Taking on Flesh: An Incarnational Theology for the Missional Church

The following was originally written for a doctoral level theology class. Consider yourself warned. :)


“Protestant churches, by and large, have an underdeveloped theology of the incarnation.”[1] So says David J. Bosch at the beginning of a mere three-paragraph treatment of the relationship between incarnational theology and the church’s mission. According to Bosch, it had theretofore only been liberation theologians who had given any treatment to this.[2] A rich understanding of God’s movement and the church’s identity is there for the taking in incarnational theology. Often, the closest the missional conversation comes to this is its concern for “contextual ministry,” translating “the truth of the gospel as good news for the society to which it is sent.”[3] This is not incorrect, but is theologically vacuous.

The word “incarnate” shares a virtually identical spelling with its Latin root that means “in flesh,” but we need not, except in the case of Jesus, insist on the word’s most elementary meaning; i.e., muscular and fatty tissue. Incarnation can and should be understood more broadly to mean the act of one particular entity infusing, taking on, or indwelling the tangible form of another while maintaining its essence. To use the wording of Hugh Halter and Matt Smay, “[Incarnation is] any person or thing serving as the type or embodiment of a quality or concept.”[4] Incarnation or indwelling is something God has been up to since the beginning of time and now calls the church to do as the body of Christ. The movement can be seen in a chiastic structure:

A. God in Creation
     B. God Among a People
          C. God in Christ
     B'. Christ in the Church
A'. The Church in the World

God in Creation

In the book of Romans, Paul makes a significant observation about God, humans, and the created world:
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. (Rom 1:18-21)
Here Paul claims that the power and nature of the invisible God are so deeply embedded in creation itself that it is “plain” who God is, and that “people are without excuse.” Paul also affirms that creation itself is in the “already, not yet”[5] state, and “will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God” (Rom 8:21).

These passages in Romans are as Paul’s commentary on the Spirit of God in the act of creation, when God breathed God’s ruah (breath/wind/Spirit) into the adamah to form adam. Even before giving shape to a formless earth, the first creation story tells us that “the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters” (Gen 1:2, KJV). These references to the “breath of God” in scripture are many and the ruah is seen as foundational to life itself. “Breath meant life, and it is God who lends breath to all creatures, thus granting a share in God’s Spirit.”[6] Sallie McFague even argues that the created world should be seen as God’s body, and that human life is bookended by two breaths: “…Our first when we emerge from our mother’s womb and our last when we ‘give up the ghost’ (spirit).”[7] Pastor and author Rob Bell cites one branch of Jewish scholarship which argues that the venerated Hebrew name of God—YHWH—was thought to mimic the sound of breathing when the letters are spoken one by one: “yod – hey – vah – hey.” Bell asks rhetorically, “Is the name of God the sound of breathing?”[8] The ancient prayers contained in the Psalms express the all-encompassing nature of God’s presence in creation (e.g., Ps 139:7) and its display of God’s creative nature (Ps 33:6).

The Spirit of God “takes on the flesh of” creation which, though imperfect, displays God’s power and nature. This was only the first part of a compelling movement that we see throughout the narratives of scripture.

God Among a People

It doesn’t take long after creation for the biblical narrative to move toward the rebelliousness of humans and their ever-in-flux relationship with God. Nonetheless, God seems determined to remain in relationship with people. Terence E. Fretheim argues in his commentary on the Noahic covenant that this determination is quite radical:
For God to promise never to do something again…entails self-limitation regarding the exercise of divine freedom and power...God decides to go with this world, come what may in the way of human wickedness. God makes this promise, not simply in spite of human failure, but because human beings are sinful.[9]
We begin to see a movement through the OT narrative following the manifestation of God’s Spirit in more and more specific contexts. “The narratives of Scripture move beyond an impersonal and generalized sense of Spirit and speak of the mission of the Spirit in gathering a people.”[10]

