Jesus: Truly God and Truly Human
One day Jesus asked His friends, “Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?” (Matthew 16:13). They gave a variety of answers: “Some say John the Baptist, some Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets” (vs. 14). Different people saw different things in Jesus. Herod heard about the miracles Jesus was performing and decided that He must be John the Baptist (whom he beheaded) raised from the dead (Mark 6:14). Others saw something in Jesus’ disposition that led them to believe He was the incarnation of the prophet Jeremiah (maybe they had seen Jesus weep and remembered how Jeremiah wept over the fall of Jerusalem). Still others had seen enough of Jesus to conclude He was the embodiment of one of the ancient prophets, although they were not sure which. This variety of answers reflects a level of confusion that seems surprising to us 2,000 years later. After all, they had the living, breathing, human person of Jesus to behold, and yet they still were confused. In the decades and centuries since, that confusion has not abated. A plethora of Christologies has been devised. Although there is great variety among them, generally they fall into three main categories: (1) Jesus was truly human, but not truly God; (2) Jesus was truly God, but not truly human; and (3) Jesus was both truly human and truly God.
In the second century, groups arose in the church that championed the first two categories. On the one hand, the Ebionites taught that Jesus was only a man who became the Christ by His perfect observance of the Law of Moses. On the other hand, the Docetics taught that Jesus was truly God in the flesh, but not really a human being; He only “seemed” to be a man. Both positions were opposed by the early church because neither was in agreement with the New Testament. The Ebionite heresy contradicted passages like John 1:1-14 and John 20:28, which emphasize the deity of Jesus. The Docetics’ position contradicted passages like Hebrews 4:15 and 1 John 1:1-3, which emphasize the humanity of Jesus.
Although these positions were rejected as heresies, they did not die completely. Nor did their rejection result in complete unanimity of opinion about the identity of Jesus. Confusion over how Jesus could be truly God and truly human at the same time persisted. The Catholic Church struggled with this question, which subsequently became the focus of some of its Ecumenical Councils. In A.D. 325 the Council of Nicea issued its creed, which stated:
We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of all things visible and invisible; and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten of his Father, of the substance of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father. By whom all things were made, both which be in heaven and in earth. Who for us men and for our salvation came down [from heaven] and was incarnate and was made man. He suffered and the third day he rose again, and ascended to heaven. And he shall come again to judge both the quick and the dead... (Percival, 1899, p. 3).
So, it was the Council’s conviction that Jesus was both “very God” and “made man.” But how can the same person be both God and man? Nicea had not adequately answered this. It remained to be addressed by the Council of Chalcedon (A.D. 451). The 150 members of the Council declared that Jesus was one person with two natures.
...we teach with one voice that the Son [of God] and our Lord Jesus Christ is to be confessed as one and the same [Person], that he is perfect in Godhead and perfect in manhood, very God and very man, of a reasonable soul and [human] body consisting, consubstantial with the Father as touching his Godhead, and consubstantial with us as touching his manhood.... This one and the same Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son [of God] must be confessed in two natures, unconfusedly, immutably, indivisibly, inseparably [united], and that without the distinction of natures being taken away by such union... (Percival, 1899, pp. 264-265).
It is significant to note that the Council chose to clarify the meaning of the two natures in negative terms. In a sense, they, “put up four fences (without confusion, without change, without division, without separation) and said: The mystery lies within this area” (Runia, 1984, pp. 12-13). Although this confession did not really answer the question as to how Jesus could have both natures at the same time, it respected both aspects of Jesus’ identity and stood as the fundamental statement of Christology for Catholics and Protestants alike for many centuries.
THE IMPACT OF SKEPTICISM
With the rise of skepticism and deism, this ancient creed came under fire. Beginning with Hermann S. Reimarus (1694-1768), scholars began to suggest that the “historical Jesus” was a very different person from the “Christ of faith” described in the Gospels (and subsequent human creeds). Reimarus made a “sharp distinction between the intention of Jesus during his life and the intention of his disciples after his death” (see Borg, 1994, p. 42). Reimarus believed that Jesus’ intentions (rebellion against Rome) were thwarted by His death and that the disciples invented the resurrection story and deified their Teacher as a way of keeping His movement alive.
Liberal scholarship of the last 200 years has largely adopted as paradigmatic this distinction between the “historical Jesus” and the “Christ of Christian faith.” The claim is that the historical Jesus may be discovered in a fragmentary way by subjecting the Gospels to the rigors of the historical-critical method (see Brantley, 1994). The Christ of the Christian faith is the version of Jesus presented by the New Testament writers and the confessions of Christendom. Much of the recent discussion in Christology, then, centers on whether one should shape one’s understanding of Jesus by the Christ of faith or the Jesus of history.
