The vicarious worship of Emmanuel

Today I thought that I would post something more devotional in content both because it is Sunday and also because I celebrate the fact that I was finally able to get to church after having missed a number of weeks due to my ongoing health issues. It was a joy and encouragement to be able to do so, and I was reminded as well how wonderful it is to worship in my mother tongue, something that is a rare privilege for me. Apart from that, though, I was led to reflect on the role of how the vicarious humanity of Christ (something that I have been pressing into deeply over the last few months) impacts the joy and wonder of worship.e9832693147d0c4c460c0f83c1f36fe4

My thoughts closed in on the name Emmanuel, “God with us” applied to Jesus in Matthew 1:23. I have always loved this particular designation for Christ, but for much of my life I had an overly superficial understanding of what it means. Laying stress on the fact that Jesus is God with us, my conception tended toward a more docetic view. Docetism is the name of the ancient heresy according to which Jesus was truly God but did not actually become human and only appeared to be so. Now I did not explicitly deny that Jesus was fully man, but on a functional level I tended to focus less on Jesus’ humanity, thinking of it more as the instrument, so to speak, that enabled him as God the Son to dwell among us physically on the earth. In other words, Jesus was ‘God with us’ in the sense that he was the second person of the Trinity dwelling among us human beings.

What I failed to realize, that of which I am only beginning to grasp the implications, is that Jesus’ humanity was not a mere instrument. He himself is not merely God with us, but he is also God with us.  As the Word made flesh, the Son of God incarnate, the sole mediator between God and humanity, Jesus is in his very person both God descended to humanity and humanity ascended to God. Jesus is in his very person not merely the Word of God spoken to humanity, but he is humanity’s perfect receiving and responding to that Word. Jesus is in his very person both the God who reconciles and communes with humanity and humanity that is reconciled into communion with God. Jesus is in his very person not only the God who calls for faith, obedience, and love from humanity, he is also humanity that believes, obeys, and loves perfectly in our flesh and on our behalf. As Athanasius beautifully said in his fourth discourse against the Arians, the Son of God became the Son of Man so that “He might minister the things of God to us, and ours to God”.

Specifically in relation to our worship of God, this has stunning implications. Let me explain by way of personal testimony. For many years I would sing most hymns and songs in church somewhat unreflectively. The fact that these songs included phrases such as “I love/trust/obey you with all of my heart” did not bother me that much. At a certain point, I became much more aware of the problem with singing such phrases, because in reality, I knew that I did not in fact love/trust/obey God with all of my heart. I was singing a lie, or so I thought. So I oscillated either between feelings of guilt (when I concentrated on my own defects) or thoughts of judgment and criticism (when I looked at all the other ‘hypocrites’ who were singing such phrases). Much of the time, I simply would not sing or pray at all because I felt so unworthy. How could I possibly worship God in a way pleasing to him if I was singing and saying things that I knew were not true? The words of Jesus rang in my ears: “You honor me with your lips, but your hearts are far from me.”

When I contemplate, however, the fact that Jesus is not only God with us but also God with us, that he is God’s Word to humanity and humanity’s perfect response to God’s Word, everything changes. I no longer waver between feelings of guilt toward myself or critical thoughts toward others. I no longer stay silent when hymns and songs and prayers put words on my lips that I could otherwise only sing insincerely or hypocritically. Why is this so? It is because “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). When worship songs or prepared prayers lead me to pronounce affirmations of my wholehearted love, trust, and obedience to God, I press deeply into the truth that it is Jesus who has wholeheartedly loved, trusted, and obeyed in my humanity and on my behalf. Since I have been crucified with Christ and Christ lives in me, the songs that I now sing and the prayers that I pray in the flesh I sing and pray by the faithfulness of Christ! It is Christ who sings and prays in me and for me!

I no longer have to wonder whether my worship and prayers will be acceptable to him, because it is Christ himself who is my song and my prayer. It is Christ as not only true God but also true man who, according to Hebrews 2:12, sings God’s praise in the midst of the congregation of his people. I no longer have to grovel before God hoping that my feeble attempts at worship may somehow be acceptable to him on the basis of my own efforts at self-examination and purification. I know that my worship will be acceptable to him as a pleasing aroma because I am in Christ, Christ is in me, and it is he who is clothed in my humanity and seated in heaven at the right hand of God who ultimately offers up the perfect sacrifice of worship.

So I can truly sing and pray in freedom and in joy, because Jesus is truly Emmanuel in both senses: God with us and God with us.

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4 Responses to The vicarious worship of Emmanuel

  1. Bobby Grow says:

    Thanks for sharing this, Jonathan! If only everyone could grasp what you have about the vicarious humanity of Christ and its implications. This is what has drawn me to this as well; it is so spiritually pertinent and relevant to our daily lives and walks as Christians. It has transformed my perspective as well; and continues to. I used to struggle with assurance issues, at points, not anymore. And I like how you apply this to worship; I’ve struggled in similar ways, but to know that Christ is the worshipper for all of us broken hypocritical people allows me to keep my eyes on Jesus, instead of on others and even myself (in the unhealthy ways I was prone to in the past).

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  2. Kenneth Macari says:

    Thank you Jonathan My experience the same as yours! As one in pastoral ministry for thirty nine years, It is SO easy to become complacent, guilt ridden and even beyond feeling with singing. Thank you for your blog. Also, what are your health issues–so I may pray for you specifically Benedicte Ken Date: Sun, 10 Jul 2016 20:32:08 +0000 To: kjmacari@hotmail.com

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