Your theology of the incarnation matters. It affects how you view your body, your
problems, your ministry—and your celebration of the holiday before us.
Your theology of the incarnation matters.
Santa Claus thought so. Saint Nicholas, the bishop of Myra in Asia Minor in the early fourth century, is the historical basis for the Santa myth. Born to a wealthy family, Nicholas used his entire inheritance to help the poor, sick, and children in need. Stories of Saint Nick describe him saving young women from slavery, providing grain in a famine, and sparing innocents from execution. It’s not hard to see why he was revered as a kind and generous soul.
But Nicholas also cared deeply about Christian doctrine. In AD 325, he attended the pivotal Council of Nicaea, a gathering of church leaders from throughout the Roman Empire to address the Arian heresy. Arius, a teacher of great influence, insisted that Jesus was a created being and not fully God. Nicholas strongly disagreed, and during the council meeting, one tradition tells us Nicholas and Arius got into a heated debate on the nature of the incarnation and the full deity of Christ. However, the debate ended suddenly when Nicholas punched out Arius right there on the floor of the council!
That’s right. Santa Claus punched a heretic.
Maybe we shouldn’t call him “jolly old Saint Nick” any more.
While his conflict resolution methods may have needed improvement, one thing you must admire: Nicholas was passionate about doctrinal orthodoxy. He believed your theology of the incarnation matters.
Usain Bolt in a Three-Legged Race
So here’s a theology of the incarnation in a nutshell: “In Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form” (Colossians 2:9). Jesus of Nazareth was fully God and fully man. The second person of the Trinity—who has existed eternally—entered history as a human baby one night in Bethlehem. In meditating on this mystery, we should avoid two mistakes.
On one hand, we should not think, by becoming human, Jesus became something less than God. Sometimes Philippians 2:6 and 7 are misunderstood to mean Jesus emptied himself of his deity. A better understanding: Jesus did not empty himself of his God-nature, but he did empty himself of some of his God-privileges during his time on earth.
If Olympic gold medalist Usain Bolt entered a three-legged race—running with one leg tied to a partner’s leg—it wouldn’t diminish his innate running ability or change his status as the world’s fastest sprinter. But he would certainly be voluntarily limiting the use of his abilities. Likewise, Jesus’ status as fully God was not diminished in the incarnation. He did limit his omnipresence by taking on a human body. He limited his omniscience by experiencing normal human growth—including a gradually growing intellect and consciousness (Luke 2:52).
But Jesus did not surrender his “God-ness.” Theologian Millard Erickson says, “The incarnation was more an addition of human attributes than a loss of divine attributes.” The second person of the Trinity was fully God for all eternity past, was still fully God when he took on a physical body and a human name, and remains fully God today, having returned to his Father’s right hand (John 1:1; Acts 7:56).
The Only One to Taste Full Humanity
On the other hand, we should avoid the mistake of thinking that, because he was God, Jesus couldn’t have been really and truly, fully human. The Gospels paint the picture of a Jesus who got hungry, thirsty, and tired. He got callouses, blew his nose, and instinctively rubbed his bug bites. He bled when he got cut, and he wrestled with all the powerful emotions of the human experience. He felt joy, sorrow, affection, anger, compassion, astonishment, loneliness, distress, and grief. (See John 15:11; Matthew 26:37; John 11:33; Mark 3:5; Matthew 9:36; Luke 7:9; Mark 15:34; Luke 12:50; and John 11:35.)
One scholar, A. E. Taylor, contends Jesus couldn’t have been fully human because he never sinned. Hebrews 4:15 tells us Jesus “has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.” But Taylor casts doubt on the genuineness of Jesus’ temptations: “If a man does not commit certain transgressions . . . it must be because he never felt the appeal of them.”1
But Leon Morris argues that the reverse of Taylor’s assertion is true. Because of his sinlessness, Jesus felt a more intense temptation, not a less intense one. “The man who yields to a particular temptation has not felt its full power. He has given in while the temptation has yet something in reserve. Only the man who does not yield to a temptation, who as regards that particular temptation is sinless, knows the full extent of that temptation.”2
Jesus was the one who withstood the temptation that Adam could not; it was he who finally lived out God’s original intention for mankind. So the question, then, is not, “Was Jesus fully human?” The question is, “Are we fully human?” The answer, of course, is that we are fallen, a broken version of God’s original design. Ironically, only the one who was fully God has tasted what it means to be fully human. Jesus knew the human experience better than any previous human.
