Summary: Incarnate means to embody or personify, and though we cannot incarnate Christ in the same way the Word became flesh, we can incarnate His love and grace and mercy
December 9, 2007
Have you ever heard the phrase, someone is the embodiment of something? A good example is Adolf Hitler. People have said he was the “embodiment of evil.” Mother Teresa might be called the embodiment of compassion. Jim Elliott, or many modern-day martyrs, might be called the embodiment of sacrifice. Adrian Peterson might be called the embodiment of football talent – I threw that one in for Jim Grinnell, who we might call the embodiment of an oxymoron – an old youth pastor.
Gordon might be considered the embodiment of an aging hippie. You get the idea. When someone embodies something, they personify something – they help us to see some quality, some talent, in human form.
Embodiment might mean a person who represents an abstract quality in their being;
Joel, you might say, is the personification of a positive outlook and joy. We could cite several other examples, but to say someone embodies or personifies a character, a quality, a talent, is similar to another phrase we often hear around Christmas time. Incarnation.
I say similar, because even though we’ll often hear the term incarnation used as a near-synonym for embodiment, when we look at the biblical meaning of incarnation, it means so much more. So, while we might say that Adolf Hitler is the embodiment, the personification, even the incarnation of evil, and we’d all understand what that means, the biblical meaning of incarnation goes so far beyond that that this morning, that we’ll only be able to begin to scratch the surface.
Incarnation has several secular meanings, but one meaning truly unique to our faith – singularly Christian. American Heritage Dictionary defines incarnation like this:
1. a. The act of incarnating.
b. The condition of being incarnated.
2. Incarnation Christianity The doctrine that the Son of God was conceived in the womb of Mary and that Jesus is true God and true man.
3. A bodily manifestation of a supernatural being.
4. One who is believed to personify a given abstract quality or idea.
5. A period of time passed in a given bodily form or condition: hopes for a better life in another incarnation.
So, when we use the word in a non-religious sense, #4 is the way we will sometimes use it. But clearly meaning #2 is our Christian understanding of this word. Let’s try to unpack the meaning of this great truth, which we will often ponder during the Christmas season, but which really impacts all of our faith throughout the calendar year.
The actual word incarnation is not found anywhere in scripture, but the doctrine of the incarnation is clearly indicated in many passages of scripture. We get the word incarnation from the Latin translation of John 1:14, which says:
John 1:14 (NIV) 14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
The Word, that is, Jesus, became flesh. That’s what we celebrate during this Christmas season – the becoming flesh, at least that part that there were eyewitnesses to, that is, the birth, of Jesus. That, in a nutshell, is the incarnation, and of course His life is part of the incarnation as well. That is what we’re singing about when we sing O Come All Ye Faithful….
Yea, Lord, we greet Thee, born this happy morning;
Jesus, to Thee be all glory given;
Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing.
“Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing.”
That’s the incarnation – it’s seen in John 1:14, what one Bible commentary called one of the most important verses in the Bible. One Bible Dictionary defines the incarnation this way:
That act of grace whereby Christ took our human nature into union with his Divine Person, (and) became man. Christ is both God and man. A Divine Person was united to a human nature (Acts 20:28; Rom 8:32; 1Co 2:8; Heb 2:11-14; 1Ti 3:16; Gal 4:4); the two natures are not mixed or confounded, and it is perpetual.
—Easton’s Illustrated Dictionary
The incarnation is the union of divinity and humanity in Jesus Christ. So, while it’s not a biblical word, it’s a clearly biblical idea. It’s a vital doctrine of our faith. It’s the affirmation that God, in one of the three persons of His existence as Trinity, and without in any way ceasing to be the one God, has revealed Himself to humanity, for the purpose of our salvation, by becoming human.
Jesus, that baby born to the virgin Mary more than 2,000 years ago, that man who lived, suffered, died and rose again, that man who breathed the same air we breathe, drank the same kind of water we drink, sweated when He was hot, shivered when He was cold, had sore muscles after he worked hard, got hungry, got thirsty, laughed and cried, felt physical and emotional pain, and knew real joy, and essentially experienced all the same very human things we do, as part of our common human experience, that man Jesus, is the living, breathing Word of God. He’s the focus of our human encounter with God.