Does Jesus Know What It’s like to Be Us?
Does Jesus know what it’s like to be us? We want to believe that; but can we? After all, he was never married with six kids, as some of us are. He never lived past 33, as many of us do. He was a man, not a woman. He was Jewish, not some other ethnicity. And he never sinned. Yet Hebrews boldly presents him as a perfect High Priest who knows exactly how to sympathize with our weaknesses (Heb 4:15-16; Gal 3:13). So how can he sympathize with sinners, when he never sinned Himself?
Reliving Israel’s History
The broadest biblical answer is that Jesus relived Israel’s history for her. Jesus lived a life of sinless obedience to God’s law, yet was treated—both by people and by God—as if he were the most sinful lawbreaker on earth. He obeyed all the law’s commands, from all of His heart, all the way, all the time (as we could never do). Yet he suffered the full weight of the law’s curse, as if he had disobeyed from all his heart, all the way, all the time (as we actually did).
In doing so, Jesus lived the sinless life that both Israel and all of us should have lived, and then paid the penalty for living the sinful life that Israel and all of us really lived. Theologically, if Jesus did not sinlessly relive Israel’s history, then the historical basis for the imputed righteousness of Jesus, credited to His trusting people, evaporates into thin air. But do we have textual warrant to make the theological and historical case that Jesus lived and died as the new true Israel? Scripture gives it to us in spades.
This fact is one of the first points Matthew is so eager to make in his infancy account. Matthew says Joseph’s flight from Herod to Egypt happened so that Hosea 11:1 would be fulfilled, “Out of Egypt I called my son.” Hosea 11:1 reflected on Israel’s exodus from Egypt. By quoting it, Matthew wants us to see that Jesus’ nascent life begins just like Israel’s national life—with an exodus from Egypt. Jesus will represent His people in their plight. He will accomplish their exodus by first experiencing it Himself.
This is why Luke, at the transfiguration, refers to Jesus’ impending resurrection as, literally, “his exodus, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem” (Luke 9:31). The prequel exodus in Jesus’ infancy signals that He will lead His people in the greater exodus from sin by being the obedient Son of God that Israel never was (Ex 4:22). In his own infancy, Jesus retraces Israel’s steps in and out of Egypt to announce that He has come as the true Israel, God’s obedient Son, who will free us from our slavery to sin by His own obedience in our place—the obedience that Israel (and all of us) failed to render. The prequel exodus in Jesus’ infancy signals that He will lead His people in the greater exodus from sin by being the obedient Son of God that Israel never was (Ex 4:22). Click To Tweet
Israel’s next stop after the exodus was the wilderness, which is precisely where we find Jesus just two chapters later, in Matthew 4:1-11, enduring the same wilderness temptations—appetite, testing God’s patience, and worshiping false gods. Each time, Jesus prevails over the wilderness temptations that tripped up Israel. Then, shortly after the wilderness temptation in Matthew 4, we get the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7, where Jesus appears as a New Moses sitting atop a new Sinai giving a “new and better” law for His new and better kingdom. It’s like Exodus 15-20 are all recurring in Jesus’ own life. The difference, of course, is that where Israel failed, Jesus prevailed—and he did it for us and for our salvation.
Jesus Himself understood and quoted Scripture in just this way—to show that the event of His death and resurrection is the ultimate referent of Israel’s national history of establishment, ruin, and restoration. “Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things’” (Lk 24:45-48). We all know Isaiah 53; but resurrection—and specifically on the third day? Where’s that “written” in the OT? There are really only two places—Jonah’s third-day rise from the whale, and Hosea 6:1-2: “Come, let us return to the Lord; for he has torn us, that he may heal us; he has struck us down, and he will bind us up. After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before Him.” Hosea 6 is a passage about Israel’s judgment and restoration, but Jesus thinks it testifies to Himself as the true Israel, judged for our sins and raised for our justification. Implicit is that Jesus sees the whole history of Israel’s judgment and restoration, the overarching theme of exile and return, as pointing to His own representative, eschatological death and resurrection (cf. Mt 12:41-42; Luke 5:33-39; Jn 5:39, 46), which in turn forms the foundation for the church’s interpretive practice (Eph 2:20).