Often, liberal scholars begin with the Jesus of history and move from there to decide what of the Christ of faith is worthy of belief (e.g., Edward Schillebeeckx, Piet Schoonenberg, Hans Kung, John A.T. Robinson, et al.). Typically the answer is, “not much.” This is also the presupposition behind the work of the Jesus Seminar (see Bromling, 1994), as well as works from a variety of authors (Marcus Borg, Barbara Thiering, Geza Vermes, John Dominic Crossan, et al.). A.N. Wilson’s popular book, Jesus: A Life, is typical. In it, he opened with this line: “The Jesus of history and the Christ of Faith are two separate beings, with very different stories” (1992, p. vii). Wilson rejected the latter, and wrote an entire book describing the former. His historical Jesus, however, “is a pale and distorted version of the real thing” (Wright, 1992, p. 63). Wilson described the Jesus of history as “the great apocalyptic prophet, the visionary teacher, the widely popular healer and exorcist” Whose life was a “total failure” and Whose “mission, whatever its original purpose may have been, ended on the Cross” (Wright, 1992, pp. 167-168). Wilson contended that Jesus never would have approved of Christianity; on the contrary, had Jesus known what would be done in His name, He probably would have wished He never had been born (pp. 255-256).
By way of summary, two hundred years of liberal scholastic inquiry into the question of the identity of Jesus have resulted, essentially, in a revival of the Ebionite heresy. The new portraits depict a Jesus Who is no more than a man and Who was nothing like the Christ preached by Paul and worshipped for nearly two millennia by faithful Christians. This is the price one pays for rejecting the verbal inspiration of Scripture.
COMING TO PETER’S CONCLUSION
Returning to Caesarea, however, we hear Jesus ask a second (and more personal) question: “But, who do you say that I am?” To this Peter boldly replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:15-16). In this one confession, Peter expressed two aspects of His Master’s identity. First, he said Jesus was the Messiah predicted by the ancient Jewish prophets (“Christ” is the Greek word for Messiah, meaning “anointed” by God). Second, he said Jesus possessed the divine nature. “Son of ” was the idiomatic way of saying that a person possessed the nature or traits of another person or thing. For instance, because Joses was an encouragement to others, the apostles called him Barnabas, which means “Son of Encouragement” (Acts 4:36). So, when Peter said Jesus was the “Son of God,” he was saying that Jesus had the very same nature as God. That was a powerful statement. Jesus’ claim to be the Son of God resulted in His death (John 5:18; Matthew 26:63-65). And it was upon this fundamental confession of the unique God/man nature of Jesus that the church was built (Matthew 16:18).
What led Peter to make that confession? The answer is found in Jesus’ reply: “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is heaven” (vs. 17). Peter’s view of Jesus was based upon information provided by God, rather than upon the uncertain ideas of people. That information came to Peter in the form of Old Testament prophesies that he was beginning to see fulfilled in Jesus, and that were being confirmed by the miracles Jesus was performing. The same information has been preserved for all ages in the four Gospels, and will lead us to the same conclusion if we give it a fair hearing.
Unlike most people who have their biographies written after they are dead, much of Jesus’ life was reported hundreds of years before He was born. Over three hundred prophecies relating to the Lord were made in the Old Testament (Lockyer, 1973, p. 21). This number is astounding in itself. From Genesis to Malachi, the story of Jesus is foretold in minute detail (see Luke 24:27). Not only are the major facets of His life predicted, but seemingly trivial things (such as that men would gamble for His clothing—Psalm 22:18) also are foretold by the prophets. His family lineage and birthplace were predicted (cf. Genesis 21:12; Galatians 3:16; Matthew 1:1; 2:1; Micah 5:2). He died and was raised—exactly as had been predicted hundreds of years before (Isaiah 53; Psalm 16:8-11). By the word of prophecy He even was called Jehovah—the special name reserved only for God (Isaiah 40:3). The fulfillment of these prophecies by Jesus of Nazareth is powerful evidence that He was exactly Who Peter claimed He was.
In addition, it is important to recall that Jesus backed up His claims by working miracles. Although God empowered other people to perform miracles, Jesus’ miracles were different. Their works confirmed that they were servants of God; Jesus’ works proved He was one with God (John 10:37-38). The Gospel of John records several of those amazing works. John tells us why: “And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name” (John 20:30-31).
