Veiled in flesh the Godhead see, Hail the incarnate Deity! Pleased as man with men to dwell, Jesus, our Emmanuel. —Charles Wesley
When Jesus Christ came to Earth to dwell among men, the greatest onetime event in all history finally occurred—the manifestation of God in the flesh. Jesus, the eternal second person of the triune God, took on Himself humanity (Jn.1:1, 14). Incarnation is the term used to convey this essential Christian doctrine, which has at its core the fact that God so loves us that He condescended to become one of us so He could do for us what we could not do for ourselves.
Scripture teaches that God purposed and planned the incarnation before the foundation of the world (1 Pet.1:20; Heb.10:5). It even was foretold in the Old Testament. Isaiah 9:6 states that “a child” (Messiah) would be born, a reference to His humanity; but it also states, “a son is given,” suggesting His purpose and divinity. Further more, this verse says this child will be called “The Mighty God” and “The Everlasting Father.” Jesus Christ possessed a human body but with one big difference: He was sinless. Scripture is clear that He came “in the likeness of sinful flesh” (Rom. 8:3, italics added).
The question often arises, Why would God take on the frailty of human flesh and dwell among men? The Bible asserts three major purposes for the incarnation.
To Redeem Sinners (Jn. 6:38–40)
Remarkably, God wanted to identify with humanity in order to provide an effective sacrifice for our sin. A poet once said, “He forsook the courts of everlasting day and took with us a house of darksome clay.” Redemption was the divine reason for the incarnation. Adam and Eve’s transgression in the Garden of Eden doomed mankind with an active sin nature (Eph. 2:1–3) and severed our relationship with God. Then, to add more misery to man’s hopeless predicament, Scripture states that the payment for sin is death (Rom. 6:23). Whether the world knew it or not, it desperately needed a Savior.
In Old Testament times, animal sacrifices served as short-term solutions. However, something far better and permanent was needed. God became flesh so He could die a physical death as the final sacrifice for our sins. Because Jesus is God, His onetime death and resurrection were sufficient to pay for the sins of all humanity (Heb. 10:1–9), “once for all” (Heb. 10:10). As Jesus said, “If any man hear my words, and believe not, I judge him not; for I came, not to judge the world but to save the world” (Jn. 12:47).
Paul, the former rabbi of Tarsus, left no doubt as to the intent of the incarnation: “This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15). God became a man to redeem lost sinners. An old hymn by Cecil F. Alexander aptly reflects this sentiment:
There was no other good enough
To pay the price of sin;
He, only, could unlock the gates
Of heaven and let us in.
To Regenerate Sinners (Jn. 10:10)
During World War II, a pilot on a bombing mission in the South Pacific got lost and could not find his aircraft carrier. His plane was low on fuel; and he knew the crew would have to land on one of the islands that dotted the ocean, many of which were inhabited by cannibals. The pilot was desperate. As they neared an island, the navigator called out, “We’re all right; there’s a church down there. I see a cross on the steeple!” Later, when remembering how relieved he was to have seen the church, the pilot became a Christian.
The navigator knew the church meant that chances were good the inhabitants no longer were cannibals and would be governed by biblical principles. This account illustrates the second purpose for the incarnation: to regenerate sinners and destroy the Devil’s influence on mankind (1 Jn. 3:2).
This world is governed by the powers of darkness (Jn. 14:30; 16:11; Eph. 2:2; 6:12; Col. 1:13). The incarnation challenged Satan in his own arena:
Forasmuch, then, as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part of the same, that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil, And deliver them who, through fear of death, were all their lifetime subject to bondage (Heb. 2:14–15).
Since God incarnate took the initiative to redeem us back to Himself—to purchase us out of Satan’s clutches—He also had the prerogative to bestow His holy nature on those who believe and are saved. To be regenerated means a whole new life, one that reflects the image of God and godliness. God, having become flesh, made it possible for sinful people to live “abundant” lives (Jn. 10:10), unfettered by sin and its awful consequences.
Lew Wallace was a famous American Union Civil War general and literary genius. He and his famous ungodly friend, Robert Ingersoll, once agreed to write a book that would forever destroy the “myth” of Christianity—the main “myth” being that Jesus was God in the flesh. For two years, Wallace gathered information from the leading libraries of Europe and America. He got no further than chapter two when he suddenly found himself on his knees, crying out, “My Lord, and my God.” He had found his evidence, and it overwhelmingly and conclusively supported the deity of Christ. He could no longer deny that Jesus Christ was the Son of God. So Wallace abandoned his project and became a Christian. Later he wrote one of the finest novels ever written concerning the time of Christ, Ben Hur.
