Who is God? What is He like? What does He want from me? What does He expect of me?
These are ancient questions, asked by countless people over thousands of years, but they are also modern questions that people still wrestle with today. We can get answers to those questions and can learn things about God by looking at nature, and by reading about Him in Scripture, but the fullest and clearest expression of what God is like was made available to us through the Incarnation of Jesus.
The word “incarnation” comes from Latin and literally means “to make into flesh” or “to be made flesh”. The Incarnation is one of the central teachings regarding Jesus, and says that Jesus was the Son of God, but that he “became flesh” and lived life as a man. Jesus was both God and human.
For many of us, that idea is pretty straightforward because it’s what we’ve been taught for a long time, but it’s an idea that was debated and argued about for a long time in the early church, and a lot of false teachings came up to try and explain who Jesus really was:
- Adoptionism said that Jesus was an ordinary man who followed and obeyed the Law so carefully that he became the Messiah and that God “adopted” Jesus as His Son at baptism. So basically this view says that Jesus was a man, but was not really God—it stressed His humanity, but not His divinity.
- Docetism said that Jesus was a divine being that took on human appearance but not flesh. It comes from a Greek word which means “to seem”, so basically this view says that Jesus seemed like a man but really wasn’t one. Docetism stresses the divinity of Jesus, but not His humanity.
- Arianism said that Jesus was divine in some sense, but that He was created by the Father, so that He wasn’t an eternal being—He wasn’t God in the same sense that the Father was.
- Nestorianism said that the Son of God and the man Jesus shared the same body, but were two separate beings within that body with different natures. Almost like Jesus had a split personality.
That all might start to sound somewhat confusing, and that’s okay, because it is confusing, and I think it illustrates an important point—sometimes we get ourselves into trouble by trying to explain things that we really can’t explain. The Bible really doesn’t try to explain in detail how the Incarnation “worked”—how it was that Jesus was both God and human at the same time—it just affirms that that’s who He was. He wasn’t part human and part God, he was completely human and completely God at the same time. So while I can’t fully explain how the Incarnation worked, I can say that the “isms” that we mentioned before are not true, because they deny that Jesus was both fully human and fully God.
What I think is more important than completely understanding how the Incarnation worked is understanding what the Incarnation means to us as Christians—how Jesus living as a human shows us what God is like and what He expects from us.
The classic passage on the Incarnation is in John 1. There in v. 14 it says, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.”
A lot of times when speaking about the Incarnation, we talk about that first part, “The Word becoming flesh” and that’s an important concept (all of arguments and debates and “isms” mentioned above are based on the first part of the verse), but I want to focus on the second clause, “The Word made his dwelling among us”.
Here John is using Old Testament language from the time when the Israelites wandered in the wilderness and God dwelt in the tabernacle to explain how God, through Jesus, came down to be among His people in a new way. A more literal translation of the end of John 1.14 would be something like, “he put up his tent among us.”
The Message, which is a paraphrase translation of Scripture in modern language, says in John 1.14 that the Word became flesh and moved into our neighborhood, and I love that idea—through Jesus, God is no longer Someone who is unknowable or impossible to figure out, because He lives right down the street from us—we can see what God is like for ourselves!
There’s an old story about Shah Abbas, the great king of Persia who came to the throne in the late 1500s. Shah Abbas was beloved by his people, and he loved them in return, and in order to understand them better, historically we know that he would often disguise himself as a common man and mingle among them.
The story goes that one day, while visiting a bathhouse, Shah Abbas went down into the cellar and sat down next to the poor man whose job was to keep the furnaces burning to heat the baths. The king quickly struck up a friendship with this lowly laborer, who welcomed his company without having any idea who he was. They became friends and the king returned often to visit the furnace keeper. When mealtime came, the peasant would share his meager food with the king, and the two came to be close.
At last, one day the king revealed his true identity to the man. Shah Abbas expected the keeper of the fire to ask him for a special gift or some favor. Instead, when the man recovered from his shock, his request of the king was for neither wealth nor favors. He simply said:
“You left your palace and your glory to sit with me in this dark place, to eat of my coarse food, to care whether my heart is glad or sorry. To others you may give rich presents, but to me you have given yourself, and all I can ask is that you never withdraw the gift of your friendship.”
Like the Shah of the story, God put on a lowly disguise and through Jesus, moved into our neighborhood. From there, right down the street, He offers the gift of friendship and as our friend, we are never left to wonder what He is like, or what He wants from us.
Through Jesus, we can know what God is like, and how He wants us to live.