A study of the theological explanations of the Christmas event in the Father's sending of the Son, His self-emptying to become man, the incarnation, and the Christological person of the God-man.
©1998 by James A. Fowler. All rights reserved.
The historical event of an infant's birth
in Bethlehem in approximately 6 B.C. was but the external and
physical expression of a singular and never to be repeated divine
Although Jesus was undoubtedly regarded by most of His contemporaries in Palestine as but the physical "son of Joseph" (Lk. 2:48; 3:23; 4:22; Jn. 1:45; 6:42), the divine factors of His birth and Being could only be recognized by divine revelation. The recognition that Jesus was God as well as man could not be surmised by "flesh and blood", human reasoning, but only by the revelation of His Father in heaven (Matt. 16:17).
Even prior to His physical birth the prophets indicated that the expected Messiah would be God expressed in humanity. Through Isaiah, God told Ahaz that "a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel" (Isa. 7:14), which Matthew explains, means "God with us" or "God in us" (Matt. 1:23). Later Isaiah explained that "a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; ...and His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace" (Isa. 9:6), names which evidence the deity of the expected Messianic child.
Angels informed both Mary and Joseph that the child she would bear should be named "Jesus" (Matt. 1:21; Lk. 1:31), which means "Jehovah saves," as it would be He (Jehovah in this male child), who would save His people from their sins (Matt. 1:21), as only God can do. In addition, the angel told Mary that the child would be "the Son of the Most High" (Lk. 1:32), and that "the holy offspring shall be called the Son of God" (Lk. 1:35). The angels announced to the shepherds outside Bethlehem that the child who had been born was "a Savior, Christ the Lord" (Lk. 2:11), which would be understood to mean "the Messianic Savior, Yahweh personified."
Christmas can only be understood theologically as the singular divine event that it was if we recognize that the eternal and infinite God intervened and took action to intersect with man in space/time human history in order to invest Himself in a human creature for the purpose of assuming the consequences of sin and restoring humanity to its divinely intended function. The God of the universe voluntarily took the initiative of acting in His grace to condescend and "come down from heaven" (Jn. 3:13; :33,38) in the Son in order to meet man where he was, on earth in his fallen, sinful condition, becoming a man Himself to bear the death consequences of sin, which only a man could bear, since God cannot die.
A theological consideration of Christmas must commence with an understanding that the Son of God was existent prior to His being born as a baby in Bethlehem, and being given the name "Jesus." The Son existed eternally in the Trinitarian oneness of the Godhead. As "eternal God", and remaining so when He became a child (cf. Isa. 9:6), He was and is immutably and unchangeably divine. Becoming a man could in no way alter His deity.
The two issues that must be addressed in considering the pre-existence of the Son are His eternal existence and His eternal deity, which are so inextricably united as to be incapable of separation, but we shall attempt to do so for the purpose of explanation.
The prophet Micah explained that "the One who will go forth for Me as the ruler of Israel, His goings forth are from long ago, from the days of eternity" (Micah 5:2). John perceived in his revelation that Jesus is "the One who is and who was and who is to come" (Rev. 1:8) - eternally existent, and eternally immutable in that eternal existence, for "Jesus is the same yesterday, and today and forever" (Heb. 13:8). "He is before all things" (Col. 1:17), declared Paul. "He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being by Him; and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being" (John 1:2,3), John states in the prologue of his gospel, noting that John the Baptist asserted that "He existed before me" (John 1:15), even though Jesus was born six months after John. Jesus Himself asserted that "before Abraham was" (John 8:58), He existed as the "I AM" of the eternally present existence of Yahweh (cf. Exod. 3:14). Prior to His manifestation as a man, the Son "was before" (John 6:62) in heaven, eternally existent as God.