In the biblical narratives, God establishes God’s covenant, communicating it through one particular chosen mediator. Marshall observes that there is a certain tension between the one (a leader) and the many (a people), and that whether it be Saul, Deborah, Samson, etc., there is no predictability or formula to the people God chooses.[11] Through chosen messengers, God communicates the choice to be present to a people:
I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God. (Ex 6:7) 
I will put my dwelling place among you, and I will not abhor you. I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be my people. (Lev 26:11-12)
For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession. The Lord did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath he swore to your ancestors… (Deut 7:6-8a)

In the Leviticus passage above, the phrase “dwelling place” is translating the Hebrew word mishkan, which has been traditionally rendered “tabernacle” and is often used synonymously with the Tent of Meeting (ohel mo’ed). In the Exodus narratives, this was the portable structure which was to be set up as a special place in which God’s presence could dwell and meet with chosen leaders. The Torah implies that this sacred space would have no such importance or power if separated from God’s covenant community, formed around and entrusted with God’s teaching. The later covenant language reinforces the idea of God’s presence being infused into a gathered people. “I will make a covenant of peace with them…I will put my sanctuary among them forever. My dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be my people” (Ezek 37:26-27).

However, God’s choosing and covenant-making was not just for its own sake, or even solely for the sake of the recipients. We see this first in the Abrahamic covenant: “…I will bless you…and you will be a blessing…all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Gen 12:2-3). This is the first of many indications that God intends for Israel to be the conduit of God’s blessing, message, and reign. “Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex 19:5-6). Parts of the Torah envision Israel living out God’s commands as an example that will draw the envy of others:
Observe [my commands and decrees] carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people. What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the Lord our God is near us whenever we pray to him? And what other nation is so great as to have such righteous decrees and laws…” (Deut 4:6-8)
The Spirit of God in the Old Testament is not always a benevolent force, however. There is an undeniable piece of the OT narrative in which God uses the “purify and drive out” method, and such things may very well help us keep in check our assumption that God is always on our side. However, as we follow the later prophetic literature all the way to the life of Jesus, we see that the “draw to and redeem” model wins the day over “purify and drive out.” “In the last days the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established…and all nations will stream to it” (Isa 2:2). “…[I] am about to come and gather the people of all nations and languages, and they will come and see my glory” (Isa 66:18). Israel is called “a light to the Gentiles” (Isa 42:6, 49:6). As Deuteronomy 4:6-8 suggests, God’s ultimate desire is peace and justice—achieved through Israel and extended to all. The law codes delivered through Moses are reinterpreted as ritual signs of covenant faithfulness and not the be-all, end-all: “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and…to set the oppressed free…” (Isaiah 58:5-6). This was a sign of things to come. It is not until this movement arrives at its most specific/focused point that God ultimately unites with humanity in a powerful and mysterious way: the Word become flesh.

God in the Person of Jesus Christ

“Jesus is the one in whom God’s relationship with us attains perfection.”[12] In Jesus Christ, the movement of God’s indwelling finds its highest and most consequential—yet most local—point. It also finds its most literal manifestation. In Jesus, we believe that the Word of God becomes literally manifest in flesh and bone. As Tanner implies, the Johannine image of the Word (logos) becoming flesh is the most helpful and powerful when discussing THE incarnation. Logos appears in the NT 330 times. Its usage was widely varied but its definition fairly simple: “word,” as in communication, something said, or an expression of thought.[13] We need not go far beyond this to glean a powerful implication: Jesus was God’s Word in flesh and bone; the living summary of God’s message. That all things were created through this Logos of God (John 1:3; Col 1:16) draws our attention back to Genesis 1 where creation comes into being through the spoken word of God.

God has been incarnate in creation—in some way or another—since the beginning of time. With Jesus, however, there is a significant distinction to be made from all previous incarnational activity.
Jesus does not just get his existence from God, as we do; he exists in God; his very existence is God’s existence[14]…The assumption of humanity by the Son produces a co-inherence of divinity and humanity that better imitates the co-inherence enjoyed by members of the Trinity than does God’s containing and pervading creation generally.[15]
So part of what it means to call oneself a Christian is to say that the life of Jesus was the best and most complete tangible representation we have of what God is like. “In becoming flesh, Jesus Christ as the living Word became understandable, knowable, and accessible for all time and to all persons.”[16] Jesus was and is that tangible representation because “in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form” (Col 2:9). It is also because of God’s uniting with humanity in this way that reconciliation between God and humans can be fully realized (Rom 5:11; 2 Cor 5:19). Andrew Sung Park makes an intriguing observation on this union: “Since only a human being ought to make satisfaction and only God is able to do the job, it was necessary to have a God-human reconcile God and human beings.”[17] Thus Jesus is referred to as both “son of man” and “son of God.”

