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Chapter 13 ... continued

Jesus, made perfect

Jesus’ perfection was not derived from his sup­posed deity but was some­thing he had learned through suffering:

7 In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and suppli­cations, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. 8 Al­though he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suf­fered. 9 And being made per­fect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, 10 being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek. (Hebrews 5:7-10, ESV)

Jesus attained perfection by Yahweh’s indwelling pre­sence, but not with­out “loud cries and tears” (v.7). Scripture does not teach an inher­ent or automa­tic perfection, or that Jesus was born perfect. It was with loud cries and tears that he offered up prayers and supplications to God. His fragile hu­manity is displayed for all to see. As trinitarians we ig­nored this verse because we found it pro­blem­atic, yet it cannot be swept under the carpet so easily because it is located in the middle of a cru­cial discussion on God’s appointment of Jesus as high priest.

Jesus came from the tribe of Judah, not the priestly tribe of Levi, so how could he have been appointed a high priest? It is crucial to note that it was only after Jesus had “learned obe­dience through what he suffered” (v.8) and only after he had been “made perfect” (v.9) that he was “designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek” (v.10). Little is known of Mel­chi­zedek beyond that he was “king of Salem, priest of the Most High God” (Heb.7:1; Gen.14:18). Because Melchizedek’s priesthood ans­wers directly to Yahweh the Most High God, it is a spiritual priest­hood. Similarly, Jesus “has be­come a priest, not on the basis of a legal require­ment con­cerning bodily des­cent, but by the power of an indes­tructible (perfect) life” (Heb.7:16).

With loud cries and tears, Jesus prayed to God to save him from death. It was not physical death that he feared, for his aim was to “give his life as a ransom for many” (Mt.20:28). We can be sure that he would never pray for the nullification of this glorious mission. What he truly feared was the death that comes from disobedience, for that would nullify and des­troy God’s plan of salvation for mankind. Hence he prayed to God with such inten­sity that it was expressed in loud cries and tears.

Obedience to God must be voluntary, for what is coerced or com­pelled is not obedience. True obedience comes from the mor­al decis­ions made by one’s own free will, as was the case with Jesus when he said, “I lay down my life of my own accord and nobody takes it from me” (Jn.10:18). His com­mit­ment was power­fully ex­pressed at Geth­semane when he was facing suffer­ing and death. There he said to his Father, “Not my will but yours be done” (Lk.22:42), even as he was pon­dering the horrific things that lay ahead of him, and his heart shuddered at what he saw. But he volun­tarily offered himself as the sacrifi­cial Lamb of God for the blood atone­ment that secures mankind’s salva­tion. So it could truly be said that this was done out of love: “The Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal.2:20).

Jesus was “made perfect” (Heb.5:9), indi­cating that his perfection was something acquired. This can­not be true of the trin­itarian Jesus who, as God the Son, is inherent­ly perfect and doesn’t have to be “made perfect” or “become per­fect” (both mean­ings are valid in the Greek text of v.9).

Jesus’ prayers and supplications were “heard because of his rev­er­ence” (v.7). Here the Greek for “reverence” is eulabeia, defined by BDAG as “rev­erent awe in the presence of God, awe, fear of God. [1] Because reverence is something expressed to God, it is a human rather than a divine quality. KJV gives an alternative rendering of eula­beia in Heb.5:7:

Who in the days of his flesh, when he had offered up pray­ers and sup­plications with strong crying and tears unto him that was able to save him from death, and was heard in that he feared. (Heb.5:7)

Here the word “feared” (eulabeia) means reverent fear and awe in God’s pre­s­ence. Exegetical Dictionary of the NT explains the meaning of this word in Hebrews 5:7 (Greek transliterated):

Thus eulabeia (fear) in v.7 involves a “once-for-all” (cf. 4:15) devo­tion to God or piety. Because of this he was heard by God and as teleiōtheis (perfection) was made the basis of salvation and true high priest for all obedient persons (vv.9f.).

EDNT is saying that Jesus, with a perfection derived from his piety and fear of God, was “made the basis of salva­tion”.

Whereas Jesus’ perfection includes the fear or reverence of Yahweh, this attitude is woefully rare in North American society today. “God!” or “O my God!” or worse exclamations and expletives are often heard in restaur­ants, schools, and television programs. It is not hard to see their corrupting ef­fect on children who grow up in this ungodly environ­ment. “There is no fear of God before their eyes” (Rom.3:18; Psa.36:1).

