"When Christ became a man, was He really dependent on God?"
In the last week, three different people from our congregation have asked me this same question (or some variation of it). Some of the members of our church are studying Paul Miller's excellent book, A Praying Life, and Miller addresses this topic within the first few chapters. His take on it is striking and, well, startling to some, because it declares a kind and degree of dependence that we often do not associate with Jesus.
In chapter 5, "Spending Time with Your Father," Miller asks the question, why did Jesus need to pray? He offers three reasons, and the third is apparently a sticky one for many of us! Miller's third reason for why Jesus needed to pray is: His limited humanity.
Wait — what? How could Jesus, who was fully God, be limited? That's probably the thought that immediately runs through your head (like it did mine the first time I read this book). We don't think of Jesus this way, because we have been taught well what heresy it is to believe that Jesus was not fully God! Jesus must have been God — otherwise He could not have accomplished all that He did, right? Right — and to believe that Jesus was not divine is called "Arianism" (not to be confused with the racial theory Aryanism) which was denounced as heresy at the Council of Nicaea. This is why the Nicene Creed has so many phrases like "fully God," "begotten, not made," and "being of one substance with the Father."
We're not helped by the fact that those who tend to lean in a more liberal direction, theologically, prefer to focus on the humanity of Christ. Because we get a bit squeamish about dipping our toe in waters usually inhabited by theological liberals, we find it easier just to focus on the deity of Christ.
But even as Jesus was God, He was just as much man! The Nicene Creed affirms not only "fully God" but also "fully man." And in His humanity Jesus takes our form, including our dependence. This is a challenge to us; one reason is that we wrestle to think of Jesus in the way that the Bible talks about Him in His humanity. When Christ took on flesh, He also took on our dependence on God and our susceptibility to sin and brokenness. "Who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men" (Philippians 2:6-7).
When Scripture says that Jesus was "a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief" (Isaiah 53:3), we think that "acquainted" means something like how we use it: when we are acquainted with someone, we may have met them a few times, but we don't know them well. But the Hebrew word we've translated "acquainted" is a form of the verb yadah, "to know," which is also used to talk about knowing skills, as in a musician who knows his instrument; about knowing good and evil, as in what the Tree of Knowledge imparted to us; and even knowing God, involving our intellect, worship, obedience, and devotion. This was the degree to which Jesus was acquainted with our grief.
When Jesus wept, it wasn't to put on a show. When Jesus was tempted, it wasn't any different from the temptations we face. When Jesus wrestled with the difficulty of God's calling and will for Him to die on the cross, it was no mere show of piety. Jesus fully and really experienced all of the suffering, pain, frustration, struggle, temptation, anger, and grief that we do. Hebrews 4:15 declares this: "For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin."
Aha — and now we are finally getting at the bigger reason why we struggle with this: we find it all but impossible to wrap our minds around the possibility that Jesus knew the same temptations, struggles, grief — the same humanity — that we know, as intimately as we know it, and yet He did not sin. Because if we're honest with ourselves, we can't imagine living our own lives, even for a day, without sinning.
Yet He did. And as a result of this, four things emerge as truths that ought to be precious to us:
- Our view of Jesus' righteousness goes way up! When we begin to grasp just how real Christ's humanity was, the righteousness that He maintained in spite of it soars to new heights. Such righteousness is almost incomprehensible to us!
- A spotlight is shown on our own sin. We have to realize that where Christ is in His righteousness, and where we are in our lack of it, are quite far from one another. In the presence of true purity and holiness, the soiled and tainted lives that we inhabit are more clearly seen by comparison.
- The righteousness that Christ gained becomes ours! Far from being left in the misery of our sin's reality, we are lifted out of it and cleansed of our sin, and then — glory of glories! — we are given the very righteousness of Christ that we marvel at His capacity to obtain. Just as our sin becomes His sin, through the imputation of the cross His righteousness becomes OUR righteousness — and when God looks on us, He sees us clothed in the righteousness of Christ.
- Our dependence on God — and God's dependability — becomes more real. When we see how Christ, in dependence upon the Father, was able to face all of His very real and true humanity and do so without sin, then we also learn how WE might find victory over sin in dependence on God. As Christ overcame, so we can also overcome temptation and sin.