The Incarnation

During this time of the year, many Christians are quick to point out that, “Jesus is the reason for the season.” This is true, but it’s also very vague. What about Jesus, specifically, is the reason for the season? Is it his obedience? His death on the cross? His resurrection or ascension? The answer: His incarnation.

The incarnation is the word used to describe the Son of God coming in the flesh through his conception and birth. “Incarnate” comes from a Latin word that means “to be made flesh.” Thus, it refers to the Divine Son of God coming into humanity and taking on human flesh and blood. Therefore, in order to bring some clarity to “the reason for the season,” our topic this month is the incarnation. Let’s take a look and see this important doctrine in the Bible, in theology, and even in our hymns.

From Scripture

We may be tempted to think that since the incarnation occurred in the first year AD, that means we can only know of the incarnation through the New Testament. However, we can see the incarnation promised in the Old Testament several centuries prior to the birth of Jesus. For example, we read this from the 8th century BC, in Isaiah 7:14 –

“Therefore, the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name ‘Immanuel.’”

In Hebrew, “Immanuel” means “God with us.” Therefore, this is a prophecy concerning God coming into humanity – the incarnation – through the womb of a virgin. This prophecy of the incarnation of the Son of God in the flesh is confirmed in Matthew 1:22–23 –

“All this [the birth of Jesus Christ] took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: ‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel’ (which means, God with us).”

Do we see it anywhere else in the Old Testament? We do. Consider this promise that comes through the prophet Micah whose ministry spanned the late-8th and early 7th centuries. This comes from Micah 5:2–3 –

“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 of days. Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is labor has given birth; then the rest of his brothers shall return to the people of Israel. And he shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD and in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God.”

In this prophecy, God promises to send a new king like David who will be born in Bethlehem and will save the remnant of Israel. This king would not be like other kings of Israel, for he would come from the “ancient of days” and he will stand “in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God.” This is clearly a reference to this king coming from the Eternal God and bearing the name of God himself.

We can once again confirm that this is a reference to the incarnation by way of the gospel of Matthew. We read in Matthew 2:4–6, that when Herod assembled the priests and scribes to inquire of them where the Christ would be born, they told him –

“In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet: ‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’”

These are only two of the many prophecies concerning the incarnation of the Son of God. For more, take a look at Genesis 3:15, cf. 1 Timothy 2:13–15; 2 Samuel 7:12–14, cf. Luke 1:30–33; and Ezekiel 34:11–12, cf. John 10:11, 14.

In addition to the texts already mentioned, we see the incarnation in several places in the New Testament. For example, John begins his gospel account with this in John 1:1–2, 14 –

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God…And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

This is the clearest text on the incarnation. John says, the Word (the Son of God) became flesh – “incarnate” – and dwelt among us. Biblical Theologian Andreas J. Kostenberger writes regarding John’s statement, “This is the most amazing event in all of history: the eternal, omnipotent, infinitely holy Son of God took on a human nature and lived among humanity as one who was both God and man at the same time, in one person.”

Consider also what the Apostle Paul writes in Galatians 4:4–5 –

“When the fulness 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.”

Whereas John is writing about the event of the incarnation, Paul is getting at the purpose of the incarnation – to redeem us from our sin and bring us into the household of God by way of the Incarnate Son. We read similarly in Hebrews 2:14 –

“Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.”

In other words, the purpose of the incarnation, was so the Son of God would participate in the same things (flesh and blood) as we who have fallen into sin through the wiles of the devil, in order that becoming like us, he would pull us out of slavery to sin and death. We come into the world “in Adam,” but because of the incarnation of the Son of God, those who believe in him are now, “in Christ.” This is the power of the incarnation – redemption.

From Reformed Theology

In addition to the incarnation clearly being present in the Holy Scriptures, we find it taught all throughout church history in the creeds and confession of the catholic church – that is, the universal Christian church.

Here are some examples from the Ancient Church –

The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (381)
“I believe in…one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God…Who, for us men and for our salvation, came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man…”

The Definition of Chalcedon (451)
“Our Lord Jesus Christ…Begotten of the Father before the ages regarding the Godhead, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the God-bearer, regarding the manhood; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of the natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved and concurring in one person and one subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ.”