What is the fear of God? “To fear Yahweh is to hate evil” (Prov.8:13). It doesn’t mean that we hate evil people. Jesus hates evil yet gave his life to save every evildoer who repents and trusts in him for salvation.

Jesus’ prayers were heard because of his fear and rever­ence. If our pray­ers are not heard, we do well to ask our­selves whether we have an attitude of reverence to God. I have heard many “pray­ers” that make me shudder. I recently heard a pastor “pray” with loud demands to God to do this and do that, treating God as his servant and not his Master!

Perfection is stressed in the Scriptures

Perfection is a completeness be­yond which there is nothing more to attain because nothing is lacking. It is the end (telos) of attainment, the pin­nacle of achieve­ment; beyond this one cannot go because there is not­hing beyond it.

1Corinthians 13:10 draws a contrast between the perfect and the partial: “When the perfect (teleios) comes, the partial (meros) will pass away.” Verse 9 says, “We know in part (meros)”—that is, our know­ledge at this time is incom­plete.

Among be­lievers there are spiritual infants who, being spiritually imma­ture, need to grow up to maturity and to Christ’s perfection:

… until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the know­ledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ (Ephesians 4:13).

Here the term “perfect man” (andra teleion) refers to Christ because of the reference to “Son of God” and “Christ” in the same sentence. Here the word is not anthrōpos, the general word for a human being, but anēr, the word for a male human being. Hence it is invalid to render “perfect man” in a genera­l­ized way as “mature man­hood” as is done in ESV and RSV (but not HCSB, NASB, NIV). It is lexically invalid to reduce anēr to the abstract concept of “man­hood,” a render­ing that has no lexical sup­port in any of the standard Greek-English lexicons. Believers are not called to an abstract man­hood but specifically to the “perfect man” who is Jesus Christ. This is stated two verses later: “we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Eph.4:15). Paul reiterates this vital truth in Col.1:28: “We pro­claim him, ad­monish­ing and teach­ing everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present every­one perfect in Christ.” (NIV)

The perfection of the believer is an unfamiliar concept to most Christ­ians. Could this be the result of the church’s unba­lanced emphasis on grace? The average church minist­er doesn’t know what he needs to do to “present every­one perfect in Christ”. Yet this is the supreme goal of Paul’s min­istry, as seen in the next verse: “For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me” (Col.1:29).

The church is not on the same wavelength as Paul. Have we ever heard a ser­mon on perfection in Christ? The lopsided stress on being saved by the death of Christ has made our perfect­ion in Christ redundant. But the stress in Paul’s teaching and the New Testament is different: Christ’s death is meant to cleanse us from sin and to “purchase” (redeem) us for God so that we may be holy. “Without holiness no one will see the Lord” (Heb.12:14). Yet we are taught in much of Protest­antism that we need only believe that Jesus died for us and we will be saved; and once we are saved, we are always saved. With this kind of teaching, who needs perfect­ion or holiness?

Paul’s intense concern that Christ’s perfection should take shape in the believ­er’s life is expressed by the imagery of the pain of childbirth: “My little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth un­til Christ is formed in you!” (Gal.4:19) The parallel between this verse and Col.1:28-29 is seen in the correspondence between “Christ in you” and “Christ is formed in you”.

“Perfect” in the Old and New Testaments

Genesis 17:1 When Abram was ninety-nine years old Yahweh appeared to him and said, “I am El Shaddai (Almighty God). Live in my pres­ence, be perfect” (NJB)

Deut.18:13 “Thou shalt be perfect with the Lord thy God.” (KJV)

In the latter verse, KJV preserves the word “perfect” whereas most other Bibles use the weaker word “blameless,” revealing a reluctance in modern Bibles to use the word “per­fect”. This makes it harder for the reader to know what the text is say­ing. There are 99 occur­rences of “perfect” in KJV and only 41 in ESV. There are 36 in NIV, about one-third the number in KJV; of these 36 occur­rences, only a few refer to the perfect­ion of people, yet these few instances are significant (the fol­low­ing are from NIV 1984):

Colossians 1:28 … that we may present everyone perfect in Christ.

Hebrews 2:10 …it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering.

Hebrews 5:9 and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.