Some have questioned the eternal existence of the Son as God, citing some New Testament passages which can be misinterpreted to imply that Jesus had a beginning as a created being. The apostle John, for example, refers to Jesus as "the only begotten Son" (Jn. 1:14,18; 3:16,18; I Jn. 4:9) of God, The Greek word that John employs, monogenes, does not necessarily refer to a derivatively created being, but to the unique, one-of-a-kind, familial consubstantiality that the divine Son shared with the Father God. Likewise, Paul's reference to Jesus as the "first-born over all creation" (Col. 1:15), using the Greek word, prototokos, does not necessarily refer to the "first-created," but to the pre-eminent and supreme One over all creation, for he goes on to explain that "by Him all things were created" (Col. 1:16). These verses do not challenge or negate the previously cited verses which affirm the eternal pre-existence of the Son, as God.
The eternal deity of the Son implied by His eternal existence is also expressed in the prologue of John's gospel, where he writes, "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). Despite misguided interpretive attempts to supply an indirect article in order to imply that "the Word was a god", the only valid exegesis of the text recognizes that "the Word was God". The Word, the expressive agency of God, became flesh (John 1:14) in the person of Jesus.
In the Christological explanation that Paul wrote to the Philippians, he explains that "although He existed in the form of God, He did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped..." (Phil. 2:6). The Son pre-existed as God. That Paul refers to His "existing in the form (morphe) of God," does not imply a phantasmal illusion, an exact replica, or a secondary configuration, as some have suggested, but indicates that the Son existed as the very essence of God's Being, functioning in the enactment and expression of that Being by independent prerogative. As the very Being of God, He acted as God. Recognizing His eternal equality with God, ontologically in His Being and operationally in His functional action, and recognizing that such eternal equality was immutable so that he was incapable of being less than God, the Son did not regard such equality a thing to be "grasped, held on to, or possessively maintained." The Son of God did not have to demand an "equal rights amendment" to assert, protect, or preserve His equality and oneness of Being and function as God. Rather, He was voluntarily willing to take the form of a man, knowing that while functioning as a man He would never be less than God.
If Jesus did not pre-exist as the Son of God prior to His becoming human as the Son of Man, then He could not be the eternal God. If Jesus came into existence only at His physical birth in Bethlehem, then He was not a part of the eternal triune Godhead, and could not have been the God-man with the necessary divinity to forgive sin (Mark 2:7; Luke 5:21) as the "God and Savior" (Titus 2:13) of mankind. But because He was eternally pre-existent as the Son of God, the "Lord of glory" (I Cor. 2:8), in becoming fully human and functioning derivatively as a man, He could still say, "I and the Father are one" (John 10:30) - that not merely a oneness of purpose or intent, but a oneness of divine essence, "true God and eternal life" (I John 5:20).
In accord with the divine purposes expressive of the divine character of justice and grace, God the Father, in mutual determination with the Son and the Spirit, determined to send the Son on the redemptive mission to restore mankind to God's functional intent.
"God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son" (John 3:16). "He did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all" (Rom. 8:32), both in incarnation and atonement. Jesus Christ was "sent by God" (John 17:3) to do the will of God (Jn. 6:38), to speak the words of God (John 3:34), and to do the works of God (Jn. 14:10), in order that "the world might be saved" (John 3:17) and "the world might live through Him" (I John 4:9).
Jesus was continually conscious that He was sent by God the Father. "I proceeded forth and have come from God, ...He sent Me" (John 8:42), Jesus told the Jewish authorities. He explained to His disciples that He had "come forth from God, and was going back to God" (John 13:3); "having came forth from the Father, and come into the world; I am leaving the world again, and going to the Father" (John 16:28). Jesus was forever conscious of His divine mission to man, as well as the necessity of man's "believing Him whom God sent" (John 5:38; 6:29). In His intimate prayer wherein He foresaw the accomplishment of the divine work (John 17:4) in His own death, Jesus said, "I came forth from Thee, and they believed that Thou didst send Me" (John 17:8).
These verses that indicate that God the Father sent God the Son on the redemptive and restorative mission to mankind, would seem to evidence that there is some kind of authoritative hierarchy within the Godhead. Such does not impinge upon the essential equality of Being between the three persons of the Godhead, but does reveal a differentiation of functional operation. Paul can thus state that "God is the head of Christ" (I Cor. 11:3), and that "the Son Himself will be subjected to the One who subjected all things to Him" (I Cor. 15:28). Jesus Himself said, "The Father is greater than I" (John 14:28), but since that statement was uttered during His functional condescension as God-man on earth, it may not pertain to the functional placement of the members of the Godhead. Suffice it to say that God the Father was in such a position to send God the Son to become a man.
