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The humanity of Jesus

By Robert Berg

“When it comes down to it, I can’t really be like Jesus because He’s God and I’m not.”

This sentiment has been expressed by a number of my students over the years. The reasoning sometimes goes like this: “God is all-knowing; Jesus is God; so Jesus even from birth knew all things.” Or, “God can’t be tempted; Jesus is God; therefore Jesus could not be tempted.” (See James 1:13.) In their desire to affirm the deity of Jesus, these students deny His true humanity.

Such a concern is not new. It motivated certain people in the Early Church to believe that the divine Christ did not actually have a physical body. He just seemed to have one. Since the physical realm was sinful, they reasoned, deity could not actually assume a body such as ours. Christ’s appearance of being material was a divine first-century visual effect.

But we must base our thinking on Scripture rather than on our preconceptions. He who was “in the form of God” took on “the form of a servant” (Philippians 2:6,7, KJV). He was “made like his brothers in every way” (Hebrews 2:17*). “The Word became flesh” (John 1:14); that is, the Word became a human being. In order to deliver us, the Son of God shared the same “flesh and blood” that we do (Hebrews 2:14). All of these passages point to the same truth: Jesus experienced human existence. The only exception to this is that He did not sin as you and I do.

It is critical that we appreciate this genuine humanity of Jesus. First, as taught by the New Testament and emphasized by early Christian writers, Jesus could take our sins upon himself because He became one of us. Second, we underestimate the extent of Jesus’ humbling of himself if we balk at affirming His full humanity. Jesus did more than sip from the cup of the human condition; He drank it all. He knows our trials and pain because He has experienced what we experience. Third, because Jesus assumed our humanity He can be a model for us. Following in the footsteps of Jesus thus is not only possible, but precisely what we are called to do.

What, then, did it mean for the Son of God to become a human being? Flesh by definition involves limitations that set it over against deity. So Christ Jesus laid aside certain divine privileges so He might truly be one of us, as Paul writes in Philippians 2:5-11.

That Jesus was “in every way” like us means:

Jesus had a human body as we do. In His incarnate or “en-fleshed” state, then, Jesus was not omnipresent. His human body limited Him to being in one place at a time. He experienced infancy and physical growth (Luke 2:40,52). He ate and drank. His physical strength was limited; He grew tired after a hard day or a long trip. The fatigue that overcame the disciples in Gethsemane also beset Jesus during extended periods of prayer. The physical abuse He suffered before and during His crucifixion was agonizing. The nails pierced real flesh. And Jesus experienced physical death.

Jesus knows the experience of physical limitations. Peter and John and the other disciples literally could have followed in Jesus’ footsteps. Footsteps leave footprints in the Palestinian sand. And footprints are left by feet. Real feet.

Jesus had a human mind as we do. During His time on earth, then, Jesus was not omniscient; that is, He did not know everything. He made this clear in Mark 13:32: He did not know the exact day and hour of the coming of the Son of Man. Although He was exceptional at the very least, He still had to learn as other children do (Luke 2:40,52). The instances in which Jesus is said to know what others are thinking or what was going to happen in the future do not necessarily reflect His deity. Prophets had such supernatural insight from God. Rather, the Father was continually showing the Son “all things” (John 5:20, KJV).

Associated with this, Jesus had a human will as we do. Jesus always did what was pleasing to the Father (John 8:29), not because He was programmed to do so, but because He consciously and consistently chose to do His Father’s will. Indeed, Jesus calls His disciples to follow His commands just as He has followed His Father’s commands (John 15:10). His words in Gethsemane most clearly reflect Jesus’ individual will: “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:39).

Saying yes to the Father’s will, then, was a conscious and sometimes difficult choice for Jesus, just as it is for us. The footsteps of the Son were directed by a knowledge and acceptance of the leading of God.

Jesus had human emotions as we do. He was frustrated (Mark 8:17-21), amazed (Mark 6:6), angry (Mark 3:5), joyful (Luke 10:21) and troubled (John 13:21). He knew the highs and lows of human feeling.

When I was young, John 11:35 was noteworthy because it was the shortest verse in the Bible: “Jesus wept.” But now this verse speaks to me of the genuine humanity of Jesus. Though He knew before He arrived at Bethany that Lazarus had died and that He would call him forth from the tomb, yet still He wept at the deadly effects of sin on human existence. And who can imagine the depth of emotion experienced by Jesus on the cross when He cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34).

Jesus had a unique human personality and calling as we do. We speak often of His unique mission: No one else will die bearing the sins of the world. But He also had a unique collection of traits we call personality. His relatives and friends would have observed the maturing process. The astonishment expressed by His neighbors in Nazareth when He began His ministry (Mark 6:1-6) suggests that His life until His baptism by John was fairly ordinary, not unlike most of our lives.

Fortunately, the call to follow in Jesus’ footsteps is meant figuratively. To “be like Jesus” does not require us to be a Jewish male itinerant teacher and healer in Palestine. Jesus is our model ultimately in the way He was dedicated to pleasing the Father.

So the Christian life is not quite like the game “Follow the leader,” where the goal of every follower is to step, hop or jump precisely as the leader. The God of infinite variety is not after uniformity. Jesus summed up the rules of the game: Love God and love others. The steps of each player will be as unique as the creation each of us is.

Our eyes must be fixed on the leader (Hebrews 12:2). He became one of us, subject to the same limitations and temptations, and empowered by the same Spirit. Because He did this, He knows our struggles and He is able to help us through them (Hebrews 2:17,18; 4:14-16).

Jesus has walked where we walk. 

*All Scriptures from the New International Version except as noted.

Robert Berg is a professor of biblical studies at Evangel University in Springfield, MO.

From 50 Tough Questions (Springfield, Mo: PE Books, 2002). Reprinted with permission.

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