Several years ago, a brutal stomach virus crept through the seminary community where I serve as dean. One day, knowing that most of the students in my classroom were on the upswing from this sickness, I posed the question, “Did Jesus ever have a stomach virus?”
On a more typical day-a day in which the question of such illness would have been a more abstract reality-I doubt there would have been anything less than consensus. Of course, these future pastors would have asserted, Jesus assumed everything about human nature, except for sin.
But this wasn’t an abstract question. These students were still reeling not just from the discomfort of the stomach flu, but also from its indignity. They had been wracked with vomiting, diarrhea, fever, and chills. They still smarted from the sense of having no control over the most disgusting of bodily functions.
So when I asked this question, these ministers of the gospel hesitated. The stomach virus wasn’t just awful; it was undignified. And thinking of Jesus in relation to the most foul and embarrassing aspects of bodily existence seemed to them to be just on the verge of disrespectful, if not blasphemous.
Why is it so hard for us to imagine Jesus vomiting?
The answer to this question has to do, first of all, with the one-dimensional picture of Jesus so many of us have been taught, or have assumed. Many of us see Jesus either as the ghostly friend in the corner of our hearts, promising us heaven and guiding us through difficulty, or we see him simply in terms of his sovereignty and power, in terms of his distance from us. No matter how orthodox our doctrine, we all tend to think of Jesus as a strange and ghostly figure.
But the bridging of this distance is precisely at the heart of the scandal of the gospel itself. It just doesn’t seem right to us to imagine Jesus feverish or vomiting or crying in a feeding trough or studying to learn his Hebrew. From the very beginning of the Christian era, those who sought to redefine the gospel argued that it doesn’t seem right to think of Jesus as really flesh and bone, filled with blood and intestines and urine. It doesn’t seem right to think of Jesus as growing in wisdom and knowledge, as Luke tells us he did. Somehow such things seem to us to detract from his deity, from his dignity.
But that’s just the point.
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 infant, or wrap her up in a blanket. The point is to keep the baby warm, and to keep him dry from waste. From the very beginning Jesus is one of us, sharing with us a human nervous system, a human digestive system, and as we’ll see every aspect of human nature.
It didn’t seem right to the world 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, our indignity. In this Jesus is, the Scripture tells us, not ashamed to call us brothers (Heb. 2:11).
I thought intensely about this as I was asked to read, and write a foreword, for my friend Patrick Henry Reardon’s new book on the humanity of the Lord Christ, The Jesus We Missed: The Surprising Truth About the Humanity of Christ (Thomas Nelson). This is the best contemporary treatment of this subject I’ve ever seen.
This book prompted me to think and to ponder. But, more than that, this book prompted me to pray and to worship, to see the Jesus it is so easy for me to forget: the Jesus who was really and truly one of us, so that we might be, with him, the heirs of the Father and the children of God. The one who took on every aspect of our flesh and blood in order to redeem us from the power of the devil (Heb. 2:14-15).
Reflecting on the humanity of Jesus always drives me to see what I’ve missed in my own humanity. Too often, we’re tempted to excuse our own bitterness, our rage, our lust, our envy, our factiousness as “only human.” The mystery of Christ shows us that such things aren’t human at all, but satanic. We define humanity in light of our brother, in light of the alpha and omega point of humanity-Jesus of Nazareth.
Reflecting on our Lord’s humanity can drive you to the Jesus you might have forgotten or, might never have seen. It can also propel you with longing-for the day spike-scabbed hands wipe away your tears as you hear a northern Galilean accent introduce himself as your Lord, as your King, but also as your brother.