STUDY THREE: INCARNATION
© Rosemary Bardsley 2005, 2014
A. THE MEANING OF ‘INCARNATION’
The word incarnation is used to describe and refer to that action of God in which he took upon himself human flesh – in which God lived on this earth in and as a real human person.
God, who is essentially spirit, became flesh. This is stated simply in John’s Gospel: ‘The Word became flesh ...’ (John 1:14a). He who is divine, became human. He who is the almighty Creator became part of his creation. He who from eternity had no body, was born into this world in a body at a point in historic time. For this we use the word incarnation - of which the root is the Latin carnis - flesh. Paul speaks of this in Colossians:
‘For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him’ (Col 1:19)
‘For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form’ (Col 2:9).
Obviously then, incarnation speaks directly about the historical birth of Jesus Christ the Son of God, and you might well be asking the question: why is this word featured in a study on salvation? It is a good question. It reflects the concept common across the churches that salvation is related to the death of Jesus Christ, and not to his birth. Yet as we read the New Testament we find that the incarnation is of central significance, that it is so important that without it, and without acknowledgement of it, there would be neither salvation nor true knowledge of the biblical God.
B. NON-BIBLICAL CONCEPTS OF INCARNATION
Before we press on let us realise that there are concepts of incarnation that are decidedly different from the biblical concept, and that God becoming man has been given a range of interpretations.
B.1 The belief that Jesus was not a real human
Docetism – asserted that Christ’s human body was not real, but just a phantom, and that his physical suffering and death were only an appearance of suffering.
HM Gwatkin comments: ‘Because he suffered, said the Jew, he was not divine. Because he was divine, replied the Gnostic, he did not suffer. Thus the Judaisers and the Gnostics had a common interest in explaining away his sufferings, for they were agreed that divinity and suffering are inconsistent with each other. So they introduced a higher power as the real Christ. The Ebionites made the Spirit of the Lord (in the Jewish sense) light on a common man. The Gnostics clothed a heavenly power with the appearance of manhood, so that those sufferings were only in appearance. In either case, it is denied that the Redeemer suffered at all.’ [cited by J Stevenson in A New Eusebius, p47, from Early Church History to A.D.313 Vol 1].
This denial of the true humanity [and therefore the real death and suffering] of Christ is confronted by:
• The First Letter of John
• Ignatius [approx 110-115AD, who wrote:
‘’There is one Physician, of flesh and of Spirit, originate and unoriginated, God in man, true Life in death, son of Mary and Son of God, first passible and then impassible, Jesus Christ our Lord.’ [Letter from Ignatius to the Ephesians.]
‘Be deaf, therefore, when any one speaks unto you apart from Jesus Christ, who was of the race of David, the child of Mary, who was truly born, and ate and drank, was truly persecuted under Pontius Pilate, was truly crucified and died, before the eyes of those in heaven and those on earth and those under the earth; who also was truly raised from the dead …. But if it be, as some godless men, i.e. unbelievers, assert, that He suffered in phantom only – it is they that are phantoms – why am I in bonds? … Then I die for naught. Then I lie against the Lord’ [Letter from Ignatius to the Trallians]
Both cited in A New Eusebius.
• Irenaeus [approx 130AD] wrote against Basileides, who taught that on the way to the crucifixion Jesus, being ‘an incorporeal power’ swapped bodily form with Simon of Cyrene, who was crucified and Jesus went off laughing. Irenaeus also wrote against the teaching of the Gnostic Valentinus, who also denied the real humanity of Christ.
• Tertullian wrote against the Gnostic heretic Marcion [c144AD]”
‘Now, the more firmly the antichrist Marcion had seized this assumption, i.e. the incredibility of an incarnate God, the more prepared was he, of course, to reject the bodily substance of Christ, since he had introduced his own peculiar god to our notice as neither the author nor the resuscitator of the flesh.’
[Cited in A New Eusebius p 101-102]
Apollinarianism – In an effort to maintain the full deity of Jesus Christ Apollinarius [died 392] emphasized the deity of Christ at the expense of his full humanity. He taught that in Jesus Christ the ‘logos’ took the place of the human mind or soul. This teaching was condemned at Synods in Alexandria , Rome and Constantinople .
Eutychianism: - Taught that Jesus was neither fully man nor fully God, but part man and part God.
Task #1: Discussion
Discuss the implications for salvation of this denial of the real incarnation and true humanity of Jesus Christ.
