The Two Natures of Jesus Christ

This Sunday, Lord willing, I will be preaching from Hebrews 4:14-16 which deals with both the divinity and humanity of Jesus. As a word of comfort for struggling saints the inspired writer emphasizes Christ's identification with us through his humanity. "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" (v. 15).

In his wonderful little book Concise Theology, J.I. Packer writes of Jesus' dual nature:

Jesus was a man who convinced those closest to him that he was also God; his humanness is not therefore in doubt. John’s condemnation of those who denied that “Jesus Christ has come in the flesh” (1 John 4:2-3; 2 John 7) was aimed at Docetists, who replaced the Incarnation with the idea that Jesus was a supernatural visitant (not God) who seemed human but was really a kind of phantom, a teacher who did not really die for sins.

The Gospels show Jesus experiencing human limitations (hunger, Matt. 4:2; weariness, John 4:6; ignorance of fact, Luke 8:45-47) and human pain (weeping at Lazarus’ grave, John 11:35, 38; agonizing in Gethsemane, Mark 14:32-42; cf. Luke 12:50; Hebrews 5:7-10; and suffering on the cross). Hebrews stresses that had he not thus experienced human pressures—weakness, temptation, pain—he would not be qualified to help us as we go through these things (Heb. 2:17-18; 4:15-16; 5:2, 7-9). As it is, his human experience is such as to guarantee that in every moment of demand and pressure in our relationship and walk with God we may go to him, confident that in some sense he has been there before us and so is the helper we need.

Christians, focusing on Jesus’ deity, have sometimes thought that it honors Jesus to minimize his humanness. The early heresy of Monophysitism (the idea that Jesus had only one nature) expressed this supposition, as do modern suggestions that he only pretended to be ignorant of facts (on the supposition that he always actualized his omniscience and therefore was aware of everything) and to be hungry and weary (on the supposition that his divinity supernaturally energized his humanity all the time, raising it above the demands of ordinary existence). But Incarnation means, rather, that the Son of God lived his divine-human life in and through his human mind and body at every point, maximizing his identification and empathy with those he had come to save, and drawing on divine resources to transcend human limits of knowledge and energy only when particular requirements of the Father’s will so dictated.

The idea that Jesus’ two natures were like alternating electrical circuits, so that sometimes he acted in his humanity and sometimes in his divinity, is also mistaken. He did and endured everything, including his sufferings on the cross, in the unity of his divine-human person (i.e., as the Son of God who had taken to himself all human powers of acting, reacting, and experiencing, in their unfallen form). Saying this does not contradict divine impassibility, for impassibility means not that God never experiences distress but that what he experiences, distress included, is experienced at his own will and by his own foreordaining decision.

Jesus, being divine, was impeccable (could not sin), but this does not mean he could not be tempted. Satan tempted him to disobey the Father by self-gratification, self-display, and self-aggrandizement (Matt. 4:1-11), and the temptation to retreat from the cross was constant (Luke 22:28, where the Greek for “trials” can be translated “temptations”; Matt. 16:23; and Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane). Being human, Jesus could not conquer temptation without a struggle, but being divine it was his nature to do his Father’s will (John 5:19, 30), and therefore to resist and fight temptation until he had overcome it. From Gethsemane we may infer that his struggles were sometimes more acute and agonizing than any we ever know. The happy end-result is that “because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (Heb. 2:18).

* Packer, J. I. (1995, c1993). Concise theology : A guide to historic Christian beliefs. Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House.