The following can be considered a summary of the Bible and the Christian message, rooted in the Orthodox perspective. It is not exhaustive nor authoritative, but is merely a recollection by the author. It was written in the context of an interfaith dialogue between a Christian and a Muslim (hence occasional references to the Quran). It is therefore written to an audience with some background awareness of Biblical/Quranic/Judaic terms/concepts.
“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you.
Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you.”
John 15:13-15 (KJV)
Scripture tells us that we are made in the Image and Likeness of God (Genesis 1:26; 27). That is the purpose of our creation. Central here is that we have Free Will. We have the Free Will to choose voluntarily to love God. Our Love of God needs to be voluntary, for all love is voluntary, not forced. The fact that we are created with Free Will to love God, implies a very unique and special relationship between us and our Creator. We are a very special creation – for we are the only creation that is in the image and likeness of our God.
Adam and Eve lived in perfect harmony with God, in togetherness with Him. However, we abused our Free Will by choosing self-glorification (by eating the forbidden fruit, we sought to make ourselves self-glorified. We moved the centre of our love and attention away from God, and onto ourselves, onto our ego). Our selfishness here became the Fall of Adam – introducing the illness of our human nature: sin. Sin separates us from God (as we were expelled from the Garden, away from union with God).
What is this illness? Adam’s Fall introduced sin into humanity, and, as a virus, leads us to a corrupted state of being. This evil exists in every human being’s heart, whether they acknowledge it or not. All of us are infected by it, and, as a result, are all guilty and unjustified before God.
We now live in injustice, suffering, humiliation, poverty, and depravation. Because of sin, we are cut off from union with God (who is Life itself), and therefore suffer death. This is the state of mankind.
How can we be reconciled with God? This is the most important question of mankind. It is a question of salvation.
What we see in Noah (Nun) is the possibility of simply destroying all of humankind once and for all, for its evil became so terrible. Yet, Noah the righteous one and his family survives. Noah, as a Prophet, delivers the message that God has a pact to never send a Flood again to destroy mankind, no matter how evil it becomes (Genesis 9:8-28) (this pact is omitted in the Quran).
Abraham and the descendants Isaac and Jacob are the chosen people of God through whom prophethood is bestowed and through which all the world shall be blessed (Gen 22:18). The Jews, as the chosen people of God, are selected as the people in whom the Saviour will come. Through Isaac, God establishes an everlasting covenant (Gen 17:15-21).
While led by the Prophet Moses (Musa), the Jews receive the Law. This Law outlines the way the Jews ought to live and construct society, so as to best (under the circumstances) create a purer society and a purer people (the Jews needed to be pure so as to be prepared for the Messiah/Saviour who would come in their midst - Deuteronomy 18:15-22). However, what we ultimately see is that no legal code could justify us before God. The Jews violated the Law all the time – the Law itself was impossible for men to fulfil perfectly. The Law, therefore, exposed our imperfection and sin. It revealed how far we are from reconciliation with God.
A central theme in the Law and in Judaism was the tradition of sacrificing an unblemished (meaning pure and innocent) lamb to God in order to atone for the people’s sins. The first time the Jews did this was in Egypt, when Moses worked to free them from slavery in Egypt. After God had sent 9 plagues on the Egyptians, He sent the 10th plague: death of the first-born. The angel of death swept through Egypt and took the lives of all first-borns in Egypt. Only the Jews were protected from this plague – but how? By sacrificing an unblemished lamb, collect the blood, and spread the blood on a wooden plank above their homes. If the angel saw this blood, it passed without claiming any souls. This is a direct symbolic prophecy of the Messiah, and it established the Jewish tradition of using an unblemished lamb to atone for the sins of the people. They would also begin to celebrate Easter in remembrance of this event. From then-on, the Jews would use animal sacrifices as attempts to reconcile with God. The blood of the lamb is filled with the sins of the people through prayer, and when the lamb is sacrificed, it atones for the people (the Quran seems to omit any reference to this tradition, though it is the heart of Judaism). In that moment (on Yom Kippur), the Jewish High Priest would act as the figurehead of the People, and enter the Temple to “meet” God for a brief moment. However, besides this brief moment, sin separates us from God. This was their tradition, for they understood that they needed to be pure in order to be able to converse with God. Purity comes only through the death of sin, so they would have an innocent lamb take upon itself the sins of the people, and sacrifice it in their stead. What, then, the “best” sacrifice? What sacrifice is sufficient to atone for the sin and wickedness of all mankind? What sacrifice is sufficient to reverse the Fall of Adam? Animals are not humans. No amount of animals can completely atone for the sins of mankind. What is required is a sacrifice of our ego (Isaiah 1:11-19 and Psalm 51:16-17).
