This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

Jesus didn’t just look human

When I taught Bible at Messiah College, I often had students from fundamentalist churches. They certainly knew their fundamentals, one of which was “Jesus is God.” As we studied the Gospels, they never marveled at Jesus’ miracles or his resurrection, because, of course, “Jesus was God.” He could do anything, hands down. I’m not sure they paid much attention to Jesus’ humanity.


A professor from another Christian school once had students that topped mine. He told me that some of them thought Jesus was so divine he never had to use the bathroom!

What these students didn’t realize is how perilously close they were to embracing the first Christian heresy: docetism. This is the belief that Jesus was divine and only seemed to be human and suffer and die. The word comes from the Greek doceō, which means “to seem, to appear.” Docetism is dualistic. It draws on the idea that spirit is good and matter is evil.

This was further developed in gnosticism during the second century, a point made a few weeks ago in Don Blosser’s opinion article in the Jan. 19 MWR.

But the writer of 1 John is very clear from the beginning of his letter: We have seen Jesus with our eyes and touched him with our hands. The “eternal life that was with the Father was revealed to us,” and we have seen and heard him (1 John 1:1-3).

Unlike the docetic and gnostic emphases that denigrated the human body, 1 John 3:11-24 stresses the ethical component to belief: loving and caring for each other in our very weakness and humanity. This passage is a strong statement against those who “have the world’s goods” and ignore the needs of fellow believers.

A friend of mine attends a fundamentalist church because of family connections. Only men can be deacons because “the Bible says so.” But her sister, housebound for four months with a broken leg, has not yet received a visit from the pastor or any deacon. Although my friend thinks women would be much better at this ministry of love and mercy, rigid belief excludes women from this role.

What examples, positive or negative, can you suggest about the connection between right belief and loving actions?

The ethical instructions in 1 John 4:13-5:5 sound similar to 1 John 3: love your sisters and brothers. But here theological reasons are more explicit. We are expected to love each other because God is love. This love is expressed to us through our receiving God’s very Spirit. Wrapped in this loving Spirit, we no longer fear meeting God on the day of judgment. As long as we have expressed this divine love by loving each other — those in the flesh we can see — we are safe in God’s love.

The Greek word for “love” throughout this text is agape, the kind of love that, regardless of feelings, wants only the best for the other person. Of course, some people are more lovable emotionally than others. But believers are called to work for the good of all. This means no pull­ing rank over others, no one-upmanship, no rejoicing in others’ misfortune, no bullying or using others to get ahead or to satisfy our lusts and desires.

God is agape, says 1 John 4:16. If we have loved our brothers and sisters in this way, we need not fear meeting agape on the day of judgment. If not, we will have to confront all the ways we have not sought the good of others — and that is scary!

On a related theme, we should discuss the connection of the Gospel of John with 1 John. In the Gospel, Jesus makes sweeping statements about his oneness with God, as in John 5:19-29. He comes across as somewhat less earthbound than he does in the other three Gospels. The Fourth Gospel emphasizes this to counteract the unbelief of Jesus’ opponents, who see him as only earthly and blasphemous: “Can any good come out of Nazareth?”

But what may have happened is that some within the Johannine community rejected Jesus’ humanity altogether. 1 John critiques this aberrant theology strongly by insisting that Jesus was indeed human and touchable.

As one commentary puts it: “Whereas the Gospel declares that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, 1 John insists that the Messiah, the Son of God, is [the human] Jesus.”

As you relate to Jesus today through his Spirit, how do you balance his divinity and his humanity?

Reta Halteman Finger is writing a Bible study blog on the Gos­pel of John at

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