Seven Mysteries of the Christian Faith–Chapter two: the mystery of the Incarnation

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

Some years ago, when I was teaching in a Christian school, a mother of one of the students contacted the principal of the school, upset because her son said I had taught the class about reincarnation. The principal checked with me and was able to tell the mother that I had not said anything on reincarnation, but I had been teaching the class about the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. The next time I spoke to that class, I made sure that they understood both words and knew the difference between them.

Reincarnation is an idea found in the Hindu religion (and also in some ancient Greek philosophers) that, after death, the spiritual substance of a being returns to the world in a different body. Most Christians reject the idea of reincarnation, since it is not supported by any portion of the Bible. The Incarnation of Jesus Christ, however, is one of the central mysteries of the Bible. The word Incarnation comes from the Latin expression for “became flesh.” When the Son of God was conceived by the Holy Spirit and was born in Bethlehem, he was a human being, as human as the rest of us. This miracle, celebrated by Christians every Christmas, makes Jesus unique in the history of world religions. According to some religions, their founders were wise men but were not gods. Confucius, the Buddha, and Muhammad never claimed to be gods. In some other religions, gods pretended to be human. Greek and Roman gods were said to walk among people disguised as humans, and Krishna was said to be the human appearance (avatar) of the Hindu god Vishnu. In none of these cases, though, were the beings said to be entirely divine and entirely human at the same time.

Christians say that Jesus is the Son of God, equal to God the Father in every way. Both the Father and the Son are eternal, timeless, and unchanging. They both know everything and can do anything; they both are present everywhere in the universe. They both are good, holy, and loving Persons; and all of these things can be said of the Holy Spirit as well. At the same time, God the Father and God the Holy Spirit never became human. God the Son was born in Bethlehem. As a man, he was known as Jesus of Nazareth. He was arrested, tried, convicted, sentenced, and put to death in Jerusalem. He also rose from the dead and ascended into heaven.

This Jesus is 100 percent God, and he is also 100 percent human. Here is the paradox, the mystery of the Incarnation. Although he is completely God and completely human, he is still only one Person. Nothing can be said of Jesus the Son of God that is not true of Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Mary. Nothing can be said of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of Mary, that is not also true of the eternal Son of God. A Person who can be God and human at the very same time surpasses human understanding. Yet this is what Christians have believed and taught since the earliest times of the Church, because this is what the apostles said and wrote, and this is what Jesus said about himself.

Some conspiracy theorists claim that Jesus never said that he was God. They say that even the apostles did not clearly declare Jesus to be God. These theorists point out that dozens of gospels were written about Jesus, and they say that three hundred years after Jesus died, church leaders chose to hide the gospels that emphasized Jesus as a man and included in the Bible only the four gospels that can be used to teach that Jesus is truly God.

Only one thing said by these conspiracy theorists is true: dozens of gospels were written about Jesus. Within 150 years of the death and resurrection of Jesus, prominent Christian leaders were already proclaiming the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John to be the only reliable gospels. The other gospels were not hidden by the Church, but they were rejected because they did not agree with the teachings of the Church, drawn from the writings of the prophets and apostles.

Most of the other gospels were either early attempts at historical fiction, trying to fill in the missing gaps of Jesus’ biography (such as what kind of child he was), or were deliberate blends of Christian teaching and Greek philosophy. To the Greek philosophers, the material world is an evil place from which truly spiritual beings want to escape. Writers who blended that philosophy with Christianity are known as Gnostics, because they claimed to possess hidden teachings of Jesus that are meant only for truly spiritual people. Many of the Gnostic writings claim that the world was created by an inferior god, but sparks of divinity fell into the world and became human beings. A better god then sent a messenger, Jesus, to free those divine sparks and return them to the spiritual world. Jesus was pure spirit and only pretended to be human. He could not be hurt or harmed in any way. One Gnostic gospel describes the disciples of Jesus crying when they saw his body hanging on the cross, until they looked higher, where they saw the spirit of the Christ, laughing at his enemies for thinking that they had hurt him. Basic teachings of Jesus, and of the apostles and prophets, were rejected by Gnostics. These teachings included the goodness of God’s creation, the idea that sinners could be redeemed by a sacrifice, and the promise that God’s people would rise as Jesus rose from the dead. Christian leaders rejected the Gnostic writings, not because they carried embarrassing truths, but because they completely changed the teachings of the Christian Church.

Even some sincere Christians, rejecting most of the Gnostic ideas, still believed and taught that Jesus is truly God but that he only pretended to be human. Reason and logic convinced them that Jesus could not be completely God and completely human at the same time. They viewed Jesus as a Teacher who came to show people how to live and how to be saved. Like the Gnostics, they did not believe that the Son of God could truly suffer or die, so they described his crucifixion as a lesson in sacrificial love. John addressed this view of Jesus in one of his epistles. He wrote, “every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God” (I John 4:2). John had strict words for those who denied the human, fleshly, reality of Jesus, identifying them as “antichrist.” From that first epistle of John, Christians identify three teachings that John said were essential for Christianity: Jesus is God, Jesus is human (“came in the flesh”), and Jesus is the Savior.

