Jesus in Space and Time, Part 4: A Question of Power

In the previous post, we explored the concept that, at the very least, the incarnational life of Jesus involved Christ “emptying himself” of his positional glory in Heaven and stepping aside from his omnipresence throughout creation. He did this in order to “take the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness”(Philippians 2:7). In doing this, Jesus did not cease to be God in any way, but rather, limited himself by choosing not to avail himself of these privileges for the duration of his earthly life.

But is there any other sense in which Christ “emptied” himself?

As we delve further into these issues, a degree of humility and caution is required of us. There is a profound mystery to the hypostatic union of Christ – the perfect blending of human and divine in the person of Jesus. In whatever way we come to understand this union of two natures, we must never deny the central truth that Jesus was fully God and fully human at the same time. This fundamental truth is reflected in the Athanasius Creed which states:

“He is God from the essence of the Father, begotten before time; and he is human from the essence of his mother, born in time; completely God, completely human, with a rational soul and human flesh; equal to the Father as regards divinity, less than the Father as regards humanity. Although he is God and human, yet Christ is not two, but one.”

But how can Jesus have been both fully human and fully God at the same time? Doesn’t the former weaken or undermine the latter? How can both natures reside fully and perfectly within the one person? This is where humility and caution is required: Humility in the sense that we are seeking to understand a profound truth which our minds are not capable of fully grasping, and caution in the sense that the scriptures never attempt to precisely and definitively explain this mystery and neither should we. In fact, historical attempts to do so have inevitably resulted in hair-splitting arguments that have divided Christians. Indeed, the Athanasius Creed and others like it were specifically formulated in the fifth century in response to what many perceived to be inadequate and misleading definitions of the hypostatic union of Christ, including Sebellianism, Arianism, Nestorianism and Eutychianism.

You will be pleased to know that I am not attempting to define how these two natures of Christ, the human and the divine, are contained within him. You will find no philosophical speculation within these pages – no terms bandied around such as monophysite, dyophysite, ousia, consubstantial, or miaphysical.[1] These kinds of hair-splitting dogma that are designed to precisely define how the two natures of Christ reside within the one person are pointless and doomed to inadequacy.

My purpose here is much simpler. I am not seeking to answer the how question. I want to explore the whatquestion. What did Christ empty himself of in order to become a human? Did he empty himself of any other divine privileges, other than his positional glory and his omnipresence? At this point I want us to consider the question of power. Specifically, did Jesus use his own power to perform miracles while on Earth or did he use the power of the Father? There are several references in the Gospels which provide us with clues.

In John 5, Jesus heals a paralysed man at the pool of Bethesda, near the Sheep Gate in Jerusalem. The Pharisees are incensed with Jesus because he performed the healing on the Sabbath day and they eventually track him down in order to castigate him. As they surround him, accusing him of breaking the Sabbath law, Jesus makes several remarkable statements in his defence, recorded for us in John 5:

“Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can only do what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does, the Son then does.” (v.19)

His opening statement points to the miracle being performed by the power of the Father and not via his own power. He is effectively saying, “It was God the Father who did this. I was simply the vessel that he worked through. If you want to blame anyone for this, blame God the Father!” But this is not a simple case of blame-shifting. Jesus appears to be pointing to something that was fundamental to his incarnational life and ministry; that it was the Father working through him that was the explanation for both his miracles and his teaching. Jesus then enlarges on this theme, stating:

“For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does. Yes, and he will show him even greater works than these, so that you will be amazed.” (v.20)

Here Jesus is effectively saying, “You haven’t seen anything yet. Wait until you see what else the Father is about to do through me!”

Jesus then spends ten more verses extrapolating this theme before reiterating his opening statement:

“By myself I can do nothing” (v.30)

Some Christians will interpret these statements by Jesus as being merely a description of the inter-related nature of the Trinitarian God throughout eternity; that the Son never operates separately and independently from the Father, but that the power of the Son is always employed in confluence with and in response to the power of the Father. In other words, these statements are seen as a description of the inter-related working of the Trinity from eternity and don’t point to any diminished power of Jesus while on Earth.

