In a comment here, a reader named “Seeking to understand” asked some questions about the change in God’s relationship with us from before to after the Incarnation: God “becoming flesh” as Jesus Christ. These questions boiled down to three basic questions:
- Was it really a change in how God relates to us?
- Does this mean God was less able to save us before the Incarnation?
- What part of God “changes” from our human perspective?
Even to understand these questions you might want to click on the first link above and read Seeking to understand’s original comment. This post is an edited and expanded version of the reply I wrote here. It doesn’t exactly answer all of these questions. But the answers should become clear enough as you read my response.
The Divine Humanity
To answer the last question first in good biblical fashion, the term Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772) uses for the part of God that comes to us humans and touches us directly, and that changes in the realm of time and space, is “the Divine Humanity.” This is the human expression of God, which we know most concretely as Jesus Christ.
Most often Swedenborg simply calls Jesus Christ “the Lord.” He doesn’t think of the Lord as a separate being from the Father or the Holy Spirit. Rather, he sees the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as all being within, and part of, the Lord. There are not three persons or three gods, but one God, who is the Lord God Jesus Christ. For more on this, please see, “Who is God? Who is Jesus Christ? What about that Holy Spirit?”
In short, the Divine Humanity is God reaching out to us and relating to us as a divine, infinite human being relating to created, finite human beings.
In the lifetime of Jesus Christ, the Divine Humanity developed through time and space in a process that Swedenborg calls “the Glorification.” This was a process of Jesus making his human side, which originally came from Mary, fully divine, so that by the time of the resurrection there was nothing left of the finite humanity derived from Mary; it had all been replaced by an infinite, uncreated, self-existent divine humanity.
This is what Jesus was referring to in the Gospel of John when he said, “Just as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself” (John 5:26). This would be impossible unless the Son was fully divine, and not some secondary, derived “person” of God “born from eternity” (something the Bible never says).
I realize this is a brain-bender. But understanding it is the key to understanding the Incarnation and the Glorification. Some of the articles linked from this one go into it in a little more detail. The fundamental idea is that God, in a sense, “expanded” or flowed outward with the Divine Being to include in it a Divine Humanity that had not previously existed.
An imperfect analogy is to think of a human being developing from a single fertilized egg into a full-grown human being. The DNA is still the same. It is still essentially the same human being. But it has now developed from potential form in the complete set of human DNA in the fertilized egg into actual form in the adult human being that has grown according to the pattern contained in that DNA.
When God “develops” in a new form, there is no separation from the core being of God, because God is one and indivisible. Unlike human sons and daughters, who separate and distinguish themselves from their parents, the Son of God never separated from God, but remained one with God.
The Son of God is not a separate person distinct from God the Father, even though it may appear that way to our human eyes. Rather, the Son of God is an expanding of God into new territory that God did not previously occupy. (I am speaking metaphorically here.) It’s just that to describe the cosmically unique event that was happening, the Bible had to use terms and concepts that ordinary people could grasp in some way. The terms “father” and “son” come closest to a concrete, human-understandable way of expressing these highly philosophical and spiritual concepts.
I hope these few thoughts will give you some mental grasp of what was going on in the Incarnation and Glorification. Please read some of the linked articles for more.
An indirect relationship with God
The big change from before to after the Incarnation is that before the Incarnation, in reaching out to human beings on earth God worked primarily through angelic and human intermediaries, whereas afterwards God also works directly, without angelic and human intermediaries.
In the Old Testament, God spoke to people through angels, and also through human leaders such as Moses, Joshua, the High Priest, and the prophets. Ordinary people rarely heard God’s voice directly.
Even when someone “saw God face to face,” it was actually God filling an angel with the divine presence so that the angel represented God. That’s why in the very same chapter in Genesis it first says:
Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend. (Genesis 33:11)
But then, just a few verses later, God says to Moses:
But you cannot see my face; for no one can see me and live. (Genesis 33:20)
Skeptics will jump all over this as a blatant contradiction in the Bible. And if we read the Bible literally, it is a blatant contradiction. But here’s what’s happening:
Before the Incarnation, human beings could not see God’s actual face, which was the infinite core Divine Being. That would indeed have been fatal. It would have been like having a direct, unfiltered encounter with the sun—which no human being could survive without being burnt to a crisp and then vaporized. However, people were able to speak to God “face to face” when God spoke through angels, and the angels were so filled with God’s presence that they thought and spoke as if they were God.
