Pontius Pilate was the climax, not the commencement, of [Jesus’] suffering. It is tempting to surmise that because of Jesus’ inner strength he was able to rise early above the pressures and continue on his way unruffled and serene. But Jesus’ endurance and courage were not those of the insensitive and unfeeling. The pressure hurt, and sometimes there were tears (John 11:35), sometimes anger (Mark 3:5), and sometimes an almost mortal sorrow (Mark 14:34). This is what undergirds the sympathy highlighted in Hebrews 4:15: Jesus was tested in every way, just as we are.—Donald Macleod, Christ Crucified: Understanding the Atonement, 18
Amid the concern to defend that Jesus was God, we can lose sight that Jesus was human, that in Jesus God became a man. I understand the desire to protect Jesus’ divinity, to confess his Lordship, to ponder his glory, to recognize his victory, and to anticipate his final triumph over sin, death, and evil—this is all gospel truth. But we need to keep a fact in sight—Jesus was human, and this is as much gospel truth as the claim of his divinity.
In fact, it is much easier to understand that God is for us—that he cares, loves, and involves himself in our affairs for our good and our salvation—when we know the extent to which God went to save us: The Father sent the Son, Jesus Christ. God came down from heaven. He was born a human being. He lived like us. He worked like us. He hungered like us. He hurt like us. And to make the gospel story more graphic, he suffered the worst sort of death.
Beyond the pain of a long, slow crucifixion in which the victim’s lungs would slowly fill up, choking the life out of him as he would struggle to hold his body up just to grasp at a partial breath, Jesus suffered the wrath of God on the cross. Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, suffered God-forsakenness—this dark side of the gospel story is gospel truth. How Jesus was both fully human and fully divine is a mystery, but that Jesus was truly human and truly divine is clearly taught in Scripture.
The atonement is directly connected to the incarnation: God taking on true humanity in the person of Jesus Christ is directly connected to his saving work on the cross. Here, I want to explain two ways Jesus’ humanity is gospel truth.
1. Jesus died for us as a true human being.
The gospel story seems to focus on this sweaty, suffering, bloody human being. Much the gospel story records the life of Jesus the Messiah, a traveling Jewish teacher, and most of the gospel writers spend their focus on the last week of Jesus’ life. Out of the 24 chapters in Luke’s Gospel, he devotes four-and-a-half chapters to Jesus’ final week. Mark commits half of his Gospel to the final week. John gives five chapters for the final night of Jesus’ life and two chapters to the crucifixion.
The story the Gospel writers were telling was a very human story. It was a story about life, and suffering, and death, with an emphasis on death. It’s no accident that from the earliest days of the church, the cross became the symbol of Christianity. This symbol of Jesus Christ dying as a true human being is the most foolish religious idea believed. No one in their right mind should believe a religion in which God became a human being to suffer and die for the sins of the world, but this is gospel truth.
This story is very human. It was the man Jesus who lived, worked, sweated, ate, drank, and gave his life for our sakes. Jesus was as much a human being as he was God. This is all part of the gospel and so important to Christianity that St. John makes a huge point of it in his first epistle, which opens with these words:
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us—that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete. (1 John 1:1–4)
For the apostle John, the confession of Jesus’ true humanity and bodily presence on earth was necessary, gospel truth. John went so far as to insist that to deny Jesus’ true humanity was anti-Christ (1 John 4:1–3).
2. Jesus lived for us as a true human being.
He lived, taught, and resisted temptation as a true human being. He died as a true human being. And he rose as a true human being. We see what obedience to God’s law looks like. We see true kindness. When we look at Jesus we see the God-man living under the curse of this life: pain, suffering, and death. And this gives me hope. I have a savior who can sympathize with my weakness. He knows my pain. He knows my suffering. He knows the death that stalks me. And from all this he saved me.
When we read the gospel accounts, it’s important for us to keep Jesus’ humanity in view. All his life is lived for our sake. This will give you a sense of Jesus’ glory. The beauty of the gospel is clothed in the humanity of Christ. Through seeing Jesus, we see God among us. We see a God who gets involved in our lives, and nothing demonstrates this point like his true humanity. God isn’t afraid to get close to us. Jesus is proof.
When we look to Jesus we can see a savior who paid the debt our sin owes, and we can be confident that he paid that debt because he really did live as our representative before God like us in every respect yet without sin. When we place our trust in Jesus we can be assured that he will redeem our humanity along with our souls, that through faith we will experience life with God the way we human beings were destined to experience it.
Thus, when Paul tells of the gospel, he can’t help but speak of the God-man Jesus in very human terms: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9). Now, this is what is so important about affirming the true humanity of Jesus: He did all that he did as a true human being.