22 May How Human Was Jesus?
Faults, flaws, and mistakes are an unavoidable part of human life. But the Bible tells us that Jesus is fully man, yet without sin. What does it mean for Jesus to be both fully God and fully human?
“I’m only human.”
Most of us have used that line on more than one occasion to explain our mistakes. “I’m only human” usually means “nobody’s perfect,” which implies “I deserve a pass.”
Certainly, all of us humans are prone to make mistakes. Ever lost your keys? Ever tripped over your feet? Ever dropped your spoon? When you did, were you in sin or did you just make a mistake?
Mistakes and sins
Life together requires patience, grace, and empathy. But there is an important distinction between human mistakes and human sin. Mistakes are to be expected because they’re part of the natural learning process. Sin is to be repented of because it’s the manifestation of our rebellion against God.
As an example, some years ago I was sitting at a burger joint with my wife Grace and our kids. Another family with young children was nearby. As often happens with little ones, during the meal a young child went to grab their drink and it slipped out of their hand, spilling all over the table. One of the parents responded by telling the child they would later get a spanking in the car for what they did.
Overhearing this interaction, one of my children looked at me and asked, “Dad, should they get in trouble for that?” I said, “No.” Little kids with little hands picking up a big wet glass make mistakes sometimes and it slips out of their hands. That’s not a sin; it’s a mistake. It’s something you learn to avoid as you grow older and figure out how to handle a wet glass.
There is an important distinction between human mistakes and human sin.
As parents, we should be careful to distinguish between mistakes and sins. A mistake is when a child trips over his feet carrying a dish to the sink, spilling food on the ground. A sin is when a child throws his dish on the ground in defiance of his parent. The result is the same, but the heart motive is different.
Admittedly, the line between an honest mistake and a moral transgression is not always clear, because sin includes not just the things we do but also our motives and thoughts along the way. When a child spells a word wrong, perhaps it’s because she was lazy and didn’t study… or maybe she just hasn’t learned certain principles of phonics yet. The former would be sin; the latter would be a mistake; the result on paper looks the same. God is a Father, and he sees this difference at the heart level.
The one man who never sinned
In considering the difference between sins and mistakes, I find it helpful to look at the life of Jesus. Jesus was human and Jesus was morally perfect without any sin. This paradox has been exploding minds for thousands of years. In AD 451, the Council of Chalcedon convened in response to many heresies that wrongly defined the humanity and divinity of Jesus. The Chalcedonian Creed drafted at these meetings declared that Jesus Christ is one person with two natures—human and divine—who is both fully God and fully man.
Theologically, the term for the union of both natures in Jesus Christ is hypostatic union, which is taken from the Greek word hypostasis for “person.” This concept summarizes three principles:
- Christ has two distinct natures: humanity and deity.
- There is no mixture or intermingling of the two natures.
- Although he has two natures, Christ is one person.
The Chalcedonian summary of the Incarnation is the position held by all of Christianity, including Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant Christians. Despite this helpful contribution of clarity and unity, however, the nature of Jesus has continued to be controversial throughout church history.
There are two general ways in which various thinking has erred regarding the humanity and divinity of Jesus. The first is to deny the full divinity of Jesus in favor of his humanity; the second is to deny the full humanity of Jesus in favor of his divinity. Christ is fully God and fully man, and great mistakes ensue when we think he is fully God or fully man.
The full divinity of Jesus has been denied by heretics such as the Ebionites, dynamic monarchianists, Socinians, Servetusites, Nestorians, modalists, monarchianists, Sabellianists, Unitarians, Social Gospel proponents, “death of God” theologians, liberal “Christians,” Arians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, functionalists, Adoptionists, Kenotics, and Apollinarians. This perspective emerges in popular culture from time to time, such as in the popular book and film The Da Vinci Code.
Jesus was human and Jesus was morally perfect without any sin.
According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, which Christians consider a cult, Jesus was created by God the Father billions of years ago as the archangel Michael and is not equal to God the Father. The Mormon cult teaches that Jesus was born as the first and greatest spirit-child of the Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother, and is also the spirit-brother of Lucifer, who became a god but whose deity is no more unique than many people’s. Some New Agers say Jesus was not fully God and fully man, but rather half man and half alien. Oneness Pentecostals falsely teach that there is no Trinity but rather that Jesus appears in the roles of Father, Son, and Spirit.
