Understanding the Incarnation


The center point of history was when the One who was God became flesh and was born as a baby to live among us.  We call this the incarnation.  Philippians 2 contains perhaps one of the clearest presentations and descriptions of the incarnation of Jesus.


            5 Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, 6 who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped (Philippians 2:5-6).


While John 1:1 tells us of the One who existed in the beginning and who was God, now we are given to understand that the mode of that existence was not something less than God.  He existed in the form of God.


Jesus had an existence prior to His birth.  We cannot say that about ourselves.  Until we were conceived in the womb, we had no earlier existence.  But Jesus did.  He existed in the form of God.  He is the One who was in the beginning with God because He was God (John 1:1).


Jesus had every right to continue in the form which He held from all eternity.  He had been in the beginning with God and He was God, yet He determined not to continue to grasp and hold to the form of that equality.


            6 who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond‑servant, and being made in the likeness of men. (Philippians 2:6-7).


Jesus Christ made an active choice not to remain equal with God.  He did not regard His equality with God as a thing to be retained.  This choice involved the emptying of Himself.  What does this mean?  In what sense did Christ “empty” Himself?  Several views have been presented.


1.         The Kenotic View.


This term comes from the Greek phrase in verse 7 that says Christ emptied Himself.  The Greek word for “empty” is kenow.  This is the view that says Christ emptied Himself of His relative attributes (omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence) while retaining His imminent attributes (love, holiness, truth).


This view has certain accompanying problems.  The Scriptures teach that Christ knew all men (John 2:24-25), that He demonstrated His power over nature, demons, and death, and that He was able to see Nathanael from afar (John 1:46).  These all reflect a continuation of those relative attributes of God.


Furthermore, if God divested Himself of that which makes Him God, then He ceased to be god when He became incarnate.  Since Christ continues to be incarnate, He is no longer God and therefore no longer answers prayers.


2.         The Lutheran View.


The Lutheran Church teaches that the divine attributes of Christ communicated themselves to the human attributes.  This is the basis for seeing the real physical presence of Jesus in the Eucharist.


The Divine attributes of Jesus



The Human attributes of Jesus


The problem with this view is that it does not deal with the limitations that Jesus experienced as a man.


           He increased in wisdom and stature (Luke 2:52).

           There were things He did not know (Matthew 24:36).


God has no such limitations.  He cannot be hungry or tired.  He cannot grow in knowledge or wisdom.  He cannot die upon a cross.


3.         The Reformed View.


The view of the Reformers is that the second member of the Trinity took His human shape from His mother, affected by a supernatural virgin birth.  The human nature that was taken was sanctified in its very inception and thus kept from the pollution of sin (Hebrews 9:14).


The Divine Attributes of Jesus

Continue as one Person

The Human Attributes of Jesus


This view is reflected in the language of the Westminster Confession of Faith when it describes Jesus...


            The Son of God, the second person in the Trinity, being very and eternal God, of one substance and equal with the Father, did, when the fulness of time was come, take upon Him man's nature, with all the essential properties, and common infirmities thereof, yet without sin; being conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost, in the womb of the virgin Mary, of her substance. So that two whole, perfect, and distinct natures, the Godhead and the manhood, were inseparably joined together in one person, without conversion, composition, or confusion. (WCF 8:2).


How does this help us to understand the “limiting” verses relating to the knowledge and the weakness that Jesus experienced?  Buswell suggests that the God-man experienced two levels of consciousness in the way something can trigger your memory so that you can call to mind your third grade teacher whom you had forgotten.  In the same way, Jesus was consciously man, but there was another level in which He was, at the same time, fully God.


Thus, in the same passage in which Jesus admits that He does not know the day or the hour of His return (Matthew 24:36), He goes on to place Himself on a level above the angels.


Notice the progression.  It goes from man to angels to the Son and then to the Father.  The writer to the Hebrews spends the entire first chapter of his epistle pointing out all the ways in which Jesus is better than the angels.





Why would He do it?  Why would One who had eternally existed in the image of God lower Himself to take on human flesh and blood?  The Scriptures give us two reasons:


1.         To Communicate God to man:  No man has seen God at any time; the only begotten God, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him (John 1:18).

2.         To Taste Death for Every Man:  But we do see Him who has been made for a little while lower than the angels, namely, Jesus, because of the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, that by the grace of God He might taste death for everyone (Hebrews 2:9).





In coming to terms with the person of Christ, the church wrestled against Greek dualism that said, "Spirit is good and flesh is bad."  This led to a number of ideas regarding the incarnation.  The church was forced to examine its beliefs regarding the person of Jesus in the setting of these divergent teachings.





Human Nature

Divine Nature



1 John 4:1-3










Condemned at Nicea





Condemned at Constantinople





Condemned by Ephesus

Held that Christ was two persons



Condemned by Chalcedon and Constantinople

Christ had one mixed nature, neither fully human or fully divine



Affirmed throughout

Christ is one person, at the same time fully human and fully divine


1.         The Docetic Heresy.


One of the sects of Gnosticism was Docetism.  The term comes from the Greek word dokew (dokeo), “to seem.”  It deals with the issue of appearance versus reality.  It stated that Christ’s appearance on earth was not real.  It maintained that His bodily appearance was only a hallucination.  John’s first epistle seems to reflect a rebuke against an early form of this teaching.