God, by using the Prophet Moses, led the people out of Egypt and into the "Promised Land" (land of Canaan). We see that God had acted as the King of His people, for He fulfilled the traditional roles of a King: He liberated them from their enemies (Egypt), He gave them a Law, He led them to prosperity (Promised land of Canaan), He led them in battle (battle of Jericho). God is the King of Israel, but as the Israelites continued to fall into sin, they entertained the idea of raising an earthly, human King among them. The Prophet Samuel was initially very opposed to a physical, earthly King (1 Samuel 8:11-22), for he knew that earthly, political power corrupts (as demonstrated by Saul, and even David!) – but God permitted him to allow it. Though this Kingdom was an earthly one, it was still promised by God to be an eternal Kingdom (ask: how can an earthly kingdom be eternal?) (2 Samuel 7:13 and 16).
Thus, the Jews created the earthly Kingdom of Israel as an attempt to politically govern the people to purity and strength through an armed entity. Under King David (Dawood), times were good – but even David fell into wickedness (David & Bathsheba, and the sin that infected his family thereafter). After a short time, the Kingdom was divided as it fell into sin and darkness once more, and ultimately collapsed. God permitted the Assyrians and Babylonians to destroy it.
In this context, the Prophets of Israel gradually reveal more about the coming Messiah (who was already foretold and foreshadowed by Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and David, among others.) The Messiah is a Liberator of the Jews from captivity, and through him, all the Gentiles would also be liberated. He would come from the line of David (2 Samuel 7:12-13, Isaiah 9:7), establish an eternal Kingdom (Daniel 2:44), be born of a Virgin in Bethlehem, and His name would be Emmanuel – meaning God with us (Isaiah 7:14; Micah 5:2). Among his many names, he shall be called Mighty God, He who Lives Forever, the Anointed One. (Isaiah 9:6).
Therefore, Through the story of the Children of Israel, we see that God will never destroy all His creation. But we also see that no amount of animal sacrifices can atone for our sins as humankind; no Legal code can justify us before God, and no earthly Kingdom can purify us. All our attempts to reconcile ourselves with God, have failed. We are lost in our sinfulness.
Only if we are restored in the Image of God – if we are deified to our eternal, pre-sin purpose – can we truly be united with our Creator.
After being held captive in Babylon and Persia, the Jews are freed from captivity and allowed to return to Judea. Here, they re-build the Temple in Jerusalem, and await the coming Messiah as prophesised by the Holy Prophets Abraham, Moses, David, Solomon, Micah, Isaiah, Samuel, Daniel, Jonah, Hosea, Jeremiah, Malachi, and Zechariah.
Then comes Jesus of Nazareth. Because He fulfilled the stated prophesies of the anticipated Messiah, the Jews already celebrated him as the Messiah when he entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. But the Messiah did not appear in riches and wealth, as an earthly mind would expect…
Jesus was born in a manger (among animals) because no one in Bethlehem wanted to open their homes and accommodate Virgin Mary and Joseph when she was about to give birth.
Jesus was not wealthy in earthly riches, nor did he hold political power. He never picked up a sword as He did not command armies. (“Those who live by the sword shall die by the sword” Jesus says in Matthew 26:52, when St. Peter attempted to defend the Messiah upon His arrest by the Jewish Temple guards). It was clear that Jesus did not come to establish an earthly political Kingdom that would liberate the Jews from the Romans – He was much more than that. He would establish an Eternal Kingdom that would Liberate Mankind from the illness of sin – restore mankind to its intended potential; take upon all of mankind’s illnesses and heal it.
The Word of God itself (which is God itself, for the Word naturally dwells in what it comes from), came down to us and lived among us. The person of Jesus Christ is the Son of Man and Son of God – He IS the prototype of our Creation, the Perfect Man and the Perfect God. For Him to fully unite our nature to God, He needed to be fully human in every aspect, as well as fully God in every aspect (not for His sake, but for our sake). So, Jesus the Messiah took upon Himself (as prophesised by Isaiah Chapter 50 and 53, Psalms 35 and 69) all the sin, evil, suffering, and burden of this world – of mankind – and carried it on the Cross. He took upon himself humankind, in order to heal it from its illness of sin. He enters the Land of the dead (where all sin inevitably leads to) and, after three days, resurrects in full glory (heals our nature from this inevitability). He has therefore carried human nature through death, and by resurrecting Himself after three days, He has resurrected human nature and released it from the bondage of death. He then ascends to be seated at the Right Hand of the Father – meaning, he carries our human nature to the Right Hand of the Father, fully unified with God.
He therefore fills the human experience (and the human tragedy) with his Life, Light, and Strength at every step of the way, even through death. He overcomes sin and shame by taking it all on himself and crucifying it. His resurrection is the victory.
