Several years ago, an article in Popular Mechanics reported that forensic scientists had reconstructed the “real face of Jesus.” Their reconstruction differed sharply from the typical portraits of Jesus that portrayed Christ with graceful features, light skin and flowing, brown hair. Instead, these scientists gave Jesus large dark eyes, black hair and tawny skin; bushy eyebrows and a short, frizzed moustache, beard and hair; as well as strong cheek bones and a bulbous nose.
However accurate this reconstruction may or may not be, it is merely a recent foray in a long history of attempts to pinpoint the “real” character and identity of the “historical Jesus.” These attempts have often ended in portraits, whether artistic or written, that reflected more accurately the prejudice of the artist or scholar than the reality of Jesus. As someone once wrote, many have looked into the deep well of history in search for the real Jesus, but in the process they saw only their own reflections.
Despite their errors, these scholars and artists correctly affirmed the humanity and historicity of Jesus. In fact, not all people have done so. In the centuries immediately following the Lord’s ascension into heaven, one group of people called the “Docetists” actually denied that Jesus was a real human being with a physical body. Jesus, they said, was actually a spiritual being who only seemed human. His bodily form was only an illusion.
In contrast, Scripture portrays Jesus as a historical person, whose historical birth we celebrate during the Christmas season. God became a true man, who walked the earth at a particular time and particular place. He was no mirage. The apostle John wrote that, in proclaiming the gospel, he testified to “what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have observed, and have touched with our hands” (1 John 1:1). Like all humans, Jesus grew from infancy to adulthood. He had a physical body that needed food, water and sleep. Even after his resurrection, he urged his skeptical followers to see and touch his wounds. He also displayed human emotions like joy, sorrow and anger. And like virtually all humans, He died.
But why does it matter that Jesus was a man who actually lived in history? Out of many reasons, I will mention three. First, as a Christian historian once wrote, Jesus’ birth and saving work in “the particular culture of first-century Judaism suggests something – if only a dim shape within a mystery – about the dignity of human actions and perspective rooted in very specific historical circumstances” (Mark Noll, “The Potential of Missiology for the Crises of History,” in History and the Christian Historian, 122). Since God became a man who lived in a particular time and place, we can be more confident that He cares about the particulars of our time – whether about the fall and rise of nations or about the struggles of a family or church in rural Missouri.
Second, because Christ was a true man, he sympathizes with us and intercedes for us. The author of Hebrews wrote, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tested in every way as we are, yet without sin. Therefore let us approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us at the proper time” (Heb. 4:15).
Third, because Christ Jesus died a historical death and rose physically from the grave, believers can look with hope to their own resurrection. “If Christ has not been raised,” the apostle Paul wrote, “your faith is worthless” (1 Cor. 15:17). He added that, if Christ was not raised physically and historically, then we will likewise perish in the grave. But, in fact, Christ has risen. And at his second advent, we also will be raised and “revealed with Him in glory” (Col. 3:4).