The doctrine of the incarnation is central to the Christian faith because it is central to the eternal plan of God. Without this doctrine, Jesus is just another human being; without this doctrine there is no salvation for us in him; and without this doctrine it is wrong for people to worship him. Today, many people, including theologians and church leaders unfortunately, would be just as happy to say that Jesus was just a prophet, or a great teacher, as Islam and Judaism would allow; but the Bible says more than that, much more--and not simply in the New Testament, but in the Old Testament prophecies about the person and work of the Messiah.
It is a fundamental teaching of the historic Christian faith that God came into this world in mortal flesh to redeem us. The word “incarnation” means “in flesh.” And John declares this truth very early: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God . . . . The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:1 and 14). This is how the prophecy of Isaiah about “Immanuel,” God with us,” came about (Isa. 7:14). Paul writes, “But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, to redeem them that were under the Law” (Gal. 4:4). There was a birth in Bethlehem, but that birth was anything but natural. It was the birth of Jesus, a Jewish man from Galilee; but it was in that birth that God the Son entered the human race. The one born to the virgin Mary was conceived by the Holy Spirit; he would be fully human, but he would also be divine--this is his twofold nature. Thus, Isaiah was very precise as it turns out when he wrote that a child would be born, but a Son would be given (Isa. 9:6).
About a thousand years ago Anselm expounded on this doctrine in his classic work, Why God Became Man (Cur Deos Homo). He eloquently discussed what the Bible clearly teaches about the person of Jesus Christ. It was God’s plan for the human race to triumph over sin, death, and the grave; but there was no human qualified or able to do this, for all are sinful and need salvation themselves. And so God himself would have to enter the human race , become one with his creation, in order to bring about the victory. He would be fully human, living out every aspect of mortality through to the suffering of a horrible death; but he would also remain divine, fully able to conquer sin, the temptor, death and the grave--and fully qualified to do it because he alone was free from sin. The entire process of the incarnation is a mystery to us, as are most of God’s works (once we acknowledge God exists, however, then anything is possible with him, whether we understand it or not). Anselm observed that God had formed a man (Adam) without a father and a mother; and that he had formed a woman (Eve) without a father or a mother nor by natural reproduction through a mother, but from as man; and so he could form Jesus, without the natural reproduction of parents, but using a woman. And by entering the human race this way, the Son had to lay aside the use of some of his divine attributes for a while (this is the doctrine of the kenosis, which we will consider below).
The angel announced to Mary and Joseph that the holy child who would be born of Mary would be conceived by the Holy Spirit (see Matt. 1:18-25; Luke 2:26-38). The child would not have a human father to pass on his nature; and neither would the child draw his human nature from the mother who would give birth to him. This was a special creation by the Holy Spirit so that the child Jesus would not be born with a sin nature. The doctrine of the virgin birth is necessary because as God in the flesh Jesus had to be sinless in order to save those who were sinners. The Church of Rome argues that Jesus did draw his nature from Mary, and so it has taught that Mary also had to be sinless (the doctrine of the immaculate conception). But the Scripture nowhere teaches that Mary was sinless in order to give birth to the Savior.
That issue aside, we must focus on the clear teaching of the Bible that Jesus was born of a virgin through the work of the Holy Spirit so that he was fully human and fully divine and completely sinless.
It is very important that Christians be clear on this teaching. Jesus Christ was not just another man--although he certainly was a man. He was not just another prophet--although he certainly was a prophet. Jesus Christ is God in human flesh. When God the Son entered into the human race, his creation, he did so to redeem it. When he arose from the dead and ascended into heaven, he was returning to his eternal home in glory. But something had changed through the incarnation, forever! There is now a “God-man” in heaven preparing for our arrival. Because Jesus is there as a glorified man as well as the glorious eternal divine Son, the way is open for all of us humans to enter in and share his glorious estate.
If Jesus is not God (note I am saying “God,” not “a god” or “a divine person” or “a supernatural person”), then it is wrong for us to worship him. That would be idolatry. But we do worship him because he is God. When he was here on earth he revealed by his words and his mighty works that he was indeed God with us. And his enemies certainly understood this, for they put him to death under the charge of blasphemy (if he had never claimed to be God they would not have had a case against him). And then his resurrection from the dead proved him to be the Son of God (Rom. 1:1-7).