For a great example of this, read Genesis chapters 18–19. In these chapters, the beings who visited Abraham, and later his nephew Lot, are sometimes called “men,” sometimes “angels,” and sometimes “the Lord.” How could they be all three at once, if not by God filling angels (who were once people, or “men,” on earth—see: “What is the Biblical Basis for Humans becoming Angels after they Die?”) with God’s presence? Once we understand how God appeared to people before the Incarnation, this confusing story, and many others in the Old Testament, makes perfect sense.
Losing touch with God
Unfortunately, as the generations and ages passed, people paid less and less attention to God’s messengers, both angelic and human. There were also fewer and fewer people on earth whom God could call upon to deliver God’s messages because humanity was getting more and more materialistic, and listening less and less to anything that came from the spiritual world and from God.
The last prophetic books of the Old Testament speak of events that happened several centuries before the coming of Christ. There was a “dead zone” in there in which God rarely, if ever, spoke to the people because the people just weren’t listening. This is what Isaiah was speaking of poetically in this passage:
He saw that there was no man,
and wondered that there was no one to intercede;
then his own arm brought him salvation,
and his righteousness upheld him. (Isaiah 59:16)
In other words, there were no more people through whom God could appeal to humans on earth. “His own arm” refers prophetically to Jesus Christ, who is not some separate “person” of God, but God’s own powerful and loving arm reaching out to save humanity from spiritual destruction. See also the famous passage in Isaiah 63:1–9, which is another poetic and prophetic rendition of the same idea.
In other words, the connection between humanity and God through angels and through human leaders, priests, and prophets was becoming so weak and tenuous that humanity was in danger of being cut off altogether from God and the spiritual world. If that had happened, it would have resulted in our spiritual and eternal death as human beings. We would have become nothing but animals—but worse than any other animal because we were tearing each other to shreds.
A direct relationship with God
That was when God came personally as Jesus Christ to restore the connection between humanity and God. Unlike God’s former appearances through angelic and human intermediaries, this time it was God’s own human presence reaching out to humanity and speaking directly to us. That’s why, when Philip asked to see the Father, Jesus replied:
Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, “Show us the Father”? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does the works. (John 14:9–10)
Now that God has Incarnated, or become flesh, the Father (the infinite Divine Being) can speak to us directly as the Divine Humanity who is Jesus Christ.
This is why, although institutional Christianity quickly reverted back to the old Jewish model (see “Christianity is Dead. Long Live Christianity!”), in true Christianity there are no priests serving as intermediaries between humans and God. Instead God is his own “mediator” in Christ—and people now have a direct relationship with God in Jesus Christ. Here are two passages in which this is expressed:
For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human. (1 Timothy 2:5)
. . . and to God the judge of all . . . and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant. (Hebrews 12:23–24)
These passages make it sound like Christ is separate from God. But that is only the appearance, not the reality. Paul made this clear when he said:
Now a mediator involves more than one party; but God is one. (Galatians 3:19)
Paul also said:
All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. (2 Corinthians 5:18–19)
What appears to us spatially-challenged humans as two is actually one God. Jesus Christ is “God’s own arm” serving as God’s own mediator, who is, simply, God personally reaching out to us. There is one and only one God. This is all explained in the “Who is God” article linked both above and below. For another somewhat more technical angle on this, please see: “What is the difference between the Swedenborgian and Oneness Pentecostal doctrines of God?”
The upshot of all this is that unlike before the Incarnation, God no longer has to work through angelic and human intermediaries to reach us and speak to us. Although God still does use angelic and human intermediaries for many things, God, as the Lord Jesus Christ, can now also have a direct relationship with us. Now we can see the face of God and live, because God has become the Divine Humanity, Jesus Christ, whose face we can see, and to whom we can talk person-to-person. See: “How does Jesus Appear to Us? Can We See God Face to Face?”
For further reading: