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Incarnation and Humanity

"If there is, among the distinctive articles of the Christian faith, one which is basic to all others, it is this: that our Lord Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, became man for our salvation. This is the affirmation that we have in mind when we speak of the doctrine of the incarnation" (F. F. Bruce)


“Orthodoxy insisted upon the two natures, human and divine, cohering in the one historical Jesus Christ. But orthodoxy has never been able to give this idea any content. It remains a form of words without assignable meaning. For to say, without explanation, that the historical Jesus of Nazareth was also God is as devoid of meaning as to say that this circle drawn with a pencil on paper is also a square” (John Hick)


His Incarnation


A.        The Incarnation: A Definition


What do we mean by the word "Incarnation"? The idea is found in several texts which speak of Jesus as "coming in the flesh" (1 Jn. 4:2; 2 Jn. 7), being "sent in the flesh" (Rom. 8:3), "appearing in the flesh" (1 Tim. 3:16); he also "suffered in the flesh" (1 Pt. 4:1), "died in the flesh" (1 Pt. 3:18), made peace by abolishing "in the flesh the enmity" (Eph. 2:15), and "made reconciliation in the body of his flesh" (Col. 1:21-22). In sum, "the Word became flesh" (John 1:14).


Thus, by the Incarnation we mean that the eternal Word or second person of the Trinity became a man or assumed human flesh at a point in time, yet without ceasing to be God.


B.        John 1:14


To understand the incarnation we must look at the contrasts between what is said of the Word in John 1:1 and what is said in 1:14.


v. 1 v. 14


The Word was The Word became

The Word was with God The Word dwelt among us

The Word was God The Word became flesh


We need to focus on two words in v. 14: "flesh" and "became".


1.            Flesh - John does not say simply that the Word became a man (although that's true). Nor does he say he became a human, or even that he took to himself a body (although both are again true). Rather, the Word became flesh. "Flesh" (sarx) is a strong, almost crude way of referring to human nature in its totality: true body, soul, spirit, will, emotions, etc.


2.            Became - The Word did not pretend to be a man or play at being human. The Word became flesh. The Word did not "beam down" in full bodily form. The Word did not enter into flesh, as if to suggest that there was a man, a human being, into which the Word made entrance. He doesn't say the Word "dwelled or abided in" human flesh.


Consider me: I became a student, a husband, a pastor, a professor, a father, etc. But this isn't what John is saying. What John means is that the eternal Word, God the Son, entered into this world by being born as a human being. Therefore, it isn't correct to say that Jesus has always existed or that Jesus was in the beginning with God (v. 1). The Son of God has always existed. The Second person of the Trinity, the Word, was in the beginning with God. But Jesus is the human name given to the second person of the Trinity when he took to himself flesh. The Word was never called Jesus until Joseph did so in obedience to the command of the angel in Mt. 1.


In summary:


·      The doctrine of the Incarnation means that two distinct natures (divine and human) are united in one person: Jesus. Jesus is not two people (God and man). He is one person: the God-man. Jesus is not schizophrenic.


·      When the Word became flesh he did not cease to be the Word. The Word veiled, hid, and voluntarily restricted the use of certain divine powers and prerogatives. But God cannot cease to be God. In other words, when the Word became flesh he did not commit divine suicide.


·      When the Word once became flesh he became flesh forever. After his earthly life, death, and resurrection, Jesus did not divest himself of the flesh or cease to be a man. He is a man even now at the right hand of God the Father. He is also God. He will always be the God-man. See 1 Cor. 15:28; Col. 2:9; 1 John 2:7 (note use of present tense).


·      Thus, we might envision Jesus saying: "I am now what I always was: God (or Word). I am now what I once was not: man (or flesh). I am now and forever will be both: the God-man."


C.        Other important texts


1.            Colossians 2:9 - Note three things: (a) "Bodily form" (somatikos) = a corporeal body; that body which he assumed in the incarnation, which is now glorified in heaven. (b) The verb "dwells" is in the present tense, thus emphasizing the permanence of the Word's assumption of human nature. The Word is and forever will be the God-man! (c) The God-man is not a secondary form of deity or in any way inferior in essence to God the Father or the Spirit: "all the fulness of Deity dwells in Him."