The full humanity of Jesus has been denied by heretics such as Marcionites, Docetists, Gnostics, modal monarchianists, Apollinarian Paulicians, monophysitists, New Agers, and Eutychians. Some Christian worship songs have also tended to ignore the full humanity of Jesus. For example, there is a well-known hymn about Jesus as a baby that contains the line, “No crying he makes,” as if Jesus were not truly a human child that would cry to notify his mother when he was hungry, wet, or had an upset stomach.
Volumes have been written about the both/and nature of Jesus Christ, and in the remainder of this post I will do my best to summarize what the Bible and orthodox doctrine have to say on this important subject.
Jesus is fully God
Christians believe that there are numerous incontrovertible reasons to believe that Jesus Christ was and is fully God.
God the Father said Jesus was God.
The Bible is clear that the Father declares the Son to be God. In Hebrews 1:8 the Father speaks of the Son as God, saying, “But of the Son he says, ‘Your throne, O God, is forever and ever.’” When Jesus is brought forth out of the water at his baptism, God the Father says, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:17).
At Jesus’ transfiguration, “a voice from the cloud said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him’” (Matt. 17:5). Indeed, there can be no greater testimony to the deity of Jesus Christ than that of God the Father.
Jesus said he was God.
Jesus’ claim to be God is without precedent or peer, as no founder of any major world religion has ever said he was God. Yet Jesus clearly, repeatedly, and emphatically said he was God in a variety of ways. If this claim were untrue, he would have been guilty of violating the first commandment and as a blasphemer would have deserved death. This is why the people who disbelieved his claim kept seeking to put him to death. The eventual murder of Jesus for claiming to be God is recorded in Matthew 26:63–65, which says:
Those who heard Jesus say these kinds of things wanted to kill Jesus because he was “making himself equal with God” (John 5:18). On this point, Billy Graham says, “Jesus was not just another great religious teacher, nor was he only another in a long line of individuals seeking after spiritual truth. He was, instead, truth itself. He was God incarnate.”
There are numerous incontrovertible reasons to believe that Jesus Christ was and is fully God.
Jesus’ claims to be God were clearly heard and understood by his enemies, and Jesus never recanted (Mark 14:61–64). John 8:58–59 reports that Jesus said, “‘Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.’ So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple.” In John 10:30–33 Jesus also said:
On this point, New York’s Judge Gaynor once said of Jesus’ trial at the end of his earthly life, “It is plain from each of the gospel narratives, that the alleged crime for which Jesus was tried and convicted was blasphemy.”
The Bible plainly says Jesus is God.
Without question, the New Testament often refers to Jesus Christ as God, and a few examples will illustrate this truth clearly. Matthew refers to Jesus as “‘Immanuel’ (which means, God with us)” (Matt. 1:23). Thomas calls Jesus, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28). Romans 9:5 speaks of “the Christ who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen.” Titus 2:13 refers to “our great God and Savior Jesus Christ,” and Titus 3:4 calls Jesus, “God our Savior.” First John 5:20 says that Jesus Christ “is the true God.” Lastly, 2 Peter 3:18 speaks of “our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”
Jesus did the works of God.
The nearly forty miracles that Jesus performed throughout the New Testament reveal his divinity because they demonstrate his divine authority over creation as the Creator (John 20:30–31). For example, when Jesus gave sight to the blind man, the people would have been reminded of Psalm 146:8: “The Lord opens the eyes of the blind.” The fact of Jesus’ miracles is so well established that even his enemies conceded it (Matt. 12:24; 27:42; John 11:47). In John 10:36–39 Jesus speaks of these works:
Jesus’ claim to deity includes declaring himself to be without any sin in thought, word, deed, or motive, and therefore morally perfect. In John 8:46 Jesus openly invites his enemies to recall any sin he ever committed saying, “Which one of you convicts me of sin?”
Jesus clearly, repeatedly, and emphatically said he was God in a variety of ways.
Those who testify to the sinlessness of Jesus are those who knew him most intimately, such as his friends Peter (Acts 3:14; 1 Pet. 1:19; 2:22; 3:18) and John (1 John 1:8 cf. 1 John 3:5), his half-brother James (James 5:6), and even his former enemy Paul (2 Cor. 5:21). Additionally, even Judas, who betrayed Jesus, admitted that Jesus was without sin (Matt. 27:3–4)—along with the ruler Pilate, who oversaw the murder of Jesus (Luke 23:22), the soldier who participated in the murder of Jesus (Luke 23:47), and the guilty sinner who was crucified at Jesus’ side (Luke 23:41).
