Why Was Jesus A Human?

Do you know why Jesus came to us as a human being?   I didn’t.  After all, God could have appeared as an image in the air – booming voice, a little lightning, thunder, a bright ball of light – calling all those who saw Him and heard Him to Himself.  Arguably, this would have been far more persuasive than hearing an itinerate preacher in the Galilee speak, even if He did perform amazing miracles (e.g. Deut 4:35-6).  Of course, there were other “magicians” in the Galilee and elsewhere at the time competing for notoriety.  So Jesus was forced to compete for the reputation as the “Son of Man”.  And, no doubt His notoriety was in part diminished by the charlatans, and the “shock value” of His miracles muted for the same reason.

As well, God could have, in principle, manifested Himself to every single human being throughout every single moment of that person’s life as a continuous presence – a kind of divine hall monitor.  (I can’t help but be mindful of the old caricature of a person on whose right shoulder was a miniature devil telling the person what to do, and on his left a miniature angel providing proper guidance). 

You might have seen this played out in the angel sent to redeem Jimmy Stewart’s character in the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life”.

This would have solved the disobedience problem.  But it would not have touched the “heart” problem by which we all are naturally afflicted.

Alternatively, God could have simply “poured out His Spirit on all flesh”, skipping, as it were, the middle man, and afterward simply declaring humans absolved of their sins and sinful nature, then using His Spirit to draw them into Himself and His faithful family.  This strategy would have met the letter of the New Covenant (Eze 36:27, Je 31:33, Dt 30:6, Hab 2:14). So why didn’t He do it this way?

We have to remember what God wanted from the beginning from His Creation: a faithful family set apart for Him with whom He could share His life for eternity.  This was the promise implied to Abraham (Ge 12:3) and stated to Moses (Ex 4:22-23), and Jeremiah (Je 31:20).  But children, even if adopted, have some expectations placed on them for living in a family, among those being allegiant to the Head of the household, something we’re not very good at doing.

Eliminating Alternatives

I think the booming voice from heaven option would have had only temporary effect.  Unless God repeated the exercise at least once each generation, subsequent generations would turn cynical and dismissive of the ravings of their ancestors.  And even if God deemed to renew His thunderous calling every 25 years or so, He’d still be calling disobedient sinners away from their natural lives of, well, sin.  Continual disobedience wouldn’t really qualify for eternal life with the Creator.

As for the continuous audible/visible presence (angel) option, this would work to a) make crystal clear that God was real, and b) manage behavior so as to avoid wholesale sin.  But, as with the first option, those being managed would remain built on a sinful nature so that their obedience, when it happened, wasn’t really sincere.

However, this scenario does provide some interesting insights into our relationship with God.  On the one hand, it more or less mimics the Calvinist “meticulous providence” idea – that you don’t do anything that God hasn’t ordained/directed.  So, logically speaking, the Calvinist dogmas seem to have no inherent dependency on Jesus Christ (other than perhaps to put a governor on their pesky sin natures), as there is no Christ here (just a persistent angel), and they see the world being played out in more or less exactly this way.

On the other, if you imagine ever taking the advice of the angel (God) sitting on your shoulder, contrary to your nature, then you’ve just validated (at least hypothetically) humanity’s free will, violating the Calvinist doctrine of total depravity.

So by eliminating those two options as deficient to the original purpose of God, we’re left with the remaining two options: 1) Pour out God’s Spirit on “all people” (Joel 2:28), and 2) Send God’s Son, Jesus to redeem sinful Creation.

Sending God’s Spirit but Not A Savior

God wasn’t about to “pour out My Spirit on all people” (Joel 2:28, Eze 36:26-7) on/into a defiled humanity.  First, It would be necessary to cleanse and sanctify the one into whom God’s Spirit was to take up residence.

This principle can best be seen in the Levitical prescription for cleansing a house/structure in Lev 14:33-47, as well as the requirement for cleansing one who has an infectious skin disease (Lev 14:1-32).  These verses emphasize the requirement of God that His people be clean (they were defiled if the house in which they lived was found to be unclean).  Not just His priests, and His sanctuary (1 Mac 36-60) and all of the utensils used in His worship, but the common people of Israel as well – those who dwelt with Him (until His presence left the Temple) “in the camp” (Lev 16:30-32).

These were His then-covenant people and for God to live with them, they had to meet well-defined standards of “cleanness” so as not to defile the place of His habitation. 

Exactly the same requirement applied to the people in whom His Spirit is to live.  So, God, Himself, was going to have to get out His lye and bleach and scrub brush and effect this global cleansing.

Could He have accomplished this cleansing without resorting to the tool of the sacrifice of Jesus?  Apparently not, since Jesus was His tool.  Had there been another way – some other viable, righteous option – assumedly He would have chosen that option. (This point is reemphasized in the section ”Yom Kippur (Yom Ha Kippurim)”, below.)

And certainly (if you allow, for the moment, an imminent God), it’s not as though He hadn’t tried anything else beforehand.  He had tried the Law, and calling for sincere faithfulness and obedience to His commands; He had tried Prophets, calling for a self-cleansing repentance and return to faithfulness to Him; He had tried disciplining Israel’s corporate uncleanness through the attacks by their enemies and all Israel’s eventual exile out of their homeland.  Even after all of this, He gave them yet another chance (Je 3:14)

Sadly, none of those things worked.  (Whether you think God ever believed they would work is neither here nor there[i]).  And through His persistence in pursuing the rehabilitation and sanctification of His people, God demonstrated to them above all His mercy and kindness in delaying His final judgement for as long as He did.  Sadly, His faithfulness to Israel was never requited.

So that brings us to the Jesus option.

What was it about Making Jesus Human that God Saw as Essential to His Redemption Plan?

God never really tells us why Jesus.  He only tells us that a Messiah would come.  But I think we can identify a few reasons why a human Jesus, and His sacrifice, was God’s imperative.

Human Identity

Humans are easier to relate to for humans than a thunderous voice from heaven (Ex 20:19), or constant instruction from a “guardian angel”, or any other non-human form.  If we can sit down and talk to the person; eat with Him; travel with Him; suffer disparagement with Him, we have a far, far better chance of accepting His teaching and developing a sincere sympathy and reverence for Him.

Teaching

While a theophany could teach, one can be quite distracted by the experience of being in the presence of a theophany.  A Rabbi who teaches you over lunch, or through His message to a crowd punctuated by a miracle or two, presents a much more receivable message, and approachable Teacher.

And this Teacher, the One who slept in the tent next to yours last night, commands your rapt attention and allegiance when He happens to walk on water or feed 5000 people from five loaves of bread and two fish or spits on some dirt to make a mud that restores the sight of a life-long blind man.

A theophany couldn’t teach Mary Magdalene through her healing in the same way.  A theophany couldn’t impact Mary with Lazarus’ resuscitation in the same way.  A theophany couldn’t challenge and teach Nicodemus in quite the same way as Jesus did.  And none of these would have affected us as they have if Jesus was not one of us.

Model of Reliance on God

Perhaps most penetrating was Jesus’ model of his complete dedication to and reliance on his Father.  How would a theophany teach us this lesson?  If there is one thing Jesus modeled for emulation by His followers it was faithfulness (Gr. Pistis) to the Father.

Model of Handling Rejection

While something like 10,000 first-century Jews accepted Jesus as Messiah, most did not.  Did He change His message to try to attract more? No. He simply persevered with His message of the Kingdom.  Jesus was quite resolute in the face of His rejection.  He understood He would be rejected, as Moses had been and was still, as He remarks in John 5:46-47.

The Christian of whatever generation experiences this same rejection.  And so having their Lord model for them perseverance despite that rejection lets them relate to Him as one of them.

Model of Humility

It would be virtually impossible, at least to me, for a theophany to teach us about humility.  Indeed, humility was one of the key characteristics God repeatedly related that He sought from His children (1 Pet 3:4), and that Christ modeled perfectly for us (Philippians 3:8).

Suffering

Who can’t relate to human suffering?  We see it every day, incessantly on the evening news.  Who can’t imagine the horror of being flogged and nailed, naked, to a wooden cross, left to bleed out and eventually asphyxiate when you can no longer pull yourself up for one more breath?  What were we supposed to learn from the fact that Jesus suffered?

It’s quite interesting to note that Israel had no history of killing its own, or even its enemies, slowly, through torture – that was Rome’s long suit.  When Israel punished someone to death, it was generally by stoning (Dt 13:9-11), which is grim but over relatively quickly. They certainly did not sanction corporate sadism.

