Every year on December 25th Christians around the world celebrate the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. But what is the significance of it? What does it mean when Christian say that God incarnated as a human being?
In normal, day-to-day English, you would probably almost never come across the word “incarnation.” If you did it would be more or less synonymous with the words “embodiment” or “version,” as in “My cousin Julie is so sweet she’s basically the incarnation of kindness,” or “This is the third incarnation of the novel I’m working on.”
Recently during a devotional time, I was meditating on the incarnation of Jesus Christ, and during this time I was overwhelmed by my beauty in Jesus Christ. Perhaps this sounds like a strange thing to say. It’s common for Christians to emphasize how wretched, awful, and ugly people can be (some traditions take this further than others)—and I think it is important to spend time reflecting on the darkness and evil that exists within each of us. Part of God’s purposes with Israel was to make human sin fully known, as Paul says in Romans 7:13, “In order that sin might be recognized as sin, it [the Law/Torah] used what is good to bring about my death, so that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful.” But, whatever else he did, Jesus Christ also came to show us just how beautiful we really are.
It is not unusual to hear Jesus described as “true humanity” or being “truly human.” (I think I first came across something like this from N. T. Wright, one of my favorite Biblical scholars and one of my inspirations for choosing to pursue theology and Biblical scholarship in seminary.) I think this language expresses a concept found in the Bible. It’s what I think Paul is alluding to when he calls Jesus Christ the “final Adam” in 1 Corinthians 15:45, or when he says in Romans 5:19, “just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.” It is what I think Christians mean when they say that Jesus lived a perfect, sinless life or that he kept Torah perfectly. I think this concept is also evident in some of the early Christian theologians, for example Irenaeus with his concept of “recapitulation,” by which he means that Jesus “redid” human life and succeeded in every place that we failed. Jesus redeemed what Adam destroyed.