B.2 The belief that Jesus was not God
From the time of Christ’s life on earth to this present day people have denied the deity of Jesus Christ. We see evidence of this in:
The Jews living at the same time as Jesus
John 10:33: ‘We are not stoning you for any of these … but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God.’
In the New Testament period
Colossians - Where Paul found it necessary to spell out the true and full deity of Christ – 1:15 – 19; 2:3,6,9
1John - Where John challenged those who denied the deity of Christ
Hebrews - Where the writer goes to great lengths to affirm the eternal deity of Christ
In the early church
Irenaeus [end of second century] taught against people who denied deity of Christ
‘Now it has been clearly demonstrated that the Word which exists from the beginning with God, by whom all things were made, who was also present with the race of men at all times, this Word has in these last times, according to the time appointed by the Father, been united to his own workmanship … Therefore we can set aside the objection of them that say, “If he was born at that time it follows that Christ did not exist before then”. For we have shown that the Son of God did not then begin to exist since he existed with the Father always …’ [Cited on page 29,30 in Documents of the Christian Church]
Arius – denied the eternal deity of Christ
Alexander, bishop of Alexandria, described the Arian heresy [c319AD]:
‘What they assert in utter contrariety to the Scriptures, and wholly of their own devising, is as follows: “God was not always a father, but that there was when He was not a father; the Word of God was not from eternity, but was made out of nothing; for that the ever-existing God has made Him who did not previously exist, out of the non-existent.” Wherefore “there was when He was not”, inasmuch as, according to their philosophy, “the Son is a creature and a work; He is neither like the Father in essence, not is by nature either the Father’s true Word or His true Wisdom, but indeed one of His works and creatures, being by a misuse of language called Word and Wisdom since he came into being by God’s own Word and the Wisdom which is in God, whereby God both made all things and Him also.” Wherefore, “he is as to his nature mutable and susceptible of change, as all other rational things are: hence the Word is alien to, foreign to, and excluded from the essence of God; and the Father is invisible to the Son: for neither does the Son perfectly and accurately know the Father, neither can He perfectly behold him. The Son knows not even the nature of His own essence; for He has been made for us, in order that God might create us by Him, as by an instrument; nor would He ever have existed, unless God had wished to create us.” ‘ [Cited in A New Eusebius p343]
Arius, in a letter to Alexander [c320]
‘We acknowledge One God, alone unbegotten, alone everlasting, alone unbegun, alone true, alone having immortality, alone wise, alone good, alone sovereign; judge, governor, and administrator of all, unalterable and unchangeable, just and good, God of Law and Prophets and New Testament: who begat the Only-begotten Son …’ [Note the separation made between God and the Son.] ‘ … ‘He is not eternal or co-eternal or co-unoriginate with the Father, nor has He His being together with the Father’.
The Council of Nicea [325AD] defined the true deity of Christ to combat the Arian heresy
The Creed of Nicea:
‘We believe in one God the Father All-sovereign, maker of all things visible and invisible:
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father, only-begotten, that is of the substance of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father, through whom all things were made, things in heaven and things on the earth; who for us men and for our salvation came down and was made flesh, and became man, suffered, and rose on the third day, ascended into the heavens, is coming to judge living and dead.
And in the Holy Spirit.
And those that say “There was when he was not,”
and “Before he was begotten he was not,”
and that “He came into being from what-is-not”
or those what allege, that the son of God is
“Of another essence”
these the Catholic and Apostolic Church anathematizes.
The ’Nicene’ Creed:
‘We believe in one God the Father All-sovereign, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible;
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, Begotten of the Father before all the ages, Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father, through whom all things were made; who for us men and for our salvation came down from the heavens, and was made flesh of the Holy spirit and the Virgin Mary, and became man, and was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried, and rose again on the third day according to the Scriptures, and ascended into the heavens, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father, and cometh again with glory to judge living and dead, of whose kingdom there shall be no end:
And in the Holy spirit, the Lord and the Life-giver, that proceedeth from the Father, who with Father and Son is worshipped together and glorified together, who spake through the prophets:
In one holy Catholic and apostolic church:
We acknowledge one baptism unto remission of sins. We look for a resurrection of the dead, and the life of the age to come.
Eutychianism: [mid 400’s]
Taught that Jesus was neither fully man nor fully God, but part man and part God.
