The purpose of the incarnation was that the Son of God would participate in the same things (flesh and blood) as we who have fallen into sin through the wiles of the devil, in order that becoming like us, he would pull us out of slavery to sin and death.
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”
(Mark 1:14, 15)
If the ministry of our Lord Jesus began with his proclamation of the gospel of the kingdom, then the gospel must be important. And if the gospel is important, it must be understood. So, what is “the gospel?”
The gospel (Greek: euangelion) is the good news that the eternal Son of God has come in the flesh to redeem us from our fallen estate by his perfect obedience, atoning death on the cross, resurrection, ascension, enthronement, and session, and that he will return to judge the living and the dead.
This is the good news that Christians confess in the historic Christian creeds such as the Nicene-Constantinopolitan and Apostles’ creeds. It is the good news that saves us from the sin and death that we have inherited from our first father, Adam (Rom 5:12). Thus, it is important that Christians understand the gospel and how the work of Christ saves us. The first step in understanding the work of Christ, is understanding, insofar as we are able, the mystery of the incarnation.
The incarnation is the word used to describe the Son of God coming in the flesh through his conception and birth. “Incarnate” comes from a Latin word that means “to be made flesh” (in carne) and refers to the Divine Son of God coming into humanity and taking on human flesh and blood.1
The purpose of this short primer in two parts is to introduce the vital topic of the incarnation by considering it first from the perspective of the Holy Scriptures and second from the Reformed Confessions and Catechisms of the 16th and 17th centuries with the goal of helping both the laity and those in pastoral ministry to have a more precise grasp the gospel of Jesus Christ for their preaching, hearing, piety, and practice.
The Holy Scriptures
We may be tempted to think that since the incarnation occurred in the 1st century AD, we can only know of the incarnation through the New Testament. However, the Old Testament bears witness to the good news of the incarnation as soon as mankind fell into a state of sin and death in the Garden of Eden.
After the serpent deceived Adam and Eve, God said to the serpent, “I will put enmity between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” (Gen 3:15)
From this point on, humanity was awaiting a seed of the woman who would come and crush the head of the serpent. The details surrounding who, when, and how this would occur were at the time not perfectly clear. But for those who heard this promise and believed in it, redemption was wrought by the future work of the offspring of the woman who would do battle against the serpent.
Throughout the history of God’s people, he continued to elaborate on his promise of an offspring to come. For example, to Abraham he said:
I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.
(Gen 17:6, 7)
The apostle Paul explains that this is not only a reference to future offspring (plural), but also a promise of a particular royal offspring (singular) through whom the nations would be blessed and through whom God would be their God (see Gal 3:16, 29).
The promise is further elaborated in Israel’s last will and testament to his offspring, in particular to his son Judah, to whom he promised:
Judah, your brothers shall praise you;
your hand shall be on the neck of your enemies;
your father’s sons shall bow down to you.
Judah is a lion’s cub;
from the prey, my son, you have gone up.
He stooped down; he crouched as a lion
and as a lioness; who dares rouse him?
The scepter shall not depart from Judah,
nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,
until tribute comes to him;
and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples.