Taking Christ’s Humanity Seriously
I’m grateful to Northern for the gift of an upcoming sabbatical, and Baker Academic for a book contract to write about why Jesus’ true humanity is essential to the gospel and to our lives. I don’t think there is any way to understand our human identity, calling and destiny unless we know the still Incarnate Jesus.
Why write this book?
A few reasons: First, we don’t take Jesus’ humanity seriously, then or now (I can’t tell you how often I hear it said that Jesus ‘did what he did because he was God’, as if he brought his divine access card with him, or ‘when Jesus was a man…’, apparently because now he isn’t any longer). Second, this means that we don’t take seriously Jesus’ human life by the Spirit when it comes to knowing what it means for us to be truly human—that we really are to be like him.
And yet, Jesus calls us to be like him, to pick up our crosses and follow him in cruciform glory, by the power and Presence of God the Spirit. He does not ask us to believe things about him in our heads, or to be nice in his name. In the gospels, Jesus seems to think that sign of believing among God’s Spirit-born children is that they will look like their Father in heaven, just as he does. So he tells us to “follow” him in the power of the Spirit.
The divine Name and identity was finally made manifest in humanity through the miracle of Jesus’ Incarnate, obedient life. This full miracle involved the life-giving, empowering, resurrecting Spirit through whom Jesus was able to do what he did to the glory of the Father. “Therefore”— precisely because his obedience in the abject humiliation and self-giving, long-suffering, crucified love revealed the most climactic expression of God’s image and character—“God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name above every name,” worthy of all creation’s worship (Phil 2).
This was the witness of those who knew him and the ongoing witness of the Holy Spirit through the gospel preached about him. Thus, the early centuries of the Church were rife with efforts to understand how this man from Nazareth, “appointed by God,” was also the divine, pre-existent Son. After Nicaea and Chalcedon, the situation was reversed. Most of Church history has taken Jesus’ divinity for granted, often at the expense of his humanity.
While the creeds continue to affirm the divine and human natures of this one person, Jesus Christ, the Church has consistently fallen prey to the Christological heresies that make Jesus wholly unlike us and thus ultimately unrelated to creation or to our human condition. Instead, we hear of a divine Son who took on sinless flesh in order to preach about God, do miracles to prove his deity, and die to save souls for heaven.
This Savior has little or nothing to do with our broken, tempted and tried humanity. And we have little or nothing to do with his divine power and authority exercised in submitted human obedience.
As we reinforce Christological heresies that fail to uphold the mystery and history of this human-divine person, we are left without an authentic source for our own truly human life in relation to God, each other and creation.
How can we so thoroughly miss what the New Testament writers so thoroughly take for granted? John tells us that in this world we are like Jesus as a sign of being in God’s love together (1 John). Paul tells us that we are being conformed to the image of God’s Son as we participate with him in his glory and suffering (Rom 8). Peter reminds us, as obedient children of the Father, brought in to the truth and grace of Jesus by the Spirit-given gospel, that we are to live holy lives that bear the family resemblance: “Be holy, because I am holy” (1 Peter). All of these assumptions and admonitions would be preposterous, capricious, even cruel, if Jesus was and is not still the truly human Incarnate Son.
Take a close look at Jesus’ discipleship training: All those who follow the Son will obey and do what the Father is doing, through the power of the Spirit. Jesus didn’t just promise this Spirit-filled life to the Pentecost generation in Acts 2. In Luke 9 and 10 we see previews of the ‘new normal’ that is emerging with the coming Kingdom through him being manifest by his disciples (first the 12 and then 72). Jesus gives them divine power and authority to drive out demons, cure diseases, proclaim the Kingdom of God and heal the sick. When it happens and they come running back, falling over themselves with wonder, Jesus’ praise to the Father over these first baby steps is incredibly poignant and powerful: at the unveiling of God’s plan to restore his true image-bearing children into the likeness of his Son, Jesus sees the shifting, shaking and reordering of all creation with the fall of Satan.
In order to enact our true humanity, we must understand Jesus’ true humanity. Our permanently embodied life together as women and men is mediated by the still human-divine life of our crucified, resurrected and reigning Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God and Mary. He embodies what we have been saved for: To be truly human beings, renewed to “live as Jesus did,” “conformed to the image of the Son” through the empowering, resurrecting Spirit of God (1 Jn 2:6, 4:17; Rom 8:29). We were made to be like him. In becoming like us, in life, death and resurrection, he has made that possible. We participate in his life by the Holy Spirit, with signs, wonders, suffering, glory, death, and resurrection. In the process, we find God healing us, renewing our embodied human lives and reordering our desires to align with his own, practicing our future destiny now as glorified, image-bearing children. It’s wonderful, it’s costly, and when it comes to participating in God’s Triune mission, it’s the only way to be.