The Incarnation is one of the most mysterious and beautiful events in the history of redemption. God left heaven to save earth and became a man in the person of Jesus Christ. The reality of the Incarnation should give us pause as we think about what it means to us today. In this series, we will look at the Incarnation in three segments: Jesus as God, Jesus as man, and Jesus’ personhood as God and man.
Before the Incarnation
As I have written elsewhere, the orthodox view of Jesus’ divinity is that He always existed as God the Son. So what was Jesus doing before He came to earth? The Apostle John gives us a clue:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.” (John 1:1-3).
John shows that before creation, Jesus existed as the divine Word. Here John is taking us back to Genesis 1. When you look back at the creation account, you can see all the members of the Trinity at work. God the Father created the heavens and the earth by saying the words “Let there be.” John points out that the reason why God spoke things into existence is because God’s words represent God the Word. Concerning the Spirit, Genesis 1:2 tells us that “the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” At the beginning of Scripture, we see a beautiful picture of the Trinity: God the Father creates through God the Son (Word) and God the Spirit hovers over creation like a hen brooding over her young.
Even though God the Son was present during creation, this does not mean that He was human back then. God the Son became flesh only after He was born on earth. In other words, God the Son added humanity to His divinity at the Virgin Birth. This is also seen in the fact that God the Son wasn’t given the name “Jesus” until He was born (Matt. 1:21-23).
God the Son in the Old Testament
Paul says that before Jesus came to earth, He was “in the form of God” (Philippians 2:6). Many have taken this idea and tried to find appearances of God the Son in the Old Testament, such as the “angel of the Lord” figure.
It’s hard to say for sure, but there is at least one passage in the New Testament that links an appearance of God in the Old Testament to Jesus. The prophet Isaiah had a vision of the Lord after King Uzziah had died. Isaiah describes what he saw:
“I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke” (Isaiah 6:1-14).
Referencing Isaiah 6, John tells us that “Isaiah said these things because he saw his glory and spoke of him” (John 12:41). According to John, it was God the Son that Isaiah saw sitting on the throne. Isaiah gives us a picture of God the Son as Lord over all, abounding in holiness and glory.
So far we have seen that God the Son existed as the Word before creation, that He created the universe, and that He was portrayed as Lord in the Old Testament. But when He became a man, what happened to His divinity?
After the Incarnation
The New Testament writers consistently show that Jesus retained all of his divine attributes after becoming a man. Philippians 2:6-11 is often used to say that Jesus “lost” some of His divinity, specifically the phrase that Jesus “emptied himself” (v. 7). But this passage never says that Jesus stopped being God or that He lost any of His divine attributes. Paul is simply saying that Jesus left His divine status in heaven to take on the form of a humble servant.
When you look at Paul’s other writings, it’s clear that Jesus’ divinity wasn’t diminished or lost in any way. For example, when speaking of Jesus in Colossians, Paul says that “in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Col. 2:9). When God the Son came to take on flesh, He left none of His divinity behind.
During Jesus’ life on earth, we see Him making several claims to his deity and possessing attributes that only God could have. When Jesus claimed “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30), those around Him picked up stones to kill Him for his “blasphemous” claim. Jesus also said “Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58). Here Jesus was not only saying that He existed before Abraham did, but He is also applying God’s title of “I AM” (Ex. 3:14) to Himself.
Jesus also possessed the attributes of God while on earth. Jesus was omnipotent (Matt. 8:26-27), omniscient (Mark 2:8), omnipresent (Matt. 28:20) and eternal (John 8:58). Jesus also did things that only God can do, such as create the universe (John 1:3) and forgive sins (Mark 2:5-7). In fact, Jesus was crucified because of his claims to be God (Mark 14:53-65). Scripture is consistent: God the Son was fully divine before and after the Incarnation.
The Incarnation was a magnificent part of God’s plan to save mankind. Jesus existed as the Word of God before becoming a man. He was present during creation and He appeared in the Old Testament as the Lord of all creation. At the right time, the Father sent His Son to earth to put on flesh and live among us. During this transition, none of His divinity was lost or diminished. Ultimately, Jesus “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8).
Think over the words of Athanasius, as he eloquently wrote about the wonder of the Incarnation:
“The Word was not hedged in by His body, nor did His presence in the body prevent His being present elsewhere as well. When He moved His body He did not cease also to direct the universe by His Mind and might. No. The marvelous truth is, that being the Word, so far from being Himself contained by anything, He actually contained all things Himself…existing in a human body, to which He Himself gives life, He is still Source of life to all the universe, present in every part of it, yet outside the whole; and He is revealed both through the works of His body and through His activity in the world…At one and the same time—this is the wonder—as Man He was living a human life, and as Word He was sustaining the life of the universe, and as Son He was in constant union with the Father” (On the Incarnation, 3.17).