In this excerpt from the Stand to Reason University course “Who Is Jesus?” Alan Shlemon uses the illustration of various superheroes to explain the two natures of Christ, why the incarnation was necessary for our salvation, and the uniqueness of Christianity.
One of my hobbies is home DIY projects. I love the satisfaction of creating or repairing things myself. I also enjoy using power tools and other sorts of fun equipment. Now, one of the essential items for any DIY-er is a sturdy ladder. The main purpose of a ladder is to help you go up to get closer to what you’re trying to reach that’s up high. Though that’s an obvious benefit, I also want to show you why you may want to go down a ladder. You see, human religions are all about trying to do good works to be good enough to reach God. For example, pray five times a day, give to the poor, go on a fast, feed the homeless, meditate, or spend time on a mission. Now, no doubt, these are all good deeds, but many people think that doing them is what earns your place in Heaven. They believe that these actions will help you climb the ladder to get to God. But let’s be real. We know that we’re not good enough.
How do I know we’re not good enough? Well, the chances are pretty good that I’ve never met you, but there’s one thing I know that is true about you: You feel guilty at times. You feel guilty for things you’ve done that are wrong, and the reason you feel guilty is because you are guilty, and that’s bad news because a fair and decent justice system should punish people who are guilty. Therefore, even if you do good things and try to go up the ladder, it ultimately doesn’t matter why, because you’ve also done wrong, and people who do wrong deserve to be punished. That’s why, when all human efforts fail at getting us up the ladder and into Heaven, a divine effort is needed to succeed. That’s what the incarnation is all about.
So, what does the Bible say about it? Well, in John 1:1–3, it says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.” You see, the Word is identified in John’s Gospel as the Son, or the second person of the Trinity, but John also tells us what the Word does. Just a dozen verses later, he writes, “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.” So, the Word takes on human flesh by being conceived by the Holy Spirit In the womb of Mary, and when he is born, he is named Jesus. This is the incarnation.
“Incarnate” literally means “in the flesh.” Jesus, therefore, is God in the flesh. What kind of person is Jesus? Well, remember that the Word–the second person of the Trinity—always had a divine nature. Now, during the incarnation, the Word adds on human nature. It’s important to understand he doesn’t lose his divine nature. He just adds humanity to himself. Jesus, then, has two natures—a divine nature and a human nature—all wrapped up in one person. It doesn’t mean he’s half God and half man. Rather, he’s fully God and fully man. Theologians use the term “hypostatic union.” This is just a fancy phrase to describe Jesus’ dual natures. “Hypostatic” means “personal,” and so the hypostatic union is the personal union of Jesus’ two natures. Jesus is one “who” with two “whats.” Jesus is one person with two natures.
I know it’s hard to wrap your mind around this concept, and that’s understandable. We’re finite human beings. We’re trying to understand an infinite God. But one of the ways we can know who Jesus is and what happened with the incarnation is by gaining an understanding of who Jesus is not.
Since there’s a lot of superhero movies these days, I thought I’d draw upon some famous characters to illustrate who Jesus is not like. Jesus, for example, is not like Superman. Superman is 100 percent an alien being from the planet Krypton. He’s not human at all. He doesn’t have human parents or human DNA. He’s basically a god-like being who just happens to look like a human male. Jesus, by contrast, is not just a god being. He’s also a human being. He’s not God with no humanity, but God combined with humanity.
Jesus is also not like Batman. Batman is merely a human being. He’s 100 percent human and has human DNA. He has no special powers, but rather puts on a suit that gives him these fancy capabilities. At the end of the day, though, he’s no more or no less than a human like every one of us. Jesus, by contrast, is not just a human. Rather, he’s both human and divine wrapped up in one person.
Jesus is also not like Spider-Man. Spider-Man is, well, a little bit weird, right? A radioactive spider bit a teenager named Peter Parker, and it mutated his DNA, giving him superhuman strength, the ability to climb walls, and a few other spider related powers. So, Spider-Man is a hybrid. He’s part human and part spider, or, to put it another way, he’s not fully human or fully spider. Notice, he doesn’t eat a spider diet, have eight legs, or look like an arachnid. He’s only part of each kind of being. Jesus, by contrast, is not a hybrid. His DNA was not mutated. It’s not part human and part divine. Jesus’ DNA is fully human, but Jesus is also fully divine.
