Christology Series: Christ's Humanity
Scripture not only teaches that Christ eternally pre-existed as God but also that he is human. Isaiah 9:6 says, “For a child has been born to us, a son has been given to us…” The “son” being “given” refers to Christ’s deity. He pre-existed as God’s eternal Son. However, the phrase “a child is born” refers to the beginning of Christ’s humanity, where he was birthed and named Jesus. Before the incarnation, the Son was not a human. Matthew 1:18 speaks of this unique birth: “Now the birth of Jesus Christ happened this way. While his mother Mary was engaged to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit.”
In the incarnation, Mary, Jesus’ mother, was found with child through the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit created a child in her womb without her ever knowing a man sexually. The eternal God became a temporal man; the all-powerful God became a weak baby; the all-knowing God became an infant that grew in knowledge. Luke 2:52 said this about Christ as a child: “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and with people.”
In Christ’s humanity, he could be hungry (Matt 4:2), tired, and thirsty (John 4:6-7, 19:28). Like humans, Jesus demonstrated regular emotions, as he wept at Lazarus' grave (John 11:35), felt compassion for people (Matthew 9:36), and even a deep depression before his death. In Matthew 26:38, Christ said, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.”
This is a mystery we will probably never fully understand until we get to heaven. The merger of Christ’s two natures—his deity and humanity—is often called the hypostatic union. Tony Evans defined Christ’s hypostatic union as his “undiminished deity and perfect humanity united forever in one person.”[i] Incarnation is a related term which refers to Christ becoming human.
In considering the incarnation, we must ask, “How can Jesus be both fully God and fully human?” A very important text on this is Philippians 2:6-7. It says:
who though he existed in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied himself by taking on the form of a slave, by looking like other men, and by sharing in human nature.
Paul here declares that Jesus “existed in the form of God,” which simply refers to how Christ preexisted before the incarnation as fully God and equal to God the Father in his deity. Yet, though he was God, he did not consider equality with God something “to be grasped” or held onto. Instead, he “emptied himself,” which is the Greek word “kenosis.” Christ emptied himself in his incarnation, as he took on human form.
What does it mean for Christ to empty himself in his incarnation? There has been tremendous debate over this throughout history. It can be unequivocally said that Christ did not cease to be God or give up his deity in the incarnation. It is better to think of “emptying himself” as Christ “pouring” his deity into a human body during the incarnation.[ii] In this pouring, he limited the attributes of his deity temporarily. The New Living Translation paraphrases “empty himself” in Philippians 2:7, as “he gave up his divine privileges.” For example:
1. In the incarnation, Christ put aside the full use of his divine attributes.
This is seen specifically with the use of his “omniscience.” Consider what Jesus told his disciples about his second coming in Matthew 24:36: “But as for that day and hour no one knows it—not even the angels in heaven—except the Father alone.” Christ put aside full use of his omniscience while he was on the earth. Some would even argue that Christ never used any of his divine powers while on the earth. He only used the power of God’s Spirit, like any faithful follower of God can. We see something of this in his casting out demons. In Matthew 12:28, Christ said, “But if I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has already overtaken you.” Christ declared that his casting out of demons was not done by his own power but by the Spirit’s.
We also see Jesus being filled by the Spirit right after his baptism (Matt 3:16), led into the wilderness by the Spirit (Matt 4:1), and empowered by the Spirit after going through the wilderness temptation. Luke 4:14-15 says this about Christ after he left the wilderness: “Then Jesus, in the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and news about him spread throughout the surrounding countryside. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by all.” Clearly, the narrator wanted the readers to know that the Holy Spirit was now working through Christ powerfully, as he began his new ministry, which was marked by authoritative preaching and miracles. In the incarnation, Christ temporarily gave up use of his divine attributes and relied on God’s Spirit during his ministry.
