While Christmas brings tidings of comfort and joy, it also provides one of the most puzzling questions in the Christian faith. The question centers on a simple yet stunning confession in the Gospel of John: “The Word was God. . . . And the Word became flesh” (John 1:1, 14). The term theologians use to describe this miraculous event is incarnation — God the Son became man.
Much about the incarnation bewilders, but perhaps the greatest mystery relates to one word in John 1:14 — became. What does it mean that the Word became? Initially, it seems that God changed. But the Bible says God is unchangeable, or immutable. God declares, “I the Lord do not change” (Malachi 3:6). The psalmist says of God, “You are the same, and your years have no end” (Psalm 102:27). James says that in God “there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17). How does this fit with John 1:14, “the Word became flesh”?
The incarnation is mysterious, and to deny or ignore its mystery displays some form of hubris. Honest attempts to describe the incarnation will fall short. Nonetheless, God really reveals his ways to us in Scripture. Because God is one, his written word is organically unified. Therefore, we can ask, What must this specific passage mean if everything in Scripture is true? What all of Scripture says about Christ supplies us with concepts and categories that help us interpret John 1:14. We can summarize these concepts and categories in a short sentence: Jesus is one person with two natures.
Jesus has two natures: divine and human. We do not need to venture far from John 1:14 to see this, but a short overview of other passages will help.
Jesus is fully God. Harking back to Exodus 3:14, Jesus applies the divine name to himself, saying, “Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58). Paul writes, “To [the Israelites] belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all” (Romans 9:5). Also a plethora of other texts show Jesus as God (for example, Philippians 2:6; Titus 2:13; 2 Peter 1:1; 1 John 5:20; Hebrews 1:3, 8; Psalm 45:6–7). Additionally, the Bible attributes acts to Jesus that only God performs, like creating (John 1:3), sustaining (Hebrews 1:3), forgiving sins (Mark 2:7), and more. Every attribute belonging to God also belongs to Jesus, because he is God.
Jesus is also fully man. Jesus is “the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matthew 1:1). Paul says that Jesus “descended from David according to the flesh” (Romans 1:3), that he was “born of woman” (Galatians 4:4), and that he was “born in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:6–7; also Romans 8:3). Jesus has bones, flesh, and body parts, unlike a spirit (Luke 24:39–43). He “suffered in the flesh” (1 Peter 4:1). He thirsted (John 19:28), ate and drank (Luke 5:30), and slept (Mark 4:38). Thus, the author of Hebrews writes, “He had to be made like his brothers in every respect” (Hebrews 2:17). Every attribute belonging to man belongs to Jesus, except sin (Hebrews 4:15), for he is truly man.
Christ’s two natures are distinct, yet inseparable. In other words, Christ’s two natures are not mixed together to form a third nature, but at the same time, they exist inseparably in the one person of Christ. The Creed of Chalcedon therefore says that Jesus is
to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved.
Both divine and human qualities are attributed to Christ, because he has both divine and human natures.
While Jesus has two distinct natures, he is one person. He is God the Son (John 1:1; Romans 8:3; Galatians 4:4; Hebrews 1:2–5, 8), the second person of the Trinity, the eternally begotten Son of God (John 1:14, 18). In other words, the human nature of Christ did not have its own personhood before being joined to the Son; rather, Christ’s humanity derives its personhood and its very existence from the person of the divine Son. Consequently, if you take the divine Son away from the historical Jesus, there is no historical Jesus. This doesn’t deny Christ’s real humanity; it just describes what sort of humanity Jesus has — a real humanity “personalized” by the divine Son, to use a phrase from Fred Sanders (Jesus in Trinitarian Perspective, 31).
If Jesus is one person with two natures, we inherit a certain grammar — a Christological grammar. Actions belong to persons, not natures; therefore, we attribute Jesus’s actions to his person rather than to either of his natures. But because Jesus’s natures remain distinct, some acts befit one nature rather than the other. To say it the other way around, while some acts befit a specific nature, every act is attributed to Christ’s one person, the divine Son.
