The incarnation is the greatest of miracles. It is the foundation of every other redemptive miracle. I have always found the words of J. I. Packer helpful in this regard: “It is no wonder that thoughtful people find the gospel of Jesus Christ hard to believe, for the realities with which it deals pass man’s understanding. But it is sad that so many make faith harder than it needs to be, by finding difficulties in the wrong places.” Packer then highlights some of these areas where people find it difficult to believe, such as the atonement (one dying in the place of another to atone for sins), the resurrection of Jesus Christ, His virgin birth, and His many miracles. He then writes,
But in fact the real difficulty, because the supreme mystery with which the gospel confronts us, does not lie here at all. It lies, not in the Good Friday message of atonement, nor in the Easter message of resurrection, but in the Christmas message of incarnation. The really staggering Christian claim is that Jesus of Nazareth was God made man…. Once we grant that Jesus was divine, it becomes unreasonable to find difficulty in any of [these other miracles]; it is all of a piece, and hangs together completely. The incarnation is in itself an unfathomable mystery, but it makes sense of everything else that the New Testament contains.
The apostle Paul wrote, “Great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh” (1 Timothy 3:16). Great, mysterious and godly indeed!
As we come annually to the Christmas season, it is most appropriate that we spend our times of corporate worship centred on the glorious doctrine of the incarnation. But where do we begin? What text do we examine? This, for a preacher, is a very frustrating experience, for there are so many texts that scream for attention and exposition. For the purposes of this study, I have narrowed it to one verse, and primarily to one phrase. The verse is John 1:14 and the phrase is, “And the Word became flesh.”
I have been helped recently by a book called God Rest Ye Merry by Douglas Wilson. It is a book of reflections on the incarnation. I want to share some of what I have learned from my own meditations on the incarnation, which this book helped to stimulate.
The Incarnation as Confirmation of God’s Word
The incarnation was the earliest of prophecies in recorded history. It was first given immediately after Adam and Eve’s fall:
So the Lord God said to the serpent: “Because you have done this, you are cursed more than all cattle, and more than every beast of the field; on your belly you shall go, and you shall eat dust all the days of your life. And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her Seed; He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise His heel.
Charles Wesley captured the imagery well when he wrote the beloved hymn, “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing.” The song, as it is mostly familiar, has three verses, but Wesley originally wrote five. The version we have in our church includes four verses, the fourth of which reads (in part) as follows: “Come, Desire of Nations, come! Fix in us thy humble home: Rise, the woman’s conquering seed, bruise in us the serpent’s head. Adam’s image now efface, stamp thine image in its place.”
As Hebrews has been encouraging us, God is faithful to His Word. God keeps His promises and fulfils His purposes. Hallowed be His name! And in many ways, Christmas is the ultimate confirmation of this truth.
Genesis 3:15 was longed for and it happened. Mary, Zacharias, Simeon and Anna realised this (Luke 1:54, 55; 68–71; 2:29–32; 2:38).
When “the Word became flesh,” when the uncreated God took on the created body of a man (Psalm 40:6–8; Hebrews 10:5–7), Genesis 3:15 was very close to being fulfilled. The war that had raged since the beginning of the world was about to enter its final battle. And God would emerge victorious—as though that had ever been in doubt!
This is why the announcement of the birth of Jesus was such good news to the shepherds and to the wise men and to all who were waiting for redemption. It was the good news that God’s promised salvation was here. It should be to you.
Apart from the incarnation, all other purported saviours had failed and would fail. The genealogy of Jesus in Matthew 1 is both the record of the human lineage of our victorious Saviour and King and the historical record of those who failed to be such a one. That is why Matthew 1:21 reads literally and emphatically, “He is the one who will save His people from their sins.”
Iranaeus spoke of “recapitulation” with regard to the birth of Jesus. That is, Jesus became another Adam as another head of the human race. As Adam represented humanity in the Garden of Eden, so Jesus became a human to represent a new humanity. But while Adam failed and plunged humanity into sin, Jesus succeeded and purchased salvation for mankind. This was the significance of the incarnation.
The incarnation was put to the test and there was the full and final vindication of the God-Man being the perfect second Man from heaven (with a created body) and the last Adam, who succeeded in every way that the first Adam failed. God in the flesh fulfilled perfectly everywhere where Adam failed.
It is no coincidence that Herod died shortly after Jesus was born. Jesus was the true ruler; Herod a mere usurper. Herod died because the one with proven authority had come. And He still rules.
The Incarnation as Affirmation of the World
Christians—and non-Christians—often complain that Christmas has become a time of over-commercialisation. The complaint, at least from the Christian camp, is that the religious elements of the holiday have become overshadowed by our focus on material things. But, as Wilson notes, “Christmas is a celebration of the time when the infinite God took on a material body. Should this not have ramifications for how we think about material things?”