Hebrews 7:28 … the Son, who has been made perfect forever.

Hebrews 10:14 because by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.

The familiar command, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is per­fect” (Mt. 5:48) is not found in the Old Testament. Instead there is the parallel com­mand, “Be holy for I am holy”:

Leviticus 11:44-45 I am Yahweh your God. Consecrate your­selves there­fore, and be holy, for I am holy … I am Yahweh who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God. You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy. (ESV, “Yahweh” in the Hebrew restored; also Lev.20:26)

Similarly, the New Testament calls us to be holy and blame­less (all ESV):

Ephesians 1:4 … that we should be holy and blameless

Ephesians 5:27 So that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.

1Peter 1:15-16 But as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.”

These verses, notably in the light of Hebrews 10:14, show that “perfect” and “holy” share common mean­ing.[2]

The parallel between “be perfect as your heavenly Father is per­fect” and “be merciful as your Father is mer­ci­ful” (Mt.5:48; Lk.6:36) shows that per­fection includes mercy and compass­ion (cf. Ex.34:6, Yahweh is merciful and gracious). These are the con­stit­uents of love, and God in His nature is love (1Jn.4:8; 2Cor.13:11; Eph.2:4).

The following verses show what perfect­ion is like and there­fore what Jesus is like:

Perfection as endurance: “And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” (James 1:4)

Perfection as spiritual perception: “But solid food is for the mature (perfect), for those who have their powers of dis­cern­ment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.” (Heb.5:14)

Perfection as self-control and control of the tongue: “And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body.” (James 3:2)

Perfection as being meek and lowly in heart: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Mt.11:29)

Jesus’ weakness exposes the falsity of trinitarianism

The Bible characterizes man as weak. Paul speaks of “the weak­ness of the flesh” (Rom.6:19), a statement that “denotes the weakness of human na­ture” (Thayer, asthe­neia) and “the frail­ty to which all hu­man flesh is heir” (BDAG, astheneia 2b).

Jesus himself “was crucified in weak­ness” (2Cor.13:4). Regarding this state­ment, BDAG says that “he was crucified as a result of his weak­ness (his vulnerabil­ity as a human being)”. Like all human beings, Jesus has no inher­ent power of life but depends on his Father for his existence: “I live because of the Father” (Jn.6:57); “For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself” (Jn.5:26). On John 6:57, C.K. Barrett, The Gospel According to St. John, says, “he has no independent life”.

Because the Bible depicts man as innately weak, the eleva­tion of Jesus to God Almighty is a denial of this funda­mental attribute of his hu­man­ity. If Jesus is God, how could any weakness be ascribed to him?

Human beings don’t have a choice as to be weak or strong despite the delu­sion of strength that one may gain when he is tall, or healthy, or in­telli­gent, or rich, or esteemed in society. Human weakness and helpless­ness is the reality of human existence in the present age though the situation will change in the age to come when we will be “clothed” with a new body in such a way that the “body of our humiliation” (Phil.3:21, NRSV) will be changed into an immor­tal body.

How can a divine Jesus be weak? If he is God, he is strong and omni­po­tent. If he is weak, he is not God, for God cannot dispose of His attri­butes. They are inherent to His very person as God; they define what He is. If He lacks even one of His attributes, He would not be God. Again the falsity of the trinita­rian doctrine of Jesus’ deity is exposed.

Trinitarians argue that Jesus as God has chosen to put on a human body with its limitations. That he had such a choice in the first place shows that he was not a human being. In deifying Jesus, trinita­rians have put him out­side the pale of humanity, being neither God nor man.

The argument of Jesus’ voluntary self-limitation doesn’t make sense be­cause God is not like a boxer who has one hand tied behind his back as a handicap against a weaker oppo­nent. The argu­ment that Jesus put aside his divine power in order to depend on God’s power doesn’t make sense either, for how can one who is innately omni­potent and infinitely powerful, but then suppresses his own divine power, be weak in any real sense? If I refrain from exercising my great power, does that make me weak? No, I am still strong and powerful—actually and inherently.

In trinitarian­ism, Jesus is the omnipotent second person of the Godhead who is coequal with the Father. His acquiring a human body does not reduce his omnipotence by one iota, for how can flesh sup­press omni­potence if omnipotence is by defini­tion infinite power? In trinita­rianism, Jesus is not just God but “fully God” even while he was on earth.

