We have just finished a season where believers remember Christ’s suffering, death, and His burial and celebrate His resurrection and victory over death. These reminders draw our attention to our Savior’s humanity and His deity. It seems fitting, then, to examine some of the foundational truths about Jesus Christ’s incarnation, or His bodily existence on this earth. Let’s delve into what Scripture has clearly revealed concerning the incarnation of our Lord and Savior, so that we may grow in the knowledge of Him and continue to be transformed by that knowledge.
Fully God and Fully Man
At the appointed time, God sent His Son, as a man, to dwell among men (Gal 4:4). From the prologue of John’s epistle (John 1:1-18), we see that Jesus Christ, like God the Father, (1) exists outside of time, (2) shares fellowship with other members of the Godhead, and (3) is God (John 1:1-2). Further, we see a reference to Christ the Son’s common role within the Trinity: Christ the Son is the means by which God the Father accomplishes His will (e.g., John 1:3).
In John 1:14, we also see that at His incarnation, Christ became flesh, which in no way involved the abandonment of His deity. Indeed, emphasizing the deity of Christ is one of John’s primary purposes in writing his gospel (see John 20:30-31). In another familiar passage, Paul reinforces this essential truth – that Christ took on the frailty of man to accomplish the will of God the Father.
…who, though He [Christ] 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. Philippians 2:6-8
Scripture emphasizes Christ’s addition of a human identity or likeness, not the removal of His deity or equality His with God. While this passage references an “emptying,” both its broader context and other Scriptures, like the transfiguration accounts (Matt 17:1-8; Mark 9:2-9; Luke 9:28-36; 2 Pet 1:16-18) make clear that Christ never stopped being fully God. In the Philippians passage, the word Paul selected for “form” focuses on the essence of something (see the NET Bible note on this verse, which states, “the Greek term translated form indicates a correspondence with reality. Thus the meaning of this phrase is that Christ was truly God.”). “Grasped” in this context carries a connotation of being prized or valued (rather than secured or physically held/attained).
Based on this idea that Jesus is fully God and fully man, he cannot “empty himself” of deity—as it would make him less than God. Rather, Christ “emptying of Himself” refers to the humiliation of God the Son taking on the characteristics and limitations of man. It cannot refer to Christ ceasing to be God. Luke’s account of Christ’s prayer in the garden of Gethsemane is a classic example that demonstrates how He experienced the limitations of His humanity (Luke 22:39-44; Heb 5:7), as are the facts that He hungered, felt thirst, and was tempted.
Why God Became Man?
As early as the fall (Gen 3), Scripture made two things clear: (1) sin brought death (see Gen 3:19-21), and (2) God’s defeat of Satan would be accomplished through man (Gen 3:15). In Romans 5:12-21, Paul shows how Christ’s perfect obedience and substitutionary death provided the only rescue from mankind’s condemnation given Adam’s sin. This passage demonstrates how sin entered the world through the actions of one man, but grace entered the world through the actions of one man as well, Christ the Son of God. To this point, we have focused on how God’s plan for history required that Jesus Christ become Man. Now, let’s turn to why God’s plan required that Christ the Son become flesh.
The Book of Hebrews, which emphasizes the superiority of Jesus Christ to all else, helps to explain why Christ’s incarnation was necessary. First, Christ is identified as the only acceptable sacrifice for man’s sin (see Heb 9:15-10:18). This passage emphasizes a subtle-but-obvious truth—a body is necessary for a sacrifice (i.e., Heb 10:5-7). Second, beyond simply serving as a sacrifice, Christ’s incarnation created our Lord’s necessary link with the brothers and sisters that He was sent to save:
Therefore, He had to be made like His brethren in all things, so that He might become a merciful and faithful priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For since He Himself was tempted in that which He has suffered, He is able to come to the aid of those who are tempted. Hebrews 2:17-18
One requirement for every high priest was that he must be appointed by God from man, so that he could deal gently with man given his own weaknesses (Heb 5:1-2). This truth helps us better understand the ways in which Christ’s “being made by His brethren in all things,” satisfied the law’s requirement for the high priesthood. This requirement existed to ensure a sympathetic High Priest, and reveals God’s compassion toward His children. Hebrews later goes on to describe the effect that Christ’s incarnation has on the relationship between a holy, righteous God and His children:
Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. Hebrews 4:14-16
While there are some aspects of the incarnation the human mind cannot comprehend, the truths that we can glean from Scripture can afford a newfound appreciation for Christ the Son’s perfect submission to His Father’s will and His selfless display of love on our behalf.
Bart shares his thoughts on this post in the podcast below. Give it a listen!
About the Author: Bart Stykes is a long-time Genesis member who, with his wife Candice, leads a new community group in the Fox Run area (reach out to join!). By day he is a Professor of Sociology at Sam Houston State University.