One of the most stupendous events recorded in the Bible is what people call the incarnation. If Christians are asked what they understood by this event, most would reply with something like ‘When God took a body and became the Man Jesus Christ’. Theologians would probably find such an explanation acceptable but theology is not necessarily in accord with Scripture. If we are believers, then it must be Scripture alone that carries authority for us, both in this and in every other matter—it is to the Bible that we must turn. Again, I suppose that many would focus on the Lord’s birth and understandably begin there. Perhaps surprisingly to such, this is only recorded by two of the four Evangelists (Matthew and Luke) and is absent entirely from the Epistles apart from one or two oblique references such as Gal. 4: 4. The Lord’s birth is how He entered this scene. This has great importance, especially in regard to the setting in which it is placed, but is not in itself the truth of what we know as the incarnation. It does not figure in the NT books that deal with the matter such as Hebrews, Philippians and John’s Gospel.
John’s Gospel and His Epistles
Scholars generally agree that John’s Gospel was written late and was probably the last book of the Bible to be penned. The studious believer knows that this is so because of its contents compared to the rest of the NT. It is sufficient to say here that John was called by the Lord when mending nets (see Matt. 4: 21) and the whole of his subsequent ministry in his Gospel and Epistles, taking character from his calling, is on the line of mending and recovery. This, as I hope to show, includes the truth of the incarnation.
John’s presentation of the Lord in his Gospel is summed up by Paul when he says that “God has been manifested in flesh” (1 Tim. 3: 16). John himself expresses the incarnation as “the Word became flesh”
One striking feature of the book of Acts is that the majority of the communications from God recorded there are indirect—that is through angelic agency, visions and the like. Even when Paul was addressed directly from heaven by the Lord himself, he refers to it years later in Acts 26: 19 as the “heavenly vision”. Nowadays people do of course claim to be spoken to by angels or to have had visions, but a considerable number also allege that God spoke to them directly. Such persons will eagerly point out Scriptures in the book of Acts that appear to justify their claims. That the writer of Acts records God as speaking to Christians without any (John 1: 14), without any detail as to how that took place. Accordingly, he commences his Gospel with the words “In [the] beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1: 1). Here we are taken back as far as our minds can comprehend to learn that the One who became flesh was already there in “[the] beginning”. When Scripture says that “the Word was God”, we must accept the simple sense of the words and not try to inject any limitations into that statement by assuming it just means ‘God in His nature’ or any other such restriction. When the Bible says “the Word was God, it means exactly that.
Now the Scriptures are complete—there is nothing missing on the one hand nor anything superfluous on the other. Hence we can learn not only from what they say but also from what they do not say. John 1: 14 does not say ‘the Word became man’ but “the Word became flesh”. Now there are several things connected with the incarnation that the Lord is said to have become. Examples are “became a minister of [the] circumcision” (Rom. 15: 8), “being rich, became poor” (2 Cor. 8: 9), “became to all them that obey him, author of eternal salvation” (Heb. 5: 9), “become for ever a high priest” (Heb. 6: 20), “became surety of a better covenant” (Heb. 7: 22) and “became dead” (Rev. 1: 18). Yet the Scriptures never say of the Lord that He became man but that He became flesh—and Scripture is always wiser than we are.
In keeping with his Gospel, three times in his epistles (see 1 John 4: 2, 3; 2 John 1: 7) John speaks of Jesus Christ come in flesh, not come as man, the final instance being a warning that “many deceivers have gone out into the world, they who do not confess Jesus Christ coming in flesh—this is the deceiver and the antichrist” (2 John 1: 7). So why does the Bible never say that the ‘Word became man’?
Flesh and Man
If there is one truth more than any other that is guarded by the Holy Spirit, it is “[the] person of Christ” (2 Cor. 2: 10). In considering the Lord, we must ever have before us the truth that He Himself stated: “no one knows the Son but the Father” (Matt. 11: 27). We must never assume that we can encompass all that is involved in the truth of His Person. Our knowledge will always be limited to what God has been pleased to reveal in the Scriptures and we must never tread beyond it.
That the Lord Jesus was truly a man is beyond dispute. Twice in His epistles Paul refers to the Lord directly as man (see Rom. 5: 15; 1 Tim. 2: 5) and the Lord Himself declared “but now ye seek to kill me, a man who has spoken the truth to you, which I have heard from God” (John 8: 40). Man is a tripartite creature having spirit, soul and body (see 1 Thess. 5: 23). The Lord’s manhood was real and accordingly we read of His spirit (see Mark 14: 33; John 11: 33, 13: 21, etc.), His soul (see Matt. 26: 38; Mark 14: 34; John 12: 27 etc.) and His body (see Matt. 27: 58; Luke 22: 19; Heb. 10: 5 etc.).
