Jesus' Incarnation & Divinity

The Nativity - The birth of Jesus Christ

At the heart of the Christian faith is the belief that God has become man, that Jesus Christ is Divine. By the word ‘Incarnation’ we mean that God the Son took to himself a human nature for the sake of our salvation. The word ‘Incarnation’ expresses the fact that Jesus Christ is not merely a man, a perfect man or even a saint, but God himself become man to save us and bring us back to God.

Jesus Christ was conceived miraculously through the power of God. He was born through the consent of his mother Mary who made a radical assent to be his mother after a mysterious apparition of an angelic being (Lk 1). As had been prophesised in the Old Testament, Jesus was born in King David’s city of Bethlehem.
The divinity and humanity of Jesus Christ were progressively revealed throughout his life. Elizabeth hailed Mary as ‘mother of my Lord’ and wise men came to worship him at his birth. John’s Gospel states that the Word, who is God, ‘became flesh’.

The Bible says explicitly that Jesus is God. An example of such a statement is when St Thomas says to the risen Jesus, “My Lord and my God” (Jn 20:28). The Bible also records instances in which Jesus confirmed his divinity in response to statements or questions about his identity asked by others. When asked the following question directly by the high priest, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” Jesus responded, “I am” (Mk 14:61-62; cf. Mt 26:63-64). Furthermore, the fact that Jesus was then condemned to death for blasphemy shows that his listeners had understood his claim to be divine. The deeper mystery in Scripture, however, is not whether Jesus is divine but the sense in which he is divine. In the Gospels, Jesus generally refers to himself as the ‘Son’ or the ‘beloved Son’, and he is also described as the ‘Son of God’ (cf. Mt 27:54, Mk 14:33, Lk 1:35, Jn 3:18). This phrase, ‘Son of God’, is not some honorific phrase, as St John and Hebrews show when they speak of Jesus as the only and uniquely begotten Son (Jn 1:14; Heb 1:5). The implication of this uniqueness is that Jesus is not an adopted or honorific ‘son of God’ or a different ‘god’ from his heavenly Father. On the contrary, Jesus has the ‘fullness of God’ (Col 1:19), describing himself as being ‘one’ with his heavenly Father (Jn 10:30). In other words, whatever can be attributed to God as God can be attributed correctly to Jesus Christ. Scripture further confirms this truth by reporting occasions on which Jesus is not only honoured but worshipped (cf. Mt 2:1, Mt 14:33, Jn 9:38). Scripture also affirms that Jesus has the power to forgive sins (cf. Mk 2:1-12), an ability attributed uniquely to God by those listening. Finally, Jesus asserted his eternal existence and divinity by saying that he existed before Abraham and by applying to himself the name of God revealed to Moses, “Before Abraham was, I AM” (Jn 8:58, cf. Ex 3:14). By attempting, after these words, to stone Jesus to death for blasphemy, his listeners showed they had understood his meaning, “It is not for a good work that we stone you but for blasphemy; because you, being a man, make yourself God.” (Jn 10:33). Therefore, the Bible does say that Jesus is God – the only begotten Son of God, that he substantiated this claim by his words and deeds, and that his listeners understood his claim.

Given his claims to be the Son of God, we cannot simply say that Jesus was a good man or moral teacher. As C.S. Lewis said, “A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic -on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg- or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God; or else a madman or something worse” (Mere Christianity, III). In other words, there are only three possible conclusions that we can reach regarding Jesus Christ: either he was mad or he was bad or he was God himself come to save us. He cannot simply be a good man or moral teacher.

All the relevant historical documents show that belief in the divinity of Christ was central to the faith of the first Christians and not something invented by the Church centuries later. First, much of the New Testament was written well before the end of the first century by the apostles or those closely associated with them. Since the New Testament affirms Jesus’ divinity, as argued above, the first Christians to have known Jesus personally clearly believed in his divinity. Second, other early documents confirm the consistency of early Christian belief in the divinity of Christ. For example, St Ignatius wrote in c. 107 AD, “Our God, Jesus Christ, was conceived by Mary in accord with God’s plan: of the seed of David, it is true, but also of the Holy Spirit” (Letter to the Ephesians, 18:2). Since, in this letter, St Ignatius explicitly describes Jesus Christ as ‘our God’, it is clear that early Christians recognised Christ’s divinity. Finally, the pagan historian Pliny the Younger informed the Emperor Trajan at the beginning of the second century that Christians regularly met to worship Christ ‘as a god’ (Letters 10.96). Although Pliny did not fully understand Christianity, his letter confirms that the early Christians worshipped Christ as divine, rather than honouring him merely as a great man or prophet.

Contrary to popular belief, the so-called ‘gnostic gospels’ do not deny the divinity of Christ. On the contrary, these false gospels tend to downplay the humanity of Christ. In the so- called Infancy Gospel of Thomas, for example, the child ‘Jesus’ is depicted as rather alien and malevolent, hurting and killing people by divine power when they disturb him (3 – 5). Furthermore, even the earliest texts of these gnostic gospels come from the later second century, well after the completion of the books of the New Testament. The gnostic gospels are not, therefore, a reliable guide to the beliefs of the first Christians but belong, rather, to attempts to subvert early Christian belief.

The Nicene Creed (325 AD) is an ancient summary of Christian belief. It defines the two natures of Christ.

"I believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, one in Being with the Father. Through him all things were made."

This teaches us that He was, is and always will be God with the Father and the Holy Spirit. He is begotten not made, a divine person, not a created person like us. All created things came to be through him.

"For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he was born of the Virgin Mary, and became man."

This teaches us that He became man, body and soul, participating fully in human life, and remaining incarnate to unite humanity with God forever.

Read more in the Catechism of the Catholic Church on the Incarnation

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