Can we really believe it or even get our minds around it? It seems unbelievable! Too farfetched to be true! Beyond credulity! Impossible!
What am I talking about? The idea that God became human. The Creator of the universe became one of us!
Yet this is what the Gospel of John says:
“The Word was God” (John 1:1).
“The Word became flesh” (John 1:14).
In the ultimate act of love, God became human and lived among us and with us, experiencing all the joys, trials, and troubles we know in this world.
This was too much for many in the early church to believe. As early as the second century, we find spurious, apocryphal writings that deny this incredible reality. A work purporting to be from John called the Acts of John claims that Jesus only appeared to be human. This John impersonator says:
Sometimes when I meant to touch him I encountered a material, solid body; but at other times again when I felt him, his substance was immaterial and incorporeal, and as if it did not exist at all….
And I often wished, as I walked with him, to see his footprint in the earth, whether it appeared—for I saw him raising himself from the earth—and I never saw it.11Edgar Hennecke, “Acts of John 93,” in New Testament Apocrypha, Vol. 2, ed. Wilhelm Schneemelcher (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1964), p. 227.
For this writer, Jesus only appeared to be human; He left no footprints because He was not truly human.
A whole group of early Christians known as Gnostics also denied the reality of the incarnation. In a work called The Second Treatise of the Great Seth, the divine Christ says, “I visited a bodily dwelling. I cast out the one who was in it first, and I went in.”22The Second Treatise of the Great Seth in James Robinson, ed., The Nag Hammadi Library (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1977) VII:51, p. 130. The same work has Christ leaving this body before the crucifixion. He claims that as they struck Him with a reed and put a crown of thorns on His head, it was not really Him, for He had left this human body and was looking on, laughing at their ignorance.33Ibid., VII:56, p. 132.
We, of course, hardly take this seriously. Yet I wonder if we do not also have difficulty accepting the reality of the incarnation. We are tempted to think of Jesus Christ as God, disguised as a human, walking around the earth in a temporary human costume, only to take it off at the end of His earthly ministry. That is not, however, the message of the New Testament. It consistently teaches that Jesus was fully and completely human. As incredible as it seems, the Creator became human—really human.
The Gospels picture Jesus experiencing the whole range of human emotions and experiences that are common to us humans. He could feel genuine hunger after His 40 days in the wilderness subsequent to His baptism. Matthew 4:2 says, “He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished.” John tells us that on the cross Jesus said that He was thirsty (John 19:28)44Unless otherwise specified, all Scripture quotations are taken from the New Revised Standard Version.. Jesus could cry at the loss of a friend (John 11:35). On multiple occasions, He was sad or troubled. For example, in John 12:27 Jesus says, “Now my soul is troubled,” and after He washed the disciples’ feet, “Jesus was troubled in spirit, and declared, ‘Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me’” (John 13:21).
Jesus could also get angry. We see it in Mark 10:14 when the disciples tried to keep the children away from Him. Mark says, “But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.’” And Jesus could even experience grief and anger at the same time, as we see in Mark 3:5, when He was being watched to see if He would heal the man with the withered hand in the synagogue on Sabbath: “He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’”
Perhaps, however, the most amazing emotion of all was His total sense of abandonment by God the Father when He cried out on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34). Jesus suffered real pain and agony, physically, mentally, and emotionally. The Gospel witness is that the Creator did not appear to be human. He did not disguise Himself as a human. He did not pretend to be human. He was human. In an amazing and unfathomable act of self-sacrificing love, God became one of us.
So what? What difference does it make for us? Much—in every way. But let me mention three ways the incarnation makes a difference.
1. It means we can trust God completely. As God told Paul three times, His grace is sufficient for us (2 Corinthians 12:9). Perhaps the author of Hebrews says it best. Because Jesus Christ, although fully divine, also became fully human and lived our whole range of human experiences, He can empathize with us, understand us, and be our Savior. “Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested” (Hebrews 2:18).
He elaborates further in Hebrews 4:15-16: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
Jesus can be trusted to save us. We can have assurance, indeed boldness. Our salvation is not based on goodness but on His grace. We may not be able to understand all the intricacies of the incarnation, but we can trust Jesus with confidence. He is our all-sufficient Savior. I love how Ellen White puts it Steps to Christ.
We should not make self the center and indulge anxiety and fear as to whether we shall be saved. All this turns the soul away from the Source of our strength. Commit the keeping of your soul to God, and trust in Him. Talk and think of Jesus. Let self be lost in Him. Put away all doubt; dismiss your fears.…
When Christ took human nature upon Him, He bound humanity to Himself by a tie of love that can never be broken by any power save the choice of man himself. Satan will constantly present allurements to induce us to break this tie—to choose to separate ourselves from Christ. Here is where we need to watch, to strive, to pray, that nothing may entice us to choose another master; for we are always free to do this. But let us keep our eyes fixed upon Christ, and He will preserve us. Looking unto Jesus, we are safe. Nothing can pluck us out of His hand.55Ellen G. White, Steps to Christ (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1892), p. 72.
2. The incarnation expresses God the Father’s love for us. God the Son became human to show us what God the Father is like. It would be easy to misconstrue the idea that Jesus is High Priest in Hebrews. Unfortunately, it is so easy that too often Christians have done just that. This false idea sees Jesus as the one who somehow has to convince a harsh and reluctant Father to love us.
Just last week I asked my Sabbath School class how many had grown up with the idea that God the Father is more harsh and scary, while Jesus is the friendly figure who assuages the Father’s wrath. Over 90% of those present raised their hands. But this is heresy! Jesus came because God so loved the world (John 3:16). In John 14:7-10, Jesus makes it clear to the disciples that there can be no difference between Him and the Father:
“If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works.”
There can be no difference between the Father and the Son. We only know the Father through the Son. Both are infinite, self-sacrificial love. The incarnation is God’s commitment of love to us.
3. The incarnation gives us marching orders about how to live. In Jesus’ intercessory prayer for His disciples the night before the crucifixion, He prayed, “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth” (John 17:18-19).
The self-sacrificial love that yielded the incarnation becomes a hallmark of Jesus’ followers. Earlier in His ministry, when James and John asked to be on Jesus’ right and left in His kingdom, Mark tells us:
When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:41-45).
As Jesus gave Himself for us, we as His disciples give ourselves for others. We never do it perfectly as He did, but the more we grasp His grace, the more gracious we become.
Recently a mother told me that she never really understood God’s love in the incarnation until she had a son. When he was about two, it hit her. God had let His son come into this world of suffering and death. She realized that she couldn’t, for any reason, give up her son. At that moment, God’s love became real to her.
God became human. He committed himself to us. Even if we cannot understand all the ramifications, we live in confidence and assurance, even boldness, because we know He became one of us, He understands our weaknesses and trials, and through Him we receive mercy and a grace that is all we need to find abundant, eternal life.
John Brunt began his ministry as a youth pastor in 1965 and retired in 2015 as the senior pastor of the Azure Hills church in Grand Terrace, California. He is a graduate of La Sierra University and Andrews University, and he holds a Ph.D. in New Testament Studies from Emory University.