Some, in their endeavour to stress the reality and perfection of His manhood, would speak of the Lord as having a human spirit, a human soul and a human body. This mars the uniqueness of that manhood and takes us beyond divine revelation into the sphere of human speculation. All the needs of the body were present in the Lord for we read of His hunger (see Matt. 4: 2; 21: 18), His thirst (see John 19: 28), His weariness (see John 4: 6) and His being asleep (see Matt. 8: 24). However, only some of the emotions common to man were there. Thus while we read of His joy (see John 15: 11; 17: 13), His sorrow (see Matt. 26: 37, 38) and His weeping (see Luke 19: 41; John 11: 35) there is never any thought of fear or mirth being expressed in “the days of his flesh” (Heb. 5: 7). Note the language used: it is the days of His flesh (see also John 6: 51; Rom. 1: 3; 9: 5; 2 Cor. 5: 16; Eph. 2: 15; Col. 1: 22; 1 Pet. 3: 18; 4: 1), not the days of His manhood, and certainly not the days of His humanity—that would link Him too closely with fallen man. Paul spoke “after the manner of men” (Rom. 6: 19; AV), or “humanly”. However, that word (or its various forms) is never once used of the Lord or in relation to Him (see also 1 Cor. 2: 5, 13; 4: 3; 10: 13; James 3: 7; 1 Pet. 2: 13). Once again, Scripture is wiser than we are.
Man is a creature but flesh is not. It is a condition or state of that creature. If the Bible had said that the Word became man, then such a statement could be used to argue that the Word exchanged His deity for manhood and that the Lord became a creature. When the Word became flesh, there was no change in what He ever was in Himself. The change was in the conditions that He entered into. The Word did not became a creature but did enter into the restrictive conditions belonging to the creature. Again, if the Scripture has said that the Lord became man, then, the door would be open to another error, namely that manhood was something additional that the Lord added to His deity, thus implying that the Lord had a dual personality. This is virtually stated when people speak of the Lord as the God–Man—a term unknown to the Bible.
There is much that is in this chapter that is of great value for our souls to consider, but in connection with our subject we must confine ourselves to verses 9–15 and particularly verse 14. The incarnation is introduced by speaking of “Jesus, who [was] made some little inferior to angels on account of the suffering of death” (v9). His abasement, by being made some little inferior to angels, we will see in all its depth when we come to consider Philippians 2. For the moment we must note that believers are referred to as children of God (see Heb. 2: 13) for, as we learn elsewhere, we have been born “not of blood, nor of flesh’s will, nor of man’s will, but of God” (John 1: 13). Nonetheless, our natural birth, as distinct from our spiritual one, is one of blood and flesh. This brings us to Heb. 2: 14 where we read “Since therefore the children partake of blood and flesh, he also, in like manner, took part in the same, that through death he might annul him who has the might of death, that is, the devil”. What the Lord is said to have taken part in was not humanity, not manhood but “blood and flesh”, that is the natural condition of man—sin apart. We enter that condition through birth and the Lord entered that condition “in like manner”, that is, through birth. But there is a guard inserted here by the writer which is not immediately apparent in the English translation. We “partake” of that condition but He only “took part in the same”. The intended difference is there in the Greek. The word used for partake is koinwnew which is the verb form of koinwnia meaning fellowship or an equal common sharing. The condition of “blood and flesh” is common to all the children—all partake of it. But when the writer says the Lord “took part in the same” the word translated took part in is changed from koinwnew to metecw which only means to associate. This word always refers to something outside of oneself. What Scripture guards against here is any thought that the condition of blood and flesh that the Lord took completely defined Him. Those conditions were outside of and distinct from Himself.
This is a Scripture where one must tread with extreme care, noting what is said, how it is said, and also what is not said, for as mentioned earlier, the Scriptures are complete, with nothing missing and nothing superfluous. Certain Greek words are used in Philippians 2 whose meanings affect our understanding of the passage and we must consider these first. We have μορφη (form) in verses 6 and 7, doulos (bondman) in verse 7, ginomai (taking his place) in verse 7, ομοιωμα (likeness) in verse 7 and schma (figure) in v8. Both ομοιωμα (likeness) and schma (figure) always refer to external appearance. The essence of ομοιωμα (likeness) is resemblance; that of schma (figure) is physical form. While μορφη (form) can have an external aspect, it always indicates the essence of a matter. Greek has some eight words that can be translated servant and the word, doulos is the most extreme of all and means slave or, as the text has it, bondman. A slave is one whose only will is that of his master. The word ginomai (taking his place) could be translated becoming meaning a change from a previous state, condition, or position—a meaning it has elsewhere in the Scriptures.
