“Incarnate” is a funny word. We hear it tossed around in sermons and Bible studies all the time, but what does it mean to call Jesus God incarnate? How does that idea affect the way we see him and understand his role in our lives? Here’s a basic look at what the incarnation is:
What Is the Incarnation?
The incarnation means that Jesus, who was God already as part of the Trinity, became human and stepped into the world we know. Some theologians argue that when Genesis 18 describes God appearing to Abraham and Sarah to tell them that they will have a son, this is a “pre-incarnate Christ” speaking with Abraham. Their point seems to be that if God the Father is all spirit then the few times in the Old Testament where God appears in human form, it must be God the Son. Therefore, we might say that the Incarnation is not just God appearing on earth as a human, it’s when God specifically came to Earth as Jesus of Nazareth, born in Bethlehem. When that happened, something strange and wonderful occurred. God, all-knowing and infinite, appeared in the flesh (1 Timothy 3:16) as a finite human being.
Because the Bible talks about Jesus being God, not an angel who God sent to earth or a being that God created, this begs the question how was Jesus divine and also human? Throughout the early church period, scholars tried to explain this idea in terms that honored the Bible’s descriptions of Jesus. Was Jesus a human being with a drop of divine substance in him? Was he basically a spirit wearing a skin suit?
Ultimately, the Athanasian Creed settled the matter by describing Jesus as “fully God, fully human,” two natures in one being. The technical term that theologians use for this is a “hypostatic union.” The creed also helped to established that while Jesus was God’s begotten son, but uncreated in the same way that God the Father and the Holy Spirit are uncreated.
How Do We Know Jesus Is God Incarnate?
From a comparative religions’ perspective, saying that someone is the son of a god isn’t particularly special. Many religions feature warriors, heroes, and kings who are describe as the offspring of gods. Christianity goes beyond that and says that Jesus was also God himself in human form.
This is a shocking claim to make, but it’s exactly who Jesus said he was. He claimed to be divine on a number of occasions, overtly and implicitly, throughout the Gospels. For example, he said, “The Father and I are one” (John 10:30), that he knew Abraham because he was alive before Abraham (John 8:57-58) and that people would die sinners if they did not believe in him (John 8:22-24). He also routinely called himself the Son of Man, a Messianic term from the Old Testament that describes someone giving great authority from God. Although he told demons to be silent when they called him the son of God (Luke 4:33-35), it is worth noting he didn’t deny the title. He was just very careful about when he told people his identity, possibly because as John 6:15 notes, there were people who wanted to make him king, whether he liked it or not.
Since Jesus claimed to be God, we are faced with what some (most famously C.S. Lewis) has called the “lord, liar or lunatic” problem. We can try to approach Jesus’ teachings from a secular perspective and call his ideas “useful,” as if he’s a great teacher on the level of Buddha or Socrates. However, Jesus’ most common teaching topic was the kingdom of God, a kingdom which he said had now come. Add that to the many times he claimed to be God, and we realize he wasn’t just giving moral teachings: he was claiming something that shifts reality itself. We can say that’s crazy, we can call it a great big lie, but we can’t call that good teaching… unless we accept the whole package and believe he was God.
Why Did God Put on Flesh?
The Bible gives a number of reasons for why Jesus had to come, why that mysterious mix of divinity and flesh was necessary. Here are five of the reasons mentioned in the Bible:
To become more like us. Hebrew 2:14-18 says that Jesus “had to be made like his brothers in every way,” suffering as he was tempted, which means he can help us as we are tempted. As a result, Jesus becomes a high priest who intercedes on our behalf and is able to “sympathize with our weakness” (Hebrews 4:15). Jesus learned things about the human experience by becoming human and by his suffering.
To show us how to become more like him. Even as Jesus experienced human life and learned to sympathize with us, he also provided an example of how to live the perfect life. Paul talks in 1 Corinthians 11:1 about aspiring to be more like Jesus. The word “Christian” is first used in Acts 11:26 and it means “little Christ.” When we believe in Jesus, we don’t just become saved: we receive someone to follow.
To defeat sin and death. After Adam and Eve’s fall from grace in the Garden of Eden, human beings tainted with sin. This separation meant that we could not be with God, who loves us and wanted to be reunited with us. By coming in the flesh, dying, and returning to life, Jesus “broke the power of death and illuminated the way to life” (2 Timothy 2:10).
To show us his love. The fact that God the Son came and paid the penalty for our sins, buying us with his own blood (Acts 20:28), shows how far God is willing to go to get us back. Jesus coming to die on our behalf shows God’s love (both as God the Father sending his beloved son and as God the Son willingly giving himself) in a compelling way.
To offer us salvation. Jesus said that we achieve eternal life by believing in him (John 11:26). When he defeated sin and death on the cross, Jesus became the high priest who intercedes on our behalf, and if we believe he was God and raised from the dead, we are saved (Romans 10:9). So, Jesus not only rescued us from something, he opened the door for us to believe in something.
Why Is the Cross So Important?
It’s important not to downplay Jesus’ time on earth leading up to his death, the things he learned, and the things he taught. You could argue that one of the things Western Christians most misunderstand about Jesus is his human side, especially given the point mentioned earlier about what Jesus learned by becoming human and suffering.
However, the cross is obviously the center of the Gospels. Jesus refers to the fact he’s going to die multiple times in the Gospels leading up to the event, and by dying on the cross he showed that he was very different from the Messiah that people expected. There’s a lot that could be said about the cross, some of which was described already in the five reasons why Jesus came in the flesh. For that reason, here are two major things we need to understand about the cross:
It settled the past. Before Jesus’ death on the cross, every one of us was a sinner in need of redemption that we could never accomplish ourselves. In dying on the cross, Jesus wiped that slate clean. In fact, the Bible often talks about the crucifixion using legal imagery or describing it as a payment. For example, Colossians 2:14 says that by dying on the cross, Jesus “canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us.” We sometimes talk about how Christianity is more than just “getting an escape ticket out of hell,” and that’s true. What Jesus did on the cross is so much more compelling and life-altering than that.
It pointed a way forward. Although we don’t each have to literally be crucified on a cross for our individual sins, Jesus uses it as a metaphor for the sacrifice that every Christ-follower must do. He said that anyone who followed him had to deny themselves, taking up a cross to follow him (Matthew 16:24-26). Galatians 2:20 uses the same idea, saying that Christians are crucified with Christ and Christ lives within them. This means that whether we’re talking about salvation or sanctification, the cross is at the center.
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G. Connor Salter is a writer and editor, with a Bachelor of Science in Professional Writing from Taylor University. In 2020, he won First Prize for Best Feature Story in a regional contest by the Colorado Press Association Network. He has contributed over 1,000 articles to various publications, including interviews for Christian Communicator and book reviews for The Evangelical Church Library Association. Find out more about his work here.