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Definition

The humanity of Christ refers to the reality that in his incarnation, the Son of God assumed a complete human nature with all its limitations (but without in any way surrendering his divinity), so that he might serve as humanity’s representative, substitute, and example.

Summary

In his incarnation, the Son of God assumed a complete human nature—body, soul, mind, and will—into personal union with himself. He did not assume a distinct human person, since he is already a divine person, but rather he gave personhood to the human nature that he assumed. As a human, Jesus experienced all the ordinary, non-sinful limitations of humanity. He grew and developed. He experienced hunger, thirst, weariness, and the full range of human emotions. His humanity was as integral to his saving work as his divinity. As the true human, the last Adam, he lived out obedience to God through our common humanity as our representative and substitute: through his life, death, and resurrection, he merits salvation for all who are united to him by faith. As a human, he also serves as our example, providing a model for true human obedience.

“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). The astounding claim at the heart of the Christian faith is that the eternal Son of God became a human. To paraphrase a common refrain in the early church fathers—without ceasing to be what he was, he became what he was not.1 Or, as the Nicene Creed puts it, “For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven; he became incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary, and was made human.”

If this is the central truth of Christianity, it is also a scandal to many. From the ancient Gnostics to contemporary Muslims, many have maintained that it is incongruous with the supreme dignity of the Deity that he should sully himself with human weakness. Modern philosophy is also scandalized by the notion that only one human in a particular time and place could somehow constitute the definitive revelation of the eternal and immutable God. Even many in Christian history have sought to diminish or attenuate the full force of the true humanity of Christ. But the truth of Christ’s humanity is as significant for the gospel of salvation as the truth of his deity.

Old Testament Anticipation

The doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation are not revealed in the Old Testament with the same kind of clarity that they are in the New Testament. The revelation of the God-man in the Old Testament comes through types and shadows, not always explicit, straightforward teaching. As Presbyterian theologian B. B. Warfield put it, the Old Testament is like “a chamber richly furnished but dimly lighted.”2 Only in the light of the New Testament gospel can readers of Scripture go back to the Old Testament and see what was really there all along, but veiled until the coming of Christ.

Still, from the earliest chapters of the Bible, the redeemer of fallen humankind was to be a human. The so-called protoevangelium (first proclamation of the gospel) in Genesis 3:15 tells us that it is the “seed of the woman” who will finally defeat the demonic enemy of humankind. This “seed” promise can then be seen like a thread that runs throughout biblical revelation. The promise narrows further to the offspring of Abraham (Gen 12:7; 13:15–16; 15:3, 5) and finally terminates on the offspring of David (2Sam 7:12; 22:51). The New Testament draws together these threads and demonstrates that Christ himself is the singular “seed” of Abraham, to whom the promises were made (Gal 3:16). The redeemer and deliverer of humanity has a common source with all humanity and has been made like us in every respect, except for sin (Heb 2:10–18).

After the division of the Old Testament kingdom and during the downfall of both Israel and Judah, the writing prophets began to foretell a day when the reign of God would finally come. The prophetic promises of a new temple, a new covenant, a new people of God (made up of both Israel and the nations), and a new heavens and a new earth far outstrip the glories of the kingdom under David and Solomon. And just how will these promises come to pass? The prophets envision the coming kingdom in a twofold movement. First, it will entail the return of the Lord to Zion, to visit and shepherd his people (Isa 40:9–11). But, second, it will also come about through the Lord’s anointed king, the root and branch of Jesse, who will be empowered by the Spirit to establish righteousness and justice, to proclaim good news to the poor, and to bring liberty to the captives (Isa 11:1–10; 61:1–11). So closely identified is the Messiah with the Lord, that the actions of the one become the actions of the other. The Lord will pardon sin and establish justice precisely through his Servant, the human king of God’s people. Daniel’s vision of “one like a son of man” also demonstrates that the coming Messiah will share in the very authority and glory of God, “the Ancient of Days” (Dan 7:13–14).

The Psalms also give evidence for this identification of the Lord with his anointed king. It is against the Lord and his Anointed that the nations rage, and it is before the Son that the peoples must seek clemency (Psa 2). The king is even referred to as “God,” alongside his “God,” and is the one who rules with a scepter of uprightness (Psa. 45:6-7). The coming king is the Lord (Adonai) who sits enthroned with the LORD (Yahweh) and who will rule in the midst of his enemies (Psa 110:1–2). Thus, the Old Testament leaves its readers with a vision of the coming kingdom as the joint operation of both the Lord himself and his anointed Son, the human king.

