Jesus is likely the most misunderstood person in all of history.
There is enough historical data and evidence to undeniably prove at the very least that Jesus was a man who truly lived. Then you have the claims that Jesus was more than merely a man. Jesus, who was born in Nazareth, was the Son of God.
Some wouldn’t go that far. They would say he was merely a prophet sent by God or even just a Rabbi who taught the Jewish laws and scriptures.
But Christians believe Jesus is the infinite Creator who incarnated humanity to die for the sake of saving the world, rising again on the third day.
Yes, Jesus was truly a man who walked the earth, but he was also God.
So the question that has been discussed and studied throughout Church history is this: How is it that Jesus is fully God and fully human? How did he operate as fully God and fully human while he lived on earth?
Now this question might seem like something we leave for the Bible nerds to exhaust their brains, because that’s just too philosophical and doesn’t matter to our everyday faith. But I actually think answering this question is transformative in our understanding both of who Jesus is and who we are.
We are created in the image of God, which means we see a clear picture of what that was meant to look like in Jesus. Understanding this question gives us hope about who we can become.
Gleaning From Church History
Throughout the first 500 years of the Church, a number of councils tried to understand the nature and essence of Jesus. The reason they worked so hard to clarify this was because there was a lot of misinformation going around, which was impacting fundamental beliefs about Jesus.
In AD 325, the Council of Nicaea codified language around the fundamental Christian belief that Jesus is an eternal part of the Trinity. So he was not just a man God created one day, giving him godly powers. He has forever existed as a member of the Trinity.
The Council of Ephesus, which took place in AD 431, affirmed that Jesus has two distinct natures (human and divine) but is one person. This doctrine is known as the hypostatic union.
This differs from the (wrong) understanding that Jesus has two personalities or wills, one that is human and one that is godly. In the Council of Chalcedon in AD 451, this understanding of Jesus was clarified a bit more. There it was affirmed that while Jesus’ two natures were united into one person, those two natures were still distinct in some way. That is, they didn’t become a third nature, some sort of human/deity mixture.
These three councils helped the Church understand that, essentially, when Jesus was born, he was a fully human baby. He was just as helpless as any other infant. He needed to grow, learn, and develop as a human into adulthood.
And yet at the same time, he was actively holding the universe together by the fact that he is God. These two ideas are a paradox, and there’s a lot we don’t really understand, and that’s okay. We need to leave room for the mystery of God in our faith. Nevertheless, based on what we know from scripture, that’s the best way to describe it.
So out of this fundamental understanding that Jesus is fully God and fully human, we should examine a number of conclusions we draw about how Jesus operated on this earth. We tend to think about Jesus’ perfect life as being a result of him being God. So, of course, he was perfect and lived a life we never could live. In very plain terms, Jesus was able to use his “God card” whenever he needed and rely on his deity to keep him from temptation or perform miracles.
However, this understanding makes it impossible for us to ever hope to become like Jesus. We are not fully God and fully human, and nowhere in scripture does God promise that we ever would be.
Conversely, another theological framework differs slightly from this common understanding of Jesus relying on his abilities as God to live the perfect life he lived. It’s called “Spirit Christology.”
Scottish theologian Donald Macleod’s book Person of Christ refers to this theological framework as “Kenotic Christology.” The Greek word kenosis literally means “empty out,” and it’s found in Philippians 2:7, where Paul says that Jesus “emptied himself out” and took on the form of a servant.
Essentially, Spirit Christology understands Jesus’ earthly ministry not as tapping into his deity, but actually pouring out his deity, either by not having access to his divine nature until after the resurrection (Ontological Kenosis) or by him choosing not to access his divine nature until after the resurrection (Functional Kenosis).
This means Jesus was not operating out of his own divine nature to perform miracles and resist temptation. Rather, he was relying on the power of the Holy Spirit.
The support behind this view looks at a number of aspects of Jesus’ ministry that many would understand as Jesus operating out of his divinity.
How were miracles performed by Jesus if he was not utilizing his divine nature?
Well, all of the miracles we see Jesus perform in the New Testament (healing people, multiplication of food, raising people from the dead) were all also performed by Old Testament prophets. We would never suggest the miracles performed by prophets meant they had a divine nature.
There are a few perplexing verses in the New Testament that suggest Jesus (in his earthly ministry) didn’t know everything. Of course, this doesn’t seem like a possibility if Jesus is fully operating in his divinity. But if he is choosing not to access his divine nature until the resurrection, then verses like Matthew 24:36 and even Matthew 26:53 make a lot more sense.
Need for Support
Further, there are a number of places in the gospel accounts where Jesus is relying on angels for support. Being fully divine, it wouldn’t seem he would have the need for angels, because he is greater than the angels.
If we understand Jesus’ ministry as entirely reliant on the Holy Spirit, then this certainly changes how we understand our own faith.
Fundamental Change in You
In Acts 2, the Holy Spirit came down, and the lives of Jesus’ followers fundamentally changed. Up until that point, the prophets were the only ones who had the Spirit of the Lord, and even this was highly conditional and temporary. Now, the same power who resided in Jesus and even raised him from the dead, resides in you.
This doesn’t mean you will become perfect and sinless on this side of eternity. But it does mean that we have the same power Jesus had to rise to the same level of obedience. We won’t get it right every time. Nevertheless, to chalk up our sin as “I’m just human,” is not an accurate way to understand the power that lives in us—the same power that lived in Jesus.
All throughout the New Testament we read that Christians are in Christ. This is difficult to understand when our view of salvation is boiled down to, “I was a sinner needing to be saved, Jesus made a way to take away the guilt of my sin so I can go to heaven. I know I need to become a better person and God will help me do that, but I’m still just a sinner saved by grace.”
But that’s only part of the story. This story of salvation we tell ourselves removes any power to actually become a fundamentally different person.
When a person comes to faith, they fundamentally change. At the point of salvation, the eternal Holy Spirit unites to your mortal soul in a covenant that can’t be broken. So you aren’t changing to become a better person. You have already become a fundamentally different person, and your life after coming to faith in Jesus is marked by continuing to learn what it means to be human the way that God intended.
Jesus’ life served as an example for us to live. Not only in his perfect obedience to the Father, but in his full reliance on the Holy Spirit. We are called to emulate Christ, and that is actually possible when we rely on the same power Jesus relied on.
You have a very real power, and it’s not one you can muster up within yourself. The power of the Holy Spirit exists apart from you, but if you are in Christ, this power is fully accessible to you. It’s time we live as people who are empowered by the Holy Spirit and not merely saved sinners waiting for the other side of eternity.
For Further Reading
“One with Christ: An Evangelical Theology of Salvation” by Marcus Peter Johnson
“Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin” by Cornelius Platinga