Turning now to the detail of the verses, the introductory words are “For let this mind be in you which [was] also in Christ Jesus …” (v5). It is not just the Lord’s actions but the thinking behind those actions that we are to have as believers—and the Apostle employs the truth of the incarnation to this end. The Lord is thus shown as the great pattern for us. No stoop could be greater than His stoop. It is not from God to man but from God to slave, for the bondservice takes precedence over the manhood in the order in which the two truths are presented. This action was entirely His.
What form (μορφη) means in v7, it must also mean in v6. We must work from what we know to what we don’t know. While men may have had some limited appreciation of the outward expression of the Lord’s bondservice, in its essence it was not partial, nor relative but absolute. He himself says: “I do always the things that are pleasing to him” (John 8: 29, my emphasis). Thus if “taking a bondman’s form” (Phil. 2: 7) means that the Lord’s bondmanship was absolute, then “subsisting in the form of God” (v6) likewise means that He was God in the absolute sense of the word.
Did the Lord lay aside His deity at the incarnation? Emphatically not, for the word subsisting is the present participle indicating continuance. He was God and remained God. In contrast to Adam, He “did not esteem it an object of rapine” (that is robbery) “to be on an equality with God” (v6). He was not taking something away from God, for He was God. The words “taking a bondman’s form” (v7) tell how He “emptied himself”. He divested Himself of the Godhead glory that was rightfully His by descending to the position of a bondman or slave. Such was the immensity of the stoop! It could not be greater. It is only now that Paul comes to the Lord’s manhood and the language is, as ever, precise. The Greek allows the words “taking his place” to be replaced by a single word becoming. But Paul does not go so far as to say ‘becoming a man’. As ever there is a guard. It is becoming in “[the] likeness of men” (v7, my emphasis). Outwardly, the Lord resembled other men. And this is stressed by a measure of repetition with “having been found in figure as a man” (v8)—there were no physical differences. It then says He “humbled himself”. The action was His for no man ever humbled him. The account of His stoop is completed by giving us the extent of that bondservice in His “becoming obedient even unto death, and [that the] death of [the] cross” (v8).
The Will of God
We now come to the heart of the matter of the Lord’s incarnation. Let us recall that Paul placed the Lord’s bondservice before His manhood in Phil. 2 because it takes precedence over all else. His manhood was the means by which the Lord carried out the will of God as the divine Servant. This bondservice is expressed in Paul’s use of Psalm 40: “Wherefore coming into the world he says, Sacrifice and offering thou willedst not; but thou hast prepared me a body. … Then I said, Lo, I come (in [the] roll of the book it is written of me) to do, O God, thy will” (Heb. 10: 5, 7). This is the essence of the incarnation. Let us see how the Lord Himself states it. “I am come down from heaven, not that I should do my will, but the will of him that has sent me” (John 6: 38). Note the dignity of that descent and the absence of any thought of birth. Note also the Gospel from which the words are taken. Strikingly, as already mentioned, it is only in John that the Lord speaks of Himself as a man and correspondingly we have His bondservice brought before us much more in this Gospel than in Matthew and Luke, or even Mark (Mark’s presentation of the Lord’s service is not the extreme one of slavery to the will of God). So why does John stress the Lord’s bondservice so much? Perhaps it is because this was in danger of being lost to the saints. In keeping with this, the matter of the Lord being sent dominates John’s Gospel, with the Lord speaking of Himself as being sent over 40 times. Servants are sent (see Acts 3: 26) and the Lord was no exception.
Now God alone is independent in the absolute sense. By contrast every creature is dependent on God for life and the conditions in which that life is set. When the “Word became flesh” (John 1: 14), He entered into the dependent and limited conditions belonging to man as the Bondservant. Let us hear His own words. “I cannot do anything of myself; as I hear, I judge, and my judgment is righteous, because I do not seek my will, but the will of him that has sent me” (John 5: 30). Ponder the full force of those words “I cannot do anything of myself”—they state an impossibility. Thus although the Lord remained what He ever was as “God blessed for ever. Amen” (Rom. 9: 5), He entered the restrictive conditions of a bondservant and His only will was that of the Master who sent Him—for slaves are subject only to their master’s commandments. Peruse the Synoptics and you will find nothing of the Father’s commandments to the Son even though the centurion caught something of the flavour of the Lord’s position as the Bondservant (see Matt. 8: 9). Yet several times in John He speaks of receiving the Father’s commandment. He says “as the Father has commanded me, thus I do” (John 14: 31) and “the Father who sent me has himself given me commandment what I should say and what I should speak” (John 12: 49). Throughout “the days of his flesh” (Heb. 5: 7), the perfect Bondman did nothing and said nothing without the Father’s express commandment. In regard to His death, no man would take His life from Him, for He said “I lay it down of myself.” Yet He would not even do that without the needed authority: “I have authority to lay it down and I have authority to take it again. I have received this commandment of my Father” (John 10: 18). So that as that pathway drew to a close, He could say “I have kept my Father’s commandments” (John 15: 10).
It is only in the immediacy of His death, when “becoming obedient even unto death, and [that the] death of [the] cross” (Phil. 2: 8), that the synoptic Gospels record His bondservice: “My Father, if it be possible let this cup pass from me; but not as I will, but as thou [wilt]” (Matt. 26: 39; see also Mark 14: 36; Luke 22: 42); The closest we get to this in John is the Lord saying “Now is my soul troubled, and what shall I say? Father, save me from this hour. But on account of this have I come to this hour. Father, glorify thy name. (John 12: 27, 28).
As God and as Man
Believers are often inclined to speak of the Lord’s actions and words by saying things like that He did this as God or said that as man. This phraseology ‘as God’ or ‘as man’, although apparently useful for some, is nowhere to be found in the Scriptures. Nor is it right, for in effect it gives the Lord a dual personality. But surely, some might say, we have examples of the Lord exercising omniscience such as “But he, knowing their thoughts, said to them, Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and every city or house divided against itself will not subsist” (Matt. 12: 25; see also Luke 6: 8; 11: 17). Surely only one who is God knows the thoughts of men? Is this not a clear example of the Lord’s omniscience? Was He not acting as God there? Did He not know everything? Consider His own words given on another occasion: “But of that day or of that hour no one knows, neither the angels who are in heaven, nor the Son, but the Father.” (Mark 13: 32). This Scripture puts omniscience out of court entirely. Note too the terminology. It is the Son as distinct from the Father. The Lord Jesus knew the thoughts of men but only as told by the Father. We get something similar in the OT when Elisha knew what Gehazi had done (see 2 Kings 5: 26) because, being a prophet, he knew the mind of God since God had told him. As for the other two theological demands, omnipresence is ruled out by the restrictive conditions into which the Lord entered in the days of His flesh. He could only be in one place at a time. That leaves just omnipotence to consider.
When the Lord “rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a great calm”, we can say with the astonished disciples “What sort [of man] is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?” (Matt. 8: 26, 27). Creation, of which He was the Creator (see Heb. 1: 2, 10) obeyed the Lord. So how can this be any other than a clear example of His omnipotence? Not so! Read Joshua 10: 12–15 in which we are told that the sun and the moon stood still at “the voice of a man” (v14). Joshua was not God but creation obeyed his command. The Lord stilling the waves is no more proof of His omnipotence than His being “wearied with the way” (John 4: 6) is supposedly evidence that He was not God.
The simple truth is that the Lord, although being God, never exercised His deity when here in the flesh. To have done so would have been to step out of the pathway of the Bondman—the divine slave. All was done and said at the Father’s command. Such is the wonder of the incarnation.
Although important in its own setting, the birth of the Lord Jesus is not exactly the incarnation, being simply the means by which it took place. The Bible never speaks of the Lord becoming man, guarding against any thought of Him exchanging His deity for manhood. Although the His manhood was real, it was also unique. While He ever remained what He was in Himself as God, He entered into the limited conditions of the creature expressed in the words of Scripture by “the Word became flesh” (John 1: 14). Those conditions involved taking the form of a bondman, a service that took precedence over His manhood. Throughout His pathway here He ever acted as the perfect Bondman, never saying or doing anything without the Father’s command. Contrary to popular belief, He never acted as God, but always as a bondman to the divine will.
When that pathway drew to a close He said to the Father “I have completed the work which thou gavest me that I should do it” (John 17: 4). That bondservice is now ended and the days of His flesh are over and will never be repeated. He is no longer in the conditions of blood and flesh (see Luke 24: 39), for the blood has been shed, and though He is still a man, He is no longer in a bondman’s form. God has been glorified in the very scene where He had been dishonoured, the work for man’s eternal blessing completed and the devil defeated (see Heb. 2: 14). The One who stooped so low is now exalted and given “a name, that which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of heavenly and earthly and infernal [beings], and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ [is] Lord to God [the] Father’s glory” (Phil. 2: 9–11).