A Primer on the Incarnation (Part One)

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.’ (Mark 1:14, 15)

If the ministry of our Lord Jesus began with his proclamation of the gospel of the kingdom, then the gospel must be important. And if the gospel is important, it must be understood. So, what is “the gospel?”

The gospel (Greek: euangelion) is the good news that the eternal Son of God has come in the flesh to redeem us from our fallen estate by his perfect obedience, atoning death on the cross, resurrection, ascension, enthronement, and session, and that he will return to judge the living and the dead.

This is the good news that Christians confess in the historic Christian creeds such as the Nicene-Constantinopolitan and Apostles’ creeds. It is the good news that saves us from the sin and death that we have inherited from our first father, Adam (Rom 5:12). Thus, it is important that Christians understand the gospel and how the work of Christ saves us. The first step in understanding the work of Christ, is understanding, insofar as we are able, the mystery of the incarnation.

The incarnation is the word used to describe the Son of God coming in the flesh through his conception and birth. “Incarnate” comes from a Latin word that means “to be made flesh” (in carne) and refers to the Divine Son of God coming into humanity and taking on human flesh and blood.1

The purpose of this short primer in two parts is to introduce the vital topic of the incarnation by considering it first from the perspective of the Holy Scriptures and second from the Reformed Confessions and Catechisms of the 16th and 17th centuries with the goal of helping both the laity and those in pastoral ministry to have a more precise grasp the gospel of Jesus Christ for their preaching, hearing, piety, and practice.

The Holy Scriptures

We may be tempted to think that since the incarnation occurred in the 1st century AD, we can only know of the incarnation through the New Testament. However, the Old Testament bears witness to the good news of the incarnation as soon as mankind fell into a state of sin and death in the Garden of Eden.

After the serpent deceived Adam and Eve, God said to the serpent, “I will put enmity between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” (Gen 3:15)

From this point on, humanity was awaiting a seed of the woman who would come and crush the head of the serpent. The details surrounding who, when, and how this would occur were at the time not perfectly clear. But for those who heard this promise and believed in it, redemption was wrought by the future work of the offspring of the woman who would do battle against the serpent.

Throughout the history of God’s people, he continued to elaborate on his promise of an offspring to come. For example, to Abraham he said:

I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. (Gen 17:6, 7)

The apostle Paul explains that this is not only a reference to future offspring (plural), but also a promise of a particular royal offspring (singular) through whom the nations would be blessed and through whom God would be their God (see Gal 3:16, 29).

The promise is further elaborated in Israel’s last will and testament to his offspring, in particular to his son Judah, to whom he promised:

Judah, your brothers shall praise you;
your hand shall be on the neck of your enemies;
your father’s sons shall bow down to you.
Judah is a lion’s cub;
from the prey, my son, you have gone up.
He stooped down; he crouched as a lion
and as a lioness; who dares rouse him?
The scepter shall not depart from Judah,
nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,
until tribute comes to him;
and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples. (Gen 49:8-10)

The royal offspring promise would thus be fulfilled through the line of Judah, and the victory over enemies (the serpent), the obedience of the peoples (the nations), and their tribute (worship) will belong to him.

The promise continues as the offspring of Judah, King David, is promised that God will raise up one of his offspring through whom God will build his house (temple), and his kingdom and throne would be eternal:

When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom forever. I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. (2 Sam 7:12–14a)

This is the first explicit evidence that not only would the serpent-killer be an offspring of the woman, but he would also be a son of God. How do we know? Luke tells us that when the Angel Gabriel visited Mary, he said this,

Do not be afraid Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end. (Luke 1:30–33)

Hence, by the time of David in the 10th century BC, the picture was becoming clearer. In roughly the 8th century BC, the promise became even more plain through the prophetic ministry of Isaiah through whom God spoke, saying,

Therefore, the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name ‘Immanuel.’ (Isa 7:14)

In Hebrew, “Immanuel” means “God with us.” Therefore, this is a prophecy concerning God coming into humanity—the incarnation—through the womb of a virgin. This prophecy of the incarnation of the Son of God in the flesh is confirmed in the Gospel according to Matthew,

All this [the birth of Jesus Christ] took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: ‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel’ (which means, God with us). (Matt 1:22–23)

Do we see this royal offspring who is both human and divine anywhere else in the Old Testament? We do. Consider this promise that comes through the prophet Micah whose ministry spanned the late 8th and early 7th centuries. This comes from Micah 5:2–3:

But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient of days. Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labor has given birth; then the rest of his brothers shall return to the people of Israel. And he shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD and in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God.

In this prophecy, God promises to send a new king like David who will be born in Bethlehem and will save the remnant of Israel. This king would not be like other kings of Israel, for he would come from the “Ancient of Days” and he will stand “in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God.” This is a reference to the king coming from the Eternal God and bearing the name of God himself. Who can do that? God alone.

We can once again confirm that this is a reference to the incarnation of Christ by way of the Gospel of Matthew, where we read that when Herod assembled the priests and scribes to inquire of them where the Christ would be born, they told him:

In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet: ‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’ (Matt 2:4–6)

Additionally, the Apostle John begins his Gospel account echoing the opening words of Genesis 1 with this:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness has not overcome it…The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world…He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:1–5, 9, 11–14)

Here, we see John giving evidence of the eternality of the Son of God, his being of the same substance as God the Father, and his reason for coming in the flesh (to graciously give life to those who believe in him). This is the good news of the incarnation. As John Calvin wrote,

In this introduction [John] asserts the eternal Divinity of Christ in order to inform us that he is the eternal God, who was manifested in the flesh. The design is, to show it to have been necessary that the restoration of mankind should be accomplished by the Son of God, since by his power all things were created…And this doctrine is highly necessary to be known; for since apart from God we ought not at all to seek life and salvation, how could our faith rest on Christ, if we did not know with certainty what is here taught?2

Consider also what the Apostle Paul writes:

When the fulness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. (Gal 4:4–5)

Whereas John is writing about the event of the incarnation, Paul is getting at the purpose of the incarnation: to redeem us from our sin and bring us into the household of God by way of the Incarnate Son. We read similarly in Hebrews 2:14:

Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.

In other words, the purpose of the incarnation was that the Son of God would participate in the same things (flesh and blood) as we who have fallen into sin through the wiles of the devil, in order that becoming like us, he would pull us out of slavery to sin and death. We come into the world dead “in Adam,” but because of the incarnation of the Son of God, those who believe in him are now, alive “in Christ.” This is the power of the incarnation: the redemption of God’s people. This is good news indeed.

Next week, in part two of this primer, we will consider the theological support for the doctrine of the incarnation of the Eternal Son of God.

Part Two

© Scott McDermand II. All Rights Reserved.


1. Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1985), 151.


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