Last week a friend called my office to leave a question she wanted some help thinking through. Could Jesus have gotten a stomach virus? Or the flu? Or a head cold? This question was rooted in something a little deeper. Since sickness is part of the curse of the Fall, would Jesus’ sinless nature have exempted him from viruses and bugs and fevers?
That night one of my sons woke us, crying as the stomach virus hit with all the unpleasantness that brings. As I watched his little frame tremble as he vomited, I thought about this woman’s question. Would Mary have ever watched her little firstborn in the throes of such sickness?
Why is it so hard for us to imagine Jesus vomiting?
First of all, it’s hard for us to imagine the radical nature of the Incarnation. No matter how orthodox our doctrine, we all tend to want to think of Jesus as a two-dimensional figure with a shaft of light squarely fixed on his forehead. But the gospel tells us that Jesus took on every aspect of our “flesh and blood” in order to redeem us from the power of the devil (Heb. 2:14-15).
The Scripture repeatedly makes a point of telling us about Jesus’ exhaustion, about his digestion of food, in order to make the point that our Christ really identified with us in every aspect of our common humanity, except for our sin (Heb. 4:15).
The very beginning of the Christ story itself tells us that part of the sign of the Messiah is that he is wrapped in cloths (Lk. 2:12). Why do you wrap cloths around a baby? For the same reason you might diaper your baby, or wrap her up in a blanket. The point is to keep the baby warm, and to keep him dry from waste. This signifies from the very beginning just how much Jesus is our brother, sharing with us a human nervous system and a human digestive system.
It’s also hard for us to imagine the radical nature of substitution. Of course, we understand Jesus’ suffering for us on the Cross. But the Cross was culmination, not the beginning of Jesus’ identification with us. Jesus walked into a world fallen with sin, a world cursed by thorns, death, and, yes, sickness. Though Jesus clearly had power of sickness in his healing ministry, and over death itself, he voluntarily joined us in a world of suffering and pain, for the purpose of offering up a sacrifice and restoring human peace with God and nature.
“For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering,” writes the Book of Hebrews (Heb. 2:9). “Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became a source of eternal salvation to all who obey him” (Heb. 5:9).
This is why Jesus weathered the suffering of temptation. This is why he hungered and thirsted. This is why he experienced the death and desertion of friends. This is why he shuddered in blood-soaked anguish at Gethsemane at the prospect of his execution. And this is why he was beaten, humiliated, and spiked through with nails. Jesus was exempt from no aspect of our human condition, except for our rebellion. He was not exempt from something as common as sickness.
It just doesn’t seem right to us to imagine Jesus feverish or vomiting. But that’s precisely the scandal. It didn’t seem right to many to imagine Jesus as really flesh and bone, filled with blood and intestines and urine. Somehow that seemed to detract from his deity. It surely didn’t seem right to many to imagine the only begotten of the Father twisting in pain on a crucifixion stake, screaming as he drowned in his own blood. This was humiliating, undignified. That’s just the point. Jesus joined us in our humiliation, in our indignity.
I hope you don’t get a stomach virus this year, or the flu or the fever or a cold. But, if you do, I hope you remember, just for a minute, in your discomfort that Jesus has passed through everything you’ll ever face. He might have been racked with nausea or chills or aches, just as you are. And then he faced far, far worse.
But, as you lie there, remember the gospel of incarnation and substitution, a gospel that comes, as the old song says, to make his blessings known “far as the curse is found.”