Because Jesus was not only the Son of God (fully God), but also the Son of Man (fully human), His actions are also achievable for us – but only if we truly unite to Christ and walk in His footsteps. Jesus’ Life becomes our path as Christians. His very Life is the Way, the Truth, and the Life (as He claimed, John 14:6). It is accessible to us!
But why would God do this?? If He is God, He could surely “solve” this another way, for He can do anything! Yes, indeed, God Himself can do anything. If God willed it, He could destroy all of humanity and its evils once and for all (but this was promised to Noah never to happen). Or He could suddenly reveal Himself in all His Glory and force all humans to fall on their knees and worship Him. But if He did so, we would worship Him out of fear and self-interest to save ourselves – not out of genuine Love for our Creator. What is greater, admiration out of fear or admiration out of love? Besides, we would not be able to withstand His full presence, as we are tainted by sin. The only way we can withstand the presence of God is to “put on Christ” – to immerse ourselves with Christ (and be healed by Him), for He is pure and He overcame sin.
God comes not in the form of earthly majesty. He does not come as a political King (as many Jews expected), as a rich Prince, or as a military man. He instead chooses to come in a manger. He instead chooses to not be a rich man, nor hold political power. He chooses to live in full solidarity with the poorest of mankind. He chooses to take upon Himself the fullness of humankind, and suffer it voluntarily, so that we can be healed from our own depravation.
Another aspect of “why did He not show Himself as a great, powerful King or ruler?”: For there is no pride in God. God is Love itself, and God is humility itself (this view stems partially from our understanding of God as the Holy Trinity, but this is a topic of another time). Another way of thinking about it is what we can call a "King v beggar" test. When we look upon a rich King, we all bow our heads in respect and admiration. But when we look at the beggar in the street, we do not bother to even give them a glance. By what standard do men judge others? We do not look at the heart, but at everything external. By what standard do men look upon Jesus? They do not look at His Being, but at everything external. Let’s say If Jesus is spat on, we disregard him as anything special – for no person of importance is spat on! Let’s say If Jesus commanded armies, we would regard him highly – for any person would do so, so as not to offend the mighty. "‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ " Matthew 25:40. But is this true love? No. It is self-interest. As the Son of God, He voluntarily suffered for our healing. Jesus Christ did all of these wonders in the human frame, so that we can also walk in his example and share in his Triumph. He did all of these wonders without violating the essence of human nature and human Free Will. For if he had simply commanded our obedience, it would not be voluntary love, it would not be free will. But since He takes upon himself our nature, and walks that nature through His victory, He enables us humans to also share in His victory.
This is why we Christians call Jesus “the Second Adam” (the Quran also refers to Jesus by this title when explaining that only Adam and Jesus were born by God’s command). For as the First Adam led humans into death, the Second Adam leads humans into Life.
A natural, human response is “No, surely God wouldn’t have done that.” But what if He did? What if He loves his creation so much that He voluntarily takes upon himself our nature and undergoes this sacrifice, so that we can be fully and wholly reunited onto Him? This is an enormous Love story that dumbfounds and embarrasses us. It is so enormous that it is, in a sense, dreading to us. So, when we read of how the soldiers mocked him, how the religious leaders shouted “Crucify!” and spat on Him – we are so deeply ashamed, mournful, and stirred up. And out of this, we ask “what can we do as a response to this enormous, inconceivable Act of Love?” If God underwent this voluntarily for me, what then? How do I respond to that? What must I do to deserve that? How must I live, how should I respond? We begin to change out behaviour, change our hearts, and seek holiness DUE TO our attempt to respond to this enormous Act of Love. For the fact that God incarnate underwent this suffering for YOUR sake, speaks VOLUMES about YOU as a human being, about the sacredness of human life, and about the inconceivable grandeur of God’s Eternal Love. It is a Love we cannot understand even, we can only marvel at it, and seek to adapt our life to it. This is Christianity. We change our lives, strive for the virtues, and try to live holy lives, not because of a law that commands us to, or because we fear hell or death, but because we are moved to the core by God’s transformative act of Love for us. It is an act of Love that is the bedrock of why we strive to love Christ, why we strive to live properly. It is not a legal code, a law, a command, or a threat.
“Now when Jesus came into the parts of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, saying: ‘Who do men say that the Son of Man is?’ And they said: ‘Some [say] John the Baptist; some, Elijah; and others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.’ He saith unto them: ‘But who say ye that I am?’ And Simon Peter answered and said: ‘Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God’.
And Jesus answered and said unto him: ‘Blessed art though, Simon Bar-Jonah: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father who is in heaven’.”
Matthew 16:13-17 KJV
“For we have not followed cunningly devised fables, when we made known unto you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of his majesty.”
2 Peter 1:16 (by St. Peter, the Apostle of Christ)