For the past six and a half years I have been working on a book whose end is now in sight. I’m calling it A Man Attested by God: the Human Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels.
The question that has pushed me to endure through all of the trials and tribulations of the writing has been this:
What does it matter that Jesus was fully human?
Through no fault of the churches I grew up in, I think that I had a fairly flat understanding of the identity of Jesus and what it meant:
- Jesus is God. Therefore, all of the awesome stuff Jesus does he does (a) because he is God and (b) for the express purpose of demonstrating his deity.
- Jesus is human. This is because (a) we suck, so (b) Jesus has to be able to die for us.
The only value to be found in his humanity was his death. Or, if we wanted to expand it a little bit, as in Hebrews, we might say that he occupied the same sucky existence we have (temptations to sin and the like) but managed to get to the cross unscathed.
So he could die for us.
Because we suck.
But the tide began to shift in my own thinking when I realized that proposition (1) above really only approximates the narrative strategy of John’s Gospel. When I tried to read the Mark with that same lens, the story didn’t hold together.
And so I began to dig.
“Son of God” was a title that did not mean “God,” at least, not in the sense that later Trinitarian theology would come to interpret it. “Son of God” is the Davidic King. It’s Israel. If you’re a Roman, it’s the reigning human king whose adopted father has been deified.
In these stories, the Father is God [in a way that] Jesus isn’t. Mark is a story where the Father might know something of which the Son is ignorant.
Jesus keeps calling himself “the Human Being” (“the son of man”). If we needed any clear indication that the way to read these Gospels is to see a human playing the decisive role in God’s eschatological act of salvation, this should have been it. It is the Human One who is given authority on earth to act and speak for God.
Jesus exorcises demons–like David did. Jesus brings the dead back to life–like Elisha did. Jesus controls the waters–like Moses did and Joshua did and Elisha did and the promised messiah of Ps 89 would.
The Synoptic Gospels are written to show us what kind of man it is to whom God is entrusting the rule of the world. This is not to deny Jesus’s divinity, but to show us that much of what we think of as pointing to Jesus’s divinity is actually (or, theologically speaking, “at the same time”) demonstrating what kind of human he is.
Here is what Paul and Mark and Irenaeus understood better than many of their theological heirs: God’s purpose for the world involves humans.
God’s work in creation, whether you’re looking at Gen 1 or Gen 2, is to have humans play the part of God on the earth.
In Gen 1, humans are the icons of God, the visible manifestations of the God who created them. These people are to play the role of God on the earth by ruling it and continuing to subdue the chaos that God had begun to order.
In Gen 2, humans are the caretakers of the divine garden. Standing in for God as interpreters of the space and those entrusted to its maintenance.
The story of scripture is not the story of God figuring out a way to get people out of this. It is not a story about God giving up on creation. It is a story of God trying to create a people who can live up to the majestic role that God assigned people in the beginning.
And so there is Adam, the image-bearing son of God. And there is Moses, made God to pharaoh and glory-bearing prophet of God. There is David the king whose rule is a manifestation of God’s own. There is Solomon who sits on Yhwh’s throne and receives part in the worship that the people render to God. There is Ezekiel’s prophesied shepherd, who plays the part of shepherd on earth only because God is the shepherd overseeing God’s people.
And so there is Jesus.
Jesus who is the answer to this story’s longing for the right kind of person. A person who is not merely “sinless” so that he can die as a sacrificial lamb. A person who faithfully rules. A person who faithfully bears the divine image, enacting the life of the divine theophany that humanity was created to be at the beginning.
Behold the Man!
While we spin our wheels thinking about humanness as something that marks Jesus out as the weak and dying, the biblical narrative finds its traction in Jesus who attains to the fullness of what it means to be truly human.
If Jesus could not do all that he did as a human, then the story comes to a dead-end. If no human could faithfully rule the world on God’s behalf then the power of evil to overcome the plan of God is greater than God’s power to bring it to pass.
Why did God become human? Because only a human can play the part of Adam. And Moses. And Israel. And David. And messiah who brings salvation. Because this is the storyline to which God bound Godself.