READ : Mark 1:1
John 1:1, 14
What does it mean to be human? How should authentically human lives be lived? To answer that, let’s look at the greatest human life of all.
By any measure, Jesus of Nazareth is the most important figure in world history. For proof of that we need look no further than the millennial celebrations that have accompanied the arrival of the year 2000. Though the religious nature of our calendar has often been ignored in all the hype and hoopla surrounding the dawn of the new millennium, the fact that we even talk about time in millennia, in one-thousand-year periods, is only because of Jesus Christ. Just stop and think for a moment. It is the year 2000. Two thousand years from what? See what I mean? No other person has the whole world counting time from the date of his birth.
The New Testament likewise dates everything from the coming of Jesus Christ into the world. Each of the first four books of the New Testament begins by introducing Jesus. The writers are all concerned at the outset with establishing Jesus’ identity and thus his significance. But they go about doing this in different ways. Matthew and Luke tell the story of Jesus’ wonderful birth. John begins with a profound theological statement about the nature and incarnation of the divine Word. But Mark, the earliest gospel, says it all in one sentence, just a dozen words: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” “Gospel” means good news, good news for the whole world. God himself announces a new beginning for humanity, and it starts with the coming of Jesus.
WHY JESUS CAME
Let’s begin with a basic question: why did Jesus come into the world? What was the purpose and effect of his life? Christians believe that he came, first and foremost, to be the Savior. He brought good news to a world in deep trouble, hope to people living in hopeless conditions. Jesus came into a world of desperate need and terrible suffering. Society was filled with antagonism and division: racial divisions between Jews and Gentiles; class divisions between masters and slaves, gender divisions between men and women. It was a time of moral corruption and gross evil. Life was cheap and individual persons had little meaning or value. The abandonment and killing of babies and small children was common. Suicide was a popular option. The family had nearly disintegrated, as divorce grew ever more common, and through it all sexual perversion flourished. It was a time of pessimism and despair. Freedom was an alien concept for most: in first-century Rome more than half the population were slaves. People had grown cynical about the future course of history, fatalistic about the world and its chances. Believing disaster and destruction were inevitable, people had grown tired of living, yet were afraid of dying.
If all that sounds too familiar, it’s because our world is so similar. There are outward changes, of course. Our slavery today is more spiritual than physical. Our entertainment spectacles of sex and violence are no longer played out in Roman arenas, but are broadcast in living color on television into each person’s home. There’s progress for you!
We live in an age strikingly similar to New Testament times. And just like today, the world into which Jesus came was also a time of great longing, of hunger for hope. People were yearning for something better, looking for good news in the midst of all the bad. Everywhere men and women were searching for salvation, for knowledge of the true God and hope of life beyond the grave. The gospel came as the announcement of the end of the search. Salvation and hope are present now in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. He himself explained his mission in these simple terms: “I came to seek and to save the lost.” The gospel’s good news is that by his life, death and resurrection Christ delivers those who trust in him from sin, evil and despair.
There is a second reason for his coming. Jesus of Nazareth was and is the Son of God. He came in order to reveal God more fully to the world, to display the overwhelming beauty and goodness of God’s character to everyone. “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father,” Jesus declared. This is why the New Testament calls Jesus the Word of God. The fourth gospel opens with a magnificent statement of the cosmic status of the divine Word who became the man Jesus of Nazareth.
In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . . . And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, glory as of the only begotten Son of the Father.
God’s glory is his infinite goodness, his praiseworthiness, the dazzling perfection of all his attributes, qualities and actions. In the life of Jesus of Nazareth, that glory was revealed for all people to behold. “We saw it,” says John; “We were witnesses to the glory of God displayed in the person of Christ.” The Bible tells us what God is like; Jesus shows us God – in the flesh. In Jesus’ words, we hear God speak to us. In his acts of loving kindness and self-sacrifice, God himself reveals his inmost nature.
