In part two of this Advent series we looked at the sweet baby Jesus. The truly human characteristics of his life and ministry on earth are remarkable and confounding. The word, “amazement,” would only slightly capture what the doctrine of the Incarnation represents. The Christian faith is subsumed in this mystery.
My goal in the previous article was to look at the human side of Jesus. However, there is another side, equally present and infinitely more difficult to comprehend. The apostle Paul records an early hymn of the church describing what Jesus “did” in order to come and take on flesh. I placed the word “did” in quotation marks because I have no better way of explaining what happened. Paul reminds the Philippians of Jesus humility and journey toward earth in the second chapter of the letter.
5 ;Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 ;who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 ;but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 ;And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 ;Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 ;so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 ;and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
From the very beginning the church has sought to understand what it meant for God to enter into the human narrative and secure the redemption of the entire race.The phrase that captures my mind and speaks directly to this mystery in these verses is found in verse 7. What does it mean that Jesus “emptied himself?” The very thought ties the mind in theological, intellectual and philosophical knots. I want to state right from the start, I am not claiming to have the definitive answer to this question. I do, however, have strong reasons for believing what I am going to offer.
The Greek word translated “emptied himself,” is κενόω (kenoō, ke-no-ō). This word means “to empty, make empty” and in reference to Jesus it means “he laid aside equality with or the form of God.” This is the academic reality of what we are talking about. But, what does this mean for us? You see, the Doctrine of the Incarnation has some significant complications as it relates to Jesus existence after his entrance into the created world and then again after his return to heaven. There in is part of the quandary. At least to start we are confronted with the following realization: The eternal God, who co-existed in three persons was fragmented when the Son vacated heaven for the womb of a woman! I think we have to think about and grapple with what that means because this is no small matter.
My intention in this article is to identify difficulties and implications of the Incarnation as they intersect with our daily journey of faithful obedience. The following sections take certain presuppositions as given, i.e., the triune nature of God; the divine attributes of God (the omni-‘s); and the truthfulness of Scripture to communicate God’s character and nature accurately. With these in place let’s proceed.
Jesus Divine Attributes
As the second person of the Trinity, Jesus shared all of the same attributes of the entire God-head. (Don’t get hung-up on the verb tenses. Human language is bound to falter in any discussion of God’s being and nature.) Jesus was all knowing, all powerful, and all present. The question becomes what exactly did Jesus surrender?
Some have argued that he gave up some aspect of his attributes. Others argue that he was just a man and then became the Son. Still another argument is that Jesus only appeared to have flesh, but did not actually become human. Each of these have problems with them. The first because that would imply that God became less that what God is. The second because God was not fully God and had a beginning like all other men. The third because it would make a farce out of the crucifixion. As we noted in the previous article, Jesus had to be fully God AND fully man in order for him to serve as our mediator.
The phrasing of the text is stated in the negative, “Jesus emptied himself,” or said differently, Jesus gave something up. However, the reality is this understand creates more problems that it solves. Talking about any diminishing degree of God’s nature and attributes would be going in the wrong direction. We have to rethink what Paul is saying here.
I often attempt to flip negative statements and make them positive ones. This thought experiment helps to clarify the thoughts and ideas of the write as I attempt to interpret them. So, how can we do this in this case? If Jesus did not give something up, then he must have added something to himself. While taking this approach has its own difficulties, they are fewer and simpler to address. What if Jesus did not give up anything, but added something to his mode of existence that he had not possessed before? Not that there was something missing or lacking, it just wasn’t present or needed before. How would this affect our reading of Paul’s quoting of the hymn?
The Incarnation represents the most turbulent doctrine in the Christian tradition because it points to the fact that God added something to himself, in the person of Jesus. John 1:14 tells us that the Word (Jesus) “became flesh.” The second person of the Trinity added the human element to God’s existence as he entered into the world. By participating in the incarnation Jesus was fundamentally changing that way he interacted with and participate in the divine economy. I believe this to be an undeniable implication of Scripture.
