When did you meet Jesus? What did he look like? What did he say? If you’re like most Christians in the world, you have a box in your mind that’s filled with facts about Jesus—lying underneath the blue sash and the flowing brown hair you might be able to dig up some important truths. Jesus’s divinity usually sits close to the top—a golden nugget of brilliance casting everything else in shadow.
But what if Jesus’s life, teaching, miracles, death, and resurrection are all presentation of what it means to be human in a way we’ve never experienced before? What if the grand drama of the Messiah is the grander drama of God’s story writ small? And what if the goal of becoming like Jesus is really becoming more human?
In order to understand Jesus, we have to understand why he shows up in the pages of the Bible at all. It’s more complex than “Jesus died for our sins.” That’s a true statement, but pulled out by itself, sitting on the cold examination table, it loses something, something important. It’s best that we first understand why Jesus came at all, and to do that properly, we have to go back—back to the beginning.
In the beginning—well, you know the drill. God created the earth and everything in it. He made humanity and he gave them a garden to care for and enjoy. The one stipulation that God provided was that the first man and woman trust him to care for them—abstaining from the knowledge of good and evil meant Adam and Eve allowed him to determine their good. It’s trusting the caregiver enough to surrender autonomy.
In the end, the first humans failed to live up to their created potential. Rather than remain in submission to God and enjoy the authority to rule the earth he’d given them, the man and woman chose autonomy, and the death that came in tow. And they chose powerlessness. They whom God intended to be king and queen of the planet gave up their thrones and descended to live alongside the animals they were meant to govern.
The balance of the Old Testament is largely the record of God offering the throne that Adam and Eve vacated in their sinful rebellion to human after human. But by the end of the book of Malachi, it becomes increasingly clear that no one can be found. And scattered throughout the prophets is a promise that one day the true heir to the throne would come—and not in the way that everyone expects. God needed a new human.
In his book On the Incarnation, Early church father Athanasius describes just how Jesus solves the problem the Old Testament presents:
You know what happens when a portrait that has been painted on a panel becomes obliterated through external stains. The artist does not throw away the panel, but the subject of the portrait has to come and sit for it again, and then the likeness is re-drawn on the same material. Even so was it with the All-holy Son of God. He, the Image of the Father, came and dwelt in our midst, in order that He might renew mankind made after Himself, and seek out His lost sheep, even as He says in the Gospel: “I came to seek and to save that which was lost” (On the Incarnation, 3.13).
When Jesus called his disciples, he warned them that the task of following him wouldn’t be easy, painless, or popular. He told each of the people who’d thrown their lot in with the carpenter-king that, in order to follow him, they’d have to take up their cross first and die to themselves. For a bunch of people who’d yet to see Jesus rise from the dead, his statement would have made little sense. But it’s Jesus’s very resurrection that makes the task of following him doable.
Jesus went willingly to his death because he lived in perfect obedience to the Father. Because he understood what the Father asked, because he had such deep love for both the Father and the fallen human race, because he knew the power of death was fleeting, Jesus laid down his own life. Three days later, his obedience found vindication behind the solid stone of the tomb. Jesus’s return to the land of life validated everything he claimed about himself, yes, but also legitimized his claim to Adam’s throne. What Adam had forfeited in rebelling against God, Jesus had reclaimed through obedience. Immortality had returned to the human race through the pierced and healed veins of the God-Man.
It’s Jesus’s resurrection itself that gives his followers hope as they deny themselves and carry his cross. The Christian life—a life following Jesus—entails death. To be a disciple of Jesus is to live has he lived. It means living in obedience to the Father, denying autonomy in favor of trusting submission, and accepting death. Without the armor of the resurrection, it’d be a hopeless endeavor. Even Paul the Apostle pointed that out in his first letter to the Corinthian church. If we who forsake everything for Jesus have nothing but death awaiting us in the end, we’re fools.
But securely cocooned in the promise that death cannot hold Jesus’s disciples any more than it could hold him, we are able to follow him in life as well as death. And, for most of us, that death begins with our own wills. Jesus struggled in the Garden of Gethsemane with the mission his Father had given him. Our own wills also war against the idea of obedience. Daily we must surrender. Daily we must deny ourselves. Daily we must die to ourselves. Because on the other side is resurrection. On the other side of death is remade humanity. On the other side is immortality.
The long road of discipleship begins with Jesus, because he’s the one who called us to follow. When we understand not only who he is but what he’s showing us about ourselves, the path ahead of us becomes a bit clearer. Jesus invites us to walk in his footsteps, unmaking our sinful selves and being reborn as new humans. We join him in death—death to sin, death to ourselves, and death to rebellion—so that we may join him in life. Jesus walked the road already. It’s up to us to follow.