Most christians believe that Jesus was the Son of God, however they may understand that. And most christians believe that Jesus entered this world as a baby – maybe not actually on December 25, but some time.
But how can we ever understand these facts and put them together? How can the son of God become a human baby?
How the first christians thought
Jesus’ disciples had front row seats on a remarkable life. They’d seen him perform miracles, heard him teach and watched him interact with people, from the High Priest to prostitutes. And most of all, they’d seen him alive after he had been crucified.
But the gospels show that they couldn’t really grasp what was going on. “Who is this?” they asked after seeing a great miracle (Mark 4:41). The meaning of the events they were part of was “hidden from them” (Luke 18:34).
While first century Jews might believe in divine beings (e.g. angels), they were fiercely monotheistic. There was one God. Conceiving of Jesus as God would have been very difficult for them. Besides, they had observed him praying to God, his Father, so they knew he was separate from God.
So it is doubtful that they saw Jesus as God incarnate while he was with them.
Preaching, praying and worshiping
But as they carried on their master’s mission, they began praying and healing in Jesus’ name. They began to pray to him and worship him alongside God.
This was an amazing development for monotheistic Jews and so they had to work out how to fit Jesus within a monotheistic theology. It took them a while, but they came up with the doctrine of the Trinity.
- God was three persons but one God.
- Jesus was fully human and fully divine.
Christians (and unbelievers) have struggled ever since to understand and explain it.
Three persons, one God?
Father, Son and Holy Spirit sounds like three gods. So how can they be one God?
Trinitarian doctrine says the three persons in the Godhead are one substance, essence or nature. Each is a separate person, each is fully God.
To say it is a paradox and difficult to understand, is an understatement.
An analogy that may help is to see that a cube is one solid body but six squares. Just as God is one God but 3 persons. The analogy falls apart because each square isn’t fully cube as Father, Son and Spirit are fully God (according to Trinitarian doctrine), but it may help.
So we may feel that we have a picture of the reality of God, but I cannot say I understand it.
Fully God and fully man?
It is clear that Jesus was a real man. He lived at a certain time and place, he said and did things that other people saw and heard. So he was fully man. He wasn’t just an appearance.
And before that he was a real baby, and before that a real zygote (a fertilised egg).
But how then could he also be fully God?
It sounds impossible. But perhaps neuroscience can help us here.
One of the big unsolved issues in philosophy and neuroscience is consciousness and mind. How do our minds relate to our brains? What is consciousness?
I feel like I’m the same person as I was 40 years ago, yet almost all the atoms in my body are different. Am I really the same person?
And what is consciousness anyway? How does the movement of electrons in my brain lead to feelings and memory and logic? And the feeling that I am “me”?
If I cannot understand my own consciousness, I can hardly expect to understand Jesus’ consciousness and self. But I can believe that the Jesus that was on earth was the same person as the second person of the Trinity since before the dawn of time – even though he was a normal physical man.
Just as our minds and consciousness are dependent on our brains, and are impaired if our brains are impaired, so, perhaps, Jesus allowed his omnipotent knowledge to be limited to what a human brain could handle.
This seems to me to be the suggestion in Philippians 2:7 where Paul says Jesus “emptied himself” or “made himself nothing” to come to earth. He was fully God but he accepted the limitations of being human for a time.
But fully God and fully baby?
I think I can sort of see this too. Sort of.
Not only am I the same “me” now as I was 40 years ago, but I am the same “me” even when I’m asleep. My consciousness takes a break, but it is still me.
So perhaps the marvel of the birth of Jesus was that his consciousness was dormant while he was in the womb. But he was still the second person of the Trinity.
That might sound like heresy, but when Jesus was first conceived, just a handful of cells, was he thinking and omniscient? Some christians say he was, but I think he wasn’t. I can’t help feeling this was one of the limitations Jesus accepted to come to earth.
This tells us something
If God the Son emptied himself so much to become a human being, with all the physical and mental limitations that required, and to become a servant, this tells us something.
It tells us that God is amazing. Not just because he has created such an amazing universe.
Not just because he exists from past eternity to future eternity.
But because this amazing God was willing to become a zygote, then a baby, then a child, then a man who died while still in his prime. He was willing to “stoop to conquer”, to take on all the messiness of being human, even including starting life as a helpless baby.
It also tells us something about the sort of people we must be willing to be if we choose to follow him. Servants, like him. Humble enough to recognise that we don’t understand as much as we sometimes like to think. And willing to live in a way that carries on the mission he began.
“Let us not become weary in doing good.” (Galatians 6:9)
Have a happy Christmas
When we think about the baby in the manger, let’s remember that there’s a lot more to what’s going on.