God not only took on literal flesh, but also took on the “flesh”—the form, language, culture—of 1st century Palestine. John 1:14 says, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” This making of a dwelling is the Greek correlate of the tabernacle. It carries a sense of “pitching a tent” or “setting up camp.” In Jesus, God was not just among the people but one of the people of that area. Jesus was raised in Jewish customs. He spoke the language. He dressed like them. His parables reflected images and concepts that his listeners would have understood (wineskins, seeds, grapevines, fish, etc.). Jesus was the full cultural immersion of God’s message. “Jesus as the incarnate Good News took on the particularity of his context.”[18] “He came in a very particular way to a particular people at a particular time in history. He moved into the neighborhood of Galilee and demonstrated there who God is.”[19] In the OT, the Israelites experienced the trauma of being forced to adapt to another culture, and asked questions like, “How can we sing the Lord’s song while in a foreign land?” (Ps 137:4). In Jesus, this question was answered. The Word in the flesh inaugurated a new call on God’s people to be incarnational.

Christ in the Church

The Gospel of Matthew reports Jesus saying to Peter, “…on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (Matt 16:18). Jesus communicated to his disciples that his time with them was not for its own sake, but that he was preparing them to continue living and proclaiming the kingdom through the Spirit. Jesus instructs them to go make disciples, baptize, and teach (Matt 28:19-20). He entrusts with them the “keys of the kingdom,” and tells them, “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matt 16:19). Jesus promises his abiding presence through the Spirit for this task: “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth” (John 14:16-17). Clearly, the church after Jesus is entrusted with a great task, and as Paul explains, it also has a great identity: the Body of Christ. Paul affirms diversity in the body and the essential nature of having each part connected to the whole. “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it” (1 Cor 12:27; see also Rom 12:4-5). Through the Spirit, the church is the incarnate presence of Christ in the world. The church is Christ’s body, and therefore the manifestation of Christ in its context. As Marshall observes, this is more than just a representation. Through a new and pervading presence of God’s Spirit that was inaugurated at Pentecost (Acts 2), the church does not merely represent Christ but actually participates in the life of Christ through baptism. “…The Spirit plunges the believer into the very life of Christ…The Spirit draws believers into the paschal rhythms of Christ.”[20] Paul puts it this way: “God…has called you into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Cor 1:9). Ethno-religious boundaries give way to inclusivity: “This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus” (Eph 3:6). “For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink” (1 Cor 12:13).

Another important piece of the identity of the church is its collective nature. In 21st century America, individualism reigns supreme, and more and more people are taking a rogue approach to religion. In a personal conversation, one gentleman put it this way: “I do church by myself.” While I understand what he was trying to say, doing church by oneself is theologically impossible. Paul’s analogy of a body points us to its interconnectedness. The church is not even a gathering of individuals but a collective whole, made possible only by a humble and self-sacrificial approach to the other that Paul stresses over and over (see Rom 12:10; Gal 5:13; Eph 2:4-6; Phil 2:1-4; etc.). The Greek New Testament word ekklesia, translated as “church,” literally means “the ones called out,” and has an irrevocable communal aspect. Another word, koinonia, is often translated as “fellowship.” Paul uses this word to describe our koinonia with Christ (1 Cor 1:9), but its more common usage refers to the believers. This is not just a gathering at a certain place and time, but the melding of lives and souls. “A fellowship of believers shares more than common beliefs and core values; they display a profound regard for one another's spiritual and physical well-being as a community of friends.”[21] The living Christ is seen in the church when it functions as a body.

