Christmas is a beloved holiday around the world and every December, Christians turn their attention to celebrating the miracle of the incarnation, namely that God chose to condescend into our world and be born as a human baby. It is truly a wondrous thing that the sovereign Lord of the universe would abase himself in this way for us and our salvation.
But in the early centuries of the church, this truth came was aggressively attacked. In the year 318, an elder in the church at Alexandria by the name of Arius popularized the idea that Jesus Christ was a created being inferior to God the Father. Arius maintained that Jesus, the Son of God, existed before all things and had a hand in the creation of the world together with God the Father. According to Arius, Jesus was a created being. Jesus had a beginning and thus was not eternal.
Though Arius readily affirmed that Jesus was truly human, he denied that God the Father and God the Son, namely Jesus Christ, were equal or were of the same substance. In other words, they were different beings. This heretical teaching spread through the Roman Empire and there were many who held to Arius’ false teaching on the nature of Jesus Christ, including the son of the Roman emperor Constantine.
As this teaching spread, Emperor Constantine became concerned about swelling conflict in the church and called a grand council of bishops to respond to Arius’ teaching. Were Jesus and the Father the same God or weren’t they? Because resolving conflict was a prime concern for Constantine, one option for the council at Nicea would have been to issue a statement that used broad, vague language which no one on either side of the issue could find objectionable. If they had chosen this route, all sides would have been able to save face and the substantial difference between the teaching of Arius and those who opposed him would have been covered over. Superficial peace and institutional harmony might have prevailed.
But the council that met at Nicea in 325 AD didn’t try to skirt the issue with a smoothly nuanced diplomatic statement. The goal of the council wasn’t to save the face of church leaders so that everyone could conclude the meeting with a smile and a hug. The goal of the council was to examine the teaching of Arius and make a definitive statement on the nature of Jesus Christ.
They wanted to preserve the Good News of Jesus Christ and the honor of God more than they wanted to please any man. In their minds, the most important matter was the truth that Jesus is truly God, equal with the Father and of the same substance, or being, as the Father. The divinity and humanity of Jesus Christ is not an issue upon which Christians can agree to disagree. If the church leaders at Nicea had compromised and said that Jesus had a beginning and was a lesser god than the Father, the whole Christian faith would be fatally corrupted.
If Jesus was inferior to the Father, he could not have saved us from sin and death. If Jesus and the Father were two different gods, the Christian faith would be no different than Roman polytheism or various animistic beliefs in spirits and ghosts.
For that reason, the Council of Nicea wrote a short, clear statement to affirm what the Bible teaches about the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit so that churches throughout the world would have certainty and confidence in Jesus Christ our Savior. Unless Jesus Christ is truly God and truly man, he could not have been a perfect sacrifice on our behalf and reconciled us to the Father. The council at Nicea wrote the following:
The Nicene Creed
I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made. Who, for us men and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.
And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life; who proceeds from the Father and the Son; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; who spoke by the prophets.
And I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; and I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.
Through the writing and dissemination of this statement to the churches, the council of that generation dismissed the false teaching of Arius and upheld the truth about Jesus Christ. The battle for the triumph of the truth declared at Nicea was not finished, but a line had been drawn in the sand and the church had spoken.
In every generation and every era, Christians must preserve the Gospel of Jesus Christ and proclaim the truth with clear, unequivocal language in order to oppose false teaching that is circulating in churches.
Not only at Christmas time but also throughout the year, Christians can uphold, defend, and preserve the Gospel by reading, proclaiming, praying, and singing the truth about Jesus Christ. One way of affirming the truth is by reciting the Nicene Creed together, out loud, when we gather for worship with other believers. Declaring together what we believe is one way that Christians can build one another up in the truth of the Gospel. Also, in reciting the Nicene Creed, those in our churches who are not Christians will hear in summary form what it is that Christians believe.
We should be grateful to God that the council at Nicea deemed it worthwhile to defend and uphold the truth of Jesus Christ that is at the core of our Christmas celebration. Jesus Christ is truly human and thus can be our representative before God the Father. Jesus Christ is also truly God and thus is able to bear the penalty for our sin and reconcile us to God the Father. We can have hope and joy in Jesus Christ because he is nothing less than truly man and truly God.
May all of us who trust in Jesus Christ play our parts in defending and preserving this good news through singing, praying, and proclaiming Christ at Christmas time and throughout the year.
For Further Reading on the Incarnation and the Council of Nicea:
Justin S. Holcomb, Know the Creeds and Councils (KNOW Series Book 1)
Athanasius, On the Incarnation, Kindle edition.