Furthermore, not only was Jesus God and without sin, but he also forgave sin (e.g., Luke 7:48). The Bible is clear that our sin is ultimately committed against God (Ps. 51:4) and that God alone can forgive sin (Ps. 130:4; Isa. 43:25; Jer. 31:34). Thus, Luke 5:20–21 reveals Jesus doing the work of God:
Lastly, Jesus also claimed the power to raise the dead (John 6:39–44), judge our eternal destiny (John 5:22–23), and grant eternal life (John 10:28).
Taken together, all of this evidence reveals that Jesus was and is God. Or, as Colossians 2:9 says perfectly, “In him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily.”
The New Testament often refers to Jesus Christ as God.
Jesus is fully human
If we had seen Jesus as a man, we would have seen a normal guy carrying his lunch box in one hand and a tool box in the other, heading off to work. He did the normal things that actual people do: eating, sleeping, going to the bathroom, and blowing his nose. I say none of this to be disrespectful of Jesus, but to simply state that these are the kinds of things that we experience as humans, and Jesus Christ was not only fully God but also fully human during his Incarnation on the earth.
Jesus looked like a normal, average guy. Or, in the words of the prophet Isaiah, “He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him” (Isa. 53:2). Indeed, when we examine the life of Jesus as told in Scripture, we see a man who does not appear at first glance to be God. Conversely, Jesus appears as a radically normal and average human being experiencing normal life events like the rest of us:
- Born of a woman (Gal. 4:4)
- Had a normal body of flesh and bones (Luke 24:39)
- Grew up as a boy (Luke 2:52)
- Had a family (Matt. 13:54–58; Mark 6:3; 1 Cor. 9:5)
- Obeyed his parents (Luke 2:51)
- Worshiped God (Luke 4:16) and prayed (Mark 1:35; 6:46)
- Worked as a carpenter (Mark 6:3)
- Got hungry (Matt. 4:2; 21:18) and thirsty (John 4:7; 19:28)
- Asked for information (Mark 9:16–21; John 11:34; 18:34)
- Was stressed (John 13:21)
- Was astonished (Mark 6:6; Luke 7:9)
- Was happy (Luke 10:21-24; John 15:11; 17:13; Heb.12:2, 22)
- Told jokes (Matt. 7:6; 23:24; Mark 4:21)
- Had compassion (Mark 1:41; Luke 7:13)
- Had male and female friends he loved (John 11:3-5)
- Gave encouraging compliments (Mark 12:41–44)
- Loved children (Mat. 19:13–15)
- Celebrated holidays (Luke 2:41)
- Went to parties (Matt. 11:19)
- Loved his mom (John 19:26–27)
God does not get tired or hungry. He does not take naps. He does not need a diaper change. He does not grow or add to his knowledge. Taken together, these are clearly the ways we speak of human beings, and Jesus did all of these things during his life on earth because Jesus was a human being. The importance of this fact is found in 1 John 4:2–3:
The idea of God “in the flesh” is another significant concept referred to as the “Incarnation.”
Incarnation (from the Latin meaning “becoming flesh”) is the word theologians use to explain how the second member of the Trinity entered into human history in flesh as the God-man Jesus Christ. In an article published by Dallas Theological Seminary, scholar David J. Macleod explains:
The Incarnation is expressly stated in John 1:14, which says, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
The great theologian J. I. Packer has described the Incarnation as the “supreme mystery” associated with the gospel. The Incarnation is more of a miracle than the Resurrection because in it somehow a holy God and sinful humanity are joined, yet without the presence of sin. Packer writes, “Nothing in fiction is so fantastic as is this truth of the Incarnation.”
In Jesus, God enters the human realm. He walks on water, calms storms, heals the sick, feeds the hungry, raises the dead, and conquers the grave. In other words, he did not change his identity as God but rather changed his role. As the church father Augustine explained, “Christ added to himself that which he was not; he did not lose what he was.”
The great theologian J. I. Packer has described the Incarnation as the “supreme mystery” associated with the gospel.
Jesus, who was fully equal with God in every way, who was the very form of God, did not see that as something to keep in his grip, but emptied himself of that equal status and role to take the status and role of humanity (Phil. 2:5–11). He who was and is God took the likeness of humanity. God became the “image of God” for the sake of our salvation (Gen. 1:27; 2 Cor. 4:4).
Theologians capture this laying aside of the divine equality, the divine lifestyle, with the phrase he laid aside the independent exercise of his divine attributes. What this means is that he didn’t continually exhibit the so-called incommunicable attributes, such as his immortality, omniscience, or omnipresence (except at the leading of the Holy Spirit, which we’ll discuss below).
Instead of availing himself of the many attributes of God, Jesus added to these all of the attributes of humanity—except for sin. He was tempted, just as we are (Heb. 4:15). He had to learn and grow, just as we do (Luke 2:40, 52). Jesus was human, and yet Jesus was without sin.
As the church father Augustine explained, “Christ added to himself that which he was not; he did not lose what he was.”
The language about Jesus growing is the same language that is used of Samuel in 1 Samuel 2:26: “Now the boy Samuel continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the Lord and also with man.” The connection is that just as Samuel grew up learning and maturing, so did Jesus. On this point, one commentator says, “Jesus is growing intellectually, physically, spiritually, and socially.”
The Incarnation reassures us that it is not a sin to be human. It is not a sin to get tired; Jesus got tired. It is not a sin to be tempted; Jesus was tempted. It is not (always) a sin to learn and grow through experience, which includes making mistakes such as not getting something right the first time but learning by doing. Luke 2:52 is clear that “Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man.”
None of us can truly wrap our brain around the fact that God came to earth in the form of a man. As the great thinker Blaise Pascal said, “The Church has had as much difficulty in showing that Jesus Christ was man, against those who denied it, as in showing that he was God; and the probabilities were equally great.”
In an impossible effort to explain the spectacular mystery of the Incarnation, we have a tendency to over-emphasize on either one side (Jesus’ divinity) or the other (Jesus’ humanity). Instead, we must look to the ministry of the Holy Spirit in order to understand how both can be true.
When I was a new Christian, I asked the pastor of a fundamentalist church about the temptation of Jesus mentioned throughout Scripture (Matt. 4:1–10; Mark 1:12–13; Luke 4:1–13; Heb. 2:18; 4:15). He immediately took me to James 1:13, which says, “God cannot be tempted with evil.” He went on to say that because Jesus is God, when the Bible says he was tempted, he was not really tempted but basically faking it.
The Incarnation reassures us that it is not a sin to be human.
His portrait of Jesus sounded eerily similar to Superman. He was saying that like Superman, Jesus only appeared to be a regular, tempted Galilean peasant; under the Clark Kent-like disguise there remained on Jesus’ chest a big red “G” for God, which made him unable to really suffer from the same weaknesses as the rest of us mere mortals.
The Bible, however, explains that God came as the man Jesus Christ because of humility and a willingness to be our suffering servant. Philippians 2:5–11 says:
This amazing section of Scripture reveals to us that the second member of the Trinity came into human history as the God-man Jesus Christ. In doing so, Jesus exemplified perfect and unparalleled humility. In his Incarnation, the Creator entered his creation to reveal God to us, identify with us, and live and die for us as our humble servant.
By saying that Jesus “made himself nothing,” Paul means that Jesus set aside his rights as God and the rightful continual use of his divine attributes, as I mentioned above. Though Jesus remained God, he chose instead to live by the power of the Holy Spirit. He lived as we must live—by the enabling power of God the Holy Spirit.
Through the Holy Spirit, Jesus was able to experience the kinds of things humans experience without sinning. This is what is meant by Hebrews 2:17, which says, “He had to be made like his brothers in every respect.” Jesus knows what it is like to learn to walk and talk and read and write because he learned these things as we do.
We have a tendency to over-emphasize on either one side (Jesus’ divinity) or the other (Jesus’ humanity).
To be absolutely clear: Jesus remained fully man and fully God during his Incarnation, and he maintained all of his divine attributes and did avail himself of them upon occasion for the benefit of others, such as in forgiving sin (Mark 2:1–7). Nonetheless, Jesus’ life was lived as fully human in that he lived it by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Regarding the relationship between Jesus and the Holy Spirit, and the mystery of God become human, Martyn Lloyd-Jones says:
Sadly, all of the major creeds compiled during the early church ignore the life of Jesus between his birth and death. Perhaps this has contributed to the propensity for Christians to not deeply ponder the humanity of Christ as much as his deity. The Apostles’ Creed, Nicene Creed, and Athanasian Creed all declare that Jesus was born to the Virgin Mary and then skip forward to his suffering under the rule of Pilate without speaking a word about the years in between; they overlook the example of Jesus’ life, in general, and his exemplary relationship with God the Holy Spirit, in particular. But, as Abraham Kuyper writes:
The empowerment of Jesus by God the Holy Spirit is repeatedly stressed in the Gospel of Luke. There we find that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit and given the title “Christ,” which means anointed by the Holy Spirit (Luke 1–2). Jesus’ aunt Elizabeth was “filled with the Holy Spirit” when greeting Jesus’ pregnant mother Mary, and his uncle Zechariah went on to prophesy that their son John was appointed by God to prepare the way for Jesus (Luke 1:41–43, 67, 76). An angel revealed to Mary that she would give birth to Jesus because “the Holy Spirit will come upon you,” (Luke 1:35–37).
