The significance of the Incarnation
The eternal Son of God humbled himself and became the Son of Man. Because of his wilful abasement and obedience, God elevated him to the highest position of honour and glory in the universe. But as Paul points out, when God raised up Christ, He also raised us up and enthroned us with him in the heavenly realms (Eph 2.6). The incarnation thus represents God’s humiliation and humanity’s exaltation.
God stated his purpose at the very beginning of creation: “Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness, and let them have dominion …” (Gen 1.26). Many scholars consider this to be the first reference to the Trinity in the Bible: a singular God revealed in a plurality of persons (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit).
It is generally recognized that the phrase ‘image and likeness’ refers to the God-like qualities of reason, perception, and self-determination. God, who is a spiritual being (John 4.24), made human beings in his image and likeness in terms of their spiritual, moral, and intellectual capacity.
However, God completely ‘changed the game’, so to speak, when, through the incarnation, he assumed the nature and properties of a human being. It is one thing for the Creator to make the creature in his image; it is altogether another thing for the Creator to take upon himself the characteristics of the creature. This represents an extraordinary condescension on the part of the Creator, and conversely, an extraordinary exaltation of the creature.
The apostle Paul describes the act of Almighty God becoming a human being as a ‘mystery’ — a hidden truth that can only be revealed by the Holy Spirit (1 Tim 3.16). In his letter to the Philippians, Paul declares that although Christ was in the form and of the same essence as God (‘consubstantial with the Father’), he did not consider it something to be held onto to be equal with God. He made a conscious decision to relinquish his glory and empty himself of his privileges, whilst still retaining his deity (Phil 2.6-8).
“He took the form of a slave” Paul says, “and came in the likeness of men”, to the point of being conceived as an embryo in the womb of a peasant girl in a remote village of Galilee. He went through the difficult process of puberty and adolescence, and experienced the full gamut of human suffering, apart from personal sin (Heb 2.17; 4.15).
That being said, this was not a short-term excursion into the human sphere on the part of the Son of God, with the option of jettisoning his physical body and returning to his pre-incarnate state of pure spirit. In choosing to become flesh, Christ identified himself completely and permanently with humankind, a decision that was both irrevocable and irreversible.
As Jürgen Moltmann noted in The Trinity and the Kingdom of God, “The incarnation of the Son is not something transitional. It is and remains to all eternity. There is no God other than the incarnate, human God who is one with men and women” (SCM Press, pg. 119).
The resurrection was proof of Christ’s deity, and also his eternal identification with humankind. Paul says that Jesus Christ was “declared to be the Son of God with power … by the resurrection from the dead” (Rom 1.4). He also says that the resurrection of Christ is the firstfruits of a general resurrection of believers at the end of time (1 Cor 15.20), and that Christ’s glorious post-resurrection body is the pattern according to which our bodies will be conformed (Phil 3.21; 1 Cor 15.49).
In John’s vision of heaven, he sees Christ, not as a disembodied spirit or some ethereal presence, but as ‘the Son of Man’ — exceedingly glorious, but a man nevertheless.
Then I turned to see the voice that spoke with me. And having turned I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the seven lampstands One like the Son of Man, clothed with a garment down to the feet and girded about the chest with a golden band. His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and His eyes like a flame of fire; His feet were like fine brass, as if refined in a furnace, and His voice as the sound of many waters; He had in his right hand seven stars, out of His mouth went a sharp two-edged sword, and His countenance was like the sun shining in its strength. And when I saw Him, I fell at His feet as dead. (Rev 1.12-17)
And later in the vision, John sees Christ ‘in the midst of the throne’, and understands that he is the focal point of heaven, and indeed, of the whole universe (Rev 5.6-14). However, the picture he sees is not that of a conquering king reveling in his triumph, but rather, a lamb that has been sacrificed and somehow is alive again. In other words, Jesus still bears the marks of his sacrifice in heaven, in his glorious eternal body! There are still nail prints in his hands, and a gaping wound in his side (John 20.25-27).