Taught that Jesus was ‘adopted’ as ‘God’ or elevated to deity at either his baptism or after his resurrection.
Ebionites [Some relationship with Judaisers and Gnostics]
Jesus was not God, but a prophet or an angel.
Modern denials of the deity of Christ
In denying the supernatural, liberal and modernist theology denies the virgin birth and the resurrection, effectively denying the concept of God incarnate. Jesus is just a man – a good moral teacher, a social activist, a good example – but not God.
Pseudo ‘Christian’ cults
Denial of the full deity of Christ is evident in pseudo ‘Christian’ cults.
The New Age movement
Affirms that Jesus was a man who found union with ‘the god within’ or some similar idea.
To guard against various heretical teachings of the two natures of Christ and their relationship to each other the Council of Chalcedon, 451, formulated The Definition of Chalcedon:
‘Therefore, following the holy Fathers, we all with one accord teach men to acknowledge one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man, consisting also of a reasonable soul and body; of one substance [homoousios] with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his manhood; like us in all respects, apart from sin; as regards his Godhead, begotten of the Father before all ages, but yet as regards his manhood begotten, for us men and for our salvation, of Mary the Virgin, the God-bearer [theotokos]; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, recognized IN TWO NATURES, WITHOUT CONFUSION, WITHOUT CHANGE, WITHOUT DIVISION, WITHOUT SEPARATION; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence [hupostasis], not as parted or separated into two persons, but one and the same son and Only-begotten God the word, Lord Jesus; even as the prophets from earliest times spoke of him, and our Lord Jesus Christ himself taught us, and the creed of the Fathers has handed down to us.’
B.3 Other twisted concepts of ‘incarnation’
The word ‘incarnation’ must never be applied to anyone other than Jesus Christ. It does not apply to the individual believer as other salvation words do. Unfortunately some people who consider themselves to be Christians do make this misapplication of incarnation.
- There are those who teach that every believer is as much an incarnation of God as Jesus Christ was, claiming that Christians are ‘little gods’ and that when you look at a Christian you are actually looking at God.
- There are those who teach that incarnation happens when a human being allows God to ‘live in’ or have control over his/her life.
- There are also those who speak of ‘the god within’ each human being.
It is not such concepts as these that we are dealing with here in the Biblical concept of the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ.
When the Bible speaks of incarnation in relation to the conception and birth of Jesus Christ it is speaking of something utterly unique, a once-only, never to be repeated event. It is also speaking of something totally unexpected (although it was foretold by the prophets), something so incredible that it can only be believed if God himself opens the eyes of our understanding (Matthew 11:27).
C. WHY IS INCARNATION A SALVATION CONCEPT?
C.1 Because we need to be saved from our ignorance of God
Incarnation is a salvation concept because, according to the Bible, no one knows God (Romans 3:11; John 8:19,55a.) We need to be saved firstly from our ignorance of God [John 1:18], from that blind darkness in which Satan holds us bound (2Corinthians 4:4), from that corruption of truth (see Romans 1:18-32) in which false understanding has been substituted for true understanding (Jeremiah 2:9-13) and we love to have it so (Jeremiah 5:30,31).
Task #2: Describe the human ignorance of God revealed in the verses mentioned above.
In foretelling the coming of Jesus Christ the prophets indicated that it would bring knowledge of God to the world:
‘And the glory of the LORD will be revealed,
and all mankind together will see it.’ Isaiah 40:5.
‘You who bring good tidings to Zion,
go up on a high mountain.
You who bring good tidings to Jerusalem,
lift up your voice with a shout,
lift it up, do not be afraid;
say to the towns of Judah,
“Here is your God!”’ Isaiah 40:9.
‘I will ... make you ... a light for the Gentiles,
to open eyes that are blind, ...
... to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.’ Isaiah 42:6b,7.
‘No longer will a man teach his neighbour,
or a man his brother, saying “Know the LORD,”
for they will all know me,
from the least to greatest.’ Jeremiah 31:34.
In the incarnation God comes to us: Emanuel - God with us. The Son who is born of Mary is called ‘Mighty God’ (Isaiah 9:6). It is not that Jesus was god-like. It is not that Jesus was god-ly. It is not that Jesus allowed God to have full sway in his life. Rather it is this: that Jesus, in the most absolute sense of the word, was, and is, God.
In seeing him, we see God. [John 12:45]
In knowing him, we know God (John 14:7-9).
He himself said: ‘I and the Father are one’ (John 10:30).
For this reason Jesus claims: ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life’ (John 8:12). The meaning is clear: in Jesus Christ alone is true knowledge of God to be found. All else is darkness, no matter how light it seems to be. He claimed also to be ‘the truth’ (John 14:6). All else then, is not the truth. There is only one place in which a human being can find the true God: that place is Jesus Christ (1John 5:20). If we do not recognize God in Jesus Christ then we, like the Jews with whom Jesus discussed his identity, do not know the God of the Bible (John 5:36-47; 8:19, 39-47, 54-56; 12:44-46), and our ‘god’ is just as much an idol or false god as if we were worshipping wood or stone.
Jesus Christ is God. If we do not first acknowledge this, then we do not know God and the cross can do nothing for us. Jesus said: ‘this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent’ (John 17:3). He also said: ‘if you do not believe that I am the one I claim to be you will indeed die in your sins’ (John 8:24).
Task #3: Describe the relationship between salvation and incarnation in the verses in the paragraphs above.
Salvation is thus intimately and directly connected with the incarnation. If we fail to see that Jesus Christ is God-in-human-flesh it is impossible to be saved. The forgiveness obtained through the death of Jesus on the cross is effective only for those who believe in him. Jesus himself said that those who do not receive him, those who do not believe in his name, are already condemned because of that failure (John 3:16-18; see also John 1:12).
Whether we are celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ at Christmas or his death and resurrection at Easter, let us not forget to give full significance to that birth. Let us remember his name: Emanuel - God with us. That infant life to whom we give praise and honour in the Christmas carols we sing is indeed worthy of that worship. Here lies our Creator. Here lies the One who sustains all things by his powerful word. Here lies the One who is Lord of lords and King of kings. Here lies our God.
Yes. To our blinded, darkened minds. Yes.
But this child grew and lived among us. His light shines upon us, dispersing the darkness, ripping away the blindness. No longer, he says, are you ignorant, blind and darkened. No longer can you say you do not know God. You have seen me: you have seen God. You know me: you know God (John 14:6-9). This is eternal life. This is salvation.
C.2 Incarnation is a salvation concept because only a real human being could stand in our place
The writer to the Hebrews spends a great deal of time affirming both the real deity and the real humanity of Jesus Christ. In affirming the true humanity of Christ the writer emphasises that only a real human being can take on the role of high priest to represent us in the presence of God, and only a real human being can die as our substitute.
Task #4: What do these verses from Hebrews teach about the reality and necessity of the humanity of Christ?
C.3 Incarnation is a salvation concept because if Jesus is not divine …
Incarnation is a salvation concept because if Jesus is not as he claimed then  he is indeed a blasphemer as the Jews claimed and worthy of execution for his own sin,  the resurrection did not happen, and  his death on the cross cannot do what the NT claims it does for our salvation
The death of Christ is ineffectual as a means of salvation if it is not followed by the resurrection. The resurrection is not possible if Christ’s claims to equality with God are false. Salvation, therefore, stands or falls on the reality of the incarnation – the full reality of God and man in Jesus Christ.
Lee Strobel includes the following in his list of implications of the incarnation:
- ‘If Jesus is the Son of God, his teachings are more than just good ideas from a wise teacher; they are divine insights on which I can confidently build my life
- ‘If Jesus did rise from the dead, he’s still alive today and available for me to encounter on a personal basis.
- ‘If Jesus conquered death, he can open the door of eternal life for me, too.’ [p360, The Case for Christ]
Paul pointed out to the Corinthians:
• ‘If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith’ [15:14]
• ‘If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins’ [15:17]
• ‘Then those who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost’ [15:18]
To the Romans Paul wrote that:
• The resurrection of Christ declares his deity [1:4]
• We are justified by his resurrection [4:25]
• The believer is identified with Christ in his resurrection [6:4,5,8,11,13; 8:11]
• Belief in the resurrection is one of the two central points of faith [10:9]
Incarnation then – Jesus Christ: true God and true man – is the essential for the cross to be effective. As Paul expressed so forcefully in 1Corinthians 15, if Jesus did not rise from the dead, that is if he is not the divine Son, the whole message, the whole Christian faith, is worthless.
‘Incarnation’ is so important a salvation word that without it all the other salvation words are powerless.