Today there are a lot of theologians and ministers who argue that the deity of Jesus was a later idea made up by the early Christians to compete with the Roman idea of a divine emperor. They contend that primitive Christianity did not have the doctrine, but the early church needed a God to compete with Rome and with Judaism, and so they developed the ideas about Jesus. But the facts of the life and especially the death and resurrection of Jesus make it clear that this was no later idea inserted into the creeds of the faith or the Bible itself--the whole Gospel assount is a single theme--how the divine Son of God came into the world to redeem us. And besides, the early Christians were already worshiping him as God. Moreover, the doctrine of the incarnation was why the Christian faith had been such a stumbling block to so many people in the first century--and continues to be so today. But Paul holds firm to the essentials of the faith:
“The mystery of godliness is great:
he appeared in the flesh,
was vindicated by the Spirit,
was seen by angels,
was preached on in the world,
was taken up into glory” (1Tim. 2:16).
And the apostle John in the beginning of the Book of Revelation sees a vision of the Lord Jesus Christ in glory, and hears him declare, “I am the first and the last, the living one. I was dead; but I am alive for ever more. And I hold the keys of death and hades” (Rev. 1:17b, 18). This is the language that was used in the prophets, especially Isaiah, for the true LORD God. Jesus is that LORD God. But he declares there that he came into the world and died, but is now alive for ever more. That is the description of the incarnation; that is the Son of God having come down and being made man, but now in glory again.
We must also note that the doctrine of the incarnation is bound up with the doctrine of the trinity, or more precisely, the tri-unity of the Godhead. And this is the greater mystery of the faith. The Nicene Creed is arranged according to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; but it does not attempt to articulate the meaning. God is one essence, but exists in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit (not three people, but three persons of one essence). All three persons are at once and fully God. All persons of the Godhead are fully active in any and every work of God--the Father decrees, the Son fulfills, and the Spirit empowers. But the Son is also fully human now, because divinity and humanity were joined in him. The two natures of Jesus are designated the hypostatic union by theologians; but this is not something we can fully understand as humans.
To speak of the incarnation, then, is to speak of the nature of Jesus Christ the Son of God as human as well as divine. But to speak of the incarnation also opens the discussion to God’s plan of redemption for a race that is hopelessly lost in sin.
In Philippians 2 we have the doctrinal record of what the incarnation meant to our Lord. But Paul does not discuss the doctrine for the sake of doctrine alone--his chapter is concerned with how Christians serve one another, in humility, as our Lord came to serve us and to redeem us. And this is the way it should be--all doctrine is meant to inform us of the faith and to direct us in our Christlike devotion and service.
Paul first makes it clear that the greatest cause of sin is pride, and the greatest Christian virtue is humility. Through pride Satan sinned and plunged himself and a third of the angels with him into darkness. Through pride Adam and Eve sinned and plunged the human race and its world into sin. Human pride has always been at the root of sins, the cause of dissension, disagreement and wars, and the reason for the lack of understanding, forgiveness and service. Because of pride the human race was lost and cannot save itself--ever.
But through an act of humility, the greatest act of humility, God redeemed us and restored us as his new creation. Thereupon, to be a Christian is to be like Christ, even though there are some aspects of that we resist. And so Paul, in teaching the church about humility, tells it to have the same mind that was in Christ Jesus, who left his glory and became a human in order to redeem us and to form us into one body. Without a Christ-like humility, we will not maintain any semblance of the body that Christ established.
Philippians is best known by students of the Bible as the source of the doctrine of the kenosis (the word is derived from the verb in the passage that says that Jesus “emptied” himself and became a human). Theologians spend their time trying to determine exactly what that meant (and well they should try to determine this); but all too often folks miss the point that Paul is trying to get across, the point that he illustrates with the doctrine of the kenosis, namely, an appeal for unity based on a Christ-like humility.
Four conditional clauses are in verse 1 (Paul is not raising doubts about these, but assumes they exist when he says “if there be . . .”). First is exhortation in Christ. The word “exhortation” means counsel, rebuke, comfort (the same basic word for the Comforter, the Holy Spirit as paraclete). Paul is saying that if we received the work of the Spirit that exhorts us--which we did--then unity should follow.
Second, Paul says “if there be any consolation of love” (that is, love that encourages). Since we share in God’s love, that love should unite us. No one earned a share of God’s love, so there is no room for pride.
Third is the fellowship of the Spirit. If the same Spirit indwells us then there ought to be fellowship among us.
Fourth is compassion. This word refers to that feeling of tender compassion that a mother has for the child, brother for brother, or the like relationship. If there is any such compassion, there will be unity.
The point of verse 1 is that we do have all these things in Christ because we are the recipients of grace. And if we have these, they will inevitably lead to unity. As we had to humble ourselves to receive the grace of God, we must humble ourselves to achieve spiritual unity.
The appeal is recorded in verse 2; it has four parts to it that correspond to the four virtues of verse 1. Paul first appeals for us to be of the same mind. This is not a unity of the flesh (as verse 5 will clarify). This corresponds to the first clause of verse 1, or being in Christ--if we are all in Christ, then we should all be of one mind.
The other ideas are still a part of this grand theme of unity. The second idea is to have the same love (this corresponds to “if there is consolation of love”); the third is to be of one accord (literally of one spirit), and the fourth is to be of one purpose (the one purpose should correspond to the tender mercies and compassions in Christ).
Then, in verses 3 and 4 Paul explains how to achieve this unity. On the negative side, he says that we should do nothing for selfish ambition (this is difficult for our “me” generation). If we do something only to serve ourselves, then it is of the flesh--and Jesus would say we have had all the reward we shall get. But selfish ambition will also destroy unity.
On the positive side Paul says that we are to count each other better than ourselves. As we look around us, do we think that we are better than all of these people? (Do not confuse talents here with qualities--obviously some people are better at certain things than others--but this is asking the question of value to God). Do we think that we are more valuable to God than others around us? That is pride; it will destroy unity and harmony. Pride fixes its eyes on the flaws and imperfections of others and overlooks the same in oneself. Humility says that we are recipients of grace, and God resists the proud. Humility is self-abasing and generous; pride is self-centered and arrogant.
Now Paul brings in the incarnation. He does not leave us with all these instructions; he provides us with a pattern, a model for Godly humility--Jesus Christ the Lord. The passage is rather detailed, and would take some time to study (there are books written on these verses). But two predominant points emerge.
“Have this mind in you which was in Christ Jesus.” We say, “I have a mind to do such or so.” So here Paul uses that kind of language to tell us that our attitude and our purpose in life should be the same as Christ’s. Even though he was of the same essence as God, he did not think that being equal with God was something to grasp or cling to, but he emptied himself.
The construction of verses 6 and 7 is a little complicated, but two key verbs clarify it. The first verb is “he emptied himself” (the Greek verb is kenoo [pronounced ken-AH-oh]). To understand this verb we have to look at the two clauses that come before it. The first clause is “exisiting in the form of God.” The word “form” here refers to the inner essence. Jesus was and is of the same essence as the Father--he is divine. The second clause is “he did not consider being equal with God something to cling to.” When Jesus “emptied himself” he relinquished his rights, or the free use of his divine rights--he set aside his self-willed use of the attributes of deity. He did not cease being deity; but he surrendered his right to manifest his power and his glory for the purpose of the incarnation. We have to be careful when we explain how he emptied himself. He was, and always is, divine. But he set aside the use of some of his attributes for the purpose of his earthly ministry.
Not so with human pride. Pride clings to its rights, to its power, and is unwilling to give them up. If someone achieved such power as Jesus had, pride would probably flaunt it rather than surrender it to the service of others.
Paul then explains what it meant for Jesus to empty himself in this way: “taking the form of a servant, and being made in the likeness of man.” Note the contrast: he was the “form” of God (inner essence), and now would be the form of a servant; he was equal with God, but now he would have the “likeness” of a man (and the word here refers to the outer form). He was similar to a human, especially in outer form, but he was not exactly human--he did not share the human essence, whish is sinful. How did this come about? When he emptied himself for the incarnation?
The second key word in the section is “he humbled himself” (v. 8). This picks up where the last clause left off: being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself. It was one thing to leave glory and take the form of a human--that is emptying. But it is another thing altogether to suffer and die on the cross--that is humbling. Humbling is submissive obedience at great personal cost. In Christ we find the greatest act of obedience, and the most humbling act. Rather than fighting off death and resisting it, he willingly submitted to it, so that others might be saved. Here is the greatest heroic act the world has ever seen.
Having shown the great humility of our LORD in the service of the divine will, Paul now describes the reward for it. God exalts the humble--and God the Father exalted Christ above everything else. Note the structure of the passage: “God exalted him” is antithetically parallel to “he humbled himself.” And the statement “God gave him a name” is in contrast to “he emptied himself.” So two verbs here reverse the two verbs given earlier. That name will ultimately bring all creation to its knees before the Lord Jesus Christ, to acknowledge his deity. The beginning of this exaltation is recorded in Hebrews 1 (and we shall look at that at a later point in the creed).
The lesson of the passage is clear enough: unity in the church comes when the recipients of grace pattern their lives after Christ and respond to one another with the humility of a servant. The doctrine in the passage explains in greater detail what it meant for the Son of God to enter into this world as a human and to die for us. When we simply say “and became man” in the creed, we need to think what that must have meant for the eternal LORD God, the Son, our Savior. But because he became man, we have been redeemed, and he shall be highly exalted. We shall focus more on this in the next lesson on the creed.