Think about this: If God was willing to take on material, corporal human flesh, then clearly God was affirming that it was good. God created the body in which Jesus would live (Psalm 40) and when God creates, He calls it “good.”
It is for this reason that we should see the incarnation as a “world-affirming” event. In other words, the incarnation affirms that that which is physical, that which is material, is not inherently bad or evil; in fact, it is good. It affirms that creation is good. It affirms that there is certain “goodness” about humanity. God deemed it worth redeeming.
The incarnation was an historical event in which there was a divine affirmation of the material. It for this reason that Christmas is a special time of the year in which we sink our teeth into the material, while at the same time seeking to avoid materialism.
Now, it will help to divine our terms at this point.
“Material” speaks of that which we can see, touch, taste and empirically prove. “Materialism” is the worldview that says that what we can see, touch, taste and empirically prove is the sum total of reality. It is an “ism” because it is a worldview, a belief system.
Christians embrace the former (and we should do so with great enthusiasm) while rejecting the latter. We too have an “ism”: theism. Our worldview is shaped by the belief system that God is and that He rewards those who diligently seek Him (Hebrews 11:6). Yet it must be made clear that we seek God in the midst of a very material world.
Since we have spent so much time recently in the book of Hebrews, let’s consider this point in light of what we have learned there.
The argument in the book of Hebrews, as especially seen in Hebrews 11, is that there is no conflict between the “spiritual” and the “material.” The two are meshed together. When it comes to matters of the spiritual, the material really does matter.
Consider, for example, the matter of God’s Promised Land. God promised a piece of ground. And He promised an actual nation of physical people.
Consider that Jacob desired his very physical body to be buried in the very physical land of Canaan. Consider that Joseph wanted his physical, material bones to be physically carried and then physically buried in a very material piece of real estate.
In fact, you could argue that the promise that God gave to Abraham, the promise that dominates Hebrews 11:8ff, was heavily dependent on the physical, on the material. Material bodies were required, as was physical biology.
I am emphasising this because we need to beware of the unbiblical approach to life known as dualism. And perhaps at Christmastime this heresy gains a foothold more than perhaps at other times of the year. Let me explain.
Fundamentally, dualism posits that material is bad and spiritual is good. It posits that there can be no healthy relationship or connection between the two. And this dualistic outlook has, over the years, infiltrated Christianity.
An early version of this was Gnosticism and both Paul and John addressed this heresy in their writings. Perhaps John did so the most clearly in his epistles.
The Docetic Gnostics taught that there was a man named Jesus who was no different than anyone else who lived, except that the spirit of the Christ came upon him at his baptism and then departed from him when he was crucified. The idea was that, since spirit cannot die, and that the material is inherently evil, the crucifixion had to be carried out on the body and not on the spirit. The gnostic heresy taught that, when Jesus suffered on the cross, His spirit sat on a tree laughing at what His body was going through. Shirley Maclaine’s bestseller, On a Limb, perpetuated this evil heresy.
The Scriptures, of course, reveal that Jesus Christ did suffer and that His spirit only left Him after the sufferings (when He died). Jesus Christ, the Son of God, had a physical body, and He died in that physical body and rose with a glorified physical body. He remains in that physical body and will return to earth in that physical body. We, like the disciples, will behold the physical scars in His glorified physical body throughout eternity. John said so.
In the early centuries, Christianity was assaulted by a heresy called Arianism. A man named Arius professed to be a Christian and was a popular teacher. Unfortunately, he taught that Jesus was not God. He rejected the Trinity. He refused to believe in the incarnation. And in an interesting historical irony, a man who came to be known as St. Nicholas punched him in the nose at the famed Council of Nicaea. (I guess he decided that Arius was naughty rather than nice!) The heritage of the legend of Father Christmas has theological underpinnings after all!
St. Nick, along with a whole lot of other saints, understood the message of Christmas. They believed that the Word became flesh and would not budge on this doctrine. If we go wrong here, then we go wrong everywhere.
In Jesus we have the perfect unity of spirit and body. Jesus is called the second Man from heaven, who is the last Adam. Like Adam, Jesus had a physical body and lived in space-time history. Like Adam, He had blood in His veins, fluid in His ears, retinae in His eyes, urine in His bladder, sweat in his glands, hair on His chest and toenails and fingernails. He even had plaque on His teeth. Like Adam, Jesus needed rest and, like Adam, Jesus was attracted to the opposite sex. Like Adam, Jesus got thirsty and hungry, and when He ate well, He felt satisfied. Like Adam, when Jesus stubbed His toe He bled. And for the clear thinking Christian—clear from sentimental, ethereal, syrupy and saccharine views of the biblical record—these thoughts do not disturb us. Rather, they encourage us to come boldly to the throne of this very human while still divine Person.
