The Incarnation: A Long View

The crucifixion and the resurrection of Jesus would have been categorically impossible without the incarnation. Incarnation is Latin and it literally means “in the flesh.” This traditional Christian dogma has often been interpreted as Jesus is the second person of the Trinity. This, however, does not only push the question back, it adds a further layer of theological complexity on top. Traditional Christian creeds are useful but they do have their limitations. If they do their job well, or at least if we do a proper job of understanding them, they must point us back to the texts of Holy Scripture.

Incarnation is not just a later theological development. It is firmly embedded in the fabric of the New Testament. It is not only the Gospel of John that contains this doctrine (John 1:14.) The Synoptic tradition uniquely portrays this truth in each account through a faithful record and commentary on Jesus’ earthly life and mission. This was accomplished through his use and enactment of prophetic and apocalyptic imagery. In other words Jesus used the symbolic language of the Jewish scriptures and culture regarding the presence and activity of their God to exclusively refer to himself. For instance during his trial he quotes Daniel 7. The High Priest promptly tears his priestly raiment shouting blasphemy. Jesus identified himself with the enigmatic figure coming on the clouds to participate in God’s rule. To the fiercely monotheistic mind of the first century Jew for anyone to put himself in the same class with God was a category error. There was only one God, YHWH, and there was no one like him. Jesus constantly said and did things by which he exclusively self-identified with the God of the scriptures. He said and did things only the God of Israel had the right to do.

Jesus, however, did not come to “prove” he was God. It is in his vocation, that is, his God-ordained mission to bring YHWH’s kingdom on earth, that we clearly see that he is Lord. We must understand the incarnation in full recognition of the divine mission.

…when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. – Gal 4:4-5 ESV

This Pauline text is heavily anchored in Jewish thought. The apostle uses the language of the Exodus, albeit a new one reworked around the Messiah, to describe what God had accomplished. He sent a deliverer to release his people from bondage to the elemental powers of the world, lucidly highlighted by the Law of Moses, the Torah. The phrase “fullness of time” is also reminiscent of the Exodus because God told Abraham his descendants would be under bondage for a time but he would come and rescue them (Genesis 15:13-14.) God was sending his son to rescue his people from the very law he had given them. The Son was accomplishing something only God had the power to do. This passage is undoubtedly about the incarnation, God in Christ reconciling the world to himself. Since the incarnation is clearly missional in nature we must take a broader, more inclusive view of what it actually means.

We suppose the incarnation only took place at the moment Mary conceived. (Perhaps, “born of a woman” is an oblique reference to the Virgin birth.) However, as Paul plugs it in directly to the story of Israel, we must take a long view of the incarnation. The incarnation is not a detached event but the climax of the story of God. The story of God is that he is the holy Creator-King of the cosmos and he has chosen the family of Abraham to be his image bearers in the world. This is a major theme of Genesis that the mission of Adam had been irrevocably passed on to Abraham. Salvation had to come from the Jews because the Lord had made a covenant with Abraham. Jesus was not only born a Jew. He embodied the whole nation in himself. It is in and through Jesus that Israel’s mission to bring the glory of God into the world is accomplished (Hosea 11:1; Matthew 2:14-15, 4:15-16.)

Now the genealogies of Matthew 1 and Luke 3 are not just odd bits of ancient trivia. Matthew 1 in particular is arranged in such a way to tell you the story of Immanuel, that is, how in history God has moved among his people. Each generational block represents the major periods in biblical Israelite history. Interestingly, he does not end the return from Babylonian exile with Zerubbabel but with the son of Mary. It was in Jesus the covenant was going to be restored and never again be broken, an entirely New Testament. Through the Messiah God was going to completely fulfil all the promises he had made for generations. The circumstances of Jesus’ birth had been divinely orchestrated since the first patriarch.

This long view of the incarnation challenges our view of the incarnation as the singular moment God steps into human affairs. As far as the Jewish people were concerned he was always the God among them. This is consistent with their worldview where God is not a detached entity floating in non-space occasionally intervening in the world he made. The God of the Bible is fully transcendent and fully immanent as well. The scriptures use the language of the Spirit, Word and Wisdom to describe how the Creator is intimately involved with the world from moment to moment (Psalm 33:6, 104:30; Proverbs 8:22-31.) From the most subtle process to the most astounding miracle God was ever active in the world.

The Genesis account of creation is the narrative of a cosmic temple. The heavens and the earth were the twin halves of his created space (Isaiah 66:1) Eden was the centre of sacred space where God dwelt in the midst of his creation. In the Exodus the divine presence was among the people of Israel in the Tabernacle of Witness. When they settled in the Promised Land the divine presence became resident in the temple. When Jesus came on the scene he declared himself to be the true temple of God. The Word became flesh and we beheld his glory. He was the living embodiment of YHWH. The incarnational story does not end there.

Through the Spirit the incarnational agenda continues. Jesus physically ascended into heaven and then poured out his spirit on the Church. Paul describes this as being baptized into the body of Christ. We have been powerfully immersed into the Messiah. Through the same spirit that dwelt in Jesus living in us, we have become the physical extension of Jesus in the world. Another metaphor he uses is that we are the temple of God founded upon Jesus.

For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. – Col 2:9-10 ESV

Paul emphatically declares in the above scripture that the Church participates in the incarnation but in what capacity? The passage gives us some clues. He says Jesus has authority over all things and we are complete in him. Remember, Adam’s mission was to implement God’s rule on earth. Since Jesus completely fulfils the Adamic mandate our duty is to bear the Imago Christi. We are to be the new humanity in Christ, demonstrating the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. What Jesus did for Israel we are to do for the world.

The incarnation is the climax of the divine plan to be all in all, to bring heaven and earth under his sovereign rule. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. It began with Adam, then Israel and was fulfilled in Jesus. God’s desire to dwell among his people, to bring heaven on earth in a new creation, is what the incarnation is all about. It does not end with Jesus but the incarnational narrative is written in our hearts by the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:3.) We are to be living testimonies that God has not abandoned the world but has indeed rescued it through Jesus.

It is not only a profound mystery but a challenge to us. It is the invasion and transformation of our space into his space. It is the strange and even dangerous overlap between heaven and earth. It means living and breathing the full embodiment of the Messiah.

The incarnation only makes sense in the full breadth of the biblical narrative. It is not a lofty theological term but a way of describing how God deeply loves the world and sent his son to save it. Every event of Jesus’ life must be coloured by this. It must also be the event through which we view the world and the story we live by.

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