Ironically, Jesus is the only person in heaven with a ‘less than perfect’ human body. He will forever bear the marks of his sacrifice, constantly reminding us of the enormous price that he paid for our redemption (1 Pet 1.18-21).
Introducing humanity into the Trinity
As he celebrated Pesach with his disciples, Jesus announced that God was about to establish a new covenant with the house of Israel through the sacrifice of his life. He prayed that his followers would all be one, “as You, Father, are in me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us” (John 17.21). He also declared that “the glory which You gave me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one.”
Many years later, one of the participants in that inaugural new covenant Seder, John, had a vision in which he saw ‘One like the Son of Man’ standing in the midst of the throne of heaven with his followers in close proximity (Rev 1.13; 5.6; 22.3-4). Moreover, he recorded the Lord’s promise: “To him who overcomes I will grant to sit with me on my throne, as I also overcame and sat down with my Father on his throne” (Rev 3.21).
Reflecting on these Scriptures, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “The ultimate end of the whole divine economy is the entry of God’s creatures into the perfect unity of the Blessed Trinity” (p. 77). In order to achieve this, God transcendently intervened in creation and history through the resurrection of Christ. “… the Father’s power ‘raised up’ Christ his Son and by doing so perfectly introduced his Son’s humanity, including, his body, into the Trinity” (p. 186). Indeed, “Jesus’ final apparition ends with the irreversible entry of his humanity into divine glory, symbolized by the cloud and by heaven, where he is seated from that time forward at God’s right hand” (p.189). (Emphasis added).
The 8th century Byzantine priest and monk, Saint John of Damascus (John Damascene), declared in De Fide Orthodoxa, 'By ‘the Father’s right hand’ we understand the glory and honour of divinity, where he who exists as Son of God before all ages, indeed as God, of one being with the Father, is seated bodily after he became incarnate and his flesh was glorified.” In other words, there is now a God-Man on the throne!
By means of the incarnation — the birth, death, and resurrection of Christ — God introduced humanity into the perfect unity of the Trinity, or as Jesus put it, enabled ‘them’ (human beings) to be one in ‘Us’ (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit).
God’s humiliation and Humanity’s exaltation
In the ‘kenosis’ passage of Philippians chapter two, Paul juxtapositions two contrasting dynamics: humiliation and exaltation. They are like two arrows pointing in opposite directions — one down and one up. And significantly, both converge in the person of Christ.
And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Therefore God also has highly exalted him and given him the name which is above every name. (Phil 2.8-9)
The eternal Son of God humbled himself and became the Son of Man. Because of his willful abasement and obedience, God elevated him to the highest position of honour and glory in the universe. But as Paul points out, when God raised up Christ, He also raised us up and enthroned us with him in the heavenly realms (Eph 2.6). The incarnation thus represents God’s humiliation and humanity’s exaltation.
Again, quoting Jürgen Moltmann, “In the incarnation of the Son the triune God enters into the limited, finite situation. Not only does he enter into this state of being man; he accepts and adopts it himself, making it part of his own, eternal life. He becomes the human God.”
Renowned Swiss theologian, Karl Barth, expressed it this way: “As God he was humbled to take our place, and as man he is exalted on our behalf. He is set at the side of God in the humanity which is ours … What has happened to him as the one true man is the conversion of all of us to God, the realization of true humanity … As in him God became like man, so too in him man has become like God … In him humanity is exalted humanity, just as Godhead is humiliated Godhead.” (The Doctrine of Reconciliation, Church Dogmatics, Vol. 4/1)
Writing in The Humanity of God, Barth asserts that “In Him [Christ] the fact is once for all established that God does not exist without man … Is it not true that in Jesus Christ, as He is attested in the Holy Scripture, genuine deity includes in itself genuine humanity?”
And therein lies the ultimate significance of the incarnation: the immutable, indivisible union of deity and humanity in Christ.