Other Christians, both ancient and modern, have emphasized the humanity of Jesus without being sure that he is truly God. They have suggested that in some way he became God, at least for a time. Some said that Jesus can be called the Son of God because he was inspired by God. Others have said that Jesus was adopted by God the Father (perhaps on the occasion of his Baptism) and so became the Son of God in that way. Some people who call themselves followers of Jesus continue to suggest that Jesus is only a wise teacher, on the same level as Confucius and the Buddha and Muhammad, but no greater.

The Bible says that Jesus allowed people to worship him, even though he taught that only God should be worshiped. In the face of opposition, he claimed the authority to forgive sins, and he also described himself as the one Judge to appear in the sky at the end of time. When Jesus was on trial and was asked under oath whether or not he is the Son of God, he clearly claimed that title (Mark 14:62). Jesus could have escaped execution had he said, “I’m not claiming to be God; I’m just trying to teach people how to live.” The high priests told Pilate that Jesus deserved to die because he made himself equal to God (John 19:7). To the Romans, claiming to be “a son of a god” was not grounds for punishment, but to the priests such a statement was blasphemy. They were his enemies because he claimed to be the Son of God.

Trying to make the mystery of the Incarnation acceptable to reason and logic, other Christians have suggested that Jesus is a god but not the Almighty God. Such Christian teachers said that the Son of God was the first thing created by the Father, and that the Father then created everything else through the Son. This suggestion that Jesus is a god who deserves worship but is not eternal or almighty prompted a meeting of the Church leaders around three hundred years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. This meeting was not held to invent new teachings about Jesus; it was held to study the Bible, to learn what Christians had been saying all along about Jesus, and how to summarize this teaching in clear and concise language. At this meeting, Christian leaders voted to accept a statement of faith which describes Jesus as “God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, begotten, not made, Being of one substance with the Father…” These words describe the traditional Christian understanding of Jesus as the Son of God. Many Christians still say these words aloud as part of their regular services.

Even with the issue resolved that Jesus is truly God and Jesus is truly human, the relationship of those two Natures in the one Person of Jesus Christ remains a mystery. Christians have struggled to understand this mystery, but as in all the mysteries, any attempt to use reason and logic to resolve the paradox leads only to false teachings.

The simplest solution is that the body of Jesus is fully human and the mind and spirit of Jesus are fully divine.  While this might seem to make sense, it would mean that Jesus is not truly human. If his thinking was the thinking of God and not that of a man, then he could not be tempted as we are tempted. The soul that Jesus committed into his Father’s hands from the cross was a human soul, not only the soul of the Son of God. Jesus has experienced humanity in every aspect that makes us human; in human body, human mind, and human spirit.

The next simplest solution is to think of the two Natures as somehow combined in the one Christ like two boards glued together or two liquids (such as vinegar and olive oil) mixed together. The divine Nature remains divine, and the human nature remains human. The mixture results in a unique Being, both God and man, but neither really influences or shapes the other. Mary is the mother of Jesus of Nazareth, who has no father; Jesus the Son of God is the Father’s only-begotten Son, but he has no mother. As a man, Jesus experienced hunger, but the eternal and unchanging Son of God was never hungry. Jesus the Son of God calmed storms, cast out demons, and raised the dead, but the human Jesus of Nazareth had no part in those miracles.

That solution also fails to describe the Jesus of the Bible. The Son of God truly became human and experienced humanity; he did not just join himself to a human body or mingle his Nature with a human nature. The Son of God has experienced everything that it means to be human. The Gnostics denied the importance of the physical world which was created by God and was called good by God. Any attempt to separate the divine and human natures of Jesus, so that one or the other exists alone, denies from the goodness of God’s creation and makes Jesus only a spiritual Savior rather than the Redeemer of all creation.

One more solution has been suggested from time to time: it is thought that Jesus is fully human, but that the divine nature of Jesus consumed his human nature. He had a human mind, but all his thinking was done by his divine mind; he had a human will, but all his decisions were made by his divine will. This solution seems logical, but it also counters the Bible’s teaching that Jesus is fully human, like us in every way (except that he never sinned). After debating these resolutions to the mystery of the Incarnation, early Christians decided to retain the mystery. Jesus is one Person who is one hundred percent God and one hundred percent human. He has the mind of God, but he also has the mind of a man. He has the will of God, but he also has the will of a man. Because Jesus never sinned, his human will always agrees with his divine will. Jesus felt no inner conflict being both God and human. The two Natures within him never fought or contradicted each other. At every time, then, Jesus remains completely divine and completely human.

