As I write this I am preparing for another round of medical tests to try and determine the health issues that have been plaguing me, sometimes to a debilitating extent, for the last couple of years. I do know that I already have a potentially life-threatening condition, but there are elements of this that still remain a mystery and thus far have evaded successful treatment. I say this not to garner sympathy but to use it as a platform for reflecting on how the effort to think deeply and precisely about theology is not an exercise in mental gymnastics but a well-spring of life-giving assurance.
The first question of the Heidelberg Catechism asks: “What is your only comfort in life and death?” It responds: “That I am not my own but belong, body and soul, in life and in death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ”. I love this response. It is a beautiful yet succinct reason for the hope that is in me: I belong to our faithful Savior Jesus Christ. But why is knowing that I belong in this way to Jesus Christ my only comfort in life and death? Of the many answers that could be given, I think that the rock-bottom foundation of this comfort lies in the fact that, as the Nicene creed says, Jesus is homoousion (i.e. consubstantial) with God the Father.
Let me briefly explain. In the fourth century, controversy erupted over whether Jesus as God’s Son was a created being or whether, as Athanasius insisted, Jesus belonged to the very identity of God, to his very essence and nature, equal to and one with the Father in all things save only that he is not the Father. The reason that this was such a critical truth for Athanasius and the other pro-Nicene theologians was because if Jesus is not “very God of very God”, then the gospel falls apart. Imagine what would happen if Jesus was not God in the flesh. How could we know that his life, death, resurrection, and ascension would have any redemptive value beyond just serving as a moral example? Sure, Jesus could tell someone like the paralytic in Mark 2 that his sins were forgiven, but how could that man, or anyone else for that matter, truly know that the words of Jesus carried the grace and truth and power of the Word of God himself?
On the other hand, if Jesus is truly homoousion with the Father, then everything changes. To see Jesus is to see the Father. To hear Jesus is to hear the Father. To know Jesus is to know the Father without remainder or distortion. Isn’t this what Jesus meant by what he said to Philip in John 14:9-10? Lurking behind Philip’s request in verse 8 for Jesus to show him the Father was the idea that behind the back of Jesus there was still a hidden God not yet fully revealed. This is why Jesus responds as he does: “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?” It is not hard to hear a bit of lament in Jesus’ response over the fact that apparently Philip had not yet fully comprehended who Jesus was. In essence Jesus tells him: “Philip, why after seeing me would you think that you have not seen the Father? Do you think that you can know me and yet not know the Father? Do you think that there is some dark, obscure God hidden behind my back that I have not fully revealed in myself? Do you not know that since I and the Father are one, there is no God other than the one you see and hear and know in me?”
The upshot of this is infinitely reassuring. How so? Here is Michael Reeves from his book Rejoicing in Christ (p.15) quoting and commenting on the Nicene Creed and T.F. Torrance (“The Christ Who Loves Us in A Passion for Christ, p.17)
[Jesus] is, as was enshrined in the stirring words of the Nicene Creed, “God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one being with the Father.” And no wonder they loved this truth, for through it the sunshine bursts in upon our thoughts of who God is, and what all reality is about: there is no God in heaven who is unlike Jesus. Capturing the happy spirit of the creed, T.F. Torrance was drawn to be quite lyrical as he wrote:
There is in fact no God behind the back of Jesus, no act of God other than the act of Jesus, no God but the God we see and meet in him. Jesus Christ is the open heart of God, the very love and life of God poured out to redeem humankind, the mighty hand and power of God stretched out to heal and save sinners. All things are in God’s hands, but the hands of God and the hands of Jesus, in life and in death, are the same.
Let us then be rid of that horrid, sly idea that behind Jesus, the friend of sinners, there is some more sinister being, one thinner on compassion and grace. There cannot be! Jesus is the Word. He is one with his Father. He is the radiance, the glow, the glory of who his Father is. If God is like Jesus, then, though I am sinful like the dying thief, I can dare to cry, “Remember me!” (see Lk 23:42). I know how he will respond. Though I am so spiritually lame and leprous, I can call out to him. For I know just what he is like toward the weak and sick.
This is why knowing that we belong to Jesus is our one great comfort. The hands of Jesus are the hands of God himself, and the fact that they bear the scars of crucifixion demonstrates once and for all and unequivocally what is the infinite love of God toward us and what is the incomprehensible extent to which he went in order to lay hold of us. In the incarnation and the atonement of Christ, God has pledged himself to us in such a way that to deny us would be to deny himself, and thus we can be assured that body and soul, in life and in death, he will never let us go.
As I go to my tests, this truth is unspeakably comforting. I hope it is to you as well.