2.            Romans 8:3 - God sent his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh. By sinful flesh he means fallen human nature. So what is the meaning of likeness? Some say Paul is undermining the reality of Christ's true humanity, perhaps suggesting that his flesh is only a facsimile of ours, but not the real thing. However, v. 8b ("in the flesh") indicates otherwise. Others argue the word likeness is Paul's way of saying that Jesus never committed an act of sin. But Paul is talking about character, not conduct.


The best solution is that Paul used likeness to avoid saying that Christ assumed fallen human nature. He took flesh like ours, because really flesh, but only like ours, not identical with it, because unfallen. He uses the word likeness because he feels compelled to use the phrase sinful flesh instead of merely flesh. Had he omitted sinful he also would have omitted likeness. The question remains, "Why does he include the word sinful?" Murray comments:


"He is concerned to show that when the Father sent the Son into this world of sin, of misery, and of death, he sent him in a manner that brought him into the closest relation to sinful humanity that it was possible for him to come without becoming himself sinful. He himself was holy and undefiled -- the word likeness guards this truth. But he came in the same human nature. And that is the purpose of saying sinful flesh. No other combination of terms could have fulfilled these purposes so perfectly" (280).


Just what is a fallen human nature? Is the mere possession of fallen flesh a sin requiring repentance, or can one have fallen flesh and not sin? Did Jesus have sexual desires (cf. Adam)? Did Jesus ever experience lust? Must Jesus possess a fallen human nature in order to fully understand our struggles and temptations?


3.            Hebrews 2:14 - Here we are told that Jesus "Himself likewise also partook" of "blood and flesh", as explicit a reference to human nature as is found in the NT (cf. Eph. 6:12). The word translated "likewise" means in identical fashion, complete similarity, without any difference. How does this compare with Rom. 8:3? Note also that the author of Hebrews is careful to preserve the sinlessness of Jesus (4:15).


4.            1 John 4:1-6 - Here we find that it is confession of the reality of the incarnation by which the Spirit of God and the spirit of antichrist are discerned. The best translation indicates that the object of one's confession is: "Jesus" as "Christ come in the flesh." In other words, the confession is that the man Jesus of Nazareth is himself the incarnate Christ or Son.


The heretics whom John opposed in this epistle asserted that "Jesus" was merely a man upon the "Christ" descended at his baptism and from whom he departed before the crucifixion. Thus the heresy consisted of a denial of the permanent assumption of human nature by the eternal Son, the Word of God. John's point, then, is that Jesus of Nazareth is himself the Christ, the eternal Son of God, incarnate.


His Humanity


A.        The Early Years of Jesus


"There is something grand, even awful," wrote Alfred Edersheim, "in the almost absolute silence which lies upon the thirty years between the Birth and the first Messianic Manifestation of Jesus" (The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, 255). We know virtually nothing of these years, outside of what Luke's gospel reveals.


1.            Infancy and early childhood (Luke 2:21-40) - Jesus would have been raised and educated as was any average Jewish child. His mother would have taken on this responsibility, focusing on the history of Israel and the tribe of Judah, as well as extensive Scriptural memorization. Aside from this we know nothing about his family life, except that there were at least eight members (Mt. 13:55-56).


I mention here in passing the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, an apocryphal work written sometime in the second century. One example of its portrayal of the early life of Jesus is as follows:


"When this boy Jesus was five years old he was playing at the crossing of a stream, and he gathered together into pools the running water, and instantly made it clean, and gave his command with a single word. Having made soft clay he moulded from it twelve sparrows. And it was the sabbath when he did these things. And there were also many other children playing with him. When a certain Jew saw what Jesus was doing while playing on the sabbath, he at once went and told his father Joseph, 'See your child is at the stream, and he took clay and moulded twelve birds and has profaned the sabbath.' And when Jospeh came to the place and looked, he cried out to him, saying, 'Why do you do on the sabbath things which it is not lawful to do?' But Jesus clapped his hands and cried out to the sparrows and said to them, 'Be gone!' And the sparrows took flight and went away chirping. The Jews were amazed when they saw this, and went away and told their leaders what they had seen Jesus do" (2.1-5; ANT, pp. 75-76). The narrative goes on to describe how one Jewish boy dropped dead when he broke up the pool of water Jesus had made. Another boy also dropped dead after accidentally running into Jesus.