So, which is it? Are these statements by Jesus simply an expression of the eternal interdependence of the Trinity, or are they hinting at a more profound level of dependence on the Father that resulted from Christ having “emptied himself” in order to become a human?

Jesus’ statement, “By myself I can do nothing”, appears to be more than a declaration that he always uses his power in conjunction with the Father’s power. It is a much stronger statement than that. It appears to be a description of complete and utter reliance of the Father’s power alone while on Earth. Another incident around the same time seems to confirm this. In Luke 5:17-26 we find Jesus teaching in a private house with a large crowd of people having come to hear him:

“One day Jesus was teaching, and Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting there. They had come from every village of Galilee and from Judea and Jerusalem.” (Luke 5:17)

During the teaching session, Jesus heals a man who is paralysed, which provokes the ire of the religious leaders because of Jesus’ associated claim to also forgive the man’s sins (verses 18-25). But significantly for our current discussion, this healing incident is introduced to us by a most remarkable statement:

“And the power of the Lord was present with Jesus to heal the sick” (v.17)

This is a significant statement. The power of the Lord was present with Jesus to heal the sick. The phrase, “the Lord” is one of the most common terms for God the Father used in the Bible. While it is also often applied to Jesus in the New Testament, in this case it would seem to almost be a tautology if it was referring to Jesus’ own power, as it would effectively be saying, “the power of Jesus was present with Jesus to heal the sick”. If that were the case, we would be left wondering, “when is the power of Jesus not present with Jesus? Does it come and go? Does it fluctuate somehow?”

It makes much more sense to interpret this statement as indicating that this miracle was done through the Father’s power which was “present with him” in a special way at that time. In other words, it was not Jesus’ own power that he was using, but power made available to him as a result of the Father’s will – to accomplish a miraculous work that God the Father intended at that precise moment. The statement also infers that there were times when God’s power wasn’t present in the same way or to the same degree to enable Jesus to work miracles and that this fluctuation was a direct result of the Father’s will in specific situations. If God’s power was always present and available to Jesus to the same extent, this statement would be superfluous.

This is the clearest and most obvious interpretation of the statement in Luke’s Gospel, “And the power of the Lord was present with Jesus to heal the sick.” If you gave this verse to a person to read who had no previous theological presuppositions regarding this matter, they would invariably interpret it to be a reference to Jesus receiving power from the Father rather than it being a reference to Jesus using his own power. This simplest and clearest interpretation also accords with what Jesus has previously said, in John 5:

“Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can only do what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does, the Son then does … By myself I can do nothing.” (John 5:19,30)

Later in John’s Gospel, when Jesus is teaching his disciples in a final and very significant ‘team talk’, he states: “It is the Father who dwells in me who is doing his work.” (John 14:10) This was his explanation to them of all that they had seen and heard during his three years of miraculous ministry. It was his Father’s power he was using, rather than his own.

At Jesus’ baptism, we are told that “Heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily from like a dove” (Luke 3:21-22). This appears to have been an important moment not only of commissioning but also of empowering from above. This is confirmed by the description of what immediately follows: “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness” (Luke 4:1). In other words, as a direct result of the empowering at his baptism, Jesus was now “full of the Holy Spirit” and was guided and empowered by the Spirit. Once again, it was power from above that Jesus was relying on and operating by, not his own power that he had brought with him to earth.

Two specific miracles further imply that Jesus operated by the Father’s power. Before raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus raises his eyes toward heaven and prays to the Father, saying, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.” (John 11:41-42). Similarly, Jesus prayed to the Father before multiplying the bread and fish to feed the five thousand, giving thanks to the Father for what was about to occur (John 6:11).

Taking all these passages together, there is significant evidence that Jesus operated under the Father’s power and guidance while on Earth rather than utilising his own divine power. Indeed, to deny this would require us to interpret each of these passages ‘creatively’, avoiding their clearest and most obvious meaning.

