How could God become a man?

Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us). – Matthew 1:23

In AD 451, the Council of Chalcedon met to wrestle with the confusion that surrounded the divinity and humanity of Jesus. They issued the Chalcedonian Creed, which cleared up many heresies that wrongly defined the humanity and divinity of Jesus. In sum, the creed declared that Jesus Christ is one person with two natures (human and divine) who is both fully God and fully man.

Theologically, the term for the union of both natures in Jesus Christ is hypostatic union, which is taken from the Greek word hypostasis for “person.” Summarizing the hypostatic union, three facts are noted: (1) Christ has two distinct natures: humanity and deity; (2) there is no mixture or intermingling of the two natures; (3) although he has two natures, Christ is one person. The Chalcedonian summary of the incarnation is the position held by all of Christendom, including Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant Christians.

In keeping with the biblical position of Chalcedon, we must retain both the full divinity and full humanity of Jesus Christ. To accomplish this, we must conclude that when Jesus became a man, he did not change his identity as God but rather changed his role. According to the church father Augustine, “Christ added to himself which he was not, he did not lose what he was.”1

Jesus, who was fully equal with God in every way, who was the very form of God, did not see that as something to keep in his grip, but emptied himself of that equal status and role to take the status and role of humanity.

He who was and is God took the likeness of humanity. God became the “image of God” for the sake of our salvation.2

Theologians capture Jesus’ humble emptying himself of the divine equality, the divine lifestyle, with the phrase he laid aside the exercise of his incommunicable divine attributes. Some theologians would say that Jesus retained all of his divine attributes while on the earth but did not avail himself to them to instead limit himself to what humans can do. Other theologians would say that Jesus did not retain all of his divine attributes while on the earth but rather humbly set them aside during his incarnation. Either way, what this means is that Jesus did not continually use the attributes unique to deity such as his omniscience, or omnipresence, or immortality while on the earth. So Jesus in his humble state does not know the date of the second coming3, is not present when Lazarus dies4, and dies5. He did supernatural works like knowing that Lazarus was dead6, raising the dead7, healing diseases and casting out demons8 by the power of the Holy Spirit9.

An analogy of this emptying would be a general manager of a resort who brings his family for a vacation week. He puts his general manager access key with all its power, rights and privilege in his pocket and uses a guest access key. For the duration of the week, he is fully the general manager, but lives authentically as a guest.

The key Scripture describing that God came as the man Jesus Christ because of humility and a willingness to be our suffering servant is Philippians 2:5–11, which says:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

This amazing section of Scripture reveals to us that the second member of the Trinity came into human history as the man Jesus Christ. In doing so, Jesus exemplified perfect and unparalleled humility. In his incarnation, the Creator entered his creation to reveal God to us, identify with us, and live and die for us as our humble servant.

By saying that Jesus “emptied himself,” Paul means that Jesus set aside his rights as God and the rightful continual use of his incommunicable divine attributes. The eternal Son of God chose to become human and live by the power of the Holy Spirit. This does not mean that Jesus in any way ceased to be fully God, but rather that he chose not to avail himself of his divine rights

and those attributes unique to deity while on the earth. Thus, he lived as we must live—by the enabling power of God the Holy Spirit. We want to be clear: Jesus remained fully man and fully God during his incarnation, and he maintained all of his divine personhood and attributes though he humbly emptied himself of use of those unique to deity. He exercised fully those attributes which humans have – compassion, mercy, holiness, love, grace and used his divine authority to upon occasion, such as to forgive third party sin, which God alone can do.10 Nonetheless, Jesus’ life was lived as fully human in that he lived it by the power of the Holy Spirit.11 Regarding the relationship between Jesus and the Holy Spirit, Martyn Lloyd-Jones says:

What, then, does all this mean? It means that there was no change in His deity, but that He took human nature to Himself, and chose to live in this world as a man. He humbled Himself in that way. He deliberately put limits upon Himself. Now we cannot go further. We do not know how He did it. We cannot understand it, in a sense. But we believe this: in order that He might live this life as a man, while He was here on earth, He did not exercise certain qualities of His Godhead. That was why . . . He needed to be given the gift of the Holy Spirit without measure.12

Sadly, all of the major creeds compiled during the early church ignore the life of Jesus between his birth and death. The Apostles’ Creed, Nicene Creed, and Athanasian Creed all declare that Jesus was born to the Virgin Mary and then skip forward to his suffering under the rule of Pilate without speaking a word about the years in between; they overlook the example of Jesus’ life, in general, and his exemplary relationship with God the Holy Spirit, in particular.

