Christian theology centers on the fact that God became man in the person of Jesus the Christ. But how does the incarnation help us? Why did God choose to enact our salvation in that particular way?
First, let’s get a little background.
Why Did Some Early Christians Doubt the Incarnation?
Some early believers were called docetics, from the Greek word for “illusion.” They said that Jesus didn’t really have a physical body, that it was an illusion. They thought that God putting on a physical body was beneath Him.
Why? They might not have liked the idea of a holy being needing to engage in certain physical activities, such as expelling waste, or having body odor. They might not have liked the idea of Jesus being limited by His physical body. After all, Jesus Himself said that “the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41).
And Paul said the flesh is where sinful desires come from.
So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.
19 The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.
22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. 24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.
But is the Flesh Inherently Evil?
The body is not evil. We can be tempted in our spirits just as easily as our flesh. Perhaps when the Bible says the flesh is sinful, it's referring to the fact that by myself, in my humanness, I'm evil. My body, my own spirit, my mind, my heart, all of me. I need an outside Helper, the Holy Spirit, to give me the strength to be anything but evil.
But Jesus the man wasn’t alone in His humanness, was He? He did have that Divine help. And so, His flesh was not sinful. His whole being was pure.
Is the Spirit More Important than the Body?
The docetics failed to realize that God values our spirits and our bodies the same.
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18:
Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. 14 For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. 15 According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.
God created man to be body and spirit, and at the resurrection, He will raise us as body and spirit.
How Did the Church Determine that Jesus is Both God and Man?
The docetics had a hard time thinking of Jesus as human. They wanted to think of Him as God only and His body as an illusion. Today, people have a difficult time believing that the man Jesus was actually God.
But the early Church and the historical Christian faith maintain that Jesus is both God and man. But the early Church had to define exactly what they meant when they said that Jesus was both God and man.
Sometimes, someone would try to understand that relationship between Jesus' humanity and His Godhood, and it wouldn't sound quite right. There would be disagreement among Christians, so the Church leaders or the Christian Emperor would call a Council to sort out the problem and give a more detailed explanation of what they meant by saying that Jesus was both God and man.
Council of Nicea (year 325):
"Light from Light, true God from true God."
The Nicene Creed doesn't go into detail, but it did establish Jesus’ equality with God in opposition to the teaching of Arius, who was spreading the idea that Jesus was a lesser god than God the Father.
The Council of Constantinople (year 381) clarified Jesus' humanity. They said that Jesus had a truly human mind and soul as well as body. He was completely human. He wasn't simply God living in a human body. Jesus had a human mind and a human soul.
Of course, that led to the question, Does Jesus have two souls and two minds? A God soul and a human soul, a God mind and a human mind?
The Council of Ephesus (year 431) said that Jesus did not have a God nature and a human nature, but one unified nature that is both God and man.
Council of Chalcedon (year 451):
“the same perfect in divinity and perfect in humanity, the same truly God and truly man.”
This statement says Jesus is fully God and fully man. He is one being. It’s similar to the idea that God is One but Three. We don't understand the Trinity, and we don't understand how Jesus can be both God and man at the same time.
Though it took time to iron out the details, each of the Councils' decisions was based on what they saw in Scripture. Jesus did things that only humans can do, but He also referred to Himself as God. The way God worked through Him then proved that He wasn't wrong about who He said He was.
Should We Relate to Jesus More as a Man or as God?
There’s no right answer to this question. It’s similar to how some people relate to God more as a Father and some more as a King. Some as a Provider and some as the Creator.
Some people draw comfort from thinking of Jesus as the human who can understand what they’re going through. Others respect Him as Lord and think very little of His humanity beyond what they read in Scripture; it has very little bearing in their everyday faith walk.
Of course, we want to know Jesus as fully as possible, so if you tend to think of Him as one more than the other, remind yourself of His Divinity or humanity once in a while.
Why did God the Son Become Human?
Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— 15 and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. 16 For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants. 17 For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. 18 Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.
In short, Jesus couldn't atone for our sins break death for us without becoming one of us. He had to stand in our stead as our substitutionary sacrifice. If He was only a man, He would be able to take the place of one person. The fact that He was an infinite God enabled Him to be the substitution for everyone.
How Does Thinking of Jesus as Human Help Us?
I thought of three ways that remembering Christ’s humanity can help us in our daily lives.
Redeems our Emotions
Jesus expressed surprise, anger, and sadness. Because He did, we can know that our emotions have a place in a holy life.
Redeems our Bodily Needs
Jesus went to the bathroom. He passed gas. He smelled. He got hungry and thirsty. This means that we don’t need to feel that these functions and needs are beneath us as God’s children. They’re a natural part of the way God made us.
Redeems our Temptations
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. 16 Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.
Jesus was tempted in every way we are. He was tempted to do the same kinds of things we’re tempted to do. He was tempted to sin sexually. He tempted to be sarcastic toward other people. He tempted to steal and commit violence. He was tempted to abuse alcohol. As a little boy, He was tempted to disobey His parents. He was tempted to eat too much.
He didn’t do those things, but He thought about them. So, when we think about those things, we’re not wrong. We’re in the company of the one who can empathize with us. He’s also the one who gives us the strength to be like Him and resist those temptations.
In many ways, God became a man not only so that He could redeem us but so that He could be our example of what it means to be a man or a woman created in God’s image.
Find more answers to interesting questions on my Theology 101 page!