The sending of the Son was at the precise point in human history that God had determined. "In the fullness of time God sent forth His Son, born of a woman" (Gal. 4:4). All of the preparatory preliminaries had been accomplished in the Abrahamic promises and the Mosaic Law of the old covenant. The focal point of history is indeed the divine intervention into the space/time context of humanity in the sending of His Son to become a man.
The sending of the Son to become a man was with the complete consensus of the Son to enact the divine mission. Being of one mind with God the Father, the Son was not a hesitant or reticent participant in the decisive endeavor to act on man's behalf. He was not forced by compulsion to assume the role and personification of the Messiah. Rather, He willingly and voluntarily condescended to waive the privileges of His divine function and subordinate Himself to God the Father in what is often referred to as His "humiliation."
Paul explained that in an attitude of humility Jesus "emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, being made in the likeness of men" (Phil. 2:5-7). The word that Paul employs for Jesus' self-emptying (kenosis) means "to counteract the function of" or "to lay aside the use of" something. The question must then be asked: "What did Jesus empty Himself of?" Did Jesus divest Himself of His deity in order to become a man? No, for He could still say, "I and the Father are one" (John 10:30) in essence, as God. Did Jesus lay aside His divine glory? No. The glory of God is in the expression of His character, and when the Word became flesh, John reports that "we beheld His glory, glory as of the only begotten of the Father" (John 1:14). Did Jesus cast off some of the incommunicable attributes of His deity which were incompatible with humanity, such as the omni-attributes of omnipotence, omniscience or omnipresence? Some theologians have proposed such kenotic theories of deprivation and depotentiation, but they inevitably leave Jesus as less than God. Since God is immutable, His nature and essence of Being cannot be changed or partitioned, for He is eternally, completely God, "the same yesterday and today and forever" (Heb. 13:8). Jesus did not divest Himself of His complete and essential Being as God. His act of self-emptying kenosis was at the same time an expression of complete and full plerosis, for "the fullness of deity was dwelling in Him in bodily human form" (Col. 1:19; 2:9).
When considering the Christological formation of the person of Jesus Christ, it is important to recognize the ontological factor of His Being as well as the operational factor of His function. Jesus could be God and be man at the same time, but it would not be possible for Jesus to behave or function as God and man at the same time. God is autonomous, independent and self-generating in His functional action. Man, on the other hand, is dependent, derivative and contingent in the receptivity of his function. The divine Son did not divest Himself of His Being as God in any way, but did defer the independent exercise of His divine function in order to function dependently and derivatively as a man. His divine prerogative of direct and independent enactment of divine function was suspended in order to voluntarily subordinate Himself in human contingency and receptivity. This deferment does not dysfunctionalize deity, but allows deity to function in an indirect manner as receptive man allows for the faithful expression of God's character of self-giving.
Such subordinated dependent function is illustrated in Paul's subsequent phrase indicating that Jesus "took the form of a bond-servant" (Phil 2:7). Indentured servants were perceived as functional tools to perform the Master's desires. The dependency and humility of servanthood were voluntarily assumed by Jesus in order to serve the needs of mankind. Isaiah had prophesied that the Messiah would be a servant (Isa. 52:13) who would suffer (Isa. 53:3-12) on behalf of His people.
Willingly consenting to become the God-man, Jesus recognized that His function as a man was by the indirect receptivity of the works of God. "I do nothing by the direct initiative and instigation of divine function," Jesus said repeatedly (John 5:19,30; 12:49; 14:10), but "the Father abiding in Me does His works" (John 14:10). Even the supernatural and miraculous manifestations evidenced during Jesus' ministry on earth were by the indirect functional receptivity of God's action. Peter declared in his first sermon on Pentecost that Jesus was a man "attested to you by God with miracles and wonders and signs which God performed through Him" (Acts 2:22).
