10 Key Bible Verses on the Incarnation

This article is part of the Key Bible Verses series.

God Became Man

Read about God’s condescension and wonder anew at his redemptive plan for humanity with these verses and commentary from the ESV Study Bible, and let your heart be awed by God’s perfect plan to redeem his people.

John 1:14

And the Word became 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.

“The Word” continues the opening words of the prologue in John1:1. “Became flesh” does not mean the Word ceased being God; rather, the Word, who was God, also took on humanity (cf. Phil. 2:6–7). This is the most amazing event in all of history: the eternal, omnipotent, omnipresent, infinitely holy Son of God took on a human nature and lived among humanity as one who was both God and man at the same time, in one person. “Dwelt among us” means more literally “pitched his tent” (Gk. skēnoō), an allusion to God’s dwelling among the Israelites in the tabernacle (cf. Ex. 25:8–9; 33:7). In the past, God had manifested his presence to his people in the tabernacle and the temple. Now God takes up residence among his people in the incarnate Word, Jesus Christ (cf. John 1:17). Thus, the coming of Christ fulfills the Old Testament symbolism for God’s dwelling with man in the tabernacle and the temple. Later, through the Holy Spirit, Christ will make into a temple both the church (1 Cor. 3:16) and a Christian’s body (1 Cor. 6:19). The references to God’s glory refer back to Old Testament passages narrating the manifestation of the presence and glory of God in theophanies (appearances of God), the tabernacle, or the temple (e.g., Ex. 33:22; Num. 14:10; Deut. 5:22). the only Son from the Father. Jesus is the “Son of God,” not in the sense of being created or born (see John 1:3), but in the sense of being a Son who is exactly like his Father in all attributes, and in the sense of having a Father-Son relationship with God the Father. The Greek word underlying “only,” monogenēs, means “one of a kind, unique,” as in the case of Isaac, who is called Abraham’s “one-of-a-kind” son in Hebrews 11:17 (in contrast to Ishmael; cf. Gen. 22:2, 12, 16). Thus “only” is a better translation than “only begotten” (made familiar through its use in the KJV).

Hebrews 1:1–2

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.

“Long ago” contrasts here with “these last days” in Hebrews 1:2. Two similar Greek words (polymerōs and polytropōs) emphasize the many times and many ways in which God has spoken. This speaking was through prophets, which in Jewish thought included the authors of both the prophetic and the historical books of the Old Testament (even Moses and David; cf. Deut. 18:15; Acts 1:16; 3:22; 4:25; 7:37; 26:22). “Our fathers” are the Old Testament patriarchs (cf. Heb. 3:9; 8:9), whom the author considers his audience’s spiritual forebears.

Four points of contrast occur between Hebrews 1:1 and Hebrews 1:2: time of revelation (“long ago” vs. these last days); agent of revelation (“prophets” vs. Son); recipients of revelation (“fathers” vs. us); and, implicitly, the unity of the final revelation in the Son (cf. the “many times and in many ways” in Heb. 1:1, implying, by contrast, that this last revelation came at one time, in one way, in and through God’s Son). Since God has spoken finally and fully in the Son, and since the New Testament fully reports and interprets this supreme revelation once the New Testament is written, the canon of Scripture is complete. No new books are needed to explain what God has done through his Son. Now believers await his second coming (Heb. 9:28) and the city to come (Heb. 13:14). Jesus is heir of all things (i.e., what he “inherits” from his Father is all creation) by virtue of his dignity as Son (Heb. 1:4). The preexistence, authority, power, and full deity of the Son are evident in his role in creating the world; cf. John 1:3, 10; Col. 1:16.

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Isaiah 9:6

For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

A gift of divine grace to sinners. This is the invincible figure striding across the world stage, taking gracious command, according to Isaiah 9:4–5 (cf. Ps. 2:7–9; Luke 1:32). Isaiah presents the events as if it were the time of the child’s arrival, with an expectation of what he will achieve (Isa. 9:7).