Once born, Jesus was dedicated to the Lord in the temple according to the demands of the law by Simeon; “the Holy Spirit was upon [Simeon]” and the Holy Spirit had revealed to him that he would not die until seeing Jesus Christ (Luke 2:25–27). Simeon was “in the Spirit” when he prophesied about Jesus’ ministry to Jews and Gentiles (Luke 2:27–34).
Jesus’ life was lived as fully human in that he lived it by the power of the Holy Spirit.
John prophesied that one day Jesus would baptize people with the Holy Spirit (John 1:14; Phil. 2:5–6; Col. 2:9; 1 John 4:2). The Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus at his own bap-tism (e.g., Matt. 4:1–10; Heb. 4:14–16). It is curious that while the Gospels give scant information about Jesus’ childhood, all four include the account of Jesus’ baptism. Matthew adds the interesting statement that the Spirit rested on Jesus, as if to suggest that the remainder of his life and ministry on the earth would be done under the anointing and power of the Holy Spirit (Matt. 3:16).
In the remainder of Luke’s Gospel, we discover that Jesus was “full of the Holy Spirit,” “led by the Spirit” (Luke 4:1–2), and came “in the power of the Spirit” (Luke 4:14). After reading Isaiah 61:1–2, which begins, “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,” Jesus declared, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:14–21). Luke continues by revealing that Jesus also “rejoiced in the Holy Spirit” (Luke 10:21).
Gerald Hawthorne, who has written one of the most compelling books on the subject of Jesus’ relationship with the Holy Spirit, says, “[Jesus] is the supreme example for them of what is possible in a human life because of his total dependence upon the Spirit of God.”
How Jesus is (not) like us
Because Jesus’ life is the sinless human life—the life that we are supposed to live by empowering grace through the Holy Spirit—it is important that we carefully examine the human life of Jesus. Unlike us, Jesus alone is without sin (2 Cor. 5:21; Heb. 9:14; 1 Pet. 2:22, 1 John 3:5). While the Bible is clear that Jesus never sinned, the question of whether he had a sin nature as we do has been a point of historical division between various Christian traditions, and leads us to an important aspect of the Incarnation.
The Eastern church says that Jesus did have a sin nature. They focus on Romans 8:3 (that the Father sent his own Son “in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin”) and Hebrews 4:15 (which says he was one “who in every respect has been tempted as we are”). They then argue that this could not be if Jesus did not have any of the sinful thoughts or desires like the ones we wrestle with all the time. It is then argued that although Jesus had a sin nature, he overcame it and showed us the perfect obedience that we can follow to live holy lives.
On the other hand, the Western church says Jesus did not have a sin nature. They focus on Hebrews 7:26–27: We “have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins.” It is argued that if Jesus had a sin nature, he could not fit this description. Furthermore, if he had sinful character, then he would be a sinner.
Though Jesus remained God, he chose instead to live by the power of the Holy Spirit.
I am inclined to agree with the Western church and see the “likeness of sinful flesh” in Romans as a point of similarity rather than a point of character whereby Jesus had a sin nature. Subsequently, as the “last Adam” (1 Cor. 15:45), Jesus was like the first Adam prior to the fall—without a sin nature—and therefore had a completely free will to choose obedience out of love for God the Father.
Because Jesus is like us in that he was tempted, yet unlike us in that he never did sin, he can help us when we are tempted and show us how to escape sinful situations. Hebrews 2:17–18 says:
Jesus alone can mediate between God and us because he alone is fully God and fully man and thereby able to perfectly represent both God and man. This is precisely what the Bible teaches: “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5). Regarding the vital importance of both Jesus’ humanity and divinity, theologian Jonathan Edwards says:
In other words, to redeem man, Christ, who is eternally fully God, first had to become fully man in order to fully reconcile men to God.