Christians: What is the incarnation?
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… 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… No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known. – John 1:1-3,14,18
Superheroes capture our imagination with their superhuman abilities. Wolverine can rapidly heal from injury. Invisible Woman can become invisible at will. Nitro can reform his own body after it explodes. Superman can fly. The Hulk has superhuman power. Aquaman can breathe underwater. Spiderman can climb walls. Wonder Woman can understand any language. Infinity is all-knowing. The Silver Surfer can manipulate gravity. Doomsday can resurrect from death. Kitty Pryde can pass through solid matter. And the Flash has superhuman speed.
Many children, and more than a few adults, have wondered what it would be like for a human being to have superhuman abilities. Yet Christian theology has something even more amazing because, unlike the superheroes, our Superhero truly lived, and his powers exceed those of comic book lore.
- I. Packer has described the incarnation as the “supreme mystery” associated with the gospel.1 The incarnation is more of a miracle than the resurrection because in it somehow a holy God and sinful humanity are joined, yet without the presence of sin: “Nothing in fiction is so fantastic as is this truth of the incarnation.”2 In Jesus, God enters the human realm. He walks on water, calms storms, heals the sick, feeds the hungry, raises the dead, and conquers the grave.
Incarnation (from the Latin meaning “becoming flesh”) is the word theologians use to explain how the second member of the Trinity entered into human history in flesh as the God-man Jesus Christ. One prominent theological journal explains:
The English word “incarnation” is based on the Latin Vulgate, “Et ver- bum caro factum est.” The noun caro is from the root carn- (“flesh”). The Incarnation means that the eternal Son of God became “flesh,” that is, He assumed an additional nature, namely, a human nature.3
The incarnation is expressly stated in John 1:14, which says, “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.” To better understand the incarnation we must carefully consider the opening chapter of John’s Gospel.
The Hebrew people at the end of the first century clung tightly to their proud religious heritage extending from Abraham to Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, and a host of priests and prophets. At the center of their theology was a devotion to the Word of God. The sacred Scriptures of the Old Testament were penned in their native tongue by their Hebrew brothers with nothing less than the authority of God as his divine voice through appointed men. To the Hebrews, the Word of God was the presence and action of God breaking into human history with unparalleled power and authority. God’s Word indicated action, an agent accomplishing the will of God. Some examples include God bringing things into existence by his word4 and God’s word being sent out to accomplish his purposes.5 For the Hebrew, God’s speech and action were one and the same.
Leon Morris provides insight into the Jewish concept of “the Word” from the Jewish Targums (Old Testament paraphrases), in which Jews substituted “God” for “the Word of God” out of reverence for his name. For example, where the Bible says, “Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God,”6 the Targum reads, “to meet the Word of God.”7
The Jewish philosopher and historian Philo taught his understanding of the logos. Dualistic and much like early Gnostics, Philo taught that God is spirit and good, but that all matter is evil. Therefore, God could not have created or taken on the material lest he sin. He concluded that both God and matter are eternal and that an intermediary existed that permitted God to interact with the material world. This he called the logos.
The Greek people living at the end of the first century also clung tightly to their proud heritage, a philosophical heritage extending from Heraclitus (540–480 BC), to Socrates (470–399 BC), Plato (428–348 BC), Aristotle (384–327 BC), Cicero (106–43 BC), and a host of other philosophers, poets, and playwrights. At the fountainhead of Greek philosophy was Heraclitus, who was known as the “weeping philosopher” and whose image could be found on the coins in Ephesus for several centuries following his death.
For Heraclitus, the creation of the world, the ordering of all life, and the immortality of the human soul were all made possible solely by the word (or logos) that was the invisible and intelligent force behind all that we see in this world. Also, it was the word through which all things were interrelated and brought into harmony, such as life and death, good and evil, darkness and light, and the gods and people. He went so far as to say that truth could be known and wisdom, the great aim of Greek existence, found not by a knowledge of many things but instead by a deep and clear awareness of one thing—the word, or logos.
Jesus Christ was born of a virgin as the one true God who became a man, living at a time and place in which the Hebrew and Greek worlds collided. John sought to be a faithful missionary and to remain loyal to the Hebrew heritage and the Old Testament Scriptures, priests, and prophets, and Jesus himself, while still seeking to further the fruitful work of the gospel into the larger world dominated by Greek philosophy and language. In this context, John wrote his biography of Jesus in the Greek language, and he began with the concept of “the word,” a common ground in the presuppositions of both Hebrew theology and Greek philosophy. Logos is from the Greek meaning “word,” or “reason.” As we have seen, it was used by the ancient Greeks to convey the idea that the world was governed by a universal intelligence. However, John used logos differently from other writers, that is, to refer to the second person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ.
John begins with a declaration that both Hebrews and Greeks would have agreed with, that before the creation of the world and time, the Word existed eternally. He then scandalizes both groups by stating that Jesus is the Word and was with the one and only God and, in fact, was himself God and was face-to-face with God the Father from eternity.8 This thundering declaration would have been stunning to both Jews and Greeks who had vigorously argued that a man could never become a god, though they may never have considered that God had become a man, as John’s eyewitness testimony revealed.
John then explains that the Word is not merely the invisible force of the Greeks or the agent of God’s action for the Hebrews, but a person through whom all things were created,9 and a person in whom is life and light for mankind.10 This light that exposes sin and reveals God has come into the darkness of this sinful, cursed, and dying world. The darkness opposed his light but was unable to understand or overcome him.11
It is important to note that John was fully monotheistic in his understanding of God.12 He would have understood the magnitude of what he was saying in the opening chapter of his gospel, and, as a result, he very clearly outlined his position. John was acutely aware of and intentional in his revolutionary teaching regarding five aspects of Jesus Christ as the Logos or Word.
- The Logos is eternal.13 According to Ron Rhodes, “‘In the beginning’(Gk. en archei) refers to a point in eternity past beyond which it is impossible for us to go. Moreover, the verb was (‘in the beginning was the Word’) is an imperfect tense in the Greek, indicating continued existence.”14
- The Logos has always been with God, face-to-face with the Father as an equal in relationship.15
- The Logos is a person distinct from yet equal to God.16 The Greek preposition pros (translated “with” in 1 John 1:1 and 1:2) implies two distinct persons. Therefore, while the Father and the Logos are not the same, they do belong together as one.
- The Logos is the creator17 and therefore eternal, self-existent, and all- powerful.
- The Logos became flesh.18 In refutation to the Gnostics and dualistic teachings of Philo, John clearly taught that matter is not inherently evil and that God does involve himself with the material. It is also noteworthy that Jesus came to dwell among his people in a way that is similar to the tabernacle that God had the Israelites build as his sanctuary so that he might dwell in their midst.19 Implicitly, we are told that the Logos that was present in the sanctuary became physically present in the space-and- time world. As George Eldon Ladd observes, the Logos became flesh to reveal to humans five things: life,20 light,21 grace,22 truth,23 glory,24 and even God himself.25
How John uses the word Logos elsewhere in his writings is also insightful. First John 1:1 indicates that John and others heard, saw, and touched the Logos, “which was from the beginning.” Again, this is a clear reference to Jesus Christ. Revelation 19:12–13 also pictures Christ as the conquering warrior, the Logos of God.
In summary, the Logos is one of the strongest arguments for the deity of Jesus as the personal, eternally existing creator of the universe, distinct from yet equal with God the Father, who became incarnate (or came in the flesh) to demonstrate his glory in grace and truth to reveal life and light to men.
Take a few minutes to simply read John 1:1-18 today.