In sending the church, the incarnational movement of God flows back out among people. The church serves as the NT cognate of the chosen people of the OT, but with several key differences. One is that the chosen community is now radically inclusive and knows no cultural or religious boundaries. Peter said to Cornelius, “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right” (Acts 10:34-35). The other, more key difference is that, now, God’s presence and work in the world flows through the same Spirit and Word that was present in Jesus, who was the ultimate union of God and humankind. When God’s power and nature were incarnate in creation and his message incarnate in a people, it was still necessary for humans to “seek and find.” Now, we can be “found in.” The only prerequisite of salvation is God’s grace; our faith is the conduit (Eph 2:8). The church as the body of Christ has a noble role to play. “The church is God’s personal presence in the world through the Spirit.”[22]

The Church in the World

Through our baptism into the body of Christ, we take on and become participants in this incarnational nature of God. We are being transformed into the image and likeness of Christ (Rom 8:29, 2 Cor 3:18). So if the church is Christ’s body, being made like him, and in Christ, God “took on the flesh” of the context, what does this mean? The church’s call is to live and proclaim the reign of God in the flesh of its context. What we see in Jesus is that the gospel is not something abstract that can be plugged in anywhere. God’s most clear and powerful self-revelation was also the most local and contextual, as we must be.

This is not new. Paul seems to grasp this reality in 1 Corinthians: “To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews…To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Cor 9:20-22). However, perhaps the most intriguing scriptural model for our incarnational mission is the sending of the 70/72 in Luke 10. Roxburgh expounds the implications of this passage in which these appointed pairs are sent out with the message of the kingdom into different communities as dependent strangers.
Luke 10:1-12 uses the language of a stranger who receives hospitality. It’s important here that those who go two by two are the ones who receive hospitality and the gracious goodness of those who live in the towns and villages. Luke repeats the injunction to enter and stay, along with the parallel injunction of eating what is set before them, indicating this entering and eating lie at the heart of his message…This is not, it would seem, a hit-and-run event…these disciples stayed with the people for quite some time.[23]
They were sent with no resources and were told to go and assimilate with these families and villages as their guest, twice being told to “eat whatever is placed before you” (Luke 10:7, 8), something that would have produced anxiety for any faithful Jew. Living the gospel incarnationally sends us into the world as the stranger. Today, in the attractional model, the church expects the opposite. We program and advertise and try to do just the right thing that will compel others to come to us as the stranger on our turf. It is the church that is to go, however, taking on the flesh of its local context. In the words of Lesslie Newbigin, “If the gospel is to be understood…it has to be communicated in the language of those to whom it is addressed.”[24]

This is not a utopian vision, free of conflict and risks. “Compassion does not try to heal or comfort from a distance; rather, its willingness to wade into the thick of it with others means putting the self at risk. This Jesus does, without regard for the looming crisis.”[25] A crisis it is. Many churches are in survival mode, and the last thing such a church would instinctively do is put itself and its preconceived notions at risk. But this is exactly what happens whenever we deeply engage with another reality: we must also undergo change. We see this in the book of Acts as new realities forced the early Jewish followers of Jesus to reinterpret God’s message for their time. It produced conflict (Acts 15:36-41; Gal 2:11ff) and necessitated serious conversations about identity and priorities (Acts 15:1-21). “Luke is helping his readers understand that opposition is the norm when the Spirit breaks the boundaries of expectations and predictable ways of relating to people.”[26] Craig Van Gelder refers to these dynamics between church and culture as forming and reforming.
This reinforces the logic that the church always needs to be both confessional (claiming and reclaiming its identity in relation to the historic Christian faith) and missional (engaging its context and continuously recontextualizing its ministry)…This means that congregations seek to become contextual even while they seek to maintain the historic Christian faith…The ministry of the Spirit helps congregations engage in both processes simultaneously.[27]
Guder observes that this is a call for the church to enter a space that is full of ambiguities. “Such a calling never leaves the church in a finished, settled, or permanent incarnation. Its vocation to live faithfully to the gospel in a fully contextual manner means that it can sometimes find itself either unfaithful or uncontextual.”[28] Could it be that the primary way God transforms people—both Christians and the world to which we are sent—is through an encounter with the other?