The Athanasian Creed (ca. 5 th Century)
“We believe and confess that our Lord Jesus Christ, God’s Son, is both God and human, equally. He is God from the essence of the Father, begotten before time; and he is human from the essence of his mother, born in time; completely God and completely human, a with a rational soul and human flesh; equal to the Father as regards divinity, less than the Father as regards humanity…He is one, however, not by his divinity being turned into flesh, but by God’s taking humanity to himself.”

Here are some examples from the Reformed Confessions and Catechisms –

The Belgic Confession (1561)
“The Son took the ‘from of a servant’ and was made in the ‘likeness of man,’ truly assuming a real human nature, with all its weaknesses, except for sin; being conceived in the womb of the blessed virgin Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit, without male participation. And he not only assumed human nature as far as the body is concerned but also a real human soul, in order that he might be a real human being.” (Article 18, “The Incarnation”)

The Heidelberg Catechism (1563)
“The eternal Son of God, who is and remains true and eternal God, took to himself, through the working of the Holy Spirit, from the flesh and blood of the virgin Mary, a true human nature so that he might also become…like his brothers in all things except for sin.” (Q. 35)

Finally, some examples from our own denomination, the Westminster Standards –

The Westminster Confession of Faith (1646)
“The Son of God, the second person in the Trinity, being very and eternal God, of one substance and equal with the Father, did, when the fullness of time was come, take upon him man's nature, with all the essential properties, and common infirmities thereof, yet without sin; being conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost, in the womb of the virgin Mary, of her substance. So that two whole, perfect, and distinct natures, the Godhead and the manhood, were inseparably joined together in one person, without conversion, composition, or confusion. Which person is very God, and very man, yet one Christ, the only Mediator between God and man.” (Chapter 8.2, “Of Christ the Mediator)

The Westminster Larger Catechism (1646)
“Christ the Son of God became man, by taking to himself a true body, and a reasonable soul, being conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost in the womb of the virgin Mary, of her substance, and born of her, yet without sin… It was requisite that the mediator, who was to reconcile God and man, should himself be both God and man, and this in one person, that the proper works of each nature might be accepted of God for us, and relied on by us, as the works of the whole person.” (Q. 37, 40)

As you can see, the incarnation of the Son of God, is prominent in the creeds, confessions, and catechisms of the Christian church. One can even say, that without believing in the incarnation, one cannot be a Christian.

Explore Our Hymns

We can also find the incarnation of the Son of God in many of the biblically-rich and theologically-accurate hymns that the church sings from Advent to Epiphany. Here are some examples that we have recently used in worship:

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
Written in the 18th century by Charles Wesley with music composed by Felix Mendelssohn in the 19th century, this Christmas favorite includes a powerful statement on the incarnation. Here is the second stanza –

Christ, by highest heaven adored, Christ, the everlasting Lord!
Late in time behold him come, offspring of the Virgin’s womb.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; hail the incarnate Deity!
Pleased as man with men to dwell, Jesus, our Emmanuel.

Who knew one of your favorite Christmas hymns included such a deep theological statement on the “Incarnate Deity”!

O Come, All Ye Faithful
A Latin hymn translated by Frederick Oakley in the 19th century and with its famous tune Adeste Fideles composed in 1751 by John Francis Wade, this Christmas hymn also includes rich incarnation theology. Consider the second and fourth stanzas –

God of God, Light of Light;
Lo, he abhors not the Virgin’s womb;
Very God, begotten, not created…

Yea, Lord, we greet thee, born this happy morning:
Jesus, to thee be all glory given;
Word of the Father, late in flesh appearing;

These outstanding lines read more like an ancient creed than a song!

Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence
Originally written for the Liturgy of St. James in the 5th century, this ancient hymn was adapted in the 19th century by Gerard Moultrie and arranged by the 20th century English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. It contains deep, beautiful lyrics, including these on the incarnation –

Christ our God to earth descendeth, our full homage to demand.
King of kings, yet born of Mary, as of old on earth he stood,
Lord of lords, in human vesture, in the body and the blood;
He will give to all the faithful his own self for heavenly food.

Biblically-rich, theologically accurate, poetic, and beautiful, this hymn on the incarnation deserves to be sung year-round!

I hope and pray that this study on the incarnation of the Son of God in the flesh is helpful and that it aids in your understanding of exactly what “the reason for the season” is. Without the incarnation, there is no gospel. Without the incarnation, there is no salvation. Thus, we should meditate on the mystery of the incarnation, not only once per year, but daily.