The Pattern of Sacrifice

For openers, we know the firstborn Israelite son was originally to be offered for service to the LORD (Ex 13:1-2, Ex 13:12-13).  The LORD expected not just devotion from the firstborn (as was true for all Israelites), but his committed service to God as his vocation.  But as regarding Temple Service, all of this changed after the Golden Calf apostasy at Sinai, after which only descendants of Aaron were allowed to be priests to the people (although there were some exceptions (1 Sam 1:28)). 

Christ’s vocation as an Israelite firstborn was indisputably service to the LORD, even to “death on a cross”.  The application of the term “firstborn” to Jesus Christ may be traced back to Ps 89:27 where the Davidic ruler, or perhaps the nation, is alluded to as the firstborn of Yahweh.

We know that Jesus was murdered by the Romans.  Christians view His death as atoning for their sinfulness if they will but believe, in obedience, in Him.  But the vast majority of Jews at that time, and up to the present day, don’t see it that way.

So what was their cultural and religious experience with sacrifice that has resulted in them rejecting this fundamental Christian theme?  The Tanakh (Old Testament) contains several metaphoric events and laws which describe God’s approach to sacrifices, and sacrificial blood[ii]:

Yom Kippur (Yom Ha Kippurim)

First, a bull was sacrificed and his blood sprinkled on objects within the Temple to purify them of any possible defilement, as well as for a personal sin offering to purge the sanctuary of any defilement caused by sin of the priests or their families (Lev 16:6). Two goats were then offered – one for the LORD, who was slaughtered, and the Scapegoat who carried away the unknown sins of the community – corporate Israel, to remove the sins from the people.  The main idea of the observance was to purify the meeting place of God with His people: the Tabernacle or Temple through sacrifice on its alter: ‘In other words, the altar absorbs certain sins of the Israelites, and the main function of Yom Kippur is to cleanse these sins by using the blood of a purification offering (sometimes called a “sin offering”) as a type of ritual detergent. Leviticus 16 describes in detail this bloody ritual, at which the high priest Aaron or his descendants officiate; it makes the tabernacle (or later temple) ritually clean, and thus God can reside there among Israel. The biblical term “yom ha kippurim” is thus best translated as “the day of purgation”, and specifically refers to the purgation or cleansing of sins from the tabernacle or temple.’[iii]

The second goat – the one not killed for sacrificial blood – was ritually burdened with the sins of Israel by the priest’s hands, and then led out into the wilderness, away from the people, thus removing their sins symbolically to an uninhabited place. 

So the theme of this ritual was this: God couldn’t meet and live with His people if either they or the place of their meeting was defiled.  Both had to be ritually cleansed.  The bull and the first goat accomplished the purification of the Temple/Tabernacle.  The second goat accomplished the cleansing of the people – for one year.  The three animals were the cost of once again ensuring that the LORD and His people could be together – “at-one-ment”; atonement.

Passover

The first Passover was first and foremost a redemptive act by God that relied on the blood of a sacrifice – in the original instance, a lamb, whose blood was smeared on the Hebrew’s doorposts to preserve the life of their firstborn inside (Ex 12:1-28).

The lamb sacrificed was not the “firstborn” per se; simply an animal 1 year old.  But it established the pattern of the blood of a sacrifice leading to life.  Life was commonly thought of as in one’s blood: “and I have given it to you to make atonement for your souls” (Lev 17:11).  (Theophanies and voices from Heaven don’t bleed, but animals – and people – do).

Other Sacrifices

These two sacrificial rituals were Israel’s national/corporate rituals.  But of course, there were individual sacrifices called for routinely throughout the year.  Anyone knowingly violating the law had to provide a sacrificial animal of some type as the cost of that sin.  This sacrifice was burned completely on the alter (not simply cooked for food).

In addition, there were Sin Offerings, offerings made for unintentional/unknown sins the person had committed; Peace Offerings (or “thank” offerings) sometimes consisting of a sacrificial animal that was eaten by both the priests and the worshipper; Guilt Offerings wherein a ram was sacrificed and money repaid for unintentional fraud; and Grain Offerings the food from which was consumed by the priests as a kind of gratuity or act of generosity.

However, it’s not clear that any of the blood sacrifices were understood by the Israelites as substituting the innocent animal’s blood (life) for the life (blood) of the sinful Israelite.  It seems that it was seen more as paying a fine, or a necessary honorarium, rather than the Christian idea of substitution.  Perhaps the scapegoat game closest to this idea.  But he wasn’t slain.

However, these Temple sacrifices weren’t the only ones the Israelites were familiar with.  They were well acquainted with the sacrificial rituals of their regional gods Baal and Molech.  And some of these pagan rituals even included sacrifice of their own children (Lev 20:2,4; Dt 12:31, 18:10; 2 Kings 16:3, 17:17, 21:6; 2 Chr 28:3, 33:6; Ps 106:37; Je 7:31, 19:4-5, 32:35; Eze 16:20, 16:36, 23:37, 23:39).  So the practice had a reality and a meaning for Israel.  Obviously, this was anathema to the LORD, as these sacrifices were of His own children, ostensibly to petition some favor from a pagan (i.e. non-existent) god.  One wonders what the people truly thought they were accomplishing by this practice.  They must have believed the idea that the sacrifice of a human (their child) could in some way bring them favor from the god.

Importantly, however, God Himself never, ever hinted to Israel of a requirement for, let alone the redeeming value of, the sacrifice of a human being.  In fact, a central and long-standing argument of Rabbis against Jesus being their Messiah rests on the Biblical principle that one man’s sins are not redeemable by another man, but only by God (Ps 32:5, Is 43:25).  This was the cause of the outrage reported in Mark 2:2-12 as “blasphemy” by a Pharisee when Jesus declared the paralytic man’s sins forgiven.  To the Israelites, each man was responsible for repenting of and atoning for (through sacrifice) his own sins:  Psalms 49:7-8

[7] Truly no man can ransom another,

or give to God the price of his life,

[8] for the ransom of their life is costly

and can never suffice,

As regards dying as an ordained propitiation for another’s sin, the Rabbis have a seemingly  iron-clad case: no such example exists in Israel’s history or the history of their fathers, back to Adam.

Prophecy

So if their history has no precedent of a man dying for another’s life, what about their prophecies?  Well, there are a few.  Of His humanity we have many, among them Jeremiah 30:21.

[21] Their prince shall be one of themselves;

their ruler shall come out from their midst;

I will make him draw near, and he shall approach me,

for who would dare of himself to approach me?

declares the LORD.

The most descriptive passage is found in Isaiah’s fourth Servant Song (Is 52:13-53:12):

[13] Behold, my servant shall act wisely;

he shall be high and lifted up,

and shall be exalted.

[14] As many were astonished at you—

his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance,

and his form beyond that of the children of mankind

[15] so shall he sprinkle many nations.

Kings shall shut their mouths because of him,

for that which has not been told them they see,

and that which they have not heard they understand.

Chapter 53

[53:1] Who has believed what he has heard from us?

And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?

[2] For he grew up before him like a young plant,

and like a root out of dry ground;

he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,

and no beauty that we should desire him.

[3] He was despised and rejected by men,

a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief;

and as one from whom men hide their faces

he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

[4] Surely he has borne our griefs

and carried our sorrows;

yet we esteemed him stricken,

smitten by God, and afflicted.

[5] But he was pierced for our transgressions;

he was crushed for our iniquities;

upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,

and with his wounds we are healed.

[6] All we like sheep have gone astray;

we have turned—every one—to his own way;

and the LORD has laid on him

the iniquity of us all.

[7] He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,

yet he opened not his mouth;

like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,

and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,

so he opened not his mouth.

[8] By oppression and judgment he was taken away;

and as for his generation, who considered

that he was cut off out of the land of the living,

stricken for the transgression of my people?

[9] And they made his grave with the wicked

and with a rich man in his death,

although he had done no violence,

and there was no deceit in his mouth.

[10] Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him;

he has put him to grief;

when his soul makes an offering for guilt,

he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days;

the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand.

[11] Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied;

by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant,

make many to be accounted righteous,

and he shall bear their iniquities.

[12] Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many,

and he shall divide the spoil with the strong,

because he poured out his soul to death

and was numbered with the transgressors;

yet he bore the sin of many,

and makes intercession for the transgressors.

I was quite surprised to learn that this Song was omitted from Synagogue readings for centuries and is still avoided (earning it the title “The Forbidden Chapter”).  If you’re an Israelite and you search your own scriptures for insight into who and how your Messiah is going to earn your salvation, you’d have to be either quite blind, or quite committed to the proposition that your Messiah – the one that conquers your enemies and converts the world to the worship of your God — is yet to appear[iv].