Finally, Jesus is not like the Incredible Hulk. The Hulk has had a change in his DNA as a result of being exposed to gamma radiation, and it created this new set of instructions in his DNA. When he gets mad, this other nature takes complete control over him, and he becomes a mean, green, fighting machine. Now, what’s noteworthy about the Hulk is that his two natures are separate and do not work together. One simply takes over the other. Jesus, by contrast, doesn’t have one nature that fully takes over his other nature. His divine nature plays a role in his life, but doesn’t take complete control over his humanity. Jesus is still subjected to human experiences like hunger, fatigue, and he has typical human strength. His two natures work perfectly together in the one person.
Just to remind you, this superhero illustration is to clarify what Jesus is not like, and it also helps to better understand what the incarnation is about. But now we need to know why the incarnation was necessary. Hebrews 2:17 explains: “Therefore, he had to be made like His brethren in all things, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.” Now, the Bible is clear. The Word became flesh through the incarnation so that Jesus can make propitiation for our sin. “Propitiation” is just a fancy term for “atonement,” and “atonement” is another fancy term for Jesus paying for the crimes that we’re guilty of. This is really good news. Why? Well, remember that guilt I told you about? The one that everyone experiences? Well, here’s how we get rid of that guilt, and not just the feeling of guilt, but the actual you’re-guilty-and-deserve-to-be-punished guilt.
You see, God offers guilty people a pardon. Instead of you being punished, Jesus is punished in your place, and what’s great about Jesus [is] he’s able to be punished in every person’s place. So, the incarnation makes it possible for Jesus to pay for all of our sins. Only because Jesus is fully God and fully man can he do this for us, because, you see, if Jesus were like Superman and not human in any way, then he couldn’t be a substitute for you and me because, if he’s not human at all, he can’t represent us. If Jesus were like Batman and not God in any way, then he couldn’t be a substitute for all humans, because he would be just one man like you or me. If Jesus were like Spider-Man—neither fully man nor fully God—well, then he couldn’t be a mediator between God and man. He wouldn’t be able to function like a high priest. If Jesus were like the Hulk, he’d just get really angry at your sin and smash you. So, let’s just be thankful that we get mercy and not wrath. All this to say, by becoming one person with two natures, Jesus is able to accomplish the work of satisfying God’s demand for justice and freeing us from the penalty of death.
Did you get that? The incarnation makes the gospel possible. We can never climb the ladder to get to God. Instead, God comes down the ladder to save us, and that is incredibly important.
But the incarnation isn’t only necessary to save us. It also provides a very practical lesson for us. It’s a lesson we learn from the book of Philippians. You see, the Christians in Philippi had a unique problem. Many of the church members were retired military men who were incentivized to move near Philippi after they served in the army. Well, what do you know about the military? It has a very stratified social structure, meaning that soldiers have different ranks. Those with higher rank are to be respected, obeyed, and served. Unfortunately, this attitude carried over into the church, and believers pursued higher positions of rank in the church, seeking to be respected, obeyed, and served. Paul makes a very powerful point against this unhealthy attitude and uses the incarnation as an example of how to fix it. Listen to what he writes in Philippians 2:5–8. He says, “Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” The Philippian believers were applying an attitude similar to that of a military soldier and pursuing higher rank. They were trying to go up the social status ladder in the church, pursuing positions of authority, seeking to be respected, obeyed, and served, but this is the wrong attitude.
Jesus, of all the people in the universe, is the one who belongs at the highest ranking position. He’s the one who deserves to be respected, obeyed, and served. Yet, despite his supreme rank as God of the universe, what does he do? He doesn’t stay there. Rather, he goes down the ladder. He doesn’t remain in the heavenly realms with a divine rank, but comes down to become a man, but not just any man. He descends lower to become a bond-servant, yet he goes further down and is willing to experience death, but not just any death. He’s willing to descend further and die a humiliating death on a cross. He does all of this to serve us. This is why Paul calls out the Philippians while they’re trying to go up the social status ladder by increasing their rank in the church so that they can be served. Jesus is going down the ladder to serve us.
The Philippians are admonished to have the same attitude that Christ had: a humble attitude of service to others. We, of course, are also supposed to have the same attitude as Christ. That doesn’t mean we can’t pursue positions of leadership—only that you shouldn’t seek them for your own glory. Notice that a ladder provides two practical reminders. First, it reminds us that we can never be accepted by God by doing good works. Our efforts will never help us ascend a ladder to reach God. It’ll only work if God comes down the ladder to save us. Second, while we may be tempted to go up a ladder by pursuing higher positions of authority, we need to model our lives after Christ. Remember, while Jesus belonged at the top, he still came down the ladder in order to serve us. Following his lead, we should, with humility, serve others, as well.