It’s undeniable that the incarnation involves mystery beyond human understanding. How could the eternal, infinite God, Creator of all things, become a finite being with human limitations and weaknesses? While we cannot understand it, the Bible clearly asks us to believe it. Scripture declares that Jesus, the Messiah, is both truly God and truly man.
Jesus Himself clearly declared His preexistence and deity when He said:
I tell you the truth, . . . before Abraham was born, I am! (John 8:58).
In Mark 2:1-12 Jesus proclaimed His authority to forgive sin, and in Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus declared that He will judge the world. His enemies understood the significance of these claims. They said:
Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone? (Mark 2:7).
Consequently, they wanted to crucify Him, specifically on the charge of blasphemy. They said:
We have a law, and according to that law He must die, because He claimed to be the Son of God (John 19:7).
And when His enemies required Jesus to state whether or not He was the Christ, He replied:
Yes, it is as you say, . . . But I say to all of you: In the future you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven (Matthew 26:64).
While numerous passages throughout the New Testament refer to the deity of Christ, many also refer to His humanity. For example, in the first chapter of his Gospel, the apostle John declares both the deity of Christ1 and His humanity2 .
Through His Son, God entered into the suffering of His creatures. He even experienced their temptations:
For we do not have a High Priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin (Hebrews 4:15).
While recognizing the paradoxical nature of the claim that the Second Person of the Trinity, the eternal Son of God, became truly human, we cannot deny the truth of this event without rejecting the plain meaning of Scripture. Philippians 2:5-11 tells how Christ voluntarily gave up the independent exercise of His divine attributes. He did this to be the great High Priest “who has been tempted in every way, just as we are” (Hebrews 4:15). Somehow, the Word became flesh, voluntarily taking up a role subordinate to that of the Father.
One of the strongest statements in Scripture about the incarnation is found in 1 John 4:2-3:
This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the Antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world.
Many of the battles within the church in the first 400 to 500 years of its existence were centered on the need to define the relationship between Christ’s divine and human natures. The greatest battle within the church over this issue occurred when the Arians3 attempted to define Jesus’ divine nature in a manner that distinguished and separated it from the Father. Arians held that the Father is eternal but the Son is not. They taught that though the Son is the greatest of the all created beings, and Himself the Creator of the world, He is not “of the substance of God.”
Providentially, the Arian party had a brilliant, dedicated opponent in Athanasius of Alexandria. He reasoned that if Jesus were not truly God, His death could not have the infinite value needed to atone for the sins of the world4 . This argument eventually provided the basis for the victory of the orthodox position that Christ possessed two natures—a divine nature and a human nature—united in one person. He is God and man, not half-God and half-man. He is as much human as if He were not God; and He is just as much God as if He were not human.
- “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through Him all things were made; without Him nothing was made that has been made” (John 1:1-3). Back To Article
- “The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us. We have seen His glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Back To Article
- The actual controversy began in Alexandria, about 320, in a dispute between Arius and his bishop, Alexander (312?-328). Arius,a pupil of Lucian of Antioch (see p.97), was presbyter in charge of the church known as Baucalis. He was advanced in years and held in high repute as a preacher of learning, ability, and piety. Monarchian influences imbibed in Antioch led him to emphasize the unity and self-contained existence of God. In so far as he was a follower of Origen, he represented the great Alexandrian’s teaching that Christ was a created being. As such He was not of the substance of God, but was made like other creatures of “nothing.” Though the first-born of creatures, and the agent in fashioning the world, He was not eternal. “The Son has a beginning, but . . . God is without beginning.” Christ was, indeed, God in a certain sense to Arius, but a lower God, in no way one with the Father in essence or eternity. In the incarnation, this Logos entered a human body, taking the place of the human reasoning spirit. To Arius’s thinking, Christ was neither fully God nor fully man, but a tertium quid between. This is what makes his view wholly unsatisfactory.Bishop Alexander was influenced by the other side of Origen’s teaching. To him the Son was eternal, like in essence to the Father, and wholly uncreated. His view was, perhaps, not perfectly clear, but its unlikeness to that of Arius is apparent. Controversy arose between Arius and Alexander, apparently on Arius’s initiative. It soon grew bitter, and about 320 or 321 Alexander held a synod in Alexandria by which Arius and a number of his sympathizers were condemned. Arius appealed for help to his fellow pupil of the school of Lucian, the powerful bishop, Eusebius of Nicomedia, and soon found a refuge with him. Alexander wrote widely to fellow bishops, and Arius defended his own position, aided by Eusebius. The Eastern ecclesiastical world was widely turmoiled (Williston Walker, A History Of The Christian Church, p.107). Back To Article
- For the Word, perceiving that no otherwise could the corruption of men be undone save by death as a necessary condition, while it was impossible for the Word to suffer death, being immortal, and Son of the Father; to this end He takes to Himself a body capable of death,that it, by partaking of the Word Who is above all, might be worthy to die in the stead of all, and might, because of the Word which was come to dwell in it, remain incorruptible, and that thenceforth corruption might be stayed from all by the Grace of the Resurrection. Whence, by offering unto death the body He Himself had taken, as an offering and sacrifice free from any stain, straightway He put away death from all His peers by the offering of an equivalent.For being over all, the Word of God naturally by offering His own temple and corporeal instrument for the life of all satisfied the debt by His death. And thus He, the incorruptible Son of God, being conjoined with all by a like nature, naturally clothed all with incorruption, by the promise of the resurrection. For the actual corruption in death has no longer holding-ground against men, by reason of the Word, which by His one body has come to dwell among them.And like as when a great king has entered into some large city and taken up his abode in one of the houses there, such city is at all events held worthy of high honor, nor does any enemy or bandit any longer descend upon it and subject it; but, on the contrary, it is thought entitled to all care, because of the king’s having taken up his residence in a single house there: so, too, has it been with the Monarch of all.For now that He has come to our realm, and taken up his abode in one body among His peers, henceforth the whole conspiracy of the enemy against mankind is checked, and the corruption of death which before was prevailing against them is done away. For the race of men had gone to ruin, had not the Lord and Savior of all, the Son of God, come among us to meet the end of death (Athanasius, Incarnation Of The Word, 9th section). Back To Article