Of course there were other prophecies to corroborate the pedigree of Jesus of Nazareth.  Among them Micah 5:2-3:

[2] But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,

who are too little to be among the clans of Judah,

from you shall come forth for me

one who is to be ruler in Israel,

whose coming forth is from of old,

from ancient days.

[3] Therefore he shall give them up until the time

when she who is in labor has given birth;

then the rest of his brothers shall return

to the people of Israel.

Though the interpretation is disputed, the Christian interpretation of this passage identifies Jesus as the One being born in Bethlehem in Judah[v].

And then, of course, there’s Daniel 9 which seems to locate the Messiah’s arrival in time:

[26] And after the sixty-two weeks, an anointed one shall be cut off and shall have nothing. And the people of the prince who is to come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary. Its end shall come with a flood, and to the end there shall be war. Desolations are decreed. [27] And he shall make a strong covenant with many for one week, and for half of the week he shall put an end to sacrifice and offering. And on the wing of abominations shall come one who makes desolate, until the decreed end is poured out on the desolator.”

My interpretation of this is that: 1) the One to be “cut off” is the Messiah, who is going to die.  The one who (v27) is going to put an end to sacrifice and offerings is also the Messiah by his ultimate sacrifice.  Both these things happen before the “city and the sanctuary” were destroyed, which was 70 AD.

Finally, as a characterization of the roles of the coming Messiah, there’s Nu 24:17.  In it we see the one as seen, “but not now”.  It says a “star” (divinity) ”shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter” (human kingship) “shall rise out of Israel”.[vi]  So this characterization of Messiah is that He will be both divine and a (human) King.

Conclusion

It seems to me that the only effective intervention in the affairs of humanity by God had to be God Himself entering the world to teach and model and suffer humanly and die (as we all do) in order to cleanse His Temple – His people, according to the New Covenant (Je 31:33, Eze 36:27, Joel 2:28, Deut 30:6) – so as to be acceptable to God, its inhabitant.  But then, of course, He rose, and in so doing defeated the curse of death and the nature of sinfulness.

Certainly, God wanted to show us how He wanted us to live in Him (John 13:15).  And so a human model was ideal.  He wanted to teach us His ways that had, up to the point of Jesus’ advent, escaped the concern of His chosen people (e.g. treatment of sojourners, orphans, widows, etc.).  And, perhaps most critical, He wanted to demonstrate His glory as LORD who could, if He so chose, wipe away the prior apostasy of humanity in and of Himself, just as He had told His prophets He would ultimately do.

Could He have commanded from the heavens, even repeatedly?  Yes.  Could He have instantiated Himself as a constant, guiding voice (a kind of always-on conscience)?  Yes.  But He had already tried these techniques.  He boomed His will at Horeb.  And He provided to us His conscience in the form of His Law and the convicting testimony of His Prophets (“Thus says the LORD…”).  Neither had worked out.

Could He have simply transformed us through the indwelling of His Spirit?  Yes.  But the place that He inhabits, as we’ve seen, has to meet certain requirements for cleanliness that we don’t provide.  And since that place of habitation was going to be human, perhaps it’s more than appropriate that the sacrifice to cleanse it needed to be not a lamb or a goat or a bull, but a human.

No, it seems the only possibility for the redemption of humankind was an incarnation of Himself – a Man — that through His suffering and death cleansed those who then believed and obeyed Him. 


[i] I don’t.  I believe He knew exactly what Israel’s response would be from before the beginning, as I argue here:  “Making Sense of Israel’s History”.

[ii] For much of this material I am indebted to this article: Yom Kippur – The Day of Atonement, which I highly recommend.

[iii] Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur)

[iv] Regarding Israelis rejection of the reality of this scripture and Jesus as Messiah, you may be very interested in this video of Israeli Christians interviewing people on the streets of Israel about the scripture.

[v] Others say the one born is David, retrospectively, also born in Bethlehem, or perhaps Hezekiah.

[vi] Origen claims that “the star of Jacob” does not portray only a king, but its purpose is to also reveal the deity of the king it represents, whereas “the sceptre”/ “the ruler’s staff” points to his humanity.

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