As we approach the celebration of Christmas, it is important that we reflect on the importance of the momentous event that it signifies. So often we can get caught up in the hustle and excitement of the season that we forget what it should remind us of and how it should transform us. What we proclaim in celebrating Christmas is the remembrance that God – the infinite Creator of the Universe – actually became a man in real history!
So, to help us focus on some of these big truths, in this two-part article series we’ll be taking a look at the wonder of the incarnation, and how it leads us to worship and witness.
The Doctrine of the Incarnation
God is the object of humiliation, disregard and ridicule.
That statement alone sounds like blasphemy. Yet, this is part of what the incarnation meant – that the God of the Universe, the all-powerful Creator of heaven and earth, subjected himself to humiliation and shame, and chose to be born in a relatively unknown way to an otherwise unimportant family. In fact, were it not for the biblical writings, we wouldn’t know anything about his birth in the backcountry town of Bethlehem. The One who made His dwelling in the high heavens, and who the entire universe itself cannot contain, who makes the earth his footstool – this One chose to make His dwelling in the womb of a poor teenage virgin, to be born in obscurity. The transcendent God comes near – He is Emmanuel: God with us.
When it is stated in these terms, we see the scandal and unbelievable humility that the incarnation means.
The word “incarnation” comes from the latin, incarnatio, which means “being or taking flesh” derived from the Latin version of John 1:14.
The incarnation refers to the affirmation that the Second Person of the Trinity, without in any way ceasing to be the one God, has revealed Himself to humanity for its salvation by becoming a human – Jesus Christ, the Man from Nazareth. As the God-Man, He mediates God to humans; as the Man-God, He represents humans to God.
i. The Trinity
Though this is not an article on the Trinity, to make any sense of the incarnation, we cannot avoid at least laying a basic definition of the Trinity and what we mean when we say that God is Trinity.
The Doctrine of the Trinity
God eternally exists as the three co-equal, distinct Persons of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in the one Being of God.
Being is different to Person. Being/Substance has to do with WHAT something is or its existence. Person has to do with WHO something is. So then, another (simplistic) way to phrase the doctrine of the Trinity is that God is three WHOs, and one WHAT. A lot more could be said, but for the purposes of these articles, this simple definition of the Trinity will suffice. (For those interested, the book, Simply Trinity by Matthew Barrett is a great resource for a solid introduction to the doctrine of the Trinity.)
ii. God the Son
The incarnation is the ‘in-fleshing’ of the Second Person of the Trinity – God the Son. It does NOT mean that God the Father or God the Holy Spirit became a man.
From The Westminster Catechism:
A36. The only Mediator of the covenant of grace is the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Tim. 2:5), who, being the eternal Son of God, of one substance and equal with the Father (John 1:1, 14; 10:30; Phil. 2:6), in the fullness of time became man (Gal. 4:4), and so was and continues to be God and man, in two entire distinct natures, and one person, forever.
A37. Christ the Son of God became man, by taking to himself a true body, and a reasonable soul (Matt. 26:38), being conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost in the womb of the virgin Mary, of her substance, and born of her (Luke 1:27-42), yet without sin (Heb. 4:15, 7:26).
The Wonder God’s Story
So, with our terms clarified about what we’re talking about when we say “incarnation,” we can now move on to WONDER at what the Bible says about it and then learn how its proper understanding or misunderstanding leads to right or wrong WORSHIP.
To rightly see the wonder of the incarnation, we must understand that it does not just spring up out of nowhere. It is a key part in an unfolding drama played out through all of history. The Bible is one overarching narrative of God’s story of redemption. We’re going to briefly consider how the incarnation fits into that big story and gaze in wonder at the incarnation as part of God’s story of redemption.
THE INCARNATION IN BIBLICAL THEOLOGY
We’ll take a brief survey of Biblical Theology as we trace some of the themes of the incarnation through God’s Word here.
i. FULFILLMENT: OT Biblical Prophecy
There are many Old Testament (OT) passages of prophecy that talk about Jesus’s coming. In fact, this was the explicit aim of the birth narrative in Matthew’s Gospel – to show how Jesus’s birth fulfilled OT prophecy.
