Whether he was the first, the Greek epic poet Hesiod was surely one of the earliest to use the expression “we are only human.”1 And ever since, there has occurred in every culture some variation of this idea “only human” to connote the fallibility of the race.
Even today it is a common thing to hear someone excuse the behavior of another by saying, “He’s/she’s only human.” In this way, there appears to be an attempt to set aside disapproval and encourage toleration for another’s shortcomings. Whether it is based on belief in the Judeo-Christian view of original sin, of humankind’s natural fallenness, it still recognizes the inherent human capability of shortcoming.
And on the opposite side of this coin is the same concept expressed in the negative: “Nobody’s perfect.” This is often used in self-defense rather than in the justification of someone else. But it too springs from the idea of the universality of human imperfection, that people naturally make mistakes.
Yet, in the face of all this, most of Christianity believes in the doctrine of the dual, synchronous divinity and humanity of Christ. The fourth fundamental belief of the Seventh-day Adventist Church says, “Forever truly God, He became also truly human, Jesus the Christ. . . . He lived and experienced temptation as a human being, but perfectly exemplified the righteousness and love of God.”2 If Jesus lived the 33 years of His life and ministry on this earth without sin—without committing a single evil or mistake—how could He be considered human?
If Jesus could be both human and divine, it must surely be one of the great paradoxes of the Christian faith—and all the more so if humanity is defined as intrinsically, inevitably sinful since the Fall. The apostle Paul, one who should know, says, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23, NKJV). The disciple John, the beloved disciple, adds, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves” (1 John 1:8, NKJV).
Yet believers in Christ cling to the conviction that Jesus was indeed human. They see many evidences of this throughout the Gospels. There, in the accounts of four writers, is the story of a Man in every respect corporeal. He was physical, mental, emotional, spiritual.
At Jacob’s Well in Samaria, Jesus, “tired as he was from the journey” (John 4:6, NIV), is waiting while His disciples have gone into the nearby city of Sychar to buy food, surely not only for themselves. A Samaritan woman comes to the well, and Jesus asks her, “‘Will you give me a drink?’” (vs. 7, NIV).
It may be said by some that Jesus could have been merely affecting thirst as a means of engaging this woman in conversation. One of the hallmarks of His contact with others was His provocative use of questions, even among strangers.
In a crowd one day, with people jostling all around Him, He suddenly turned and asked, “‘Who touched My clothes?’” (Mark 5:30, NKJV). On another occasion, in apparent frustration, “He sighed deeply and said, ‘Why does this generation ask for a miraculous sign?’” (8:12, NIV).
But this encounter with the woman at the well, as described by the disciple John, surely arose out of His own human necessity. Of this incident, “it is very significant,” wrote William Barclay, “that John who stresses the sheer deity of Jesus Christ more than any other of the gospel writers also stresses his humanity to the full. John does not show us a figure freed from the tiredness and the struggle of our humanity. He shows us one for whom life was an effort as it is for us; he shows us one who also was tired and had to go on.”3
Interestingly, this same disciple John, “who stresses the sheer deity of Jesus Christ more than any other of the gospel writers,” describes another remarkable instance of the Savior’s humanity as He nears the place where His close personal friend, Lazarus, has died. “He groaned in the spirit,” John wrote, “and was troubled” (11:33, NKJV). This could have been observed only by those who were with Him at the time, those who could literally see His palpable distress.
And, when the mourners offered to take Him to the tomb, “Jesus wept” (John 11:35, NKJV).
“In His humanity Jesus was touched with human sorrow, and wept with the sorrowing.”4 Though other evidences of His humanity occur in the Gospels, this expression of grief must be among the most profound.
And evidence of His corporeal nature could also be seen in His physical suffering through the torture of His trial. He was spat upon, slapped in the face, scourged, “crowned” with thorns, struck over the head with a reed—all before the merciless agony of the crucifixion.
Based on many historical documents, scholars have recounted the suffering endured by those victims who were crucified in Rome’s uniquely gruesome ways. The brutality could be described only as satanic. And for Jesus there came together in His crucifixion a culminating human agony in which the cumulative physical and mental torment could have been exceeded only by His sense of separation—through His voluntary bearing of our sins—from the heavenly Father. Shortly before His ordeal on Golgotha, He had prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane of His oneness with the Father, “‘that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me’” (John 17:21). Even with the extreme physical pain that He endured, His separation from the Father must have caused horrific personal pain.
And, after all this—after all this personal suffering in His life—the newly resurrected Jesus appeared in the flesh to the disciples as they had gathered in despair back in Jerusalem. While they were trying to make sense of His encounter with the two on the road to Emmaus, there He suddenly stood among them.
“Startled and frightened,” writes the physician Luke, they “thought that they were seeing a spirit” (Luke 24:37, NASB). But Jesus Himself asserted His physicality and urged them to empirical experiment: “‘See My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself; touch Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have’” (vs. 39, NASB).
And as they yet hesitated in amazed disbelief, He said He was hungry and asked for something to eat. “They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he ate it as they watched” (Luke 24:42, 43, NLT).
During the three-and-a-half years of their day-by-day experience with Jesus, they had gradually—finally—come to accept the great miracle of the incarnation. Their initial hesitancy to accept Jesus’ literal, physical resurrection, in fact, testified to their acceptance of Him as a physical human being.
Throughout the disciples’ time with Jesus, He had at last overcome their traditional expectation of the messiah. In doing this, by taking on life on this earth and “dwelling among us” (John 1:14, NIV), He defined—indeed, redefined—what being human was meant to be.