We’re used to seeing an enormous separation between the wealthy CEO and the workers beneath him. Which may be partly why the TV series Undercover Boss has been hailed as “emotionally stirring” and “an hour of feel-good television for underappreciated workers.” The “reality” show’s premise is simple enough: find a company, take the CEO, and make the CEO work one or more of the lower-level jobs and rub elbows with the “common worker.” For example, in one episode, David Kim goes undercover in the kitchen of one of his corporately-owned Baja Fresh restaurants. The results are both amusing (to see the boss try and tackle menial tasks) and humanizing (to hear the story of real workers).
As we’ve noted before, today’s world is no longer asking: Should I believe in Jesus or not? Today’s world is asking: What kind of Jesus should I believe in? But if Jesus truly existed, then we might phrase the question a bit differently: Who or what was Jesus? What kind of person was he? How does he help us understand who God is?
The early church reached a staggering conclusion about Jesus: that he was God in the flesh. The word they chose to use was the incarnation. Living in Texas, I developed a fondness for Tex-Mex cuisine. When teaching on this subject to a group of local college students, we found common ground in the phrase salsa con carne—literally “salsa with meat.” So the incarnation was like that—God with meat. In Jesus, God put on skin and bone. He became sort of the “undercover boss,” the CEO of the universe rubbing elbows with us mere mortals.
We find this idea embedded in the pages of Hebrews:
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, 15 and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. 16 For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham. 17 Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. 18 For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.” (Hebrews 2:14-18)
The author makes this perfectly clear. Jesus is God. Jesus is also man. But how can we possibly put these two things together?
The early church offered an answer that was as simple as it was mysterious. They called it the hypostatic union. What does this mouthful mean? It means that Jesus—in taking on human form—possessed two unique sets of attributes. He was fully God, in the sense that he was infinitely worthy of admiration and praise. But he was also fully man, in the sense that he would experience everything you and I would ever experience. Hunger. Thirst. Embarrassment. Puberty. Temptation. Pain. Tears. Death.
Though the church had (largely) worshipped Christ in this way for years, these ideas became codified in 451 at the Council of Chalcedon. There, the church described Jesus as “complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man….not as parted or separated into two persons, but one and the same…”
It’s mysterious, really. Which is why I chose to represent the idea through art (many people forget my studio art background). The work that you see is an oil pastel piece simply titled Logos, John’s favored word to describe God becoming man (John 1:1-18). The two blood vessels represent Christ’s two natures. The blue represents Christ’s God-nature; the red his humanity—colors that were actually quite common in early Christian art to represent Christ’s divinity (blue for heaven) and humanity (red for blood) respectively. The artery extending and illuminating the scathed darkness represents Christ’s coming into the world through his human birth and life—the fact that it extends from right to left is reflective of his Hebrew origins. And the intertwining of the blood vessels might also be said to represent the Greek letter chi, the first letter of the word Christ, the Greek word for the Hebrew Messiah meaning “king” (ancient icons used to depict Jesus holding up two crossed fingers for the same reason—as the crossing of the fingers resembled a chi and the position of his hand would resemble a rho, the second letter of Christ).
But why would such a union even be necessary? Why would Jesus have come to earth as both man and God? In the last century, a German writer named Jurgen Moltmann has convincingly argued that the incarnation of Jesus was both necessary and fortuitous—meaning it has great benefit for us.
In the middle ages, a writer named Anselem worked hard to understand this very concept. He ended up writing a book called Cur Deus Homo, meaning “Why the God-Man?” His conclusions were a bit colored by medieval economics, but they still are helpful.
See, according to Anselem, man finds himself in a quandary. Man sinned in the Garden of Eden, causing damage to God’s character. Man must work to repair this damage. But wait, because God is infinite, the damage cannot be repaired.
Think of it this way: you’re traveling down the streets of present-day Detroit. You lose control of the car. You swerve to your left and crash into a lot of used Ford cars and damage a sedan. How much is your debt? It’s simple: just look at the sticker price, or consult Kelly Blue Book. But what if you swerve to your right and crash into the Henry Ford Museum, totaling one of the few remaining Model-T Fords? How much is your debt? The truth is, that item was a part of history. We might say it’s “priceless.”
So too is the character of God. So infinite is God’s character that there is no price we can pay to repair the damage.
So God became man. Why? First, only an infinite price can satisfy man’s debt. And only God is infinite. So God had to be sacrificed. But second, only man can pay this debt, because man was the one who caused the damage. So God became a human being. Do you see the necessity now? God became man so that a man could make an infinite sacrifice to pay man’s debt.
But Moltmann also insists that the incarnation of Jesus was “fortuitous”—it offers us great benefit. Why? Because if Jesus came to earth as a human being, it shows us a new and better way to be human. And if Jesus experienced every temptation, every stinging rejection, every hangnail, every family crisis, every loss, every tragedy that you and I experience, it changes everything we know about God. In Harper Lee’s now-classic To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch sits down with his daughter to talk to her about how to approach people who seem different. “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view,” he says, “You’ve got to put on his skin, and walk around in it.” Jesus put on your skin and walked around in it.
In the era of WWII, Dietrich Bonhoeffer sat in a prison cell—guilty of defying the Nazis—and wrote this about Jesus:
“God lets himself be pushed out of the world on the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which He is with us and helps us…The Bible directs us to God’s powerlessness and suffering; only the suffering God can help.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison)
In Jesus, we have a suffering God at our side. Why is this helpful? If you’ve ever been through a tragedy, then you know that one of the worst things someone can say to you is “I understand.”
Because usually they don’t.
Jesus Christ is the only person who can sit by you, put his arm around your shoulder and tell us, “I understand.” At the cross we find solidarity with a God who puts up with outcasts and absorbs the debt and guilt of all mankind. And standing at the empty tomb we find hope in a God who promises that evil and pain will never have the final word. Flowers will one day bloom where now there exist only thorns. And for now—for always—we have a God of love. An incarnational God. A God who draws near.