THE MYSTERY OF THE INCARNATION
All praise to Thee, Eternal Lord
Clothed in a garb of flesh and blood;
Choosing a manger for a throne,
While worlds on worlds are Thine alone.
- Martin Luther
Although we live in a pluralistic culture that tells us that Christianity is just one option in a whole cafeteria of equally valid spiritual choices, a closer look at the Bible reveals its profound uniqueness. Its claims about God, humanity and the way of salvation set it apart from other religions, and this uniqueness is especially evident in the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ. Who could have imagined that the transcendent Creator of the universe would have personally visited our planet, even in splendor and majesty? But the gospels go far beyond this: they reveal that the King of Creation came in the weakness and vulnerability of a little child – a child who would grow up to be spurned and rejected by His own people – a Man of Sorrows whose suffering and death would purchase the gift of divine forgiveness and eternal life.
As the decisive revelation of the transcendent God in human history, the incarnation is the central mystery of the Christian faith. Through it, the eternal Word took on human flesh and experienced the limitations, sorrows, joys and temptations of humanness, yet without sin or imperfection.
The Scriptures affirm that far from being part God and part man, Jesus Christ is wholly God and wholly man. His full deity is evident in the divine titles that are used of Him, in His direct and indirect claims and in His divine attributes and works. He claimed that to know Him is to know God (John 8:19), to see Him is to see God (John 12:45; 14:9), to hear Him is to hear God (John 14:24), to confess Him is to confess God (Matthew 10:32), to hate Him is to hate God (John 15:23), to reject Him is to reject God (Luke 10:16), to receive Him is to receive God (Mark 9:37), and to honor Him is to honor God (John 5:23). He claimed to be the I AM (John 8:24, 28, 58), the unique Son of God (Matthew 16:15-17, John 10:36), the fulfillment of the Old Testament promises concerning the Messiah (Luke 24:26-27, 44) and the one who will raise all people from the dead and before whom all will stand in judgment (John 5:25-29). He is eternal (John 17:5; Hebrews 1:11-12), omnipresent (Matthew 28:20), and omnipotent (Hebrews 1:3). He is the Creator of all things (John 1:3; Colossians 1:16; Hebrews 1:2) and holds all things in the universe together (Colossians 1:17).
The Bible builds an equally clear case in support of Christ’s full humanity subsequent to the incarnation. Several passages indicate that He had a human birth. (Matthew 1:18-25; Luke 2:4-21; 1 John 4:1-3), and that he also experienced human development (Luke 2:52). He had the human elements of a body (John 2:21), a soul (John 12:27) and a spirit (Luke 23:46) as well as human names such as “man” (1 Timothy 2:5), “Son of Man” (Luke 19:10), and “Son of David” (Mark 10:47). Jesus possessed all the human limitations except sin. He got tired, hungry, thirsty, sorrowful, and He died.
The great passage that describes the kenosis (self-emptying) of Jesus Christ is Philippians 2:5-11. The kenosis is related directly to Christ’s nature as God and man, and verses 5-8 portray what was involved: “Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bondservant, and being made in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” Jesus did not surrender His deity in becoming a man, but condescended to be united to unglorified humanity out of His compassion for us. He veiled His resplendent glory and chose not to exercise His divine powers and prerogatives on most occasions while He was on earth.
The mystery of the incarnate God-man has spawned significant controversies throughout the history of the church, and the early church councils sought to avoid the extreme of rejecting His deity in favor of His humanity, and the opposite extreme of rejecting His humanity in favor of His deity. Only the God-man could fulfill the mission of bearing the sins of the world and giving His life as a ransom for many (John 1:29; Mark 10:45). Even if Jesus was a “great teacher” or a prophet from God,” He would not be worthy of worship, and His death could never have atoned for the sins of others. And if Christ had not come in the flesh as one of us, He could not have died in our place. “Therefore, He had to be made like His brethren in all things, that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people” (Hebrews 2:17).
Subsequent to His incarnation, the One who eternally possessed a divine nature now possesses a divine-human nature. In His resurrected body, the Lord Jesus will forever be the God-man. There is a Man in heaven, and He intercedes for us at the right hand of the Father as our Advocate (Romans 8:34; 1 John 2:1).
Peter exhorts us to “follow in His steps” (1 Peter 2:21). But the key to imitating Christ is identifying with Him. We cannot follow in His steps until we walk in the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit and understand that Christ is in us and we are in Christ. The spiritual life is based on an incarnational dynamic; it is a divine-human process. This is why Paul told us to “have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus.” Just as Christ loved and served others by putting their interests above His own, so He wants to continue this process through us.
There is a magic to Christmas, because it illustrates the way things should be and intimates the kingdom that is yet to come. In His first advent, Christ came in the weakness of infancy to become the suffering Servant of those who were hopelessly lost; in His second advent, He will come as the sovereign King of kings and Lord of lords.
He first came veiled in the form of a child; but next time He comes (and it will be soon), He will come unveiled, and everyone will know Him for who He really is.
In His first advent, a star marked His arrival; but in His second advent, the heavens will roll up like a scroll, the stars will fall out of the sky, and He Himself will illuminate it.
The first time He came, the magi brought Him gifts; but the next time He comes, He will bring gifts and rewards for His own.
The first time He came, there was no room for Him; the next time He comes, the whole world will not be able to contain His glory.
At His first appearance, few attended His arrival; but at His second appearance, every eye will behold Him.
He came first as a baby; but He will come again as the glorious Ruler of the universe.