A reader writes in with the following questions concerning the Incarnation:
1. Since Jesus was a Jew (born of a Jewish mother, Mary), and Jesus Christ is one of the 3 persons of the Trinity, is God a Jew? But God is spirit. I am not sure if there is a difference between the Son (before creation) and the Son who later took human form in a Jew named Jesus. In other words, the Son was eternal (part of the Trinity) but Jesus was not. The Son – who is neither male nor female but spirit being God – became flesh, a Jewish rabbi.
2. In Matthew 24:36 Jesus says: “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only.” Why wouldn’t the Son know if he’s an equal person in the Trinity? Again, I’m tempted to think this is Jesus the man who is speaking, and not God the Son (who must know when he would return, or else is not omniscient).
I do realise the Trinity is ultimately a mystery in the Christian faith, but I’d like to hear what you think about these two questions. Aside from these questions, I have no problem with the Christian understanding of a personal God in the life of Jesus..
You're in good company. This is actually the exact question of Christology which started being controversial in the 400's, the century following the adoption of the Nicene creed by the Councils of Nicea and Constantinope (known as the 1st and 2nd Ecumenical Councils). Once it was settled that Christ is God (contrary to the heretical teaching of Arius), the next question to work out is the relationship between the divine and the human in Christ.
Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant Christians are all agreed about the answer, which is that Christ has two different natures (divine and human) but these natures are united in one person and one being, the Christ.
The controversy started as a result of Nestorius, who claimed that there were two separate persons in Christ, a divine person united to a human person. He was unwilling to say that Mary was the Theotokos (God-bearer) but preferred the term (Christ-bearer). This was condemned as heretical by the Third Ecumenical Council of Ephesus. Nestorius went over to the Assyrian Church of the East (which exists to this day and is neither Catholic nor Protestant nor Orthodox).
Then later there were the Monophysites/Miaphysites who said that Christ had just one nature, which was both human and divine. This was condemned at the Fourth Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon [pronounced with a hard "Ch", like "Christ"] in the year 451 AD. However, the Coptic Church and others didn't agree with this, and so there was a schism between them and the (not-yet-divided) Catholic/Orthodox church, which exists down to the present day.
In retrospect, it is not so clear that these other groups were quite so heretical as they were made out to be. Unlike the controversy with the Arians, it is a bit hard to be sure when the two groups actually disagree, and when they were just using different language for the same thing. But I believe that the Chalcedonian language is, at the very least, the most clear and accurate way to describe the union of the divine and human natures in Christ.
The complete Chalcedonian Formula is as follows:
"Therefore, following the holy fathers, we all with one accord teach men to acknowledge one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man, consisting also of a reasonable soul and body; of one substance with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his manhood; like us in all respects, apart from sin; as regards his Godhead, begotten of the Father before the ages, but yet as regards his manhood begotten, for us men and for our salvation, of Mary the Virgin, the God-bearer [Theotokos]; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence, not as parted or separated into two persons, but one and the same Son and Only-begotten God the Word, Lord Jesus Christ; even as the prophets from earliest times spoke of him, and our Lord Jesus Christ himself taught us, and the creed of the fathers has handed down to us."
Applying this to your question, we see that Jesus possessed BOTH the attributes of divinity (eternal, omniscient, sexless, etc.) and the attributes of (a particular) human nature (Jewish, born of Mary, male, limited, etc.), but without sin, having a complete human body and soul. Since the divine nature is eternal, immutable and cannot change, we cannot say that God was transformed into a human being, but must instead say that he assumed or took on human flesh. "Not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh; but by assumption of the Manhood by God", says the (so-called) Athanasian Creed.
However, there is just one person—the divine Son of God, Second Person of the Trinity—who is and does both of these sets of things. (Without this, the Atonement wouldn't work, because in order to be saved we need for God to have fully shared in our human afflictions.) As a result, it is also correct to say that God was Jewish, and that he suffered and died on the Cross, or that Mary was the Mother of God, or (going in the other direction) that the human being Jesus pre-existed, so long as we remember that that we are speaking of the experiences of the united person who has both natures, and not attributing properties of one nature to the other nature. This way of speaking is called communicatio idiomatum, i.e. the "communication of attributes", and you can find articles by both Catholics and Protestants online, explaining it.
Your second question was about Christ's knowledge. The divine nature of God the Son is omniscient and eternal, and therefore the divine nature of Christ must know when he will return. However, his human nature started out ignorant and could learn things, as we know from Luke 2:52: "Jesus grew in wisdom and stature", and also from Hebrews, when it says that Jesus was made like us in every way (sin excepted). But we cannot divide the human and divine natures, so it is also true that "God the Son", the divine person, experienced what it is like to possess human ignorance.
Thus God the Son could both know and not know the same thing at the same time. How is this possible? I think it helps to remember that any time we know something, we know it in a particular way. For example, you can know something intuitively but not logically, or vice versa, or both ways simultaneously. The divine nature knows things by being the perfect being, the human nature knows things by forming neural connections in the brain that somehow represent or imitate the behavior of the things we know. Jesus did both.
One analogy I find a bit useful is that of roleplaying where you pretend to be a character in a fictional universe. It is possible for a situation to arise when the person playing the game knows something the character doesn't know. But now imagine that the universe the character lives in is real, not pretend and that you experience fully everything the character experiences (including what it feels like to be ignorant). That would be a little like what happened with the Incarnation, I guess.
The Trinity and the Incarnation are great mysteries, so our language and analogies must necessarily break down in certain ways. But that doesn't mean we can't make an effort to make our language as un-misleading as possible.