The Man Christ Jesus

A few years ago, it was popular to emphasize the masculinity of Jesus. This was not just an assertion of his humanity but something more. It was an attempt to attract men to the Christian faith by showing that Jesus was a man’s man. This vision portrayed a well-muscled Jesus who worked as a laborer, slept in the open, and hung out with the guys (twelve guys to be specific). It was a theme that coincided with the rise of men’s movements both secular and sacred in the culture at large and which was fueled further by angst over what some called the “feminization” of the church.

But the notion of “muscular” Christ did not begin with the Promise Keepers Movement of the 1990’s. The idea of muscular Christianity was popularized during the 19th century and connected the development of Christian character to athletics. What is more, it reflected a way of thinking that was not limited to the Christian sphere. It is interesting to note that Nazism later espoused a similar view, linking the shaping of German character with a national emphasis on athleticism. The Nazi vision of muscularity sprang from a desire to produce a race of warriors and reflected the movement’s affinity with paganism. I am not suggesting that the idea of muscular Christianity is similarly pagan, only noting that there is nothing distinctly Christian about muscularity.

One perceived obstacle in the campaign to rehabilitate Jesus’ muscular image was His affirmation of the virtue that the Bible calls meekness. This was reflected in the third beatitude, which promised that the “meek will inherit the earth.” The Nazis tried to take the earth by force. The athlete relies on superior skill and training. But Jesus points in an entirely different direction. According to Jesus, the meek will win the day. So many have pointed out that meekness is not weakness that the observation has become a cliché. But we also make a mistake when we try to buff up the term.

We get a better idea of what Jesus really means by meekness when we note how he applies it to himself in the invitation of Matthew 11:29: “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” The image is soft rather than hard. The man Christ Jesus is “gentle” and approachable. Although the highest rank is his by right, he does not demand the prominence that goes with it. Instead, he associates with the lowly. He was, as Martyn Lloyd Jones observed, the most approachable person the world has ever seen.

The New Testament does not seem to be especially interested in protecting the muscular image of Jesus. This may be frustrating to those of us who live in an age where hypersensitivity about sexual identity is a feature of daily life. Nevertheless, when 1 Timothy 2:5 speaks of “the man Christ Jesus,” it emphasizes his humanity rather than his masculinity.

What implication does this have for those who are trying to understand what it means to be a man or a woman? It points us in the direction of deference and mutual respect instead of power. Rather than striving for ascendancy, we yield. Instead of demanding our rights, we leave it to God to give us our due. This is a bitter pill to swallow for those who have come to calculate their worth in terms of strength. It also puts a very different cast on what it means for a Christian male to “act like a man.” Apparently, it has more to do with meekness than with muscles.

4 thoughts on “The Man Christ Jesus

  1. “Instead of demanding our rights, we leave it to God to give us our due. ”
    This is true for both genders, today as always. God’s way is best.
    Good job, as always, John!

  2. This post is incredibly unfair to muscular Christians. First, the Nazi analogy is just plain false. Many cultures have emphasized physical prowess throughout the centuries; the Knight’s Templar were probably some of the greatest warriors ever produced by the West. The Nazis are nothing like the muscular Christians, because their are an atheistic and pagan ideology. If anything, they would agree with you that all of their opponents, including Christianity, are inherently puny. Jesus must have been physically strong to fast for forty days and walk from village to village preaching in the desert. Second, Jesus says “gentle and humble in heart.” One can be humble in heart and physically strong, as are many of the best athletes. Perhaps the best example of this is Richie McCaw, one of history’s greatest athletes. He led the New Zealand All Black Rugby team during one of their most successful periods. His athleticism and fortitude are unmatched, and he paired it with a strong humility of heart. This allowed him to bring his team together in fellowship, yet also make it effective. We want Christian fellowship to be effective at standing up for our faith while having strong bonds, correct? If anything, it is not very humble of heart for you to denounce athleticism, especially comparing it to Nazis.

    1. Alex,
      Your point is quite valid that athleticism is compatible with the Christian faith. Paul uses athletic analogies to help us understand the nature of discipleship and to speak of his calling (2 Tim. 2:5; 1 Cor. 9:24, 26; Gal. 2:2; Phil. 2:16). And, of course, there have been notable Christians whose faith has been demonstrated in a powerful way on and off the field. Eric Liddell, the flying scotsman, comes to mind. Charles Studd, one of the Cambridge Seven and a leader in the 19th century Student Volunteer Movement, is another. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I appreciate it.

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