Many religions tell of God becoming man, because humans sense that we could not know God otherwise. But Jesus is different…divinely different.
In 1819 using a razor and glue, the former American President Thomas Jefferson, one of the most brilliant men of his age, cut and pasted passages of the New Testament to create The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, popularly known as the Jefferson Bible. Jefferson’s Bible removed all of the miracles of Jesus, most mentions of the supernatural, the Resurrection, and all mentions of His divinity. In a letter to William Short (1820), Jefferson wrote that “Jesus did not mean to impose himself on mankind as the son of God.” Thomas Jefferson clearly regarded the man Jesus as a great moral teacher, but rejected the concept of Jesus as God.
He was not alone. The Koran teaches that Allah has no son, and that those who believe that he does will be destroyed. Many critics throughout history have lauded Jesus for his moral example but lambasted early Christians for making him God. Jesus Christ is the cornerstone of Christianity; without Him Christianity could not exist. At the same time, Jesus is the stumbling block of Christianity; the gospel as written in the New Testament is a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks (1 Corinthians 1:23).
Islam teaches that Allah spoke to Mohammed through the angel Gabriel in a cave on Mount Hira (610 AD), reciting the teachings that would later become of Koran. Buddhism holds that Gautama achieved enlightenment through meditation sitting under the Bodhi Tree in Bodh Gaya, India (c. 528 BC). Mormonism insists that Joseph Smith received the revelation of God on golden plates delivered by the angel Moroni (1823). Judaism affirms that God inscribed the Ten Commandments on stone tablets on Mount Sinai and gave them personally to Moses (Exodus 31:18), providing the rest of the Law through subsequent revelation. Many other religions have similar stories; that a special human received divine guidance which he subsequently used to found a religion.
Jesus is unique. He did not claim to be a man who transmitted the word of God, He claimed to be God (John 8:58-59) and Man who was the Word of God. There is no record of Jesus receiving golden plates, stone tablets, words in a cave or under a tree, coming down from heaven. The extant record states that Jesus Himself came down from heaven. Religious prophets throughout time have said “follow these teachings and you will be right with God” while Jesus metaphorically said “eat my flesh and drink my blood (John 6:29-58)” and “if you have seen Me, you have seen God (the Father) (John 14:9-11).” Jesus’ enemies knew His claims, and hated Him for them (John 5:18).
Jesus claimed to be God Incarnate; God in human flesh. His claims were unlike any other religious leader in history, and these claims were either true or false. If true, then Jesus really was the Son of God and God the Son; fully human and fully divine. If His claims were false then He either knew that they were false or He did not. If Jesus knew that His claims were false and made them anyway then He was a terrible deceiver, not a great prophet and moral teacher. He was also a fool because His claims cost Him His life. If He did not know that His claims were false then He was crazy. In this case also, He could not have been a great prophet or moral teacher. We are left with a dilemma. Jesus could not have been merely a prophet or great moral teacher, as Mohammed and Buddha were reputed to be. He was either God, unspeakably evil, or insane.
Another question arises. Every other religion posits an enlightened human leader, but Christianity requires an incarnation of the divine. Not an incarnation in the sense that Zeus became a swan to seduce Leda, Queen of Sparta, but an incarnation of the One God: All Knowing, All Loving and All Powerful. Not an incarnation of the temporal gods of the polytheist traditions, who themselves sprang from the primal matter and energy of the universe, but an incarnation of the eternal God who created the primal matter and energy of the universe. Such a thought is almost offensive to the thinking man, and it is no wonder so many people oppose it. Nonetheless, this Incarnation is the central tenet of Christianity. The next question is…why was an incarnation necessary? Taking the claims of the Bible at face value, just as with the Koran and other religious texts, this article will address that question.
Gabriel met with Mohammad to share God’s teachings, the same reason that Moroni met with Joseph Smith and Jehovah met with Moses. The information was contained in language and stored in a physical medium, whether written recitations, golden plates or stone tablets. The knowledge that could be transmitted was limited by the language involved and the physical properties of the chosen medium, such as size. While extra-biblical texts suggest that Mohammad and Smith might be good role models, none claim that they were perfect, much less divine, and even less an incarnation of the One God.
Jesus, according to Biblical testimony the Incarnation of the Divine, broke the mold. Whereas Moses and Mohammad could only report on what God said, Jesus’ every word and His every action revealed God. He was the perfect example of how God would react in everyday situations faced by humans, because He was God and Man. As John wrote, the incarnation provided so much information about God that the world could not hold all the books that could be written about Jesus (John 21:25). It had to be that way, because God is totally different from man and we need as much information as we can get to know Him. Furthermore since we can only understand Him by analogy to human experience, we had to see God in human experience to translate His nature into our lives. The gospels show the work of the eternal God who voluntarily limited Himself in space and time. Several hundred pages could not provide man all that he needed to know about God, the most foreign of all personages. Further, if the Almighty is interested not merely that man holds a certain set of beliefs but that he acts in a certain way, He must show him, not just tell him, what to do.
A skeptic might protest that though Jesus’ life revealed legions about Him, moderns have only the Bible, a long book to be sure but still a small glance at Him. While a valid point, the issue is not so much the amount of knowledge but the type of knowledge. While other texts are heavy in rules, the gospels are heavy in stories. While other holy books mention battles and political domination, the New Testament mentions day to day struggles of regular, usually unremarkable, people. If the wholly-other God were trying to tell mortal man how to live, coming to earth and living among them would be the most logical way to do it.
