“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” thundered Yochanan, son of Zechariah, as he stood waist-deep in the Jordan River and watched the religious leaders of Israel gather on the riverbank.1 It wasn’t what they wanted to hear, nor were they expecting it. After all, they were God’s people, weren’t they? So why this scathing rebuke?
It was obvious to Yochanan that the ax was already laid at the root of their fruitless branches — the time for reform had passed. The tree was dead, and Yochanan had been born for the very purpose of pronouncing it so, and preparing the way for the Messiah, as his father had prophesied,
“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” (Luke 1:76-79, ESV)
Zechariah, an aged priest at the time of his son’s birth, had known well the condition of Israel. His people were in dire need of salvation, for in spite of their great heritage they were sitting in darkness and the shadow of death. His heart ached for his people. And in the thirty years since he had spoken those words, the darkness of their fallen religion had only increased. How Zechariah’s heart would have pounded if he could have seen and heard his son that day.
But when Yochanan saw Yahshua2 of Nazareth, whom he knew to be the Messiah, coming down the riverbank toward him to be baptized, his confidence was shaken. Who was he to baptize the Messiah? His objection received only the cryptic response, “Permit it at this time; for in this way it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” At that, he immersed Yahshua into the muddy waters, and as He emerged, Yochanan saw what appeared to be a dove alight upon Him, and heard a voice from heaven saying, “You are My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”3
Why did the Messiah Himself need to be baptized? And why did the Father speak those words audibly to His Son as soon as He emerged from the waters? The answers to these questions touch the very nature and purpose of the Son of God — His humanity and divinity. In past centuries many have died over questions such as these, and even today there are some who would call for our blood, if they could, for writing what you are about to read. But for those who love the truth, these words will ring true and answer some of the deepest questions of your heart.
It is a well-established doctrine in Christianity that Jesus is both fully God and fully Man, but what exactly does this mean? What are the practical implications for those who look to Him as their Savior? Most of us have grown up with the image of baby Jesus with a halo on his head, and pictures of a striking, handsome adult Jesus. Even the typical pictures of the crucifixion show a fair-skinned, unblemished man with a little slit in his side and a placid expression on his face. Who can identify with such a Jesus, so beautiful in his perfection, unaffected by sufferings?
But the scriptures give quite a different picture. They tell of a man who was physically unimpressive,4 the son of a poor Hebrew woman,5 who for most of His life worked as a carpenter.6 Although He was miraculously conceived, few people took notice of this fact. And although there are fanciful things written about Him in apocryphal writings, the Bible gives only a small but essential glimpse of His upbringing.
His family had gone to Jerusalem for the Passover and discovered on their way home that Yahshua was not in their company. Evidently He was a trusted son whom they assumed was serving in some way amongst their caravan, perhaps helping care for the animals. They returned to Jerusalem and searched for several days before they found Him in the Temple, amazing the teachers with His understanding of the scriptures. He seemed surprised that they hadn’t known where to find Him, and they were equally surprised by His question, “Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s business?”
Although His parents knew that He was destined to be the Messiah of Israel, clearly they did not expect Him to come into that role so young, nor did they understand what it entailed. But this brief snapshot of His life shows His fascination with the scriptures and how He gave Himself to the task of understanding them. This story begins and ends with two similar statements that show a progression taking place:
And the child grew and became strong in spirit, filled with wisdom; and the grace of God was upon Him. … And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men. (Luke 2:40,52)
Yahshua was not born with the awareness of who He was or what lay ahead of Him. He was born a human baby just like any other healthy baby, except for two invisible qualities: first, that He had not inherited Adam’s fallen nature,7 and second, that His human spirit was one with the divine Spirit.8 Neither of these differences from the rest of humanity would be readily apparent, however, in a newborn baby. The effects of the Fall take time to be manifested in human babies, and the soul’s awareness of the spiritual realm also takes time to develop. So although He must certainly have been a remarkably peaceful baby, He was yet a baby, with a baby’s soul — intellect, will, and emotions. From that point He grew, both physically and in the maturity of His soul.
Human beings are spiritual creatures. A man’s soul is like the sails on a ship, designed to be filled with a spirit just as a ship’s sails are filled with the wind, so as to propel his life on a course. The human spirit (distinct from the soul) was designed as his vital connection to the Spirit of man’s Creator, the means by which man (male and female) could orient his soul so as to be filled with that Spirit. Adam was created with this vital connection intact, with the infinite potential of having his soul (intellect, will, and emotions) fully available to his Creator so as to fulfill his created purpose. But when Adam fell, that vital connection was severed. Man’s spirit lay dormant, and his soul lay vulnerable to whatever spirit he was exposed to, just like a ship adrift in the sea.
There are both good and evil spirits at large on the earth. The good spirits have commonly been called angels, while the bad have been called demons. They are both normally invisible; just like the wind, their presence can only be discerned by their effect. Most people are not sensitive enough to realize when they are being propelled by a spirit, and some even deny their very existence. But spiritual creature that he is, a man’s soul is always being affected by spiritual forces. Fortunately, he has a conscience by which he instinctively knows good from evil. The conscience is like a compass by which a man can orient his “ship” so as to spill an errant wind from his sails, or to fill them with a fair breeze, according to where he wants his life to go, or what effect he wants it to have on others. But the tragic reality is that man’s fallen inclination to satisfy his short-sighted selfish desires makes him at best an imperfect helmsman and at worst a menace to all afloat on the “sea” of life. As a result, all men’s souls are ravaged and in eternal peril.
Enter the Son of Man, conceived by means of an unfallen human seed and possessed of a human spirit vitally connected, indeed fused together with the Spirit of His heavenly Father. His soul, as it developed and matured, was always sensitive to that Spirit, fully yielded to the divine Word within Him. It was not that He had no choice in the matter. He had a free human will with which He had to make choices, just as any human being. He had to face the temptations common to all men, and overcome them by the strength of His communion with His Father. The writer of the letter to the Hebrews repeatedly emphasizes this fact:
Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same… Therefore, in all things He had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For in that He Himself has suffered, being tempted, He is able to aid those who are tempted. (Hebrews 2:14-18)
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. (Hebrews 4:15)
In the days of His flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to Him 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 through what He suffered. And being made perfect, He became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey Him… (Hebrews 5:7-9)
These verses are meaningless if He was not fully human, having a free will by which He could choose to obey or disobey both His earthly parents and His heavenly Father. It says He learned obedience through what He suffered. It does not mean that He was ever rebellious and had to suffer the consequences, for He did not ever sin, but His obedience was perfected as He gave Himself to it. It was not an effortless matter for Him to overcome temptation. All His life, from His childhood until the day He died, He suffered greatly to make the right choices, to deny what would be pleasant or comfortable to His flesh when it was in conflict with the will of His earthly parents as a child, or His heavenly Father as an adult. As a child, the temptations that came to Him and the suffering required to resist them were those common to children. But as He grew up, the temptations were greater and the suffering greater. He increased in His capacity to give Himself to the suffering and surrender His will to His Father’s will.9 This was the learning10 that prepared Him for the greatest suffering of all — the cross and the agonies of death. It was out of love that He gave Himself to His suffering.
The Spirit that was in Him bonded Him to the heart of His Father and gave Him the courage and determination to fulfill His purpose. But just as overcoming temptation wasn’t automatic for Him, neither was it automatic or effortless for Him to understand who He was or the cause for which He was born. He began life as a human baby, and His mind at birth was ready and waiting to be filled, just as that of any other human baby. He did not have a “crystal ball” with which to see into the future. Even in the last days of His time on earth He did not know the day or the hour when He would return; only the Father knew that.11 But what He clearly did know by that time was “everything in the Scriptures concerning Himself.”12
Yahweh, the God of Israel, very carefully selected the best possible mother and foster-father to raise His Son. He chose the most humble and most spiritual man and woman from the line of David out of the small remnant who were truly “waiting for the consolation of Israel.”13 He sent His chief messenger, the angel Gabriel, to prepare both Miriam and Yoceph14 for the responsibility that was being given to them, making it perfectly clear to them that this miraculously conceived child entrusted to them was destined to be the Messiah.15
But far from being puffed up or boastful about their Son’s destiny, they quietly shouldered the awesome responsibility to raise Him in a way that would help prepare Him for that destiny. Surely they filled Him with the stories of their people: of the faith of Abraham and the promise made to him; of his sacrifice of Isaac; of Jacob and his twelve sons; of their deliverance from Egypt; of Moses and the Law; of the Levitical priesthood, the tabernacle and the sacrifices; of the crossing of the Jordan and the conquest of Canaan; of the judges and kings of Israel; of the words of the prophets and the consequences of not heeding them, and of course the wisdom of the Proverbs. And surely as Yahshua learned to read the scriptures for Himself, He filled His soul with them, praying earnestly for the wisdom and insight to understand their meaning, struggling to know who He was and what the prophets had spoken of Him. The divine Spirit in Him revealed to Him who He was very gradually as He matured and as He earnestly sought to know His Father’s heart and mind. That is how the Spirit is with all His own people — He hides Himself so that they will diligently seek Him, just as King David taught his son Solomon:
“As for you, my son Solomon, know the God of your father, and serve Him with a loyal heart and with a willing mind; for the LORD searches all hearts and understands all the intent of the thoughts. If you seek Him, He will be found by you; but if you forsake Him, He will cast you off forever.” (1 Chronicles 28:9)
Yahshua also observed the troubling realities of life among His people. He saw the grinding poverty of many, and the callous disregard of it by the wealthy few who were often among the religious elite. He saw the lame and blind animals the merchants were selling in the temple courts, and observed who bought them. He took note of the long and pretentious public prayers of the Pharisees, and the humble masses of the common people, like sheep without a shepherd, longing to be led out of the futility of their lives.
Compassion for His people and the compelling urgency of the Word of God welled up in His soul in steadily increasing measure and clarity over the years that He labored as a carpenter in Galilee, waiting for the fullness of time. When He heard that Yochanan had begun preaching in the wilderness of Judea, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand! Prepare the way of the Lord; make His paths straight,” echoing the words of the prophet Malachi,16 His heart began to pound. “Was this the time? Was He really the one?” Many “messiahs” had come and gone before Him. All had thought that they were Israel’s liberation, but proved to be just thieves and robbers, leaving the people drowning in disappointment and despair. Was He ready to walk the prophetic path that lay before Him? He was under no illusion as to where it would end. The words of the prophet Isaiah were engraved in His heart:
He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth. By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people? (Isaiah 53:3-8, ESV)
Having made His decision, Yahshua walked down the banks of the muddy Jordan River, His face set like flint17 to accomplish the purpose for which He was born. His countenance bore the mark of that inner struggle and the determination of His soul. He had us in mind. In the Jews who came to be baptized by John, the Law had done its full work — they came because of their sense of sin and guilt, which the ritual sacrifice of the blood of goats could not extinguish. Sin drove them to the voice of hope. They felt their need for God and the forgiveness of God, for freedom from the consciousness of sin and guilt.18 In His baptism, Yahshua identified Himself with sinful man; He took upon Himself their sorrow, their contrition,19 their search for God, and became one in heart with the men He came to save.
To every man comes the moment within his heart and soul of a little shiver of doubt, a faint question mark, the terrible feeling that he may be mistaken, the grim possibility that he may be on the wrong road. Yahshua’s baptism was the moment when the last of these questions perished forever. As He emerged from the waters, the voice that He most desired to hear rang out loud and clear, audible for the first time to His natural ears, “You are My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”20 In that moment He knew in the deepest recesses of His heart that His Father was God and He was His Son. He received the utter conviction of the approval of His Father, of the certainty of His will for Him — the unshakable certainty that He was the Son of God, the Messiah of Israel, as revealed in the Prophets.
It was not for the sake of the crowd that His Father spoke in an audible voice, but to confirm in His beloved Son the absolute truth of all that He had understood in His years of preparation, and to give Him the unshakable certainty that He was on course to do His Father’s will. His preparation was over and the task had begun. The Holy Spirit rested upon Him like a dove to empower Him for all that lay ahead of Him, beginning with the first test:
And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness for forty days, being tempted by the devil. And he ate nothing during those days. And when they were ended, he was hungry… (Luke 4:1-2)
It was no accident that the first challenge from the evil one was to His very identity: “If you are the Son of God…” He needed the unshakable certainty of who He was in order to endure this testing. Had He given in to the evil one’s taunting to seek His own comfort or glory, He would have sinned and disqualified Himself from being the sacrifice for our sins. Instead, by maintaining His communion with the Holy Spirit even at the end of His physical strength, He overcame the persistent temptations of the evil one, and when He had passed the test in the wilderness, angels came to nourish and strengthen Him.21
The test was real, with the real possibility of failure. It was not a performance by God masquerading as a man. It was the very real suffering of a very real man who overcame through the spiritual communion He maintained with His Father in heaven based on the unshakable certainty that He was a son doing His Father’s will. That is how He lived His entire life, and that is how He expects His followers to live their lives, overcoming by the means of grace He opened up for them.
Because He overcame as a man, He was able to take man’s place in death. On the cross He said, “It is finished.” 22 He had finished the course23 He had begun at His baptism, having maintained vital communion with His Father, never committing sin to His dying breath. Never once did He have a complaint against His Father. He knew who He was and what He was to do. Then, in the final moments of His life, the full weight of our sins came upon Him.24 In that instant, His Father turned His face from Him for the first time in His life. He cried out, “MY GOD, MY GOD, WHY HAVE YOU FORSAKEN ME!” Then He went into death — as a man, alone, without the help of His Father — which is exactly what awaits all who die without a sacrifice for their sins. As gruesome and terrible as His dying on the cross was, it was in death, which is unimaginably worse, that He actually paid for man’s sin.25
His unblemished life was an acceptable sacrifice, the spotless Lamb of God that paid for our sins.26 Just as He took identity with us in His baptism, utterly committing His life to die for us, so also in our baptism we must be united with Him in His death,27 utterly committing our lives to live for Him.28 Apart from the total surrender and abandonment of our lives, we cannot have the unshakable certainty that we are sons of God who are doing His will by the grace and strength He provides. And apart from that unshakable certainty we will not overcome the temptations of the evil one, but will instead seek our own comfort and glory.
There must be a people who will walk in the same way in which He walked,29 having the same unshakable certainty that He had, in order for the evil ruler of this age to be bound and for Yahshua the Messiah to return and establish His kingdom on this earth.30 Do you long for that unshakable certainty that you are His son, doing His will in His Body on earth? He lives in every place where His people dwell together in unity, lifting up holy hands without wrath or dissension.31 That is where He honors His sons who serve Him by the grace and strength He provides.32