The Biblical View of Incarnation, Part One

by Vijay Chandra

Introduction.

When we speak of Christianity (or the true gospel!) we must not only examine and understand what Jesus did but also who he was and is. He is not just a prophet or good man. But who is he? For, just as a trust or belief in the historical events in our Lord’s life (e.g, the virgin birth, His sinless life, His sacrificial death, His resurrection and ascension to God’s right hand) are necessary for salvation, so is belief in the person of Christ. The Lord Jesus emphasized the central importance of His own person when He asked the disciples, “Who do men say that I, the Son of man am?”(Matthew 16:13). The question continues to divide men throughout history. The different answers to Jesus’ question are what separate the saved from the lost (apart from Christ men are lost), the sheep from the goats, the orthodox from the heterodox. Given the importance of who Christ is for an understanding of the gospel and our own salvation, we will turn our attention to the doctrine of incarnation (not reincarnation as Hindus believe).

 

How does the Bible define the mediator, the redeemer of God’s elect [people]? How did the Savior come to dwell among sinful creatures [humans]? Why is the remedial definition of the hypostatic union of the two natures in one person so important for understanding the gospel? While the doctrine of Christ is one of the most difficult and perplexing teachings in all of the Scriptures, it also the most rewarding. There is nothing better in life or death than to know, love and serve Jesus Christ. Jesus is the only Savior and Lord (John 14:6).

THE MANNER OF THE INCARNATION: THE VIRGIN CONCEPTION AND BIRTH.

The virgin birth is an essential belief of the Christian faith that gives us some very important information regarding the mission and the nature of Christ. The doctrine of the virgin birth is based on two gospel accounts (Matthew 1:18-25 and Luke 1:26-38); is found in the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14 and is seen in Paul’s epistles (Romans 1:3, Galatians 4:4, Philippians 2:7).

 

The birth narratives emphasize the following teaching:

A. The virgin birth is presented in Scripture as a great miracle or sign. “The Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel”(Isaiah 7:14). Although there are accounts in scripture of births that are result of supernatural intervention [i.e., of God miraculously enabling women who were infertile and /or past the age of childbearing to conceive and give birth to sons, e.g. Sarah (Genesis 17:17-19, Genesis 21: 1-8); Hannah (1 Samuel 1:5-11); the wife of Manoah (Judges 13:2-24); and Elizabeth (Luke 1:7, 13-25, 57), the conception and birth of Jesus is totally unique. The conception of Jesus did not even involve a human father. The salvation of sinners is to be supremely supernatural. Redemption can only be accomplished through the God-man. The supernatural virgin birth of Christ was an announcement to the Jews and the whole world that this child was like no other child. He was not simply a man of God or a prophet or a leader but God of very God. God Himself, the second person of the Trinity had come to earth to redeem people throughout the whole world. Many modernist biblical scholars and many non-Christian scholars reject the virgin birth of Christ and some modernist scholars argue that the underlying Hebrew word simply designates an “unmarried woman” or a “young maiden.” The “Christian” liberal interpretation of the incarnation must be rejected for the following reasons:

  • While an argument can be made that ‘almah’ does not necessarily refer to a virgin but simply an unmarried young woman, further revelation in the New Testament has settled the question once and for all. Mary was a virgin when the child was conceived and the baby was born. Modernist scholars are imposing their unbelieving naturalistic presuppositions upon the text of scripture and so are many Islamic and Hindu scholars. The virgin birth is a fact of God’s word that cannot be denied without also denying everything we need to know and trust to be saved. Pagans and atheists make very poor interpreters of the Bible.
  • If Mary was not a virgin (as Modernists assert) then the conception and birth of Jesus could not have been a sign. In ancient as well as modern times, if a woman had committed fornication and became pregnant, neither the Jews nor anyone else would have regarded the event as significant at all.
  • If Mary had not become pregnant by the power of the Holy Spirit then Joseph, a godly man, should have put her away. Unfaithfulness on the part of a betrothed woman could be punished with death (Deuteronomy 22:23). Because the Jews were under Roman law on the matter of adultery, divorce was Joseph’s only option. Note, however, that God communicated the truth to Joseph that the child was conceived by the Holy Spirit (Matthew 1:20). Joseph responded to this revelation by taking Mary as his wife (Matthew 1:24). It is typical of the Modernist, Hindus, and Muslims who just as the enemies of God long ago chose, choose to side with the Pharisees who accused the sinless Son of God of being a bastard (John 8:41). Their judgment will be just.

B. Mary was enabled or caused to conceive the Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:35). The Holy Spirit came to Mary and worked the conception by His almighty power. Because the Messiah had to be divine it took a special divine action to accomplish the incarnation. How this exactly occurred (i.e., the scientific details) we are not told. We can surmise, however, that the human nature of Jesus came directly from Mary while the second person of the Trinity was united to the human nature at the very moment of conception. Theologians refer to this moment as the assumption. God the Son took upon (or assumed for) himself a true human body and a rational soul. When speaking of the action of the Holy Spirit in the conception of Jesus, Luke uses terminology that calls to mind the special Shekinah presence of God— “the power of the highest will overshadow you” (Exodus 40:34-38).

C. The narratives which speak of the virgin conception and birth of Jesus give the unborn child titles of essential divinity.

