Recently, a church member approached me hesitantly. He looked half afraid that I would accuse him of heresy once I heard what he was about to utter. Then he said, "I love God the Father. Don't get me wrong. But I really feel close to Jesus. What do you think of that?"
After a moment of consideration, I told him he was exactly right to feel that way because Jesus Christ is the bridge between sinful humanity and God the Father. God the Son came to earth as a human to make God the Father known to us. Believers are right to feel a unique kinship with Him.
I didn't give much thought to the brief exchange at the time. But later I came to a sobering realization — I was the one who should have felt like I was in error, not him. It's not that I said something unbiblical in response to his question. I affirmed his correct application of the doctrine of Christ's humanity. However, it is an indictment of me and many pastors like me that after years of preaching, we still have not brought our congregations to a confident understanding of Christ's humanity and its applications.
Seventy years ago, theologian Louis Berkhof made an observation that applies in evangelical circles today. "There has been a time, when the reality and natural integrity of the human nature of Christ was denied, but at present no one seriously questions the real humanity of Jesus Christ," he said. However, "men have sometimes forgotten the human Christ in their reverence for the divine. ... The splendor of His deity should not be stressed to the extent of obscuring His real humanity."1
Historically Southern Baptists would never deny that Jesus is fully human. Yet when we emphasize the deity of Christ almost exclusively, we rob those we teach of the precious comfort that comes from knowing Jesus as our mediator, brother, and perfectly sympathetic high priest.
Scripture teaches in vivid detail that Jesus was fully human. He lived such a normal human life that people from His hometown had difficulty seeing Him as a teacher, much less the Son of God. And on the Sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astonished, saying, "Where did this man get these things? What is the wisdom given to him? How are such mighty works done by his hands? Is this not the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here and with us?" And they took offense at him (Mark 6:2-3, ESV).
Jesus called Himself a man and was called a man by others (John 8:40; Acts 2:22; Romans 5:15; 1 Corinthians 15:21). His frequent use of the self-appellation, Son of Man, indicated real humanity. When John writes that Jesus became flesh (John 1:14), flesh signifies human nature. In every physiological way Jesus was as human as you and I.
From the first moment of His life on earth, Jesus had a human body. He grew in the womb like all human babies and was born as all humans are born (Luke 2:7). The normal laws of growth and development applied to Him (Luke 2:40, 52). In adulthood Jesus felt tired (John 4:6; Matthew 8:24), thirsty (John 19:28), and hungry (Matthew 4:2). During the march to His crucifixion, Simon of Cyrene carried Jesus' cross for Him, presumably because Jesus lacked the strength to carry it Himself (Luke 23:26). Even after His resurrection, Jesus demonstrated that He possessed a real human body by eating and inviting the disciples to touch Him (Luke 24:39-43).
Jesus had a mind like ours. Like other human children, He learned how to eat, talk, read, and obey His parents (cf. Hebrews 5:8). Jesus revealed His human mind when He said of His second coming, But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father (Mark 13:32, ESV).
Jesus' divinity never negated His human emotions. During the hours preceding His crucifixion, Jesus felt troubled (John 12:27; 13:21). He marveled at the centurion's faith (Matthew 8:10), wept at Lazarus's death (John 11:35), felt compassion for the spiritually helpless crowds (Matthew 9:36), and experienced agony in prayer (Luke 22:44).
Jesus did not cease to be a human after His resurrection. He will always be human. He appeared to the disciples as a man with scars from the nails that held Him on the cross (John 20:25-27). Following His ascension Stephen (Acts 7:56) and Paul (Acts 9:5) saw Jesus as a human. In Revelation, Jesus still appears as one like a son of man (Revelation 1:13) and invites us to eat with Him in the marriage supper of the lamb (Revelation 19:9).
Though Jesus is as fully human as we are, Scripture affirms that He differs from all other humans in one respect: He never sinned. In His actions, thoughts, and motives Jesus did not once depart from God's perfect moral standard. The author of Hebrews teaches that Jesus was in every respect ... tempted as we are, yet without sin (Hebrews 4:15). Peter says Jesus committed no sin (1 Peter 2:22) and calls Him the Holy One and Righteous One (Acts 2:27; 3:14). Jesus confessed to the Pharisees that He always does things that please the Father (John 8:29).
Some might object that because Jesus never sinned, He was not truly human. But to view sin as a necessary condition of humanity, misconstrues the Bible's teaching. God created Adam and Eve as truly human and expected them to live holy and righteous lives. The Fall created an abnormal situation, not a picture of true humanity. Sin obscures our true humanity. Thus Scripture presents Jesus as the ideal man, exhibiting all the characteristics God created man to have (2 Corinthians 4:4; Colossians 1:15).