The Jesus of the 4th-century trinitarian creeds does not match Yahweh’s signature and is there­fore false. The biblical Jesus, on the other hand, is weak and can do nothing of his own. He carries Yahweh’s signature that marks him as one who is wholly depend­ent on God and has no extraor­dinary hu­man abilities that are not already avail­able to other human beings.

The Bible does not say that Jesus was a different kind of man from other human beings. He was born into an ordinary Jewish family. Some scholars think that his family may have been among the poorest of the Jews be­cause artisans such as carpenters generally owned no land, and were finan­cially worse off than those who owned land. (In general, land­own­ers would not take up carpentry as a trade, but would derive their liveli­hood from agricult­ure which has the dual advan­tage of ensur­ing their own food supply and, in a good season, of having a surplus crop that could be sold or traded.)

Paul says of believers that not many are wise by human standards, or powerful, or of noble birth, for God has chosen the foolish in the world to shame the wise, and the weak to shame the strong (1Cor.1:26-27). The most significant of Paul’s statements that express this truth is 2Cor.12:9 in which he recounts what the Lord had said to him: “My power is made perfect in weak­ness”.

This statement calls for deep reflection. It plainly says that, contra­ry to human thinking, any strength in man will hinder God’s pow­er from mani­festing itself in per­fection. A moment of reflect­ion tells us that if Jesus is the perfect man as Scripture declares him to be, how could his total perfection have been attained except through total weak­ness? We now understand what Jesus meant when he said, “The Son can do nothing by himself” (Jn.5:19). This is not a state­ment of mod­esty but a declaration of solid fact, that with­out Yahweh’s power Jesus would not be able to function at all.

This brings us to the crucial event of Gethsemane [3] where Jesus’ heart-wrenching strug­gle exposed his utter weakness and anguish as the grip­ping reality of his imminent death on the cross loomed before him. He did not face the cross like a heroic warrior rush­ing head­long into the thick of battle. There are many heroes in the history of empires and civili­zations, but Jesus was not empowered by human cour­age or driven by a desire for earth­ly acclaim. He did not seek out death, much less engineer his own death as some scho­lars believe, suggesting that he was moti­vated by the fig­ure of the suffer­ing ser­vant of Isaiah 53 whose death brought atone­ment to God’s peo­ple. The plan to redeem the “many” (Mt.20:28; Mk.10:45) came original­ly from Yahweh and not from Jesus. In the follow­ing verses, we see the intensity of the Gethsema­ne event:

Luke 22:44 And being in agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground. (ESV)

Hebrews 5:7 In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and sup­pli­cations, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. (ESV)

The intensity of Jesus’ anguish shortly before his death for mankind could hardly be more poignantly displayed. Surely this is not the way a hero is por­trayed in biographies. A hero is supposed to stand tall and meet death head-on, but Jesus is presented as utterly weak. Paul’s enigmatic state­ment that Jesus “was crucified in weakness but lives by the power of God” (2Cor. 13:4) makes sense only in the light of a funda­mental principle that the Lord had given to Paul: “My power is made per­fect in weakness” (2Cor.12:9). This is the princi­ple by which all believers are to live. Paul himself says, “For when I am weak, I am strong” (v.10; cf. v.9b).

The words “my power is made perfect in weak­ness” can­not be true of the trinitarian Jesus because as God he cannot be weak. How can God Almighty be weak? To argue that Jesus made himself weak is a case of special pleading. We are talking about true and actual weakness, not the ap­pear­ance of weakness. At Gethsemane, did the trinitarian Jesus only ap­pear to be weak when in fact he was infinite and omnipotent? Are we dealing with make-belief acting? If not, then a vital element in the per­fection of Jesus is his utter hu­man weak­ness by which God’s power was made perfect in him.

Jesus’ utter weakness is seen in details such as that “his sweat be­came like great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Lk.22:44), and that he was so weakened that he had to be strengthened by an angel (v.43). Just how utterly hu­man Jesus can be is seen in his blood, sweat, and tears (“loud cries and tears,” Heb.5:7). Jesus’ greatness lies not in his sup­posed deity but in his weakness and helplessness of such a degree that it took nothing less than God’s power to carry him through to victory just when he was in danger of collap­sing.

All in all, the Gethsemane portrayal of Jesus collides with the trinitarian portrayal of Jesus as God omnipotent and Almighty.