So, why is it important for us to understand this world-affirming message of the incarnation? Because the world is redeemable! The material is not necessarily evil. And at Christmastime we should celebrate this.
You see, having a material body did not make Jesus a materialist. It did not lessen His love and loyalty to His heavenly Father; nor, for that matter, did it lesson His love for His earthly father and mother. In fact, He used His physical, material body to honour them all.
Though Jesus had a body like Adam, when He hit His finger with Joseph’s hammer in the workshop, He was composed. Unlike Adam, when He was hungry and tempted to exalt Himself, He didn’t. Unlike Adam, He never sinned. And that is why, unlike Adam, Jesus of Nazareth, who was also Jesus of heaven, is the Saviour of the world. The curse the first Adam brought upon this world by his sin has been, and continues to be, conquered by this God-Man. As the joyful carol celebrates, His blessings continue to “flow as far as the curse is found.”
As noted, while we often decry the commercialisation of Christmas and its attendant materialism, we must be careful. Though no doubt there is much of this occurring, yet at the same time, if there is any time of the year when Christians should be appreciating things, it is this Christmastime. As Wilson puts it,
Do not fall for the lie that the spirit of Christmas is an ethereal kind of thing. This is the celebration of the Incarnation, when the eternal logos of God took on a material body, which He still has. Do not, therefore join in the general lamentations about “materialism.” This is a celebration of God taking on a material body. It is therefore a holiday that should focus on “stuff.”
The challenge is to properly use the things and to properly redeem them from the curse. In other words, when you sit down to that sumptuous meal, be grateful for the privilege to enjoy those very real and very delectable things. Thank God for the gift of smell and the gift of taste. Thank God that, one day, we will enter a time of endless feasting without any temptation to gluttony. And we will then more deeply appreciate not merely the gift of food but, more to the point, the giver of these gifts.
When you open gifts, be grateful for tangible expressions of love from others, and reflect on God’s indescribable gift. After all, the gift of God’s Son was so tangible that John speaks of the reality that Jesus “dwelt among us” and that they “beheld His glory.” Elsewhere. He writes that he and the apostles actually touched Him and gloried in this physical blessing.
Again, this physical world, including our bodies, is not inherently evil, though it is affected by the fall. One day, they will be fully redeemed, and therefore the incarnation should give us a new appreciation for the material. And so, on Christmas day, sink your teeth into the food, enjoy the pleasures sensed by your taste buds, and appreciate the joy of opening your gifts and playing with your toys. But do so because the incarnation affirms that all of this will one day be so much more gloriously and wonderfully redeemed and therefore perfected.
The Incarnation as Expectation of the World
The incarnation was expected long before it ever happened. Isaiah prophesied of it centuries before Jesus was born:
For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given; and the government will be upon His shoulder. And His name will be called Wonderful, Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end, upon the throne of David and over His kingdom, to order it and establish it with judgement and justice from that time forward, even forever. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will perform this.
The incarnation was God’s promise that, as Wesley wrote in “Joy to the World,” His blessings will flow as far as the curse is found. As Wilson notes, “The salvation of the world is not something that Jesus does half-heartedly.”
At the risk of belabouring this point, let me emphasise that when “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us,” this was such good news because of the expectation that it brought to this world. That is, just as Jesus Christ was full of grace and truth, the incarnation was the pledge that, one day, everyone living on earth will be the same. Think about that, and then try and say, “Bah Humbug!”
There is coming a day when there will be true peace on earth and goodwill towards men.
Mitsuo Fuchida was the man who led the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. In his biography on Fuchida, Gordon Prange recounts how Fuchida was filled with hatred for Americans. When the Japanese emperor accepted terms of surrender after the Americans dropped the atomic bombs, he spoke of a peace that would last for generations. Fuchida recalls how confused he was. How could the emperor, who had ordered the attacks on Pearl Harbour, suddenly speak in terms of peace with their sworn enemies? He just couldn’t understand it. How was it possible that humankind, so filled with hatred, would ever enjoy universal peace? That was the beginning of Fuchida’s conversion.
One day, he was at a train station in Tokyo, where he heard an American soldier preaching and handing out tracks recounting his own experience as a Japanese prisoner of war. Jacob DeShazar, the American preacher, had joined the air force after Pearl Harbour, filled with hatred for the Japanese. His plane was shot down in Japan and he was taken to China as a prisoner of war, where he was beaten terribly and tortured. He hatred for the Japanese increased until, according to his own testimony, he almost lost his mind. He began to think about his hatred and wonder how he could overcome it.
About that time, a Bible was making the rounds in the prison camp, and because he was the lowest ranking officer, he got his hands on it last. He had three weeks to read it, which he did hour after hour, memorising portions as he went along. He was eventually converted by reading God’s Word.