2.            Boyhood of Jesus - Beginning at age six and extending for five years, Jesus would have studied the Pentateuch, beginning with Leviticus


3.            The Youth of Jesus and his growing Messianic Consciousness - At the age of twelve he was taken, according to Jewish custom, to Jerusalem (probably at the time of Passover). See Luke 2:41-52. His recognition that it was his Father's work in his Father's house is significant. The discussions with the Rabbis probably centered in the Passover and its meaning.


Students of the NT have pointed to two texts that may shed light on the age of Jesus at the time of his baptism. We are told in Luke 3:23 that Jesus "was about thirty years old" when he began his public ministry. Some have suggested that perhaps Luke used the round number thirty in order to draw a parallel between Jesus and David, whose kingship began at that age (2 Sam. 5:3-4; cf. also Joseph in Gen. 41:46 and Ezekiel in Ezek. 1:1). In John 8:57 we read that the Jews said to him, "You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?" Stein points out that "this should not be taken as an exact reference by Jesus' opponents to his actual age. The statement seeks rather to emphasize the difference between Jesus' age and the time of Abraham more than fifteen centuries earlier. How could Jesus and Abraham have known each other, as Jesus claimed (Jn. 8:56)? Fifty years is most probably a generous exaggeration of Jesus' age for the sake of argument. Even if Jesus was attributed an age older than he really was, the Jews argued that he could not have seen Abraham" (58).


In all likelihood, Jesus had to grow up fast. Most believe that Joseph died early, thus forcing Jesus to become the principal bread-winner and responsible head of the family. Whereas we read often of Mary during the ministry of Jesus, Joseph is nowhere to be found. "The reference to Jesus as 'the son of Mary' in Mark 6:3 is difficult to understand even if Joseph was dead, because usually a man was referred to as the son of his father. If Joseph were alive, however, such a reference would be virtually impossible to imagine" (Stein, 84). The most we can say, therefore, is that Joseph probably died sometime between the incident of the twelve-year-old Jesus in the temple and the inauguration of his public ministry.


B.        The Humanity of Jesus according to the Scriptures


1.            He had a true physical body - As noted above, the confession that Jesus was Christ come "in the flesh" became the touchstone of orthodoxy. See 1 John 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:16; Luke 24:39,43; Jn. 20:17,20,27. He hungered (Mt. 4:2), thirsted (Jn. 19:28), grew weary (Jn. 4:6), wept and cried aloud (Jn. 11:35; Lk. 19:41), sighed (Mk. 7:34), groaned (Mk. 8:12), glared angrily (Mk. 3:5), and felt annoyance (Mk. 10:14).


Did Jesus ever get sick? When he hit his thumb with a hammer while working in his father's carpenter shop, would he have been susceptible to getting an infection? Did Jesus ever get headaches from prolonged exposure to the hot Palestinian sun. Could Jesus have caught the flu from one of his family members? Could Jesus have suffered from a 24-hour stomach virus (nausea, vomiting, diahhrea) caused by drinking dirty water from the Jordan river?


2.            He had a true immaterial soul - His soul was "overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death" (Mt. 26:38). It was to the divine purpose that he subjected his will (Lk. 22:42).


3.            He had a true immaterial spirit - It was into the Father's hands that he committed his spirit (Lk. 23:46).


4.            He had a genuinely human emotional life - He felt compassion (Mt. 9:36; 20:34; Mk. 1:41; 6:34; 8:2; Lk. 7:13; love (Jn. 11:3; 15:8-12; Mk. 10:21); anger (Mk. 3:5; Jn. 2:13-17); and joy (Lk. 7:34; 10:21; Jn. 15:11; 17:13).



The Mystery of the Incarnation and Humanity of Jesus


The Word became flesh / God became human / the invisible became visible / the untouchable became touchable / eternal life experienced temporal death / the transcendent one descended and drew near / the unlimited became limited / the infinite became finite / the immutable became mutable / the unbreakable became fragile /spirit became matter / eternity entered time / the independent became dependent / the almighty became weak / the loved became the hated / the exalted was humbled / glory was subjected to shame / fame turned into obscurity / from inexpressible joy to tears of unimaginable grief / from a throne to a cross / from ruler to being ruled / from power to weakness.