In Matthew 1:23, he quotes Isaiah 7:14 as being fulfilled in Jesus’s birth and in Matthew 2:5-6, he connects Jesus’s place of birth as foretold in Micah 5:2. Even the situation surrounding Jesus’s birth with Herod’s plot to kill the baby Jesus and their flight to Egypt are connected by Matthew as foretold in Hosea 11:1 and Jeremiah 31:15.
Matthew tells us that Jesus fulfills at least three biblical themes:
- He brings Israel into the promised land: Jesus is the Greek for Joshua.
- As Immanuel, he embodies God’s presence with his people.
- As the new David, he is the messiah born in Bethlehem.
Furthermore, Jesus himself interprets the Old Testament in light of His coming. Jesus taught that:
- Isaiah ‘saw his glory and spoke of him’ (John 12:41; Isa. 6).
- Jesus, not the manna, was the heavenly bread which fed Israel in the wilderness (John 6:31ff., 47ff.).
- Abraham ‘saw his day’ (John 8:56f.). (See B.S. Childs, Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments (2011), 469)
Consider how these serve as amazing examples of how Jesus fulfilled hundreds of years of longing and expectation for the prophesied Messiah who would save his people from their sins!
ii. FORESHADOWING: The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew & Luke)
Connections with the Feast of Tabernacles
There is some debate as to the exact date of Jesus’s birth.
The Jewish Rabbis taught that the prophet Elijah would appear at Passover to declare who the Messiah would be. That is why they had the tradition of leaving an empty seat for Elijah at the Passover meal. A child was to go to the front door during the Passover celebration and check to see if Elijah had come to declare the Messiah. John the Baptist is born right around this time of Passover, and Jesus calls John the ‘Elijah who was to come’ in Matthew 11:13-15. A clear connection to this Jewish expectation.
Considering that Jesus may have been born around the time of the Feast of Tabernacles in the Jewish month of Tishri (September), it is interesting as well that John starts his Gospel by saying that the Word became flesh and, literally ‘tabernacled’ among us. This is significant since it fulfills what was foreshadowed in the Old Testament. The Feast of Tabernacles celebrated the fact that God came to dwell with the Israelites in the wilderness. In Jesus Christ, God comes to dwell with us.
Born to Die
The practice around the first century, and even in some Middle Eastern cultures today, is that if you were going on a lengthy journey – like Joseph and Mary going to Bethlehem – you would bring with you special cloths for wrapping a dead body in case anything happened along the way. Some speculate that perhaps the ‘swaddling cloths’ used in Luke 2:7 & 12 may have been these cloths, if they didn’t have any other cloth with them – however, it is not necessarily the same cloth.
But, the imagery doesn’t end there, for in Matthew 2:11, one of the gifts the Magi bring is myrrh, which was a spice and was used in embalming. It was also sometimes mingled with wine to form an article of drink. Such a drink was given to our Savior when He was about to be crucified, as a stupefying potion (Mark 15:23). Matthew 27:34 refers to it as “gall.” Myrrh symbolizes bitterness, suffering, and affliction.
So, consider this powerful picture – Jesus is born, the Lamb of God who would die for the sins of the world – a baby wrapped in burial cloths and gifted with an embalming spice – myrrh. The foreshadows of his redemptive death are seen even at his birth!
iii. FULLNESS: John & NT Letters
The apostle John’s doctrine of incarnation is more explicit than any of the others, teaching not only Jesus’ God-man status but also his preexistent “glory” (Jn 1:1–18). Central in this presentation is the oneness between Jesus and God the Father (10:29, 30; 14:8–11; 1 Jn 2:23). The “I Am” statements (found only in John) that Jesus uses as His title is taken from the OT title for the one true God and probably signifying God’s personal name “Yahweh”.
