God's Truth and Power: What the Incarnation Means to Us
By Daniel Day Williams
Christians believe that God acted to save the world in a unique and decisive way through the life of Jesus of Nazareth. The word incarnation means this supreme action of God through which he showed his love, his power, and his truth in our human life. If we are to understand something of the mystery of this great affirmation, we must interpret the meaning of incarnation in relation to all that we know and believe about Jesus and his mission.
The biblical source of the word incarnation is the statement in the prologue of the Fourth Gospel that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1: 14). Notice that the Gospel does not use incarnation as a noun describing a static idea about Jesus. It uses a verb. The Word became flesh. It speaks of what God was doing in Jesus. This is how the Fourth Gospel would have us understand the meaning of our faith. Jesus was the one through whom God himself became present with us in our human life. God and Jesus are two and yet not separated, for what we know through Jesus is the reality and truth of God himself. That is why the Gospel begins with the assertion about the Word of God being with God, and being, essentially speaking, God. To the Greek mind “Word” or “Logos” meant the rational order of all things, the one divine truth. To the Hebrews God’s Word was his spirit in action. In his Word God personally addresses us, and makes his will known in our history.
The writer of the Fourth Gospel brings together the Hebrew and the Greek meanings in what he says about the incarnation. Jesus is the very truth and the power of God, made known to us in a human life. In him we see God’s redemptive purpose being worked out. We see the Light and Life which God sends into our darkness. By the incarnation, then, we mean the full truth of what we believe about Jesus as the Son of God, as he brought redemption through his message and his mission, his life and his death.
Many questions arise when we make this assertion about Jesus of Nazareth, this one man who like us was born, grew into manhood, was tempted, had emotions of joy and sorrow, and was subject to death. Did Jesus think with a human mind like ours, or did he have the absolute knowledge which is in the mind of God? Was he limited in his power or did he have all divine power at his command? If he was truly man, how could he think of himself as in a special way the Son of God? We ask further, are there other incarnations? Is there something of God in every human being, and if so, is the incarnation in Jesus absolutely different? How are Jesus’ death and resurrection related to all other men and their hope for eternal life?
All these questions have been discussed in the church from the beginning. We still must ask them and give the most adequate answers we can. Our four Gospels were written as proclamations of the new faith. They sought to interpret the meaning of what God had done in Jesus. When the Christians spoke of him as the Son of God, and, in the Fourth Gospel, as God’s only begotten Son, they were moving toward the idea of God which was later formalized in the doctrine of God as Father, Son, and Sprit, the Holy Trinity. They thought of Jesus’ sonship to God as the earthly expression of the divine relationship which has its source in God himself.
It was not easy to express clearly the meaning of God’s relationship to Jesus. For seven centuries the church worked on the doctrine of the “two natures of Christ,” the divine and the human, and how they were united in the one person. They were trying to do justice to their Christian experience of what Jesus had brought into life. He had shown the saving power of God. He had given men a new understanding of God’s mercy. And he had given signs of extraordinary power in the miracles. Yet he had lived as other men. He prayed to his Father in heaven. He was saddened by what he found in men’s hearts. People did not always respond to his message. He was opposed by the self-righteous and privileged. He died a cruel death. His divinity did not set aside his humanity, but was conformed to his humanity. That is the central truth which all the doctrines about the incarnation tried to express.
The history of Christian thought about the incarnation is full of fascinating and, we must admit, sometimes fanciful speculations. Pope Leo, in a famous letter, thought of Jesus as exhibiting two separate and parallel kinds of action. When he worked miracles, this was his divine nature. When he was tired, or hungry, or wept, this was the human nature.
Later, Christians took a clue from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, the second chapter, in which he speaks of Jesus as being equal to God and then “humbling himself and taking upon himself the form of a servant.” Perhaps in the incarnation some of the divine attributes were “laid aside” for the time being by the Son.
The Underlying Truth
We do not need to develop these special theories here. They are all trying to point to the truth which underlies everything in our Christian faith, that in Jesus God was making his saving power and truth known to us in such a way that our humanity became renewed through the presence and power of the divine.
The crucial question about the incarnation which each of us must answer for himself is the: What is it in Jesus that makes us believe in him as the Son of God who brings salvation to us? Here are three truths which lie at the center of our faith.
First, we say God was incarnate in Jesus because in Jesus’ life the love of God was made manifest, and God is love.
The Fourth Gospel says that God “so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” We know God through what he has done. We cannot know him directly. He is the Lord and Creator of all things. His infinite majesty is beyond our conceiving. But there is something we can know of God—that is his spirit, his concern for his creation, his love. And that love was given a human expression in the way Jesus lived, taught, gave himself to those in need, and died asking God to forgive those who rejected him. “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” This we can begin to understand in our human experience. In Jesus God showed us that it is the truth in his own heart.
The incarnation, then, was the expression of God’s spirit in the self-giving love, the moral rigor, the bearing of burdens, the vicarious sacrifice which we see in Jesus.
Second, in making himself known to us in Jesus God did not set aside our humanity but used it as the very means of revealing himself to us. We should be careful not to make of the incarnation a magical event which sets Jesus apart from us as a different kind of being. He could not be the savior of our humanity if he did not share it.
It is the Christian insistence that Jesus was fully man which makes the Christian faith in the incarnation different from other religions which have had somewhat similar doctrines. There are many incarnations in the traditions of the religions of the world. There are many gods who take human form and live on earth. Some of them die and rise again in a way not wholly different from the Christian story of the resurrection. But what is distinctive in the Christian faith is the assertion that Jesus, the incarnate Lord, was fully human. He tasted the sorrow and the joy of our human lot. He did not separate himself from sinners, but bore in his own heart the suffering and anguish of man’s cruelty and wrong. We see in the incarnation a supreme act of divine condescension for our sakes. God conformed himself to our humanity
God Comes to Us
Finally, through the incarnation salvation was offered to us and to all men. The way was opened to the restoration of human life to its right relationship to God. The incarnation is God’s victory over the estrangement of sin. It is God crossing over to us where we have exiled ourselves by our lovelessness. The faith in the incarnation is therefore a joyful and triumphant faith. In Jesus we see what our humanity is really intended to be. We see what a life of love, of forgiveness, of trust in God means. We begin to see what God intends for his people. And we can begin to respond to the new way of life.
We should not think of the incarnation as something God did only at the beginning of Jesus’ life, which automatically set in motion all the things Jesus said and did. The incarnation was the whole action of God in Jesus. God was making himself incarnate throughout the life, the death, and the resurrection of his Son.
To live with faith and love as those who believe in Jesus Christ, then, is to express the spirit of the incarnation in our actions. Jesus the Lord is served wherever we remember him in acts of love. “As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me,” he said. Believing in the incarnation has practical consequences. It is to believe that God loves and redeems all of life. We can share in his work and adore his glory as it is reflected in the face of Jesus Christ, our Lord.