slag-heaps” (Letters to Malcolm, p. 52).
One final comment before we continue our worship. Remember that God is one, and the three infinite persons we adore are not like any three persons that we might pick out of the congregation here. That would be tri-theism, which we abhor. But neither are the three persons gossamer phantoms, or apparitions merely, which would be modalism, which we also abhor.
The Father is God the Speaker (Gen. 1:3), the Son is God the Spoken (John 1:1), and the Spirit is God the Interpreter (1 Cor. 2:10). This means that the authoritative command did not cross over a chasm in order to reach the Son, and which the Son then weighed in His decision to obey. Remember that in the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God (John 1:1). It would be misleading to say that Jesus obeyed God the way an archangel does; the Word did not obey across any distance. If the Father spoke “a command,” then the Word was the command spoken. The Word is the authority of God and He is the obedience of God.
Can we comprehend all this? Certainly not. Are we privileged to imitate it? Absolutely, yes. All day, every day. This is how we submit to one another in the fear of God (Eph. 5:21). We imitate Him, as dearly loved children (Eph. 5:1). And this is how you will be able to celebrate a Christmas that is fully in harmony with the reason for Christmas in the first place.