5 Facts About the Incarnation
Every Christmas we celebrate the birth of Christ. In theological terms, this is known as the “incarnation”, a word which means “in the flesh”. What exactly does the Bible teach about this incredible event? Here are five facts you should know about the incarnation.
1) Christ existed before the incarnation
Jesus did not come into existence at the miraculous conception of Mary. Rather, the Bible teaches that Christ has existed from eternity past. At the incarnation, he simply took on human form.
John 1:1-2, 14 “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God….and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us”
Colossians 1:16–17 “For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”
These passages clearly show that Jesus existed since before the beginning of human history.
2) The Son became human; the Father and Spirit did not
The Bible teaches that there is one God who exists in three persons: Father, Son, and Spirit. This is commonly known in Christian theology as the “Trinity”, or the triune nature of God (see here for an overview on the Trinity). God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are all God. Yet, during the incarnation, only the Son took on flesh. The Father and Spirit did not.
John 1:14 “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
Mark 1:9–11 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.'”
These, and many other passages, demonstrate that only the Son took on flesh. The Father and the Holy Spirit remained in their spiritual form during the incarnation.
3) Jesus is fully God and fully man
It is certainly beyond our comprehension, but the Bible teaches Jesus was both fully God and fully man at the moment of incarnation. Christ was already fully God, but he added to his divinity a true human nature as well, so that one could say “Jesus is God” and “Jesus is human” at the same time, and both statements would be correct. When Christ became man, he did not cease to be God.
This is why Jesus could both forgive sin (in Luke chapters 5, 7, and 23 for example), something only God can do, and also get hungry (Mark 11:12), tired (John 4:6), and even fall asleep (Mark 4:38), something human beings do.
The humanity and deity of Jesus existing together is known in theological terms as the “hypostatic union”. It, of course, is in many ways a wondrous mystery that we can never fully understand. Yet the Bible clearly teaches that Jesus is both God and man at the same time.
Hebrews 1:2–3 “but in these last days [God] has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature [Greek: hupostasis], and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high”
Philippians 2:5–8 “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
Again, while it is a challenge to grasp the exact details of it all, the Bible is clear that Jesus is both God and human, and that both his divine attributes and his human attributes are on display during his time on earth.
4) The incarnation was necessary for salvation
Why can’t God just declare “your sins are forgiven”? Why does Christ have to enter into the world, live, suffer, die, and rise again as a human being? The Bible teaches that the incarnation was necessary for salvation since only a sinless human could act as a substitute for guilty sinners. Recall that “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23), and so a real flesh-and-blood death was needed. In addition, only a sinless person could die for another—otherwise they would be dying their own sin. Jesus fulfilled both obligations in the incarnation, by living a life of perfect obedience to God’s law as a human and taking upon himself the curse for sin on the cross.
Galatians 4:4–5 “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.”
Hebrews 2:14, 17 “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil….Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.”
5) The incarnation is essential Christian doctrine
Having a correct understanding of the incarnation is necessary to sound Christian doctrine. This is because it is an essential part of the person and work of Christ, so much so that if we are wrong in this area it severely (and harmfully) affects the rest of our theology and faith. If Jesus is not God, then we are guilty of idolatry by worshipping him. If Jesus is not man, then he is not qualified to die for mankind. These kinds of doctrines are important for understanding the true gospel.
1 John 4:1–3 “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already.”
2 John 7 “For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist.”
More than any other author of the New Testament, John puts particular emphasis on the incarnation of Christ as essential to the Christian faith. He notes that those who reject Jesus as God in the flesh are embodying the spirit of “antichrist”, making themselves enemies of God and the gospel. In other words, it is important for us to know who Jesus really is for us to fully appreciate what he has done for us and place our hope in him!
As we celebrate the Christmas season, let us not allow the power and mystery and significance of the incarnation to be lost on us. God himself has visited our world in order to live and die in our place, securing for us forgiveness and and eternal hope. How great lengths he has gone to demonstrate his love for us!