It becomes clear that Jesus’ hermeneutic is foundational for the apostles when Paul makes the same kind of summarizing gospel statement in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures….” There again, Jesus’ resurrection—specifically on the third day—was just how Scripture foretold it. This can only be rooted in Hosea 6:1-2 (and likely Jonah 1:17; cf. Mt 12:38-42). The implication is that both Paul and Jesus Himself interpreted Israel’s national history of conquest, exile, and return as fulfilled in Jesus’ victorious life (conquering demons, diseases, and deeps), atoning death (“exiled” from God in the cry of dereliction; exiled from the land in the grave), and physical resurrection (return to the land and then to God’s right hand).
James makes the same kind of argument, based on the same assumptions, in Acts 15:14-17. Amos 9 had foretold Israel’s restoration in the dual imagery of restoring David’s fallen tent and the supernatural fruitfulness of the land. James quotes Amos 9, though, in the middle of the Jerusalem Council to explain the ingathering of the Gentiles as a result of Jesus’ resurrection. “James replied, ‘Brothers, listen to me. Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take from them a people for his name. And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written, ‘After this I will return, and I will rebuild the tent of David that has fallen; I will rebuild its ruins, and I will restore it, that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by my name, says the Lord, who makes these things known from of old” (Acts 15:14-18). That rationale only works if James already thinks that Jesus’ resurrection is the rebuilding of David’s fallen tent, so that the remnant of humanity can seek the Lord in Him. Those are the things God made known from of old—the historical events of the gospel, Jesus’ death and resurrection as both trigger and target for the ingathering of the Gentiles. “The whole process of judgment and renewal is conceived as ‘fulfilled’ in the Gospel facts.”
In fact, this application of Jesus as new and representative Israel is the living connection between the NT Christian and the exemplary experience of OT Israel (1 Cor 10:6, 11; Rom 15:4). We apply OT examples to ourselves only through our union with the representative Christ, who prevailed for us where we and Israel failed, and who now sends His Spirit into our hearts so that we too can increasingly prevail where Israel failed, by the same power that raised Jesus from the dead…on the third day.
So, to return to our original question, does Jesus know what it’s like to be us? We’d better believe it, because this is the living logic of justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. It is Jesus’ unique credentialing for His legal representation in our place, and for His effective intercession as our priest. Jesus’ representative obedience as True Israel provides, sustains, and completes the coherence of Scripture’s testimony and salvation’s history. “He has done all our works for us” (Isa 26:12). He walked in our shoes for a time, so that we might wear His righteous robes for all eternity.
 C.H. Dodd, According to the Scriptures: The Sub-Structure of New Testament Theology (London: Nisbet, 1952), 88. Dodd lists four categories of OT texts used by the apostles to prove Jesus is the Christ: Apocalyptic-eschatological (62-74), Scriptures of the New Israel (74-88), Scriptures of the Servant of the Lord and the Righteous Sufferer (88-103), and unclassified Scriptures (104-110). He concludes that the apostolic hermeneutic brings “diverse Scriptures…together so that they interpret one another in hitherto unsuspected ways…. It involves an original, and far-reaching, resolution of the tension between the individual and the collective aspects of several of these figures, which in turn make it possible to bring into a single focus the ‘plot’ of the Servant poems of II (sic!) Isaiah, of the psalms of the righteous sufferer, and of the prophecies of the fall and recovery (death and resurrection) of the people of God, and finally offers a fresh understanding of the mysterious imagery of apocalyptic eschatology” (109). He then asks “Who was the originating mind here?” And he concludes “The NT itself avers that it was Jesus Christ Himself who first directed the minds of His followers to certain parts of the scriptures as those in which they might find illumination upon the meaning of His mission and destiny. To account for the beginning of this most original and fruitful process of re-thinking the OT we found need to postulate a creative mind. The Gospels offer us one. Are we compelled to reject the offer?” (110, referencing Luke 24:25-27, 44-45).