Wonderful Counselor. A “counselor” is one who is able to make wise plans (Isa. 11:2). He is a ruler whose wisdom is beyond merely human capabilities, unlike intelligent but foolish Ahaz (cf. Isa. 28:29).

Mighty God. A title of the Lord himself (Isa. 10:20–21; Deut. 10:17; Neh. 9:32; Jer. 32:18).

Everlasting Father. A “father” here is a benevolent protector (cf. Isa. 22:21; Job 29:16), which is the task of the ideal king and is also the way God himself cares for his people (cf. Isa. 63:16; Isa. 64:8; Ps. 103:13). (That is, this is not using the Trinitarian title “Father” for the Messiah; rather, it is portraying him as a king.)

Prince of Peace. He is the ruler whose reign will bring about peace because the nations will rely on his just decisions in their disputes (cf. Isa. 2:4; 11:6–9; 42:4; 49:7; 52:15). This kind of king contrasts with even the best of the Davidic line that Judah has experienced so far, because these titles show that this king will be divine. Thus this cannot refer to, say, Hezekiah (whose father Ahaz was king at the time), who for all his piety was nevertheless flawed (cf. Isa. 39:5–8) and only human.

Galatians 4:4–5

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.

God sent his Son at the right moment in human history, when God’s providential oversight of the events of the world had directed and prepared peoples and nations for the incarnation and ministry of Christ, and for the proclamation of the gospel.

Paul’s adoption imagery probably picks up the Old Testament concept of God calling Israel his “son” and combines this with the Roman notion of adopting a son (usually already a grown man) in order to designate him as the heir to all the family wealth.

1 Timothy 1:15–17

The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.

Calling attention to certain sayings as trustworthy is a particular distinctive of the Pastoral Epistles (cf. 1 Tim.3:1; 4:9; 2 Tim. 2:11; Titus 3:8). With “Christ Jesus came . . . to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost (cf. Luke 19:10),” Paul cannot mean that he now sins more than anyone in the world, for he elsewhere says that he has lived before God with a clear conscience (Acts 23:1; Acts 24:16), and he asks other believers to follow his example. Apparently he means that his previous persecution of the church (1 Tim. 1:13; cf. 1 Cor. 15:9–10) made him the foremost sinner, for it did the most to hinder others from coming to faith (cf. 1 Thess. 2:15–16). Yet it also allowed God to save Paul as an “example” of grace (1 Tim. 1:16). Another interpretation is that, in light of the Holy Spirit’s powerful conviction in his heart, and his nearness to God, Paul could not imagine anyone being a “worse” sinner than he. Godly people with some self-knowledge are prone to think of themselves in this way.

Titus 3:4–7

But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.

Paul explains how his exhortations to godly living (Titus 3:1–2) are based on the gospel. This gospel statement is presented in a traditional “conversion” formula—“formerly . . . but now”—highlighting the ethical and practical change effected by grace.

Goodness and loving kindness stand in stark contrast to the description of lost humanity in Titus 3:3. The difference is due to the appearance of God our Savior.

The transformation described in Titus 3:3–7 (“formerly . . . but now”) is not based on human effort. “We . . . were once enslaved” (Titus 3:3) but he saved us. God must act before salvation occurs. Salvation comes not because of works but by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit. Some have understood this as saying that baptism (“the washing”) causes salvation. However, in this context human deeds are clearly downplayed (“not because of works”) and the emphasis is on divine action and initiative (“he saved us”). The “washing” described here is the spiritual cleansing, which is outwardly symbolized in baptism.