This grammar allows us to say, for example, that God the Son died on the cross according to his human nature. Or, as Paul puts it in Acts 20:28, God obtained the church “with his own blood.” Now, according to his divine nature, the Son can neither die nor bleed. But because God the Son has a human nature, and because actions belong to the person rather than the nature, Scripture can speak like this. And we can apply this same logic and grammar to the incarnation.
The Word Became
If Jesus has a human nature, and if change is proper to humanity rather than divinity, then we can attribute change to Jesus’s person according to his human nature. Since Christ’s humanity has no identity or existence apart from the eternal Son uniting it to himself, we attribute the “becoming” of his humanity to the personal subject of the incarnation, the divine Son. So, the divine Son “becomes” not in his divine nature, but according to the coming-into-existence of his human nature.
One might push back since John emphasizes the Word’s becoming, not the flesh’s coming-into-existence. But recall that what is new in John 1:14 is not the Word’s existence, for he eternally existed “in the beginning” (John 1:1). What is new is the Son’s flesh, which is distinct from his divinity. The emphasis on the Word or divine Son in John 1:14 is fitting because the humanity of Jesus exists only in relation to the Son.
Even though the flesh comes into existence, which befits human nature, we attribute this change to the divine Son because it is the Son’s flesh. Yet God the Son does not change because his divine nature is distinct from his human nature. We therefore locate the change in the flesh that comes into existence, an existence wholly dependent upon the act of God, highlighted in Jesus’s virgin birth. In this way, the incarnation does not compromise God’s immutability.
The Son as God does not change, because there is nothing new in the divine nature. What is new is the Son’s flesh, which is distinct from his divine nature. The divine Son really “became,” yet without change, because although in his divine personhood and nature he is immutable, in his human nature he can change. To say it this way is not a contradiction or a cop-out, but another way to confess that Jesus is both God and man.
The pairing and compatibility of immutability and the incarnation provide Christians with a more solid joy than anything this world has to offer. Without the incarnation, sinners will have no full and lasting happiness, because there is no satisfactory atoning sacrifice. As Athanasius tells us, God the Son “could not die” without human flesh, and so “he assumed a body capable of death” (On the Incarnation, 2; also Hebrews 2:14). Christ’s flesh enables Christ’s sacrificial death, and Christ’s death purchases our joy. He “suffered once for sins . . . that he might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18). Christ died to bring us into God’s presence, where “there is fullness of joy” and “pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11).
And since God is immutable, he is incorruptible and immortal (Romans 1:23; 1 Timothy 1:17). Therefore, the object of our joy, unlike the fickle and fading joys of this world, cannot be destroyed. If God is immortal, so also is his glory — meaning our joy in him also is indestructible, for our joy is in an immutable and incorruptible glory. In other words, the incarnation makes joy possible, and God’s immutability ensures that this joy is permanent.David Larson is a ThM student at Bethlehem College & Seminary and a member of Emmaus Church. He and his wife, Lauren, with their two children, live in Roseville, Minnesota.
In the winter, Wright left his home state of Wisconsin to enjoy nicer weather at his home in Scottsdale, Arizona. The 1937 home, called Taliesin West, is now both a National Historic Landmark and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Wright initially intended to make the property a utopic complex reflecting the surrounding desert expanse, using only materials found locally to construct it. Taliesin West has since been updated with permanent, stronger materials during renovations and add-ons. Wright spent every winter at Taliesin West until he died in 1959.
Located in Rogers Park, the northernmost neighborhood of Chicago, the Emil Bach House exists because of a previous Wright-designed home nearby. The original house, commissioned by the Steffens family in 1909, was purchased by a brickyard worker named Otto Bach. His brother, Emil (later the president of Bach Brick Company), loved the house so much that he commissioned his own from Wright in 1915. It’s a compact, prairie-style home with design elements that would later become Wright’s signature style in the future, including details such as modern window and geometric shapes. Bach lived in the home until 1934, and it’s currently a vacation rental and event venue.
