The birth of Christ, as announced by the angel to Joseph, took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call His name Immanuel” (which means, “God with us”) (see Matthew 1.22-23). And so begins the story of Christmas. The apostle John wrote a theological Christmas story, forgoing tales of shepherds and Magi, but stating very clearly what happened so long ago: “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” (John 1.14).
Christmas is not so much a celebration of the birth of a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a feeding trough as it is the celebration of the incarnation, when the eternal Son of God became flesh and dwelled among humanity. This is not an insignificant theological debate, much like the number of angels who can dance on the head of a pin. No, the essence of the gospel message is at stake. The validity of the incarnation determined whether or not the death of Christ was efficacious for all of mankind, whether or not Christ is the High Priest who can sympathize with our weaknesses, and whether or not Christ is the moral example for all humans. So, let us take a few moments to examine why we believe in the incarnation.
First, the apostolic writings (aka, the Scriptures) clearly describe the incarnation. From the gospels, to the writings of Paul and John, and even the unknown apostle who wrote Hebrews, all agree upon the incarnation. A few significant verses from the Bible include,
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. (1 John 4.2-3)
For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily… (Colossians 2.9)
For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Romans 8.3-4)
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, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. (Hebrews 2.14-15)
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—2the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us—3that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. (1 John 1.1-3)
In addition, the life of Christ demonstrated that He was fully human. Jesus had a natural birth, grew physically like all other humans, experienced hunger (Matthew 4.2) and thirst (John 19.28) and physical fatigue (John 4.6). He experienced human emotions like love (John 13.23), sorrow (Matthew 26.37), joy (John 15.11), and anger (Mark 3.5). He was limited to being in only one place at a time. He suffered physically and died a human death.
Of course, the incarnation has always been a mystery to the human mind. How could Jesus be both fully human (Hebrews 2.17) and fully divine (Colossians 2.9) at the same time? This is why Paul wrote, “Beyond all question, the mystery from which true godliness springs is great: He appeared in the flesh…” (1 Timothy 3.16).
As Christians, and non-Christians, have struggled to understand and to describe this mystery, they have usually come to erroneous conclusions about the humanity and divinity of Jesus. Some have said that Jesus only appeared to be human (this heresy was called “Docetism”). Some have suggested that Jesus was a human adopted by God at his baptism to become the Son of God (a heresy called “Adoptionism”). Some have suggested that Jesus laid aside His divine attributes when He took on His humanity so that Jesus was divine and then human, but not both at the same time (a heresy called Kenoticism based primarily upon Philippians 2.5-8). Some have suggested that Jesus had a human body but a divine soul (a heresy called “Nestorianism”).
But all of these, and many others, have been judged “heretical” (a false belief) by the church. One of the first orthodox statements on the nature of Jesus was issued by the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD, which reads:
…one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only begotten, made known in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the difference of the natures being by no means removed because of the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, divine Word, the Lord Jesus Christ; as the prophets of old and the Lord Jesus Christ Himself has taught us about Him, and the Creed of our Fathers has handed down…
It has often been said, with some degree of truth, that the statement of Chalcedon is not so much the answer to the question but just a restatement of the question. It does not explain how Jesus was made known in two natures without confusion or without separation, but just states the what the Scriptures teach.
The “modern” mind, and the “post modern mind,” seem hesitant to accept such a statement. It is illogical to accept that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine at the same time. But I think the Creator has given to us a clue as to how we can understand and accept this reality. The incarnate Jesus was the “light of the world” (see John 1.1-13). Scientists have struggled to understand light, trying to decide whether light is a particle or a wave. The answer is “both.” Sometimes light acts like a particle, and sometimes light acts as a wave. To fully understand light, it has to be treated as both a particle and a wave.
In fact, the more scientists come to know about God’s creation, the more they are embracing such “mysteries” like quantum entanglement. According to www.encylopedia.com,
Individual subatomic particles, such as photons, do not exist in single, well-defined states like on-off light switches. Rather, they exist as a superposition of states. Experiments show, for example, that prior to observation (i.e., definitive interaction with a large-scale system) a photon can actually have more than one polarization at once and be in more than one place at once. Not only can individual particles exist in superposed or ambiguous states prior to observation, but the superposed states of pairs, triplets, or larger groups of particles can be related to each other by means of entanglement. Entanglement arises because the superposed states of particles that have interacted directly retain a definite, permanent relationship even after the particles have separated. Two entangled photons, for example, may be sent to two different detectors, A and B. Individually the photons do not, while in transit, have definite polarizations. When the polarization of one of the photons is collapsed to a definite value by measurement at detector A, however, photon, bound for detector B, instantly takes on the opposite polarization. There is no delay; the effect is truly instantaneous.
This is what Albert Einstein called “spooky action at a distance.” While I make no claim to understand quantum physics, it seems to me that even scientists are learning that ultimate reality can “exist as a superposition of states,” they can be “both and,” just as the doctrine of the incarnation states. It is indeed a great mystery.
But not a trivial mystery. In other words, the incarnation is crucially important for those who desire to be right with God and to walk by faith. The Scriptures relate the incarnation to at least three important realities.
First, the atoning death of Christ is efficacious for all of humanity because of the incarnation. The writer of Hebrews wrote,
14Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— 15and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. 16For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants. 17For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. 18Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted. (Hebrews 2.14-18)
The death of Christ, as the Lamb of God, was an atoning sacrifice for our sins because He was fully human. He was the Lamb of God offered in the place of sinful mankind for the sins of mankind. Because He was fully human, His sacrifice was in the place of humanity. Because He was fully divine, His sacrifice was worthy to make atonement for the sins of humanity. As Paul wrote, “For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering” (Romans 8.3).
Secondly, because of the incarnation, Christ is able to intercede on our behalf even today. The writer of Hebrews wrote,
Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. 15For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. 16Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. (Hebrews 4.14-16)
We can pray to God the Father with confidence because we know that the Second Person of the Eternal Triune God can empathize with our weaknesses since He has shared in our humanity. Because of the incarnation, we can receive grace and mercy from God’s throne to help us in our time of need.
A third reason that the incarnation was important is so that Jesus Christ can truly be a moral example for all of humanity. The apostle Peter wrote,
For it is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God. 20But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. 21To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. 22“He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” 23When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. (1 Peter 2.19-23)
How could we ever expect to imitate the life of Christ if He only appeared to be human or just had a human body with a divine soul? But since He was made like us in every way, fully human, we have an example to follow, an example that we can hope to live into. The moral example of Jesus is realistic for us humans because of the incarnation.
So, the incarnation is much more than useless, theological trivia. It is the very life and breath of the Christmas story. O Come, O Come Immanuel!