“My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” (Mt.27:46; Mk.15:34) is another statement I wrestled with in my trinitarian days but without arriv­ing at a resolution. It is impossible for God to forsake God (in trinitarianism this can only be done by dividing their essence), so why did Jesus shout out the words of anguish found in Psalm 22:1? Where­as the words of Psalm 22:1 (“My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?”) cannot apply to a divine Jesus, they are eminent­ly appli­cable to the man Jesus in his utter weakness on the cross. At the cross, Yahweh’s power sustained Jesus’ spirit and upheld him through this dan­gerous crisis, to achieve the victory by which Jesus could declare that his work is “finished”—successfully com­pleted.

God’s signature by which God’s works are recognized as His

God’s way of doing things in the human world is stated in 1Cor.1:27: “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong”. This principle runs through what is called salvation history (Heilsgeschi­chte) which spans the Old and New Testaments. Instances of this principle are too numerous to cite exhaust­ively, but we can mention a few.

God the creator of heaven and earth, in His plan of salva­tion, chose a particular nation for the redemption of man­kind that had fallen into sin and death through the failure of Adam and Eve. Yahweh did not choose a world power such as the culturally advanced nation of Egypt that by compar­ison made Israel look like a nation of primitive tribes, nor did He choose the great em­pires of Mesopotamia. The relics of these ancient civili­zations on display in the great mus­eums today still kindle awe and admiration.

None of these great and advanced nations was chosen by Yahweh. Instead He chose an obscure nation of twelve tribes that were in frequent conflict with one another. The nation of Israel did not originally have the advanced weapon­ry such as war chariots that their formida­ble neigh­bors to the south­west, the Egyptians, wielded in vast num­bers, nor did Israel attain to any­thing like Egypt’s cultural and organiz­ational achieve­ments. It comes as no surprise that this tiny nation of relatively primitive hill tribes ended up being en­slaved in Egypt for some 430 years (Ex.12:40-41). In the end, how did God rescue Israel, a nation enslaved by a great world power for so many generations?

The story of Moses is well known and will not be repeated here except in outline. Moses, whose mother was an Israelite slave woman, was provid­ent­ially plucked out of the Nile and adopted by one of Pharaoh’s daughters (Ex.2:1-10). Years lat­er, Moses saw an Israelite being beaten by an Egypt­ian guard; he impulsively killed the guard and had to flee from Pharaoh as a fugitive (2:11-15). He took refuge in the desert mount­ains of Midian where he married a daughter of Jethro, the local priest and tribal chief, and became a sheep herder (2:16-21). He lived many years in the wilder­ness and became ac­quainted with the ways of the desert, accum­ulating know­ledge and exper­ience that would later prove valuable for lead­ing the Israelites out of Egypt. During the long pre­paratory years in the desert, Yahweh was building up his char­act­­er and preparing this other­wise ordi­nary man (who had not attained to any distinction in Egypt apart from acquiring some education) to become someone with whom Yahweh could commun­icate, starting from their encounter at the burning bush (Exodus 3).

Here we see God’s signature in His choosing an insignifi­cant and en­slaved people, and then choosing from them a leader in the person of Moses who apart from having a meek and righteous character is not portrayed as having any out­standing ability or characteristic.

In both the Old and New Testaments, God chooses the weak things of the world to confound the strong. In this world, meekness is not regarded as a trait of the strong but of the weak. Do slaves have a choice other than to be meek before their masters, as any display of assertiveness could cost them their lives?

The way God chooses people is seen again and again at significant moments in biblical history. When Yahweh sent Samuel the prophet to Jesse to appoint one of Jesse’s sons king of Israel, Yahweh had in mind an unlikely candidate, a young David who was overlooked ev­en by his own parents (1Sam.16:1-13). Yet David was chosen by Yahweh in a choice that is con­sist­ent with His way of doing things, in­deed con­sistent with God’s signature.

Perfection and suffering

The New Testament teaches a lot about suffering, not only that of Christ but also of believers in Christ, and imbues it with spirit­ual meaning. Just as Jesus was made “perfect through suffering” (Heb.2:10), so those in Christ who have suffered in the flesh have “ceased from sin” (1Pet.4:1).

