Jesus: Both God and Man? — Dewayne Bryant, Ph.D.

Jesus is the most significant figure in history. Polls and surveys often recognize him as such, even if they only gauge his impact through the influence of Christendom in the last two millennia. Christians understand his work to be farther-reaching, not only impacting and improving the lives of human beings but securing salvation for our souls. However, with something as complex as the mysteries of God, how this was achieved has generated centuries of debate.

One of the most challenging questions is how Jesus was at once both God and man. This has been a confusing issue, often resulting in thinkers either emphasizing one of Christ’s two natures or finding a way to separate them artificially. These Christological questions often become quite involved very quickly. Historically, they led to the calling of councils and the formulation of creeds. Scripture presents Jesus as having two natures, one human, one divine.

Jesus as God.  The opening verses of John’s Gospel clearly identify Jesus as divine. He states that the Word was with God initially and that no created thing was made without him (John 1:1-3). The Alexandrian bishop and heretic Arius (AD 256–336) appears to have understood John’s statement in light of a misunderstanding of Paul’s reference to Christ as the “firstborn of all creation” (Col. 1:15; cf. John 17:5). John not only identifies the Word as God (1:1; cf. Rom. 9:5) but states that everything that came into existence did so through the Word (v.3; Col. 1:16; Heb. 1:2). If Christ were not eternal, this qualification would be virtually incoherent.

In the Gospels, Jesus refers to himself as deity. He does so in the “I AM” statements of John’s Gospel and in his claim, “Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58). His enemies knew that this statement in Greek (ego eimi) connected back to the book of Exodus, where God told Moses that he was the great I AM (Exodus 3:14). Consequently, they picked up stones to kill him, the punishment for blasphemy (Lev. 24:10-16). They did the same after Jesus claimed, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30).

Other biblical figures affirm the deity of Christ. When confronted by Jesus after his resurrection, Thomas cries out, “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28). Paul writes of Jesus as our “great God and Savior” (Tit. 2:13) and says that he is the image of the invisible God (Col. 1:15), a sentiment echoed by the writer of Hebrews (1:2-3).

Jesus as Man.  Jesus took on human form as part of God’s plan for the salvation of mankind. John says, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). Paul writes that he emptied himself and took the form of a servant “born in the likeness of men” (Phil. 2:5-7).

The Gospels offer several signs of Jesus’ humanity. He was born like any other person (Luke 2:6-7), grew physically and relationally (Luke 2:52), experienced hunger and thirst (Matt. 4:2; John 4:7), and experienced fatigue (John 4:6). Jesus also displays a range of human emotions (Matt. 26:37; John 2:15; 11:35). He experienced temptation, albeit without sinning (Heb. 4:15). Jesus also suffered and died as human beings invariably do in this world. 

Jesus’ humanity was an integral part of his mission. He displayed affection and sympathy for other people during his ministry, culminating in his dying on the cross so that sinful humanity might be saved (1 Pet. 2:24). To serve as a high priest capable of carrying out this task, he had to be “made like his brothers in every respect” (Heb. 5:1). Biblically speaking, the work of salvation demanded a human Jesus.

Never the Twain Shall Meet?

While it is common today for people to accept that Jesus was human, they struggle to accept that he was God in human flesh. We might see this reflected in early Christian heresies. Gnostic groups either portrayed Jesus as a person with a dual identity or claimed that he had no physical body (called docetism; cf. Rom. 8:3). John appears to oppose the latter when he states that Jesus was made manifest physically (1 John 1:1), and the godly would agree that Christ came in the flesh (4:2). Irenaeus of Lyons wrote extensively against the Gnostics.

Other conflicts in the first few centuries raged between those who professed Christianity. Arius denied the full deity of Christ by claiming he was a created being, a debate settled at the First Council of Nicea (AD 325) after considerable work and largely thanks to Athanasius of Alexandria (c. 296-373). The First Council of Constantinople (AD 381) confirmed this position when it affirmed the divine equality of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

  Others arose who tried to answer questions about Christ’s identity, but their efforts were likewise condemned. Apollonarius of Laodicea (d. 390) argued that Jesus had a normal human body but a divine mind in the place of a human soul, a position condemned at Constantinople. He opposed Arius but went too far in denying a central aspect of Christ’s humanity. This position reached an extreme in the work of Nestorius of Constantinople (c.386–c.450), who claimed that Jesus was essentially two different persons—one human, the other divine. He was condemned at the First Council of Ephesus (AD 431).

Christians today still struggle with wrapping their minds around something as complex as the nature and personality of Christ. It is not difficult to see why. Human beings are far simpler, composed of both the physical and spiritual (1 Thess. 5:23). With Jesus, we have the union of spirit and flesh as well as the intwining of the human and divine in one person. Theologians have long debated this relationship, with their conclusions downplaying one side or the other. Biblically, it seems that Christ has two natures—human and divine—co-existing in one person for the salvation of souls to the glory of God.

Dewayne works with The Daily Apologist.

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