"The omnipotent, in one instant, made himself breakable. He who had been spirit became piercable. He who was larger than the universe became an embryo. And he who sustains the world with a word chose to be dependent upon the nourishment of a young girl. God as a fetus. Holiness sleeping in a womb. The creator of life being created. God was given eyebrows, elbows, two kidneys, and a spleen. He stretched against the walls and floated in the amniotic fluids of his mother" (Lucado, God Came Near, 25-6).


As Paul said in 1 Tim. 3:16, "great is the mystery of godliness: God was revealed in the flesh!"


Conception: God became a fertilized egg! An embryo. A fetus. God kicked Mary from within her womb!


Birth: God entered the world as a baby, amid the stench of manure and cobwebs and prickly hay in a stable. Mary cradled God in her arms. "He doesn't look like a Creator," she says to herself. Envision the newborn Jesus: misshaped head; wrinkled skin; red face. Just think: angels watched as Mary changed God's diapers! Tiny hands (that would touch/heal the sick and yet be ripped by nails); eyes (what color were they?); tiny feet (where would they take him? they, too, would be pierced by nails); she tickled his side (which would also be lanced with a spear).


Infancy: God learned to crawl, stand, walk; he spilt his milk and fell and hit his head.


Youth: was he uncoordinated? how well did he perform at sports? perhaps Jesus knew the pain of always being picked last when the kids chose up sides for a ballgame. God learned his ABC's!


Teenager: Jesus probably had pimples and body odor and bad breath. God went through puberty! His voice changed; he had to shave; girls probably had a crush on him and boys probably teased him. There were probably some foods he didn't like (Squash!). Could he sing? Maybe he couldn't carry a tune in a bucket!?


Carpenter: calloused hands; dealings with customers who tried to cheat him or complained about his work; how did he react when they shortchanged him?


Some think it irreverent to speak of Jesus this way. As Max Lucado has said,


"it's not something we like to do; it's uncomfortable. It is much easier to keep the humanity out of the incarnation. Clean the manure from around the manger. Wipe the sweat out of his eyes. Pretend he never snored or blew his nose or hit his thumb with a hammer. He's easier to stomach that way. There is something about keeping him divine that keeps him distant, packaged, predictable. But don't do it. For heaven's sake, don't. Let him be as human as he intended to be. Let him into the mire and muck of our world. For only if we let him in can he pull us out" (26-7).


The marvel of it all is that he did it for you and me! It was an expression of the depths of his love for you that the Word entered the depths of human ugliness, human weakness, human humiliation. Again:


he was conceived by the union of divine grace and human disgrace


the King of Kings sleeping in a cow-pen


the Creator of oceans and seas and rivers afloat in the womb of his mother


God sucking his thumb


the Alpha and Omega learning his ABC's


he who was once surrounded by the glorious stereophonic praise of adoring angels now hears the lowing of cattle, the bleating of sheep, the stammering of bewildered shepherds


he who spoke the universe into being now coos and cries


omniscient Deity counting his toes


Mary playing "this little piggy went to market" on the toes of God


from the robes of eternal glory to the rags of swaddling clothes


the omnipresent spirit, whose being fills the galaxies, confined to the womb of a peasant girl


infinite power learning to crawl


Mary playing "patty-cake" with the Lord of Lords!


Special Study of Romans 1:3-4


These two verses are central to Paul's Christology. Two fundamental truths are asserted of "His (God's) Son", and their close parallelism is impossible to miss:


"who was born" / "who was appointed"


"from the seed of David" / "Son of God with power"


"according to the flesh" / "according to the spirit of holiness"


There are three primary competing views of this passage:


1)         One view takes v. 3 as descriptive of Christ's humanity or his human nature, whereas v. 4 describes his deity or his divine nature. Thus the contrast is between the two components of Christ's person. He is one person with two natures: one human (hence flesh) and one divine (hence spirit; not a reference to the HS).


2)            According to another view, the contrast between “flesh” and “spirit” is between the outward and the inward. Externally Jesus may be said to have descended from the seed of David. Internally he was perfected in the spirit (or by the Spirit) which fitted him to be the Son of God with power.


