How Could God Become a Man?

Adoration of the Shepherds

Adoration of the Shepherds, Gerard van Honthorst, 1622

Christmas is the time of year when Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus, who they believe is the Messiah (or savior, literally “anointed one”) predicted in the Old Testament.  According to Christian orthodoxy, Jesus is actually God incarnate.  The doctrine of God becoming human is very clear throughout both the Old and New Testaments (e.g. Isaiah 9:6, Isaiah 7:14, John 1:1-3, John 1:14, Colossians 2:9, Hebrews 1:3, John 20:28).

Many non-Christians question how or if God could become a man.  They have many good questions related to this such as:  How is it possible for an infinite God to become a finite person?  How can God be two people at the same time?  Did He stop being God while He was a man?  Why would God do this in the first place?  As we approach Christmas, it is appropriate to reflect on these questions and “always be prepared to give an answer” to those who may ask why we believe what we do (1 Peter 3:15).

How is it possible for God to become a man?

It seems contradictory that an infinite God can become a finite man.  Since God and humans have fundamentally different natures, and one is created while one is eternal, how is this feat even remotely possible?  On the surface, this seems a very reasonable, logical question.  But it fundamentally misunderstands the natures of both God and reality.

Ultimately, the universe is God’s creation.  He is in complete control of it and can choose to interact with it in any way He desires.  Much like how an author can write himself into a book as a character, God can enter into his creation because it is His to govern.  While He is eternal in nature, He is free to “enter” time in any way He chooses.  To suggest otherwise is to believe that God is not actually in control of His own creation.

This fact is hard for us to comprehend because this ability is not “bi-directional.”  In other words, God can become like us because He is in control.  But we cannot become like Him because we are not.  We are of a fundamentally different, contingent, and created nature.  And we can never fully grasp what it means to be an eternal, uncreated, necessary being.

How could God have been two different people (God and Jesus) at the same time?

Actually, God is three different people at the same time!  While a full explanation of the Trinity is beyond the scope of this article, a brief explanation is in order.  Christian orthodoxy states that God is of one essence but is eternally present in three persons (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit).  In short, God is one “what” but three “whos.”  Huh?  How can that be?

While the doctrine of the Trinity can be confusing at first, the idea of it is found throughout both the Old and New Testaments.  And it actually violates no rules of logic or reality.

Quite simply, remember that God is not bound by space or time.  He created them.  As such He is omnipotent, omnipresent, and eternal.  This is hard for us to understand since we are none of these things.  But since God is not bound by space or time, He can be in two places at the same time.  Or two persons.  Or three.  Theoretically, I suppose God could be eternally present in more than three persons if He chose to be.  But biblically speaking, we know He has chosen the three persons of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Each has distinct roles and ministries, but each one is still the same God.

An imperfect but useful analogy is that of a human father.  At any given time, I am a father, a son, and a husband.  In each of these roles I have distinct authorities and responsibilities, but I am all three at the same time.  This analogy is illustrative but imperfect, however, because it suggests “modalism.”  Modalism is the errant doctrine that the three persons of the Trinity are simply three roles that God plays at different times.  In reality, the three persons are distinct and separate and exist simultaneously.  Remember, God is not bound by space and time like we are.

Did He stop being God?

If God became a man, then who was running the universe?  Simply put, as discussed above, God is able to exist on Earth as Jesus and in Heaven as the Father simultaneously.  So He did not stop being God.

When taking on a human form, God did not remove or give up his “Godness.”  Rather, He added humanity to it.  In so doing, Jesus’ humanity did experience normal human limitations such as hunger (Luke 4:2) and tiredness (John 4:6).  Further, in His humanity, Jesus seems to have voluntarily restricted the use of some of His divine attributes (Philippians 2:6-8, Matthew 24:36).  But He was still divine in essence and God the Father was still reigning in Heaven.

Why did He do it?

Some who believe in God but reject Jesus do so because they can’t conceive of why God would ever lower Himself to become a human.  The whole idea seems degrading and beneath God.  And it fact, it is.  So if Christians are going to claim that God took this action, they better be ready with a reason why.

Logic and Light discussed this question in more detail here but an overview is appropriate.  There are at least three basic reasons God decided to become a man.  First, He came to teach the truth about God and correct false doctrines.  Secondly, He provided a perfect role model for how we should act to be close to God.  Finally, and most importantly, He came to provide for the forgiveness of our sins and make an eternal relationship with God possible.

To understand why and how Jesus made forgiveness possible, we have to understand a bit about our sin problem.  When each of us chooses to violate God’s will, laws, or standards, we commit sin.  Since God is holy (Isaiah 6:3), He cannot tolerate or co-exist with sin (Habakkuk 1:13, Isaiah 59:2).  Because He is perfect, His standard for us is also perfection (Matthew 5:48).  Since each of us sins, and is far from perfect, this is a major problem.

Fortunately, despite our sin, God is still our Creator and He loves us and wants a relationship with us.  That requires that our sin be removed.  But this task is not one we can accomplish.  There is nothing we can do to make-up for our sin (Isaiah 64:6, Ephesians 2:9).   God is the only one that can achieve the perfection He demands.

So God entered humanity in the person of Jesus to live a life of perfect obedience to God the Father’s will.  He then did something amazing.  He willingly offered to trade places with us, allowing our sin to be credited to Him and His perfect righteousness to be credited to us.  He took the punishment we deserved upon Himself because we could never have handled it.  In doing so, God shows His great love for us (John 3:16) and His desire to have an intimate relationship.  But His offer is only effective if we accept it through a personal faith in Christ (Romans 5:1, Ephesians 2:8).

Some think that “faith” in Christ is the same as “belief.”  But this is absolutely not so (James 2:19).  Biblical faith is more accurately thought of as “trust.”  Having faith in Christ means trusting in His righteousness and offer of salvation versus in our own ability and effort.  In doing so, we yield ourselves to Him and make Him lord of our lives.  For this reason, obedience and good works result from salvation but do not result in salvation.

During this Christmas season, think about the miracle of God becoming man and dwelling among us.  But even more importantly, think about the reasons why He would do such a thing and thank Him for His great love and mercy.  And then make sure you accept His gracious offer.

Merry Christmas.