It may appear to some folks that a piece like this might indicate someone has too much spare time on his hands! But there are a few good reasons why this topic can make for a serious and legitimate investigation. One major reason – and a very important reason – is that Christians affirm both the full deity of Christ as well as his full humanity.
How we understand the humanity of Christ is always a vital topic for discussion. Also, there are some theologies, such as the Health and Wealth Gospel, which assert that the Christian should never get sick. If they do get sick, they are lacking in faith or have particular sin in their life.
Therefore the claim is made frequently by the HWG teachers that Jesus was never sick. The implication of this is that if Jesus was not affected by sickness, neither should his followers be. I could offer various quotes here by these folks – and I do so in an entire appendix to my PhD thesis on suffering and the HWG – but this will have to be an abridged version of what I have written there.
How are we to seek to answer this question? First, in the Bible there is often a difference between description and prescription. Just because something is described does not mean it is to be prescribed. And because something is not mentioned does not necessarily mean it should be proscribed.
Even if it is true that Jesus was never sick, does it follow that believers should also be illness-free? Consider some other things Jesus did not do, or areas which we have no information of in the New Testament. We never read of Jesus laughing, of having a bath, or of even smiling.
Does this mean that Christ’s disciples are also to follow suit in these areas? Or what about activities that Jesus did engage in? For example, Jesus was circumcised. Jesus was crucified. Should believers be as well (other than in a metaphorical sense)?
Arguing from silence, in other words, can be dangerous. It is interesting, for example, that Paul seems to nowhere mention the fact of the virgin birth of Christ. Does that mean he did not believe in it? So even if it is true that Jesus was never afflicted with illness, there still is the question of whether this should be true of believers as well.
Second, as already mentioned, we are arguing from silence here. Very little is actually known about the earthly life of Jesus. As has been rightly stated, the gospels are basically extended introductions to the passion narratives. The last week of Jesus on earth receives most of the attention in the gospels, while his first thirty or so years of earthly life are largely passed over. Indeed, Paul seems to glory in not knowing Christ “after the flesh” (2 Cor. 5:16 KJV).
But even so, can we in fact know that Jesus never experienced illness? One way to approach this issue is to simply ask a number of questions about the life of Jesus on earth. Did Jesus ever:
Have nappy rash?
Cry as a baby?
Have a runny nose?
Have a headache?
Lose a tooth?
Have mosquito bites?
Suffer physical exhaustion?
True, not all of these conditions have to do with actual illness as such, but they help make my point. Just how exempt was Jesus from the common ailments and ordinary frailties of life? We do know of some human frailties experienced by Jesus: he was tired (John 4:6); he was thirsty (John 19:28); and he was hungry (Matt. 4:2).
We can tease all this out even further: Did Jesus ever fall as a boy and scrape his knee? If so, did that scrape get infected? Or did it heal instantly? These kinds of questions have to do with just how we are to understand Jesus and his full humanity.
One way to approach these sorts of questions is simply to examine the various passages that speak the most directly about Christ’s humanity (apart from what we find in the gospels). Let me offer five of the major texts which bear on this issue, and add a few comments about each of them:
-Romans 8:3 For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering.
We face some difficulties in a text like this. As C. K. Barrett comments, Paul’s discussion of the doctrine of the Incarnation “raises one of its most difficult problems. If Jesus Christ was on the one hand God’s own Son, on the other he was man. But in what relation did he stand to the humanity he came to redeem?”
As with the other passages, this question is not clearly answered. But as with all the others, the clear thrust of the passage is that a genuine humanity was assumed by Christ. Thomas Schreiner is one commentator to explicitly state that sickness is a part of this humanity. The drift of this and the other passages seems to make it a very real possibility.
Says Schreiner: “The Son did not merely resemble human flesh but participated fully in sinful flesh. This does not mean that the Son himself sinned … but that he participated fully in the old age of the flesh, and that his body was not immune to the powers of the old age: sickness and death.”
He continues: the word “likeness” was “inserted to stress the identity between Jesus and sinful flesh, yet at the same time it also suggests that he is unique. That is, his body was subject to the disease, death, and weakness of the old order, yet the Son himself was not sinful, nor did he ever sin.”
-Galatians 4:4 But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law,
The Galatians passage also gives us some clues about his humanity, but also leaves us asking more questions. Indeed, we must look further at issues such as the Virgin Birth to begin to get a proper handle on what this entails. But as Gordon Fee says, the Son of God “was no docetic Christ, but shared fully in our humanity, preexistent Son of God though he was.”
-Philippians 2:5-8 Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross!
The Philippians 2 passage is a theological and exegetical battleground which can only be given scant attention here. The important point for our purposes is that Paul wants to emphasise the very real nature of his humanity. As Frank Thielman remarks: “Christ Jesus became human in the exact sense, in every sense that makes one truly human.” Or as Peter O’Brien says, “Christ fully participated in our human experience.”
G. Walter Hansen comments: “The ambiguity of the phrase in the likeness preserves both the similarity of Christ to human beings in his full humanity and the dissimilarity of Christ to fallen humanity in his equality with God and his sinless obedience.”
-Hebrews 2:14-18 Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death – that is, the devil – and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants. For this reason he had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.
What does it mean when it says Jesus was “made like his brothers in every way” (Heb, 2:17)? He was truly man, as the creeds confirm, while also truly God. Any denial or minimizing of his humanity leads one out of the orthodox position, as affirmed in the early creeds and councils.
While the Incarnation remains mysterious in many aspects, the biblical data does present us with a fully human Christ. As Donald Macleod in his The Person of Christ expresses it, “Jesus had ordinary human desires, longings, preferences and aspirations. Just as truly, he had human aversions. Under these influences he made decisions and pursued options in the same way as we do ourselves.”
He goes on to say this: “Nothing that was human was alien to him. He was liable to all the miseries of this life; he was vulnerable to all its darker emotions; he was destined to lose communion with God; and he was mortal. But why? Not because he was fallen, but because, prompted by love, he freely chose to suffer with the fallen and, at last, to suffer for the fallen. He was crucified between two thieves, but he was no thief. He was made sin (2 Cor. 5:21), but he was no sinner.”
In his commentary on Hebrews O’Brien states that “here the stress is on his sharing in all the experiences of life.” In 4:15 and 7:26 his sinless character is emphasised. “For now, however, the stress is on the total identification of the incarnate Son with his brothers and sisters.”
-Hebrews 4:15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet was without sin.
Commenting on verses 14-18, Gareth Lee Cockerill says: “Because of the Son’s God-given bond with the ‘children’ (v. 13), he took on their human condition, here described in all its frailty and brokenness as ‘blood and flesh’. He was unique in his obedience, but fully one in sharing the kind of humanity that characterized the people of God.”
He continues: “He assumed their broken humanity in order that it might be mended and glorified. . . . The Son did not assume an artificial or idealized humanity, but one characterized by the brokenness of the actual humanity which his people shared.”
All these passages of course take us into deep waters of major theological concerns such as the nature of the person of Christ, and the doctrine of the Incarnation, topics too large to properly be entered into here. The orthodox doctrine of the person of Christ (one person with two natures) is one laden with much mystery and need of nuance.
The Council of Chalcedon of 451 is often still regarded as the point of reference on this debate about the two natures. But the topic may never fully come within our grasp. As Donald Guthrie says of the Heb. 2 passage, “To deliver man, Jesus Christ had to share his nature. We are in the presence of mystery here. The fact that he himself partook of the same nature sums up the perfect humanity of Jesus. When this statement is set over against the statements in chapter 1 about the divine Sonship of Jesus, the mystery deepens.”
In sum, the doctrine of the Incarnation is one of the most difficult and most commented on aspects of Christian belief. What it fully entails is only partially revealed to us. But the New Testament makes it clear that Jesus was a real man, sharing in a real humanity. Whether this entails sickness is nowhere clearly stated.
But it can be said that in seeking to present to us a Jesus who was immune from life’s suffering, at least in the area of illness, it is possible that the faith healers may in fact be presenting a Christ for whom we draw no comfort, no sense of identification, no rapport. This is in contrast to the passages cited above, which not only declare doctrinal truth, but offer comfort to believers as they identify with Christ, just as Christ identified with us.
For further reading:
I am not aware of much being written on this particular subject in the theological literature concerning the person of Christ. Of course, on a much broader level, a lot has been written. That is, ever since the days of the early church fathers, there has been intense interest in what the humanity of Christ is all about.
Thus we do have 2000 years’ worth of discussion on the more generic issue of what was entailed in the orthodox belief that Christ is fully man as well as fully God. There are plenty of great volumes one could recommend here, but for a good survey of the issues involved, see Thomas Weinandy’s In the Likeness of Sinful Flesh (T&T Clark, 1993).
After I had written my appendix on this matter, I did come across some bits and pieces by a few other writers. In Healing and Holiness by Sam Storms (Presbyterian & Reformed, 1990), there is an appendix entitled, “Was Jesus Ever Sick?” The three pages he devotes to the question are quite similar to my own.
For example, he asks similar questions to those that I asked: “Would Jesus ever have had a headache from the hot summer sun in Palestine? Might he have suffered from allergies? Might he ever have experienced stomach problems from drinking impure water? If he struck his thumb in the carpentry shop, would it have swollen up and turned black and blue, or perhaps become infected?”
And more recently I learned of these words from popular author Max Lucado: “Jesus may have had pimples. He may have been tone-deaf. Perhaps a girl down the street had a crush on him or vice-versa. . . . He was, while completely divine, completely human” (God Came Near, 1987).
One might say this is a futile theological question, since the purpose of the Incarnation, at least primarily, was the cross. But the questions remain. Jesus, unlike Adam, had a different beginning on earth. One can assume that Adam and Eve were created as full grown adults, and not as babies.
Jesus however was born a baby, developed into a boy, and later became an adult. So we see real physical growth in the life of Jesus. If he would not have been crucified, would he have continued to grow physically? That is, would he have continued to age? And if he continued to age, would he eventually have died?
These are big questions which in part we can only speculate on. But we serve a Lord who is both truly divine and truly human. That is great news, and that is what makes our salvation possible.