The mystery of the Incarnation means, then, that the Son of God became a created being, traveling through time as all men and women and children travel through time. He was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. Mary can be identified, then, as the mother of God. The Son of God was born as all other babies are born, and he experienced infancy and childhood as all other people experience them. The Son of God grew to be a boy and then a man. He learned how to walk, and how to talk, and how to read. He was hungry and he ate. He was thirsty and he drank. He was tired and he slept. He needed friends, and when he was without his friends he was lonely. He was in danger from every menace that might threaten any person: the hostility of a king, the danger of a storm, or the plotting of a group of enemies. Like every other person, Jesus was subject to the commandments God had given to his people. Jesus was required to love and obey God the Father, and he was required to love and to help his neighbors. As a human being, Jesus was tempted to sin—not just in the wilderness for forty days, but every day of his life on earth. All the things that distract us from God were there to try to distract Jesus too. All the suggestions that something might be better than obeying God’s commands were suggested to Jesus too. The Son of God faced every temptation that we face, but Jesus always resisted temptation and did the will of his Father. Not just the human Jesus of Nazareth, but the all-powerful Son of God, was arrested by his enemies and dragged from trial to trial. His enemies slapped and beat the Son of God, and they spit on him, and they mocked him. The Son of God was beaten with whips, and he bled. The Son of God was nailed to a cross, and there he suffered, and there he died. The Son of God knows how it feels to face death, because he has faced death as surely as any mortal human being.

Can God die? The death of the Son of God is like the death of any other human being: his spirit was separated from his body, and his body was laid to rest. We learn about the death of a Christian by remembering the words Jesus spoke while hanging on the cross: “Today you will be with me in Paradise,” and, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” When any Christian dies, he or she is with Jesus in Paradise. Though the body is laid to rest on earth, the spirit of that Christian is in the hands of God the Father until the resurrection that is to come.

The Son of God knows what it is to live a human life and to die a human death. Jesus of Nazareth, the human son of Mary, knows what it is to be “God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God.” The son of Mary knew everything (although he chose to forget a few things—the Day of his coming in Judgment, for example, or the sins committed by his people). The son of Mary was present everywhere in the universe even as he walked across Galilee and Judea. The son of Mary could do anything, although the miracles he worked always helped other people and not himself. The son of Mary is timeless, eternal, and unchanging. The son of Mary is in charge of the universe and was running the universe even as he slept in a manger in Bethlehem.

What was true two thousand years ago in Bethlehem and Nazareth and Jerusalem is also true today. The two Natures of Christ remain together and cannot be separated, because Jesus Christ is one Person, not two persons. The Son of God is the son of Mary; and the son of Mary is the Son of God. He rules the universe, and he does so while thinking of his people, those who trust his promises. He hears the prayers of his people, and he answers those prayers. When Christians pray for the things we need this world, Jesus hears and understands, because he is still one of us. When we pray for others Jesus understands our love for them, for he had a mother and brothers and sisters and friends and neighbors and enemies in this world. When we are tempted and pray for help, Jesus knows how to help us, because he was tempted in every way that we are tempted today.

Sometimes Christians imagine that the body of Jesus has been put into storage until he needs it again on the Last Day. Nothing in the Bible says that the body of Jesus is in storage; instead, the Bible makes it clear that the Jesus who is with us always is the same Jesus who taught his disciples and ate and drank with them. The Bible says that Jesus sits at the right hand of God the Father, but the right hand is not one place in the universe; it is power and authority over the entire universe. Instead of placing his body and his human nature in one location after his ascension, Jesus “ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things” (Ephesians 4:10). Jesus—the one Jesus, with a divine Nature and a human Nature—is in the largest places and in the smallest places. No one can find any place where Jesus is not present. He fills the entire universe with his presence, so he can keep his promise to be with all his people, wherever we go. He has the power to hear all our prayers and answer all our prayers, even if millions of us are talking to Jesus at the same time.

Jesus can be with all of us and can pay attention to all of us because he is not limited by time. He can walk through life with me and be aware of every detail about me, and then he can do the same with you. Because time does not limit him, Jesus can be with each of his people always and still can run the entire universe without forgetting anything that needs to be done. Jesus is the ultimate time traveler, because he does not even need a time machine to move forward and backward in time as he chooses.

Until science fiction writers began writing about time travel at the end of the nineteenth century, Christians did not think of Jesus as a time traveler so much as they pictured him as timeless. We know that “no one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known” (John 1:18). Some Christian writers mentioned the “preincarnate Christ” who was present in the Old Testament, before the Son of God had been conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. When Jesus ascended “that he might fill all things,” he was able to fill time as well as space. The same body that was born to Mary, that grew from a boy to a man in Nazareth, and that preached and taught and worked miracles in Galilee and Judea, traveled backward in time to speak to believers of earlier generations. The God seen by the prophet Isaiah seated on a throne in the Temple was the Jesus who had died on the cross and had risen from the dead. The God who ate with Abraham and wrestled with Jacob was the Jesus who had ascended that he might fill all things. Even the hands that took clay in the Garden of Eden to form the first man were hands scarred from the nails of the cross; the Savior could see those scars and know what would come from the man he was creating and from his descendants.

The mystery of the Incarnation is that God would choose to become human, to live among humans, and to help humans. Beyond that, though, is another mystery, the reason God chose to be Incarnate. God can do anything he wishes, but he wished to create the world, and he wished to redeem the world. The mystery of redemption, accomplished on a cross outside of Jerusalem, is the reason that God chose to bring about the mystery of his Incarnation.

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