New Testament Fulfillment

In the perspective of the New Testament, both strands of this prophetic hope—the return of the Lord himself and the coming of Messiah—are woven together in a single person.3 In a variety of ways, the New Testament presents Jesus as one with the God of Israel: he possesses the attributes of God; he performs the actions of God; he bears the names of God; and he receives the worship of God. But with equal force, the New Testament presents Jesus as truly human; his human limitations are not an illusion, nor is his humanity swallowed up by his deity.

Given the consistency with which the New Testament attributes both divine and human properties to Jesus, without dividing him into two persons, the two-natures doctrine that developed in the early centuries of the church and was formalized at the Council of Chalcedon (451) should be seen as a necessary entailment of the biblical witness. Christ is a single person with two natures: the divine nature that he shares equally and eternally with the Father and the Holy Spirit, and the human nature that he assumed in his incarnation. These two natures are united in his person without confusion or change but also without division or separation. To emphasize the deity of Christ in no way diminishes his humanity, and to highlight his humanity in no way detracts from his deity. The properties of each nature retain their own integrity even in their union in the singular person of the Son.

The humanity that Christ assumed was complete: he took to himself all that it means to be human—body, soul, mind, and will—with only sin excepted. Jesus’s humanity is evident from the following considerations in the New Testament.

  • He was born. The circumstances of Jesus’s conception were obviously miraculous; he was conceived in Mary’s womb without the aid of a father’s genetic material. But the nature that was created by God in the womb of the Virgin was undeniably human; he shares in Mary’s humanity and is, in this way, truly the offspring of Abraham and David—indeed, the offspring of the first woman, Eve, the mother of all the living. Although his conception was miraculous, his birth was typically human: Mary “gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7).
  • He grew and developed. In his humanity, Jesus experienced ordinary human growth and development. We read that when the holy family returned to Nazareth, “the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom. And the favor of God was upon him” (Luke 2:40). The New Testament only records one story of Jesus’s childhood: the episode in the temple, when his parents left him in Jerusalem. After that incident, Luke tells us that Jesus “increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:52). As mind-boggling as it may seem, given the overwhelming New Testament evidence for Christ’s divinity, as a human, Jesus grew intellectually, physically, spiritually, and relationally.
  • He experienced the limitations of finitude. The human nature that Jesus assumed in his incarnation was free from any stain of sin or corruption, but it nevertheless possessed all the marks of ordinary human finitude. And living in a fallen world, Jesus voluntarily assumed the infirmities common to our fallen humanity. He hungered (Matt 4:2), thirsted (John 4:7; 19:28), grew tired (John 4:6), and experienced the full range of ordinary, non-sinful human emotions (Matt 26:37; John 2:15; 11:35). There are even a couple of indications in the Gospels that Jesus did not possess omniscience in his human mind. He asks who had touched him when power went out from him to heal the woman with an issue of blood (Mark 5:30). And he declared to his disciples that not even the Son of Man knows the day or the hour of his return (Mark 13:32). Some in the history of interpretation have sought to attenuate this teaching on the apparent limitations of Christ’s human knowledge, arguing instead that Jesus said these things only for the benefit of his disciples and not because of any actual lack of knowledge on his part. But such a reading is unnecessary if we once again keep in mind the two-natures doctrine of Chalcedon. In his divinity, the Son possesses omniscience, perfect knowledge of all facts—past, present, and future. But in his humanity, his knowledge was sometimes limited according to the will and purposes of God.
  • He was tempted. Another mark of Jesus’ humanity is evident when we consider his temptations. The New Testament makes it clear that Jesus never sinned (Heb 4:15; 9:14; 1Pet 1:19). And although theologians have debated the question of Christ’s impeccability—whether or not he could have sinned—it seems that the answer most consistent with the fullness of the New Testament revelation is that Christ, in fact, could not have sinned. Because the person of Christ is divine, and a divine person, being necessarily good, cannot sin, it seems best to argue for Christ’s impeccability. But this understanding of Christ’s inability to sin need not detract from the biblical teaching that Christ, as a human, was indeed tempted (Matt 4:1–11) and even “suffered” in his temptations (Heb 2:18). There may be better and worse ways of reconciling these two apparently contradictory aspects of the New Testament teaching, but however we attempt to reconcile them, it seems best to hold them both, without seeking to alleviate the tension by diminishing either.
  • He suffered, died, and was buried. The Gospel narratives of Christ’s passion, death, and burial also highlight his humanity. In his divine essence, God cannot die; he is immortal. But because the God the Son assumed humanity, he is capable of suffering and death as a part of his atoning work. He assumed the likeness of sinful flesh in order to condemn sin in his own body through death (Rom 8:3–4). He was legally reckoned to be a sinner, though he himself was without sin, so that he might pay the penalty for sin (2Cor 5:21).
  • He was raised in his humanity. Jesus’s resurrection is also a human affair. He was raised in the same body in which he died, only now in glorified, immortal life. In this way Christ is, as Paul puts it, the last Adam, the true human who ushers in the age of the resurrection, the first fruits of all humanity, who will be raised on the last day (1Cor 15:45).
  • He continues his kingly and priestly work. The Son’s incarnation had a beginning in human history, but it has no end. He continues to reign as the exalted Son of God from the Father’s right hand (Rom 1:4; Col 3:1). He also continues his priestly work of intercession in the heavenly sanctuary (Heb 7:24–25).
  • He will return in his humanity. When Jesus ascended to heaven, the angel announced to the apostles that Christ would return just has he had been taken up into heaven (Acts 1:11). Again, Jesus did not shed his humanity like a garment when he entered the clouds. He remains a glorified human being and will return personally and visibly on the last day (Col 3:4).