Zechariah 9:9

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem!
Behold, your king is coming to you;
righteous and having salvation is he,
humble and mounted on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

This campaign over Israel’s enemies would culminate in the triumphal entry of its king to Jerusalem. The people are summoned to acclaim their coming king. He is described as “righteous,” like the ideal ruler of Psalm 72. He will ensure God’s blessing on his people, thereby bringing about their “salvation.” He is also humble (cf. Deut. 17:18–20), hinting that this king is still obedient to the King of kings, and he comes riding on a donkey, the mount of one who comes to bring peace, not on the standard military mount, a horse. This prophecy famously finds its counterpart in Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, when Jesus clearly signals his messianic identity. This verse is directly quoted at Matthew 21:5 and John 12:15, but both evangelists abbreviate the quotation. As Jesus enters Jerusalem, this work is still to be accomplished.

John 3:16

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

Here is the most famous summary of the gospel in the entire Bible. “For” connects to John 3:15 and explains what happened to make it possible that someone can “have eternal life” (John 3:15), that is, through believing in Christ. God so loved the world was an astounding statement in that context because the Old Testament and other Jewish writings had spoken only of God’s love for his people Israel. God’s love for “the world” made it possible for “whoever” (John 3:15) believes in Christ, not Jews alone, to have eternal life. God’s love for the world was not mere sentiment but led to a specific action: he gave his only Son, which John elsewhere explains as sending him to earth as a man (John 3:17) to suffer and die and thereby to bear the penalty for sins.

The purpose of giving his Son was to make God’s great gift of eternal life available to anyone—to whoever believes in him, that is, whoever personally trusts in him. “Not perish” means not perish in eternal judgment, in contrast to having eternal life, the life of abundant joy and immeasurable blessing in the presence of God forever. Those who “believe in” Christ have that “eternal life” and already experience its blessings in this present time, not yet fully, but in some significant measure.

Philippians 2:8

And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

It is remarkable enough that God the Son would take on human form (Gk. schēma, “outward appearance, form, shape,” a different term from morphē, used in Phil. 2:6–7 for “form of God” and “form of a servant”) and thus enter into all the vicissitudes of a broken world. But Jesus went much farther, becoming obedient (cf. Rom. 5:19) to the point of death, even death on a cross. Crucifixion was not simply a convenient way of executing prisoners. It was the ultimate indignity, a public statement by Rome that the crucified one was beyond contempt. The excruciating physical pain was magnified by the degradation and humiliation. No other form of death, no matter how prolonged or physically agonizing, could match crucifixion as an absolute destruction of the person (see note on Matt. 27:35). It was the ultimate counterpoint to the divine majesty of the preexistent Christ, and thus was the ultimate expression of Christ’s obedience to the Father.

Isaiah 7:14

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.

Although some claim that the word translated virgin (Hb. ‘almah) refers generally to a “young woman,” it actually refers specifically to a “maiden”—that is, to a young woman who is unmarried and sexually chaste, and thus has virginity as one of her characteristics (see Gen. 24:16, 43; Ex. 2:8, “girl”). Thus when the Septuagint translators, 200 years before the birth of Christ, rendered ‘almah here with Greek parthenos (a specific term for “virgin”) they rightly perceived the meaning of the Hebrew term; and when Matthew applied this prophecy to the virgin birth of Christ (see Matt. 1:23), it was in accord with this well-established understanding of parthenos (“virgin”) as used in the Septuagint and in other Greek writers.

Isaiah prophesies further that it is “the virgin” who shall call his name Immanuel. Bestowing a child’s name often falls to the mother in the OT (e.g., the naming of the patriarchs in Gen. 29:31–30:24; but cf. Gen. 35:18; also Judg. 13:24; 1 Sam. 1:20), although other women (cf. Ruth 4:17) or even the father (Gen. 16:15; Judg. 8:31) could be involved in the naming. The name itself, Immanuel, “God is with us,” is the message of the sign. Such is its importance that Matthew translates it for his readers (Matt. 1:23). Immanuel is used as a form of address in Isa. 8:8 (“your land, O Immanuel”), and as a sentence in Isa. 8:10 (“for God is with us”). To say that God is “with” someone or a people means that God is guiding and helping them to fulfill their calling (Gen. 21:22; Ex. 3:12; Deut. 2:7; Josh. 1:5; Ps. 46:7, 11; Isa. 41:10). As such, it would provide a pointed message either to the fearful Ahaz or to the failing royal house.

