Christians believe Jesus is God. But this belief wasn’t the starting point for Jesus’ earliest followers. While Jesus’ humanity was a given for the disciples, his divinity was a truth they had to grow into believing—it was a journey of faith. As Christians today, we’re also called into a faith journey—this time, to rediscover Jesus’ humanity. Yes, we believe that Jesus is God, but do we believe in his humanness? And if so, how does that transform our own experience of being human?
Bible Gateway interviewed Trent Sheppard about his book, Jesus Journey: Shattering the Stained Glass Superhero and Discovering the Humanity of God (Zondervan, 2017).
How did concluding that there’s no better way to see God than by looking at Jesus set you on your faith-shifting journey that resulted in this book?
Trent Sheppard: Our view of God is shaped by all sorts of things—family background, religious traditions, pop culture, etc.—and about ten years ago I realized that I was subconsciously filtering my reading of Jesus through my preconceived views of God.
The New Testament, however, invites us to do something radically different: to reshape, to reform, to reimagine our view of God through the person of Jesus.
Because Jesus, according to Hebrews 1:3, is the “precise expression” of God. Or, as Paul puts it in Colossians 1:15, “Christ is the visible image of the invisible God.” Or, better yet, here’s Jesus himself in John 14:9, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the father!”
Once that truth dawned on me—that there’s no better way to see God than by looking at Jesus—it set me on a journey deep into the heart of the Gospel accounts to encounter, to know, to be transformed by this vibrant, living, breathing, laughing, crying, dying, rising, flesh-and-blood first-century figure: Jesus.
How do you recommend Christians explain to their friends the concept that Jesus was fully God and fully human?
Trent Sheppard: Ha! I don’t. How could we possibly explain such a mystery?
I do, however, urge people to encourage their friends to actually read the stories of Jesus’ life in the Gospel records, and to let the Scriptures speak for themselves.
Also, we must always remember the disciples begin following Jesus long before they were convinced he was God, and in that sense we can trust the Holy Spirit to convince our friends too.
Why do you say the humanity of Jesus increases a person’s faith to follow him?
Trent Sheppard: Because I can’t even begin to identify with the Mind that made matter, with the Voice that spoke galaxies into existence, or with the Power that holds all things together…
but I can identify with the compassion Jesus showed lepers,
and I can identify with the frustration he felt with the religious leaders,
and I can identify with the sorrow he experienced when people rejected him.
It’s this sort of stuff—raw, down-to-earth, “human stuff” (that is, compassion, frustration, rejection, etc.)—in which Jesus works out his humanity, and invites us to follow him.
And when we realize that Jesus really does understand what it means to be human (warts and all!), it increases our faith that he will help us know what to do with the bewildering, painful, joyful experiences of our own humanity.
What’s the significance of the “100 days” that you write about?
Trent Sheppard: Jesus lived for approximately 33 years. That’s about 12,000 days. Of those 12,000 days, if you add up each and every story the Gospel writers tell, those stories account for no more than 100 days of Jesus’ life—total.
One hundred days out of 33 years. That’s it. That’s what we know. That’s all the Bible tells us. Which just begs the question: What was Jesus doing for most of his life?
I guess you’ll have to read Jesus Journey to find out more (a shameless book plug!), but the vital point for you and me is this: All of life was important to Jesus because all of life is important to God.
Why do you think the Bible is relatively silent on the childhood years of Jesus, only telling that one extraordinary story from when he was 12?
Trent Sheppard: Well, the short answer—and the one that make most sense historically—is this: There probably weren’t any other “extraordinary” stories to tell. Young Jesus, in so many ways it seems, was like all the other kids.
The one extraordinary story we do have comes from Luke 2:41-52, and all the clues point towards Jesus’ mother, Mary, as the one who tells Luke this story. In fact, you almost get a sense that Luke may have actually asked Mary at some point, “So, what was he like as a child?”
To which Mary may have thoughtfully responded (and please keep in mind, of course, that this is complete speculation): “Well, in most ways he was like all the other kids, but there was this one time, in the Temple, when he was 12…”
There’s not enough space to elaborate here, but a couple of reasons why we think there may have not been any other extraordinary stories to tell from Jesus’ childhood are: (1) his hometown is “astonished” when he begins his ministry at age 30 (Luke 4:16-22), and (2) his family thinks he’s gone mad (Mark 3:20-21).
Basically, if Jesus’ childhood was marked by all sorts of extraordinary things (that is, miracles and the like), then surely his family and hometown would have responded differently to his public ministry when it began.
What’s the danger of people over-emphasizing Jesus’ deity and de-emphasizing his humanity?
Trent Sheppard: That’s an immense question—the sort of question that the early church councils were wrestling with (it was at one of those councils that Saint Nicholas punched a guy named Arius!)—but one danger is that we will move further and further away from the flesh-and-blood, in-your-face, dying-and-rising, historical Jesus who’s revealed in the Gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
Again, the point is not to filter Jesus through your lens of God. Rather, the point is to (re)see God through the person of Jesus.
Why do you say Jesus retains his humanness even today in his resurrected body?
But please don’t misunderstand me: the resurrected body of Jesus is most definitely different as well. I explore this in some detail in chapter 36 of Jesus Journey: “Biology 2.0.”
The vital point to keep in mind, however, is that according to the Bible there’s no indication whatsoever that the Incarnation came to an end after the resurrection of Jesus. And yes, that’s an overwhelming thought indeed.
Because it means that we’ll one day meet Jesus in the flesh—heart-beating and breathing, walking and talking, ruling and reigning—King Jesus.
What’s your intention in the way you want people to read your book?
Trent Sheppard: Life is incredibly full, and there are so many things (both good and bad) competing for our attention. Most people, myself included, simply don’t have enough time to read and take-in all that they want to.
With that in mind, I wrote Jesus Journey in 40 brief chapters, with the idea that each reading would be “bite-size;” the sort of thing you can digest one day at a time: with a morning coffee, on the commuter train, before you bolt to class, etc.
The other critical aspect of the 40-day encounter idea is that we desperately need to do something with what we read. I’m reminded here of a wise reversal of an old and well-known-saying: “While that may work in practice, it will never work in theory.”
Following Jesus is a lot like that. It doesn’t work in theory. It works only in practice.
Because of that, each of the brief, day-by-day chapters wraps up with a “Ponder, Pray, Practice” section that enables an immediate response to what you’ve just read. The goal, always, is to put these things into practice and not just think about them.
So, with the brief chapters and the “Ponder, Pray, Practice” response, the goal is for someone to be able to immerse themselves in the life of Jesus over a 40-day stretch.
What are your thoughts about Bible Gateway and the Bible Gateway App??
Trent Sheppard: It’s my “go-to” online Bible—every time! And I especially appreciate how easy it is to compare various translations. And since I use N. T. Wright’s New Testament for Everyone (NTE) as the primary translation in Jesus Journey, I’m thrilled that Wright’s translation is now available at Bible Gateway as well.
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
Trent Sheppard: As part of Eastertide, a number of friends and I are making our way through Jesus Journey one day at a time right now. Each day a new person is blogging their reflections on each chapter, and it really is amazing to hear so many different voices: Sarah in South Africa, Luke in Nicaragua, Vanessa in the United States, Philip in the UK, etc.
We’d love for you to join us in the journey here: trentsheppard.com/blog.
Bio: Trent Sheppard helps to pastor an urban house church called Ekklesia, and oversees Alpha’s work with college students in New England. He lives in Boston, Massachusetts, with his wife, Bronwyn, and their three children. Before moving to Massachusetts, Trent lived in the UK for eight years, working with Youth With A Mission. He’s the author of Jesus Journey and God on Campus: Sacred Causes & Global Effects. His teaching and travels have taken him to 50 nations. You can find Trent online at TrentSheppard.com.
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