Why Jesus Can Sympathize with You
Jesus Christ is both fully God and fully man. When many of us read about the God-man in the Gospels, however, we see the God and miss the man.
Perhaps we have heard others stress Jesus’s Godness more than his manness. Perhaps we have a zeal (and rightly so) to defend his divinity over against its deniers. Or maybe we just struggle to grasp how the eternal, omnipotent God could live a genuinely human life, with all its limitations.
Regardless, when we read the Gospels, many of us are more prone to see his divinity than his humanity. We often see the Creator of heaven and earth, and miss the carpenter from Nazareth. We see the Son of God, and we miss the son of Mary.
“We often see the Creator of heaven and earth, and miss the carpenter from Nazareth.”
But when we miss the full and true humanity of Christ, we miss a precious part of our Savior. We miss the one who can sympathize with our weaknesses. We miss the Christ whose heart grows warm when he meets our frailties, troubles, and temptations. We miss the man who, out of love for us and his Father, was “made like his brothers in every respect” (Hebrews 2:17).
So what do we mean when we say that Christ became fully and truly human? We mean, at least, that he took on a human body, a human mind, human emotions, and a human will.
Some of the earliest attacks against Jesus’s humanity concerned his body. Some people, especially those influenced deeply by Greek philosophy, just could not abide the idea that the immortal God would take on flesh and blood.
Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John felt no such embarrassment. Jesus, they tell us, ate and drank (Matthew 11:19), rested and slept (John 4:6; Mark 4:38), bled and wept (Luke 22:20; John 11:35). They could not tell us otherwise. How could they deny what they had seen, heard, and touched with their hands (1 John 1:1)?
The body Christ took was, apparently, unremarkable. Nothing about his appearance suggested that he was more than your typical Galilean — his hair texture and skin tone matching his neighbors’, his facial features reminiscent of his mother’s. The woman who caught the hem of his garment would not have noticed a glow underneath; rather, the dusty sandals of one who “had no form or majesty that we should look at him” (Isaiah 53:2).
Nor did Jesus shed his body when he rose from the dead and ascended to his Father. His blood, congealed after three days, began to pump again; his brain synapses, dormant in death, began to fire again; his limbs, stiff through rigor mortis, began to bend again (Luke 24:39). Having once taken on flesh, he now keeps it forever. The Christ on heaven’s throne, though glorified, is still human like us (Colossians 2:9).
Just as Jesus took on a human body, so he took on a human mind. Donald Macleod explains the simple but surprising truth: “He was born with the mental equipment of a normal child, experienced the usual stimuli and went through the ordinary process of intellectual development” (The Person of Christ, 164).
True, the adolescent Jesus could sometimes astound his hearers with his wisdom (Luke 2:41–50). But Jesus was not born with such knowledge; as with other boys, he needed to “increase in wisdom” through his hearing of the Scriptures, his parents’ instruction, and the Spirit’s teaching (Luke 2:52).
Even in his ministry, Jesus was not all-knowing. He found it necessary to ask, “Who touched me?” when power went out from him (Mark 5:31), and “How many loaves do you have?” when he prepared to feed the crowd (Matthew 15:34). He freely admitted that he did not know everything — for example, and most memorably, the timing of his return (Mark 13:32).
What, then, are we to make of Jesus’s ability to unmask men’s thoughts and, at times, foretell the minutest details of future events (Mark 2:8; Matthew 21:1–3)? We remember that Jesus, unlike us, was filled with the Holy Spirit “without measure” (John 3:34). By virtue of the Spirit’s anointing (Acts 10:38), Jesus received the revelation he needed to fulfill his mission.
“The Christ on heaven’s throne, though glorified, is still human like us.”
But, like us, he was not omniscient. Macleod writes, “Omniscience was a luxury always within reach, but incompatible with his rules of engagement. He had to serve within the limitations of finitude” (169). He stepped forward, willingly, into a future that was sometimes dim to him, trusting his Father at every step (Matthew 26:42; 1 Peter 2:23).