  1. He is called, “ the Son of the Highest” (or Most High, Luke 1:32); “the Holy One” (Luke 1:35); “the Son of God” (Luke 1:35), who is to be called “Emmanuel,” i.e. God with us (Matthew 1:23). Although the expression “Son of God” is sometimes used in Scripture as a messianic title (e.g. Luke 4:4; Acts 9:20,22), it often does not simply refer to a title of office but of nature (Matthew 11:27, 14:28-33, 16:16; 21:33-46, 22:41-42, 26:63). The name “Emmanuel” which literally means “God with us” is a doctrinally descriptive appellation. To be with Jesus is to be with God. The expression “Holy One” is often interpreted as a reference to our Lord’s sinlessness or moral perfection. The phrase, however, may only mean in this context that Jesus is separated or set apart. From the moment of conception, the Son of God was set apart for special service. The gospel narratives exclude all adoptionist conceptions of Christology for they teach that the human nature of our Lord never existed for a single moment without the divine. From the moment of conception, Mary was a God-bearer.
  2. The manner of the incarnation as well as the incarnation itself teaches us that the second person of the Trinity’s coming into the world and assuming a human nature was a voluntary condescension, a submitting in humiliation on the part of the Son. This point is taught most clearly in Philippians 2:5-8. In the midst of some practical exhortations where Paul is emphasizing Christian unity, love, and humility, the apostle turns his attention to the incarnation as the supreme example of humility and self-renunciation. Although the passage is difficult and sometimes ambiguous in English translation, this teaching is of great importance. Note the following observations:

a. Paul asserts that Christ is truly God and continues to be God. “When the apostle says that Jesus was ‘in form of God’ he does not mean that the Son was like God or only appeared as God but that He had the specific character of God. Our Lord had everything (nature, attributes, essence, character) that makes God God. In Classical Greek and the Greek of Paul’s day, ‘a thing cannot be said to be in the morphe [form] of another unless it possesses the essential qualities of that other’. Paul could not have chosen any other words which would more explicitly or more directly assert the deity of Jesus Christ— He who is in the form of God is God.” The verb used by Paul in this sentence is unusual. It “denotes that both the previous existence of Christ and His continued existence was ‘in form of God. ’”

b. Paul teaches that the incarnation which brought the Son into the state of humiliation was a conscious choice on the part of Christ, “Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made himself of no reputation” —(Philippians 2:5-7). Jesus was free as God to maintain His state of supreme glory in the throne room of God surrounded by myriads of worshipping angels. But for our sake, He did not regard the state of supreme glory as a valuable possession that must be retained at all cost. On the contrary, because of His love, grace, and mercy toward His sheep, He entered into the state of humiliation, a state of servitude, suffering, and anguish.

c. Paul teaches that in the incarnation our Lord emptied Himself. The apostle wrote ‘Christ Jesus, who being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal to God, but did empty Himself, the form of a servant having taken, in the likeness of men having been made, and in fashion having been found as a man, humbled Himself’ (Philippians 2:5-8, Young’s Literal Translation of the Bible). The central question of interpreters of this section of Scriptures is: ‘Of what did our Lord empty Himself’?

 

When answering this question two things need to be kept in mind.

  1. First, the broad context of Scripture and the systematic theology derived from this analogy of faith must be considered when defining the kenosis or emptying of Christ. If Bible teaches (as it indeed does!—Exodus 3:14; Psalm 102:26-28, Isaiah 41:4, 48:12, Malachi 3:6, Romans 1:23, Hebrews 1:11,12, James 1:17) that He cannot grow or diminish in His Being or attributes, then the second person of the Trinity cannot set aside or empty Himself of any of His attributes. He would have to deny himself and cease to be God to do so, which is impossible. Further, the divine attributes are not characteristics that are separate and distinct from the divine essence so that God can set them aside as one might remove a pin from a pincushion and still have the pincushion. Rather, the divine essence is expressed precisely in the sum total of His attributes. To hold that God the Son actually emptied himself in his state of humiliation of even divine characteristics is tantamount to saying that he who enfleshed himself in the incarnation, while perhaps more than man, is now not quite God either. Anyone who asserts that Christ set aside all or even some of His divine attributes even temporarily has gone beyond the pale of CHRISTIAN theology.
  2. Second, the verb ‘emptied’ is defined by the immediate context. The Son emptied Himself not by subtraction (i.e., not by divesting Himself any divine attributes such as omniscience or omnipresence) but by addition. Richard Malick, Jr., writes “Two ideas modify the verb ‘made himself nothing’. They are taking the very nature of a servant and being made in human likeness. These statements explain both how this took place and what it means. Paradoxically, being ‘made nothing’ means adding humanity to deity rather than subtracting deity from his person. How, then, did Christ empty Himself? He assumed a human nature by taking the form of a servant. Jesus came not to be served but to serve. He was not revealing Himself on earth in glorious or glorified human form, but the humble form of a servant. The expression ‘form of a servant’ denotes more than just the ‘form of man’, it depicts servitude and subjection, unattractiveness and lack of distinction, which were essential characteristics of the humanity which Christ adopted” (Robert I. Raymond. A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Pub. 1998).
  3. God the Son concealed the divine glory under the veil of the flesh and as it were laid it aside, not putting off what he was, but by assuming what he was not. From the supreme position of glory our Lord voluntary humbled Himself and became the suffering servant, a man of sorrows (Isaiah 53:3), despised by His own people (Psalm 22:6, John 1:11; Isaiah 53:3) obedient to the death of the cross (Philippians 2:8).

 

The best way to understand the biblical concept of kenosis is to distinguish between the existence of the divine nature in the person of the Mediator and the manifestation of this existence. Christ was fully God with all the attributes of God. However, in humbling Himself and becoming a servant he voluntarily restricted the exhibition of the attributes which He had.

 

Christ is the Mediator (1 Timothy 2:5), the Savior of the world (John 4:42); he is God of gods and every knee will bow to Him (Philippians 2:10). Believe on Him and you will have eternal life (John 5:24; Acts 16:30, 31). No other religion promises ‘eternal life.’ Only Christ Jesus does.

 

 

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