The word incarnation comes from the Latin word carne, which means flesh, or meat. “Incarnation,” then, means the “in-fleshing” of God (Carson). The holy, eternal God put on a body and was born as a Man, in the Person of Jesus Christ! This doctrine is one of the core teachings of Christianity.
The “Ingredients” of the Incarnation
John 1:1, 14 is one of the clearest texts on the doctrine of the incarnation. Verse 1 declares that, in the beginning (i.e. before Jesus became a Man – in “eternity past”): The Word was with God – (He was God’s own “fellow” – Carson) [God’s friend, partner, colleague].
This phrase highlights the distinction of Persons in the Godhead. The Word was with, beside, distinct from, God. The Son is not the Father, is not the Spirit.
And yet, in the same breath, this verse goes on to declare:
The Word was God – (He was God’s own “self” – Carson). This phrase highlights the unity of the Persons in the Godhead. The Word was of one substance, one nature, with God.
So far we have a Person who is, at the same time, both distinct from God, and God!
Verse 14 then gives a crucial third piece of the puzzle: The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. This Person who was both distinct from God and God himself now adds something new to his experience: he became a Man. In becoming a Man, he did not lose his deity (for Jesus still claims to be the I AM who existed before Jesus’ birth – John 8:58, compare with Ex 3:14). Remaining what he was, he became what he was not (a human being). Carson clarifies that this is not God simply indwelling a human, or merely appearing to be human, but actually becoming fully human. By the time the apostle John wrote his letters, he argued tenaciously for the importance of teaching that Jesus came in the flesh, in full humanity. He wrote to the churches that anyone who denied this doctrine is antichrist (1 John 4:2-3; 2 John 7)!
So, we have a Person who existed before he was born, in a state of both unity with, and distinction from, God. This Person then stepped into human time and history and was born as a Man, called Jesus Christ (who remembers his preexistence and speaks of it – John 17:5). Jesus’ birth was not the beginning of his existence, but it was the beginning of his new experience as the God-Man. This is the incarnation!
Philippians 2:6-8 also speaks of Jesus’ preexistence: “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing…being born in the likeness of men.” Here we see Jesus existing before his human birth. He existed in the “form” of God (Greek morphe, having the “essential qualities” of God – John Frame). Jesus then entered human experience by being born as a man.
So, the “ingredients,” or the “nuts and bolts” of the doctrine of the incarnation are the ideas of Jesus’ preexistence, his full deity (fully God), and his putting on full humanity.
The “How” of the Incarnation
The incarnation is a great mystery and the greatest of all miracles! How can God become a Man…and still be God? The Bible does not answer all our questions about this, but gives us only one hint, in Luke 1:31-35. The angel told Mary that she, a virgin, would conceive and bear a son of the Most High. Mary is the first one to hear of the incarnation, and she asked the same question we ask, “How will this be?” How can God pull this off, “since I am a virgin?” The only answer she received (and the only answer we receive) is this: “The Holy Spirit…” Boom! End of discussion. This will be accomplished by the power of God, through the Holy Spirit! By his work in Mary, the child “will be called holy – the Son of God.” So the Father sends the Son, who is born fully Man and fully God by the miraculous working of the Holy Spirit, through the virginal conception.
The Glory of the Incarnation
The event of the incarnation is a beautiful and soul-stirring display of the great glory and mighty power of God! Thinking deeply on this subject is good for both the mind and the heart! On particular display in the incarnation is the amazing and unparalleled humility of the Son of God (Scheumann). John Owen writes,
“How glorious then is this willingness of the Son of God to humble himself to be our mediator. What heart can conceive, what tongue can express the glory of that mind of Christ which brought him down from infinite glory to take our nature into union with his so that he could mediate with God on our behalf?” (John Owen, The Glory of Christ).
Philippians 2:6-8 marvels at the great humility of Jesus seen in the incarnation: though he existed before his birth in equality with God, he “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped” (he did not fight for his position at all costs – did not “grasp” for self-elevation), “but made himself nothing, 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.” Jesus did not give himself to self-promotion, but embraced willingly his self-denial, for our sake! The greatest distance ever traveled by any being is the unfathomable distance Jesus traveled from glory to self-humiliation in the incarnation; he voluntarily went from the highest place imaginable, to the lowest place conceivable. The text presents layer after layer of self-humbling. He emptied himself (a figure of speech that means he completely humbled himself – Carson) and came down from heaven. Born in the likeness of men. Not just a man, but a man of low class – a servant. Then he humbled himself further by giving himself to the experience of death! Finally, he humbled himself to the greatest degree imaginable by embracing the shameful, painful death of crucifixion – “even death on a cross!”
This text is given to us so that we may stand in awe and worship of the glory of God displayed by the incarnation of Jesus. And it is taught to us so that we may follow his example of self-emptying as we serve one another in his church (“Have this mind among yourselves” v5; “in humility count others more significant than yourselves” v3). Jesus took on flesh, in humility, to serve (Mark 10:45 – Scheumann).
The Effect of the Incarnation
The doctrine of the incarnation is directly relevant to us today! Christ’s coming as the God-Man made salvation possible. Jesus, as a Man, was now able to live a perfect life as our representative, and die an effectual, sacrificial death as our redeemer! The Book of Hebrews quotes Jesus as saying, “a body have you prepared for me…I have come to do your will, O God” (Heb 10:5-7), before explaining, “And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Heb 10:10).
The incarnation was absolutely necessary for our salvation (Frame): “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…He had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest…to make propitiation for the sins of the people” (Heb 2:14, 17).
Jesus needed a body so he could offer it up for us on the cross. He needed blood so that he could shed it for our sins. “The Word became flesh”…so he could save us from our sins by his death and resurrection, and bring us into the eternal enjoyment of God! My encouragement for you this season is to set this beautiful and edifying doctrine before your eyes. Think on it, meditate on it – chew on it like a tasty morsel! Let your mind marvel at the mystery and majesty. Let your heart be stirred to worship and love. Glorify the Lord Jesus, who took on flesh for us!
- Systematic Theology, An Introduction to Christian Belief, by John M. Frame. ©2013. P&R Publishing, Phillipsburg, NJ.
- The Doctrine of the Incarnation – Theology Refresh: Podcast for Christian Leaders. D.A. Carson. Accessed 12/6/17 at https://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/the-doctrine-of-the-incarnation.
- Five Truths About the Incarnation, article by Joseph Scheumann. Accessed 12/6/17 at https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/five-truths-about-the-incarnation
- The Glory of Christ, by John Owen. Puritan Paperbacks. Banner of Truth.