What type of body did Jesus have before the Incarnation?
Published: 7 May 2022 (GMT+10)
In response to our article on The Christian’s hope in the Resurrection of Christ, Gerry Q asks several questions, which are answered by Andrew Sibley:
We are told in this [article] that the resurrected Jesus had both a physical and a spiritual body, a glorified body. What type of body did Jesus have as the pre-existing Son of God in heaven? Surely a spirit type body. After he ascended into heaven, what type of body does he have? Surely the same.
At the start of John’s Gospel, we are informed that Jesus Christ is the Word of God, from the beginning, and that He is divine, with God. It is this Word who brings life and light into the world:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:1–5).
The Word was equal, and co-eternal, with the Father and the Holy Spirit in a perfect spiritual existence. The Word then became flesh, and came to live with humanity when Jesus was born to Mary through the power of the Holy Spirit:
“And the Word became [Greek: ἐγένετο egeneto] flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
The word egeneto, from the verb ginomai, implies a changed condition or state, but is translated with the passive, “was made,” in the KJV translation. The same word egeneto appears several times in John 1:3 in reference to the creation.1 The implication of John’s use of this verb in this passage tells us that the Creator, that is Jesus Christ, became part of the creation at the Incarnation.
Incarnation and hypostatic union
At the Incarnation, the Son of God took on human flesh—but at this time He did not cease to be God. He was very much truly God and truly man. Christian theologians formally describe this as the doctrine of the hypostatic union.2 In the early centuries after Christ, they frequently argued over the nature of Christ, and whether He had two natures (a divine and a human nature), or one nature. The centre of learning in Antioch emphasised the human nature of Christ as being distinct from his divine nature, while the Alexandrian centre focussed more upon the divine nature of Christ.3 The Council of Chalcedon (AD 451) agreed upon the perfect union of Christ’s divine and human natures; hence hypostatic union.
The word hypostasis (Gk: ὑποστάσεως hypostaseōs) is used in Scripture (Hebrews 1:3) to mean the same substance, imprint, or nature of God—in this context, that Christ has the same divine nature with the Father.
“He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.” (Hebrews 1:3–4).
However, due to difficulties in translation between Greek and Latin in the early centuries of the Church the meaning of hypostasis changed in emphasis, from sameness to distinctness; this particularly relates to understanding the Trinity, but also in understanding the person of Jesus Christ.2 (Vine comments that the KJV translates hypostaseōs as person, which really seems anachronistic because such a meaning was not used until the 4th century).4 As a result of this change, the word was seen to be emphasising God as three persons, instead of in terms of the unity of the divine natures in Hebrews 1:3.
When we consider the question of Christ, the hypostatic union implies a union of two natures, the divine and human natures into one person; but it does not mean to imply that Christ is two persons. Christ still possesses the same divine essence with God, and at the same time has a human essence, neither of which nullifies the other.
There is great mystery in this doctrine (1 Timothy 3:16), but we should not forget that Adam was already created in the image of God. Gregory of Nyssa saw Christ as the archetype for Adam.5 By taking the form of a man, Christ became that which was already made in His image, thus bringing union between the divine and human natures. The Apostle Paul also compared the first Adam and the last Adam, noting similarities, but also differences: “Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit” (1 Corinthians 15:44–45).
Of course, this is further complicated when we understand that God exists outside of our timeframe, but from our perspective we see that Christ took on flesh at the Incarnation.
After His resurrection, Christ continued to be fully God and fully man, with a body that displayed the marks of crucifixion (John 20:24–29). He has a glorified spiritual body, is now reigning in heaven, but is coming back again to reign with the believers (2 Timothy 2:12) who will be fully transformed into His image.
How did Jesus empty himself?
We are told also that Jesus Christ “emptied [Greek: ἐκένωσεν ekenōsen] himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:7). Some have suggested this kenosis, or self-emptying, implies that Christ ceased to be fully God when he came to Earth, even meaning He was subject to error according to some theistic evolutionists, but that is not correct.6 In this passage the KJV does a better job by translating the passage “ … made himself of no reputation.” In the context of the passage, by taking the form of a servant Jesus emptied himself of his divine reputation and dignity to live upon the Earth with human beings, and suffer and die upon the cross. However, Jesus continued to enjoy close fellowship with the Father through a life of prayer in order to know God’s will, and He worked miracles through the power of the Holy Spirit. Thus, He maintained the unity of the Trinity during His ministry upon the Earth.
Scripture speaks of Jesus spiritually pre-existing his human birth, but not in terms of created flesh and blood. John’s Gospel tells us that Christ became, or was made, flesh—the Creator becoming part of the creation. At the Incarnation Jesus took on both a human nature as well as still possessing a divine essence, the two natures unified in a single person of the Godhead. After the Resurrection Jesus still appeared to Thomas with the marks of the cross, evidence of His salvation work. The hope of the Gospel message is that we too can come into union with, and abide in Christ, when we give our lives to Him and remain in Him (John 15).
References and notes
- Vine, W.E., An expository dictionary of New Testament words, In: Vine, W.E., Unger, M.F., White, W., Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, Thomas Nelson, Publ., Nashville & London, pp. 109, 385, 1985. Entry on ‘Come’ and ‘Made.’ Return to text.
- Mathis, D., What is the Hypostatic Union? Desiringgod.org, 1 December 2007. Return to text.
- Fairbairn, D., Patristic exegesis and theology: the cart and the horse, WTJ 69(1):1–19, 2007. Return to text.
- Vine, W.E., ref 1., p. 607. Entry on ‘Substance.’ Return to text.
- Gregory of Nyssa, On the Making of Man, III. That the nature of man is more precious than all the visible creation; in: Schaff, P. (Ed.) Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers (NPNF), series 2, vol. 5, T&T Clark, Edinburgh, 1886–1890. Return to text.
- Bell, P., Evolution and the Christian Faith, Day One Publications, Leominster, UK, pp. 79–84, 2018. Return to text.