The gospels seldom mention Jesus’ age, but when they do, they offer in­sight into his life and even his sufferings. Jesus began his ministry at around the age of thirty (Lk.3:23), yet some Jews estimated his age to be nearly fifty (Jn.8:57). In an era in which the male life expectancy was around 35 years, a man approaching 50 would be considered old. Why did the Jews think that Jesus was close to 50 when he was about 30? He ob­viously looked older than his age. The gospels no­where suggest that he was in poor health or had a disease that made him look older than normal for his age.

Jesus’ aged appearance may reveal something about the years prior to his public ministry. We know that suffering, espec­ially inner suffer­ing, can age a person rapidly. The intensity of his suffering at Gethse­mane was of a depth that is hard for us to fathom, yet this was surely not his only occas­ion of suffering. The life-and-death issue that confronted him at Geth­se­mane was not a new or unfamiliar one, but was the culmination of his lifelong strug­gles; and now he was about to “drink of the cup” (Mt.20:22; Jn.18:11).

Jesus had earlier said, “For this purpose I have come to this hour” (Jn. 12:27). The mission to be the sacrificial Lamb of God must have been on his mind ever since John the Bap­tist announced it at the start of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus probably knew about his role even earlier, though we don’t know how much earlier. So he must have struggled with his will for a con­siderable time until his final declara­tion of assent: “Not my will but Yours be done”. The intense suf­fering in his heart and mind shortly before his being “made sin who knew no sin” (2Cor.5:21) can hardly be imagined. It would be incorrect to suppose that his suffering for the salvation of human­kind was confined to the few hours on the cross, or the few days preceding it. On the contrary, Jesus went through a lifetime of suffering, excluding per­haps the years prior to his attain­ing adulthood at the age of 13.

Do we likewise have a role in the work of salvation by following in his steps and enduring sufferings to “make up what is lacking in Christ’s suffer­ings for the sake of his body” (Col.1:24)? This is not to sug­gest any­thing in­adequate in the atoning efficacy of Christ’s sacri­fice. Yet that doesn’t rule out further sufferings for the body of Christ, the church, to bear. Whereas Paul says that Christ “our Passover lamb has been sacrificed” (1Cor.5:7), he also says of himself that he has been “poured out as a drink offering upon the sacri­fice of your faith” (Phil.2:17). One chapter earlier, Paul says:

For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, engaged in the same con­flict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have. (Phil.1:29-30)

Jesus’ call to us to take up our cross and follow him (Mt.16:24; Mk.8:34; Lk.9:23) is a call to suffer for the sake of God’s kingdom.

Most Bibles do not convey God’s perfecting work in Luke 13:32

And He said to them, “Go, tell that fox, ‘Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I shall be perfected.’” (Luke 13:32, NKJV)

KJV and NKJV correctly translate the last words of this verse as, “I shall be perfected”. Here “perfected” (a passive form of teleioō, to perfect) is a divine passive: It is implicitly God who brought to completion His perfecting work in Jesus at the cross.

Modern Bibles render “I shall be per­fected” as something else, usually by changing the passive into an active: “I finish my course” (ESV), “I reach my goal” (NASB), or “I attain my end” (NJB). These fail to convey Yahweh’s perfecting of Jesus through suf­fering (Heb.2:10), an unfor­tu­nate omission given that Jesus’ death on the cross was the climax and complet­ion of his suf­ferings, the event where his perfection was achieved and com­pleted.

“Faith in Jesus Christ” or “Faith of Jesus Christ”?

In our search for a deeper understanding of Jesus’ perfection, sooner or later we will have to confront the striking fact that Paul would sometimes speak of “the faith of Jesus Christ”—that is, the faith exercised by Jesus Christ. This unusual word­ing collides with trinitarian­ dogma by implying that Jesus put his faith in God. This would be inconceivable if Jesus is himself God as he is in trinita­rianism. This would explain why fervently trinitarian Bibles such as ESV have chos­en to render the phrase as “faith in Jesus Christ” rather than “faith of Jesus Christ”.