3)         The most likely view contends that the focus of the contrast between v. 3 and v. 4 is not between his human nature and his divine nature but rather between his humiliation and his exaltation. In other words, the contrast is not between two different components in Christ's person but between two successive stages or phases in Christ's experience. Cf. Phil. 2:5-11.


Humiliation = his birth, earthly life and ministry, sufferings.

Exaltation = resurrection, ascension, enthronement.


According to this view, flesh refers not so much to the body (far less to the sinful nature) but to the present, natural, earthly realm in which we live. The flesh/spirit contrast is historical; it is a contrast between this present, fallen, earthly, temporal world in which we live, and the future, redeemed, heavenly, eternal world which is yet to come.


The phrase "according to the flesh" refers not so much to Christ's human nature but to the historical realm/environment with which humanity is necessarily associated. The eternal Son of God entered the sphere of the flesh, i.e., this present, fallen, evil age. But as v. 4 goes on to point out, by virtue of his resurrection he has entered the sphere of the spirit, the new age, the heavenly realm where he now lives and reigns.


The word translated "declared" (NASB) is significant. It is the Greek word horizo, from which we get the English term "horizon". Some insist it means that the resurrection marks out or declares Jesus to be the Son of God. But in its 7 other occurrences in the NT it means to determine, to appoint, to fix (Lk. 22:22; Acts 2:23; 10:42; 11:29; 17:26,31; Heb. 4:7). In some sense, then, Christ Jesus was appointedSon of God by virtue of his resurrection from the dead.


This would appear to create a theological problem, for how can the eternally pre-existent Son be appointed Son of God? But note: Paul does not say Jesus was appointed Son of God, but Son of God with power. Paul is describing an event in history whereby Jesus was instated in a position of sovereignty and invested with power (cf. Acts 13:33; Phil. 2:9-11). At the resurrection and exaltation Jesus began a new phase of divine sonship. While on earth Jesus was certainly the Son of God. But he was not the Son-of-God-with-power. Paul is not saying Jesus became the Son at the time of the resurrection (the heresy of Adoptionism). After all, it is the Son who is appointed Son. "The tautologous nature of this statement," Moo explains, "reveals that being appointed Son has to do not with a change of essence -- as if a man or human Messiah becomes the Son of God for the first time -- but with a change in status or function. . . . [Thus] the transition from v. 3 to v. 4 . . . is not a transition from a human Messiah to a divine Son of God (adoptionism) but from the Son as Messiah to the Son as both Messiah and powerful, reigning Lord" (41). It is a transition from the Son of God in weakness and frailty and submission and humiliation to the Son of God in power and strength and authority and exaltation.


Paul's use of Lord with reference to Jesus is eternally significant. Lord translates the Hebrew YHWH more than 6,000x in the LXX. To speak of Jesus as Lord is to identify him with YHWH, God of Israel! It also points to his absolute sovereign right of rule over us: over our minds, wills, emotions, lives, time, money, talents, over all.


Could Jesus Have Sinned? Or, was the Son of Man Impeccable?


This issue may best be illustrated by the use of four Latin phrases:


·      non posse non peccare - "not able not to sin" (this describes unregenerate people and the fallen angels)


·      posse peccare – “able to sin”, and posse non peccare - "able not to sin" (these describe Adam before the fall, regenerate people, and Jesus, if one denies his impeccability)


·      non posse peccare - "not able to sin" (this describes God, the saints in heaven and Jesus, if one affirms his impeccability); we could also include here posse non peccare, because if Jesus is unable to sin he is obviously also able not to sin


That Jesus did not sin is undeniable. The NT is clear concerning his sinlessness (see Luke 4:34; John 6:69; 8:46; 9:16; Acts 3:14; 4:27-30; Rom. 8:3; 2 Cor. 5:21; Heb. 4:15; 7:26; 1 Peter 1:19; 2:22; 3:18; 1 John 3:5). But was his sinlessness because he could not sin or because he would not sin? Was he constitutionally incapable of sinning or merely volitionally unwilling to sin? To say that Jesus could have sinned, even though he did not, is to say he was peccable. To say that Jesus could not have sinned, and therefore didn’t, is to say he was impeccable.