Meaning to the Cross
It is the incarnation that gives meaning to the cross. Without the doctrine of the incarnation, Jesus’ death on the cross would either be unable to atone for sins (if Jesus weren’t fully God) or unavailable to apply to mankind (if Jesus weren’t fully human). The cross has significance only because Jesus was both fully divine (his sacrifice is powerful enough to save) and fully human (his sacrifice is pertinent enough to apply to us). Because he was God, the cross is redemptive. Because he was man, the cross is relevant.
Saint Nicholas was right: your theology of the incarnation matters.
“Happy Incarnation Day”
Perhaps it matters more than we know.
I know a Bible college professor who—instead of offering a “Happy Holidays” or even a “Merry Christmas”—made his December greeting every year a cheery, “Happy Incarnation Day!” Yes, people looked at him weird, but I loved it. He wanted to encourage people to do more than simply nod in Jesus’ direction. He wanted them to actually reflect on the central doctrine of Christmas—the incarnation.
These days, Christmas seems to be a holiday aimed more at the heart than the head. The weeks leading up to December 25 are filled with sentimental images, warm emotions, and caroling services—not doctrinal discussions. But during this holiday season, in addition to feeling grateful about the incarnation, we would also be wise to think carefully about the incarnation.
Specifically this: we know the theological implications of this doctrine, but are there other, more practical, implications of a God-who-came-in-the-flesh? Could our theology of the incarnation shape more than just our understanding of salvation? Let me suggest how the incarnation can inform many other areas of life.
Our Physical Bodies Are Essential to Our Humanity
When the Word became flesh, he demonstrated that our physical bodies are an essential part of our humanity. We are a strange mixture of physical and spiritual, a weird alchemy of material and immaterial, an inseparable combination of body and soul. We are inextricably intermixed, and as someone said, “The body and soul live so close to each other that they catch each other’s diseases.”
That’s true: when our bodies experience fatigue or sickness, it can affect our soul’s outlook. When our souls are troubled, our bodies might manifest the distress in ulcers, headaches, or high blood pressure. The reverse is also true: when our bodies are healthy, it can lighten our spirit. When our soul is full, we might not even notice weariness or fatigue. (By the way, this psychosomatic human nature means we would be wise to try different bodily postures in prayer because they can actually affect our spirit’s attitude.)
In fact, our physical bodies not only affect our spirits, they can affect other’s spirits. In a famous study of interpersonal communication, psychologist Albert Mehrabian discovered we decide how we feel about a speaker based largely on physical—not verbal—cues. He said 7 percent of a speaker’s emotional impact comes from the words he says, 38 percent comes from tone of voice, and 55 percent comes from facial expressions and bodily posture.
All of which is to say: when God wanted to demonstrate his love for us, he chose to do so by taking on a body. Jesus looked directly at people, touched people, held children in his arms, and used his physical frame to communicate God’s care and compassion.
Ministry Is Best Done in Person
Given our amazing communication capabilities in this high-tech chapter of world history, it’s interesting to note that Jesus chose to enter history in a low-tech, high-touch chapter. He could’ve decided to be born at a time with the advantages of television, radio, the Internet, Facebook, and Twitter. (Although I can hear him now, “That’s not what I meant when I said, ‘Follow me.’”) It seems he would’ve been able to spread the message of the kingdom much more quickly.
But instead, he chose to step into world history at a time when he had to physically talk to every person who would hear his message, to physically touch the individuals who needed his healing, to physically walk to every ministry location. Japanese theologian Kosuke Koyama entitled his book Three Mile an Hour God because Jesus entered time when the chief mode of transportation was walking, and our average walking speed is three miles an hour.
In choosing the moment of his historical appearance, Jesus was deciding his ministry would have to live within the time and space limits of his physical body. When he wanted to “multiply his ministry,” he did not choose to do so through leveraged technology. Instead, he chose to do so by being physically present with 12 disciples, preparing them in person to carry his message to the places he could not bodily go. His incarnation carries this implication: ministry happens best in person.
I know a preacher who, rather than making a personal visit, texted his condolences to a grieving family. Please hear me: I myself text, tweet, and Skype. I am no Luddite, and I believe the “dominion” mandate in Genesis 1:28 includes harnessing technology for good. But if I ever catch one of my students texting a family in a funeral home when he could’ve made a personal visit, I will track him down and revoke his diploma.
The fact is, we are embodied beings, and there is something about being physically present with another person that communicates the greatest attention. Often the greatest moment of ministry is the three mile an hour act of simply walking in someone’s door. Every minister knows when folks express gratitude for their preacher’s care in the midst of a crisis, they usually don’t say, “Thank you for your wise words.” Instead they say, “Thanks for being there.”
So in a day of DVD sermons in church and youth group devotions on Twitter (which can be good things), the incarnation reminds us that the personal touch matters. If I can call someone instead of e-mailing, I will. If I can have a face-to-face conversation instead of picking up the phone, I will. The more personal the ministry, the better.
Christ Understands Our Fallen World Struggles
Indeed, a personal visit from another person is a way of entering into their experience. When the young priest Ezekiel arrived in Babylon to preach to the Israelite captives there, he did not walk in and immediately start sermonizing. Instead, he “sat among them for seven days—deeply distressed” (3:15). Ezekiel was wise enough to know that the exiled Israelites would hear him better if he took the time to enter their pain. He identified with them.
The incarnation was God’s way of “sitting among us” and feeling our struggles in a fallen world. Hebrews 4:15 tells us, “We do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses.” When you encounter painful trials, Jesus understands. Because Jesus experienced the same kinds of physical, emotional, and spiritual tribulations as we do, he can be the very best pastor for your soul.
When my boys were younger, they loved it when I would dress like them. After 5-year-old Carl and 3-year-old Conrad would put on jeans and a blue T-shirt, they’d come ask me to wear jeans and a blue T-shirt. When I did, they had a saying. They would survey me, survey themselves, and say, “Look, Dad: same, same.” For my birthday, Carl bought me a North Carolina blue mesh shirt . . . because he had a North Carolina blue mesh shirt. We could be “same, same.”
When I played living room football with my boys, Conrad would not let me play standing—so big and scary and towering above him. The theological term for this is “completely other.” Instead he insisted I get on my knees. When I was down at eye level, Conrad would put his hand on my shoulder and say, “There. See, Dad—same, same.” They liked it when I entered their world. (To be honest, it’s not that hard because I mostly do life at a grade-school level. When I laugh like a fourth-grader at my little boys’ burping, my wife shakes her head and mutters, “Same, same”).
One time I scraped my leg working on my house. When Conrad fell down and scraped his leg, he pointed at my scab, then showed me his and said, “Hey, Dad—same, same.” Here’s the point: in the incarnation, God chose not to stay “completely other.” He got down at eye level and experienced what it’s like to be tired and discouraged, to feel abandoned and betrayed. He knows what it’s like to hurt and bleed.
In your pain, you may be tempted to say, “Jesus, you have no idea what I’m going through. You have no idea how bad I’m hurting.” But Christ can respond, “Yes, I do.” He can point to your wounds and then to his own and say, “Look: same, same. Me too. I have entered your world, and I know how you feel. I have been there, I am with you now, I care, and I can help.”
Your theology of the God-who-became-flesh can quite literally be life changing. Meditating on the implications of the God-man can shape your ministry and feed your soul. So this holiday season, don’t risk the wrath of Saint Nicholas. In the midst of all the warm feelings, take time to think deeply and think well on the central doctrine of Christmas.
Happy Incarnation Day!
1A. E. Taylor, Asking Them Questions, ed. Ronald Selby Wright (London: Oxford University Press, 1936), 94.
2Leon Morris, The Lord from Heaven (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1974), 51, 52.
Matt Proctor serves as president at Ozark Christian College, Joplin, Missouri. He also served as president of the 2013 North American Christian Convention.