The perception of Jesus Christ in the Orthodox Church

by Fr Miltiades Chryssavgis

The perception of Jesus Christ in the Orthodox Church constitutes at the same time a thematic study of great significance for our salvation and a great challenge for all to seek truth and deeper meaning of life in the very person of Jesus Christ the God-Man. For us Orthodox Christians this study and challenge is not merely a matter of selecting certain facts and ideas from the Bible in order to invent "our own Christ," just as many Protestant groups have invented "their own Christs" it is rather a matter of testing our Biblical knowledge of Jesus Christ against the life of the Orthodox Church within the Tradition of Christ's Body, the Saints. For in the words of the great contemporary Serbian Orthodox theologian Archimandrite Justin Popovic, even if the Orthodox Church did not have the Bible as God's written word, the life of one Saint alone would suffice as the living and eternal evidence about Jesus Christ Himself. "The Saints", he said, "bear the character of the Divine Logos (Logosnost), and life in Christ our God (Bogozivot), thus witnessing to the living presence of Jesus Christ from generation to generation until the end of the world." (Prologue to the Lives of Saints, by Justin Popovic).

In seeking the true perception of Jesus Christ in the Orthodox Church we are dealing not with an intellectual exercise, but with a matter of life and death - our salvation or our damnation. In order to simplify our approach to the subject, let us ask the very same question which Jesus Christ put to His disciples in the land of Caesarea of Philippi, a question that was asked twice, each time with greater emphasis. In the first instance, Christ asked the disciples, "Whom do people say that I the Son of Man, am?" (Mat 16:13) The disciples answer in the following manner, "Some say that you are John the Baptist, some Elias, some Jeremiah or one of the prophets." (Mat 16:14) From the words of the answer it clearly appears that those people who had seen Christ and who had witnessed His miracles, had perceived in Jesus Christ a unique person who displayed an unusual power and a potent force greater than any other human person could display. Yet they saw in Him merely the Son of Man, not the Son of God. Christ, however, desiring that the disciples, who were closer to Him than the other people, had repeatedly heard His teaching, had witnessed His life and miracles, and had tasted proofs of His divine origin, should have a true perception of Him both as the Son of Man in the mystery of the incarnation, as well as the Son of God in the full glory of His divinity, asked them the same question in a more personal and direct manner, "But whom do you say that I am?" - that is, St John Chrysostom adds, "you that are with me always, and see me working miracles, and have yourselves done many mighty works by me." (Homily 34, on Matthew 16:15). Then Simon Peter, acting as the leader and spokesman of the Apostles, boldly and openly declared, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." (Mat 16:1,6).

This is indeed a great confession, the bold confession of the Truth concerning Jesus Christ, especially declaring His Godhead and His divine Economy in the mystery of His incarnation. While looking at the humanity of Jesus Christ and accepting Him as the Son of Man, Simon Peter also perceives in Him simultaneously His divinity and confesses Him to be the Son of the living God. Furthermore, he expresses his perception of Christ with a steadfast and unwavering conviction, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God', thus correctly confessing Christ as the Only-Begotten One from the Father". (cf. Creed, "true God from true God...").

The great significance of Peter's confession is further emphasised by Jesus Christ in the next verse, "You are Peter, and upon this rock (namely, on the faith of your confession) I will build my Church. " (Mat 16:18). In other words the perception of Jesus Christ as the Son of the living God constitutes the very foundation of the Church of Christ. Such perception allows no reservations and no doubts concerning either the divinity or the humanity of Jesus Christ. We shall return to this point again, but for the time being let us enrich our perception of Christ beginning with the experience of the New Testament witnesses of the Resurrection of Christ and the Advent of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus is our Saviour (Mat 1:21), and Christ means the "Anointed one" by God's spirit. Christ is perceived as the Second Person of the Holy Trinity and is the true image and likeness of God the Father. (Col 1: 15) Jesus Christ has revealed to us the true nature of God (John 1:18), as well as the true character of the human person, since he became the perfect man (John 1: 14). He is of one essence with the Father, and is both accessible to the world, but also transcendent above the heavens. (Heb 7:25).

Such is, very briefly, a picture of the perception of Jesus Christ from the Scriptures - we have entirely omitted the Old Testament types "of Him who has to come" (Rom 5:14), whilst we have only lightly touched on some of the New Testament references.

