The Incarnation of Christ

When God looked down from heaven, He observed that the entire human race was corrupt and no one was seeking God (Psa 14:2-3). He created us in His image, and we rebelled. Humanity was lost, blind and enslaved by sin. How did our merciful God respond? He did so by becoming one of us, and humbly sharing in our flesh and blood existence (Heb 2:14). Hold the truth of the incarnation of Christ tenaciously, but never get used to it. The source of life, who upholds all things, was held in the arms of His virgin mother and sustained at her breasts. When we cease to wonder, we cease to worship, and it is a massive wonder of divine grace that the Son of God became a man so that men and women could become sons of God.

The Meaning of “Incarnation”

The English term comes from Latin words meaning “in” and “flesh.” In Christian theology, then, the incarnation refers to God’s “in-fleshing” – His being embodied in human flesh. Chapter one of the Gospel According to John identifies Jesus Christ as the eternal Son of God and calls Him “the Word” – a distinctive person within the Godhead (“with God”), yet equally God (“was God”). Then John testifies clearly to the incarnation: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. We observed his glory, the glory as the one and only Son from the Father” (Joh 1:1,14).[1] Notice that He was not dispossessed of divine glory, “for the entire fullness of God’s nature dwells bodily in Christ” (Col 2:9), so that in the incarnation He became what He never was before (a man) without ceasing to be what He ever was (God). “Every other birth [conception] is the creation of a new personality. It was not so with Jesus. There was a Divine Person already existing but now entering upon a new mode of existence.”[2] However, “one must be careful not to confuse the incarnation with a metamorphosis. God did not change into a man, as in Greek mythology. Instead the Son of God adopted human nature and united it with His divine nature in the unity of one person …. This must be taken to mean not that Jesus Christ is a third being between God and man but that he is the One who is fully God and truly man.”[3]

The Fullness of the Incarnation

In our desire to protect the Lord Jesus’ deity, we must be careful not to minimize the reality of His manhood. In fact, denying the genuineness of His human experience is the spirit of antichrist at work (1Jn 4:2-3; 2Jn 7). In His humanity, He developed within the womb of Mary. He went through the successive stages of life, and Scripture presents Him as a swaddled infant (Luk 2:7), a boy who invoked anxiety in His parents and still submitted to them (Luk 2:48,51), and a man who had a regular job as a carpenter (Mar 6:3). His earthly pilgrimage was characterized by prayer, because He was a real man living in dependence upon His God (Luk 22:41-42). He was hungry (Mat 4:2), thirsty (Joh 4:6-7), tired (Mar 4:38), and tears fell down His cheeks (Joh 11:35). We worship a God who is not distant from the pain of our human existence, “for since he himself has suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted” (Heb 2:18). But in becoming like us, He remains different from us, for His true humanity is a perfect humanity. Hebrews 4:15 is a precious summary: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in every way as we are, yet without sin.”

Purposes of the Incarnation

God’s Revelation

God spoke in many ways down through the ages, but His ultimate message and self-disclosure has come in these last days by the incarnation of His Son (Heb 1:1-2). While “no one has ever seen God, the one and only Son, who is himself God and is at the Father’s side – he has revealed him” (Joh 1:18). We are not left grasping in the dark, looking in vain for an unknowable being. God has not hidden Himself – “He was manifested in the flesh” (1Ti 3:16). When we look at the Lord Jesus in the pages of Scripture, we see God unveiled in crystal clarity and our hearts are touched as we learn in Christ that our God is a self-humbling God (Php 2:5-8). Take note – the man, Christ Jesus, is not a partial representation of God, but a perfect revelation of all that God is, “the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15).

Our Salvation

Scripture is replete with the message that, because of our sinfulness, God can only be approached on the basis of a sacrifice, and that “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Heb 9:22). Eternal death is the just punishment for sins (Rev 21:8). For us to be saved – reconciled to God – our penalty needed to be paid, but no man or woman could ever pay the penalty themselves. We are frail and finite sinners, and even the eternal punishment of unbelievers will not make payment for sins committed against the infinite God. The incarnation is the answer. Our salvation required someone to suffer and die in our place, to offer a sacrifice of infinite value and fully pay our penalty. Only God Himself could meet this requirement, so He became incarnate in the person of His Son to accomplish this for us. “The Father has sent his Son as the world’s Savior” (1Jn 4:14), and “the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (1Jn 1:7). Notice, then, these two things: the Father did not become incarnate, but only the Son; and the Scriptures never say that God died, yet the man who is God died. God is spirit and cannot die. So, it was necessary that He become a man, in real flesh and blood, in order to die for us (Col 1:19-22).

The Means of the Incarnation

The Virgin Birth

The humanity of Christ began at His conception in the womb of Mary, who was initially and understandably incredulous at the possibility of her giving birth because she had not “known” a man. So the angel Gabriel explained: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God” (Luk 1:35). Obviously, the Scriptures do not shy away from the supernatural. When God would bring His eternal Son into the world, it is fitting that He would highlight the uniqueness of the person by a unique sign. The reason that defenders of the faith in the early centuries of the Church included the virgin birth in their credal statements (e.g., Apostles’ Creed, Nicene Creed, Chalcedonian Creed) is that they knew it was no trivial addendum to the gospel message. Matthew carefully safeguards the truth in chapter one of his Gospel. After a lengthy list of men who fathered their children, he changes the formula at verse 16: “Jacob fathered Joseph the husband of Mary, who gave birth to Jesus who is called the Messiah.” Jesus was not fathered by Joseph, and as further evidence, Joseph knew it, as verses 18-19 make clear. Matthew also records the birth of Christ as the fulfillment of Isaiah 7:14: “The virgin will conceive, have a son, and name him Immanuel.” What everyone in the presence of Ahaz understood that day is debatable. But the Holy Spirit’s interpretation and word choice in Matthew 1:23 leave no doubt – the virgin birth of Christ was a necessary fulfillment of prophecy.

An Implication of the Incarnation

When the Son of God took on human flesh, He didn’t arrive as a genderless being but as a male. He had a Y chromosome. He had facial hair. His primary company was a group of males. That isn’t asserting that males are superior to females – they are equal, both having been created in the image of God – but it reveals that the incarnation embraces the divine order of gendered sexuality established in Genesis 1. In no way does this diminish the value of the female gender, for God’s Son was “born of a woman” (Gal 4:4). But the incarnation shows that the distinctiveness of genders in the original creation was good – and the resurrection shows us that it will abide. “The incarnation, once accomplished, is a lasting state for our Lord. It began at his birth and continues (albeit in a resurrection body now) forever.”[4] It is the same male body in which Christ suffered that He also rose, and His resurrection is the pattern for ours. The Lord Jesus is forever a man. Clearly human bodies are significant, for the Son of God possesses one.

[1] Bible quotations in this article are from the CSB.

[2] John R. Rollo, “The Son of Man” in The Faith – A Symposium of Bible Doctrine, F.A. Tatford, Ed. (Kilmarnock: John Ritchie Ltd., 1999), 51.

[3] Donald G. Bloesch, Essentials of Evangelical Theology (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2006), 128-129.

[4] Charles Ryrie, Basic Theology (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1986), 242.