But there is also a third purpose for Jesus’ life, one more reason for which he came. To understand this we must appreciate the full reality of his humanity. As believers in Christ we sometimes focus so much upon Jesus’ divinity that we lose sight of the fact that he was really and truly human. The ancient world was full of stories and legends about the gods coming down to earth and taking on a human disguise. They would adopt a body briefly, as actors might put on a costume to play a role. Usually their purpose was to play some trick on an unsuspecting mortal. But Jesus wasn’t like these mythological gods. His human nature was no disguise. He wasn’t playing a game, merely pretending to be a man without actually becoming one. The disciples who met him and began to follow him were drawn first of all to his genuine humanity, to his attractiveness as a human being. Only later did they begin to suspect that there was more to him than met the eye. But neither was there less to Jesus than met the eye. His life on earth was not a charade. No one ever came up to Jesus and said, “Say, you aren’t really human, are you?” He appeared to his contemporaries as one of them because he was one of them. “He was like us in every way,” says one of the New Testament writers, “except for sin” (see Hebrews 4:15).
Jesus of Nazareth was not only a real human being, he was the human being. He was, as Martin Luther called him, “der rechte man,” the proper man. After a wonderful meal a guest might push back his chair from the table, heave a satisfied sigh, and exclaim, “Now, that was a proper dinner!” What he means is that it was ideal, dinner as dinner was meant to be, the sort of meal all meals would be like if this were a perfect world. That is just the kind of person Jesus of Nazareth was. He was the ideal, the proper man. His life is a model once and for all of how people ought to live. Jesus doesn’t only reveal God to us. His words, attitudes, emotions and actions show us what it means to be truly human as well.
WHAT IT MEANS TO BE HUMAN
Here is another big question: What does it mean to be human? What is the nature of a human being, or the meaning and value of a human life? There are two basic, conflicting answers to this question today. One is the answer of the thorough-going secular and materialist world view. It says that being human has no intrinsic meaning, and therefore can have no ultimate value. According to this view, human nature is the chance outcome of a mindless, accidental process of evolution. Humans are not created, and there is no shaping, directing intelligence or purposeful design behind them. Nor are they unique. There’s no essential difference between humans and any other organism. People don’t have souls. Even the human mind and personality are only the bye-products of the brain’s chemistry and neurological impulses.
As you might imagine, this secular view of the nature of persons has serious implications for human life and society. If you ask materialists what it means to be human, or how humans ought to live, they have no certain answers. They might suggest that it is in our own best interests to be nice to one another, that we should all try to get along together. But they can’t come up with any solid reasons for this. In fact, they can’t come up with a real reason for anything. Everything is relative. If I am just a random collection of molecules that has somehow evolved consciousness, if I am simply existing for the briefest of times in a universe without meaning or purpose, then why should I do anything at all? Or to put it the other way, why shouldn’t I do anything I feel like doing, or at least anything I think I can get away with. If there is no God, there is no objective truth, beauty or morality. As the great Russian writer Fyodor Dostovesky said, “Without God, anything goes.”
Christians have a radically different world view. We believe that human beings have been created by a personal, all-powerful, infinite and eternal God, who is not only the creator but the sustainer of the world and everyone in it. Moreover, human beings have been created in the image of this God. Obviously we do not share God’s eternal power or deity. But we are like him in the most important way: we too are persons. We can know and be known. We can love.
The Christian view of what humans are also has radical implications for how we live both as individuals and as a society. If people are the image of God, then they have intrinsic value. Every human life is infinitely precious, including the lives of the unborn or the terminally ill. No one has the right to take the life of any innocent person. Every person must be treated with dignity and respect. Discrimination and prejudice are abhorrent sins, not merely impolite symptoms of political incorrectness. Christians have a coherent reason for moral behavior. Right and wrong are not a matter simply of personal preference or individual choice. Ethics and morality are based on the character of God and the laws he has built into his creation. These moral laws for human behavior are just as real and important as the laws of physics that govern the movements of the universe. And to show us most clearly what these moral laws require for human behavior, God created one perfect human life to be the supreme example. That’s the Christian world view.
Jesus of Nazareth: born without social status, living without worldly prestige, dying a homeless, itinerant preacher, he was the “proper” man. His was the life among all human lives we still remember and hold up as the model for one and all, perfect in every respect.
Some years ago in a town near where I live a church youth leader was trying to help her high school kids with the tough moral decisions they faced each day. The youth leader wondered what she could do to offer guidance for these practical, day-to-day decisions. Then she had this idea. She made up a number of little bracelets for the kids to wear on their wrists. On each bracelet were four letters: W.W.J.D., What would Jesus do? The bracelets caught on; in fact, they spread all over the country. Try this the next time you’re faced with a moral decision. Ask yourself, “What would Jesus do?” If you can answer that, you’re on the way to knowing what it means to be truly human.