2. In the incarnation, Christ put aside his independent freedom as God.
Christ said that he came from heaven not do his will but the Father’s will (John 6:38). In fact, Hebrews 5:8-9 says, “Although he was a son, he learned obedience through the things he suffered. And by being perfected in this way, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him.” How did Christ learn obedience in his humanity? Even though Christ has always submitted to the Father (1 Cor. 11:3), as a man, Christ learned obedience to the Father in a way that he never did as God the Son. Isaiah 50:4 gives us insight into this, as it describes the daily routine of our Savior: “The sovereign Lord has given me the capacity to be his spokesman, so that I know how to help the weary. He wakes me up every morning; he makes me alert so I can listen attentively as disciples do.” In his humanity, Christ was led like a human; he sought the Lord daily for guidance and empowerment, even as we do. As mentioned, we also see Christ’s daily dependence on God in how the Holy Spirit led him after his baptism. Luke 4:1 says, “Then Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan River and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness.” In this way, Christ learned obedience. He gave up his independent freedom and was led like a man—the perfect man, who was totally dependent upon the Father.
3. In the incarnation, Christ put aside his glory.
In heaven, he was glorified daily by the angels and the righteous men made perfect; yet, as a man, he took scorn, shame, and being misunderstood. He gave up his glory and put on temporary, frail, flesh. In fact, in John 17:5, before going to the cross, Christ prayed that God would restore his previous glory: “And now, Father, glorify me at your side with the glory I had with you before the world was created.”
4. In the incarnation, Christ gave up uninterrupted intimacy with God.
At the cross, he was totally separated from God as he cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46). It seems that at this point on the cross, Christ was bearing the sins of the world and therefore could not have his previous intimacy. He was separated from God, so that we would not have to be eternally separated from God.
Insight on Christological Paradoxes
With all this said, the union of Christ’s divine and human natures in the incarnation helps us understand various Christological paradoxes in Scripture. For example, in Christ’s humanity, he could be separated from God on the cross (Matt 27:46), but in his deity, he could never be separated. Christ taught that him and the Father were one (John 10:3, 17:21). In Christ’s humanity, he was not omnipresent, as he was limited by space and time (John 11:14-15); however, in his deity, he was present everywhere, at all times. In Matthew 18:20, Christ said this to his disciples, “For where two or three are assembled in my name, I am there among them,” which reflects an aspect of Christ’s omnipresence. In Christ’s humanity, he was not omniscient (John 2:24-25). He declared that he didn’t even know the time of his coming (Matt 24:36). However, in Christ’s deity, he was omniscient, knowing all things. In John 2:24-25, John said this about Christ, “But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people. He did not need anyone to testify about man, for he knew what was in man.” Certainly, the union of Christ’s divine and human natures in the incarnation is a great mystery that demonstrates the wisdom, power, and glory of God.
The Necessity of the Incarnation
Why was the incarnation necessary? For several reasons:
1. The Son had to become human in order to make atonement for the sins of humans.
An animal’s death could not pay for the sins of the world—nor could an angel’s death. Christ had to become human to atone for the sins of humanity, but Christ also had to be God for his sacrifice to pay the penalty for all people. Consider the following verses:
For the blood of bulls and goats cannot take away sins. So when he came into the world, he said, “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me. “Whole burnt offerings and sin-offerings you took no delight in. “Then I said, ‘Here I am: I have come—it is written of me in the scroll of the book—to do your will, O God.’”
Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, he likewise shared in their humanity, so that through death he could destroy the one who holds the power of death (that is, the devil)
2. The Son had to become a human to relate to us as a faithful high priest.
As a human high priest that has been tempted like us, he can sympathize with and minister to humanity. Hebrews 2:17 says:
Therefore he had to be made like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he could become a merciful and faithful high priest in things relating to God, to make atonement for the sins of the people.
3. The Son had to become human to become our perfect model.
Consider the following verses:
You should have the same attitude toward one another that Christ Jesus had,
keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. For the joy set out for him he endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. Think of him who endured such opposition against himself by sinners, so that you may not grow weary in your souls and give up.
For to this you were called, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving an example for you to follow in his steps. He committed no sin nor was deceit found in his mouth. When he was maligned, he did not answer back; when he suffered, he threatened no retaliation, but committed himself to God who judges justly.
