John Newton penned a great tribute to the doctrine of the incarnation in his “Praise for the Incarnation. Newton wrote:
Sweeter sounds than music knows, Charm me in Emmanuel’s Name; All her hopes my spirit owes To His birth, and Cross, and shame. When He came the angels sung, “Glory be to God on high:” Lord, unloose my stammering tongue; Who shall louder sing than I? Did the Lord a man become, That He might the law fulfil, Bleed and suffer in my room, And canst thou, my tongue, be still? No; I must my praises bring, Though they worthless are, and weak; For, should I refuse to sing, Sure the very stones would speak. O my Saviour, Shield, and Sun, Shepherd, Brother, Lord, and Friend— Every precious name in one! I will love Thee without end.”
Surely one could not meditate on the incarnation of our Lord and not be overwhelmed with God’s grace. As another hymn says, “And when I think that God, his Son not sparing, Sent him to die, I scarce can take it in, That on the cross, my burden gladly bearing, He bled and died to take away my sin.” (“How Great Thou Art”).
The incarnation is one of the most beautiful studies of theological inquiry. Why would God clothe himself with humanity in order to save his own rebellious creation?
WHAT DOES THE BIBLE SAY ABOUT THE INCARNATION?
Micah wrote, “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days” (Micah 5:2). This prophecy describes the time in which the second member of the Godhead took on humanity in order to be the Redeemer. The prophecy also outlines the theology of the incarnation. First we see that the one who came is eternal—he is “from ancient days.” He is also described as being King—the ruler in Israel. He is also to be known by the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies concerning the Messiah—he was born in Bethlehem.
The initial promise to Jesus’s physical parents was made to Mary. Luke 1:31-33 describes the incarnation of Jesus to be the King of Israel. Gabriel said to Mary, “And behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus. He shall be great and shall be called the Son of the Most High: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: and he shall reign over the house of Jacob forever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end” (ASV).
An angel of the Lord also comforted Joseph about the coming birth of Jesus. The message to him was: “‘Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet” (Matthew 1:20–22).
The incarnation is there described as a source of comfort—“do not fear.” The incarnation is a miracle worked by God—“that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” The child is described as a son. This gives specificity to the prophecy and helps to establish the certainty that Jesus is in fact the Messiah. The purpose of the incarnation is also given—“he will save his people from their sins.” The incarnation is also described as the fulfillment of prophecy. The specific prophecy here is from Isaiah 7:14.
The Apostle John looks back on the incarnation and describes the coming of Jesus from before time. The book of the Gospel opens beautifully describing the pre-incarnate state of Christ: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God” (John 1:1-2). Then the actual event of the incarnation is described in John 1:14, “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
Paul recorded an ancient Christian hymn describing the incarnation in Philippians 2:6-11:
He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
These words focus on the humility of Christ in accepting the limitations of humanity while also highlighting the corresponding exaltation of Christ because of his incarnate ministry.
Prominent in this section is how exactly Christ “emptied himself” when he took on humanity. The footnote of the NASBU says, “he laid aside his privileges.” The Greek word translated “emptied himself” is defined this way “of divestiture of position or prestige: of Christ, who gave up the appearance of his divinity and took on the form of a slave.” The phrase “emptied himself” describes the “self-giving humility and self-denying impoverishment of the divine manner of being.”
“What is meant is that the heavenly Christ did not selfishly exploit His divine form and mode of being, but by His own decision emptied Himself of it or laid it by, taking the form of a servant by becoming man. The subject of ἐκένωσεν is not the incarnate but the pre-existent Lord. There is a strong sense of the unity of His person. The essence remains, the mode of being changes—a genuine sacrifice.
Perhaps the simplest commentary on the meaning of this phrase is found in 2 Corinthians 8:9, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.” In this emptying of himself, Christ was truly Divine and truly human.
Why did the Son of God come take on humanity? This question strikes at the heart of God’s character. God saw mankind’s sinful state and, being compassionate, sought to redeem his creation from their just judgment. Being moved by the highest motives, God acted in the highest possible way as the Word is sent to put on humanity in order to redeem humanity. Romans 8:3 described it this way: “For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”
By the incarnation of the Word, Christians “have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Hebrews 10:10). The book of Hebrews describes this most excellent sacrifice this way in Hebrews 2:9-11 (NASBU):
But we do see Him who was made for a little while lower than the angels, namely, Jesus, because of the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, so that by the grace of God He might taste death for everyone.For it was fitting for Him, for whom are all things, and through whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to perfect the author of their salvation through sufferings.For both He who sanctifies and those who are sanctified are all from one Father; for which reason He is not ashamed to call them brethren.”
Again, God has demonstrated his love for his creation. The greatness of that love is seen in the depths that God was willing to reach in order to salvage the willing.
William Arndt, Frederick W. Danker, and Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 539.
Horst Robert Balz and Gerhard Schneider, Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1990–), 282.
Albrecht Oepke, “Κενός, Κενόω, Κενόδοξος, Κενοδοξία,” ed. Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, and Gerhard Friedrich, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964–), 661.