The self-emptying of the Son in becoming a man did not divest or deprive Him of His eternal deity which cannot be altered. The self-emptying of the Son must be understood as the deferment of His direct divine function in order to allow for indirect divine function in "the man, Christ Jesus" (I Tim. 2:5), who was faithfully receptive to such divine function in His behavior for every moment in time for thirty-three years.
The event of Christmas in theological terminology is referred to as the "incarnation," which means "in the flesh." God was enfleshed in humanity in the person of Jesus Christ, born as a baby in Bethlehem. The apostle John begins his gospel narrative, not with details of the physical birth of Jesus, but with the theological explanation that God, the Word (John 1:1), "became flesh and dwelt among us" (John 1:14). "The Word was manifested" (I John 2:1,2), "revealed in the flesh" (I Tim. 3:16), and the importance of such was explained by John when he wrote in his epistle that anyone "who confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God" (I John 4:2,3).
The One who "existed in the form of God" was "made in the likeness of men, and found in appearance as a man" (Phil. 2:7,8). He "partook of flesh and blood" (Heb. 2:14), and "dwelt (literally "tabernacled" by setting up His physical tent) among men" (John 1:14).
Paul's statement that "God sent His Son in the likeness of sinful flesh" (Rom. 8:3) must be carefully explained to avoid attributing any intrinsic or behavioral sinfulness to the person and work of the sinless Savior. All "flesh," in the sense of humanity, is comprised in a sinful condition in spiritual solidarity with the choice that Adam made as the representative man (cf. Rom. 5:12-19). In such a collective condition all humanity can be described as "sinful flesh." The Son of God partook fully and completely of humanity with its tri-fold physical, psychological and spiritual capacities, but the "likeness of sinful flesh" is explained in that He was "unlike" fallen humanity because He did not partake of spiritual depravity and thus did not develop "flesh" patterns from prior selfish and sinful behavior. Though Jesus was fully human, humanness by definition is not necessarily inclusive of sinfulness, though it has been identified by its expression of such since the Fall.
Jesus, as God, became at the same time, fully man. How can this be accomplished, since attributes of divinity and humanity seem to be incompatible? It is admittedly inexplicable for such a union of God and man creates paradoxical antinomies which are beyond human comprehension. But Christian theologians have spent centuries attempting to explain to the best of their finite understanding how God could be conjoined with man, deity with humanity, eternal with temporal, infinite with finite, spirit with physicality, for such is the essence of the divinely revealed incarnation of Jesus.
The Son of God became the God-man, Jesus Christ; a theanthropic person (theos being the Greek word for God, and anthropos being the Greek word for man). He was not a hybrid, nor homogenized by the absorption of either form of being (deity or humanity) into the other in subsumation or subsumption. His divinity did not merely employ His humanity as a container in adoptionistic instrumentalism, nor did His humanity simply consciously assume the mantle of Messianic divinity. His was a genuine and substantial union of divine and human in a singular personification of one real person, described by theologians as a homoousion oneness of being in "hypostatic union," i.e. standing united as one person.
Needless to say, the imprecision of explanation has allowed for numerous Christological variations and controversies throughout the history of Christian thought. The Docetists denied that Jesus was really human, claiming that He only appeared (dokein) to be human with a phantom-like, illusory body. The Ebionites denied that Jesus was divine, claiming that He was simply the natural son of Joseph and Mary who assumed and adopted the "Son of God" title at His baptism. The Arians denied that Jesus was eternally God, claiming that Jesus was created by God prior to the creation of the world. The Apollinarians questioned the deity of Christ, claiming that Jesus had a human body and soul but was invested with the divine Logos to replace His human spirit. The Nestorians posited that Jesus was really two persons in one with a schizoid dual-personality in sympathetic union with one another. The Eutychians claimed that the divine and human substances were merged to form a third compound nature that was not really divine or human. Such variations and controversies of explaining how Jesus could be the God-man continue to this day.
