It's God's birthday?
What the Bible actually teaches about the incarnation
Jesus is God.
Mary was the mother of Jesus.
Therefore, Mary was the mother of God.
All Christians must agree with the first two statements. The third however, which seems to be the logical conclusion of the first two, is likely to make many of us wince. How could a finite human being be the mother of the eternal God? Where was God before he was born? Is there any way to make sense of this at all?
And what are we to make of the many verses in the gospels that have Jesus doing all kinds of things that ought to be impossible for God?
And he went down with them and came to Nazareth and was submissive to them.
And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man.
But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion.
And Jesus, perceiving in himself that power had gone out from him, immediately turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my garments?” […] And he looked around to see who had done it.
When Jesus heard these things, he marveled at him.
When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled.
In the morning, as he was returning to the city, he became hungry. And seeing a fig tree by the wayside, he went to it and found nothing on it but only leaves.
But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.
How can we say that Jesus is God, when he learns and grows and gets tired and gets hungry and gets upset, and God doesn’t do any of those things?
Of course Christians confess that Jesus is not only God, but he is also a man. Since he is also a man, he does things that men do, like eat food and sleep. But what does it mean that Jesus is both God and man? How can he be both at the same time when so many attributes of humanity are the exact opposite of the attributes of God? And even if we allow that God can take some kind of human form that allows him to eat and drink (cf. Genesis 18), how could he not know the day of his return (Matthew 24:36)? Shouldn’t he still know everything if he’s really God?
The answer to these questions is that Jesus is one Person with two natures.
The triune God is one God according to his essence or nature. There is one divine nature that is omniscient, omnipotent, eternal, unchanging and so on. There are however, three divine Persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. A Person is Someone who acts and speaks using the nature that he has. These three Persons each act and speak according to the one divine nature that they in some sense share.
Because nature and Person are not the same thing, Jesus can be one Person who has two natures. He has always partaken of his divine nature as a member of the Trinity, but at a moment in time he also chose to create for himself a human nature. The two natures remain distinct, each with its own attributes, but the same Son is the one who acts and speaks through both of them.
One way to think about this is to consider the way that as human beings we are both physical and spiritual. According to our physical nature, we get hungry and get tired and interact with the physical world. According to our spiritual nature, we reason and pray and love. And yet each of us remains one person so that the me who eats and the me who prays is the same me.
The Jesus who upholds all things by the word of his power (Hebrews 1:3) and forgives sin (Mark 2:5) and receives worship (Matthew 28:17) is the same Jesus who learns and tires and dies on the cross. By his divine nature he does all the things that God does (John 5:19), and by his human nature he does all the things that humans do. This means that the humanity of Jesus is not limited to having a body, but he has a complete human nature with a human spirit and a human mind. And so we understand the passages about him learning or being surprised or not knowing the day of his return exactly the same way as those passages that talk about him sleeping or thirsting. Impossible as it is to fully comprehend, the two natures of Christ means that in his divine nature he knows everything while in his human nature his knowledge is limited by the bounds of his finite human spirit.
So when we celebrate Christmas, are we celebrating God’s birthday? Strictly speaking no, because God as God is eternal and was never born. Although Jesus is God and he was born, Jesus’ birth has to do with his human nature and not with his divine nature. Jesus’ birth as a man doesn’t mean that he gave up any of what makes him God, but only that he added to his Person a human nature by which he could accomplish our redemption.
But when the fullness 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.
Hey friends, after this post I’m going to take a long break for the end of the semester and for Christmas. I’ll pick up my regular schedule early next year. Thank you to all of you who read; I’m deeply honored that you take the time.
Originally in Church history Mary was called the mother of God (θεοτοκος) as a way of insisting on the unity of the divine and human natures in the Person of Christ. It was an assertion that the same Person who was a developing baby in the womb of Mary was also eternal God, and that this union of the two natures existed from conception. Later developments of inappropriate reverence for Mary have since made this title more problematic, since it may seem to be a way of honoring Mary when it was originally a statement about Christ.