The wind/Spirit of God blows wherever it pleases (John 3:8), and the incarnational nature of God is inevitably going to be part of the life of the church because we participate in the life of God through Christ. It is time for the church to live incarnationally. “If you want to discover and discern what God is up to in the world just now, stop trying to answer this question from within the walls of your churches.”[29] The missio Dei does not begin and end with us, and it is within this framework that we see how any person can be both the subject or object of God’s mission. The church often sees itself as the subject of God’s mission, the sole distributor of divine resources. Most churches, when they seek to articulate an understanding of their mission, do so behind closed doors and only afterward take that decided upon agenda into the community. This is backwards.
Our habit has been to ask these questions in the exact [wrong] way. First we ask about the nature and purpose of the church in some abstract or idealist way…Then we develop strategies to make this kind of church relevant to the places where we live. A missional understanding moves in a different direction, beginning with questions about the gospel and the context and then moving to the church so that the shape and life of the latter comes out of the interactions of the first two.[30]
A notable aspect of the early church as described in Acts 2:42-47 is that they were not actively trying to grow. We’re told of their devotion to teaching, fellowship, breaking bread, and prayer. We’re told of their radical unity and the way they shared their resources. “And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47, emphasis added). Growth was not their primary goal but merely a byproduct of faithful witness in their context. Being “missional” carries no guarantee of numerical growth in a given congregation, but if such growth is to happen, we need to realize that actively pursuing such growth may very well be the least effective way to achieve it.

The church is called to “seek first the kingdom” and lose its life for the sake of Christ in order to find it. The church must enter its context incarnationally, with no purse, bag, or sandals (so to speak), and see “what God is up to in the neighborhood.”[31] The heart of God—the missio Dei—is in the community.


[1] Bosch, Transforming Mission (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1991), 512.
[2] Ibid., 513
[3] Darrell L. Guder, ed., Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North Amierca (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 18.
[4] Hugh Halter and Matt Smay, The Tangible Kingdom: Creating Incarnational Community (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008), 38.
[5] Geerhardus Vos, Pauline Eschatology (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 1979).
[6] Molly T. Marshall, Joining the Dance: A Theology of the Spirit (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 2003), 21.
[7] Sallie McFague, The Body of God: An Ecological Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 143.
[8] Rob Bell, Breathe (NOOMA 014), DVD (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006).
[9] Terence E. Fretheim, “The Book of Genesis,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, ed. Leander E. Keck et. al., Vol. 1 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 396, emphasis added.
[10] Marshall, Joining the Dance, 38.
[11] Ibid., 38-39.
[12] Kathryn Tanner, Jesus, Humanity, and the Trinity (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), 9.
[13] James Strong, ed., “3056: Logos,” “The New Strong’s Expanded Dictionary of the Words in the Greek New Testament” in The New Strong’s Expanded Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2001), 152.
[14] Tanner, Jesus, Humanity, and the Trinity, 25.
[15] Ibid., 48.
[16] Craig Van Gelder, The Ministry of the Missional Church (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007), 61.
[17] Andrew Sung Park, Triune Atonement (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009, Kindle Edition), Location 258.
[18] Ibid., 62.
[19] Alan J. Roxburgh and M. Scott Boren, Introducing the Missional Church (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009), 94.
[20] Marshall, Joining the Dance, 79.
[21] Robert W. Wall, “The Acts of the Apostles,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, ed. Leander E. Keck, et. al., Vol. 10 (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995), 71-72.
[22] Craig Van Gelder, The Essence of the Church: A Community Created by the Spirit (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000), 25.
[23] Alan J. Roxburgh, Missional: Joining God in the Neighborhood (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2011), 139.
[24] Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 141.
[25] Marshall, Joining the Dance, 68.
[26] Roxburgh, Missional: Joining God in the Neighborhood, 122.
[27] Van Gelder, The Ministry of the Missional Church, 54-55.
[28] Guder, Missional Church, 14.
[29] Roxburgh, Missional: Joining God in the Neighborhood, 134.
[30] Roxburgh and Boren, Introducing the Missional Church, 72.
[31] Roxburgh, Missional.

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