People have always struggled to understand the mystery of becoming human, as Christians believe happened in the case of Jesus Christ. Consider this example: around 100 AD, a Jewish Christian called Cerinthus began teaching that Jesus was really an ordinary earthly human being but at His baptism, the divine Holy Spirit came upon Him, only to leave again just before His crucifixion.
This is a classic example of how people in the first century struggled to understand how God assumed human flesh in the person of Jesus and why He would even want to make that choice. To them, it was philosophically “unthinkable.” The Greek philosophers of the day taught their students to seek to escape anything to do with the flesh.
The only thing that really existed to them was an ethereal realm of spirit, and anything to do with the body was only a hindrance and an evil enemy to pure spirit. Why would God want to perpetuate something they were looking forward to being free from? And why would He choose to be resurrected in a human body after dying—and for all eternity into the bargain (see Luke 24)?
The term commonly used to describe God becoming human is “incarnation.”
For the first five centuries of Christian history, many sought to explain what happened in the birth of Jesus and the dual aspects of His nature in differing ways. During this time, most Christians generally had no trouble accepting God as infinite, eternal and unchanging in the elements of His being, such as wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth. It was quite another issue for them to figure out how those things fitted into being human at the same time.
Some were prepared to accept the divine nature of Jesus but did so by minimising His full humanity. Typical of these was the belief that Jesus’ body was one of appearance only, instead of reality. Others, like Cerinthus, went in the opposite direction by accepting His humanity but ascribing to God some external role in Jesus’ life, rather than accepting Jesus Himself as being fully God.
All the questions, challengers and uncertainties various groups had embraced at different times eventually forced leaders of the Christian church to try to nail down what the Bible really taught about the incarnation. In 451 AD, at the city of Chalcedon, after extended consideration, they articulated a statement that pulled together a confession in harmony with what Scripture teaches on these matters. This declaration continues to be accepted generally as the best expression of authentic Christianity.
The Bible reveals that Jesus is fully God and fully human. But it does not do so in a concentrated systematic essay that unpacks everything in one focused dissertation. The accounts of Jesus’ life in the four Gospels are theology in action, rather than theology in abstract.
They leave us to work out the truth of the incarnation for ourselves as the account of Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection unfold before us, progressively revealing the great truth about His dual nature.
Jesus is one integrated person but, unlike us, it becomes evident He has two natures: one of deity and the other, humanity. He relates to God as an eternal equal but, at the same time, as a creature relating to His Creator. He is the unique God-man.
There are elements of mystery about the incarnation of God in Jesus that will never be fully understood. We must learn to take our shoes off as we approach this subject, for we are treading on holy ground. To do so, however, does not mean we are putting our brains on a shelf and blindly embracing something obviously untrue and unable to ever be true. There is an inner consistency in Scripture on this issue that serves not to brainwash or deceive us.
Instead, it seeks to reveal something crucial about the nature of God that human reasoning could never have grasped without God revealing Himself in this way.
Most secular people these days—even philosophers—find the idea of God incarnating Himself just as unthinkable as the Greeks did in Jesus’ day, only for different reasons. It is not the humanity of Jesus that’s in doubt these days but His deity. The incarnation defies human reason and confronts every prevailing human value, especially those stemming from blatant humanism.
The incarnation of Jesus implies God came down to meet humanity in its need of salvation. Humanism, however, seeks in its own rebellious arrogance to climb upward to what amounts to its own self-assumed role of deity.
The historical fact of God becoming a man is set aside, replaced with humankind essentially becoming its own god. Humanism—including Christian humanism—looks to redemption from the self-regenerating power within every person.
The tragic implications of this nearly universally-accepted belief is our understanding of the dual nature of Jesus—and how we are saved from our human predicament—is always intrinsically linked together. If we reject the essential deity of Jesus, we are left trying to imitate a human Jesus who modelled openness to God, obedience to God and God’s values.
He did this so God would accept us on the same terms. In so doing, we fail to grasp the reality that our predicament is one that only God could resolve for us. Only by becoming fully human could He achieve our redemption.
In His humanity, Jesus has become the one true human being, representative of all human beings, through whom God can work His saving purposes.
If He had not chosen to take such a gracious initiative, we would all destroy ourselves in our assumed “divinity.”
In the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, God has done more than give a demonstration of His love for the human race. The redemptive actions of the God-man expose the futility of seeking to become perfect and stand before a holy God in our own human righteousness, however we’ve sought to achieve it.
All of us need Jesus to be fully human because we are less than human.
Sin has so dehumanised us that unless we have a fully sinless Human as our representative, we are excluded from being all God longs for us to be. But we also need Him to be fully God. God is the only one who can save us, and only Jesus has the mind and heart of God to fully want to, and share with us how to receive it.