That the Bible proclaims that the historical person Jesus of Nazareth is the divine Son of God is, frankly, astonishing. Nevertheless Christians believe, as the Apostles’ Creed affirms, “in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord.” This divine title “Lord” is given to Jesus as if he is God, because he is God.
How can this be? Why would we call a human being God? Did he become God? Was he born just like us and later transformed into or possessed by deity in some way? The Creed reminds us that Jesus “was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary.”
That short phrase summarizes the doctrine of the Incarnation, which teaches this: Jesus was simultaneously both fully God and fully man. He was not God manifesting in the illusion or appearance of a man. And he was not man operating under the title “God” merely as a divine ambassador or adoptee. Jesus was—essentially, totally, and actually—God and man. The second person of the Triune Godhead, the eternally begotten Son, took on human flesh.
The means of his incarnation is attributed in the Bible to the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit. Luke records the promise of Jesus’ birth to his mother Mary this way:
“[T]he angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God” (Luke 1:35)
So Jesus had no earthly biological father, but he of course did have a biological mother, who was a virgin even when the Spirit caused the fertilization of the ovum within her, conceiving from the glory of heaven the divine zygote of the Son of God. This child grew to term like any other healthy child and was delivered to his parents. He had flesh and blood and all the normal bodily functions. He was weak and vulnerable and needed to be fed and needed to grow and learn (Luke 2:52).
That Jesus was a real person who walked the earth is beyond all reasonable doubt. Ancient historians both religious and secular attest to his existence. But it is not Jesus’ humanity that is typically objected to by those opposing the claims of Christian theology. It is not his birth to a young woman named Mary that so many reject. No, instead it is Jesus’ divinity that sparks controversy. But the Scriptures are abundantly clear. Philippians 2:6 tells us Jesus had both the form of and equality with God. Colossians 1:15 tells us that Jesus is the image of God. 1 John 5:20 tells us that the Son is “the true God.” In 2 Peter 1:1, the apostle refers to Jesus as “our God and Savior.” Paul in Acts 20:28 says the church was purchased by the blood of God. Jesus himself proclaims “I and the Father are one” in John 10:30, about which, lest we think he may mean simply that he and the Father are in agreement, we should point out even the experts of the law recognized was a claim to deity (10:33).
Of the claim that Jesus was born of a virgin, many critics today will say means simply that his mother was a young girl of marry-able age. This is true. But this is not the sense the biblical authors intend “virgin” to mean. Even if Isaiah could not have foreseen the full import of his prophecy (Isaiah 7:14), Matthew gives us the fullness of meaning: “[Joseph] knew her not until she had given birth to a son” (1:25).
The biblical evidence for Jesus’ deity is abundant. That many Jews in the first century began to worship him as God ought to give us even more indication that the evidence of his divinity was felt to be quite strong, even overwhelming. But that has not stopped challenges throughout the centuries. No, in nearly every age, the orthodox church has had to respond to various forms of the ancient Arian heresy.
Going back to an Alexandrian priest in the late third, early fourth centuries named Arius, the Incarnation of Jesus Christ has seemed a bridge too far. Arius denied the eternal deity of Jesus. His claim boiled down to the beliefs that Jesus was created by the Father and that the Son was of a similar essence to the Father, but not of the same essence. Arius denied that Jesus was the eternally begotten Son of God and instead that there was a point in heavenly time in which the Son was unbegotten.
The Council of Nicaea was called largely to confront the Arian heresy, with the Alexandrian bishop Athanasius leading the charge. Athanasius provides the earliest, most powerful, and certainly most enduring defenses of the biblical truths of Incarnational theology specifically and of Trinitarian doctrine in general. Grounded in the bold declarations of the epistles of the apostle John, Athanasius in fact categorized the Arian heresy as the work of the antichrist.
We still deal with forms of Arius’ damnable lies today. Nevertheless, orthodox Christianity will always stand on Peter’s hell-conquering confession that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 11:36). We stand on what he said and what he meant.
We will stand on this confession because we know that it is integral to Christ’s gospel. To deny that Jesus was either fully God or fully man is to deny the salvation that Jesus the God-Man has purchased. The Incarnation is crucial to the good news of forgiveness of sins and the gift of eternal life. The reality is this: only man should pay the price for the sins of mankind, but only God could pay the price for the sins of mankind. Thus, in Jesus Christ, the “man should” and the “God could” unite in perfect payment and pure pardon.
The mathematics of the incarnation are inscrutable, of course. We aren’t supposed to be able to wrap our finite minds around how the infinite God could also be a manifested, localized, killable man. It is surely a miracle. As such, it is meant to send us into logic but to send us into worship.
When Colossians 2:9 says, “For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily,” we are meant to stagger in wonder.
Will the Empire State Building occupy a doghouse? Will a killer whale fit inside an ant? And the Gospels tells us that omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, utter eternalness and holiness dwelled in a tiny unformed person.
“The head of all rule and authority” (Colossians 2:10) had one of those wobbly baby heads. The government rested on his baby-fatted shoulders (Isaiah 9:6).
The miracle of the Incarnation is vitally important to Christian faith. We must hold it tightly or we lose some of the majesty of God’s glory in Christ. God came as unborn child, as helpless babe, as dawdling toddler, as awkward teenager, as breathing, sweating, bleeding man so that Christ would experience all of humanity. And he experienced all of humanity so that we might receive all of him for all of us.
Surely if God came as a vulnerable, needful, weak baby, we have no need to fear for our own vulnerability, needfulness, and weakness. He emptied himself (Philippians 2:7) so that we would not see our own emptiness as a hopeless cause. “As you received him”—desperate, helpless, desirous—“so walk in him” (Colossians 2:6). The miracle of the God-Man proclaims the gospel’s specialty: rescue of the helpless.