Christ's sinless humanity offers believers a source of great comfort. Because He endured the same temptations we face, Jesus sympathizes with us in every temptation. In fact, Jesus experienced a greater strain under temptation than we experience. Baptist theologian Wayne Grudem helpfully compared Jesus to a champion weightlifter: "Just as a champion weightlifter who successfully lifts and holds over head the heaviest weight in the contest feels the force of it more fully than one who attempts to lift it and drops it, so any Christian who has successfully faced a temptation to the end knows that that is far more difficult than giving in to it at once. So it was with Jesus: every temptation he faced, he faced to the end, and triumphed over it. The temptations were real because he did not give in to them. In fact, they were most real because he did not give in to them."2 Regardless of how great our temptation, Jesus knows what the burden feels like because He felt the same burden and endured. Only a fully human and fully sinless Jesus could sympathize with us in our temptations and give us the encouragement to obey God.
Christ's full humanity also makes Him eligible to obey God as our representative and take God's judgment as our substitute. A thousand years ago, Anselm of Canterbury correctly wrote in Why God Became Man that only God could die for sinners but only a man should die for sinners. Only God can take on Himself enough judgment to pay for the sins of whosoever will believe in Christ. But justice demands that a real human take the judgment because real humans committed the sin. If Jesus were not fully human, He would not have been eligible to die in our place on the cross. Similarly, Scripture teaches that Jesus obeyed God as our representative. Though perfect righteousness is required to have peace with God, all of us fall short (Romans 3:23). Yet because Jesus obeyed the Father perfectly, God credits to the accounts of believers the righteousness of Christ and treats us as though we are perfectly righteous (Romans 5:18-19). Were Jesus not fully human, He would not be eligible to obey as a representative of humans.
Without a fully human Jesus, we would have no mediator between God and humanity. Because of His deity, Jesus can represent us in the presence of the Holy Father (1 Timothy 2:5). Because of His humanity, He can represent the Father to us. If Jesus ceased to be either fully God or fully human at any moment, there would be no one to bring sinners back to God.
Only a fully human Jesus can be our example in life and death. God chose not merely to shout instructions at us from heaven. Instead He sent a perfect model for us to imitate in our daily lives. That is why John tells us, whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked (1 John 2:6, ESV). Even in His death, Jesus is the pattern we follow. When Jesus was raised from the dead, He received a new body that was imperishable and glorious (1 Corinthians 15:42-44). Paul says Jesus was the "first fruits," an initial sample of what the harvest will be like (1 Corinthians 15:23). At the second coming, all believers will receive glorious, imperishable bodies that will never age or decay. The dead in Christ will rise from their graves to receive these bodies, and living believers will be caught up in the air and instantly transformed (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17). Jesus had to be raised as a man in order to be the "firstborn from the dead," the pattern for our resurrection bodies (Colossians 1:18).
Understanding Christ's humanity requires trusting Him. We trust Him first as our Lord who saves us. Because Jesus can stand in our place to receive judgment for sin and achieve perfect righteousness, we can trust Him as our only hope for salvation.
We also trust Christ as a worthy example to follow. We look to Jesus like a boy looks to His father and imitates him. When my father taught me how to pitch a baseball, he did not simply tell me how to do it. He stood next to me in our yard and had me copy his footsteps and arm motions as he went through a pitcher's windup. I just kept copying until the motion came naturally to me. With Jesus, we similarly stand beside Him, copying His footsteps and actions. At first it will feel difficult. But with time the imitation comes more naturally to us. By such imitation, we learn to live in a way that pleases the Father.
Jesus' humanity gives us a concrete hope for life after death. He has already stepped into heavenly existence, and we will follow Him there just as surely as we have been empowered to follow Him in this life. This truth felt real to me when a friend died recently. At the funeral home I looked at his body lying lifeless in the casket and felt sad. But in the midst of grief, I realized that the resurrection is not merely an abstract concept. It's real and it's personal. That body in that casket is going to get up when Jesus returns. Then my friend will put on a heavenly body that is more glorious than I could stand to look at right now. The thought of that resurrection comforted me. The same reality should bring comfort every time a Christian loved one dies and ultimately when we face death ourselves. Eventually all humans will die. But we know death is not the end. We know because there was a human before us who showed us the way. He is fully and gloriously human.
1 Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 4th ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1938), 318.
2 Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 539.
David Roach is pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Shelbyville, Kentucky, and a PhD candidate at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.