The Distinctly Human Experience
If the issue shifts from what Jesus surrendered and moves to what he added, then we have to investigate what it means that he took on flesh. What does it mean to become like the rest of us. We have to identify what the distinctly human experience is. We have to determine what is the defining characteristic of the human adventure. As we consider what the Scriptures say regarding the incarnation we see that what Jesus added was the self-imposed limitation of localization.
Just think of it. For the first time in Jesus’ existence, and in the existence of God, he was confined to a single place at any given moment in time. Jesus’ other divine attributes were still present and still active, but as an act of humility and submission to the Father, Jesus restrained himself from using these divine prerogatives. Jesus fully entered into the human experience and became susceptible to all of the struggles of a constrained existence.
I can’t even begin to imagine what it must have been like to have the fullness of your divine nature constricted by the structures and physical laws of your created world. This is the paradox of the Incarnation. The creator became subject to the same predicaments and restrictions of the creature. There is no greater identification, no greater demonstration of solidarity than the eternal God taking up residence in our neighborhood.
I hope that you are beginning to see how this leads to an enlarged view of God’s grace-filled love for sinners.
The All-Encompassing Love of the Son
I have tried to demonstrate that the sacrifice of the son began at the moment of incarnation and not merely during the last few hours of torture, humiliation and ultimate crucifixion. What I have come to believe is that the ramifications of Christ’s mission into the world echo into eternity. I will state it plainly. I believe that Jesus remains in human form, though fully able to exercise his divine powers except one. Jesus is no longer omnipresent in the same way that the Father and Holy Spirit are because he is no longer only spirit. Jesus took on flesh and must forevermore experience eternity as all other fleshly humanity. Jesus is still capable of being omnipresent through the agency of his other divine attributes and his connection to the Father and the Spirit.
This is the expression of the all-encompassing love of the Son, that from the moment he stepped out of heaven and entered this world, through the womb, he would remain in this glorified, yet carnal form for the rest of eternity. I believe that there are several places that point to this, but I would highlight the most clear and potent example. The apostle John writes it like this in his first epistle:
2Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. (1 John 3:2, ESV)
We can know two realities from this verse. First, when John talks about being like Jesus, John does not mean that we will become bodiless spirits. This is the very reason that a resurrection is needed. Otherwise, death would be the only transition necessary for fellowship with God. Resurrection is the evidence that the human spirit must be unified with a body, and in the case of the believer we need heavenly bodies to inhabit (1 Corinthians 15). C. S. Lewis is quoted as saying, “You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.” Therefore, when Paul said, “[God] also predestined [us] to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers,” he was saying that God already had the incarnation in mind before creation’s eruption into existence.
So, when Jesus entered into the human experience he resigned himself to exist as the “firstborn of many brothers” because his move from “bodiless spirit” to “incarnated Word” would actually provide the affinity required for redemption to occur. The underlying implication inherent in teaching the incarnation is that ultimately humanity was patterned after the post-incarnated Christ, prior to his incarnation! (If your mind didn’t just blow up just then I don’t know what will do it!)
The second reality of what John says is that whatever we will become must be something that Jesus actually is now! If Jesus did not retain his human nature and form after the resurrection, with the specific characteristic of localized existence, then we can have no confidence in what John is saying. What we discover in this verse is that whatever happened to Jesus at the incarnation, was irreversible, but most importantly demonstrated the measure of God’s love toward us. I don’t claim to fully understand this. I do, however, believe it to be true.
My hope has been to clearly proclaim the doctrine of the Incarnation because without it we don’t have a faith, a gospel or a chance at having a relationship with God. In the end (pun intended) we have to recognize that without the baby in the manger there would be no savior on the cross. The Incarnation of Jesus is the most original religious thought in all of religious history. Because of this we have to take care that we don’t undermine, belittle or tarnish the Gospel of Jesus. In order to keep oursevles from doing this we have to carefully consider our understanding of Jesus’ entrance into this world ravaged by sin.
The Incarnation is the most sublime doctrine of the church. It should be enjoyed, taught and received as a gift of grace-filled love, not merely analyzed. Christmas is about the power of transformation and the incarnation of the Son of God is the greatest example of it.