Therefore, the first reason that the Incarnation of God was inevitable was to share information with man.
Suffering and death are inevitable parts of human existence. Religions handle these realities different, with some such as Buddhism denying their reality and others such as Islam telling their adherents to submit to suffering and death now because paradise is coming. Suffering among the gods in polytheistic religions was common, such as when the storm-god Baal was “killed” by the sea-god Yam in the Canaanite mythology or when the chief of gods Osiris was “killed” by the underworld god Set in the Egyptian mythology. However, suffering in these traditions was due to rivalry between deities, not suffering for the sins of mankind. In Islamic tradition, Allah, like the god of Aristotle, is beyond suffering. In ancient Hebrew tradition, however, which is the soil out of which Christianity grew, Jehovah suffered for His people, as seen in the example of Hosea.
In the Christian faith, man suffers, but God suffers far more. Each person suffers a certain amount in his or her life and then the suffering ends at death. God, however, bears all of the suffering for each person who has ever lived. He does it directly as noted in the Old Testament, and even more directly in the person of Jesus Christ. On the cross, Jesus bore all of the suffering and all of the sin for everyone. One amazing thing about the gospel is that while we suffer, our Creator suffers with us, and ultimately He suffers more. As preposterous and even offensive as it sounds, the God who holds the universe together suffered and even died for the rebellious creatures He made.
However the mystery here is even deeper. Man is inherently wicked in his moral nature and therefore predisposed to sin. Since the inevitable result of sin is suffering and death, man is destined to suffer throughout his life and ultimately die. To completely understand and completely share in the human experience, God would also have to suffer and die, even though He would do so without sin. In fact, Hebrews 2:10 teaches that Jesus Christ was made complete through His suffering and death. What a mind bending thought! Jesus was God Incarnate, with every attribute of the Father in its fullest extent, and yet He had to suffer to be the Savior of Man, and was thereby made complete.
Therefore, the second reason that the Incarnation of God was inevitable was to share suffering with man.
In most religions people are given a list of things to do to attain salvation, often including praying, giving money to the poor, or going on a pilgrimage. There are also moral rules or standards of conduct, which adherents must follow. These standards are communicated by the deity to the prophet and then to the people, whose standing in the religion and ultimate destiny is determined by how well they follow the rules.
Two assumptions underlie this process. The first is that the people want to follow God and the second is that the people are able to follow God. To meet these assumptions mankind has to be morally good; not perfect, but good. He also has to be competent enough in himself to understand physical as well as spiritual truth.
Christianity makes neither of these assumptions, largely because of the Hebrew experience. In the Torah, Moses clearly laid out the blessings that would come when the Hebrews followed Jehovah (Deuteronomy 28) and the curses that would come when they did not (Deuteronomy 27). Nonetheless, the history of Israel was by and large a history of man failing to meet God’s standards and ultimately rejecting Him.
Rather than relying on man to secure his own salvation, the Christian faith relies on God. Since He is utterly holy and man is not, there can be no association between God and man. For man to encounter the fiery holiness of the Lord in his weak and sinful state is to face inevitable annihilation, as the Hebrews perceived on Mount Sinai (Exodus 20:18-19). Man no more wants to encounter the real God than he wants to march into the sun. For the relationship between humanity and God to be restored, men had to live a life of perfect righteousness. No one can do this, so God Himself became a man and did what mere man could not. The Lord had to hide the power of His glory in human flesh, live a sinless life, suffer and die. Furthermore God took all of the sin in history upon Himself and paid the logical price…death. In doing so as a man God enabled men to transfer their sin, and its penalty, to Jesus, to know Him and to believe in Him as they could never before. Because Jesus rose from the dead, all those who believe in Him will rise also.
Therefore, the third reason that the Incarnation of God was inevitable was to share salvation with man.
Share the Spirit
Most religions do not have a concept of the trinity, in which God eternally exists in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Therefore the Christian concept of the Spirit of God dwelling in man does not exist in other faiths. In the ancient Hebrew religion the Spirit of God indwelt people for a time but departed when they chose evil, such as Samson (Judges 14:6 cf. 16:20) and Saul (1 Samuel 16:14).
Christianity is different. The New Testament teaches that the Spirit of God dwells in believers forever, beginning the moment that they accept Christ. Why could the Spirit do that now when He could not before? Recall that God cannot coexist with sin; His very nature snuffs out sin in His presence. When man still bore his own sin, such as the ancient times, the Spirit could not abide in man. When Jesus took the sin of man, the man had no sin, and the Spirit of God could abide there. Only once Christ had cleansed man from his sin could the Holy Spirit come and live within him. This does not mean that believers in Christ do not sin but rather that their sin is imputed to Jesus Christ and in the judgment of the Father, they are clean.
Therefore, the fourth reason that the Incarnation of God was inevitable was to share God’s Holy Spirit with man.
The Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ is the foundation of Christianity, and yet it is also one of the greatest obstacles to others accepting Christianity. It is literally a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks. Nonetheless it was the only way that God could restore the relationship between Himself and man which had been broken by the first sin in the Garden of Eden.
For all his insight, Thomas Jefferson could not see that Jesus of Nazareth could never have been just a moral teacher, and he could not see that man by his nature needed more than instructions and willpower to be reconciled with God. Man needed God to become man and restore fellowship. Therefore, however mysterious, once God decided to redeem man, the incarnation became inevitable.