Already in my student days when I was a trinitarian, I noticed an un­usual translation in several verses in KJV: “the faith of Jesus Christ” (Rom. 3:22; 3:26; Gal.2:16a; 3:22) or “the faith of Christ” (Gal.2:16b; Phil. 3:9) or “the faith of the Son of God” (Gal.2:20); Gal.2:16 is listed twice here be­cause it has two such occurrences. These unusual KJV renderings are in fact correct and literal transla­tions of the Greek. These verses are also trans­lated correct­ly in the NET Bible, the Complete Jewish Bible, and the Inter­nation­al Stand­ard Version. Here are the relevant verses from KJV, NET, and CJB:

Rom.3:22

  • by faith of Jesus Christ (KJV)
  • through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ (NET)
  • through the faithfulness of Yeshua the Messiah (CJB)

Rom.3:26

  • the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus
  • the one who lives because of Jesus’ faithfulness
  • righteous on the ground of Yeshua’s faithfulness

Gal.2:16a

  • by the faith of Jesus Christ
  • by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ
  • through the Messiah Yeshua’s trusting faithfulness

Gal.2:16b

  • by the faith of Christ
  • by the faithfulness of Christ
  • on the ground of the Messiah’s trusting faithfulness

Gal.2:20

  • I live by the faith of the Son of God
  • I live because of the faithfulness of the Son of God
  • I live by the same trusting faithfulness that the Son of God had

Gal.3:22

  • by faith of Jesus Christ
  • because of the faithfulness of Jesus Christ
  • Yeshua the Messiah’s trusting faithfulness

Eph.3:12

  • by the faith of him
  • because of Christ’s faithfulness
  • through his faithfulness

Phil.3:9

  • through the faith of Christ
  • by way of Christ’s faithful­ness
  • through the Messiah’s faithfulness

The literal rendering—“faith of Christ”—is called the subject­ive genitive (i.e. Christ is the subject, the one who exercises faith) whereas “faith in Christ” is called the objective genitive (Christ is the object of faith). The NET Bible, in a footnote on Romans 3:22, offers a strong rea­son for choosing “faith of Jesus Christ” (subjective genitive) over “faith in Jesus Christ”. The following quotation may be skipped:

Noteworthy among the arguments for the subjective geni­tive view is that when πίστις (pistis, “faith”) takes a person­al gen­i­tive it is almost never an objective genitive (cf. Mt.9:2,22,29; Mk.2:5; 5:34; 10:52; Lk.5:20; 7:50; 8:25,48; 17:19; 18:42; 22:32; Rom.1:8;12; 3:3; 4:5,12,16; 1Cor.2:5; 15:14,17; 2Cor.10:15; Phil.2:17; Col.1:4; 2:5; 1Thess.1:8; 3:2,5,10; 2Thess.1:3; Titus 1:1; Phlm 6; 1Pet.1:9,21; 2Pet.1:5).

This explanation may seem technical but its point is straight­for­ward. Take the case of Matthew 9:29, one of the verses listed here. In Mt.9:29, Jesus says to some blind men who were about to be healed: “It shall be done to you ac­cord­ing to your faith” (“faith of you,” pistin humōn, personal geni­tive). What is this faith? It is obviously the faith that the blind men had exercised (sub­jective geni­tive), not the faith that others had put in the blind men (objective genitive). In other words, the blind men were healed because they trusted in Jesus, not because the onlookers trusted in the blind men!

For a discussion on this issue from a grammatical perspective, see Daniel Wallace’s Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, pp.115-116, which says that “the gram­ma­tical argu­ment for the objective genitive, then, has little to com­mend it,” and that “grammatical considerations seem to be in favor of the subjective genitive”.

In my student days, the unusual words “the faith of Jesus Christ” in KJV left a question in my mind, but being ex­tremely busy at the time, I could only leave it to a later date to examine the question. Some years la­ter, a book appeared with the title The Faith of Jesus Christ: The Narrative Substructure of Galatians 3:1-4:11, by Richard B. Hays, an eminent NT scholar at Duke Divinity School. His work, which argues for the faith of Jesus Christ, immediately caught my attention.[4]

It has been noted that prior to the 1970s, pistis Iēsou Christou was almost universally understood to mean “faith in Jesus Christ” (objective genitive), but in recent decades many scholars have argued that it should be rendered literally as “faith/faithful­ness of Jesus Christ” (subjective genit­ive).[5] A scholar who himself prefers the objective gen­itive admits that the sub­jective genitive (the faith of Jesus Christ) has become the majority view among NT scholars.[6]

The issue is not whether Jesus is the object of saving faith (this is not denied) but whether Jesus himself also exercised faith in God in his salvi­fic work. If the answer is yes, then the believer’s exercise of faith would be a most signifi­cant act of following in the steps of Jesus, who himself also exer­cised faith. What is crucial here is that faith is not just a believing in Jesus but also a believing with Jesus; it is a vital step of identifying with Jesus in our relationship with God and the pursuit of perfection. The exercise of faith then binds us into a deeper fellowship with Jesus when we follow him as his disciples. Salvation is not just creedal belief in Christ but participation with Christ, both in his faith and in his suffer­ings, for we are called not just to believe in Christ but also to “suffer for his sake” (Phil.1:29) and to partici­pate in the “fellowship of his sufferings” (3:10).