Christian interpretation follows Matthew in applying this verse to the birth of Jesus. However, some aspects of Isaiah’s prophecy also relate to the significance of the sign for Isaiah’s own day. This being the case, a number of questions are raised: To whose family does the virgin belong, and how should her marital status be understood? What is the precise significance of the child’s name? Is it a personal name, or should it be understood as a title? Most importantly, does the fulfillment of this sign belong to Isaiah’s own day, or does it rather point (even in his day) to a much more distant and complete fulfillment? Christians have typically answered these questions in one of two ways.

Some hold that the sign has a single fulfillment—that is, the sign points originally and solely to the birth of Jesus as the “ultimate” Messiah. Those who hold this view emphasize the understanding of ‘almah only as “virgin,” thus precluding any “near term” fulfillment before the birth of Jesus; this view understands “Immanuel” as a title (as in Isa. 8:8) rather than a personal name. It is also noted that the variation in reference to a “son” (Hb. ben) in Isa. 7:14, as compared to a “boy” (Hb. na‘ar) in Isa. 7:16, further distinguishes between the child of miraculous birth and a more generic reference to a male child unrelated to the divine promise. This has the effect of separating the reference to Isaiah’s day (Isa. 7:16–17) from the fulfillment of the announced miraculous son to be born at a future time (v. 14). According to this interpretation, then, the prediction of the virgin birth in Isa. 7:14 is a straightforward prediction of an event cast well into the future, and Matthew’s application of this prophecy to Jesus (Matt. 1:20–23) provides the divinely inspired testimony to there being a single fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. By this interpretation, the sign is directed to the “house of David,” to affirm God’s intention of preserving David’s dynasty (in keeping with the promises of 2 Sam. 7:12–16), in order to bring Israel’s mission to its glorious fulfillment (Isa. 9:6–7; 11:1–10). God will use any means to do this, even miraculous ones: this is a rebuke to the faithless and secular outlook of Ahaz.

Those who see in this sign a more immediate application to Ahaz and his times usually argue that the prophecy has a double fulfillment—that is, both an immediate fulfillment in Isaiah’s day and a long-term fulfillment in the birth of the Messiah. Those who hold this view argue that it is natural for the name “Immanuel” to be understood in terms of double fulfillment, since two other “sons” perform similar symbolic roles in the context (cf. Isa. 7:3; 8:3–4). They argue further that the prophet’s own interpretation of the sign in Isa. 7:16–17 applies it directly to Ahaz’s own day. It should be observed that this understanding of the text in no way diminishes Matthew’s affirmation of the supernatural conception and virgin birth of Jesus (cf. also Luke 1:34–35). Even if the prophecy does include an immediate application to the time of Ahaz, however, the prophecy cannot have been fulfilled completely by the birth of someone like Maher-shalal-hash-baz (Isa. 8:1, 3) or by Hezekiah, as some have suggested, since Isa.9:6 prophesies the birth of a son whose name will be “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace”—a statement that could apply only to the Davidic Messiah.

On this understanding, then, the prophecy of Isa. 7:14 foretells the birth of Immanuel, which was fulfilled partially in Isaiah’s time but fully and finally in the person of Jesus Christ. Faithful interpreters can be found on either side of this debate. One should not, therefore, lose sight of those truths on which all agree: the prophet speaks authoritatively for God; Ahaz and his house stand under judgment; the prophetic sign directly meets the failures of Ahaz’s day; fulfillment of the prophecy comes about through direct divine intervention in human history; and the sign finds its final fulfillment in the virgin birth of Jesus the Messiah, who is literally “God with us.”

All commentary sections adapted from the ESV Study Bible.

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