Despite its absence in the church creeds, Abraham Kuyper writes of the importance of the relationship between Jesus and the Holy Spirit:

This ought to be carefully noticed, especially since the Church has never sufficiently confessed the influence of the Holy Spirit exerted upon the work of Christ. The general impression is that the work of theHoly Spirit begins when the work of the Mediator on earth is finished, as tho [sic] until that time the Holy Spirit celebrated His divine day of rest. Yet the Scripture teaches us again and again that Christ performed His mediatorial work controlled and impelled by the Holy Spirit.13

The empowerment of Jesus by God the Holy Spirit is repeatedly stressed in the Gospel of Luke. There we find that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit and given the title “Christ,” which means anointed by the Holy Spirit.14 Jesus’ relative Elizabeth was “filled with the Holy Spirit” when greeting Jesus’ pregnant mother Mary, and her husband Zechariah went on to prophesy that their son John was appointed by God to prepare the way for Jesus.15 An angel revealed to Mary that she would give birth to Jesus because “the Holy Spirit will come upon you.”16

Once born, Jesus was dedicated to the Lord in the temple according to the demands of the law by Simeon; “the Holy Spirit was upon [Simeon]” and the Holy Spirit had revealed to him that he would not die until seeing Jesus Christ.17 Simeon was “in the Spirit” when he prophesied about Jesus’ ministry to Jews and Gentiles.18

John prophesied that one day Jesus would baptize people with the Holy Spirit.19 The Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus at his own baptism.20 It is curious that while the Gospels give scant information about Jesus’ childhood, all four include the account of Jesus’ baptism. Matthew adds the interesting statement that the Spirit rested on Jesus, as if to suggest that the remainder of his life and ministry on the earth would be done under the anointing and power of the Holy Spirit.21

In the remainder of Luke’s Gospel, we discover that Jesus was “full of the Holy Spirit,” “led by the Spirit,”22 and came “in the power of the Spirit.”23 After reading Isaiah 61:1–2, which begins, “The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,” Jesus declared, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”24 Luke continues by revealing that Jesus also “rejoiced in the Holy Spirit.”25

Gerald Hawthorne, who has written one of the most compelling books on the subject of Jesus’ relationship with the Holy Spirit, says, “[Jesus] is the supreme example for them of what is possible in a human life because of his total dependence upon the Spirit of God.”26

Do you more easily connect with the humanity or divinity of Jesus Christ?

1Quoted in G. C. Berkouwer, The Person of Christ, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1954), 94.
2Gen. 1:27; 2 Cor. 4:4.
3Matt. 24:36
4John 11:6, 21, 32
5Matt. 27:50; Phil. 2:8
6John 12:1-14
7John 11:39-41; Mark 5:35-43
8Matt. 4:23-24; 8:16-33
9Matt. 12:28
10Mark 2:1–7.
11For a more thorough study of this and other issues regarding the Holy Spirit, He Who Gives Life: The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit by Graham A. Cole (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2007) is a helpful resource.
12Lloyd-Jones, God the Father, God the Son, 286–87.
13Abraham Kuyper, The Work of the Holy Spirit, trans. Henri de Vries (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1975), 97.
14Luke 1–2.
15Luke 1:41–43, 67, 76.
16Luke 1:35–37.
17Luke 2:25–27.
18Luke 2:27–34.
19Matt. 3:11; Mar. 1:8; Luke 3:16; John 1:33
20Matt. 3:16; John 1:32–33
21Matt. 3:16.
222Luke 4:1–2.
233Luke 4:14.
244Luke 4:14–21.
25Luke 10:21.
26Gerald F. Hawthorne, The Presence and the Power: The Significance of the Spirit in the Life and Ministry of Jesus (Dallas: Word, 1991), 234.

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