Knowing God, chapter 5: God incarnate

It isn’t hard to understand why people find the Gospel hard to believe. Regarding the atonement, they may ask how the death of one man can have any bearing on God’s forgiveness of our sins. They wonder how they can believe in the resurrection. They question the virgin birth.

But the biggest mystery  the Bible presents us with is the incarnation. In it we have two mysteries for the price of one—the plurality of persons within the Godhead, and manhood in the person of Jesus. Once we grasp the incarnation, all the other difficulties dissolve.

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With respect to the birth of Christ, the Bible is more concerned with the identity of the baby born than with the circumstances of the birth.

  1. The baby born at Bethlehem was God. More precisely, He was the Son of God, or God the Son. What does the Bible mean when it calls Jesus ‘the son of God’? What it doesn’t mean is that Christianity is polytheistic; or that Jesus, though belonging to a special class of created beings, isn’t personally divine. We can find what it means by looking at the prologue to John’s gospel.
    • In the beginning was the Word (v1). Here is the Word’s eternity—He had no beginning of His own
    • and the Word was with God (v1). Here is the Word’s personality—He is a distinct personal being who stands in eternal relation to God
    • and the Word was God (v1). Here is the Word’s deity. Though personally distinct from the Father, He is not a creature; He is divine in Himself, as the Father is.
    • Through him all things were made (v3). Here is the Word creating. He is the Father’s agent in every act of making the Father has ever performed.
    • In him was life (v4). Here is the Word animating. There is no physical life in the realm of created things save in and through Him.
    • and that life was the light of men (v4). Here is the Word revealing. In giving life, He gives light too.
    • The Word became flesh (v 14). Here is the Word incarnate. The baby in the manger at Bethlehem was none other than the eternal Word of God.

The Word is divine Person, author of all things—and He is God’s Son. By calling Jesus the son of God, the Bible affirms His distinct personal deity.

2. The baby born at Bethlehem was God made man. He wasn’t God minus something, but God plus all that He had made His own by taking on manhood. (Heb 2:17)

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How are we to think of the incarnation? The NT doesn’t encourage us to pore over the puzzles it raises, but rather to worship God for the love that was shown in it.

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but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness. (Philippians 2:7)

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich. (2 Cor 8:9)

The phrase translated ‘made himself nothing’ literally means ‘he emptied himself’.  Does this, along with the statement that ‘he became poor’ shed any light on the incarnation? They seem to imply a certain reduction of the Son’s deity was involved in His becoming a man, a theory known as the kenosis theory (‘kenosis’ being the Greek word for ‘emptying’).

From the context of the verse in Philippians, we see that what Paul had in mind was a laying aside, not of divine powers and attributes, but of divine glory and dignity (John 17:5).

Besides, the kenosis theory raises problems of its own. How can we say that the man Jesus Christ was fully God if He lacked some qualities of the deity? This theory has been used to justify the ascribing of (what some perceived as) error to part of Christ’s teaching. To be logically consistent, we need to ask how much of His teaching was erroneous. Should we just throw it all out since we can’t tell which parts are true and which aren’t?

In addition, the gospel narratives present evidence against the kenosis theory. It is true that sometimes Jesus’ knowledge was limited (Mark 5:30; 6:38). Other time he displayed supernatural knowledge (John 4:17-18; Matt 17:27). The impression is not so much one of deity reduced as of divine capacities restrained.

How do we explain this restraint? John 5:19,30; 6:38; 8:28. The Son finds joy in doing His Father’s will. It wasn’t His Father’s will for him to know, and so, for instance, He was ignorant of the day of His return.

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Therefore for the Son of God to empty Himself and to become poor was to lay aside His glory; to voluntarily restrain his power; to accept hardship, isolation, ill-treatment, malice, and a death that involved such agony—spiritual more than physical. It meant love to the uttermost for unlovely men, who ‘through His poverty, might become rich’.