The incarnation of Jesus Christ is critical in understanding the person of Jesus Christ and in understanding the salvation that comes from Jesus. It is due to aberrations of the understanding of Jesus’ identity in the movements of Jehovah Witnesses and for many in the LDS church that those two movements are normally not recognized within the umbrella of Christian faith by most evangelicals. For instance, Jehovah Witnesses claim that Jesus was a created being. Charles Taze Russell, the founder of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, claimed that Jesus was the archangel Michael. Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon church, claimed that Jesus was the first offspring from a Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother. The LDS hymn “O My Father” (LDS Hymnbook #292) refers to a Heavenly Mother. Therefore, Jesus is reduced to a mere offspring and not the God incarnate as identified in Scripture. This article will examine the essential doctrine of the incarnation of Jesus Christ.
What is the Doctrine?
The doctrine of the incarnation of Christ has to do with the person of Jesus Christ. It seeks to answer the question that Jesus posed to Simon Peter, “Who do you say that I am” (Matthew 16:15). Who was Jesus? Those who knew Jesus best answered that Jesus had two natures: Jesus was divine and Jesus was human.
The Divinity of Jesus
Christians from the earliest of times have understood that Jesus was divine. This is clear from the early Christian hymn which was preserved in Philippians. The hymn states,
“who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:6-11).
This hymn is important because it pre-dates many of the New Testament documents. For instance, Elwell and Beitzel write about the early nature of the incarnation, “As a result, some believe that it represents an earlier stage in the development of the church’s theology, before the doctrine of the incarnation had evolved. That is doubtful for two reasons: incarnation passages like the Philippians hymn (2:6–11) probably antedate Mark’s Gospel; and Mark has a well-developed theology of the two natures of Christ” (Osbourne 1988, 1026). Although John’s gospel was one of the later documents written, John left no room for doubt concerning Jesus’ divine nature as John wrote, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made” (John 1:1-3, NIV). So, it can be seen that Jesus was viewed as divine from the earliest times of church history.
The Humanity of Jesus
Jesus was clearly seen as a human being, as well. This is clear from the Philippians hymn as it was recorded that Jesus “taking the form of a bond-servant…made in the likeness of men.” Jesus was not a theological concept nor was Jesus an intellectual invention. Jesus was in fact a human being. This is evidenced by the fact that Jesus grew in stature (Luke 2:52), became tired (John 4:6), slept (Matthew 8:24), wept (John 11:35), and became hungry (Mark 11:12). All these attributes show that Jesus was in fact human. It is important to keep a good balance of Jesus’ humanity along with Jesus’ divinity.
Why should a Person Believe the Doctrine?
There are at least four reasons why an individual should believe that Jesus is both divine and human:
Evidence of Jesus’ Existence
No reputable historian denies the existence of the historical Jesus. Only those in secular online communities give any weight to the “Jesus is fiction” myth. Jesus’ existence is not only confirmed in the New Testament records, but there are extra-biblical writers who confirm the existence of Jesus of Nazareth (the official historical name for Jesus). It would be irresponsible for this article to seek to offer an exhaustive list of extra-biblical writers, however, a few of the more popular sources will be given.
Tacitus, a reliable Roman historian writes,
“Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures of a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their center and become popular” [Annals 15.44].
Pliny the Younger wrote a letter to Emperor Trajan in 112 A.D. that said,
“They were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verses a hymn to Christ, as to a god, and bound themselves by a solemn oath, not to do any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft or adultery, never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up; after which it was their custom to separate, and then reassemble to partake of food—but food of an ordinary and innocent kind” [Letters 10:96]
From these two sources, one can find that there is good and early evidence to support the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth as well as the New Testament documents which must be included.
Evidence of Jesus’ Miracles
There is also evidence that Jesus performed miracles. Not only was Jesus known by the early Christians for performing great wonders, Jesus was known for doing the same by His opponents. The Babylonian Talmud, compiled from 70 – 200 A.D. has a portion of the Sanhedrin that reads,
“On the eve of Passover Yeshu was hanged. For forty days before the execution took place, a herald went forth and cried, “He is going forth to be stoned because he has practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy. Any one who can say anything in his favour, let him come forward and plead on his behalf.” But since nothing was brought forward in his favour he was hanged on the eve of the Passover” [Sanhedrin 43a, Babylonian Talmud]!
Obviously “Yeshu” is the Hebrew, or Aramaic, form of “Yeshua” which is translated over to “Jesus” in English. In this text, it is seen that Jesus was hung (another term for crucifixion) on the evening of Passover. Jesus was accused of working sorcery. Obviously this is a link to the miracles performed by Jesus. The greatest miracle of all would be that of the resurrection of Jesus. The resurrection is not mentioned here as it will be addressed in the 6th installment of this series.
Evidence of Jesus’ Understanding of Himself
Jesus obviously believed Himself to be the incarnate God. Jesus called Himself “Son of Man.” This was, in fact, Jesus’ favorite term for Himself. The phrase “Son of Man” alludes to the Daniel prophecy pertaining to the one who approached the “Ancient of Days.” The “Son of Man” prophecy alluded to one who would be divine (Daniel 7:13). John records Jesus’ “I Am” teachings. This was a direct reference to divinity as the sacred personal name for God (YHWH) was defined as “I AM WHAT I AM” (Exodus 3:14). So for Jesus to call Himself the “I Am” is a direct reference to His divine nature.
Evidence of Jesus’ Transforming Power
This may not be popular with some theologians and apologists, but I believe that the transformation of individuals that comes from a relationship with Christ is to be understood as an important aspect of Jesus’ identity. The fact that people are transformed shows that there is power in the one who was known as Jesus of Nazareth.
Why is the Doctrine Essential?
John writes, “This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God” (1 John 4:2, NIV). It is clear that one must accept Jesus as God come in the flesh is important for one to be identified as a true Christian. Jesus’ divinity is mandatory, as well. Jesus Himself said, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16, NASB). This text shows that it is important to understand the divine nature of Jesus in order to be saved from sin. Therefore, it is important to understand that the Christ of faith and the Jesus of history are the one and same person. It is this historical Jesus Christ that can redeem a person from sin and set a person on a right path.
All Scripture identified as (NASB) comes from the New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update. LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995.
All Scripture identified as (NIV) comes from The New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011.
Osborne, Grant R. Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible Edited by Walter A. Elwell and Barry J. Beitzel. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988, page 1026.
Pliny the Younger. Letters 10.96. In Norman L. Geisler. Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, Baker Reference Library. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999.
Sanhedrin 43a. Babylonian Talmud. In Norman L. Geisler. Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, Baker Reference Library. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999.
Tacitus. Annals 15.44. In Norman L. Geisler. Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, Baker Reference Library. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999.