Description / Transcription
Matthew 1:23 – Behold the virgin shall conceive and bear a son and they shall call His name Immanuel, which means God with us.
I want to start this brief Christmas Eve message in a strange place, by talking to you about a heretic. His name was Nestorius. He was born in what we know today as Turkey, toward the end of the 4th century. He died in Egypt around 451. He was consecrated the Bishop of Constantinople. Istanbul, Constantinople, Istanbul, Constantinople… Why the changed it, I can’t say. I guess they like it better that way.
Changed it in 428. He became the Bishop of Constantinople, but by 431 he was no longer Bishop and his teaching had been condemned by the ecumenical Council at Ephesus in 431. It’s unclear whether Nestorius taught everything that has come down to us in church history with the label Nestorian. What is clear is that he was not very careful about his theology. He did not acquit himself very well to defend his views, and his views brought to light an important matter that has everything to do with Christmas.
The crisis began on November 22, 428 when one of Nestorius’ chaplains preached a message in which he objected to the title, and here’s the title, it’s a Greek word, theotokos. You can hear at the front end of that theos, theology, theos is the Greek word for God. Theotokos means God-bearer. It wasn’t a title for Jesus, it was a title given to Mary, and had long been in use. It was popular to refer to Mary as Theotokos.
Nestorius’ chaplain preached a message against this and Nestorius then supported his chaplain and on Christmas Day, lo these many centuries ago, he began a series of sermons arguing that Mary was not theotokos. This set in motion a series of controversies which resulted in Nestorius losing his position in the Church and becoming one of the most well-known heretics in the history of the Church.
Now before we look a little bit at why this was such an important controversy and what it has to do with Christmas, I wonder just in your own head what you would think, right or wrong. Now you already know he’s the heretic, so you don’t want to side with him. But right or wrong, should we call Mary the God-bearer?
Well, Nestorius was concerned, and he perhaps had some right to be concerned. It was a popular designation for the Virgin Mary, and as we’ll see in a moment, I want to argue that God-bearer is, in fact, an appropriate title for Mary, but only if the emphasis is upon Mary’s Son, not that we pay some sort of homage to Mary.
And it was very easy in Nestorius’ day, and you could see how it’d be easy today, to take a step from Mary the mother of God to Mary the divine mother of God, that for some it became a title that allowed them to worship Mary, which is idolatry.
So Nestorius feared that theotokos was leading to a kind of deification, making Mary into some sort of goddess. That was one concern. But he also had a Christological concern. He could acknowledge that Mary gave birth to someone, okay, and that the someone she gave birth to was Jesus of Nazareth. But he reckoned that she gave birth to only the human nature of Christ, because after all he thought how can the divine nature be born? That doesn’t even make sense. Divinity by definition is eternal. It can’t be birthed.
So Mary, he figured, was the mother of Jesus, but we should not call her the God-bearer, not the mother of God. How can that be? If God was born, then doesn’t that mean God had a beginning? And if God had a beginning, doesn’t that mean that God is a creature? And if we’re singing songs and gathering tonight to worship a creature, isn’t that idolatry? Isn’t that a violation of the first and the second commandment?
And so Nestorius’ solution, or at least the solution that got attached to his name, was to argue for a dividing wall between the two natures, the human nature and the divine nature. He believed that Jesus was the Son of God and he believed that the Son was a man, but here’s where it gets tricky. He believed that Mary was sort of the mother of one-half of Jesus, not the other. So she brought forth a man, Jesus, and accompanied, sort of next to Him, was this divine logos, this divine Word, this principle of divinity.
So Nestorius certainly believed in the two natures of Christ; a fully human nature and a fully divine nature. But they existed sort of side by side in a kind of partnership, not a real organic union.
Well, Nestorius was opposed by another Bishop named Cyril, who was Bishop of Alexandria, and he was deeply concerned that the unity of the God-man, Jesus Christ, was being undermined. And against Nestorius Cyril made two main arguments. One, he reasoned that if Mary is not theotokos, if we can’t call her the God-bearer, then you don’t really have the incarnation of God, but rather you have a man being born with some sort of God principle. And if that’s the case, then might other people be born a very supernatural sort of human being who has a kind of infused God principle. And if Mary was not the God-bearer, then the incarnation must be something different than God becoming man. It’s not really God becoming man, it’s sort of God coming along side man.