Returning to the passage in Philippians 2 regarding Christ “emptying himself” to become a human, the most logical conclusion is that he not only emptied himself of his heavenly glory and his omnipotence (which we have previously discussed) but he also divested himself of his divine power, his omnipotence. The passage tells us that he did this in order to “make himself nothing, taking on the very nature of a servant” (Philippians 2:7). This is a significant statement. Jesus did not merely become like us in appearance, but in very “nature”. Human beings are, by nature, powerless in a spiritual sense. We cannot control nature by the power of our voices. We cannot calm storms or change water into wine or command demons. When it comes to spiritual power, we have “nothing”. And so, when Jesus chose to become human, he too became “nothing” (v.7) and took our very “nature” (v.7), not merely our appearance.

Jesus’ powerlessness was essential for two inter-related aspects of his role as Saviour: his perfect human life as the second Adam and his future high priestly ministry. In regard to the former, the scriptures are clear that Jesus lived the perfect life that Adam had failed to live (Romans 5:12-21). Jesus passed the test of complete and perfect obedience that Adam had previously failed. And by living a perfect life Jesus was ultimately acceptable to God as the perfect sacrifice for our sins. Only a perfect sacrifice could atone for the sins of mankind. But a perfectly obedient life only had meaning if Jesus was completely one of us, equally weak and powerless. If he had lived among us enveloped in his eternal divine power, his perfect life would have been completely predictable and ultimately meaningless. It was because Jesus fully experienced a human life in all its inherent weakness that made his perfect obedience so significant and qualified him to truly represent us on the cross.

Jesus’ complete human frailty and powerlessness also qualifies him to now represent us and mediate for us in his ongoing high priestly role in Heaven. The writer of Hebrews tells us that Jesus now dwells in the Father’s presence and “lives to intercede for us” (Hebrews 7:25). And this intercession with the Father is made so much more meaningful and powerful because, having fully experienced our weakness and powerlessness himself, he can sympathise with us:

“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who was tempted in every way, just as we are, yet he did not sin. Let us then approach the throne of God with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” (Hebrews 4:15-16)

The inference is clear. An integral part of Jesus’ qualification to be our high priest is that he shared fully in our “weakness” as human beings.

In saying all this, I can imagine the cries of outrage from some Christians. “Heresy! You are denying the divinity of Christ! You are saying that Jesus wasn’t fully divine while on Earth!” No, I’m not. Once again, as I explained in the discussion in the previous post about the issue of omnipresence, there is a logical fallacy that lies behind these cries of outrage. Self-limitation does not nullify divinity. Neither does ongoing divinity require the constant utilisation of power. God does not cease to be God simply because he chooses to refrain from using his power for a period of time.

Furthermore, the incarnate Jesus was not constrained externally, but was self-restrained. It was an internal choice not an external imposition. He chose not to access his power for the period of his earthly life, in order to fully experience life as we experience it. He chose to be utterly dependent on the Father, just as we need to be, and in that sense he is our perfect model of what it means to live a life of utter dependence on God.

The illustration in the previous post of the medieval king who temporarily divested himself of his kingly privileges in order to live among his people as a peasant serves equally well in this instance to explain Jesus’ lack of power while on Earth. Just as the medieval king could, at any moment, have walked back into his castle and resumed his kingly power, so could Jesus. His power was not taken from him; he simply chose not to avail himself of it during his incarnation. In fact, I would argue that Christ’s omnipotence was still there for the taking if, at any time, he had chosen to use it. No one had taken his power from him; he had simply laid it aside, just as the metaphorical medieval King had laid aside his kingly crown and clothes. Those who claim that Jesus cannot have been fully God unless he used his own power while on Earth are appealing to a simplistic and arbitrary definition of divinity that I cannot find anywhere in scripture.

[1] You can research these and other terms on Wikipedia and many other websites if you are bored and have nothing better to do!

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