1 Peter 2:21-23
Christ being our perfect model is amplified by the fact that he limited the use of his divine attributes in the incarnation. Otherwise, we might simply say, “Oh, Jesus is God, and therefore, we can’t do this or that!” However, Christ had to wake up in the morning to pray in order to discern God’s guidance (Is 50:4, Mk 1:35). He had to pray all night to discern which disciples to appoint as his apostles (Lk 6:12-13). He had to fast for forty days to conquer the devil and become empowered for his ministry (Lk 4:1-14). Christ lived the perfect human life, so that we could model him.
4. The Son had to become human to rule over earth.
It was God’s original plan for Adam to rule the earth with his wife. In Genesis 1:28, God said this to Adam and Eve, “Be fruitful and multiply! Fill the earth and subdue it! Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and every creature that moves on the ground.” However, when Adam sinned, he lost his opportunity to rule as God intended. Hebrews 2:8 describes how it was God’s original intention for humanity to rule but that presently “all things” are not under his control. The writer says: “You put all things under his control.’ For when he put all things under his control, he left nothing outside of his control. At present we do not yet see all things under his control.” Currently, all things are not under humanity’s control, but through Christ, God’s original plan will be fulfilled. Ephesians 1:22 says this in the context of Christ’s resurrection and ascension, “God put all things under Christ’s feet, and he gave him to the church as head over all things.” Also, in Matthew 28:18, after his resurrection, Christ said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” This rule will be fully manifest when Christ returns to the earth, and as his body, believers will rule with him (cf. Rom 8:17, Rev 3:21, Lk 19:17, 1 Cor 6:3).
How can we apply Christ’s incarnation to our lives? It is good to remember that the Philippians 2:5-11 incarnation passage begins with, “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus” (Phil 2:5). The hypostatic union, though mysterious, is meant to be a practical doctrine that affects the way we live. Therefore, it can be applied many ways:
Christ’s incarnation challenges us to give up our rights in order to love God and others.
Philippians 2:6-7 says, “who though he existed in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied himself...” Christ did not hold onto his rights and privileges as deity but relinquished them in order to better love God and others. Likewise, in Romans 14:21, Paul said, “It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything that causes your brother to stumble.” To love God and others better, we often will need to give up certain rights and privileges, even as Christ did in the incarnation.
Christ’s incarnation challenges us to be servants of God and others.
In Philippians 2:7, Paul said this about Christ, he “emptied himself by taking on the form of a slave, by looking like other men, and by sharing in human nature.” A slave or servant is consumed with the desires of those he serves. Likewise, instead of living for himself and his comfort, Christ sought to sacrificially serve God and others with his life. Mark 10:45 says, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Similarly, Paul said he became a slave to all to be a blessing to others. In 1 Corinthians 9:19 (NIV), he said, “Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible.” Christ served others so they might be saved, and Paul did the same. Therefore, the incarnation reminds us to live as servants—putting the salvation of the lost, the spiritual growth of believers, and the honor of God before our own desires.
Christ’s incarnation challenges us to radical obedience.
Christ’s incarnation was not simply his own idea, it was God the Father’s. God planned that Christ would come to earth as a human to die for humans. John 3:16 says, “For this is the way God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son…” Also, Philippians 2:8 says this about Christ’s obedience, “He humbled himself, by becoming obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross!” Christ incarnated so he could live a perfect life and die as the perfect sacrifice for humanity—all in obedience to God.
Likewise, we must be willing to obey God even when he calls us to do something radical—like risking promotion or our jobs in general to keep our integrity, sacrificing finances or comfortability to serve someone struggling, changing our career to go into ministry, or leaving our home and country to preach the gospel in a foreign land.
The incarnation of Christ—him being God and yet becoming human—though mysterious, is intensely practical. We must apply its principles to our lives daily.
What stood out most in the reading and why?
Why was it necessary for Christ to be fully God and fully human (the hypostatic union)?
In what way did Christ “empty himself” in his incarnation?
What are some ways that the incarnation can be applied practically to daily life?
What other questions or applications did you take from the reading?
[i] Evans, Tony. Theology You Can Count On: Experiencing What the Bible Says About... God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit, Angels, Salvation... Moody Publishers. Kindle Edition.
[ii] Evans, Tony. Theology You Can Count On: Experiencing What the Bible Says About... God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit, Angels, Salvation... Moody Publishers. Kindle Edition.