Then you don’t really have just one person, Jesus Christ. And if you don’t have that, then how in the world can God really be with us?
See, the difference may seem like it’s just a matter of degree, but Nestorianism ends up making too little of Jesus because it’s sort of a man with God next to Him, and then it makes too much of us, because then maybe we could be human beings with the same sort of God principle next to us, just like Jesus. So that was one argument.
Here’s the second one. He said if Mary is not theotokos, not the God-bearer, then the relationship of Christ to humanity is changed, because He’s no longer the Redeemer of mankind. See, Nestorian’s problem was not with the two natures; he believed there were two natures, human and divine, but with the one person. So with Nestorius you have fully God, fully man, but they don’t really come together in a single person. It’s like two natures and two persons.
And then with two natures sort of next to each other, how do you make sense of how God actually saves us? Many of the Church fathers had this sort of theological slogan that God can only save what He assumes. That is, only as He fully takes on a human nature can He effectively redeem that human nature. After all, Romans 5 says our salvation is accomplished through the one man’s disobedience, salvation through one man, not salvation through two natures or two persons, but one man existing as fully God and fully human. Only through the one man Jesus Christ, the union of humanity and deity, are we made righteous through His death and resurrection.
So what was a profound but biblical mystery Nestorius tried to make sense of? Now, it’s good to try to make sense of mysteries, but sometimes we have to take what the Bible says even when it’s not contradictory but beyond full human explanation and comprehension.
See, at issue was not just a fancy bit of theologizing. You may think all these years later, more than 1500 years later, “Well, why did they get so worked about these things? Why did he lose his position? Why was he effectively exiled and had to live and die out later in Egypt? Why all that? Why get so hung up about this word theotokos?”
Because, for whatever faults they had, they certainly cared a lot about theology, and for that they are to be commended. You may say, “Well, theology, you have to say that. You teach theology.” Well, yes, I do, but they cared about theology for this reason: Because they cared about understanding and worshiping Jesus Christ.
John 1: The Word became flesh.
Not that the Word and flesh were next to each other, or that the flesh was born accompanied by some sort of sympathetic, moral union with God. So profound and significant is the mystery in John chapter 1 that it used to be a tradition in some parts of the Church than when John 1 was read, say on Christmas Eve or it was often read at a communion service, and when the reader got to those lines “The Word became flesh,” all the people would kneel in reverence and awe.
Yes, these theological debates can sometimes technical, but the controversy surrounding Nestorius actually has everything to do with our faith and everything to do with Christmas.
So I want us to land where we began, at Matthew 1:23. This good news that Mary gave birth to Immanuel. Not just God next to us, not a man with a God principle infused within him, but actually God with us. The baby conceived by the Holy Spirit, the baby who developed in Mary’s womb, the baby who passed through the birth canal and came into the world, was in fact God.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that God as God was born, but rather the person of Christ was born. We don’t say the divine nature was born; that would be an impossibility. But rather, at the incarnation, and here’s where you have to listen very carefully, at the incarnation the Son of God became what He was not without ceasing to be what He was. He became what He was not, a man, a human being, who knew pain, had to take a nap, had to be fed, had to be cared for by his mother and father, a man who could do the most un-God-like thing possible – He could die.
He was truly a man, and yet He did not cease to be what He was. He did not become some other thing like you mix some blue of divinity and some yellow of humanity and you get this green thing. He was not a mixture of things.
He was not the separation of human divine, but in one man, Jesus Christ fully God and fully human. A human being like us except for sin, while at the same time God Almighty.
So if Mary gave birth as Matthew tells us to Immanuel, God with us, that’s the baby that came from her womb, God with us, then how can she be anything but the bearer of God. The focus is not on the one who gave birth, but on the one she bore.
He was not just one of God’s special messengers, like some anointed prophet.
He was not someone with God-like powers, like some sort of superhero.
He was not like one of the Greek or the Roman gods who was one of many gods, in competition with others, great powers but great failures, fickle.