Built in 1917, the Hollyhock House in Los Angeles was Wright’s first building on the West Coast. It was commissioned by Aline Barnsdall, the heir of a massive oil company, who approached Wright while he was embroiled in controversy and personal scandal. Barnsdall wanted a home that was half-house, half-garden, and Wright achieved that with terraces, pergolas, and colonnades. But Barnsdall’s full original vision never actually came to fruition; she wanted a complex of theaters, stores, and houses to create an avant-garde theater retreat. Barnsdall and Wright disagreed over finances and artistic vision, and the project stalled after just three homes were built (including Hollyhock).
Throughout his career, Wright was a champion of affordable housing. He found a unique joy in designing for low-income and moderate-income families, a sentiment he put to work in houses called “American system-built homes.” The idea was to have all construction pieces cut in a factory, then shipped to the homesite for building. Out of more than 900 sketches for these homes, six example properties were built on the 2700 block of West Burnham in Milwaukee. The homes were constructed in 1915 and 1916 but didn’t have any actual buyers until 1919.
Located a little more than an hour outside Chicago, the Laurent House in Rockford, Illinois, was Wright’s first fully accessible home. It was built in 1952 for a World War II veteran named Ken Laurent, who was paralyzed during a medical procedure. Laurent and his wife, Phyllis, had a long-distance relationship when they commissioned the house; Ken lived closer to Chicago in a rehabilitation facility and traveled to Rockford on the weekends to see Phyllis in their original (non-accessible) home. The Laurent House was designed with Ken’s needs and unique perspective in mind, and every detail — from the height of the doorknobs to the overall floor plan — reflects that.
Depending on whom you ask, the Martin House in Buffalo, New York, may be Wright’s crowning achievement of his prairie-style body of work. The property actually has six buildings: the main Martin House, which is connected by a pergola to a conservatory and carriage house, a smaller house for Martin’s sister, and a gardener’s cottage. Construction on the main house was completed in 1905, and the entire complex was finished in 1909. Inside the complex, there are nearly 400 examples of Wright’s iconic art glass.
“Dear Father in heaven, I’m not a praying man, but if you’re up there, and you can hear me, show me the way. I’m at the end of my rope.” That prayer is whispered by a broken-down George Bailey, the character played by Jimmy Stewart in the classic film It’s a Wonderful Life. In the now iconic scene, Bailey’s eyes fill with tears. They weren’t part of the script, but as he spoke that prayer Stewart said he “felt the loneliness, the hopelessness of people who had nowhere to turn.” It broke him. Bailey’s prayer, boiled down, is simply “Help me.” And this is exactly what’s voiced in Psalm 109. David was at the end of his rope: “poor and needy,” his “heart . . . wounded” (v. 22), and his body “thin and gaunt” (v. 24). He was fading “like an evening shadow” (v. 23), and sensed himself to be an “object of scorn” in the eyes of his accusers (v. 25). In his extreme brokenness, he had nowhere else to turn. He cried out for the Sovereign Lord to show him the way: “Help me, Lord my God” (v. 26). There are seasons in our lives when “broken down” says it all. In such times it can be hard to know what to pray. Our loving God will respond to our simple prayer for help. By John BlaseREFLECT & PRAYDear Father, some days are hard. They feel hopeless. Turn my heart to You in my brokenness. Give me strength to simply ask for help. Learn more about the practice of prayer. When was the last time you felt broken down by life? If you have a family member or friend who currently feels that way, how might you help?
SCRIPTURE INSIGHT Psalm 109 has been called the “Judas Psalm.” Peter quotes from it to support his suggestion that the apostles needed to replace the betrayer of Jesus (Psalm 109:8; Acts 1:20). This psalm is also known for the intensity of the curses that show up in David’s appeal to God for help (Psalm 109:6-20). From a New Testament point of view, we may not understand the cruelty of the requests. Bible scholars differ in their interpretations, with some suggesting verses 6-20 express what David’s enemies were wishing on him. The New Living Translation inserts “They say” at the beginning of verse 6 to indicate that David is asking God for help in the face of such hatred. Regardless of the interpretation, such curses stand in contrast to Jesus’ counsel to reflect our relationship to Him by returning blessing for curses (Luke 6:27-36). Mart DeHaan