Foundations of Identity

We all long for heroes and thus people groups and individuals search for those who are exceptionally gifted or stand out in some way and then make use of them. This is, it seems to me, a reflection of a normal human longing to affirm good qualities in humans; for we all see and experience so much that is bad or simply evil. The desire to see that someone has been successful, even in some limited way, is understandable, but what hero worship reflects is a failure to understand that the world and human nature, as we encounter them, are not normal. Sin has so marred human nature that even the best persons—our heroes—are not so exceptional as to escape the power of sin. What is needful for us is to come to understand that Jesus is normal and thus he is far greater than anyone who we could look up to as a heroic and inspirational figure.

Hero worship is fundamentally a misguided search for human greatness. The reason for this is that human dignity and destiny are built into us by God and thus even if we have despaired of achieving greatness ourselves (in some limited way) we are awed by others who are able to excel in some particular way. The instinctual urge to find heroes is evidence of God’s having built into human nature a nobility which points to some grand end.

Finding heroes may help us because they may give us positive examples of how we could live and contribute to our families, churches or society. However, our more fundamental need is not for heroes, for they are merely good in one or a perhaps a few ways—intellectually brilliant, athletically skilled, morally disciplined or wise leaders. What we need to know is what is normal for human beings and human life.

The only one who can give us that is the Lord Jesus Christ, for he is the only human being which we could rightly say is fully living as an image-bearer of God. The biblical vision of humanity, as created by God, is to bear and thus image our Creator. The Lord is uniquely the “image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15, NRSV) and thus I assert that Jesus is normal.

In the Person of Christ we find the purpose of God fulfilled. He embodies not only God but also humanity as the perfect (and perfected) human Image of God. Both of these affirmations of his Person are contained in the New Testament. For example, in regard to the humanity of our Lord, the writer of Hebrews states,

“In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience though what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.” (Hebrews 5:7-10, NRSV)

This text is noteworthy for several reasons, not the least of which is the difficulties it has given interpreters of many generations. The point I am making with it is that Jesus the man, who is the Son of God, is presented as fully human like us. As the high priest of God he represents us and also the Father. His pattern of life (“reverent submission”) is given as the model for us. We cannot say that he is so unlike us that he cannot be an example (see Hebrews 12:2)! Jesus is normal and thus the pattern of his life demonstrates what a God-filled human being is like and is capable of doing in vital union with God. This is why the Lord confidently told the disciples that “the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.” (John 14:12, NRSV)

How little we think of our Lord Jesus! How deficient is our understanding of human beings’ purpose, value and destiny in God! How great is our pride and unbelief in the face of the testimony of our Lord and Scripture! We are blinded by the perspectives of our own time and profound influence of human psychology as a grid for understanding reality.

We gauge what is normal by what is common to human experience. To say that Jesus is normal is not to assert that he is broken, flawed, morally confused or sinful (as we are) but rather that he demonstrated to all who had eyes to see it what a fulfilled, wholesome, God-filled human being is like. Jesus is normal because he consciously and perpetually lived in the purpose God had for human beings and the influence he wanted them to have in his creation, as they remain rooted in God by faith. As he said, he was doing the “will of the Father.”

Understanding this has helped me to appreciate why Paul declared that those God “foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he [the Son] might be the firstborn within a large family.” (Romans 8:29, NRSV) Frequently evangelicals speak of our need to be “like Christ.” The point of this most often seems to be that we are to behave like him (thus the cliché “What would Jesus do?”). I think that this is not quite what Paul had in mind when he described believers as “being transformed into the same image [of the Lord] from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18, NRSV)!

Since Jesus is normal we are to become like our Lord because his life is the life of God embodied. And since God’s design has always been to reproduce his own divine life in each unique human person who believes we then by faith actively ask for his fullness of spiritual power and learn to obey our Lord Jesus. Behavior is communication for it reveals the inner self; self-knowledge is a gift given to spur us on to progressively greater self-awareness so we can learn the multiple ways in which we must be conformed to the example of the Lord. Yet this conforming of one’s habits and behavior can only be authentic if the life of Jesus is present and powerfully working in a person.

Paul referenced this when he described himself and his co-workers as

“always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that he life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.” (2 Corinthians 4:10-12, NRSV)

Paul is among the giants of Christian faith. There are many reasons to admire and emulate him. He is among the handful of persons from Scripture and history who I deeply admire. This admiration comes from the obvious strength of character, courage and faith they demonstrated in their lives. And there a few people I know (or have known) personally who I would say I have enormous respect for. That respect comes from my personal observations and the way these men and women have demonstrated the character of the Lord toward me. I think that this is healthy and right for me think of well of them for these reasons.

Yet there is only One who I adore and look to as a perfect example for how to live rightly, conscious of the Presence of the living God. The Lord has won my affection and convinced me that he is Truth. I am convinced of the soundness of Paul’s words, as he exhorted his readers to completely forsake their former ways of thought and behavior and then reminded them that they had learned of the Anointed One in a radically different way (see Ephesians 4:20; 2 Corinthians 5:16). For Jesus is normal and human perspectives are warped and darkened by sin. Thank God for the work of the Holy Spirit to reveal who Jesus our Lord is to those with ears to hear.

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