JOHN 1 – Greek verbs
We can see more in the Greek of the opening verses of John 1 where two different verbs for ‘to be’ are used. There, the Word was (using ἦν – imperfect form of the verb eimi), meaning He did not begin to be but already was. The ἦν of verse 1 stands opposed to ἐγένετο (became) of verse 14. “He was the Word, and became flesh.” (see Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol. 1 (1997), 505)
The distinct uses of 2 different Greek verbs, eimi and egeneto point to the fact that Jesus – the Word (logos) eternally was (eimi), but became (egeneto) flesh in time. This subtle, yet purposeful use of distinct verbs shows the theological precision and care which the apostle John used to write his Gospel’s opening.
- In Galatians 4:4, the incarnation (“born of woman”) came “in the fullness of time” or at the apex of salvation-history, to “redeem those who were under the law.”
- In Philippians 2:6–11, the incarnation is seen in terms of preexistence (“though he was in the form of God”), humiliation (“emptied … humbled”), obedience (“became obedient to the point of death”), with the goal of the cross (“even death on the cross”), and its end result was Christ’s exaltation (“that every knee bow”).
- In Colossians 1, Pauls says that the fullness of God was pleased to dwell in Christ.
- Paul described Christ as a second Adam (Rom 5:12–19; 1 Cor 15:45–47), who brought humanity a new possibility to attain what Adam had forsaken.
In Hebrews, the opening hymn (1:2b–4) accents Christ’s exalted status as “the very stamp” of God’s image. Christ is superior to the angels (1:4–9), yet he became a man in order to suffer for human salvation (2:9; 5:7–9). Hebrews shows His real temptation (2:18; 4:15) combined with his sinlessness (4:15; 5:9; 7:26).
FULLNESS VEILED & UNVEILED
In many ways, the Gospel narratives show Jesus’s glory veiled. We see him walking around, hungering and thirsting and experiencing the human condition. Though there are some glimpses of His deity in the narratives, the majority of the time it is veiled. However, in the New Testament Letters we see His glory more fully unveiled. John 1, Colossians 1, and Hebrews 1 speak powerfully to the divinity of Jesus and the book of Revelation shows us His coming in the fullness of His glory.
THE NECESSITY OF THE INCARNATION
Anselm of Canterbury (died 1109) in his theological masterpiece, Cur Deus Homo? (“Why Did God Become Man?”) deals with the question of the Incarnation. Anselm determined that God became man in Christ because only one who was both God and man could achieve our salvation.
i. RENEWAL: a perfect example of true humanity
Because Jesus Christ is the divine, perfect, second Person of the Trinity – God the Son – in human nature, he serves therefore as an example of what the perfect life lived out in human form would be.
Scripture says that the boy Jesus grew in wisdom and stature… (Luke 2:52) – therefore, the perfect model for us as humans is to seek to grow also in wisdom. This has tremendous implications for what we think of the Christian life of the mind!
Athanasius (296-373 AD) drew the example:
For as, when a portrait painted on a panel has disappeared in consequence of external stains, there is need again for him to come whose the portrait is, that the likeness may be renewed on the same material; because for the sake of his picture the material itself on which it has been painted is not thrown away, but the likeness is retraced upon it: so, similarly, the All-holy Son of the Father, being the Image of the Father, came into our sphere to renew man made after Himself, and to find him as one lost, through the remission of sins; the which He Himself says in the Gospels: ‘I came to seek and to save that which was lost.’ (Luke 19:10) (Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word of God (London: 1903), 67)
Have you lost your faith in humanity? Have you seen all the ways in which our race has been marred and distorted by the effects of sin? The incarnation shows us God’s plan of renewal for us – for we are united with Christ in His death, and also in his resurrection to newness of life!
ii. RELATIONSHIP: The incarnation helps us know God
Without the incarnation, the invisible and transcendent God would remain largely unknown to us. In fact, the incarnation shows to us something that has always been true about His character, that He stoops low to be known by His creation. In the OT, it was through theophanies such as the burning bush, the Angel of the Lord, and the fourth figure in the fire with the 3 Hebrew boys. In the NT, it is through His Son incarnate.