He recalled the peace that overcame him upon his conversion. The hatred was gone. He covenanted before God to return to Japan as a missionary if he ever made it out alive. Fuchida met him at that train station years later. He took a tract and read it, hoping to find the answers he was looking for, but it made little sense to him. He returned to the train station a few weeks later, where he found a Japanese man handing out New Testaments. He took one and read it, but again it made no sense to him. He stored it in a drawer somewhere for nine months.
Nine months later, he was still troubled by his quest for peace, and so he pulled out the Bible again. He came to the Gospel of Luke, and while he didn’t understand all the accounts of the miracles, he understood that the foundation was the incarnation. He realised that God became a man, died for him and rose again from the dead. At that point, God saved him, and he found the peace he had been searching for. The hatred was gone. He spent the rest of his life as an evangelist.
The peace of which the Japanese emperor spoke did not last very long. Five years after that promise, my father fought in the Korean War. Human promises of peace are feeble, but the peace that God promises through His Son is a peace that will one day be enjoyed throughout the world.
Though you may hear the bells on Christmas Day, and in despair bow your head because there is no peace on earth or goodwill to men, the incarnation gives us the assurance that one day there will be. Yes, in this very world there will be complete and perfect reconciliation.
We should hear the inspired angelic choir telling us that God is neither dead nor sleeping. Wrong will fail and right will prevail. There will be peace on earth goodwill to men.
On Christmas Eve, my daughter, a social worker, wanted to take some gifts to a family with whom she has been working. They live in a fairly dangerous part of the city, and so I told her I would drive her there. She warned me that what I was about to see would break my heart.
When we arrived at our destination, I found a family of five living in a room the size of one of our smaller bedrooms. The children were thrilled to see us, and excited about the gifts. As we were preparing to leave, one of the children asked m daughter if, next time she came, she could bring a pair of shoes. I could barely see the road through the tears on the way home! But as we were leaving, I was encouraged by the promise of the incarnation. One day, there will be peace and goodwill toward men. There will be no more inequality or mistreatment of some by others. What a glorious day that will be!
Yes, the incarnation gives us this very material and spiritual expectation for this world.
The Incarnation as Demonstration of God’s Will
Finally, we see that the incarnation was a demonstration of God’s will. Jesus spoke clearly of humility as God’s will for humanity: ““ Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever receives one little child like this in My name receives Me” (Matthew 18:3–4).
Wilson writes, “The new birth is the birth of humility. What do you have right after a birth, including the new birth? A baby, which is what we are invited to become. A little child.”
The incarnation is the template for our Lord’s admonition to become like little children in order to inherit the kingdom. After all, the second member of the Godhead literally became a little child, and therefore He did inherit the kingdom. We have every reason to expect a similar pattern.
The exhortation to “incarnational living” is found in many places, but perhaps nowhere more clearly, concisely and persuasively than in the early verses of Philippians 2.
Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.
This exhortation is rooted and grounded in the incarnation. And the incarnation is the basis of God’s expectation for everyone who will enter the kingdom. In other words, those who have a genuine interest in the incarnation are mandated with the expectation to daily be influenced by the incarnation. We might say that the nativity scene is a scene that is to be seen 24/7.
Lately, I have been thinking a lot about this truth. Jesus made very clear the terms for entering the kingdom of God. But as with any good leader, He exemplified what He expected. He became a little child.
The Son of God—very God of very God—became a fertilised egg. He became a foetus, developed body parts, was attached to an umbilical cord, and was delivered into this world like every other baby. He suckled at His mother’s breast, had His nappies changed, cried in order to communicate, and drooled.
Like every other child, He was completely dependent upon another. He needed to be protected and nourished. He needed to be in submission (Luke 2:51–52). And this is exactly what He expects of any and everyone who desires to enter His kingdom. We too must confess and demonstrate our dependence. We too must be submissive. We too must be nurtured and nourished if we will grow and mature in stature before God and man. And so, when Jesus tells us to become like a little children, we must listen.
And just like Jesus, when this is our disposition, we will receive the kingdom. Think about it.
The Lord Jesus Christ demonstrated perfectly the gospel truth, and so we have every reason to believe Him.
What God wants from Christmas is a globe filled with those who look like God’s Son. This was both the purpose of the Incarnation as well as the requirement for the incarnation.
As a church, we have heard much lately about what God wants for Christmas and what Christmas wants from us. And the answer really is not surprising. It is you.
We should be surprised by such grace. The incarnation is both shocking and stupefying, but it should also be humbly surprising. Think about this: God wants your adoration. He wants your submission. He wants your allegiance. He wants your worshipful response to the incarnation.
The Word was made flesh. How will you respond?
We must think about the incarnation. We must respond to it. The incarnation demands a response. May it be the right and the wise one. Come, let us adore Him as we look into the manger and reverently ask, “What Child is this?”