Implications of Christ’s Humanity

To sum up, the Old Testament anticipates that the redeemer of fallen humanity would be one who is both God and man. The New Testament plainly teaches that Jesus Christ is this divine-human redeemer. His humanity is apparent throughout the “whole course” of his obedience. His conception, birth, development, limitations, suffering, death, burial, resurrection, ascension, ongoing priestly work, and final return give powerful testimony to the genuine humanity of Christ. It remains only to tease out briefly a few implications from this rich biblical teaching.

Christ’s humanity means that he is fallen humanity’s representative. Because the horrors of sin and death came through the original human pair, the one to remedy this tragic decision must be himself a human, the seed of the woman. Jesus is, thus, the last Adam, the true human in whom fallen humanity can be reconciled to God. Jesus was born of a woman, born under the law, in order to live out obedience on behalf of those oppressed by the law (Gal 4:4–5). Though he had no need for repentance, he vicariously underwent a baptism of repentance in order to “fulfill all righteousness” (Matt 3:15). His perfect life of law-keeping obedience has been described by theologians as his “active obedience.” He not only dies for sinners but lives for them as well, so that his righteousness becomes their own (2Cor 5:21). The second-century church father, Irenaeus, spoke of this representative work as a “recapitulation”: Christ brings all of humanity under a new head, a new Adam, in whom they are accounted righteous. Again, as Calvin puts it, it is the “whole course” of Christ’s obedience that brings salvation to God’s people.

Christ’s humanity means that he is fallen humanity’s substitute. Christ renders to God not only active obedience but passive obedience as well. In other words, we are saved by Christ’s passion, his vicarious suffering and death on our behalf. He dies as a substitute: in our place, on our behalf, and for our benefit. “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed” (1Pet 2:24). Only one who is truly human can die in place of sinful humans. The great work of atonement is only possible because he is the true human. Furthermore, his ongoing priestly work in the heavenly sanctuary is carried out as a risen and exalted human. Like the priests of old were “chosen from among men” and “appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God,” so also Christ was “made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest” on our behalf (Heb 5:1; 2:17).

Christ’s humanity means that he is redeemed humanity’s example. Christ constitutes the unconditional gift of our salvation, but he also serves as our great exemplar. “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps” (1Pet 2:21). As the true man, the one who exemplifies God-honoring, Spirit-filled human obedience without peer, Christ is the one whom Christians are to imitate in our obedience of God. The words of Pilate at the crucifixion, “Behold the man,” are ironically true: in Christ, and especially in his passion and death, we see true humanity, and in him we find our calling, our purpose, and our destiny as his followers.

Footnotes

1See, for example, Hilary of Poitiers: “He did not lose what He was, but began to be what He was not. He did not cease to possess His own nature, but received what was ours.” Hilary of Poitiers, The Trinity, trans. Stephen McKenna, Fathers of the Church 25 (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1954), 3.16.
2Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield, Biblical Doctrines (New York: Oxford University Press, 1932; reprint, Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 141.
3D. A. Carson speaks of this dynamic as the “twin strands of Old Testament anticipation—in which on the one hand God himself lays bare his arm or comes down to his people to rescue them, and on the other that he sends ‘David’ his servant to the rescue.” D. A. Carson, The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 258.

Further Reading


This essay is part of the Concise Theology series. All views expressed in this essay are those of the author. This essay is freely available under Creative Commons License with Attribution-ShareAlike (CC BY-SA 3.0 US), allowing users to share it in other mediums/formats and adapt/translate the content as long as an attribution link, indication of changes, and the same Creative Commons License applies to that material. If you are interested in translating our content or are interested in joining our community of translators, please reach out to us.