While imprisoned, John sent some of his followers to Jesus to ask, “Are You the Coming One, or do we look for another?” (Matthew 11:3). Jesus responded: “Go tell John...the blind receive their sight and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached unto them” (Matthew 11:4-5). Over seven hundred years earlier, the prophet Isaiah predicted that those very things would be done by the Messiah (see Isaiah 35:5-6; 61:1). Jesus wasn’t merely saying, “Look at all the good things I am doing.” He was saying, “Look, I am doing exactly what the Coming One is supposed to do!”
Although not eager to admit it, Jesus’ critics were often brought face-to-face with the truth that no one could do what He did unless God was with Him (John 3:2). One example of this is seen in John 9, where it is recorded that Jesus gave sight to a man who had been born blind. Some of Christ’s enemies tried to deny that a miracle had occurred, but they were unsuccessful. Then they tried to draw attention away from the miracle by attacking Jesus’ character. They said to the man whom Jesus healed: “Give God the glory! We know that this Man is a sinner” (John 9:24). This plan did not succeed either. Notice how the man answered them:
Why this is a marvelous thing, that you do not know where He is from, and yet He has opened my eyes! Now we know that God hears not sinners; but if anyone is a worshiper of God and does His will, He hears Him. Since the world began it has been unheard of that anyone opened the eyes of one who was born blind. If this man were not from God, He could do nothing (John 9:30-33).
His point was the very thing the Pharisees were unwilling to accept—Jesus’ miraculous works supported His claim to be the Son of God! It is not surprising, then, that the man accepted Jesus as his Lord.
Just as He promised, Jesus came forth from the tomb three days after His brutal crucifixion (Matthew 16:21; 27:63; 28:1-8). That He had been raised from the dead was witnessed by many different types of people: the soldiers who guarded His tomb; the women who came early in the morning to anoint Him with spices; eleven apostles; and more than 500 other witnesses (1 Corinthians 15:4-8). Seeing the living, breathing Jesus again was concrete proof that He was all He claimed to be. Little wonder, then, that when Thomas saw the resurrected Jesus he exclaimed: “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28). Christ’s resurrection was the central point of Peter and Paul’s preaching (see Acts 2:23-36; 3:15; 17:31; etc.). The reason is obvious—it was by the resurrection that Jesus was “declared to be the Son of God with power” (Romans 1:4).
The evidence for the deity of Christ is both sufficient and compelling. There is a temptation, however, to emphasize the Lord’s deity to the exclusion of His humanity. In a sense, the modern church can become guilty of practical Doceticism. In other words, Christians can become so focused upon establishing that Jesus is the Son of God that they fail to acknowledge that He also is the Son of Man. Yet, time and again Jesus applied that term to Himself (e.g., Matthew 1:20; 9:6; et al.). As a human, He learned (Hebrews 5:8), became hungry (Matthew 4:2), experienced thirst (John 19:28), grew tired (John 4:6), and slept (Matthew 8:24). He felt anger (Mark 3:5), frustration (Mark 9:19), joy (John 15:11), and sadness (John 11:35). He was “in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15), and significantly, He was able to die (Mark 15:44). These human traits are as important to our understanding of the person of Jesus as are the traits He shared with deity.
Who is Jesus of Nazareth? Clearly, He is both the Son of God and the Son of Man. Like the ancient creeds tried to explain, Jesus is both truly God and truly human. We must avoid not only the error of the ancient Ebionites and modern liberals of seeing Jesus as merely a man, but we also must be on guard against the Docetic over-emphasis of Jesus’ deity. How can one person be both truly God and truly human? This is something we have not been called to understand fully—only to confess confidently.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made.... And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth (John 1:1-3,14).
Borg, Marcus (1994), “Profiles in Scholarly Courage: Early Days of New Testament Criticism,” Bible Review, 10:40-45, October.
Brantley, Garry K. (1994), “Biblical Miracles: Fact or Fiction?,” Reason & Revelation, 14:33-38, May.
Bromling, Brad T. (1994), “A Look at the Jesus Seminar,” Reason & Revelation, 14:81-87, November.
Lockyer, Herbert (1973), All the Messianic Prophecies of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans).
Percival, Henry R., ed. (1899), “The Seven Ecumenical Councils of the Undivided Church,” in The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1973 reprint).
Runia, Klaas (1984) The Present-Day Christological Debate (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press).
Wilson, A.N. (1992), Jesus: A Life (New York: Fawcett Columbine).
Wright, N.T. (1992), Who Was Jesus? (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans).