What Does it Mean to be Human?

The Vine

What does it mean to be “human”? Our culture provides two radically different alternatives.

You have no doubt heard the statement, “I am only human.” You may have said it yourself. In doing so we focus on our limitations, failures, or desires as humans. We make mistakes. We fail. We participate in all kinds of behaviors to satisfy our lusts. Beyond this our culture looks for its meaning through the results of scientific endeavors; according to modern scientific theory, humans are simply overdeveloped apes. All of our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are understood and interpreted in the framework of biological drives. To be only human is to be little different than the animals.

And yet our culture still uses the word “humanitarian” with its original meaning; we speak of a person as acting humanely, and both terms refer to the higher aspirations we maintain. We aspire to do good, to care for other people and for other forms of life on earth, and to live a life full of meaning and value. No matter how much we learn about the skills and strengths of animals, human supremacy over all other animal life cannot be denied. If there is any hope for the earth, humans will have to prove to be a bit more than mere overdeveloped apes!

In Psalm 8:3-6 David meditates on our very question:

When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers / the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained;
What is man, that thou art mindful of him? / And the son of man, that thou visitest him?
For thou hast made him but little lower than God / and crownest him with glory and honor.
Thou makest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands / Thou hast put all things under his feet.

David rightly wondered why humans would even matter in light of the huge universe in which we live. We are so infinitesimally small compared to our solar system, let alone our galaxy! What is man, that God would be mindful of him or visit him? And yet David also confesses what was established in Genesis: God has made man in His image, a little lower than the angels, and has crowned mankind with glory and honor, giving him dominion over His creation (cf. Genesis 1:26-31).

It is therefore not a matter of whether we are lowly creatures or honored stewards; we are both. God has made us as creatures within His creation: humanity was made from the dust of the earth on the sixth day along with the beasts of the field, and on an earthly level we are indeed members of the animal kingdom, part of the mammalian class, of the primate order, homo sapiens (Genesis 1:26, 2:7). Yet we are not overdeveloped apes: God made us in His image, and since God is spirit, His image involves the matters of the spirit, His intelligence and characteristics (John 4:24). God made man as His offspring, to share in relationship with Him (John 17:1-3, 23, 17:20-23, Acts 17:28). Functionally, God made man to exercise dominion over the earth, to keep it and tend it (Genesis 2:15). We therefore have all kinds of animalistic desires and inclinations, but God calls us to aspire toward Him in a higher calling, renouncing anything which hinders us from seeking after what God has deemed good, healthy, and honorable (Titus 2:11-14).

But what does true humanity look like? In Psalm 8:4 David spoke of humanity in terms of the Hebrew idiom “son of man,” and it would be a particularly promised Son of Man who pointed the way for us. Most people are acquainted with Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ, or the Son of God, yet He tended to speak of Himself more often as the Son of Man (e.g. Matthew 26:64). Yes, Jesus is fully God (John 1:1), yet Jesus is also fully man, both in the Incarnation and still in His resurrection (John 1:14, Colossians 2:9, 1 Timothy 2:5). Jesus is the embodiment of the image and character of God (Colossians 1:15, Hebrews 1:3). We should not be surprised, therefore, to find early Christians continually insisting on the importance of becoming more like Jesus and living like Jesus: to walk as He walked, to do what He did, to be shaped into the form of His conduct (Romans 8:29, 1 Corinthians 11:1, 1 John 2:3-6). Jesus is the Son of Man, the perfect Human One (Hebrews 4:15, 5:8-9). Therefore, if we want to understand what it means to be human, and to see the best of humanity, we find in the life and example of Jesus of Nazareth.

Humanity is a double edged sword; a seemingly impossible contradiction. We are dust made in God’s image; we maintain great powers of mind and imagination yet remain confined to fragile bodies. We all too easily simultaneously justify our lusts and passions because of our limitations while yearning to be freed from what we feel are the oppressive confines of our bodies. We can always find reasons for discontent, but we must remember that we are God’s creation, and it was good (Genesis 1:26-31). We do well to accept who we are as humans, and not seek to be anything more or less than human. We ought not be less than human, justifying animal lusts and impulses which lead to our harm, the harm of others, and distress in the creation; instead, we must follow the Lord Jesus, maintaining our bodies in discipline, seeking holiness and righteousness in daily conduct, serving one another as good stewards of the gifts God has given us (Titus 2:11-14, 1 Peter 4:10). We also ought not aspire to be more than human, trying to play god or curse the limitations inherent in living as a finite, created being; instead, we must glorify God in our bodies, and rediscover the majesty in our design and function, and be content to remain as God’s creation (cf. Psalms 8:3, 139:13-16, 1 Corinthians 6:19-20).

What is man, that God has considered him? Dust to dust, and ashes to ashes, yet made in God’s image to share in relationship with Him and obtain the resurrection of life in Jesus, the true Human One, whose example we ought all emulate. May we find true humanity in Jesus and live as good stewards of God’s varied gifts!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Who Are We? Why Are We Here?

The Vine

We humans tend to seek meaning in our lives and our behaviors. We want to know who we are, why we are here, and what we are supposed to do. We may not always think about it; in fact, many times we just absorb whatever our family or our culture has to say about who we are and why we are here. These questions prove important because they shape our lives: what we think we want out of life, what we need to do in life, and how we feel about the quality of our lives.

People have always asked such questions; the stories we tend to call “mythology” developed to answer them. In the past some people thought they were made to be the slaves of the gods, working the fields and providing food for the gods so they would not have to work. Others thought of the gods in very human terms, as extremely powerful and immortal people who were to be placated more than loved. Today people tend to seek answers from science, and according to science we are all accidents of evolution, born to use resources, create offspring, give ourselves and our offspring every advantage we can, and then we die. In such a world life becomes all about using resources, avoiding pain, and trying to enjoy life to the fullest until we die.

We find a very different story about who we are and why we are here from the pages of the Bible. According to the Scriptures man was not made as a slave of the gods, or developed as an accident: he is made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27). This does not mean that God is just a really powerful human; God is spirit, and well above and beyond us (Isaiah 55:8-9, John 4:24). According to the Bible God is not just one Person, but the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, of the same substance and essence, one in will and purpose: in short, one in relational unity (John 1:1, 18, 17:20-23). Humans are made in the image of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; we have therefore been made in love by the God who is love and who is one in relational unity, and so we seek relational unity with God and with one another (1 John 4:8).

Once we have unlocked this core concept of who we are and why we are here, we can see how it is emphasized as primary in what God has accomplished in Jesus according to the New Testament. After explaining the great power of how God saved His people in Ephesians 2:1-10, Paul went on to explain how God worked to reconcile everyone to Himself through Jesus’ death, allowing all people to become one body in Jesus, as one household of God (Ephesians 2:11-22). Paul went as far as to say that such unity in the body is the eternal purpose which God realized in Jesus, displaying His manifold wisdom to the powers and principalities in the world which seek to divide and conquer mankind (Ephesians 3:10-11). In Ephesians 5:32-33 a “great mystery” involves the relationship between Christ and the church: it is to share in the same depth of intimacy as, or even greater than, enjoyed in the marriage relationship (cf. Genesis 2:28). In the final picture of what life will be like in the resurrection, John is given a vision of the people of God glorified, and God dwells in their midst (Revelation 21:1-22:6): the ultimate goal of life, therefore, is to share in God, and to dwell in His presence forever, in the midst of all of God’s people. The mature Christian will recognize that life cannot be about the gifts God gives more than the gift of God and His presence. Even though the fullness of the intimacy and power of this relationship awaits, God has called all of us to begin sharing in its blessings now. Jesus died and was raised again to prepare a place for us in the household of God; through His Spirit God will now dwell with those who love Him and keep the word of Jesus (John 14:1-3, 20-23; 1 Corinthians 3:16-17, 6:19-20, Ephesians 2:20-22, 1 Timothy 3:15). Christians are to become one with one another and with God as God is One within Himself (John 17:20-23): we are to participate in life together, and enjoy a taste of the beauty of relational unity which we will enjoy fully in the resurrection (1 Corinthians 12:12-28, Ephesians 4:1-16).

Thus God has made us in His image to share in relationship with Him and with one another; God is our heavenly Father, and has done all He can to love us, provide for us, instruct us, and redeem us (cf. Luke 15:11-32, Romans 8:31-39). This should become the predominant way in which we look at God and His purposes for mankind as revealed in Scripture. Yet to what end? God made Adam in the Garden of Eden to keep it and tend it (Genesis 2:15); man is to exercise dominion over the earth (Genesis 1:28). Everything we are and have are gifts from God, and He has given them to us so we may use them as stewards of His varied grace (1 Peter 4:10). We therefore live in relationship with God to use what He has given us for His purposes, to His glory, to serve Him and one another. Some have more gifts than others (e.g. Matthew 25:14-30); yet we all have our distinct purposes and abilities to work to build up one another and help grow the body of Christ and benefit all mankind (1 Corinthians 12:12-28, Ephesians 4:11-16). Our lives, therefore, are not our own: we cannot look at life as something over which we have mastery, using it to build ourselves up to the harm of others, but as a gift from God, to enjoy and share, and all His gifts as blessings with which we can bless others.

God offers true life in Jesus; in Him we live, move, and have our being, and in Him we can find rest, hope, comfort, strength, purpose, meaning, and full satisfaction. The Gospel of Christ remains compelling after all of these years, for in it we find answers to our deepest questions and a meaningful way forward in life. We are made in God’s image to share in life together, not in fear and insecurity to benefit some over others, but in love, joy, and confidence in God, sharing His gifts with one another to His praise and glory. May we put our trust in God in Christ and find true life in Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry