Jesus Christ is both true God and true man. He is the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, as we confess in the words of the Nicene Creed. We refer to the “incarnation” of Jesus using a word that derives from two Latin words: in and carne, meaning, quite literally, “in fleshing.”
The incarnation of Jesus is one of the many beliefs that sets Christianity apart from other religions. In Christianity, God isn’t sitting idly by watching the world fall apart—He is actively intervening on our behalf, inserting Himself into the story of humanity and dwelling among us.
In Authentic Christianity, Professor Gene Edward Veith Jr. and Pastor A. Trevor Sutton put it this way:
God is neither in the cloud nor in the clouds. He does not dwell in abstraction. He is not in some remote realm, recluse reality, or utterly incomprehensible place beyond our grasp. Nor is He located primarily within the self. Rather, God has drawn near to us in the most intimate way imaginable by taking on human flesh in Christ Jesus. (p. 70)
Jesus came down from heaven to be born into the world as a human to do things we could never do ourselves—things that only God could do, like:
- Show us who God really is
- Pay the price for our sin
- Conquer death
- Restore our relationship to God
But while this doctrine is an integral part of the Christian faith, and it’s right there in Scripture, the incarnation can be confusing, and there are many facets the Early Church had to work out over the first few centuries.
In this introduction, we’re going to explore the basics to help you understand what the incarnation is, where it comes from, and how it affects Christians today.
For starters, let’s look at where the word incarnation comes from and what exactly it means.
What does incarnation mean?
In Christianity, this word always refers to the union of God and man, in Jesus.
The language we use to describe Jesus emphasizes the nearness of God. . . . God has joined Himself with flesh in the incarnation (in-carnis-ation) of Jesus—a bold confession that God has taken on human flesh and bones, muscle and sinew, blood and plasma, and everything else that constitutes bodily existence. God has drawn so close to this world that He has forever intertwined salvation with sinew, Christ with carnis. (Authentic Christianity, p. 71)
When talking about Christ’s incarnation, you may also encounter the term “personal union.” While the incarnation tells us that Jesus is human and divine, we refer to the personal union to explain the union between Jesus’ divine nature and His human nature: Jesus is fully God and fully human.
That’s what it really means to say that Jesus is the incarnation of God. He is truly God and truly man. The person of the Son of God took on humanity in the womb of the Virgin Mary.
Understanding more about the word human can enhance our understanding of the incarnation as well. Veith and Sutton suggest that “the word human offers us a vivid depiction of the nearness of God” (Authentic Christianity, p. 71).
It comes from the Latin word humus, which means “soil” or “dirt.” The word itself has roots in the origins of creation, when God created man out of the dust (Genesis 2:7).
Human bodies, though they are fearfully and wonderfully made, are derived from mere dirt. Christ Jesus—God in human flesh—is therefore the eternal union of Creator and creation, holiness and humus, divinity and dust of the earth that is the human body. (Authentic Christianity, p. 71)
Empathy with humanity
It’s easy for some people to imagine that the all-seeing, all-knowing, eternal God of the universe is too far removed from humanity to care about our circumstances.
But the reality is that not only does He intimately understand us as only a creator understands his creation, but He understands what it’s like to live with our human limitations—because He has done it. God knows exactly what it’s like to be human, and He cares enough about us that He became one of us.
The Book of Hebrews tells us that Jesus’ experience as a human enables Him not only to understand our human struggles, but also to help us through them: “Because He Himself has suffered when tempted, He is able to help those who are being tempted” (Hebrews 2:18).
Veith and Sutton also argue that the origins of the words incarnation and human help us understand just how near and tangible God really is:
The incarnation defies the notion that God is distant. There is nothing abstract about God coming in human flesh to rescue His creation. Flesh and dirt are not unfamiliar concepts that stretch our mind’s understanding; rather, flesh and dirt are among the most simplistic and ubiquitous facets of human life. It is hard to get earthier or more tangible than carnis and humus. (Authentic Christianity, pp. 71–72)
So, is Jesus God?
Jesus had all the qualities that make us human, except for one: He was without sin (Hebrews 4:15). The Son of God took on all aspects of what it is to be human, and as a result, through His human nature, Jesus did countless things only God had the power to do. He forgave sins (Mark 2:5). He healed people and restored sight to the blind (Mark 8:22–26). He commanded nature, and it obeyed Him (Matthew 8:26). And He cast out demons (Mark 5:1–13).
Despite having a human body, He was fully God. And that has significant implications for what His sacrifice on the cross meant.
God is not punishing an innocent victim, in the sense of choosing an ordinary mortal to be made a human sacrifice. God is, in effect, sacrificing Himself. (Authentic Christianity, p. 97)
When you hear that Jesus is God, it can be confusing. Doesn’t the Bible tell us that He is the Son of God? God calls Jesus His Son when John baptizes Him:
Behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:17)
And Jesus speaks of Himself as the Son of God in one of the most well-known Bible verses:
For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)
Yes, Jesus is one of the three persons who make up the Holy Trinity—not three gods, but one God in three persons. We do not try to explain this reality: we confess it, we believe it, and we trust it.
Is Jesus human?
Jesus didn’t just appear on earth as a grown man. He was born as a baby. He fully experienced life as a human being. He got tired (John 4:6). He needed to sleep (Mark 4:38). He got thirsty (John 4:7). He wept (John 11:35).
Jesus, the mirror of the Father’s heart, is the full embodiment of God’s grace and favor. He was conceived by the Holy Spirit as God went to work weaving divinity and humanity together within Mary’s womb. He was born to a scared, young mother in the out-of-the-way town of Bethlehem. He was a refugee on the run in Egypt with His family as they fled the sword of a tyrannical ruler. He walked the dusty streets of Nazareth, learned Hebrew, ate bread with olive oil, and attended funerals and weddings. Jesus has firsthand knowledge of family and friendships, political oppression and despotic rulers, happiness and celebration, fear and trembling, peace and power, joy and sorrow, life and death. In Christ Jesus, God knows exactly what it is like to be human. (Authentic Christianity, pp. 70–71)
Has Jesus always existed?
In the fourth century, the incarnation was leading to some heretical beliefs about Jesus. If He was God’s only begotten son (John 3:16) and He was born, doesn’t that imply that Jesus had a beginning? This was part of an argument used by a priest named Arius to suggest that Jesus was lesser than God the Father. The Church further articulated and explained the Holy Trinity when it addressed this heresy (known as Arianism) at the First Council of Nicaea.
The Bible itself tells us that Jesus has been with God from the beginning. The apostle John starts his Gospel by telling us that the Son of God has always been with God and is in fact God, through whom all that exists was created.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him was not any thing made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1:1–5)
A few verses later, John more explicitly connects “the Word” to Jesus:
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)
So while the incarnation occurred at a specific point in time, the Son of God is eternal. Just as God is eternal and in time, the Son of God took on human flesh and was born as Jesus.
Why does it matter that Jesus is God Incarnate?
Throughout the Old Testament, promises of the coming Savior were made, which gave a foreshadowing of the purpose and work of the Son of God. In the New Testament, we have the fullest revelation of the Son of God in the person and work of Jesus, the Christ.
Veith and Sutton put it this way:
Just as a mirror offers a perfect reflection, Jesus is the perfect reflection of the Father’s heart. He is completely aligned with the Father’s will and desire, plans and purposes. If you want to know God, then you need not look to the clouds. You need not look within yourself. If you want to know God, then you simply need to know Jesus. He is the perfect mirror image of the Father: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation” (Colossians 1:15). (Authentic Christianity, p. 70)
And in that mirror, we see that God cares deeply about His creation, so much so that He was willing to die to bring it back into a right relationship with Him.
Rather than being in the cloud, God has come to us in the most accessible and comprehensible way in Christ Jesus. And, to be certain, God did not merely descend into creation to wallow in dust. He came to redeem a sin-shackled creation and bring eternal life in the midst of death. God put on human flesh in order to restore human flesh. He descended into the depths of a fallen world in order to lift it up out of the muck and mire of sin. (Authentic Christianity, p. 72)
Do we really need to understand the incarnation?
The incarnation is foundational to the Christian faith. Jesus’ divinity is what makes Him not just a great teacher or prophet, but the Messiah, our Lord, and our Savior. Without His divinity, Jesus’ sacrifice could not have borne the weight of our sin, His sacrifice would not have atoned for our sin, and the forgiveness He offers would have no authority. Humanity’s sins are ultimately against God, and if Jesus weren’t God, it wouldn’t be His place to forgive them. The resurrection of Jesus would not be the life-giving and saving event it was were it not for the resurrection of the human nature of the God-man, Jesus Christ.
We often talk about what Jesus was like and the things He said and did, but it is paramount that we also bear in mind who He really is.
Largely missing, even in the teachings of many churches, is the distinct Christian insight: God has become incarnate in Jesus Christ. He took on human flesh. He lived a human life in the real, objective, physical world. And the incarnate Son of God is still present with His people. To be sure, all Christians affirm the incarnation and the deity of Christ, and yet this teaching is often pushed to the margins today or buried beneath teachings with a higher priority. (Authentic Christianity, p. 51)
Quotes from Authentic Christianity are copyright © 2017 Gene Edward Veith Jr. and A. Trevor Sutton. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
In their online video study, Authentic Christianity, Gene Edward Veith Jr. and A. Trevor Sutton explore central Christian teachings like the incarnation, justification, the cross, and sanctification.