When he was tempted by Satan in the wilderness, could he have succumbed? Was it possible for him not to have resisted? Those who deny impeccability answer yes to both questions. They base their argument on three points, only two of which, I believe, are valid:


First, if he could not sin, he was not truly human. After all, “to err is human.” This argument is weak, for it is not necessary to human nature that one be capable of sinning. In heaven, having been glorified, the saints will be incapable of sinning, but they will not for that reason be inhuman.


Second, if Jesus could not have sinned, he was not genuinely tempted. True temptation requires the possibility of sinning. That he refused to yield to Satan’s temptations no one denies. But yielding must have been possible or the encounter was a sham.


Third, the doctrine of impeccability is based on the assumption that Jesus resisted the devil from the strength of his divine nature. But, as we shall later see, this is highly questionable. I believe Jesus lived and ministered as a human dependent on the power of the Holy Spirit. As a human, the possibility existed that he could have sinned, but by virtue of his unceasing reliance on the power of the Holy Spirit he did not sin.


It would appear, then, that Jesus is to be conceived as having lived in much the condition of Adam prior to the latter’s fall. More on this later.



The Contemporary Assault on the Doctrine of the Incarnation


In 1977 a group of prominent British theologians and NT scholars released a book that landed like a bombshell in the church: The Myth of God Incarnate, edited by John Hick (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press). In the preface the claim is made that Christianity must continue to adapt itself into something which can be believed by rational people. In the 19th century two such adaptations can be identified: (1) evolutionary theory on the origin of the race (2) and repudiation of verbal inspiration of the Scriptures. Says Hick:


“The writers of this book are convinced that another major theological development is called for in this last part of the twentieth century. The need arises from the growing knowledge of Christian origins, and involves a recognition that Jesus was . . . ‘a man approved by God’ for a special role within the divine purpose, and that the later conception of him as God incarnate, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity living a human life, is a mythological or poetic way of expressing his significance for us” (ix; emphasis mine).


In other words, as Maurice Wiles asks in the chapter titled “Christianity Without Incarnation?”, “Are we sure that the concept of an incarnate being, one who is both fully God and fully man, is after all an intelligible concept?” (5). There are ten articles in the book, three of which are here noted.


(1)            A Cloud of Witnesses (pp. 13-47, by Frances Young, lecturer in NT studies at the Birmingham University). Young’s thesis is that each individual in the NT or early church who either met or knew Jesus or learned of him by oral tradition sought categories in which to express their impression of him and response to his claims. The common stock of christological titles found in the NT, says Young,


“derive from the surrounding cultural background and were used by the early Christians to express their faith-response to Jesus of Nazareth. The early Christians were searching for categories which could adequately express their sense of salvation in him. It is significant that some saw him as a Rabbi, others as a prophet, others as a zealot, others as a miracle-worker and healer; that some called him Lord, some Messiah, some Son of God and so on. Both in his lifetime and in the context of the early church, groups and individuals responded to him in their own way as the one who fulfilled their needs and hopes” (18).


Later in her chapter Young writes:


“So far what we have said in interpretation of Paul could be given the anachronistic tag ‘adoptionistic’, and indeed, it implies not just the adoption of Jesus but of all men in him. It certainly does not imply the incarnation of an essentially divine being” (20).


“His Sonship to God is not expressed in terms of ‘divine nature’, but as a result of divine creation and election on the one hand, and on the other hand, his own perfect obedience in doing God’s work and obeying God’s will” (21).


(2)            Jesus, the Man of Universal Destiny (pp. 48-63; by Michael Goulder, University of Birmingham) – Goulder begins by classifying certain individuals in history as “men and women of destiny” (55). “It is a part of such a person’s life,” says Goulder, “to know himself as destined for leadership at this moment. They believe themselves to be inspired. They hear voices” (55). He mentions people such as Joan of Arc, Churchill, Gandhi, Mao, Martin Luther King, and of course, Jesus. But Jesus is more. He is not just one in the class of “men of destiny”, he is the man of universal destiny. However, like Gandhi, King, and Joan of Arc, he died a martyr’s death, a necessary step in founding the society of love. And what of the resurrection?