None of us can truly wrap our brain around the Christmas fact that God came to earth in the form of a man. As the great thinker Blaise Pascal said, “The Church has had as much difficulty in showing that Jesus Christ was man, against those who denied it, as in showing that he was God; and the probabilities were equally great.”
In an impossible effort to explain the spectacular mystery of the Incarnation, we have a tendency to over-emphasize on either one side (Jesus’ divinity) or the other (Jesus’ humanity). Instead, we must look to the ministry of the Holy Spirit in order to understand how both can be true.
When I was a new Christian, I asked the pastor of a fundamentalist church about the temptation of Jesus mentioned throughout Scripture (Matt. 4:1–10; Mark 1:12–13; Luke 4:1–13; Heb. 2:18;4:15). He immediately took me to James 1:13, which says, “God cannot be tempted with evil.” He went on to say that because Jesus is God, when the Bible says he was tempted, he was not really tempted but basically faking it.
His portrait of Jesus sounded eerily similar to Superman. He was saying that like Superman, Jesus only appeared to be a regular, tempted Galilean peasant; under the Clark Kent-like disguise there remained on Jesus’ chest a big red “G” for God, which made him unable to really suffer from the same weaknesses as the rest of us mere mortals.
The Bible, however, explains that God came as the man Jesus Christ because of humility and a willingness to be our suffering servant. Philippians 2:5–11 says:
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 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. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
This amazing section of Scripture reveals to us that the second member of the Trinity came into human history as the God-man Jesus Christ. In doing so, Jesus exemplified perfect and unparalleled humility. In his Incarnation, the Creator entered his creation to reveal God to us, identify with us, and live and die for us as our humble servant.
By saying that Jesus “made himself nothing,” Paul means that Jesus set aside his rights as God and the rightful continual use of his divine attributes, as I mentioned above. Though Jesus remained God, he chose instead to live by the power of the Holy Spirit. He lived as we must live—by the enabling power of God the Holy Spirit.
Through the Holy Spirit, Jesus was able to experience the kinds of things humans experience without sinning. This is what is meant by Hebrews 2:17, which says, “He had to be made like his brothers in every respect.” Jesus knows what it is like to learn to walk and talk and read and write because he learned these things as we do.
To be absolutely clear: Jesus remained fully man and fully God during his Incarnation, and he maintained all of his divine attributes and did avail himself of them upon occasion for the benefit of others, such as in forgiving sin (Mark 2:1–7). Nonetheless, Jesus’ life was lived as fully human in that he lived it by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Regarding the relationship between Jesus and the Holy Spirit, and the mystery of God become human, Martyn Lloyd-Jones says:
What, then, does all this mean? It means that there was no change in His deity, but that He took human nature to Himself, and chose to live in this world as a man. He humbled Himself in that way. He deliberately put limits upon Himself. Now we cannot go further. We do not know how He did it. We cannot understand it, in a sense. But we believe this: in order that He might live this life as a man, while He was here on earth, He did not exercise certain qualities of His Godhead. That was why . . . He needed to be given the gift of the Holy Spirit without measure.
Sadly, all of the major creeds compiled during the early church ignore the life of Jesus between his birth and death. Perhaps this has contributed to the propensity for Christians to not deeply ponder the humanity of Christ as much as his deity. The Apostles’ Creed, Nicene Creed, and Athanasian Creed all declare that Jesus was born to the Virgin Mary and then skip forward to his suffering under the rule of Pilate without speaking a word about the years in between; they overlook the example of Jesus’ life, in general, and his exemplary relationship with God the Holy Spirit, in particular. But, as Abraham Kuyper writes:
This ought to be carefully noticed, especially since the Church has never sufficiently confessed the influence of the Holy Spirit exerted upon the work of Christ. The general impression is that the work of the Holy Spirit begins when the work of the Mediator on earth is finished, as tho [sic] until that time the Holy Spirit celebrated His divine day of rest. Yet the Scripture teaches us again and again that Christ performed His mediatorial work controlled and impelled by the Holy Spirit.
The empowerment of Jesus by God the Holy Spirit is repeatedly stressed in the Gospel of Luke. There we find that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit and given the title “Christ,” which means anointed by the Holy Spirit (Luke 1–2). Jesus’ aunt Elizabeth was “filled with the Holy Spirit” when greeting Jesus’ pregnant mother Mary, and his uncle Zechariah went on to prophesy that their son John was appointed by God to prepare the way for Jesus (Luke 1:41–43, 67, 76). An angel revealed to Mary that she would give birth to Jesus because “the Holy Spirit will come upon you,” (Luke 1:35–37)
Once born, Jesus was dedicated to the Lord in the temple according to the demands of the law by Simeon; “the Holy Spirit was upon [Simeon]” and the Holy Spirit had revealed to him that he would not die until seeing Jesus Christ (Luke 2:25–27). Simeon was “in the Spirit” when he prophesied about Jesus’ ministry to Jews and Gentiles (Luke 2:27–34).
John prophesied that one day Jesus would baptize people with the Holy Spirit (John 1:14; Phil. 2:5–6; Col. 2:9; 1 John 4:2). The Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus at his own bap-tism (e.g., Matt. 4:1–10;Heb. 4:14–16). It is curious that while the Gospels give scant information about Jesus’ childhood, all four include the account of Jesus’ baptism. Matthew adds the interesting statement that the Spirit rested on Jesus, as if to suggest that the remainder of his life and ministry on the earth would be done under the anointing and power of the Holy Spirit (Matt. 3:16).
In the remainder of Luke’s Gospel, we discover that Jesus was “full of the Holy Spirit,” “led by the Spirit” (Luke 4:1–2), and came “in the power of the Spirit” (Luke 4:14). After reading Isaiah 61:1–2, which begins, “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,” Jesus declared, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:14–21). Luke continues by revealing that Jesus also “rejoiced in the Holy Spirit” (Luke 10:21).
Gerald Hawthorne, who has written one of the most compelling books on the subject of Jesus’ relationship with the Holy Spirit, says, “[Jesus] is the supreme example for them of what is possible in a human life because of his total dependence upon the Spirit of God.” How does seeing the life of Jesus as empowered by the Holy Spirit give you courage to ask the Holy Spirit to empower you to become more like Jesus?