The Word Became Flesh
by Timothy George
If someone were to ask you to summarize the basic message of the Christian faith in just one verse from the Bible, which one would you choose? John 3:16 perhaps? Romans 5:8? Ephesians 2:8? Admittedly, it is an unfair question, for no single verse of Scripture tells us everything that God wants us to know about His plan to redeem and save us from sin and death. But if I were forced to answer that question, the verse I would choose is John 1:14, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (NIV).
This verse describes the incarnation, the central fact of the entire Bible. It is the key to understanding everything else the Scriptures teach about God, human beings, the meaning of history, time, and life itself. And what does the Incarnation mean? Simply this: That the one, eternal, triune God of holiness and love; the very God who created the world and everything in it; this very God has Himself entered into the world that He made, and He did so in the most personal and intimate of ways—as a Baby in a manger, as a Man on a tree.
Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God, was thus a real human being and yet, at the same time, truly divine, “very God of very God,” as the early Christians confessed. The doctrine of the incarnation is a one-of-a-kind teaching among the religions of the world, and it sets Christianity apart from every other professed way of salvation.
The doctrine of the incarnation teaches that Jesus Christ is the unique Son of the heavenly Father. Through His life, death and resurrection, God has acted decisively to rescue lost men and women from their sin and selfishness. Jesus is not only a great figure from the past, a man of renown like Julius Caesar or Napoleon. He is alive today! Through the message of the Bible and the power of the Holy Spirit, He still calls on all persons everywhere to forsake their sin, believe in Him, follow Him in their daily lives, share His love with others, and be ready to meet Him when He comes again to bring peace and justice to the earth. To be a Christian is to receive the forgiveness that Jesus offers and to claim Him as one’s own personal Savior and Lord.
Though Christians have proclaimed the message of the incarnation for 2,000 years, it is still an amazing fact, shocking to some, scandalous to others. The incarnation means that Christianity cannot be reduced to the following:
A philosophy of life. Jesus is not Socrates with a beard, nor Plato with a Jewish accent. He did not give learned lectures on the nature of reality, the science of knowledge or the structure of the universe.
A code of behavior. No one receives eternal life by keeping a certain set of rules, following the works of the law or by doing the best he or she can.
A political movement. Jesus did not join the political revolutionaries of His own day, and He remains sovereign over all politics today.
The incarnation has often been misunderstood and distorted in two opposite, but equally dangerous, directions. On the one hand, some have so emphasized the humanity of Jesus that they have denied or downplayed His divinity. In the Early Church, there were those who said that Jesus was merely a great teacher or prophet who had been “adopted” by God to a higher, more exalted status. Similarly, some today deny the miraculous element in the Gospels and portray Jesus as a teacher of wise sayings who never claimed to be anything more than a sage rabbi.
But, when the early Christians reflected on Jesus’ life, they realized that they had been in touch with a reality and power that could only be accounted for as the presence of God Himself in their midst. This is what the Early Church confessed at their baptism when they declared, “Kyrios Iesus Christos,” Jesus Christ is the Lord.
On the other hand some people have gone to the opposite extreme. They have lifted up Jesus’ deity to such an extent that they have minimized His humanness. In the second century, some of the Gnostics held to a view of Christ known as docetism (from the Greek dokeo: to seem or to appear). They taught that Jesus did not have a real human body, that He only appeared to be really human. However, the Jesus we meet in the Gospels is entirely human, as well as completely divine. He knows what it is to experience hunger (Matthew 4:2), thirst (John 19:28), weariness (John 4:6), grief (John 11:35, 38) and agony (Mark 14:32-42). On one occasion, Jesus even acknowledged that He did not know the precise date of His coming again (Mark 13:32).
Some well-meaning Christians today seem almost embarrassed by these marks of Jesus’ humanity. Yet the doctrine of the incarnation teaches us that there is no depth of suffering or limitation that the Son of God was not willing to embrace for us. Far from making us think less of Jesus, this great biblical truth should inspire us to lift Him higher.
Hebrews 4:14 tells us that Jesus, now ascended to heaven, is our great High Priest. There are two tremendous benefits all believers receive from having such a faithful mediator at the Father’s right hand.
First, we have a Friend, an Advocate with the Father who understands our weaknesses and temptations for He, too, was put to the test in every conceivable way that we can be put to the test. Unlike us, He never yielded to temptation. But He knew what it was like to have the devil whisper in His ear, to be betrayed by one disciple and denied by another, to tremble and groan within His spirit, and to confront the hosts of hell in a moment of crisis. Thus “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin” (Hebrews 4:15, NIV).
Second, because the incarnate Christ is truly human as well as fully divine, we have an open door through prayer into the very heart of God. We can come with confidence before the throne of grace. We will not be rebuffed turned away or made to feel unwelcome. In our greatest moments of need we will find mercy and grace, for the Christ whose arms were stretched out wide on the cross, as if to embrace the whole world, stands now in heaven with His arms still extended. His nail-pierced hands still beckon, “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden” (Matthew 11:28-30, NKJV).
In the Middle Ages, Anselm, a great theologian, asked, “Why did God become a man?” In a hymn, “There is a Green Hill Far Away,” Cecil Frances Alexander gives this answer:
“There was no other good enough
to pay the price of sin,
He only could unlock the gate
Of heav’n, and let us in.”
Now in heaven, Jesus our Redeemer, one Person in two natures, having paid the penalty for our sins by His substitutionary death on the cross, through His Spirit gives us His presence and power. Before such a wonderful Savior, theology becomes doxology?we sing in the words of the well-known Christmas carol:
“Veiled in flesh the Godhead see,
Hail the Incarnate Deity!
Pleased as man with man to dwell,
Jesus our Emmanuel!”
is founding dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and an executive editor of Christianity Today.
This article first appeared in Decision
magazine (December 2006).
The Scripture quotation marked KJ21 is taken from the 21st Century King James Version®, ©1994. Used by permission of Deuel Enterprises, Inc., Gary, SD 57237. All rights reserved.