The word exegesis means to interpret or explain a text. When preachers open the Bible and ‘exegete’ scripture – they are explaining it and making its true meaning plain to us.
In John 1:18, in the Greek it literally says, “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has ‘exegeted’ him.” Jesus exegetes the Father – He explains Him and makes Him known more fully and plainly to us. The incarnation makes God relatable to us. In fact, in John 14:9, this is exactly what Jesus explains to Philip when he asks Jesus to show him the Father. He replies to Philip, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” Paul in Colossians 1:15 calls Jesus “the image of the invisible God” and Hebrews 1:3 says that he is “the exact imprint of His (God’s) nature”. Everything that Jesus is and does reflects what God is like and His works. In John 5:19, Jesus tells us that “whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise” and in John 10:30 he says “I and the Father are one.”
This phrase is important to understand. Greek nouns have genders – just like other languages (eg. Latin based languages like Spanish and French). However, it also has a neuter gender which is neither male nor female that is used to refer to things or abstract concepts. When Jesus says, “I and the Father are one” – one is in the neuter. He’s saying, “I (Person) and the Father (Person) are one (thing/what). They are 2 separate and distinct Persons of the One God, but one in their purpose of salvation.
We are created for relationship – with each other and ultimately with our Creator. The incarnation shows that God has provided the way to reconcile that vertical relationship so that all our other relationships can be made right as well!
iii. REDEMPTION: Only God could redeem us
Paul says, “For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead.” (1 Cor. 15:21) and “For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” (Rom. 5:19)
Only one who is truly God could redeem us from the wages of sin – which is death. Only God, who is life in himself could conquer death. Only one who is truly human could represent us – feel our sorrows, bear our sins, and be an appropriate substitute. This is why the blood of bulls and goats in the OT sacrifices never could atone permanently for sin – they are not proper substitutes.
John Calvin wrote:
For the same reason it was also imperative that he who was to become our Redeemer be true God and true man. It was his task to swallow up death. Who but the Life could do this? It was his task to conquer sin. Who but very Righteousness could do this? It was his task to rout the powers of world and air. Who but a power higher than world and air could do this? Now where does life or righteousness, or lordship and authority of heaven lie but with God alone? Therefore our most merciful God, when he willed that we be redeemed, made himself our Redeemer in the person of his only-begotten Son. (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Knox Press, 2011), 466)
Jesus Christ – the Man-God – perfectly represents us as the Second Adam, fulfilling the righteous requirements of the Law through a perfectly lived life, and as the God-Man accomplishes the payment of our infinite sin debt and conquers death through his atoning death.
Do you need redemption? Do you feel the wait of your moral failure and the punishment you rightly deserve as a transgressor of God’s perfect Law? Jesus shows us God’s costly redemption for us!
iv. RESCUE: We were hopeless unless God came down to us
The incarnation exposes to us our helplessness to help our hopeless estate. All of humanity had fallen in Adam. We’re born sinners with a sinful nature – we are by nature children of wrath (Ephesians 2), unable to keep the commands of God perfectly. We’re enslaved to sin and unable get away from its grip on us. So, in love and mercy, God sends His Son to rescue and free us.
The image is not of God throwing us a rope or life preserver or some thing by which we can pull ourselves us out of our depravity, but rather it is one of rescue. We’ve already drowned in our sin – we’re dead in trespasses – and God jumps in, drags us out and brings us back to life.
Do you need rescue? Are you weighed down by the weight of your sins or brokenness? The incarnation shows us God is the God who rescues us!
I hope you were blessed by this article. Please check back as we explore the incarnation’s impact on our worship and witness in the next article in this Christmas series (coming out Dec 16)!