A contemporary theological discussion of the Christological conjunction of God and man in Jesus Christ centers on the incarnational statement of John that "the Word became flesh" (John 1:14). How are we to interpret the word "flesh"? Does this mean that Jesus assumed the human physicality and tangibility of an individual human being in a physical body? Or can this be interpreted inclusively to imply that the divine Word assumed humanity at large, even to the extent that He subsumed humanity into Himself? If the latter interpretation is accepted, and the statement "the Word became flesh" is understood to mean that "God became man", this raises additional questions. Does this impinge upon the immutability of God by indicated that God became something He was not before, i.e. humanity? Is the nature of God thus changed? Is it legitimate, therefore, to refer to "the humanity of God"? In such an eternal union of God and man, is Jesus forever human? If so, does the eternal humanity of Jesus indwell the humanity of the Christian? Does the inclusive divine assumption of humanity necessrily imply the inclusive universalism of Christ's efficacy? Such questions should make us cautious of an overly inclusive interpretation that changes the Biblical statement of "the Word became flesh" into "God became man."
God's purpose in the conjoining of His Son with man in the enfleshed person of Jesus Christ was to reveal Himself to mankind in order to redeem men and restore them to His created intent. Jesus Christ as "the visible image" of the invisible God (cf. II Cor. 4:4; Col. 1:15), revealed God as no one other than the "only begotten Son" could do. He revealed God (Matt. 11:27) and explained Him (John 1:18) so completely and efficaciously that Jesus could say, "From now on you know Him and have seen Him" (John 14:7).
The self-revelation of God in the incarnation of the Son revealed that God had not given up on man. In the action of His grace God revealed His love (John 3:16; I John 4:8,16) in His willingness to give His only begotten Son to become a man and die for men (Rom. 5:8) in vicarious assumption of the consequences of men's sin. The incarnation and the atonement are inseparably linked. Jesus came to die! "The Son of Man came to give His life as a ransom for all" (Matt. 20:28; Mark 10:45; I Tim. 2:6). "Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient unto death, even death on a cross" (Phil. 2:8). "He partook of flesh and blood, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil" (Heb. 2:14). The teleological purpose of the incarnation is that "God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself" (II Cor. 5:19) as Mediator (I Tim. 2:5) and Savior (Lk. 2:11; John 4:42; Titus 2:13; 3:6; I John 4:14). God wanted to restore man to His created intent by offering a new creation by His Word whereby His life was again invested in man to be expressed through man unto His own glory. There was no other way to effect such and maintain divine justice except that the God-man - One who was man, capable of experiencing the death consequences; and One who was God, capable of forgiving sin - would assume the conjunction of deity and humanity in one person in order to redeem, heal and restore the human race. That was why Gregory of Nazianzus (380-389 A.D.) explained that "the unassumed is the unhealed."
But these very features of God's self-revelation and self-giving in the Son are at the same time the stumbling-blocks of reactive offense that natural men have towards the incarnation and crucifixion of Jesus Christ. An innocuous baby in a manger with ethereal angels, idyllic shepherds, and inquiring Magi can be tolerated if recognized as containing some superstition. The death of a martyr on a Roman cross can be understood and accommodated by natural reasoning. But the theological implications of the incarnation which assert that God acted supernaturally by entering into the space/time context of the world in the form of a man, this the natural man objects to, for in the sophistry of scientism modern man discounts the dimension of supernatural and miraculous divine action. That the incarnation could be God's unique and singular method of dealing with man's sin, and that the crucifixion should be the singular (Heb. 7:27; 9:28; 10:10) sinless (II Cor. 5:21; I John 3:5) sacrifice of redemptive efficacy for men's sin, this the natural man finds objectionable as contrary to his rationalistic premise of pluralistic means. That the introduction of divine life in a man by the incarnation of Jesus should be prototypical of the reinvestiture of God's life in all men (John 6:60; 14:6; I John 5:12) who would be receptive to Christ's resurrection-life, and that such divine life is indispensable to the proper function of derivative man, this is offensive to the natural man who regards himself to be adequate and competent for life in the philosophy of humanism. This explains why the theological implications of Christmas are received less frequently than the historical and cultural considerations.