As Christians our orientation is often to the cross of Christ – and rightly so. Paul was insistent that he determined to ‘know nothing’ except ‘Jesus Christ and him crucified’ (1 Cor 2:2). The death of Jesus on the cross for our sins is the centre of our faith and our evangelism. And so our thinking about why Jesus had to be a man is, naturally enough, centred on the cross. Fundamentally, Jesus had to be a man so that he could die. If he wasn’t a human being, he couldn’t have died and paid the price for our sins. In Hebrews 2:14, the writer tells us that because we ‘share in flesh and blood’, Jesus himself ‘partook of the same things’ so that through death he might destroy the devil. Similarly, a few verses later the author tells us that Jesus had to be made like us ‘in every respect’ so that he might ‘make propitiation for the sins of the people’. So, in short, Jesus needed to share our humanity so that he could die.
However, we need to be careful that we don’t reduce the significance of Jesus’ humanity to the cross. If the cross was all that Jesus needed to be a human for, then his on-going humanity wouldn’t be necessary. But, in fact, the New Testament is very clear that Jesus did not stop being a human being when he died.
Jesus was raised as a human being
The New Testament is very clear that Jesus rose as a human being. After the resurrection, Jesus didn’t just appear to be a human being, he was one. The Gospels make this very clear. In John 20:27 Jesus tells Thomas to touch his hands and his side. Jesus – like any bodily human being – could be physically touched. Luke describes the resurrected Jesus eating a piece of broiled fish in front of the disciples (24:42). You can imagine how the left-over bones of the fish on the plate would continue to speak of Jesus’ risen humanity.
But what about the fact that Jesus could pass through locked doors (John 20:19, 26)? Sometimes this is thought to imply that Jesus did not rise as a fully material and physical being. Three things to say: Firstly, nowhere are we told how Jesus was able to enter the room. To suggest that he could ‘pass through’ the walls like a ghost is to read into the text. Secondly, already in the context, as we have seen, Jesus calls on Thomas to touch him. He was a physical being who could be handled and touched. Thirdly, Jesus’ on-going bodily humanity is a glorified humanity. His resurrection body is not the same as his pre-crucifixion body. It is still a physical, material body, but it is transformed. That is the point that Paul develops in 1 Corinthians 15. In verses 42–43 he makes a series of contrasts between earthly bodies and glorified, resurrection bodies. The former are marked by perishability, dishonour and weakness, the latter by imperishability, glory and power.
Jesus reigns as a human being
In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul considers the reign of Christ: 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death. 27 For "God has put all things in subjection under his feet." Paul is proving that Christ must reign until everything is put under his feet by appealing to Psalm 8:6: You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet. But who is David referring to in this Psalm? Who does God put all things under his feet? The Christ? The Messiah? The King? His Son? No in verse 4 David asks ‘what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him? […] 6 You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet.’ What is man that you are mindful of him? David is speaking about mankind. About humanity. In other words God’s purpose for man is that he rule everything under God. And so when Paul applies this Psalm to Jesus in 1 Corinthians 15 he is applying it to Jesus as man. Jesus is the true man, the true human being who fulfils this Psalm. And so, if when he ascended into heaven Jesus somehow stopped being a human being – well he could not fulfil this Psalm – he could not fulfil God’s charter for humanity.
What does it matter?
First of all, it is important that we remember Jesus’ humanity because it shows us that human life is extremely valuable in the eyes of God. When God’s Son became a man he did so for eternity – not just for 30 years, not just for 2000 years, but for eternity. We live in a fallen world and as we look around there often seems as if there is nothing very noble about humanity. In many ways we are often no better than the ‘brute beasts’. But Jesus shows us that humanity will not always be like this. Jesus shows us what humanity is meant to be and what humanity one day will be. Human beings are special in God’s eyes, and we know that because the Son of God became a man and remains a man forever.
Secondly, because Jesus retains a human body we know that one day we will be like him. We will be transformed, we will be different, but we will still retain our bodies. Our eternal future will be a physical, bodily future. It is very common for Christians to pit the ‘spiritual’ against the ‘physical’, as if the spiritual was somehow more holy than the physical. We too easily think of redemption in terms of escaping from our bodies. But the problem is that the spiritual can seem vague and so seems less attractive. Images of eternity involve floating around on clouds playing harps. That is part of the reason, if we are honest, that in our heart of hearts we are not sure we really want ‘to go to heaven’ – at least not yet. We feel like we have so much more that we want to experience here. Eternity just feels less substantial than our current existence on earth. And yet, in reality we are looking forward to the day when our bodies will be redeemed when they will be transformed and glorified - not when they will be dissolved. We are looking forward to a future when we experience more of what it means to be human, because Jesus has gone before us.
The on-going humanity of Jesus, then, is a wonderful biblical truth with powerful implications for us as Christians.
Dr Peter Orr lectures in New Testament at Moore Theological College.
Feature photo: Evan Courtney (adapted)