No, He was Immanuel, God with us. Think about God with us is really the goal of all of biblical revelation. In the garden that they would walk in the cool of the day and God was there with them, but they sinned and they were kicked out, east of Eden, a flaming sword, guardian angels. They can’t go back. The rest of the story is about how God can once again dwell with an unholy people. How do we get God with us?
The aim of the tabernacle was there as the 12 tents would be north, east, west, and south, and there in the middle would be the tabernacle and inside the dividing wall there in the holy of holies, there upon the mercy seat of the ark of the covenant, and once a year as the glory cloud would descend, God would dwell in the midst of them.
The hope of the Promised Land was that it would be like a garden of Eden. It wasn’t actually flowing with milk and honey, but that was the depiction of it because it was to be like a new Eden, and what made it like a garden paradise? Because God was supposed to be there in the midst of them. But just like Adam and Eve in the garden, what did God’s people do? They sinned. So they’re sent out where? To the east, to Babylon, to captivity, so that God might later bring them back.
It’s the story of human history and it’s the story of each one of your lives and it’s the story of my life, of sin, of rebellion, of being kicked out east of Eden, of wondering how in the world will we have this garden paradise restored until one day this man comes and He is the literal skene, the tabernacle, the glory cloud dwelling among us, the Word became flesh, and He dwelt among us, and we will call His name Immanuel.
Because what they had in the garden, what they wanted with the tabernacle and the temple, what the Promised Land was pre-figuring, what the Church is supposed to be about, is God with us. That’s the hope of the universe.
You see all of these heresies from the early Church. They somehow, they somehow severed the bridge that was supposed to go between God and man. Arianism was the heresy that said, well, Christ was only like God, so the bridge went all the way to man and didn’t go all the way to God.
There was another group of heresies called Docetism, meaning seems like, and it said that Christ only seemed like He was human. He was God, but He only seemed human. So there you have the bridge all the way to the God side, doesn’t quite go all the way to the human side.
Nestorianism has fully God, fully human, but the bridge doesn’t quite meet in the middle.
There’s a fourth group, named after a man Eutychus, Eutychianism, and it so combined the humanity and the deity of Christ that it was all jumbled together it became a third thing, a tertium quid, the blue and the yellow makes green, so it was human and divine. But it didn’t quite actually touch human, and it didn’t quite actually touch divine. It was a bridge that didn’t reach either side.
The whole story of Christmas is about finally a bridge that will all the way reach to humanity and all the way reach to divinity and no gaps in between. And of course the bridge comes to us not in some construction project but real flesh and bone. All of the fighting and defining of those theological controversies were meant to preserve the simple, eminently biblical truth that this infant that we sing about and worship tonight, Jesus, was and is both God and man.
The incarnation is perpetual, sitting on the throne even now. He is fully God and fully man, and as such it means that Jesus alone, Jesus alone can save us from our sins. The only one who can lay a hand on us both, the only one who has the bridge going all the way across, no gaps in between, fully man, fully God.
Maybe you’ve heard the Christmas story a thousand times, maybe you’ve never really considered it for yourself. Maybe you’re hearing these things for the first time tonight. Either way, do not skip over the massive claims made in this one verse and in this one word that Jesus is Immanuel, God with us, and don’t miss what you need and what I need from this Immanuel. We need Jesus. As the angel said, you shall call His name Jesus for He will save His people from their sins.
I got news for you. First some bad, then some good. Here’s the bad news: You’re a sinner. You say, “No, I’m not.” Well, later ask somebody who knows you. If you really want to know, ask someone who’s related to you. If you don’t think you’re a sinner, wait until you get on the other side of all the holiday gatherings and then see how you feel about everyone else and they feel about you. You’re a sinner.
Here’s the good news: There’s a Savior, and His name is Jesus, the Christ, Son of Mary, born of a virgin, suffered, died, rose again, seated at the right hand, coming again to judge the living and the dead, and if we worship Him and follow Him, He will be the Savior for our sins.
Let’s pray. Gracious heavenly Father, we give thanks on this Christmas night again for the miracle of the incarnation. May it never, ever grow stale to us. What a mystery. If not in literal physical form, then surely in our hearts, we ought all to bow in reverence and awe to consider that the Word became flesh. So we worship and so we sing “Silent Night.” Amen.