Theologians and missiologists often use an important but difficult-to-understand concept: “incarnational living.” Using terms like “incarnational” sometimes makes important concepts like these unnecessarily difficult, so I want to reframe this concept using terminology that will hopefully be a bit more familiar.
“Incarnational” refers to the “incarnation,” the act in which Jesus took on flesh. (You can think of carne asada, grilled meat, and make the connection that Jesus wrapped himself in meat—a gross visual, but pretty literal). With the birth of Jesus, God was becoming man, the Divine Being was embodying himself—taking the form of humanity—and thereby revealing himself to us in a new way. This is the significant even the author of Hebrews praises at the beginning of his letter:
“Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our father by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son…” (Heb. 1:1–2).
There is something unique about God speaking not in words, but in the human (and yet still divine) person of his Son! And in this miraculous event we have a powerful model of what it looks like to speak to our world about Jesus. So now, in an effort to make sense of what this would look like, let me switch from “incarnation” language to “translation” language. (And in doing so, I’m adapting some thoughts I gleaned from missiologist Andrew Walls.)
When Jesus lived amongst humanity, his very life was an act of translation. He was Immanuel, God with us, the very presence of God in human form. To look at Jesus is to realize, “This is what God is like.” We can use many words to convey what God would be like in human terms, or we can simply look at Jesus. Jesus was God’s greatest act of translation.
In translating the Bible from the Hebrew and Greek in which it was originally written, translators have to ask which words in the new language (let’s just say English) fit with the words in the original language. And this is extremely difficult. For example, Greek has 3 words for “love,” and English has only one word to carry the meaning of all three words. Plus “love” in English is pretty slippery, covering everything from our “love” for breakfast food to our “love” for God. So translation carries all kinds of dangers and possibilities: We can express truth about God in new and exciting ways, but we also run the risk of mis-expressing something about God.
When God translated himself into human form (in Jesus), the translation was perfect. We look at Jesus and see God precisely as God would look were he to live as a human being in the first-century Greco/Roman/Jewish world (which is precisely what was happening).
So God translated himself in Jesus. But Christianity is a faith that requires constant translation. (This, by the way, is entirely unique. For Muslims, reading the Qur’an in a language other than Arabic is not truly reading the Qur’an. Sometime after Jesus, at least some branches of Judaism decided that a non-Hebrew Torah was not truly a Torah. But the Christian faith has had translation at its heart from the very beginning because the entire faith is grounded in God’s act of translation through Jesus.) That means that we must always be translating Jesus into our own context and for our own neighbors.
You and I are, in essence, walking translations of what God has done in Jesus. We stand in the midst of our neighborhoods and workplaces and friend-groups as an embodied statement: “This is what Jesus is like.” And just like translating the Bible, this is an extremely difficult task. It requires continuously deepening knowledge of who God is, thorough familiarity with our culture—including its interests, thought forms, and means of expression—and a commitment to “being Jesus” in a deep sense in every situation.
It has been said that you and I are likely the only Bible our neighbors will ever read. And that’s true, but not in a resigned, I-guess-that-will-have-to-do, sense. It’s actually true by God’s design that our neighbors will learn about him through the translation of our lives. You and I are acts of translation. We are God-made-flesh (not exactly like Jesus, but much like him) in the specific culture, setting, and relationships of our moment and our day.
The point is, be a good translation. Be a living, breathing example of what it looks like to be Jesus in your location in the 21st century. Call it incarnational living, call it translational living, call it whatever. God has something to say to the people he has placed around you, and he wants to say it through the details of your life.