But the problem for me when I was a trinitarian was that if Jesus is God, then Jesus wouldn’t need to have faith, for he himself is the object of faith. Is Jesus so utterly human that he needs to have faith? Why would the human part of “God the Son” need to have faith in God when his divine part does not? It was a hope­less contra­diction as is the case with many other things in trinita­rianism. Many of these issues are ad­dressed in Hays’s de­tailed work but those without basic theo­logical train­ing may find his book difficult to read.

Because the Jesus of trinitarianism doesn’t need to have faith as humans do, he is denied a most vital element of the spiritual life. How then could Jesus have been tested “in every respect” as other humans when our most severe trials are precisely the test of our faith? What then was the test that Jesus endured in Gethsemane if not the test of faith and obed­ience? What were the loud cries to God that were heard because of his fear of God? What about the impend­ing death that caused him to cling to God in faith—the faith of Jesus Christ?

 

In discussing faith, we need to see its inner con­nect­ion to obedience. This is brought out in the account of Adam’s disobedience. If death is the outcome of dis­obey­ing Yahweh, why did Adam and Eve disobey God despite having been told of the conse­quences (Genesis 3:3, “You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die”)? What could account for their act­ions but that they did not believe God’s word? Had they believed God, they would not have taken the forbid­den fruit. But in ignoring God’s warn­ing, they showed contempt for Him and regarded Him as a liar and a weak­ling. How could they not have be­lieved God given that they were not stupid or irrat­ional? Obviously some­one was clever enough to convince them that God didn’t mean what He said. They not only thought that they won’t die, but that they would be­come like God, know­ing good and evil (Gen.3:4-5). Adam and Eve believed the serpent (the devil) and dis­obeyed God.

This shows the nexus or inner connection between obedience and belief, and thereby between disobedience and unbe­lief. Adam did not believe what God had told him but believed the devil, hence the fatal consequences. Adam’s death was not immed­iately apparent because it was not prim­arily on the physical level.

But Jesus obeyed God with an absolute obedience rooted in faith. In our trinitarian days, the faith of Jesus was not some­thing that crossed our minds, for if Jesus is God, why would he need to have faith? Or submit to anyone? But if he is man, he would cer­tainly need to believe in God and obey Him. If it was by Adam’s unbelief and disobed­ience that all men died, then it was by Jesus’ faith and obedience that “the many will be made right­eous” (Rom. 5:19). Here we see the crucial importance of the faith of Jesus Christ, but trinita­rianism has suppressed this truth.



[1] The word is used in Heb.12:28 and Prov.28:14 of the believer’s rever­ence. Proverbs 9:10 says, “The fear of Yahweh is the beginning of wisdom.”

[2] BDAG defines hagios (holy) as: “of hu­man beings conse­crated to God, holy, pure, reverent”; BDAG ex­plains that consecrated to God means “dedi­cated to God, holy, sacred, i.e., reserved for God and God’s service”.

[3] Mt.26:36-45; Mark 14:32-41; Luke 22:39-44 (cf. Jn.18:1-12).

[4] See also The Faith of Jesus Christ: The Pistis Christou Debate, Michael F. Bird and Preston M. Sprinkle, ed. The 17 essays in this book represent both sides of the debate. See also “2 Corin­thians 4:13: Evidence in Paul that Christ Believes,” Douglas A. Campbell, JBL, vol.128, no.2, 2009, pp.337–356.

[5] Commentary on the NT Use of the OT, on Galatians 2:16.

[6] The Faith of Jesus Christ: The Pistis Christou Debate, p.34. Also Greek Gram­mar Beyond the Basics, p.115: “more and more scholars are embracing these texts as involving a subjective genitive (thus, either ‘Christ’s faith’ or ‘Christ’s faithfulness’)”.

 

 

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