What I would like to do next is to transfer the centre of our attention to the present life of our Church in Australia. Indeed, it would be beneficial for us to pose the question which Jesus asked the Apostles, to the members of our Church:

Who do we say that Jesus Christ is?

Who is this Jesus Christ in whom we believe as baptised members of the Orthodox Church?

Is Jesus Christ a mere man? Is He only God? or is He rather, as the Orthodox Church teaches, both truly God and truly man, united in one Person hypostatically in an unconfused and undivided manner? (Definition of Chalcedon 451 AD)

At any rate, how are we to understand Simon Peter's answer that Jesus Christ is "the Son of the living God?" (Mat 16:16).

Such questions were undoubtedly in the minds of the Apostles, and they are also in our minds, as we endeavour to fathom the mystery of the incarnation, and as we struggle to grow in our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ as God and Saviour. Our endeavour and struggle becomes all the more imperative since we are confronted with hundreds of churches and sects in our neighbourhood. Among them there are some who believe and teach that Jesus Christ is only man, a great social reformer, at the most a great prophet, teacher or archangel (Arianism). Others emphasise the divine at the expense of the human nature of Christ (Monophysitism).

Any excessive emphasis on either Christ's divinity or His humanity does not simply create confusion on the theoretical level of faith; it also has immense repercussions and consequences on the practical level, since truth and doctrine have their corresponding application in life itself. Accordingly, if Jesus Christ is less than God, He cannot bring salvation to man. For "neither a messenger, nor a man, but the Lord Himself saved us." (Isaiah 63:9). Again, if Jesus Christ is only God and not man, then He is transcendent but not personally accessible to man. For "What is not assumed, cannot be healed", St Gregory the Theologian says emphatically.

The Orthodox perception of Jesus Christ preserves a balance between such extremes. Firstly, as declared by the third Ecumenical Council of Ephesus in 431 AD the unity of one Person of Jesus Christ the Son of God is safe-guarded by the adoption of the title Theotokos for the Virgin Mary, "Who gave birth to the Logos of God made flesh." (Cyril of Alexandria) Secondly, as decided by the Fourth Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD, Jesus Christ is one Person in two natures and in one hypostasis. The Fathers stated their belief in "one and the same Son, perfect in Godhead and perfect in manhood, truly God and truly man ... acknowledged in two natures unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably: the difference between the natures is in no way removed because of the union, but rather the peculiar property of each nature is preserved, and both combine in one person and in one hypostasis." (Definition of Chalcedon, in T. Ware, The Orthodox Church).

The hymnography of the Orthodox Church palpably brings out the contrast of the two natures of Jesus Christ, a contrast which becomes a stumbling block for non-believers, but which naturally constitutes the centre and the basis of our Orthodox Christian faith about Jesus Christ Take, for instance, the Kontakion of the Feast of the Nativity of Jesus Christ, the Feast of the mystery of the Incarnation of Christ. This hymn by St Romanos the Melodist ends with the words, "A new-born Child, God before the ages." Here we confess our steadfast faith in the One Person of Jesus Christ in His two natures.

The Orthodox Church has never lost sight of the real personality of Jesus Christ. He is in truth the Messiah, the central figure and the fulfillment of the entire creation. He marks a radical demarcation line between things "old" and "new", and divides history into BC and AD. He is at the same time the "Jesus of History" and the "Jesus of our faith", having become one of us without losing His divinity, but also transforming history from its fallen state. The Orthodox Church offers us the proper guarantee for our correct perception of the Person of Jesus Christ. The Church as the Body of Christ incorporates us in the "temple not made by hands" and by the Holy Spirit leads to the Truth, that is to Jesus Christ. With the 'great cloud of witnesses' the Church directs us to "look unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith". (Heb 12:1-2).

Jesus Christ said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life: no one comes unto the Father but by me". (John 14:6). In Jesus Christ we can hope for eternity, salvation and the transfiguration of all creation.

Brothers and Sisters, far from claiming to have exhausted the subject which I was asked to develop in this paper, I wish to conclude by repeating the words of St John the Theologian with which he finishes his Gospel, "And there are also many other things which Jesus did, which, if they should be written in detail, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written". (John 28:25).

from a paper presented to a National Serbian Youth Conference in Australia

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