With a human body and a human mind come human emotions, a fact that meets us on every page of the Gospels. Our Lord Jesus did not move through the world serenely detached from the griefs, sorrows, perplexities, and joys of those around him. “Christ has put on our feelings along with our flesh,” John Calvin wrote (Epistle of Paul the Apostle, 55).
Was any man ever more genuinely touched by the plight of broken sinners? “He had compassion” appears again and again in the Gospels, showing just how tenderly Jesus felt toward the sick (Matthew 14:14), the bereaved (Luke 7:13), the lost (Mark 6:34), and others burdened by the fall. Compassion moved him to weep (John 11:35), sigh (Mark 7:34), groan (John 11:33), and take our sorrows as his own (Isaiah 53:4).
And was any man ever more inflamed to holy anger by hypocrisy, unbelief, and injustice? Faced with pious nonsense, Jesus “looked around . . . with anger” (Mark 3:5). Confronted by religious showmanship, he thundered seven rounds of “Woe to you!” (Matthew 23:13–36). Opposed on the path of his passion, he likened his own disciple to the devil (Mark 8:33).
Alongside compassion and anger we could list love and joy (Mark 10:21; Luke 10:21), gratitude and grief (John 6:11; Mark 14:34), longing and the deepest distress (Luke 22:15, 44) — all of them untainted by sin.
Finally, and perhaps most mysteriously of all, Jesus carried with him a human will. “I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me,” he said (John 6:38). We must not infer from such a statement that Jesus ever found within himself a will bent toward rebellion; his very food was to do his Father’s will (John 4:34). But we can infer that Jesus’s will, based on his own human desires, sometimes shrank back from the short-term agonies of obedience.
In Gethsemane, Jesus trembles when he finds himself alone in the garden, finally facing his destined cup. At one level, Jesus does not want to receive what his Father is handing him: “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me” (Matthew 26:39). He saw the cross, along with the wrath and dereliction, and, as Stephen Wellum writes, he “recoils from the thought.”
Yet, “as the obedient Son who loves his Father, and in his humanity, he aligns his human will with the will of his Father” (God the Son Incarnate, 347). In supreme love and matchless humility, Jesus speaks the words he taught us to pray: “Your will be done” (Matthew 26:42). And for the joy set before him, he goes to the cross.
Sympathy of the Savior
When we reflect on the full and true humanity of Christ, we are not venturing into the abstract air of theological reflection. Our feet are on the ground. We are dealing with matters that concern ordinary sinners and sufferers.
The doctrine of Christ’s humanity is a doctrine for the sickbed, for the silent hours of a lonely night, for the moments when temptation thrusts us against the wall. Here, as we feel the burden of all that it means to be human, we have a Savior who can sympathize. We have one who was made like us in every way, “yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). One who felt weariness down to the depths. One who was misunderstood, slandered, and deserted. One who endured the death throes of the cross and the apparent desolation of the Father he loved so dearly.
“When we forget our Savior’s humanity, we forfeit our Savior’s sympathy.”
When we forget our Savior’s humanity, we forfeit our Savior’s sympathy. But when we consider that he was (and is!) human as we are, then perhaps we can learn to say with Charles Spurgeon, “The sympathy of Jesus is the next best thing to his sacrifice. . . . It has been to me, in seasons of great pain, superlatively comfortable to know that in every pang which racks his people the Lord Jesus has a fellow-feeling. We are not alone, for one like unto the Son of man walks the furnace with us.”
Do you feel friendless and afraid? Jesus, the forsaken one, can sympathize with you. Do you feel swallowed by a sorrow that no one understands? Jesus, the grief-stricken one, can sympathize with you. Do you feel your body breaking? Jesus, the beaten and crucified one, can sympathize with you.
If we are in Christ, we have a Savior in heaven whose heart still throbs for his brothers here below. Come to his throne of grace. There you will find one like yourself. He will welcome you. He will sympathize with you. And gradually, he will conform you, a deeply flawed son or daughter of Adam, into the image of his perfect humanity.