Only the incarnation can make possible such a change and enable sinful people to live God-filled, God-centered lives. Scripture states that God “hath saved us, and called us with an holy calling . . . hath abolished death, and hath brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Tim. 1:9–10). God became flesh to instill a godly nature into sinful man and crush the Devil’s authority over humanity.
The incarnation proves that God does not hide Himself, hoping people will find Him. Rather, He is the God of revelation, who has made Himself known through Jesus Christ.
To Reveal the True and Personal God (Jn. 14:9)
The Bible says God created man in His image and likeness (Gen. 1:26). Yet many people probably would agree with the statement, “We created God in our own image and likeness.” The Greek philosopher Aristotle felt that way: “Men create gods in their own image, not only with regard to their form, but with regard to their mode of life.”
People, by nature, are spiritual beings. Human history reveals their quest to know God; but they often have been misled and confused, worshiping “gods” of their own invention. The Assyrian and Babylonian gods were barbaric and brutal. In contrast, the many Greek gods, such as Zeus and Jupiter, were whimsical, often portrayed as constantly quarreling with one another. Mars, Rome’s harsh war god, incited the soldiery to savagery. How sad to think of the countless offerings of one kind or another that were made to appease those neurotic, false deities of the ancient world.
Even today, the personal God of Scripture is still unknown in many societies. Perhaps Albert Einstein spoke for all skeptics when he said, “The idea of a personal God is an anthropological concept which I am unable to take seriously.” If only he and others knew that God designed the incarnation for intimacy, so He could clearly reveal His loving and caring character. The incarnation proves that God does not hide Himself, hoping people will find Him. Rather, He is the God of revelation, who has made Himself known through Jesus Christ (Heb. 1:1–2).
Failure to appreciate the significance of the incarnation has caused many people to customize their ideas about Jesus. Former Soviet dictator Mikhail Gorbachev reduced Jesus to “the first socialist, the first to seek a better life for mankind.” People just find it difficult to accept that a Jewish carpenter from a small village could actually be the Creator of the universe. But when a disciple of Jesus said, “show us the Father,” Jesus responded, “He that hath seen me hath seen the Father” (Jn. 14:8–9). The incarnation was to bring light to those who abide in the darkness of their own notions about God (Jn. 12:46).
Jesus told Pontius Pilate, “for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth” (Jn. 18:37)—the truth being that God of the Old Testament came in the flesh to redeem humanity. Yet many people will continue to refuse to worship Him.
The humanity of Jesus the Christ does not mean that He was less than fully God. He was not part man, part God. He was not God disguised as a man. The incarnation does not mean that His Godhood mixed with His manhood to make Him a strange type of third being. The fundamental position of faith is that Jesus the Messiah was wholly God and wholly man and that He came to redeem and regenerate sinners and to reveal the true God.
An unknown author put the importance of the incarnation this way:
If our greatest need had been information, God would have sent us an educator. If our greatest need had been money, God would have sent us an economist. Had our greatest need been pleasure, God would have sent us an entertainer. But our greatest need was forgiveness and salvation, so God sent Himself through the incarnation and provided us a Savior.
“And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh” (1 Tim. 3:16).
As Jesus walked through the Temple during Hanukkah, some religious leaders demanded He state plainly if He was the Messiah—the Christ. Part of Jesus’ response was, “I and my Father are one” (Jn. 10:30). They did not misconstrue what Jesus was saying about Himself, namely, that He was God. The Law was clear. It demanded death for anyone claiming deity. So they “took up stones” to stone him (Jn. 10:31).
Reaction to the incarnation has not changed in 2,000 years. Some still respond in rock-tossing rage at the idea that Jesus is God in the flesh. Not much can be said for those determined to deny the evidence of Scripture. On the other hand, those who truly understand why God Almighty would condescend to become flesh have accepted Him as their personal Redeemer. They alone have experienced the life-changing power of the Holy Spirit in their lives, can say confidently they know the true and living God of the Bible, and can give wholehearted devotion and praise to the incarnate God—Jesus Christ.