Friday, February 20, 2015

Jesus the Human One

Here's another excerpt from my book, Reframing a Relevant Faith. This portion is part of the chapter on Reclaiming Jesus. You can purchase the book from the publisher at or through Amazon at A Kindle version is also available at

The book is written for group discussion.

While many Christians affirm the divinity of Jesus, and while we could spend a great deal of time discussing whether Jesus claimed to be divine, or what the earliest followers believed about his divinity, or the events at the Council of Nicaea and the creed that came forth from that council meeting that defined the son as the same substance of the father, there is one important aspect of Jesus’ nature that cannot be disputed.  Jesus was human; as every bit as human as any person of his time.  While many Christians today may prefer to see Jesus as divine, even to the extent that in our minds he is more divine than human, the historical reality and the theological depth of his humanity is something we must not overlook or downplay.  Indeed, looking more closely at Jesus as a human is something that gives rich meaning to Jesus’ life for Christian faith.
There are many titles that are used in the New Testament to describe Jesus, but the one title that Jesus preferred to use to refer to himself was “the son of man”.  This title has been hotly debated among scholars, but one thing seems to be certain.  Jesus favored this as a reference for himself, and in doing so, he was using it as a way of declaring his identity with human existence.  The phrase, son of man, is a term that simply means a human.  Jesus was the son of man, the human one, or the one who embodied what it means to be human.
There are at least three important points that can be made from the observation that Jesus was human.  First, to say that Jesus was human is to say that he had a body.  This may be an obvious point to make, but making it demonstrates an important truth for us. If Jesus took on human flesh in the incarnation, then we must affirm that the essence of human flesh and human existence are good.  This was the problem with many Christians in the early church beginning in the second and third centuries. They could not accept that Jesus was both divine and human, for perfect, transcendent divinity cannot take on imperfect and defiled flesh. Thus, they formulated ideas that Jesus was only a vision, but he could not have been a real human.  Yet, this seems to be exactly what the New Testament teaches us about Jesus. The human body became the home of God.  This raises significant theological questions, particularly concerning the idea that every person is born with an inherent sin nature.  But to affirm Jesus as a human, re-affirms the ancient Hebraic idea that all humans are made the image of God. 
The second significant point to make about Jesus’ humanity is that in being human, Jesus represents for us what it means to be faithful to God.  Jesus was not programmed to follow God.  He chose to follow God.  And in faithfully following the ways of God, he became the paradigmatic disciple, who sets the example for others who seek faith in God and who seek to live God’s will.    
This is artfully communicated in Mark through the plot of the narrative that seems to hint that an early Christian audience might understand their own lives of discipleship as paralleling Jesus’ life.  An early Christian audience of Mark’s narrative would have recognized the story of Jesus as their own story.  From baptism, to proclaiming the kingdom of God and doing the will of God, to facing opposition, persecution, and death, one aspect of Mark’s presentation of Jesus reflects the life of the Christian audience of Mark’s narrative.  In other words, the lives of Jesus’ followers, if they are faithful disciples, should mirror his life.        
But the third theological point taken from our observation that Jesus was human is that in taking on human existence, Jesus became vulnerable to human struggle, pain, and suffering.  While affirming human existence as good, and while seeking to restore humanity to the original blessings of the creation, Jesus nonetheless faced the pain and suffering of human existence.  Again, we can look to the plot of Mark, particularly how Mark handles the temptation of Jesus, to see this idea very clearly.
One interesting feature about the temptation of Jesus is that Mark’s account is much shorter than either Matthew’s or Luke’s, both of whom include details that are absent from Mark.  In only two verses, Mark raises challenging theological questions by what he does say as well as through what he does not say about Jesus’ temptation.  I don’t have the space to rehearse all the explanations scholars propose as to why details are missing from Mark, or perhaps why Matthew and Luke felt it necessary to include details, but I can offer my own interpretation that gets at the heart of Mark’s theology and offers us a way of seeing Jesus’ humanity as our own.
In my view, the reason Mark’s temptation story is shorter than Matthew’s or Luke’s is not because Mark was less concerned for details.  The purpose is to imply to the hearers of his story that Jesus faced temptations and trials throughout his life, and not just in a one-time encounter with the mythical character Satan.  Moreover, the shortness of Mark’s account of Jesus’ temptation also indicates to the readers that Satan was not the primary tempter of Jesus.  Mark shows us through the remainder of his narrative that Jesus faced trials and temptations throughout his life, and most of these did not come from Satan, but from Jesus’ closest followers, and even Jesus’ own inner struggle, particularly in the garden on the night of his arrest.
Another interesting, but I think more theologically awkward trait peculiar to Mark’s story of Jesus’ temptation is the way Jesus is placed in the wilderness to be tempted.  The opening chapter of Mark reaches a crescendo at the baptism of Jesus, when we hear the voice from heaven express God’s pleasure with Jesus, and when the Spirit of God comes upon Jesus.  Yet, immediately, to use one of Mark’s favorite words, the same Spirit that came lovingly onto Jesus casts him into the wilderness to be tempted.
While both Matthew and Luke soften Mark’s rawness by using a Greek word that indicates that the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness, Mark is clear to use a term that communicates the idea that the Spirit of God threw Jesus into the wilderness for the explicit purpose of facing temptation.  In other words, though he is proclaimed by God to be the Beloved Son, Jesus would not be protected from the vulnerability of being human.  Indeed, it appears that Mark understands that God placed Jesus in the circumstance of temptation.
While the traditional interpretation says that Jesus had to face temptation to be the pure sacrifice for human sin, and thus God allowed him to be tempted, I think the more theologically rich interpretation is that God was intentionally putting God’s future at risk.  Jesus was not tempted just to know what humans face.  Nor was he tempted as a way of making him the worthy sacrifice for our sins.  By deliberately casting Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted, God was placing God’s purposes in the hands of the human Jesus, taking the risky chance that Jesus might fail, thus exhibiting divine vulnerability in the human Jesus.  And yes, it was entirely possible that Jesus could have failed, and thus we must admit that there is a great measure of scandal to God’s providence in relation to the life of Jesus.
Although we tend to picture Jesus as a divine figure who had it all under control, the reality is that Jesus lived a very vulnerable life and was not immune to or protected from the challenges that the people of his time confronted every day, especially those persons at the bottom of the embedded social and religious structures of Palestine. First century Palestine was a volatile place within the Roman Empire, and those on the fringes of that society who were oppressed by injustice and violence were the most vulnerable to the pains and struggles of life.
But the idea that Jesus embraced human vulnerability raises a crucial theological question. For what reason did Jesus live as a human susceptible to the struggles of life? Did he become incarnate and face human vulnerability just so he could be a sacrifice for our sin? While many Christians answer this question with a resounding yes, it seems to me that there must be more to Jesus being human than just God’s plan for him to become a sacrifice.  Jesus’ choice to take on human vulnerability was based on something more concrete that had a more intimate effect on those vulnerable persons around him.  His free choice to be vulnerable to everyday existence was not for the purpose of being some sort of worthy sacrifice. His choice to take on human existence was a choice to unite with the most vulnerable of society.
The humanity of Jesus is theologically rich for our understanding of him and how he becomes the model for our own faith.  As the paradigmatic disciple, Jesus expresses faith in God and faithfulness to God as he embodies the vulnerability of human existence.  In doing so, Jesus does not walk aloof of the struggles and injustices of human life, but endures them with hope and faith.  His life was indeed both radical and scandalous, but his hope in God and God’s rule of justice that he sought to embody, caused him to embrace the radical and scandalous life to which God had called him, even though it would lead to a violent death.

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