How Can It Be That Jesus is Truly God and Truly Human?

How can it be?  The central claim of Christian faith is that Jesus is God incarnate.  God in the flesh.  The eternal Son of God in human form.  The Second Person of the Trinity made man.  The prologue of John’s Gospel declares that: “The Word (who is God) became flesh and made His dwelling among us.” (Jn 1:1, 14)  The creed professes Jesus as God from God, Light from Light, True God from true God.  But how can it be?  How can it be that Jesus is both true God and true man?  Fully human and fully divine?

This isn’t just the central claim of Christianity.  It’s also the central mystery of faith—the Mystery of the Incarnation, as it’s called.  Obviously, as a mystery, the Incarnation isn’t something mere mortals like us are supposed to be able to grasp fully.  But if it isn’t intelligible, if it doesn’t at least make sense on some level, how can anyone be expected to believe it?  This was one of the things I wrestled with most when first considering Christianity.

Undercover Boss is a TV show where a CEO goes undercover as an employee of the company he or she runs.  One of the first episodes featured the CEO of Waste Management, a national trash collecting corporation.  After being fitted with a clever disguise, this CEO of Waste Management went into the field—collecting garbage.  In one scene, he was riding on a garbage truck and had to jump off at numerous stops to empty heavy trash bins full of garbage into the back of the truck.  From time to time, he also had to stick his hands in the garbage in order to clear room for the compacting mechanism on the back of the truck.  It was quite a sight: the CEO of Waste Management, who earlier that morning had been shown leaving his mansion in an expensive suit, now wearing overalls, picking through mounds of garbage!

But here’s the thing: Even though he was actually doing the work of one of his employees, even though was actually picking through the trash, even though his hands were actually covered with nasty, rotting, stinking garbage, he was still the CEO of the company.  His identity hadn’t changed at all.  His status and power hadn’t diminished.  In fact, at any second, he could have revealed himself as CEO and assumed all the privilege and prestige of his position. 

Moreover, he was still privy to all the knowledge he has as CEO that nobody else does.  He still knew all the company’s most confidential financials and secrets.  He still held the vision for the company’s future.  He still saw all the big picture things his employees couldn’t.  He was simply choosing to give up all the perks and prerogatives of his position so he could truly experience what his workers do.

And that’s the other thing: He was actually experiencing what they do.  He was actually sticking his hands into piles of garbage.  He was actually expending himself physically.  He was actually exhausted by the end of the day.  His back was actually sore at night.  It wasn’t fake or pretend.  He was actually living the experience of his employees.    

I don’t mean to press this too far—obviously the CEO of Waste Management couldn’t fully experience everything his employees do.  For example, being phenomenally wealthy, he can’t feel the anxiety many of them do over paying their bills at the end of the month.  And of course, if it got too miserable, he knew that at any moment he could always call time out and remove himself from the situation.  They can’t.  That’s their life. 

But, this is what makes Undercover Boss a good analogy for the Incarnation.  While we certainly can’t understand in every way how the eternal Son of God could be fully human, the analogy goes a long way to making it intelligible.  As a fully human being, Jesus actually lived our experience.  He wasn’t faking or pretending.  However, while making Himself truly vulnerable to all that we are vulnerable to, Jesus was still the Son of God.  While “getting his hands dirty”, His identity didn’t change.  While experiencing all we have to (and more), His divine status and power were still intrinsic to His being—He just chose to set them aside.  He limited Himself.  He emptied Himself of all His divine privileges and prerogatives.  But they were still His to possess.  If He wanted, He could assume them at any instant. 

Of course, like a CEO, He had knowledge of things we don’t.  And, He always knew He could extricate Himself from the misery He suffered at any moment He wanted to.  So, while this illustration goes a long way in making the Incarnation intelligible—how the qualities and attributes of divinity can be intrinsic to Jesus’ (very human) being—it doesn’t explain how He could be fully human in every way we know He was.  For example, in the Agony in the Garden we know He felt intense angst and dread over his impending suffering and death, just as we would.  But, as true God, He also knew He could escape it, if He chose to.  We don’t have this kind of knowledge or power.  How He could still feel the same fear we do in the face of death remains a mystery.  But He did. 

In the end, the Incarnation isn’t the biggest mystery Christian faith poses.  The biggest mystery is why God would ever choose to become a vulnerable human being.  Why He would ever choose to empty Himself this way—for us.  This is the biggest mystery of all.  How can it be?

Several years ago, one of the worship leaders at the church we attended led us in a prayer that I will never forget.  She was only a teenager at the time, but her prayer was truly profound.  And it wasn’t just what she said, but how she said it—with such genuine and utter astonishment.  In heartfelt praise, she asked: How can it be that you, Lord, would empty Yourself of all Your transcendent glory—a glory unlimited by space and time and every other thing—in order to become a fragile human being and suffer the misery of a torturous death.  How can it be that you would do this for us?  To save us, who usually want nothing to do with You.   

How can it be?  How can it be that God loves us so?  This truly is the greatest mystery of all. 

How can it be?  There’s no way we could ever understand a love so glorious.  But this is the glorious grace that is at the heart of Christmas.  God’s astounding gift for you and me. 

Merry Christmas!

About Me

E.J. Sweeney is a true skeptic. He needs to see to believe. Hard Evidence. Compelling Proof. Solid Logic. This is what he believes in. In college, he encountered questions that the superficial faith he was raised on couldn’t handle. So he began a quest for Truth, a quest for the answers to life’s ultimate questions.

EJ Sweeney

Read More