            2 By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; 3 and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God; and this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world. (1 John 4:2-3).


Why is it important to believe that Jesus came in the flesh?  There are several reasons.


           He came in the flesh to die for sins.  1 Peter 3:18 says that He was put to death in the flesh.  If Jesus did not come in the flesh, then He could not take upon His own body the penalty for our sins.  He could not die for us if He were not flesh, because God cannot die.


           He came in the flesh to be a mediator:  For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus (1 Timothy 2:5).  If Jesus were not fully man in human flesh, then He is not qualified to be a mediator between God and man.


           He came in the flesh to identify with man:  For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin (Hebrews 4:15).  Because Jesus came in the flesh, we can know that He has gone through the same problems and struggles that we experience.  He knows and understands our situation.


The Ebionites had a large contingent of Jewish Christians.

2.         Ebionism.


The Greek term Ebionaioi means “poor men.”  The Ebionites were the theological opposites of the Docetics.  They held that Jesus was a man who was born like any other man, but who was adopted into God’s family and given the title “Son of God.”


The Ebionites also taught that Jewish Christians should continue to keep the Old Testament law—some included the Gentiles in this mandate as well.  As such, they were something of a renewal of the Judaizers whom Paul confronted in his Epistle to the Galatians.  Irenaeus, in his book Against Heresies, noted that the Ebionites recognized only the Gospel of Matthew out of all the New Testament writings.  There is today a resurgence of Ebionism in much of the modern Messianic Movement.  There is a tendency among some of those in this movement to move away from the deity of Christ and to seek to place people back under the law.


3.         Arius.


One of the early controversies raged over the teachings of Arius who concluded that God could not have become flesh because a good God cannot become bad flesh.  He therefore concluded that the Son had been created by the Father.


He said that if Christ were considered to be God, then there would be more than one God and this would be polytheism.  In defense of his position, Arius was able to cite Tertullian as authenticating his teaching—Tertullian did teach that Christ became God while Arius never admitted to the divinity of Jesus prior to the incarnation.


Alexander and Athanasius, two of the church fathers, maintained that Christ was one in substance with the Father.  The resulting creed that was adopted at the Council of Nicea in A.D. 325 described Christ as “God of very God” and as of the same nature (omoiousias, from two Greek words meaning “same” and “nature or substance).[1]  The creed rejected the teachings of Arius that claimed Jesus was a created being and thus, those teachings were proclaimed to be heretical.  The Christology of today’s Jehovah’s Witnesses reflects the same heresy.


4.         Apollinaris (381 A.D.).


Apollinaris was the bishop of Laodicea in Syria (different from the church by the same name mentioned in the book of Revelation).  In an effort to uphold the deity of Christ, Apollinaris taught that within the man Jesus dwelled the divine Logos.  He believed that all men consisted of body, soul, and spirit.  However, in defining the person of Christ, Appolinaris stated that the divine Logos took the part of the human spirit within the person of Jesus.  Thus, his view was that, while Jesus was fully God, He was not fully man.


A council was convened at Constantinople in A.D. 381 to deal with this issue.  This council affirmed the humanity of Christ, seeing Him as both fully man and fully God.


5.         Nestorius (431 A.D.)..


Nestorius was the bishop of Constantinople.  While admitting to both the humanity and the deity of Christ, he felt that it was inappropriate to refer to Mary as the Theotokos (“God-bearer”).  Instead, he suggested that she be called Christotokos (“Christ-bearer”).  Rather than this being an issue over the status of Mary, the question was really over the identity of Jesus.  Nestorius held that the second member of the Godhead was really two persons—one the divine Logos and the other the human Christ.


Nestorius was opposed by Cyril, the bishop of Alexandria.  Cyril argued that, if you only refer to Mary as the Christ-bearer while excluding any reference to her as the God-bearer, then you are saying that the One whom she bore was not really God, but that He was only a part of God.  Thus, Cyril contended for the UNITY of the person of Christ.  The council of Ephesus ultimately determined in A.D. 431 that there had been in Christ a union of two natures.


6.         Eutyches.


Eutyches was the head of the monastery in Constantinople.  Reacting to the ideas of Nestorius, Eutyches stated that Christ was originally made up of two natures, but that these two natures came together in the incarnation to become a single nature.  This view was known as monophysitism (from the Greek monos, “one” and physis, “nature.”  A council was held at Chalcedon in A.D. 451 to decide the issue.  It faced two extremist views.


           The Alexandrian School


They tended to be Monophystic, holding to the unity of Christ to the exclusion of His two natures.  In answer to this position, the Creed of Chalcedon described the one person of the Son who took into union with His pre-existing divine nature a human nature.


           The Antioch School


They tended to make too much of a distinction between the human and divine natures of Christ.  In response to this position, the Creed of Chalcedon described Jesus as “one and the same son, one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, and one and the same Son and Only-begotten God, Word, the Lord Jesus Christ, who is one person and one subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, whose natures are without division in the church.”


In this way, the creed drew a line of demarcation between a “person” as a self-conscious entity versus a “nature” as a series of attributes.  This description of Christ as “one person with two natures” is still used today to explain the incarnation.


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[1]  omoiaV is the word for “same” while ousiaV carries the ides of “substance” or “estate.”